Is Judging Good for You? by JP Stuckert

Is Judging Good for You?
JP Stuckert

I have, in recent posts, been trying to take up some of the questions involved in the claim that students benefit from participating in debate. These questions are, to a certain extent, familiar to us (though I hope to have made at least marginal progress toward addressing these questions in new ways). But one question which I have not heard seriously taken up before is what benefits judges may incur from judging debate rounds.

Judges, of course, might be surprised to hear anyone suggest that they benefit from judging. When word spreads across a cafeteria, for instance, that pairings have been released a chorus of “no ballot, no ballot, no ballot” can be heard from several directions (proceeded by some sharp expletives and/or celebrations). Much of the humor surrounding this hostility to judging is lost on debaters who have not yet graduated and sometimes view judging as an interesting, if remote, possibility for their future (it never ceases to amuse older lab leaders when first year outs are concerned with whether people will pref them based on the paradigms they are writing for the first time before camp tournaments).

I would not dare to try to make anyone look forward to the prospect of judging a debate round with argument alone (it would require, minimally, intense psychological conditioning in some cases). However, I do want to suggest a theory about how judging can benefit judges and explore the implications of that possibility.

The most frustrating aspect to judging tends to be deciding in those rounds where a decision seems impossible. Debaters do not typically understand to what extent decisions are difficult. They may realize that in specific rounds something odd has happened which makes delivering an RFD quite difficult, but the number of times judges have to rely on gut reactions, instinct, or some piece of reasoning not on the flow might surprise them. Consider the following example:

AC: The standard is maximizing expected utility. There is one reason to prefer: that governments are instruments for the public-interest and not autonomous moral agents in themselves.

1N: The standard is respecting the rights of individuals. There is one reason to prefer: that ethics must always assume that the rights of individuals need to be respected because the possibility of philosophical debate depends on each participant having a set of rights to engage in conversation. There is one reason utilitarianism is false: that the future is extremely unpredictable, and it is unreasonable to hold humans to a moral standard they cannot be expected to know.

1AR: Extends conceded reason to prefer utilitarianism. One reason that rights are not morally relevant: rights will inevitably conflict and so it is necessary to appeal to a higher order weighing mechanism like utility to determine how rights should be applied.

2N: Extends the conceded reason to prefer rights: they are necessary for debate over ethics in the first place. Extends the reason utilitarianism is false: one cannot predict consequences. Ignores the extended justification for utilitarianism and the extended attack on rights.

2AR: Extends the attack on rights and the justification for utilitarianism.

Such a scenario is familiar to most of us. The absence of weighing between the justifications for and responses to the two respective frameworks will leave a judge largely unable to resolve this framework debate without some manner of intervention. The judge might, for example, say that the 1AR argument against the rights framework is comparative so it is the most important framework argument. Or, perhaps, some judge might implicitly appeal to some form of epistemic modesty and see who is winning a clearest link back to a framework and then vote on that piece of offense.

This example is simplified, to be sure, because many circuit rounds are difficult to resolve for far more complicated reasons. But it should be noticed that the absence of weighing is an all-too-common feature of so many rounds and that a lot of room is left for judges to scratch their heads.

You may think I am reciting predictable clichés to try to convince debaters to do more weighing in-round. And I will admit that it would be nice if this article actually encouraged anybody to weigh more, but I am trying to highlight a psychological aspect to these sorts of rounds: in these types of cases judges are often distressed by the difficulty of fairly adjudicating the round. It is not simply that they are annoyed by having to do something difficult (after all, judging is actually fairly easy if you do not care about being fair – just make an arbitrary decision and blow off anyone trying to grill you), but that they are concerned about their responsibility as judges.

Much might be said about the “constitutive” responsibilities of judges at this juncture. But I prefer to focus instead on what it means for a judge to be in this type of situation. It seems to me that holding oneself accountable for a non-obvious choice is good intellectual and moral training for any individual. That is, when a judge realizes that she has some responsibility to the students before her and yet faces a dilemma it can be quite stressful, but it does encourage something good. I have noted in previous posts that there is a debate to be had over whether students are actually expanding their powers of moral reasoning by having LD debates; but it seems that many of the concerns expressed in those debates do not apply to a judge in this situation. The judge, after all, feels accountable to something besides justifying an opinion they already have. Even if the judge ends up intervening in favor of a belief he privately holds, there will be something uncomfortable about this. Of course, there could easily be individuals who do not feel this discomfort; but to the extent that somebody cares about being a good judge she gains something out of judging difficult rounds (while it is not clear that somebody who cares about being a good debater necessarily gets valuable skills from debate).

So, what are the implications of this theory, if it is true? I do not mean to suggest that debaters should use this argument to impact turn resolvability standards. For one thing, it seems counter-intuitive that debaters should be held accountable for making rounds educational to judges (that would have some weird implications). For another, just because being put in the position of judging a difficult round can help judges, that does not mean that it should happen every round. Moreover, it would seem self-defeating for one debater to say, “vote for the debater who makes the round more irresolvable” because that is a way of adjudicating the round which makes it less irresolvable.

I also do not want to give judges who might read this too much comfort when they face difficult decisions. In fact, it would defeat the point of this article if it were taken to be a comfort to judges. Remaining in the difficult position of being accountable to others, yet not knowing for sure how to decide, is beneficial because the distress of the situation trains one for moral decision-making and can inspire new forms of creativity. If a judge uses this fact to alleviate the stress, the judge has lost something essential.

However, this does seem to be a way (albeit, a very limited way) of redeeming debate against the concerns that it is injurious to moral education. At least some participants in the activity gain something from it. I do not think that debate will ever really see a decrease in the average number of irresolvable rounds. Every time a new conceptual distinction is proposed by a coach or a debater becomes skilled at making rounds clear in a new way, other coaches and debaters adapt to the situation and things tend to balance out and difficult rounds emerge again. It should be telling that rounds between highly skilled debaters are frequently just as “irresolvable” as rounds between novices (even though the rounds between highly skilled debaters tend to be irresolvable in quite complex ways). Yet, it is the drive to continuously improve our skills (or the skills of our students) that keeps this equilibrium in place. Perhaps the improvement of these skills does do some damage to these students in a vacuum, but I suggested in my last article that the drive behind these skills can be captured by the wider community in a beneficial way – so long as that community is structured properly. What this article is meant to suggest is that judges gain benefits from this continuous drive, and that this is a reason to continue putting our efforts into the activity.

This article should also encourage debaters who may be hesitant to remain in the community as judges to rethink that hesitation. Obviously, everyone must individually decide whether to remain or not and debate can be a negative experience for some of them, but at the very least these graduating debaters should not assume that the educational benefits of debate end with their careers. This also speaks to some older debate coaches who may feel the activity has left them behind and who, therefore, consign themselves to a role as team supervisor. Finally, many of the debates over whether tournaments should intentionally try to diversify judging pools seem to miss an important factor. It is not only a question of whether debaters would benefit from having judges with more varied backgrounds, but a question of extending the benefits of judging debate to a wider population.

Benjamin Koh