A Case for “Reasonability”

Article by Daniel Selman

I think debaters are underutilizing reasonability when answering theory and you should think that too. It seems like the trend for a while now has been for debaters to accept competing interpretations on face, but in this article I advocate for a nuanced interpretation of reasonability and how it addresses a lot of the issues the community faces right now with the proliferation of new questionable theory norms.

What is reasonability? Its legacy is as a paradigm for evaluating theory that in essence depended on judges’ gut checking against minimal abuse. I agree this generalized interpretation is arbitrary and probably bad. However, there is a way around this: Debaters ought to justify specific paradigmatic issues on the role of theory.

The problem is that debaters assume the norms that stem from “competing interps” and “reasonability” without justifying the specific tenets of the paradigms. For example, “prefer competing interpretations because reasonability creates a race to the bottom” does not justify anywhere that out of round impacts matter just as much as in round or that theory is about maximizing fairness rather than addressing unfairness.

Instead of merely conceding these premises as “communal norms,” debaters should challenge them and justify alternative paradigms for the judge to adopt for evaluating theory. An example that comes to mind is with theory-justified frameworks (TJF). One of the premises they rely on is that the role of theory is to ensure the maximum amount of fairness (my framework is more fair so we should reject yours), but debaters can challenge this by justifying the role of theory as a mechanism to address unfairness rather than maximizing fairness (“Good is good enough”). This highlights the intuitive issues with TJF and is a preclusive way to address them since it impacts to the role of fairness in the round which is a layer that rarely sees clash.

What would these arguments look like in round? Debaters should treat these justifications similar to any other theory argument. Since this paradigm still justifies norms for debate, I think that a form of a text for what you are advocating for is necessary, however it would not need to be in a shell form. In the context of TJF, a debater could argue “the role of theory is for judges to correct unfairness rather than maximizing fairness. Prefer this since demanding maximum fairness destroys substantive clash since debaters can merely exclude positions claiming that an alternative position is fairer. It also destroys theoretical clash since debaters only need to win advantages from their interpretation being good rather than generating disadvantages to their opponent’s interpretation. Addressing unfairness still rejects any positions that cause skews, but makes solely generating advantages for your interp insufficient to vote on theory.”

I think that at minimum this view of reasonability is strategic in crafting positions that hit the same theory argument over and over.  When writing cases, you can include a justification for reasonability, establish a threshold, and explain why you meet that threshold for abuse. For example, when running an aff with a contingent standard, establishing that reasonability means judges should only vote on in round abuse, and not going for the contingency after your opponent reads theory could serve as a quick strategy that could serve as terminal defense on theory. Obviously there are questions of what constitutes “in round abuse” but that’s another discussion for another day.

Essentially, I’m saying debaters should justify the method of gut checking that the classic reasonability paradigm relied on.  A form of reasonability that forces debaters to justify specific norms avoids reasonability’s common objection: its arbitrariness. Instead, debaters can establish a threshold of reasonability and explain why they meet it. Additionally, this co-opts any benefit of norm creation under competing interpretations, as debaters would have to justify norms for the judge to adopt that aren’t commonly addressed through the merely justificatory and not explanatory arguments for competing interps.

I don’t necessarily believe that this is always the best strategy when answering theory, but I do think that it is a layer of the theory debate that is going unnoticed, and that reasonability can help clear up some of the paradigmatic divides on the theory debates that aren’t being addressed.

Have fun y’all.

  • Mathew Pregasen

    This is something lately I have been thinking about and I have a general case/question to ask. I feel like both reasonability and competing interps can fundamentally do the exact same thing and it is rather odd we make such a distinction between them. For instance, reasonability advocates argue that it accounts for in-round abuse. I feel like competing interps can ALWAYS account for in round abuse – it is just a matter that debaters do not engage into that much of a nuanced level. In many ways I think either competing interps collapses into reasonability or reasonability is solved entirely by competing interps.

    Let’s say the neg generically reads PLANS ARE BAD.
    Even under competing interps, I think I can justify something that is very very very close to reasonability. For instance, let’s say I read a counter interp that says “The Aff may run a Plan that specifies ” and then theoritical warrants why while Plans may be bad in a general tense, this specific plan is fair.

    That counter interp seems to be analogous to reasonability. Hence I feel like the reason we set up competing interps is arbitrary since the best counter interp would be the one that is hyper specific to the round.

    Perhaps I am overlooking something so I would appreciate if someone could point out a flaw/overarching problems with this argument but I am pretty curious to find out why such a distinction exists.

    • Mathew Pregasen

      lol how it autocorrected me thinking I was writing html. it is meant to say:

      a Plan that specifies *insert plan text here*. (i took out the brackets)

    • Bob Overing

      I think that a specific counter-interp like the example you provide is strategic but in a sense disingenuous because the justifications for that interp (e.g. “China affs only” justified by predictability, topic lit, and relevance arguments) would obviously serve to justify other interps such as “BRIC nations only” (i.e. most arguments that justify China could be used to justify other large, politically-important, polluting, developing nations, so that’s a more logical limit).

      • Mathew Pregasen

        True, however, just because the “Aff may run a china plan” doesn’t exclude that the “Aff may also run a BRIC nations plan”. Also for instance, theoritically a standard for China specific maybe its specifically predictable due to the topic lit esp with it being a super power with specific regulations. That being said – the implication wasn’t specific to China or this topic as a whole. The idea was that if we were able to hyper specify a interp it could still be, even if slightly broad to include other plans, just at the exact threshold of showing merely in round abuse. I many ways, if you say that there was abuse in this round, you may cite certain examples of ground you lost which could be directly applied to a specific interp.

        That being said, functioning under Competing interps under that system would be strategic nonetheless, but equally awfully similar to reasonability. I think it is convincing that nonetheless, if we spent more time devoted to hyperspecifying interps and a comparison that cited in round examples, theory would be a lot more inciteful to time being wasted between comp interps vs reasonability debate. Just food for thought.

  • Bob Overing

    1- If unfairness is bad, why should we tolerate any of it?
    2- Why are theory paradigms about creating norms?
    3- I can’t leave the contingent standards point for ‘another day.’ Obviously, that’s an instance of in-round abuse since it influences how the neg responds to the aff framework (do I respond and risk ‘triggering’ something or concede framework and lose because it’s probably one-sided?)

    I think the sentiment in this article can be captured by competing interpretations. Debaters should make a competitive counter-interpretation based on the entire class of abuse they justify, e.g. aff non-specification is always justified, which allows them to claim broader benefits to why their practice is part of a general framework that is beneficial for debate. The arguments in favor of the threshold for reasonability can be standards for a counter-interpretation. (One might say that the theory initiator could ‘perm’ the non-mutually exclusive parts of the interp, but an argument can be made that since some of the initial theory offense is not specific to the interp (e.g. it’s about specification in general), the perm is severance).

    • Daniel Selman

      1. Refer to the reasons in the article. I think there are practical concerns with it. Just as link of omissions for K’s seem intuitively bad, or at least lazy, I think there should probably be specific theory disadvantages to ethical theories to reject them, not just why “util lets us look at all impacts-thats some good ground!!” as they would never have to actually make responses specific to the position they are engaging. There are also other concerns that would weigh against the reasons to maximize all instances of fairness, in this instance it would be theoretical and substantive clash. The fairness deficit from not having one util debate is probably minor compared to the educational loss from losing substantive clash over frameworks entirely. This interp still would say reject any unfair theory so it seems theres not that much of a net benefit from only being able to justify your ethical theory as extra fair. Also, im not saying debaters shouldn’t run TJF, or that they are bad. These are just arguments that could be used to respond to them- see the last paragraph of the article.
      2. Im assuming this is about your argument that CI subsumes this interpretation of reasonability and I dont entirely disagree with you. My goal is in this article is to offer a method of attacking the so called “norms” justified by competing interpretations and to change the threshold for sufficient abuse. I used the term reasonability since those ideas were originally forwarded by that paradigm, I’m just offering a justified method to achieve that. I don’t, however, think that these necessarily would need to be part of the counter-interp since they indict the assumptions about the role of theory that the initial shell would rely on. I think its an interpretational issue just like dropping the argument versus dropping the debater is.
      3. This was more of just a dirty trick that someone could go for. While I agree Contingent Standards do constitute in round abuse, a debater could justify a narrow interpretation of in round abuse that probably wouldnt be true, but could be an easy out from theory if conceded. Once again, this article isnt advocating that these positions are true, but instead posits that they could be tools to counteract theory. In this case, if dropped, it could be terminal defense on abuse.

      • Bob Overing

        1- Yeah obviously a good theory reason to prefer a framework should be offensive – i.e. it has to show that the alternative is somehow comparatively unfair. We agree.
        2- Good. I just find it odd that people couch their theory arguments in terms of norms all the time. It might be better to attack the norms view than to say reasonability accesses norms (especially since reasonability arguments tend to be disposed against that view: e.g. it’s only about this round, so only evaluate how much abuse I caused (aside: true but maybe not a warrant for reasonability))
        3- Consider that if contingent standards are bad, that’s a disadvantage to your reasonability argument since it justifies those strategies (i.e. standards debate determines whether or not to accept your model).

        • Daniel Selman

          2. Reasonability could also justify norm creation bad, but it would probably differ from the model forwarded here.
          3. Im not sure what you mean by that. If you mean Contingent Standards being bad serves as a reason to reject the threshold of reasonability, I would disagree since the threshold arguments frame what constitutes sufficient abuse. If you mean that being able to justify abusive arguments in this context serves as a disadvantage to accept my model of reasonability then I think that by having to justify the specific norms, this model gets around that issue since it would serve as a reason not to accept the specific interp forwarded by the aff, not to reject any possible reasonability threshold. But i do agree this does allow for more tricks/can be abused, just like any other theory arg.

          • Bob Overing

            So in conclusion: reasonability thresholds might be okay (though I think they can be forwarded as standards for a competing interp – that was my first comment), but a reason to reject a specific threshold might be that it justifies abusive practices.