Value Debate: Why Not?


Article by Ty Joplin

When I first started debating in the national circuit, pre-standards were all the rage. I didn’t get much out of Texas, but in the Wild West of debate, they were ran furiously; often piled 10-high above the standard. Then came the wave of theory, and now we seem to be witnessing the rise of pre-fiat arguments. These argument-type trends climb up the ladder of layers, vying for that top spot where only one decisive point at that peek is needed to win the round. But as debaters make that climb to win at the top-most layer, it seems a peg of that ladder has gone overlooked; the value-debate peg.

Nobody ever debates the value; a value is slurred onto the case as a formality before zooming into the framework (“I valumralitydefinedasdues”). This negligence is a genuine puzzle; I have no idea why we’re overlooking a layer of the debate that comes prior to contention level, standards, and meta-ethics. There is so much potential for intelligent, technical strategy that goes untapped, and it seems like it is for no good reason. And for all the snarky comments some of us aim against the more traditional debate style, it seems the old-fashioned way at least got this layer right.


I am sure we were all taught values at some point. They are like a beacon of light for the case, and the standard is that mechanism to achieve the value’s end-goal. By all means technically, the value is the neck of the bottle, which if taken out, defeats the whole case minus a few lingering pieces that could be used as makeshift shanks (read: theoretical justifications for the standard maybe, skep triggers and so on). But overall, there are many new options for the flow debate if we began treating the value like a separate layer: a case could be de-linked from the resolution, that 3-minute meta-ethic could stand irrelevant if it’s justifying a standard that doesn’t link to a value, that value could be bad for the debate theoretically, it could have a faulty definition at which case we should defer to a different one, it could be that the value and standard are functionally identical, making the case have no mechanism to achieve its own prime goal. These are just a few of the types of arguments that would wake judges up from the incessant drones of all-theory rounds or rounds where judges have to vote for who totally-does-not-help that subjugated people the best.


Moreover, the value layer is much more debatable than we currently give it credit: justice and morality really aren’t the same things if you find enough cards that say so, and they aren’t the only values you can have.  If we opened up the possibility to debate the value more, we’ll inevitably see a flowering of creative values that could be compelling, interesting to hear, and strategic. In other words, the reason why the layer has been thus far ignored is not because of any fault of the layer itself, but because the national circuit so far just hasn’t given it enough thought. So why not take a few moments in every round to have a solid value, then argue against the opponent’s? What’s stopping people from reading a dump file on the aff value, or taking out a case with an under-developed value in 15 seconds? (I doubt many judges will buy an extension of “I valumralitydefinedasdues” through ink).


With the emergence of theory and pre-fiat as popular arguments, there really aren’t any more places to go higher. We’ve hit the top, but by all means we’ve missed some key areas thanks to our myopic bias towards anything upwards on the flow. But even so, the value debate is pretty high up there, so it’s astonishing that we’ve left it virtually untouched. The value layer may be that new, fun, and exciting layer we’ve been looking for all along.

  • Matt Zavislan

    I feel like the way the standards debate functions on the national circuit is that it seems to have become a fusion of traditional V/VC debates. For example, when people make arguments about why institutions have different sets of obligations they are challenging the values appropriate to the topic. Also, most value debates only make sense when contextualized within the greater standards debate. It makes no sense to claim that Justice is more important than morality without some theory of justice that would explain why that is the case because both are seem in philosophy as ultimate ends without any more of implicit prioritization. For instance, the argument that justice is more important to the actions of the state than morality, begs the question of normal morals not applying to the actions of states which is a debate that would probably be resolved at the standards level.

  • Michael O’Krent

    I agree with the general thrust of your position; I’ve also always been puzzled by the low importance most debaters assign to the value. So, I tried to make use of the value debate in many of my cases over the past few years. What I found was that the value premise and value criterion are not truly separate, and to draw that distinction seems to be an artifact of the NFL’s original design for LD. Any arguments regarding the value can easily be incorporated into the standards debate, and vice versa. Let me clarify what I mean:
    All frameworks serve essentially the same purpose: To create a normative evaluative mechanism by which debaters can weigh and impact arguments. Normativity is normativity, no matter how you slice it. A framework answers the question, “What ought we to do?” or the nearly synonymous “What does justice demand we do?” These are the same semantics from which debaters derive the “ought implies moral obligation so I value morality” structure. Any argument that can be levied against the suitability of one value can be levied against any ethical framework that follows from that value. An example from my experience can help illustrate this.
    On Sept-Oct 2012 (that was constitutional due process for terror suspects) I ran a big ol’ thing about how government obligations were different than general morality for the value of my neg cases. Against affs that invoked some sort of general philosophy, I would argue that such an abstraction cannot apply to governments. That is what value debating does. Because the value premise is the ultimate goal, the teleological end of our decision calculus, debating the value determines in what way we can make the normatively “best” decision.
    But that is no different from what the standards debate does. In fact, I had made that same argument on virtually every topic without worrying about the value. That we choose to have this thing called a value, to add an extra step between just “ought” or whatever normative term is in the resolution and the standard, adds only a semantic distinction. “Government obligations are different than morality” has exactly the same implications as “morality means something different for governments than for individuals,” which is what I might say without a value premise.
    The result is that I now often omit the value premise from my cases altogether because I see no need to add that extra distinction when a much more coherent (and stronger) argument can function without it. So, yes, I do agree that we should take advantage of value debating. But I believe the clearest and easiest way to do so is to make those sorts of general arguments as high-level framework comparison, rather than separating another “layer” of the debate. (God knows we need more layers…)

    • Ty Joplin

      Functionally they are similar, in some respects. But on the flow, they take on unique meanings. If there was a value of “societal welfare” or something like that, strategic options would be opened up that simply having a standard couldn’t do. That value could exclude not just contention-level stuff about individuals, but frameworks centered around individual conceptions of welfare and so on, which is kind of like having a communitarian framework, but not really, because it’s much less committal and specific than endorsing a communitarian ethic. A value in some respects is a less-focused lens that filters out things like a standard does, but the way it filters is different. It filters frameworks like a good meta-ethic, but also filters which meta-ethics are relevant. In that sense then, a value is kind of like a brew of a meta-ethic, a standard, and T all wrapped into a nice bundle at the top of the case without any of the mess.

      Worst-case scenario, if somebody utilized a value to its lowest level of strategic use, it would be a kind of ultimate standard by which ethics are filtered from, which is already way different than just having a standard and weighing between frameworks without discussing the value.

      I think though that because value debate is basically a void of knowledge for most of this community, our imagination is limited and poised to turn us skeptical to the potential for looking closely at values. This is evinced by the fact that we don’t really have a vocabulary to describe exactly what a value does, so we have to defer to terms like “it’s kinda like T” or “it’s kind of like a different layer but not really,” It’s easy to claim what values can and can’t do now, but in a round a clever enough debater will be able to work wonders with the value, doing things you just can’t predict months ahead of time in some online message board.

      The main point is just to know that there’s a lot of good potential for the value that the community should explore, because there is a coherent theory which predicts that it’s worthwhile and advantageous.

  • mcgin029

    As someone old enough to remember when values were debated… trust me… No. Just, no.

    • mcgin029

      Substantive debate generally is a question of what the right or obligatory thing to do is. Value debate, insofar as it functions differently from criterion debate, is almost necessarily semantic. And lame.

  • Wesley Hu

    I’m not certain, but the way I understand framework debate is that a debater logically proves some normative statement. The use of morality as a value seems definitionally true because morality is simply a guide to action. Nothing can preclude morality because saying that you value something simply means that your guide to action is one that is in accordance with that thing you value. If my value is justice, it is the same thing as a case with value of morality and criterion of giving each their due. If I say my value is freedom, it is the same thing as a case with value of morality and criterion of respecting people’s right to make their own decisions. A debater doesn’t preclude his oppenent by “winning” the value debate because what he really did was win reasons why his value is morally good, that is, a good guide for action, The framework debate probably shouldn’t be understood as a bunch of layers (for example, epistemology, then value, then metaethic, then ethic) but rather as logical chains justifying normative statements.

    • BenjaminKoh

      I agree with the general sentiment that value debate based upon merit is probably nonsensical in a vacuum- but I don’t think this means that value debate should totally be abandoned. It seems to me that the value is more of a T issue than anything; it’s the reason why people say the value is morality because ought is a MO. For me the only sensical way to actualize Ty’s vision is examining what “framework interpretation” is most topical. i.e. ought would infer “Morality” or “should” would infer that the most important issue in a FW is whether or not it upholds a desire based calculus (I guess the value would be Individual Desire? Something like that I guess).

      I do agree with Ty that the issue of which value is preferred is an issue that should be explored. I’m curious about what the community norm would become for something like if T-ought would ever become a reason to drop the debater.

      • Wesley Hu

        I mostly agree, for example PF resolutions are phrased in a way that usually explicitly determines a framework for evaluating arguments. The January topic says that the resolution is about who’s being more constitutional. However, as resolutions are statements of normativity rather than explicitly what is more constitutional/pleasurable/etc., I think that morality is always the issue being debate. This is of course absent T for why the resolution already tells you how you’re evaluating impacts, like the example you said for ‘should’ or if LD topics were more like PF topics

  • alex smith

    “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

    –Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

  • Amyn Kassam

    Great article, Ty. I think your argument points to a shift to underdeveloped framework that just mentions a value and criterion because someone said to. Instead, debaters should recognize that the value/standard structure is just a model for establishing a framework and justifying the logical steps that lead up to a metric we can use to evaluate offense. Asking questions about the value and the steps before and after it yields great potential for in depth debate that is often overlooked. I do think it may be somewhat misleading to say we should approach the value as it’s own layer of debate. The value should still be viewed in context of the rest of the framework arguments (not something I think you disagree with), and treating it a layer shouldn’t be an excuse to skip over it for the sake of convention.

    Edit: grammar