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mark-1577991_1920“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

If you’ve been a policy debater for longer than two years, you’ve inevitably at one point bugged your LD friends by exposing how they just wax eloquent about two abstract and good concepts without ever actually clashing.  

Then they of course shot back, “Hey, at least I don’t hid behind my stack of PHD studies and address real logic!” Ah, you’ve gotta love the TP vs. LD rivalry.  

But in all seriousness, the biggest complaint I hear from judges, seasoned debaters, and of course those self-righteous policy kids is that LD devolves into something less than actual debate.  Debaters oftentimes leave clash and conflict by the wayside and like ships in the night, pass each other by, speaking only in passing.   

Problem: Value Debate is confusing

A true value resolution compares two (usually good) things and tells debaters to decide which one is better.  Since both concepts in the resolution are usually good things, they can each be evaluated differently depending on what you use as the weighing mechanism for your decision.  

For example, take one of last year’s Stoa resolutions: “In developing countries, economic growth ought to be valued above environmental protection.”  If you value resource stewardship you’d say environmental protection is more important.  However, if you valued prosperity first and foremost you’d say economic growth is better.  

We use this kind of decision-making process everyday.  Imagine you’re trying to decide where you want to eat dinner, if you value money, you’ll go somewhere like KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald’s or some other fast food restaurant that offers more bang for your buck.  However, if taste is more important to you and you’re willing to sacrifice money in your quest for delicious food, you’ll go to some fancy Italian place, with a name like rocambolesco, where everyone wears suits.

For more on this, check out this super helpful recent post by Isaiah on the basics of weighing mechanisms.

That’s why debaters propose a value in their case.  But there’s two huge problems in value debate:

  1. Debaters forget the resolution compares two GOOD things.
  2. Debaters forget the resolution COMPARES two good things.  

Problem 1: Debaters forget the resolution compares two GOOD things.

In the economic growth vs. environmental protection Stoa resolution, it wasn’t uncommon to hear a case structured like this:

Value: Quality of Life

Contention 1 – Economic growth destroys Quality of Life

Contention 2 – Environmental protection leads to Quality of Life

Can you see the problem? Obviously economic growth doesn’t destroy a citizen’s quality of life.  Saying that economic growth will NEVER lead to an increased quality of life is ridiculous.  But arguments like this are made all the time.  Debaters will go up and say, “Environmental protection saves lives and stewards resources every time and never goes wrong.  Economic growth on the other hand, is a tool of greed that causes money to skyrocket to the top and never helps anyone other than the wealthy.”  

The truth is much more nuanced.  Economic growth may lead to a short-term quality of life, but environmental protection will keep you there for the long term.  Arguments like that are realistic and true.  

In other words, economic growth leads to quality of life +2 while environmental protection leads to quality of life +5.  If you’re a judge, which position sounds more reasonable?

On a complete rabbit trail, in parli, real life and collegiate debate, you won’t always be comparing two GOOD things.  One of my all-time favorite parli resolutions I’ve ever heard was, “Tyranny is preferable to anarchy.”  With a resolution like that, you’d use something as horrific as genocide as the weighing mechanism and you’d switch everything around.  Whichever side gets LESS genocide wins.  Here’s a cool example of a professional debate on whether islamists or dictators make better rulers.

Problem 2: Debaters forget the resolution COMPARES two good things.

This is where LD loses its conflict.  There needs to be clash at the heart of every value debate because the whole point of value debate is to compare two good things together.  It’s a fight!  You’re sticking retribution and rehabilitation in a boxing ring and having them duke it out!  Lots of debaters miss this.  They’ll come up and say, “Retribution doesn’t deter criminals; it has no effect on recidivism.  Rehabilitation on the other hand, is just.  It makes the criminals into better people.  

It’s pretty obvious why this doesn’t work.  The debater here isn’t comparing the two to each other. He’s just showing why one is bad with deterrence or crime as a weighing mechanism and why the other one is good with justice or morality as a weighing mechanism.  There’s no conflict, no fight, no clash.  

Once upon a time, a frustrated parent judge got tired of seeing value debaters passing each other like ships in the night and decided the best way to ensure that there was actual conflict in debates was to literally force them to clash by putting the words “When in conflict…” in the resolution.  This is obviously redundant.  There’s no debate to be had in a vacuum.  The only time we really need to debate the issues is in conflict.  When push comes to shove, should we value retribution or rehabilitation?   For more on that check out Travis Herche’s really fantastic blog post on the “When in conflict” Conflict.

Solution: Syllogistic Case Structure

So, how do you address these problems by remembering that you’re COMPARING two GOOD things?  The answer lies inside of syllogistic case structure.  A syllogism is just a logical way of proving a claim true.  An example would be:

  1. All Gorillas are wonderful.
  2. Harambe was a gorilla.
  3. Therefore, Harambe was wonderful.

As a side-note, Harambe makes for a pretty fun debate if you need a way to get the teenagers of your club engaged. Take notice parli resolution writers!

How do we fit our value cases into this structure?  Remember, each value case essentially has two main parts:

  1. The Test (Weighing Mechanism, Value, Criterion etc.)
  2. The Contention structure (x leads to value, y doesn’t lead to value etc.)

If we can agree that the test is the correct way to decide between both parts of the resolution, we just have to find which object in the resolution better accomplishes the test.  Here’s how this works out in syllogistic case structure:

  1. Given Justice
  2. Public Needs lead to Justice +5
  3. Private Property rights lead to justice + 10
  4. Therefore, Private Property Rights ought to be valued above public needs.

Fleshing this out, we start off and we establish Justice as the test to decide between the two concepts in the resolution.  Then we take the reasonable and realistic position that both public needs and private property rights lead to justice and now we just have to decide which better accommodates Justice.   Apparently, private property rights accommodate justice better and therefore should be valued above public needs.

This solves our problem by discussing the concepts of the resolution in terms of each other.  You’re discussing both of them in the same weighing mechanism and how they relate to each other.  And you’re actively recognizing that public needs are a good thing, but they’re trumped by private property rights.

Check out Isaiah’s video demonstrating how to do this effectively.  He explains this a lot better than I can.  Plus, getting this in visual format will always help.


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