Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

Burdens.  Love them or hate them, you can’t escape them.  Whether it’s a Negative team arguing you don’t have enough evidence or an Affirmative team arguing that the resolution only requires one successful application, debate of all forms is filled with arguments impacting right back to the burden of proof.  

Unfortunately, many people just don’t understand what a burden means.  Let’s look at what a burden of proof is, then the five different types of burdens there are.

Wait.  Five?!  There are five burdens indeed, but two of them are logically impossible.  However, in order to understand burden scope properly, you should understand what they are.  

The Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is the general concept that when you make a claim, you have to back it up.  Contrary to popular belief, the burden of proof does not apply only to the Affirmative side in a debate round.  Anytime one makes a statement, one is responsible for backing it up.  This means that whoever makes a claim has to prove it satisfactorily.  

If I was to say, “The Earth is flat,” independent of any objection, I would be responsible for showing you evidence that the earth is flat.  This can include photographic evidence, scientific facts, etc. (though both of those would be hard to come by).  I am responsible for showing proof until prima facie (on its face) the assertion is true.  

But how do you know how much you need to prove?  How do you know what the burden of proof is for any given statement?

The Five Burdens

As I said earlier, of the five types of burdens, three set a logical standard and two an impossible one.  However, as I said earlier, understanding all of them is important.

1. Specific Burden

A specific burden is a burden establishing a specific number of cases or conditions under which the resolution is true.  For example, the resolution, “The death penalty can be justified,” requires only that the Affirmative prove one case or instance in which the death penalty is acceptable.  If the resolution asks for plural instances, then two or more cases are necessary.  In any case, the resolution requires the debater to prove one or two cases in which the operative statement is true (hypothetically, resolutions could be written in the mold of, “There are three cases in which the death penalty is justified,” but in four years of debate I haven’t seen one).

Common types: Most policy resolutions fall under this type of burden, since by proving a case, the Affirmative team proves that a reform should happen.  Nearly all Team Policy resolutions fit this mold.

Common words: Can, may, should, in some cases, etc.

2. Exception to the Rule

Here is our first logically impossible burden.  This burden covers all the ground from specific to general.  This essentially requires the team to prove that while a rule is generally true, there are enough objections to it that we shouldn’t uphold it.  This is super weird and most resolution writers don’t intend to write these kinds of resolutions, but I can conceptualize a resolution like, “‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ ignores too many scenarios.”  In this case, the Affirmative team would need to prove that the saying has too many exceptions even though it may be generally true.

The problem with this burden is that it has no standard.  One can not delineate what percentage or number of examples must be established to prove the resolution true or false.  With these types, most debates would devolve into teams arguing that the other hasn’t brought up enough examples to conclude the resolution true/false or sheer numbers games of comparing the examples.

Common types: Not that many.  I would guess that most would be in the mold I set up already– which would establish a rule and then ask debaters to prove a sufficient number of exceptions to it.

Common words: Idioms/rules, too many, exceptions, etc.

3. General

Here is the greatest and most common burden.  A general burden is to prove ‘most of the time’–51% or more.  A general burden gives the Affirmative team all the room from 51% to 100%–their choice.  For example, “Nationalism ought to be valued above globalism.”  This resolution means that most of the time, the Affirmative must say that nationalism is more important.  The inverse is that the Negative must prove that it is true 50% of the time or less.  

Common types: Value resolutions and most fact resolutions.

Common words: Valued, is, more important, etc.

4. Rule

Rule is the inverse of the Exception to the Rule burden.  The rule burden means that the resolution is true often enough that we can call it a rule, with a few exceptions, perhaps, but not enough to discard it.  The difference between this burden and a general burden is that the rule burden establishes a higher standard, which requires that there are a lot more examples than just 51%.  

This is also logically impossible because there is no standard for what differentiates a general burden from a rule.  Unfortunately, this is how most people are trained to think about statements and rules–that they are rules with some number of exceptions rather than something true most of the time.  Now, it’s hard for me to think of a resolution that would actually fit this mold, even though it is a fairly intuitive (if impossible) standard.  However, if I had to pick one, it would be that “War does vastly more harm than good.”  The exacerbating word ‘vastly’ establishes a higher burden of proof than simply most.  

Common types: Some fact resolutions.

Common words: Much more, vastly more, etc.

5. Absolute

Here’s my favorite burden type.  This burden type is the requirement that the Affirmative prove the resolution completely, no-exceptions true.  This type of burden is uncommon, given how difficult this is to prove, since the Negative team only needs to show one exception to the resolution.  An example might be, “No one should ever receive a life sentence without parole.”  An Affirmative team is responsible for proving that there should never be anyone receiving that sentence.  

These are pretty basic, but they place an enormous burden on the other side–basically the inverse of the specific burden.  

Common types: Some fact resolutions.

Common words: Always, never, all, etc.


I hope this helps you to see what the burden of proof really means.  In a later post, we’ll go over some tricky resolutions and analyze them to see what kind of burden they require to be proven true.  


%d bloggers like this: