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Let’s admit it: Value debaters have it rough. You see, policy debates have very tangible consequences. This makes their idea of conflict much more defined and understandable. But for value debaters, conflict can be a very tricky idea. Entire debates can revolve around where the conflict lies in the resolution. Policy debaters don’t have that problem. As long as WWIII is avoided, thumbs up.

This year’s NCFCA resolution is particularly vague when it comes to conflict. Because not only is “in conflict” not in the resolution, but it isn’t hard to see why the framers of the resolution chose to leave this out. There isn’t a clear conflict between the ideas of rehabilitation and retribution. So most debates are left to determine this themselves. Many cross examinations check off the “we can agree that Criminal Justice Systems can value both rehabilitation and retribution and that we’re merely trying to determine which is more valuable?” question – thereby confirming the lack of conflict for the round. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s definitely beneficial to understand what conflict we’re dealing with this year.

Philosophical Conflict

The primary conflict between rehabilitation and retribution comes from a philosophical conflict. Indeed, most debates come down to the conflict between utilitarian and deontological approaches to justice.

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that states that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. This makes sense. After all, every man’s motivation is ultimately to be happier, and utility increases happiness. Now, you might be thinking, “I don’t go to the gym, or work, or put myself in any uncomfortable situation to be happy.” But, don’t you? We go to the gym because it gets us in better shape and therefore we’re happier. We go to work in order to eat, which makes us happier. But, imagine a train is out of control and heading full speed towards a group of 5 individuals stuck on the track. Further imagine that you happen to be nearby a track switcher that would divert the train onto another track – you could save the five people. The problem is, there’s one other person tied down to the other track. A utilitarian would tell you to pull the switch, killing the one person, but saving the other five. Furthermore, a utilitarian might tell you to push a big person in front of the train so as to stop it before it hits the five people trapped on the track. Rehabilitation comes from a utilitarian mindset. It wishes to maximize utility for the offender and society by reforming the criminal before his release. Without rehabilitation, the potential good that a criminal could do for a society is weakened. In fact, it’s expected that such a criminal would simply do more harm to society after his release.

Deontology is the study of the nature of duty and obligation. Criminal Justice Systems are obligated to administer justice to the offender. Remember the scales that Lady Justice upholds? Criminal Justice Systems seek to have these scales realigned and balanced. This is accomplished by giving the criminal his just deserts. John Locke held that man is due their natural rights, and those who violate the rights of others believe that man does not deserve their rights. Therefore, criminals are given exactly what they believe they deserve – punishment or the infringement of their natural rights.

So the conflict here is pretty stark: utilitarians would try to limit the use of retribution in exchange for rehabilitation so as to maximize utility. Deontologists believe that man’s natural rights must be kept in the balance and that balance cannot be restored through anything but punishment. Does this mean that retribution cannot achieve any utilitarian goal? Of course not. And rehabilitation has deontological arguments. Retribution, by and large, can be used to deter crime. And rehabilitation better achieves justice for society, instead of merely justice for the offender. But in the context of the resolution, it’s clear to see how retribution appeals to the deontologist and rehabilitation to the utilitarian.

Chronological Conflict

The ideal Criminal Justice System would have elements of both retribution and rehabilitation. That’s why that cross-ex question that I mentioned earlier comes up so often. Both debaters want to paint their side of the resolution as the most “ideal”, and ideally we would have both retribution and rehabilitation in our criminal justice systems. The problem is, retribution should be administered, then rehabilitation should be done… and, uh… yea.

See my point?

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t just do both. We should administer retribution. Yea! And we should rehabilitate criminals! Absolutely! So just do both! This means that balanced negatives will be more common than usual this year. Think about it, even the most rehabilitative prison systems are still prison systems. Retribution is not only involved but plays a crucial role in any Criminal Justice System – even ones focused on rehabilitation. Perhaps the world’s most rehabilitative civilization, Norway, still sentences people to prison. They have to. Even though in prison the criminals are rehabilitated, they’re still prisoners. In prison. Being punished for what they did. Why? Because it’s the criminal’s just punishment. And this idea, that both rehabilitation and retribution should be used, is catching on – faster than I expected, honestly. I’ve already spoken with several parents who have admitted that they would vote for a balanced neg this year, despite shuddering at even the idea of that in past years. Furthermore, I have a friend who chose not to debate this year because of this vast issue with the resolution.

Ideally, NCFCA would flip the values to their respective opposite side of the resolution. Rehabilitation would be the negative position and retribution would be the affirmative position. Here’s why I say that: Retribution is a very philosophical idea. Societies embrace retribution for philosophical reasons. Rehabilitation is less so. Rehabilitation has very utilitarian, practical benefits. And while, yes, utilitarianism is a philosophical code, the actual argument for rehabilitation is not that it is utilitarian. Rather, the argument for rehabilitation is that it benefits society in (practical, tangible) ways that retribution does not. But it has few philosophical advantages. We don’t speak of the philosophical scale of rehabilitation that we must once again balance. Because that’s ridiculous. You can draw rehabilitation to individual rights, social contract, or restitution, but at its core rehabilitation is done for practical purposes. With this in mind, it would be really nice for the debater arguing for rehabilitation to have the option to run a balanced neg. Then, we could have a much more philosophical debate – and maybe even remove some judge bias from the round. The affirmative speaker (retribution) could defend the philosophical necessity of retribution, and the negative speaker, if they wanted to, could demonstrate the lack of conflict between retribution and rehabilitation.

Is this going to happen? Almost certainly not. But, like I said, it’s valuable to understand the conflict, or lack thereof, in this year’s resolution. It’s also just kind of fun to imagine what debates would be like if we flipped the resolution around. I think that offers valuable insight into what the debate is really about – and, more importantly, what it should be about. Any deviation from the philosophical ideas behind this resolution results in messy debate that excuses our purpose for debating. While it can be creative, sometimes fun, and while such arguments can certainly win rounds, we debate to inform the judge so that a wise, educated decision can be made – we don’t debate to outsmart the league and their intentions when crafting the resolution. So let’s argue over the actual conflict.

Noah Amedick is a Coach in Training at Ethos Debate. He has competed in high-school speech and debate for 6 years, ranking at the national level multiple times. As a debater, he has placed first at six tournaments, and second at two others. His life outside of debate is vast: Noah is a music producer, barista, photographer, Eagle Scout, and piano teacher.

Noah Amedick is a Coach in Training at Ethos Debate. He has competed in high-school speech and debate for 6 years, ranking at the national level multiple times. As a debater, he has placed first at six tournaments, and second at two others. His life outside of debate is vast: Noah is a music producer, barista, photographer, Eagle Scout, and piano teacher.

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