Most LD debaters have participated in, or at least seen, an exchange like this one:
AFF: “When the Soviet Union attempted to collectivize agriculture and industry in the early 20th century, it led to injustice and inefficiency. This shows that sacrificing individual rights for the sake of the collective good tends to fail, both morally and practically. The NEG philosophy will have the same consequences, whether on a small scale or a large scale.”
NEG: “My opponent insists that prioritizing collective interests will lead to injustice and economic damage. But this is entirely irrelevant to the resolution: I am defending the community’s economic interest, not its economic destruction. Since collectivization did not help the Soviet economy, it is not an example of the NEG philosophy.”
I will show you how to win this exchange if you are in AFF’s position. (By that, I mean the position that the AFF debater in the example above happens to be in. The roles of the speakers could be reversed.) The goal of NEG’s reply is to insulate himself from any examples in which an attempt to prioritize the collective interest failed. This strategy is extremely common – I still remember encountering it for the first time in competition back in 2016. Refuting it takes a bit of sophisticated resolutional analysis, but it is entirely feasible.
1. Success terms
To explain why NEG’s response above is fallacious, I must introduce the notion of a success term. Philosophers call a verb a success term when it implies that the subject of the verb has succeeded in achieving something. The most common example in philosophy is the verb “know.” This is a success term because, if you know something, then you are right about it by definition. It is impossible to know something that is false. The verb “believe,” on the other hand, is not a success term, because it is possible to believe something and be wrong about it. Some more examples of success terms are “see,” “win,” “finish,” “achieve,” “acquire,” and, of course, “succeed.” Some examples of corresponding verbs that are not success terms are “look,” “compete,” “attempt,” and “seek.”
The reason that responses like the one advanced by NEG above are problematic is because, in most contexts, they assume that the resolution contains success term, when in fact it does not. Take this year’s NCFCA resolution, on which the above dialogue is modeled, for example:
Resolved: The individual right to property ought to be valued above the economic interest of the community.
The verb in this resolution is “value,” which, according to most dictionaries, means to prioritize something, or to treat is as more important than something else. This is not a success term. It is entirely possible to value something without achieving it. I value courage, kindness, and humility, but I sometimes fail to display them. We all value financial security, but not all of us obtain it. Both you and your opponent value victory in a debate round, but only one of you is going to get it. And the list goes on.
Because “value” is not a success term, it is also possible to value the economic interest of the community without achieving it. A government that attempts to collectivize property for the sake of economic growth and distributive justice values the economic interest of the community, even if its attempts fail.
You don’t need to explain the notion of a success term in order to make this point in a debate round (that would probably make things needlessly complicated anyway). Just ask your opponent in cross-examination, “Do you value wealth? Do you value health? Do you value virtue? Are you a fabulously rich, perfectly healthy, perfectly virtuous person?” The answers will be yes, yes, yes, and no. You can follow up with, “So it is possible to value something you don’t have?” The answer will be yes. And that’s enough raw material to make the point in rebuttal: valuing something does not entail getting it.
2. Having meaningful debates
Here is another argument you can use against the kind of response offered by NEG above. Debate rounds must have real-world implications in order to be meaningful. No one wants to quibble over matters that are entirely abstract (except philosophers, but let’s ignore those kooks for a moment). Treating “value” as a success term makes almost all debate rounds less meaningful, because it disconnects them from the practical problems that make political philosophy important.
Consider the following resolution:
Resolved: Winning the lottery ought to be valued above saving your paycheck.
Suppose we treat “value” as a success term in this resolution. Then the question becomes: would you rather have a guaranteed lottery win, or your next paycheck? The answer is obvious – you would rather win the lotter. This answer is also totally irrelevant to everyone, because you can’t guarantee a lottery win.
In the same way, you can’t guarantee that attempts to prioritize the collective good over individual rights will work out. That’s not the kind of world we live in. Indeed, this has been one of the most important parts of the historical case for individual rights: almost no one who has taken them away has ever achieved what they set out to accomplish, because the social world is enormously complicated, and no one knows enough to micro-manage the actions of individuals in a way that makes things better, as opposed to making them worse.
The moral of this post is that you won’t be able to get away with ignoring the failures of your philosophy forever, and you shouldn’t let your opponents get away with it, either. We should all strive to engage with real-world examples in a constructive way, in a way that makes a difference to what we should do.
Noah McKay is a debate coach and sourcebook author at Ethos Debate currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He has coached individuals and groups in LD for five years.
For those who would like to learn more about this topic, I wrote a pair of related articles a while back: https://www.ethosdebate.com/value-debate-theory-destination-vs-journey-1-change-perspective/ and https://www.ethosdebate.com/value-debate-theory-destination-vs-journey-2-evaluating-stoa-ld-resolution/ .
I have to admit I’m not sure whether I still agree with all the analysis I gave in those articles (especially after having better developed Pragmatism as a unifying debate theory: https://www.ethosdebate.com/purposes-of-debate-pt-1-the-goals-and-anti-goals-of-debate/ ), but it may still provide some helpful framing and counterpoints!
At the same time though, the negative can argue that we can learn from our mistakes, and that if we make the same mistake again, the issue isn’t with what our value is, it’s that we have a foolish policymaker who can’t learn from previous errors.