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Many (probably most) Lincoln Douglas resolutions recommend “valuing” one of two things over the other. And most LD debaters don’t elaborate on what this means, despite its centrality to the round. The few who do typically appeal to a somewhat vague notion of importance or priority, which fails to answer the critical question: what does it look like, in the real world, to value one thing over another?

There isn’t a single right answer to this question. But there are a few different ways to construe the term “value” to make it more precise.

1. Choosing something more often

In my experience, this is the sense of “value” that most debaters have in mind when making their arguments. This is why, in response to extreme claims about the catastrophic consequences of valuing one side of the resolution exclusively, debaters typically respond by insisting that they are required only to value their side of the resolution “most of the time.”

The trouble is, this standard is too broad. It entails that the more often something is chosen, the more valuable it is. But that is not always (or even usually) the case. I have never chosen to eat with platinum utensils; all of my cutlery is stainless steel. Indeed, very, very few human beings have ever chosen to eat with platinum forks, because platinum is prohibitively expensive and much better suited to other uses. But platinum forks are obviously more valuable than steel ones.

It is pretty easy to multiply examples on this score. I spend more time speaking with students on a given day than I do speaking with my wife. That does not mean I value my students more than my wife. I choose to read texts and emails dozens of times in a day, but I usually only choose to read Scripture once. And the list goes on.

This confusion can seep its way into to an LD round. Consider this year’s STOA resolution: In the field of biomedical engineering, restraint ought to be valued above scientific advancement. Suppose that NEG argues that the vast majority of biomedical innovations ought to be approved, and only a small fraction of them ought to be opposed for bioethical reasons. Under the choose-more-often interpretation of “value,” this implies that innovation is more important than ethics. But surely that isn’t right. The reason that most biomedical innovations ought to be approved is because they are consistent with our ethical duties, not because they are more important than those duties.

Another problem with this interpretation is that it is often very difficult to determine which of two things should be chosen more frequently. This requires us to survey all the possible situations in which each could be chosen, tally them up, and compare the numbers. Given time constraints (and cognitive ones), this can’t feasibly be done in an LD round most of the time.

2. Choosing one when we can’t have both (AKA the “conflict standard”)

One way to value one thing over another is to choose it when only one of the two can be had. This interpretation is often called the “conflict standard,” since it restricts the resolution to situations in which the AFF and NEG ground are in conflict, and it has been built into several NCFCA resolutions.

This standard resolves the paradoxical examples in the previous section quite well. If I were forced to choose between keeping my students and keeping my wife, I would keep my wife. And the same goes for platinum forks and moral obligations. It is also much easier to tell when this standard has been met. Narrowing the field to scenarios in which two values are in conflict makes the task of comparing them much more feasible.

The conflict standard need not be applied absolutely: not every instance of conflict is an instance in which we must choose all of one value and none of the other. Zero-sum scenarios, where the degree to which we can value one thing is limited by the degree to which we can value another, are also instances of conflict. For example, in many cases, liberty and security conflict because, even though it is possible to have some degree of both, the more liberty people have, the more of a risk they pose to others’ security.

This is my preferred interpretation of “value,” and I recommend to most of my students that they build it into their resolutional analysis in order to facilitate clash. But there are further options.

3. Attributing higher intrinsic value to something

This interpretation is pretty straightforward: the resolution states that we ought to recognize one thing as more valuable in itself than the other, irrespective of whether it is feasible or useful. For example, when comparing restraint and scientific advancement, we should not consider the consequences of practical decisions between the two, but only the inherent goodness (or badness) of each.

This interpretation has some merit. It delivers the right verdict in each of the three problem cases mentioned in Section 1. My wife is more intrinsically valuable to me than my students (sorry guys), platinum is more intrinsically valuable than steel, and moral duties are more intrinsically valuable than just about anything.

But this interpretation will produce virtually no clash in the round and doesn’t make room for any applications. It only allows us to compare the AFF and NEG ground in the abstract. And that’s almost always a waste of everybody’s time. Furthermore, virtually every one of your opponents will challenge this analysis, and there’s not much you can say to defend it. It is coherent, but so are other interpretations that maintain the real-world relevance of the resolution. And judges (especially community judges) much prefer relevant debates to irrelevant ones.

4. Adopting something as our default stance (AKA the “rule vs. exception” standard)

On this reading, to “value” something means to ere on its side, or to prefer it, in the sense that we adopt it as our default position. This means we choose it by default unless decisive reasons are given for choosing something else. The “innocent until proven guilty” standard in criminal law is a classic example of this. Because we value justice for the innocent over justice for the guilty, we treat defendants as innocent by default unless and until decisive reasons are offered to think they are guilty.

Here is another way to think about it: valuing something highest means making it the rule, and making the alternative the exception. On this reading, the STOA resolution states that restraint should be the rule in biomedical engineering, and scientific advancement should be the exception. So we should prioritize restraint unless and until exceptional reasons are given for prioritizing advancement instead. (If it sounds like this interpretation leans heavily towards NEG, you are right.)

The advantage of this analysis is that it allows you to concede that your opponent’s side of the resolution ought to be chosen in exceptional cases. For instance, under the STOA resolution, NEG could concede that violations of the Nuremberg code should not be tolerated while still insisting that scientific advancement should be the rule in biomedical engineering, not the exception. If you don’t think you can win under the conflict standard, I would recommend opting for this one instead.


These four options do not exhaust the possible interpretations of “value.” But most interpretations will be at least close to one of them. I always recommend offering an analysis of value in the round, preferably under your resolutional analysis. It brings clarity to the debate, and also gives you an opportunity to dictate the terms of victory (most of your opponents likely won’t comment on it, so whether you are AFF or NEG, you will likely have the first word on this question and the element of surprise). And any chance to dictate those terms is a chance worth taking.

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