Here’s a question I sent to Isaiah:
I’m trying to discern how we can stick true to our principles as truth-seekers and only argue for positions we believe in and still debate resolutions we inherently disagree with. Like in the ‘USFG should guarantee a right to housing’ LD resolution, how do I ethically argue that we should guarantee that right if I don’t believe that the USFG should guarantee that right?
Isaiah popped out of retirement to help answer this one. He wrote the majority of this post with me coming in at certain parts and adding a few things, so “I” could either be Isaiah or me or some drewzayuh hybrid.
Debate Teaches to Break Problems into Parts
That’s what critical thinking means. It’s the ability to disagree in part and agree in part, even when you agree with the general notion or general direction. Stock issues are an example: you can agree to the general reasons behind the plan (harms and advantages) yet disagree that this particular plan actually solves the problems and creates said advantages.
So Isolate the Parts
Learn different ways of thinking about problems. Stock issues, 5 whys, root cause analysis, standards/violations/impacts, research standards, types of values, and so on. You need these concepts to “break a problem into pieces,” because you’re going to disagree with a piece but not the whole.
And Argue Them
- Application: Baby-Saving Cases – I’ve seen debate coaches, parents, and debaters balk at going up against a case where the harm is “babies captured” or “babies are dying,” such as adoption trafficking cases. If you’re not using critical thinking, then you’ll say “uh…. The babies that are captured are better off in the USA.” Awful. Using critical thinking, you’ll say “I agree that captured babies are an awful tragedy; so bad, in fact, that it deserves the right solution, which my opponents do not have. We’ll argue against their plan, but let’s realize we’re all on the same page that the problem is real.”
- Application: Support Analysis – Have you ever watched a case that seems like the idea you agree with, but the actual facts and expert opinions used seem to justify something else? Many squirrel cases work this way. It is not at all a violation of ethics to say “the support my opponents provided does not support their claims or case, even though I agree with the general idea of the case.” That’s using critical thinking to break down that a case wasn’t an effective case for the resolution, which, if you communicate effectively, is a winning condition for NEG.
- Application: Case on Abortion – From time to time, folks have attempted to make abortion cases in the debate topics in Christian, homeschool debating. I’ve seen debaters throw their hands up in the air and say “I can’t debate that.” As a coach, all that says to me is: I didn’t learn much from debate. Because of course, you should agree that abortion is wrong… but no case puts you in the position of “arguing for abortion” just to beat it! Medical Malpractice year (2005-06 I think) some teams “made abortion malpractice.” Any debater worth their salt argues: counterplan, make abortion illegal. Since malpractice assumes a good and bad way to do the same thing, you can’t actually “make” something malpractice – malpractice is the right procedure performed wrongly. Additionally, it places abortion in civil court rather than criminal court, making a partial solution at best. The real solution is to illegalize it, not make it malpractice. NEG solves the problem far better and has a reason not to do the AFF solution: it makes no sense to “make something malpractice.” Usually, when an AFF is squeezing an emotional issue into the topic, the topic isn’t actually large enough to contain the issue – so propose the real solution.
- Application: Reasoning Analysis – I’ve been up against my own case before. For example, when running repeal the DC Gun Ban (before DC vs. Heller, FYI). My partner and I chose to not go the Constitutional route to defend this case, but pierce through the Constitution into what the 2nd Amendment attempts to embody: self-defense. While I agree that the DC Gun Ban should be repealed, I already know I strongly disagree with Constitutional reasoning (which other AFFs used). Because:
- The licensing/regulating schemes most AFFs had (e.g. apply for permit) also seem to violate the Constitution,
- Allowing bazookas and stuff would seem to meet the Constitution but violate its intent, and
- Laws in DC must also be repealed saying you can’t have a weapon within 1,000 feet of a swimming pool, library, school, etc etc, so AFF isn’t really restoring a Constitutional right.
- We did not argue “DC isn’t a state and didn’t sign the Constitution,” though some judge had ruled that – because we thought the argument was bogus, though defensible. See how we argued points we agreed with, against a case we also agreed with? That’s using critical thinking.
Puzzle: Aren’t you for the policy resolution?
I mean, deep down, don’t you agree that some part of our policy with China/agriculture policy / etc policy should be changed? Maybe not the particular AFF case, but some policy could be improved, right? Yet how can you ethically be NEG? Answer: Because you’re negating affirmations of the topic, not the topic itself. See how we separate the big problem into its parts? That’s critical thinking.
Choose Your Battles
You don’t have to argue absolutely everything against a case. The better you get, the less you’ll disagree with, recognizing that shared assumptions between yourself, the audience, and the opposition builds credibility for that slight bit to which you’ll disagree.
- Application: “Like in the ‘USFG should guarantee a right to housing’ LD resolution, how do I ethically argue that we should guarantee that right if I don’t believe that the USFG should guarantee that right?” (the debater-submitted question that sparked this whole post). Let’s observe all the areas where critical thinking may be applied:
- Right to Housing” – Define this differently than you might expect, in a way you could ethically argue for it. For example, you could argue that your house is your property; today, the govt can take your property if you don’t pay minuscule property taxes; so whose property is it? Hmmm. We say govt’s should never be able to confiscate a house you purchased just bc you didn’t pay taxes on it – you have a right to housing.
- “Right” – There are positive rights and negative rights. Choose to advocate for a negative right rather than a positive one. In a positive right, GOVT must provide the right. In a negative right, GOVT must protect the right. Conservatives are generally for negative rights (like in the Bill of Rights) and against positive ones (like in the UNDHR). The rez doesn’t specify that the right of housing is positive in nature, despite implying it. So argue for a negative approach.
- “Guarantee” and other words/phrases can be isolated, as in the above examples.
- Here’s another idea: Looking up the UNDHR principle on the matter, which I looked up after writing the above 3 points, I found that it’s called the “right to housing” but really just means an adequate standard of living. If circumstances beyond your control impacted you, then the GOVT services available should be available to you – welfare, food stamps, federal housing – is perhaps something you could advocate for. It doesn’t mean “a house.”
- Application: Parli topic literally says “this house is for abortion” – You can still always choose your battles, even in this outlandish scenario (which I’ve never seen in 15 years of debate across 11 leagues). If I were GOV in a parli round on this topic I’d choose to debate topicality the whole round. Kind of like when people run those tiny whiny, small-minded cases that are popular right now. How can you be frustrated that all NEGs do is challenge your evidence and plan? You chose a narrow case with no DAs! Same here. I’d interpret the motion as follows:
- .Abortion means more than a medical procedure – it means to stop doing something you’re doing. Example: “abort mission! Abort! Abort!”
- We choose military mission in Syria. Let’s just pack our backs and go home. As GOV, we choose to abort the mission.
- Reasons for it…
- Note: MG should spend their time prepping 7 reasons/standards to interpret the motion this way, including, ironically, the nature of the problem. If I were MG, I might prep:
- Reduce Emotional Charge – We should attempt to keep debate rational and remove the emotional territory. Interpreting the motion as baby abortion would make this round almost non-debateable.
- Avoid Preconceptions – Probably every judge in the world has a preconception about the issue of baby abortion. They may even feel their own conscience is at risk by how they vote; at that point, this area of the topic isn’t a real academic debate.
- Avoid Sophistry – We shouldn’t have to interpret a motion in such a way that it violates our conscience when other interpretations are available.
- Major Issue – We chose to interpret this motion to apply to a major issue of international concern that our opponents likely know enough about to debate it: Syria. That’s not unfair at all.
Therefore, I posit that you never have to violate your conscience in a debate round.
Objection 1: Debate is just training
Some say that debate trains us so that when we enter “the real world”, we can advocate for the things we believe in. In that spirit, it doesn’t matter what we’re arguing for as long as we’re learning how to argue well.
Let’s explore this. This mindset obviously thinks that words have power if those who believe in it think we should spend this much time learning how to use them in the right way. So if words TRULY have power, then what are you doing when you advocate for ideas you don’t think are true?
You’re learning how to become an expert liar.
Think about it. If you do your job “the right way” and truly advocate for something you don’t believe in like abortion, you’ve lied to your audience. We often forget that our judges are real people and that our words are meant to change the opinions of real people. Your words could have the power to alter someone’s worldview for better or for worse. Your words can change lives. Don’t treat that power like it’s nothing.
If we train our students to just argue for anything regardless of the content of the argument, we’re teaching them how to “hawk bad wares” as Plato put it. If you think there’s no way this mindset has real-life ramifications, just take a look at how this sophistry has infested the worlds of politics, preaching, and punditry.
We shouldn’t allow it to fester in our own souls or the souls of those we teach. Let’s raise our students to be more than just world-changers. Let’s raise them to be lovers of truth.
Objection 2: Debating what you don’t believe in fosters understanding
This objection is usually raised by people who think that arguing for something you don’t believe in allows you to understand the opposition side better and leads towards more empathetic communication in the future.
Yet, these same skills can be fostered in debating for what you believe in! If you’re a debater who doesn’t prepare for opposition, then you’ll fail against any well-mounted offense. In fact, the best debaters can acknowledge the reasonability of their opponent’s position, understand what makes the opposition arguments persuasive, and know where the holes are.
You learn these same skills through preparing refutation without the major disadvantage of learning how to become an expert liar.
Objection 3: But is it actually ethical?
This was my objection after reading this post. Here’s the ensuing conversation between Isaiah and I on our Ethos slack:
K now here’s my question, it seems to me that interpreting resolutions in such out-of-the-box ways is trying to avoid the real issues this resolution is trying to bring to light in order to talk about what you want to talk about.
Kind of like that college parli team you’ve spoken about before that prepped some random tiny civilization from Burma to THE END OF THE EARTH and made every resolution about that civilization.
Obviously, the intent is different, but isn’t it the same outcome? Shifting the debate from what the resolution asks to what you want to talk about.
Squeezing a hidden agenda into the topic no matter what is also probably not a healthy mentality of communication.
Out-of-the-box interpretations are highly risky. No doubt about it. I’m not advocating that your standard strategy be this: you will lose rounds. But when your judgment tells you it is the only way to achieve argument without compromising your ethics, it’s definitely the strategy to use when you draw the short straw. Guaranteed victory? No. Guaranteed ethics? Yes.
So my real position is not that “you’ll win the most by not compromising your ethics.” Actually, that’s not true. Pandering to your audience is likely the easiest path to victory. We’ve already discarded that. My position is that *it is still possible to succeed in debate without compromising your ethics.
Does that satisfy your question?
Would you say that doing so is only necessary when you really feel like the topic is not something you can truthfully argue for AT ALL?(abortion, Muslim ban, legalize Cocaine, etc)
For example, I straight up argued the right to housing in the NSDA resolution and agreed all my points were true. I didn’t really agree housing was a right, but I did agree that many of the policies that would guarantee a right to housing were empirically proven
And were better policies than the Status Quo for the most part. But I disagreed with the concept of a right to housing completely
Yes, that’s when it’s necessary. If you want to choose the battle of topicality/theory objections, to begin with, you may for other reasons (it favors you and your partner, your audience is mostly debate super-nerds, you likely would never beat these particular opponents on a straightforward interpretation), but you choose this knowing that it’s a high risk/high reward strategy. If you crash and burn, it’ll be gnarly… 17 speaker points or less, mad judge, and that team talking bad about your dumb strategy. If you succeed, you’ll still have them bad-talking you, will have won in a frustrating round where your opponents are arguing interpretation and are indignant all round, and so on. Each strategic decision is merely a choice between alternatives. And this reasoning is why I personally always choose AFFs with many disadvantages against them, like unilateral free trade, open borders, and so on – I am not afraid of defending my position on its merits so I don’t need to shift into theory debates with a small-minded case. Yet, I might in a specific circumstance
And what you did is absolutely ok! You argued that BY A STANDARD OF EMPIRICS the rez is true, which is something that you agree with. That standard of empirics is the absolute best way to judge the resolution is not something you agree with, but you argued that it’s a defensible way to look at the resolution and consider it positively. True.
So you broke the rez into parts, found a part that was true, and argued for that. That’s critical thinking.
But there’s one last issue to consider: should you use emotional argumentation? Yes. Learning to communicate means not demanding an audience come to your level, but rather, walking the path alongside them. You must find a starting point and work from there.
An emotional connection, illustration, story, example, does what Aristotle calls “putting the audience in the right frame of mind” (his definition of Pathos, which is not “passion” as so many inaccurately represent in the famous ethos, logos, pathos three modes of artistic proof).
Is that a dangerous weapon? Of course! And that’s where the discipline to avoid sophistry comes into play. It’s an active choice: to use the means of rhetoric for only moving audiences towards good, and never towards evil. Because the means of persuasion are the same, whether you’re leading in a direction good for the audience or hawking wares that benefit you alone. We must choose to use our skill for good, and stand firmly against dipping into the dark side of rhetoric.
I hope this post showed you that that’s a choice you can always make, without forfeiting a debate round. If you’d like to throw more examples out there, I’d love to help you process them and find this angle! It’s kind of the point of debate: critical thinking.
If you understood this post, you’ll likely better understand my stance that we should encourage debaters to argue about the most important things in life, not abstract that stuff out. Why WOULDN’T we argue about what we believe?
Let’s truly hone our craft with a purpose. Debate as life-training and rhetoric rather than pure fluff and form.
This is excellent and covers a pertinent question!! Well written!!
Thank you, Drew and Isaiah!!
I appreciate and love this post SOOO much. So many debaters are taught to full on disagree with everything, and that’s not critical thinking.
Thanks so much, guys! This was extremely helpful.