What must an affirmative team do to win a policy debate round?
The affirmative should win if they convince the judge that the audience and the debaters are better off if the judge votes affirmative. Conversely, the negative should win if they convince the judge that the audience and the debaters are better off if the judge votes negative.
Before explaining this answer, let’s step back. What kinds of considerations should inform our choice of burdens?
How do we reason about debate theory?
Debate is the only sport that we define the rules of as we play. Soccer dictates that if you score more goals than the other team, you win. Debate isn’t like that. In debate, the teams themselves may argue that the judge should vote on particular issues–proverbially moving the goalposts as the game is played.
But debate is still a sport! So many debaters (and coaches!) are caught in the trap of “aff/neg must do X because logic requires it.” In sports, logic doesn’t require anything! Why is an NBA-regulation basketball hoop 10 feet off the ground? That’s just the way we’ve always done it! Logic doesn’t require or demand it be 10 feet and not 9.5 feet.
This doesn’t mean sports’ rules are arbitrary. There are all sorts of values at play: fairness, fun, audience engagement, and so on. Did you know figure skaters are prohibited from doing backflips? Not because backflips aren’t awesome, but because doing backflips with blades attached to your feet is dangerous.
In summary: we get to decide the height of the basketball goal in each debate round. And, just like there is no pre-existing golden book of figure skating rules, the choice of what burdens we should apply to the teams is a policy choice, not a question of fact.
I hope you see how profound this is. There is no one true debate theory, waiting to be found. Rather, we should choose rules that benefit the audience and the debaters, just like we choose rules that benefit the figure skating audience while trying to minimize the danger to the skaters.
Let’s get more detailed
The most common answer to the question “what is the job of the affirmative?” is probably going to be “to prove the resolution true.” I’ll refer to this as “rezcentrism.”
I reject this for many reasons, but I’ll talk about two here.
First, no one actually plays by this rule.
Take kritiks as an example. If a neg uses racist or sexist terminology, I’d like to think that most of us would vote aff even if the aff fails to prove the resolution true. We would vote aff to penalize the neg for their use of the racist or sexist terminology. (Ask your coach about kritikal affs for another example of this disregard for the resolution.)
Similarly, no one actually believes that the resolution is false. No one thinks that the EU’s immigration policy is perfect, or that there aren’t some instances of military commitments somewhere that should be cut. Let’s align our debate theory with the truth that the debate is about the affirmative’s specific plan.
Second, topical counterplans benefit everyone.
If the job of the affirmative is to prove the resolution true, then it would seem that the negative could not win by bringing a topical counterplan.
But real policymaking and decisionmaking involves the comparison of alternatives. If you’re in sales, proving that “you should buy something” may be easy. The trick is convincing the person that they should buy your specific product. If you’re a legislator trying to get your bill passed, you don’t want your colleagues scrapping your bill and watering it down with some alternative plan.
In this light, the judge does a disservice to both teams if she votes aff when neg offers a clearly-superior-but-topical counterplan. It deprives both teams (and the audience!) of that real-world, plan-versus-plan debate.
The NBA adopted the shot clock in 1954, which requires teams to shoot the ball within 24 seconds of taking possession, or else give the ball to the other team. Why? Because once a team got the lead, they could just stand on the court, holding the ball, with no way for the other team to force them to give it up. Basketball was boring.
Topical counterplans are a kind of shot clock. They make debates more interesting and place a more rigorous standard on the affirmative. And those are perfectly acceptable reasons to adopt a particular kind of debate theory. (To be clear, there are rezcentrist theories under which topical counterplans are allowed–parametrics, for example–but I don’t discuss them here out of a concern that this is already too long.)
Note my method of reasoning here. I’m not creating a self-sustaining theory which happens to create better debates. I’m beginning with the principle that any debate theory must encourage better debates. If it doesn’t, we should reject it.
As a quick reminder, I’m arguing that the judge should vote according to what leaves the audience and the debaters better off. Let’s take three scenarios to see how this plays out.
- Status: Aff loses all advantages and neg wins a disadvantage, with no other arguments on the table.
- Decision: neg wins, because debate is worse off if the judge irrationally chooses the option that has no advantages and only disadvantages.
- Status: Judge believes that aff has a 20% chance of solving substantial harms, neg has no other arguments.
- Decision: aff wins, because debate is debate is worse off if the judge irrationally chooses the option that has no disadvantages and the possibility of some substantial benefit.
- Status: Aff wins that their plan will save $200. Neg wins a competitive topical counterplan which saves 200 lives and argues that 200 humans > $200.
- Decision: neg wins: we do debaters a disservice if we allow them to advocate plans which are incompatible with better plans. In most “real” contexts, the same debate would result in the dismissal or amendment of the aff plan.
When we use phrases like “the aff plan is topical”, “the affirmative must do X” we obscure the truth of the matter: there is no “is” or “must,” only what should or ought be.
I think we should prioritize the quality of the debate round over appeals to logical consistency. And because of that, I am a plancentrist rather than a rezcentrist.
There’s some beauty to this paradigm. It recognizes debate for what it is: a game we get to play to sharpen our skills and educate ourselves about the important things of the world. Let’s choose the rules accordingly.
This post was drafted in response to Danielle Miller’s podcast dialogue on affirmative burdens.
I find the author’s preferred debate lens vague and poorly-thought-out. What does it mean for the audience and debaters to be “better off”? Why is this metric limited to the audience and debaters—why not the judge or the world at large? And why the sudden alteration in the examples to focusing on whether >debate< is better off—what happened to the audience and the debaters? Why the shifting between "better plan!" and "more interesting!"?
Severin asserts that debate should be viewed similarly to basketball, figure skating, etc. He then uses this unsupported assertion as the sole basis for later assertions.
Severin furthermore concludes, "I think we should prioritize the quality of the debate round over appeals to logical consistency." This is similar to saying: "I think we should prioritize getting pipes funneling gas to getting gas." Shouldn't the judge consider logical consistency a key tenet of the quality of the round? There's a reason why speaker points are judged separately—a tabula rosa ("clean slate") judge should consider the actual arguments presented—prettiness of their presentation be d—. If Severin believes that logical consistency does not naturally contribute to the quality of a round, I highly doubt that his preferred debate theory, fully-explained, will be appealing to many.
TL;DR: I find the quality of this article poor because I find it logically weak.
Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comment. You’ve taken time to think about the article, and that’s primarily why I wrote it–most debaters (and coaches!) never think about what they value when they’re thinking about debate theory.
One clarification that may help is that I’m not arguing that “logical consistency does not naturally contribute to the quality of a round.” Instead, I argue that logical consistency should not be our *only value.* I think we should value the thing we want: education–not a means to that end (which fits neatly in with your example of valuing gasoline vs. the pipes that it’s carried in: maybe sometimes we need a gas can instead of a pipe?).
I also don’t mean to say that I think plancentrism *isn’t* logically consistent. I think it is. But I also think rezcentrism is logically consistent. I prefer plancentrism because it creates more benefits *in addition to* being logically consistent.
You ask a few questions about the standard of making the debaters and the audience better off–hopefully I can shed some light there.
The most interesting question is “what does it mean to be better off?” And this question is why the examples that I use are so varied: because there are all sorts of considerations about whether debate is better off! Student engagement is important because it means there are an oddly high number of high school students reading *truly obscure* academic research. Good plans are important because it prevents debaters from forming misconceptions about the world. The cool thing about this pragmatic/plancentrist lens is that we get to consider those things–rezcentrism rarely argues on this level!
You also ask why we shouldn’t include the judge and the world in this lens. My response is that I do! First, the judge is part of the audience, so she’s included. Second, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the hearers of the debate round are better off, but the world at large is not. If everyone who hears the round is better off, then the world is also better off.
If you’re interested in a more rigorous treatment of the topic, I’d refer you to my colleague Harrison’s work in pragmatism as a lens for debate theory. https://www.ethosdebate.com/purposes-of-debate-pt-2-the-problems-with-popular-alternative-paradigms-e-g-resolutionism/
On a personal note: the is-ought distinction I make in the conclusion dates back to the first debate camp lecture I gave over a decade ago in 2011. This lens has helped me tremendously in my career in law and policy–in my experience, it reflects how the world at large works. So I’m passionate about helping people understand it. If you have further comments or questions I’m happy to engage here or directly via the Ethos contact email. Thanks again for reading!
Thank you for the reply! You cleared up my confusion well around several points.
One further clarification: when you say “better off,” you mean “better off if the plan were passed in the real world”—correct?
Good question! To answer it I need to use the terms “pre-fiat and “post-fiat.” (Apologies if this is old hat, I’m trying to make this comment accessible to as many people as possible).
The post-fiat world is the hypothetical world where the judge is Congress and the President and has actually single-handedly and magically implemented the aff plan. Post-fiat arguments are stuff like DAs, solvency, and significance.
The pre-fiat world is the world we actually live in, where the judge is just listening to four high schoolers talk back and forth. Pre-fiat arguments are things like topicality, kritiks, and procedurals.
The post-fiat world is fake. It’s make-believe. The judge isn’t actually Congress, of course!
Because that world isn’t real, we should only care about things that happen in the post-fiat world **if they affect things in the pre-fiat world.**
And post-fiat arguments can affect the real, pre-fiat world. If the judge votes aff when the aff has no advantages over the status quo, the pre-fiat world is worse off. The debaters are implicitly told that their attempts to logically persuade are pointless. That’s a bad message to send, so the judge should vote neg.
But sometimes this kind of pre-fiat harm can be justified to avoid a bigger pre-fiat harm. Maybe the neg used a racist term, and so even though the neg won all the DAs and solvency arguments, voting for the neg would send the wrong message. That’d be an example of a judge voting on a kritik.
With that established, I can finally answer your question! The short answer is no, I actually don’t mean the world with the plan. When I say “the aff should win when voting aff leaves the world better off,” I mean the real pre-fiat world that we live in.
Hopefully that makes sense–if not, happy to take followups!
This article is beautiful.
I highly agree with the fact that no one follows the “prove the resolution true” concept, not only for the reasons you’ve provided, but also because if the goal in team policy debate is just to prove the resolution false — what stops me from brining up a random DA to prove that EU immigration policy or US military commitments shouldn’t be reformed? To date, I haven’t seen a great response to this argument. I’ve run several counter plans this season in NCFCA and this is the argument that always wins me the right to run TCPs in the eyes of a judge.
On the note of TCPs, I agree with your analysis that topical counterplans benefit education and argumentation in the round as well as better following the real world. There were a couple of cases this season where affirmative’s wouldn’t run the full version of the policy because it allowed them to avoid key solvency and DA arguments. The watered down policy didn’t have as large of an advantage, but it also has basically zero DAs and no huge solvency holes. Being able to run a TCP on a case like that would prevent AFFs from weakening their cases in such manners.
Thanks for writing this, looking forward to seeing more of your posts!
>Every policy resolution (that I’ve seen/heard of) has what’s known as specific scope/burden, rather than either general or absolute scope. Whereas absolute scope requires that some statement be true for 100% of its examples/cases and general scope requires that it is true in >50% of its cases, specific scope only requires 1 case where the statement is locally true for the statement as a whole to be true. (In logic terms, specific scope is like a string of “or” statements whereas absolute scope is a string of “and” statements.) Consider for example a resolution like “we should cook something for dinner.” You obviously aren’t saying “>50% of the things we could cook are things we should cook and eat.” (For more on this, see this post: https://www.ethosdebate.com/burden-proof-really-means/)
Thus, it doesn’t matter if you as the negative can show an example of where reforming X policy would be a bad reform (e.g., “let’s reform the transportation policy by… making it illegal to drive on roads except in reverse”), nor two examples, nor ten or even a thousand examples of bad reform—if the affirmative can just point out one substantial reformation of X policy that would be good, they will have met the burden of proof called for by traditional theory norms (and/or logic derived mostly from the rules, depending on your league).
> I no longer dispute that there are some *rare* situations in which current government policy is so obviously bad that the negatives are at such an unfair disadvantage going against a case that allowing TCPs may be justified even if the affirmative were to persuade me that TCPs are illogical under the league’s rules (for some of my early thinking which later shifted my stance on this, see my article here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/10124-2/ ; for more explicit advocacy along these lines, see my recent series on Pragmatism, especially https://www.ethosdebate.com/purposes-of-debate-pt-2-the-problems-with-popular-alternative-paradigms-e-g-resolutionism/). *However*, that preface aside, I will say that I don’t really see much issue with what you *specifically* described in the quote above. In fact, taking the described situation at face value, it looks like you’re arguing that the affirmative is being unfair for running a smarter, leaner version of the policy. If the affirmative has not watered it down to the point of trivial benefits, I’d say kudos to the affirmative team for thinking critically. *BUT*, there are two things to really emphasize here:
1) You might be implicitly gesturing at a (topicality) concern regarding insignificance, in which case you should come right out and argue that. If I remember correctly, I think I’ve written some insignificance-topicality presses in some past sourcebook briefs for Ethos (or maybe in an article somewhere, but which I couldn’t find quickly)—but I know I briefly outline the argument in a part of this article: https://www.ethosdebate.com/facing-surprise-case/ (and the broader argument would draw on what I wrote about in my recent Pragmatism series);
2) You might be arguing that the watered down version is actually less net beneficial than the full/original version (despite having “basically zero DAs and no huge solvency holes”?). Although I can understand (and would listen to) an argument for using TCPs on the grounds that it is more real-world, you still would have to convince me that the counterplan is better (which might be hard to do if the team that has probably been researching the case for longer than you decided that running the full version wasn’t a good idea). Additionally, you still would have to overcome the “TCPs illogical” hurdle in some leagues. To be frank, if I were judging in Stoa and the affirmative did a good job of arguing why TCPs are illogical, you as the negative would probably have to do a really good job of persuading me to accept TCPs despite their being illogical per the rules (although I do always listen to the counterarguments and responses on that point).
> Did you by chance misspell “strengthening”? 😉