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This post is part of a series:
See part 1 here
See part 2 here
See part 3 here

Throughout this series, I’ve been setting the stage for and summarizing Pragmatism as an expansive paradigm/weighing mechanism for a judge to make decisions in debate (among other things, such as creating rules). Thus far, I’ve occasionally touched on how one could use Pragmatism as a debater in a round, but I have not yet really focused on this issue. The problem is that using Pragmatism is not as easy or straightforward as one might expect: it comes with many potential pitfalls, especially when used excessively or erroneously. Thus, this article will focus on explaining how to use Pragmatism—including how not to use Pragmatism.

Using Pragmatism: the Basic Structure and Reasoning

As is the case with essentially every argument, there are three distinct parts to a formal argument for using Pragmatism:

  1. Introduction and explanation of the paradigm (“the claim”): this is where you clarify what it does and does not contend.
  2. The justification for using this paradigm as opposed to other paradigms (“the warrant”): this is typically where you emphasize the conflict or problem (e.g., a loophole in the rules) that you claim warrants departing from/going beyond the alternative paradigms like Rule-ism or tradition/norms.
  3. The impact and interpretation of the paradigm (“the impact”): this is where you debate the merits of preferring one side over the other in light of Pragmatism—in other words, how the judge should respond/proceed if they evaluate this round through a Pragmatism lens.

The logic of Pragmatism as an in-round argument is pretty straightforward, although it may run counter to people’s intuitions and traditions: it says that when a judge is deciding which definitional interpretation, debate theory application/interpretation, judging paradigm, or some other thing they should prefer/use in a round, they should choose whichever way produces the greatest net benefits (especially in terms of the goals/anti-goals of debate). As already discussed in previous articles, Pragmatism primarily acts as a scale at the “reason to prefer” or impact level, rather than at the link level (for example, it doesn’t evaluate “is this a common-man definition?”; rather, it asks “how much does it matter that this is/isn’t a common-man definition?”). 

Thus, Pragmatism especially stands out as a way to resolve disputes where both sides may be right about their claims at the linkage level, but the relative impact of those claims is unclear. For example, suppose the negative team in a policy round says “the affirmative didn’t present a plan in their 1AC, whereas prima facie and other basic norms in debate say that they must present their plan in the 1AC,” but the second affirmative speaker responds by saying “the rules don’t specify that we have to present a fully-fledged plan in the 1AC—the rules don’t say anything about prima facie/etc.; in the end, the rules only say that it’s about whether we uphold the resolution, which we argue the following plan does: Mandate 1….” Both sides are correct, but who should the judge side with? 

If neither team implicitly or explicitly links to a weighing mechanism/paradigm like Pragmatism, the judge has no choice but to just weigh things based on their own beliefs/opinions (“do unwritten rules/norms outweigh the written rules?”).

In contrast, Pragmatism injects a weighing mechanism into the round, allowing the negative to go deeper with their impact, saying: “In this situation, following the rules would validate/reward a strategy that produces less-educational debates and gives the affirmative an unfair advantage (meaning that debates are decided less by who is more skilled at debating as opposed to who is luckier at winning coin tosses).” 

The key here is that when you make this into a formal argument (like a weighing mechanism in value debate), no flow-purist judge worth their ink should be willing to intervene and throw this argument out—meaning that the other team must either 1) refute the validity of using Pragmatism (which typically requires offering an alternative paradigm) or 2) win the debate in terms of Pragmatism.

So, am I saying that you should regularly invoke Pragmatism as a formal/explicit weighing mechanism in rounds? No.

How Not to Use Pragmatism

Let me be very clear: I believe debaters/judges ought to think more in terms of Pragmatism as opposed to just “it’s tradition”—especially outside of actual debate rounds—but when in a round, I only recommend explicitly advancing Pragmatism under very limited/rare conditions. The reality is that invoking Pragmatism can cause a round to stray from the substantive topic and devolve into unfamiliar/ambiguous territory, resulting in confusion and/or plain defeat if the judge just decides to reject your arguments out of hand. Thus, I would lay out at least three guiding principles for someone thinking about using Pragmatism in a round:

  1. Don’t overcomplicate things: if you can make a persuasive argument without risking the complication/confusion of introducing Pragmatism, it’s probably best not to introduce Pragmatism. For example, suppose you are in a debate where the other side is arguing for a niche, squirrely definition of “economic stability” which comes from a random blog, whereas you have a definition from the IMF. In such a situation, you probably wouldn’t need to invoke Pragmatism to convince the judge of your definition: just show that yours is more credible. (If the other side seriously responds that “credibility doesn’t matter; as the affirmative, I/we get to define terms,” then you might have to bring out Pragmatism or at least find some other indirect way to explain why credibility matters, but in such cases judge bias will typically be your friend in that you don’t have to go into great detail to explain why that’s wrong.)
  2. Don’t just flippantly use Pragmatism to reject or inject principles as you see fit: You might have some Pragmatism argument (at least in name/structure if not in substance) for why some existing rule or norm should be ignored or why some new principle ought to be considered. However, it’s important to remember that many rules and norms have good reasons for existing (even if they aren’t always applied, explained, or defended well). Thus, I would not recommend just rejecting the existing principles or introducing your preferred principles left and right—especially if it just so happens to follow the pattern of whatever is convenient to you. (This relates back to the foundation vs. structure analogy I described in my previous article: your interpretation might be wrong.)
  3. Don’t ignore the power of tradition (in judging bias): you shouldn’t beat your head on a brick wall, nor should you rely on wishful thinking to guess how the judge will react. For example, if you think your judge is strongly biased in favor of absolutist Resolutionism to the extent they come into the round presuming spec arguments are illegitimate (see part 2 of this series), your options fit within a two-axis graph: first, you must decide how central/important you want to make your response (e.g., just drop the whole issue vs. make it the crux of your case); second, you must decide whether to take an explicit or implicit approach, as further explained in the next few sections. Ultimately, if you think it’s highly unlikely you can persuade the judge to see your point of view (and it is not truly critical to your side), you probably are best served by not beating your head against the brick wall that is judge bias. On the flipside, you may sometimes be able to use tradition/judge bias as a platform when your opponent does something really iconoclastic (like not providing a plan text until the 2AC), which relates back to the first point about not overcomplicating things.

Implicit/Indirect Appeals to Pragmatism

For many judges—especially those who hold and inject personal opinions on matters of debate theory—it’s probably best to avoid explicitly/formally/directly running Pragmatism as a weighing mechanism or reason to prefer. Instead, you can try to do it subtly or indirectly in a few different ways.

  • One approach is just what I will call “nameless Pragmatism Lite,”: don’t make a spiel about Pragmatism as a weighing mechanism but rather just say something like “my definition is just as logically valid as theirs (if not more so), but my second reason to prefer is that it also makes this round more educational/fair, because ….” I frequently used something like this for my significance-topicality press (where I argued that the judge should rule a case not topical based on terms like “significantly/substantially” if it produces less than $500M in annual benefits, based on educational and fairness reasons as well as the fact that the government spends more money during a team policy round than the plan saves in a year). As with any other approach, there is no guarantee the judge will care, but this can clearly help you if the other team backs down or otherwise drops that specific argument (so that you can say “they dropped it”). At the same time, there is a chance that it will give you just the edge you need to persuade the judge, all while avoiding the alien topic of Pragmatism.
  • Another major approach is what I’ll call the “Tradition/Norm Appeal,” which I’ve already briefly described: just appeal to widely held traditions/norms around theory (e.g., “topicality must be made in the 1NC”) that indirectly/implicitly relate to Pragmatist impacts and leave it at that unless the other side pushes back (e.g., “the rules don’t say that anywhere”). 

Being Direct/Getting Explicit

If the light-touch options fail, if you expect they’ll fail, or if you otherwise just want to jump straight to Pragmatism (perhaps because you won’t have a chance to respond and need to preempt dismissals like “the rules don’t say so”), there are a few things you can consider doing: 

  • Try to get your opponent to agree in CX or a point of information to the main basis of Pragmatism (loosely, that “the judge should vote in a way which produces the best outcome”). This probably will not come naturally if they already know where you are going. Thus, you may have to lead them through a series of questions that gradually shows that the reason we care about things like the rules is because doing so tends to produce better outcomes, not because we are trying to balance some unseen mystic/cosmic scales that have no impact on us. To this end, it might be really helpful to start out by asking “Whenever we are evaluating whether we should do one thing or another, we should use something all-encompassing like ‘net benefits’ as a weighing mechanism, correct?” (If they agree, bring that up later on by saying “the other side implicitly agreed that when you the judge decide how to evaluate the round, you should use net benefits to make your choice”).
  • When trying to show why Pragmatism is superior to other paradigms, you can make arguments such as “Pragmatism is all-inclusive: it says ‘you should act in whichever way produces the best outcome based on all relevant factors, which includes the importance of following rules and norms’; Rule-ism/Resolutionism is essentially just putting horse-blinders on you and saying ‘it doesn’t matter if the rules/norms are flawed, ignore everything else and follow them anyway.’” Admittedly, sometimes horse-blinders might be good even according to Pragmatism (especially in a time-limited competitive debate round), but as I’ve argued, there are some situations where we probably ought to take them off.
  • If a team is still insisting on Rule-ism/Resolutionism in response to a niche issue (e.g., topical future inherency), you can appeal to the existence of more-commonly-supported norms/traditions for other issues such as the need to present a case in the 1AC, saying “Why do we accept that norm even though it isn’t in the rules? It’s because we can agree that exploiting loopholes or ambiguities in the rules are not okay…” (You should especially try to set this up in CX, ideally before the other side catches on.) 
  • Advocacy, AKA “quote me on this” (or whoever else has made a similar argument): you can actually cut cards of what I’ve written in this series and present it as advocacy/evidence—especially in rounds where you think the judge would be persuaded by the statement “we have impartial, 3rd-party advocacy for this standard as well as logic, whereas the other side just has their own logic (regarding how important/decisive ‘the rules’ are).” (Do I have a nice list of quotable credentials? Aside from my years of writing and debating about debate theory, I don’t have much, but high school debate theory is so niche that sometimes you have to settle with the limited “expertise” you can find.)

Ultimately, these are just a few suggestions; it’s up to you to figure out what works best in your given situation.

Conclusion (to part 4)

At least as a matter of effective strategy, I don’t recommend frequently using Pragmatism (especially not in its explicit form): you have to decide based on situational factors like the judge’s philosophy, the importance of the issue in question, the availability of alternative responses, your familiarity with using Pragmatism in rounds, etc. Additionally, using Pragmatism is not a binary choice between “all-out explicit framing vs. not using it at all”: it is more akin to a spectrum, which includes the options to use it subtly or link to it indirectly. Ultimately, this article has laid out some of the factors to consider as well as the potential options for proceeding, which hopefully helps you decide.

Final Notes on this Series

At last, we have reached the end of this series… for now, at least. I may revisit this if someone challenges Pragmatism and I need to give a clearer or more-specific defense of it, but I have tried weaving my general justification of this throughout the series. Ultimately, if you have any questions, disagreements, refinements, etc. definitely feel free to comment!

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