Debaters traditionally classify resolutions into three different categories—fact, value, and policy. Often called “trichotomy,” this three-pronged division conventionally unfolds as follows:
- Fact resolutions are “descriptive,” assessing “(scientifically) testable aspects” of reality.
- Value resolutions are “evaluative,” assigning relative worth to something.
- Policy resolutions “call for change” and/or “suggest a course of action.”
If you’ve ever participated in parliamentary debate, you know this typology is PIVOTAL. Suppose you’re frantically scrawling notes in your parli prep time for this resolution: “States ought to engage in nuclear disarmament.” Do you start by researching a litany of examples? Determining a weighing mechanism? Defining the key terms?
Nope, you must categorize the resolution—establish whether it expresses a claim of fact, value, or policy. Why? Interpreting a resolution one way imposes radically different burdens from its alternatives. Say you frame the nuclear disarmament topic as a value resolution, so you supply some external ethical standard to gauge the resolution’s idea of “ought” or obligation and argue that eliminating nuclear arsenals satisfies that standard. If your opponents instead characterize the resolution as policy, they’ll argue that you failed your fundamental burden of articulating a net beneficial plan, automatically warranting a negative ballot. So yeah, trichotomy matters a lot.
Unfortunately, many explanations of trichotomy lack theoretical rigor, obfuscating the distinction between fact and value and thereby degrading parli rounds. This article aims to remedy that. 🙂 To do so, we’ll critique the classic distinction between fact and value, dabble in some formal logic, dispel two myths, and conclude with an alternative account of fact and value resolutions.
Wait, What’s Wrong with the Classic Distinction Between Fact and Value?
Let me be clear—the soundbite definitions of fact and value resolutions listed above aren’t inaccurate per se. After all, they effectively chart 90% of the debate landscape. The problem? They’re imprecise.
Take, for instance, the claim that fact resolutions stake claims about “testable aspects of reality.” Although this definitely makes sense for many fact topics, consider the counterexample of quantum mechanics (helpfully volunteered by my colleague Harrison Durland). A resolution about quantum mechanics (e.g., “Resolved: Electron X will exist simultaneously at position Y and velocity Z”) definitely isn’t policy, since there’s no course of action proposed, nor does it assign worth like a value resolution. By process of elimination, it qualifies as a fact resolution… but its testability is empirically and theoretically unfeasible. Additionally, here’s another counterexample, this time from metaphysics. “Resolved: Human free will exists” can’t be value or policy and yet remains untestable.
All right, but what if we modify the testability requirement to mean “things with a right or wrong answer?” Even if we can never determine the existence or nonexistence of free will, that question theoretically has an answer, right? As opposed to subjective preference, like whether pineapple pizza tastes good? Here’s the problem: The vast majority of people affirm some version of moral realism—the notion that moral claims like “murder is wrong” or “racism is wrong” transcend mere preferences or tastes (heck, some of you probably even experienced a visceral moral reaction to the pineapple pizza point). If you espouse this position, then moral judgments have right or wrong answers. And if there’s a right or wrong way to assign worth, then this definition doesn’t differentiate fact resolutions from value resolutions.
Let’s turn to Freely and Steinberg’s distinction from their seminal debate textbook. Fact resolutions are “descriptive claim[s]. In a debate on a proposition of fact, the affirmative maintains that a certain thing is true, while the negative maintains that it is false” (55). This isn’t sufficient to distinguish fact resolutions from value resolutions, since according to this framework, the quintessential value topic “Resolved: Preventive war is ethical” aligns with Freely and Steinberg’s definition of a fact resolution—it purports to describe reality, the affirmative maintains its truth, and the negative maintains its falsity.
Just to reemphasize, these definitions aren’t necessarily wrong—in fact, I’ll be refining and recapitulating elements of them in the conclusion. However, they’re insufficiently granular to capture the difference between fact and value. To get there, we first need to slog through some formal logic.
What Debate Resolutions Actually Are
The stereotypical logic class example of a proposition is “Socrates is mortal.” This statement takes a particular idea (Socrates) and situates it in a broader category (mortality). These concepts have technical names—Socrates is the subject; mortal is the predicate.
In fact, all propositions do the exact same thing: They evaluate the subject in light of the predicate; they determine whether the subject is a member of the predicate; they place the subject in the broader category of the predicate.
Debate resolutions do this too. To illustrate this, check out the following three resolutions:
- Fact: Human free will exists.
- Fact: Current carbon emission levels are causing climate change.
- Value: Preventive war is ethical.
Each of these expresses a subject in terms of a predicate category. Should we place human free will in the category of existence? Should we place current carbon emission levels in the category of things that are causing climate change? Should we place preventive war in the category of ethics?
If you prefer charts to ungainly chunks of text, here you go:
|Classic Categorization||Resolution||Subject||Predicate Category|
|Fact||Human free will exists.||Human free will||Existence|
|Fact||Current carbon emission levels are causing climate change.||Current carbon emission levels||Things that are causing climate change|
|Value||Preventive war is ethical.||Preventive war||Ethics|
So all debate resolutions express a subject (or subjects, if the resolution is comparative) in terms of a predicate category… how does this apply to the fact/value distinction? We’ll explore this through dispelling two myths.
Mythbusters: Fact/Value Edition
Myth 1: Fact and Value Cases Are Fundamentally Different
Wrong. The analysis above demonstrates that the fact/value schism should not impact the underlying mechanisms of your case structure. Why? Because you’re engaging in the same theoretical process regardless of whether you classify the resolution as fact or value—you’re evaluating whether the subject belongs in the predicate category. Therefore, the fundamental elements of your fact and value cases should be essentially the same:
- Weighing Mechanism: First, you must articulate and justify a weighing mechanism/standard/criterion for the predicate category. For a value resolution, this looks like your value, criterion, and reasons to prefer. For a fact resolution, this involves the same kind of argument—standards to define, measure, crystalize, quantify, and/or contextualize the predicate category. In the preventive war debate, you provide a weighing mechanism for your judge to understand ethics. In the human free will debate, you provide a weighing mechanism for your judge to understand the conditions for free will existing. The procedures are basically identical.
- Contentions: Second, you argue why the subject fulfills (if you’re affirmative) or fails (if you’re negative) the weighing mechanism. The conventional value debate term is “contention,” whereas the fact debate analog could be additionally labeled “justification” or even “point.” Regardless, this argument type performs the same function: tethering the subject to the weighing mechanism, thereby upholding or undermining the resolution.
To condense this information, have another chart.
|Fact||Value||Fact or Value?|
|Resolution||Human free will exists.||Preventive war is ethical.||Immigration is a human right.|
|Subject||Human free will||Preventive war||Immigration|
|Predicate Category||Existence||Ethics||Human rights|
|Weighing Mechanism (to measure predicate category)||Standard: Universal Experience|
Reason to Prefer: Topic Context
|Value: Human Life|
Reason to Prefer: Fundamental Moral Obligation
Reason to Prefer: Basis of Human Rights
Criterion: Freedom of Movement
Reason to Prefer: Essential to Autonomy
|Contention (connects subject to weighing mechanism)||Contention: Free will is a universal human experience.||Contention: Preventive war saves lives.||Contention: Immigration promotes freedom of movement.|
Point is, the fact/value distinction is irrelevant to the structural underpinnings of your case.
Myth 2: Fact Resolutions Require Preponderance of Evidence as a Weighing Mechanism
Debaters often use “preponderance of evidence” as the standard or weighing mechanism for fact resolutions. Stop doing this. Preponderance of evidence is a meta-standard which applies equally to both other categories of resolutions—you prove your plan is net beneficial by a preponderance of evidence in policy debate and your side better achieves your value/criterion in value debate. It doesn’t help define the predicate category in a meaningful way for fact debates—you need definitions and/or criteria for that. Saying “I stand resolved immigration is a human right and this is a fact debate so my weighing mechanism is preponderance of evidence” doesn’t advance your position whatsoever, because the function of the weighing mechanism is to explicate the category of human rights to evaluate whether immigration merits inclusion in the category.
Where Do We Go from Here?
If the fact/value distinction doesn’t fundamentally alter case structural dynamics, does this mean we should jettison the categories of fact and value resolutions altogether?
Absolutely not. The taxonomy is deeply ingrained in competitive debate conventions, serves an important pedagogical purpose for new debaters, and, most importantly, resonates with our intuitions. Here’s one system that aligns with our intuitions and avoids the critiques/counterexamples levied above (although there’s no doubt that y’all will nitpick this in the comment section):
Value resolutions situate the subject in a predicate category that makes a value judgment or assigns worth. This means the predicate category must directly invoke language of goodness, badness, morality, value, priority, importance, etc.
Fact resolutions situate the subject in a predicate category that does not make a value judgment or assign worth. In other words, the predicate category does not invoke language of goodness, badness, morality, value, priority, importance, etc. Examples include existential, causal, historical, predictive, and/or amoral descriptive categories:
- Existential: Concerning something’s existence (e.g. “Resolved: God exists”).
- Causal: Concerning a causal relationship between two things (e.g. “Resolved: COVID-19 increases risk of stroke”).
- Historical: Concerning a past event (e.g., “Resolved: Odysseus was a historical figure”).
- Predictive: Concerning a future event (e.g., “Resolved: Dogecoin will continue to appreciate”).
- Amoral Descriptive: Concerning any other predicate category which doesn’t assign worth (e.g., “Resolved: Hot dogs are sandwiches”).
Note from the inimitable Anthony Severin: “Policy claims imply fact and value claims but individual fact and value claims cannot imply policy claims. ‘We should go eat lunch’ implies the fact claim of ‘we are not eating lunch’ and the value claim of ‘eating lunch is better than other possible worlds.’ On the other hand, value claims alone, or fact claims alone, do not support policy claims.
Joel Erickson coaches Lincoln-Douglas debate for Ethos and British parliamentary debate at Wheaton College, where he studied philosophy. You can read more about him and the rest of the Ethos staff here!
Wow. That was fascinating! I would appreciate it if you could go into more detail on the line between policy and fact.
If you would consider, for example, “things the US government should do” as a predicate category, then policy resolutions would fit under your fact resolution definition.
The seminal debate textbook seems to have a similar problem. According to moral realism, a policy resolution like “you should not murder people” would fit under their fact resolution definition.
That said, do you think we even should nitpick this deeply? I think it’s perfectly possible that there are no perfect resolution definitions, and we just have to use our judgement for individual rounds using the categories as guidelines, and focus trichromatic arguments on the impact to the round. Please let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading and offering your insightful feedback, Danielle! These are great questions—if you don’t mind, could I address them in a sequel post? I was hoping to apply this framework to policy resolutions but the post got WAY too extensive…
Absolutely! I’m looking forward to it