I don’t like definition debates. Never have. That’s why I find it such a shame how often high-school debate devolves from a sophisticated discussion about real-world, high-stakes issues into an esoteric shouting match about what words mean.

If you’ve competed in LD before, you likely know what I’m talking about. In a hefty percentage of LD rounds, both sides spend the entire debate effectively in their own bubbles, without ever agreeing on what the terms in the resolution actually™ mean.

Take NCFCA’s 2022 LD resolution, for instance: “In the context of innovation, the proactionary principle ought to be valued above the precautionary principle.” This is a fantastic topic area with intriguing arguments to be made for both sides. If everyone could agree about what precisely the topic meant, it would be a top-notch resolution.

But ay, there’s the rub.

The Problem

The proactionary principle is defined here by its originator’s own institute, so it should be a simple matter to determine what it prescribes. Unfortunately, its founder seems to enjoy typing as a recreational activity, because the article is well over 2000 words long and defines the principle in at least thirteen different ways.

The precautionary principle is much worse. It can be credibly defined as the banal notions of “looking before you leap” (also see here) or “better safe than sorry,” the mundane truism of weighing costs and benefits, the autocrat’s fantasy of regulating virtually all innovation (also see here and here and here), a paralyzing philosophy leading to total inactivity, or anywhere in between. If all of these definitions were true, the precautionary principle would have mandated, advised, suggested, and rejected the regulation of drugs such as Thalidomide—all at the same time.

In the real world, this is just fine! These are complex ideas—as are most things worth debating about—and it is difficult to pin down a complex idea with a single definition. (So difficult that even leading academics who think about things like this for a living cannot do so promptly.)

But we expect high-school debaters to do it in less than 45 minutes! In an LD debate round, there is no chance to cover all of this in any intelligible, comprehensive, or complete way, meaning debaters will be inexorably drawn to picking one of the many, many potential definitions and planting their flag in its refuge.

Even this would be alright if debaters could simply agree on which definitions to use. But the incentive structure seems to ensure otherwise. Naturally, it is in the affirmative’s best interest to cast the negative side of the resolution in the most unpleasant light possible, and vice versa. Thus, the affirmative will define the precautionary principle in the most tyrannical way possible, and the negative will define it in the most mainstream, truistic way possible. The affirmative will exhibit the proactionary principle in an eminently reasonable light, while the negative will cherry-pick the least careful of the Extropy Institute’s words and bodge a foul-smelling definition essentially from scratch.

We are all familiar with these tendencies: they play out all the time in the real world, even on this very issue (sound familiar?), and we take them for granted in most instances. But as the potential scope of definitions expands, the common ground between the cherry-picked definitions contracts. Thus, under this resolution, the affirmative will be denouncing tyranny, and the negative will counter by encouraging the judge to “look before they leap.” The two ships will pass in the night, and the war will be decided by onlookers guessing which of them looked more impressive. (Of course, they will be doing so in the dark—more on that in a moment.)

The judge, then, is subjected to a discussion—not about real-world values or principles—but instead about what two abstruse concepts mean, and then forced to choose between two faulty definitions of each of them. Forgive me for saying that this disappoints the potential of LD.

(The Failure Of) Commonly-Cited Mitigating Factors

There are two potential mitigating factors that must be discussed. 

The first is that judges will perhaps ameliorate opportunistic and/or extreme definitions by rejecting those that have no basis in the real world. But how would they do that if they don’t know what the terms mean in the first place? Terms like “the proactionary principle” and “the precautionary principle” have no commonly-known definitions. So how could a layman judge possibly tell which of the debaters’ interpretations is more well-grounded? Inevitably, they will look to the credentials behind the definitions, a debate which more experienced and more eloquent debaters will almost invariably win.

The second potentially mitigating factor is that debaters might, of their own accord, gravitate toward reasonable and agreeable definitions. However, this fails for the same reason: the incentive structure rewards debaters who stand their ground. Additionally, this type of widespread compromise would only really be possible at exceptionally high levels… most competitors just pick definitions that play to their side of the resolution and stick with them throughout the year.

Even if these factors do have an impact, it is not enough. From my LD experience (especially watching rounds over the past two years) neither of these seems to be sufficient to correct the problems identified above. Something more is acutely wanting…

The Solution

There are many possible solutions. I will discuss several of them momentarily. But first, I will make my goal clear: I believe that debate should be less about what the resolution means, and more about whether or not it is true. Debate is not vocabulary class. It is not even grammar class. Interpreting arcane legal terms is the job of lawyers and judges, and high-school debate can be so much more than that.

Fundamentally, debate is thoughtful argumentation about the validity of a proposition. That is not possible unless people know what the proposition means in the first place. Starting on that premise, everyone—debaters, judges, and audience members—should have a reasonably precise concept of what a resolution asserts. It is only then that the substantial discussion can begin.

So, how could we make resolutions reasonably precise?

The bluntest reform is to simply not write imprecise resolutions. But this is easier said than done. Take the proactionary principle vs. precautionary principle debate, for instance. It is difficult to specify this proposition in a 15-word resolution, especially without using terms that have no commonly-accepted meaning. So do we just scrap all resolutions that cannot be specified in a 15-word resolution? Of course not! These debates are worth having—they just need to be specified.

Another solution, one that I have an affinity for, is to include a supplemental package alongside resolutions (particularly broad ones), which would define the uncommon terms in the resolution in a more precise way. Such a package could be released alongside the resolution options, meaning everyone would know what they were getting into at the voting stage. This reform would not spell the end of definition debates—debaters could still argue how to interpret the supplemental definitions and could focus on terms embedded within the same. It would, however, make the definition debate worth having, because judges would have an easily-understood standard by which to weigh definitional arguments.

[Please Note! This proposal is by no means a panacea for the problems discussed above, nor am I in any way sure that its cure would be painless. More nuance, thought-power, and careful implementation would be required (all of which I cannot supply). But it’s an interesting thought, and established here for your consideration.]

Concluding Remarks

Most essentially, this article enumerates my stance on a classic question: are definition debates worth it? My thesis asserts that they can be in select instances, but only when the judge is reasonably aware of what the terms in contention mean.

In this case, I believe the answer to the classic question is clear: convincing a judge what “the proactionary principle” and “the precautionary principle” actually™ mean is significantly less productive than debating whether those principles are useful when applied. Critically, debaters will struggle to unlock that second level of argumentation because the first is a cruelly difficult prerequisite.

If only the terms could be clarified…

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