In mid-2017, I wrote an article describing what the stock issues are and why they are useful. I still recommend that article for a basic introduction into the stock issues, but since then, I have updated my views on the framework. This article presents a newer and deeper version of the stock issues—or at least, an alternative to traditional stock issues theory. Here, I will show the differences between the two approaches, provide a diagram for the framework, introduce a “new” stock issue, and demonstrate how the same reasoning for advantages can also apply to disadvantages.
Before I get too far into this: I won’t claim that I am the definitive authority on this topic. However, having spent a lot of time mulling over this, I would argue this interpretation is better (i.e. more logical and helpful) than those that include disadvantages as part of solvency or significance and those that don’t combine significance and harms. As always, if you want to provide input, feel free to leave a comment!
Problems With the Old Theory
There are multiple interpretations of the stock issues. The one I presented in my old article treats the stock issues as all the necessary criteria for a decision to be good (e.g. “it has to solve,” “it has to be the best option”). Although this can potentially be helpful as a simplified introduction, it’s somewhat awkward or even inconsistent: aside from the fact that alternatives/counterplans are just disadvantages (specifically, opportunity cost disadvantages), it seems unbalanced to consider “it must be net beneficial” (disadvantages) a single stock issue if you also have multiple stock issues just for advantages. If nothing else, I found that a different approach has more explanatory power (i.e. usefulness) and consistency, especially when it comes to disadvantages.
The New Approach
My current approach still uses a lot of the same stock issue definitions that I used in my old article, but the core focus is slightly shifted: instead of broadly describing the criteria for a “good plan,” this approach describes the necessary, logical components of a plan’s advantage or disadvantage. In other words, it breaks down the analysis of “pros” and “cons” into smaller, more-manageable pieces. For example, the general line of reasoning for advantages is as follows:
- There is a situation… (Inherency)
- Which is bad… (Significance)
- But a course of action could/would be taken… (Feasibility/Implementation)
- Which would fix the situation. (Solvency)
This is all represented by the matrix/diagram below:
Each box should be read as “[row] of the [column].” For example, gap would be read as “Nature of the current situation.” This being said, it’s important to note the distinction between nature and effect: nature generally focuses on the factual/existential description of something, with no evaluation of good/bad; effect considers both factual effects (e.g. solvency) and/or whether a supposed thing is good/bad (e.g. significance). For example, in debates about aid policy, an inherency point may be “X aid program won’t get funded,” while a significance point could be “people will die if X aid program does not get funded.” Sometimes the technical distinction between the two can get blurry, but after some experience, it’s generally clear enough for practical use. Also, “inherency” usually does not focus on why the situation is the way it is, unlike some traditional approaches; that is generally a matter for solvency (if anything). Regarding topicality, I explain in my previous article why I do not focus on it here, but it would be located in the top right cell (at least, for the majority of policy resolutions). Lastly, with people who are new to the stock issues, I prefer to use the term “gap” instead of “inherency,” mostly because “inherency” can be unfamiliar and intimidating.
The addition of feasibility/implementation
A theory nerd’s initial reaction to this may be “So… Fiat?” Indeed, this issue does partially relate to fiat power (i.e. “could this actually get passed?”)—which is mainly just a problem outside of policy debate. However, feasibility also involves questions of vagueness/details, actors, capabilities, resources/funding, etc. As mentioned in the diagram, the issue broadly asks, “what of the plan can/will actually be implemented?”
A specific application of this could be for a plan to conduct counter-terror airstrikes in a certain region: if the Affirmative’s plan tasks more planes/drones than we have available, or requests that they operate in an area where we do not yet have a sufficient airbase, the strikes just won’t happen (or at least not in the way that the Affirmative specified). The question of whether the airstrikes would be effective—assuming the plan was feasible/implemented—is a separate issue (specifically, it is solvency). Although this normally is lumped with solvency, it seems logical or useful to differentiate the two by defining feasibility/implementation as “what actions can/will be taken?” and solvency as “what will be the effects of those actions?”
Application to disadvantages
Another major benefit of this approach to the stock issues is that the reasoning/diagram can also be applied to disadvantages (with some minor alterations):
This testifies to the consistency of the framework and it also provides some more order to disadvantage theory; for example, “brink” would fall under link/disruption in the diagram.
I don’t have space to go into full detail on some of the aspects of this framework. Additionally, there are still some definitions that need to be ironed out in the future, and the terms used in the diagram (e.g. row and column headers, names of stock issues) could change. Furthermore, I recognize it may be less disruptive to simply advance this new framework as distinct from (but closely related to) traditional stock issues (especially since the new framework’s focus is no longer about criteria for a good plan). Nonetheless, I consider that this approach provides a more-fundamental understanding for why the stock issues matter, has more-consistent definitions, and is more useful. At the same time, I am totally open to other people’s perspectives; feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts in the comment section!
This angle is very interesting. I don’t think, properly-considered, this lens is different from the stock issues—it rather looks at solvency in more detail and folds in other theory under this umbrella. And really, this look has helped clarify my thoughts on how these different elements fit in.
Vagueness, actor(s), et cetera have all always been understood by good debaters to be worthy of argumentation. They are the “reasonable plan” arguments, so to speak. The term “prima facie”—literally, “on the first look”—is usually used to group these arguments together (as I am sure you are aware). Fiat power removes some burden from the affirmative, but it also places greater emphasis on prima facie argumentation. For example, on the airstrike question, if existing airbases were insufficient for carrying out the intended airstrike, I would consider this a prima facie problem as a negative debator. I would argue that the affirmative needs to explain how the necessary airbase(s) would be established. Would we be invading a neighboring country to build one? I cannot reasonably debate the affirmative plan with such vagueness.
If the affirmative mandates something seemingly truly impossible—such as genetically creating a flying unicorn—prima facie arguments would still apply. Affirmative simply must give something tangible. Say, allocating money to genetic scientists to research creating flying unicorns and to attempt to create flying unicorns. If the affirmative plan is tangible, we can move on to regular solvency arguments (“Judge, these scientists will fail, slurping up a ton of taxpayer money in the process”).
In brief, I believe you aren’t identifying and fixing a problem in old theory—you are clarifying it.
Thank you for this revisitation!
Thanks for the commentary!
I’ll admit up front that it’s hard to definitively distinguish my theory of stock issues from “the stock issues” if only because there is no single (normal/alternative) version: different people may have slightly different interpretations. That being said, to your first point, I think that there are three major characteristics that tend to be different from most other interpretations I’ve encountered (especially all three in one theory):
1. This interpretation recognizes topicality as a wholly distinct beast from the rest of the chain of reasoning, and which only exists as a meaningfully distinct concept in policy debate because of the rules of the format. (Otherwise, a topicality objection is just a solvency, disadvantage, inherency, etc. objection in disguise)
2. This interpretation sets the individual advantages and disadvantages as the unit of analysis, rather than the overall plan. Quite often I’d hear debaters talk about an overall plan’s solvency or inherency—and sometimes that’s okay as a shorthand since the implication is clear, but it’s important to understand that it’s all about individual advantages and disadvantages.
3. I’ve heard people sometimes lump feasibility arguments under solvency when pressed on it, but I’d never before heard someone formally divide that molecule of solvency into its logical elements of “We will take actions X” and “Actions X will cause benefits Y.”
There are a few other distinctions that could be made, but these are the main three that just came to mind.
As to your points about vagueness, actors, etc., I understand the motivation to lump arguments like that into a general category, and I won’t try to argue over whether that is pragmatically justified: perhaps it is a useful shorthand for thinking. However, my theory of the stock issues is meant to express why those points matter on a more fundamental level: for example, so what if a plan is vague? What does that mean for pragmatic, decisionmaking purposes? Generally, it means we can’t be confident about the potential *advantages and disadvantages* because we don’t know what the *implementation* will look like. (Again, note the distinction between plan-level vs. advantage/disadvantage-level analysis.) As a result, the argument goes, we should not take action without clarifying those things.
So, each of the prima facie arguments you have in mind can ultimately be expressed in terms of disadvantages, topicality, and/or one or more of the four stock issues in my theory. If your list of prima facie arguments only includes implementation arguments, then it could just be a subset of that stock issue. If they are not limited to that one stock issue, that’s also fine: like I said, it might be helpful to mentally tag a bunch of similar arguments with the label “prima facie,” but each valid argument is ultimately in the form of an appeal to advantages/disadvantages (the primary domain of my theory of stock issues) and/or the rules/norms of debate (like topicality or “Kritiks”—as I define them in my article on that topic).
Thank you for the reply! I enjoy hearing your thoughts.
First point I definitely agree with. The phrasing I heard once I believe was “super-stock issue”—indicating its existence on a higher theoretical level. Second point I also agree with very much—the resolution is meant merely to set boundaries for the plan. Once inside those limits, make the best plan possible as judged by weighing the advantages against the disadvantages.
As to point three and the follow-up points, I see now better the points you’re making. However, the counterargument to that tactic is some advantages and disadvantages are independent of implementation. For instance, if the plan mandates an airstrike, a “death” disadvantage or a “financially costly” disadvantage won’t disappear merely due to crazy implementation. Not knowing the implementation might prevent negative from identifying more disadvantages—including more death or more financial cost—but I feel that very few presented disadvantages would disappear simply because we don’t know how we mandate is carried out.
The one area I see your angle as potentially useful is where the actor does not have the apparent means to carry out the mandate. When the U.S. government is the actor, the times where this would be the case would be few and far between—the United States has plenty of resources, even if weird, elongated means might be employed to obey the fiat. In this case too I believe you can still argue plan-level prima facie—if I don’t know how the mandate is being carried out I cannot fairly, educationally debate—but arguing from a “we cannot know the advantages will come about because on the surface the plan is too vague” viewpoint sounds stronger and more convincing to me. At a minimum, I will implement that much of your proposition. I will continue to mull over implementing the whole thing as I believe anytime one argues directly on advantages or disadvantages it’s usually the strongest course.
Once again, thank you for these ideas—they are very thought-provoking!
(Creating a fresh reply chain since the other one got really horizontally squished)
(In response to Joe Piroch’s second comment, here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/the-stock-issues-revisited/#comment-6542 )
Thanks again for the reply; I appreciate the feedback and questions/objections!
>”Not knowing the implementation might prevent negative from identifying more disadvantages—including more death or more financial cost—but I feel that very few presented disadvantages would disappear simply because we don’t know how we mandate is carried out.”
I should clarify up front that I agree that vague plans can still have some advantages and disadvantages despite their vagueness, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise in my first comment. I was just trying to highlight how the stock issue of “implementation” (or feasibility or whatever you want to call it) fits into the advantage/disadvantage chain of reasoning:
1. The world is currently at point A (e.g., high rates of immigration) and we will remain at point A under the status quo. (The stock issue of inherency/uniqueness/counterfactuality)
2. The affirmative team is proposing a plan P that would entail implementation of some set of actions X. (Implementation)
3. After actions X are implemented, the world will be at point B (e.g., lower rates of immigration). (Linkage or solvency)
4. Point B is morally [better/worse] than point A. (Significance)
(That isn’t the only way to assemble the chain–as illustrated by the alternative example I gave in this article–but over time I’ve come to view the above as one of the most robust/generalizable formats)
All of that is to highlight: you need some premise (to use the logic terminology) that links the proposed plan (P) to the actual actions upon implementation (X). In most policy rounds/cases, this premise seems to be implicit, and that’s often okay since it’s not controversial. However, my point is that implementation still stands as an independent point from regular “solvency” (or linkage).
As to the point about prima facie arguments, shortly after posting my first reply I started to think more about kritiks (as I define the concept here https://www.ethosdebate.com/krazy-kritiks/ ), including the point you mentioned (“if I don’t know how the mandate is being carried out I cannot fairly, educationally debate”). I’ll acknowledge that if you are categorizing prima facie points as something like “An argument which holds that the affirmative has failed to meet some norm/burden regarding their case (but not necessarily an outright rule or derivation of the rules like topicality) and thus the judge should penalize them,” then they can stand as partially independent from the other points: you’re no longer solely arguing about the decision of “should this plan be hypothetically implemented”, but rather now you’re also arguing the more meta-level decision of “should the judge vote for the affirmative team?” For that latter decision, you’re now basically arguing disadvantages to “voting for the affirmative” (e.g., “it would be unfair,” “it would harm education in debate”)
The thing I was trying to get at previously about those prima facie arguments, though, is that they tend to revolve around some element of the traditional stock issue framework, such as implementation.
Ultimately/in summary, I’ll say (agree?) that prima facie arguments can have impacts outside of the plan-level debate (i.e., “is this a good or bad plan?”), and thus they can be a subset of kritiks rather than traditional advantages/disadvantages. However, I don’t believe that the category of prima facie arguments can replace the stock issue of implementation, and in fact many of the prima facie arguments that come to mind/that you mention seem to draw on the ideas of the implementation stock issue.