Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

When I was debating in highschool one of the areas I tended to spend more time on than the average person was resolution analysis. I want to make sure my resolution analysis was airtight and that I could defend it in any debate round. In order to prepare to defend it, I loaded up my briefs with countless definitions from every source I could find, including sources like urban dictionary, rhymezone and those that defined fair trade as “smuggling”. But despite this obsessive number of definitions, for my first couple of years I just had definitions of the main terms of the debate. Then I encountered an argument that has caused me to have a definition of ought in my debate brief ever since.

“Ought implies a moral obligation, therefore we should be looking at this debate through a moral lens”

I. I’ve encountered this argument numerous times throughout my time debating and it just never seems to go away. And I don’t just dislike this argument because I lost to it the first time I hit it (although that might be a contributing factor) but it is also just factually wrong. I’m going to be presenting two arguments as to why this argument is wrong in hopes that people will learn how to defeat it..

The formal definition of ought

Debaters who make this argument well will often bring up a definition of ought such as the first one from Collins English Dictionary to prove their point:

You use ought to to mean that it is morally right to do a particular thing or that it is morally right for a particular situation to exist, especially when giving or asking for advice or opinions.

The problem with using this definition to say that ought always implies a moral obligation is that it is only one of eight definition provided by Collins English Dictionary and the second one indicates the practical implications of ought:

You use ought to when saying that you think it is a good idea and important for you or someone else to do a particular thing

And if you look at most dictionaries you find the same thing; for example, the  American Heritage Dictionary gives four definitions of ought:

1. Used to indicate obligation or duty: You ought to work harder than that.

2. Used to indicate advisability or prudence: You ought to wear a raincoat.

3. Used to indicate desirability: You ought to have been there; it was great fun.

4. Used to indicate probability or likelihood: She ought to finish by next week.

And Merriam Webster:

  1. used to express obligation (ought to pay our debts)            
  2. advisability (ought to take care of yourself )           
  3. natural expectation (ought to be here by now)            
  4. or logical consequence (the result ought to be infinity)

So arguing that ought always implies a moral obligation and only a moral obligation is just plain wrong.

Common Use

Secondly, if we look at the common use of the word ought, it doesn’t inherently imply a moral obligation. If I say, “I ought to study instead of watching YouTube,” it’s not because I have a moral obligation to study, it’s just a really good idea if I don’t want to fail my exam. Even if we put it in the format of the debate resolution such as “I ought to value my health over this deep fried bacon-wrapped Reese’s.” It still doesn’t imply a moral obligation and could still mean that it is just practically better for my long term health and happiness if I don’t eat the bacon wrapped reese’s. (Additionally a poll of my roommates found that 3 out of 3 of them think that ought does not imply a moral obligation.)


Some resolutions replace the word ought with should so I feel like I should address it as well. Some people will still try to argue, “should implies a moral obligation.” and they are still wrong. The definition of should by Merriam Webster is:

—used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency

This definition includes expediency and therefore implies that should has a practical element as well.


In conclusion, the purpose of this argument is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking at the resolution through a moral framework. There are absolutely times when a moral framework is the best way to view the resolution, but this argument is not the best way to prove that we should. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve learned both why not to run this argument and how to defeat it.

D. J. an economics major at North Carolina State University. Her debate philosophy is that debate should be fun for everyone, so keep it ethical so your opponent can enjoy the round, keep it entertaining so the judge enjoys it, and keep it lively and humorous so you can enjoy the round too.To learn more about D. J. you can read her bio here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/djmendenhall/ or book coaching with her here: https://www.ethosdebate.com/xl-3/

%d bloggers like this: