I have two disclaimers before diving into today’s article:
- As always, the opinions contained herein reflect my own and not necessarily those of Ethos Debate. I say that explicitly in this particular case because
- This article challenges the typical paradigm of value debate; I wouldn’t recommend considering the ideas that follow in any serious capacity unless you have a firm grasp on the fundamentals of LD. That is, it would be unwise to challenge the fundamentals unless you’ve given them the chance they deserve (there’s a reason, after all, that the state of debate exists as it does).
Enjoy the article!
In the case of at least ninety percent of people reading this article, two things are true. First, the debate league with which you affiliate uses resolutions to the effect of “X ought to be valued above Y” for LD debate. Second, in said debate league, most LD rounds go something like this: aff will present a value, something good that they think is worth striving for. Aff will then argue that X better promotes the value than Y. Neg will then present a different value and argue that Y better promotes their value than X. Both sides will then spend the round arguing over a) which value is better, and b) in the case of each value, whether X or Y best promotes it. The judge must then decide a) which value, based on the arguments in the round, is better (unless both sides agree on the value) and b) whether X or Y better upholds that value. The judge then votes for the corresponding side.
In this article, I aim, first, to argue that the very notion of a “value” as defined above has no place in LD, and, second, to present an alternative approach to LD.
I make one caveat to my position: the argument to follow only applies to those resolutions that take the form described above. When I refer to “LD” in this article, I refer to debates with resolutions of that sort, recognizing that theoretically, different sorts of resolutions could be used. That being said, the vast majority of resolutions in such formats tend to follow this pattern.
I begin with the assumption that if an action has more benefits than costs, then the action should be done; conversely, if an action has more costs than benefits, it shouldn’t be done. Those who disagree with this assumption need not read further. I intentionally ignore the scenario of cost-benefit parity both for simplicity’s sake and because it manifests so rarely anyhow.
This matters because even in LD, the affirmative is an advocate for action. To say “X ought to be valued above Y” (or something equivalent) implies that there is someone or something who is “doing the valuing,” so to speak. By grammatical necessity, such is the nature of the passive verb construction in the resolution. Who that actor is may be up for debate; the debate might be framed from a governmental perspective, an individual one, or otherwise. Whoever or whatever that actor is, though, the critical point is that they exist, at which point debaters are (albeit implicitly in many cases) arguing over whether the actor should value X over Y. Similarly, it is also true that “value” could refer to any number of things, also up for debate; to “value” X over Y might mean to invest more resources into X, it could mean to adopt a general attitude that favors X, and it could even mean something as small as merely judging X to be of greater worth than Y in some sense. Whatever definition of “value,” though (or the definition of the parallel verb in a particular resolution), it is necessarily the case a) that the actor makes a choice, and b) that the choice has consequences. The scope of such consequences may vary, perhaps being as large as sweeping government reforms or as small as neurons firing in a person’s brain, resulting in the formulation of individual opinion, but the consequences exist nonetheless. Succinctly, then, LD debate centers around whether an actor should perform an action that has consequences.
Per the assumption outlined earlier, then, LD should center around whether the benefits of the action in the resolution outweigh the costs. The use of values, however, strays from this. Imagine a huge circle in which one wrote down all of the potential costs and all of the potential benefits of an action. In effect, a debate around the cost and benefits would be one in which the affirmative and negative walk to the circle, “pick up” costs and benefits of their choosing (that is, make arguments of their choosing), and they put them on a scale and see which side outweighs the other. They might haggle about whether certain costs or benefits should go on the scale or not (that is, whether an argument is valid) or disagree on how “weighty” an argument is, but whichever side is heavier after all of that should win. However, a value functionally says “whichever side best promotes [fill in the blank] should win the round.” With respect to the circle analogy, values limit “usable” arguments to those that explain why X or Y promote or oppose the value, ignoring all others. Thus, values go against our given assumption, implying that we ought not use them.
I anticipate two objections to my argument and will respond to each in turn. First, one might object that values are good because they narrow the scope of relevant arguments in the round, which allows those arguments to be analyzed with greater depth and focus. I offer two responses. First, I deny the claim itself. The only arguments that will be analyzed in a given debate are those arguments for which the debaters advocate. The scope of possible arguments might expand, but this in no way affects the quantity of arguments actually presented. Nor does using values decrease the amount of prep debaters have to do, since all possible arguments in our “circle” could be relevant in a given round depending on the values each side chooses. Second, even if it’s true that values promote depth and focus of argumentation, they sacrifice rationality in the process. My initial assumption is, by definition, a tenet of rational action, and this objection doesn’t deny that the use of values violates it, it merely presents an independent justification for values. I would argue that even if they were in conflict, preserving debate predicated on the principles of rational action is better than preserving “focused” debate that concerns itself with what is, necessarily (nor do I mean this pejoratively), irrational action given that the latter has no bearing on reality insofar as humans are rational.
Second, one might object to the claim that LD concerns itself at all with whether an actor should take an action. The argument goes something like this: take, for example, policy debate, traditionally conceived. The affirmative presents a plan prescribing a certain action, for example, “Congress will pass and the president will sign a bill abolishing Social Security. Our plan will take effect five years after an affirmative ballot; no funding is apparently needed, but any unforeseen costs will be covered by discretionary spending.” Over the course of the round, the costs and benefits of this action will be debated. Conversely, take for example the LD resolution “national security ought to be valued above the individual right to privacy.” Let’s suppose the debaters agree that the actor in this resolution is a government (they could, I suppose, have an argument over that, but whether they do doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion). Thus, the action the affirmative defends is the government valuing national security over the individual right to privacy. Given any reasonable definition of the term “value,” there are perhaps millions of possible actions the resolution refers to, meaning the affirmative is not defending one specific action. To ask whether an action should be done, so continues the argument, presupposes that we’re debating the pros and cons of doing something – but we don’t know what that “something” is, meaning the resolution cannot be analyzed as an action, hence the use of values as an alternative.
I answer this objection by arguing a) that no debate of any kind is ever about one action, and b) that there exists an intersection of all topical actions containing some amount of costs and benefits. Let’s go back to the Social Security example with policy debate. Just like an LD resolution, there are still a virtually infinite number of actions (or technically series of actions) that aff is advocating for. For example, when the president signs aff’s bill, there are dozens of pens he could use given that aff doesn’t specify that. That is, of course, a trivial example, but the point is that no aff in the history of debate has ever nor ever will specify their advocacy to the extent that there is only one possible action they’re defending. There is a “circle” of possible reforms that aff’s plan refers to, and each point in the circle represents one possible mode of implementation. The way that affs argue for (and negs argue against) aff’s advocacy is by presenting costs and benefits that are inherently tied to each possible instance of action. For example, given the above plan text, aff could not get up and say “the president has this really cool pen that has a PEZ dispenser at the end of it, and so when he signs our bill with it, that results in the world being cooler than it was before.” That’s not a reason to act since it’s not a necessary consequence of aff’s action, the plan. Aff can, however, run advantages relating to Social Security not existing in five years since that is a necessary consequence of the plan (unless you want to argue that passing the bill doesn’t result in that happening). Similarly, absent values in LD, affs can argue for the benefits inherent in the government valuing national security (again, assuming the debaters settle on a definition of “value), but they can’t argue for the benefits of one specific instance of doing so that don’t generalize to the broader “circle,” so to speak. It’s true that this circle perhaps tends to be much bigger in LD, but the critical point is that in all debates, policy, LD, or otherwise, the circle contains more than one possible action, at which point the above logic takes effect.
Thus, if values are flawed, I recommend doing at least one of three things. Option one, stop using values all together and argue for a net benefits framework. The reasons to prefer you might run under such a framework are made explicit above. However, it’s true that you might run into trouble with judges who expect you to run a value and may mark you down if you don’t. Thus, option two, run “general welfare” or something similar as a value, anything that allows you to say “whichever side does more good than harm ought to win the round.” General welfare is, in a sense, the “non-value value” insofar as it, unlike virtually all other values, does not exclude possible arguments and thus doesn’t challenge rationality. This is analogous to option one except that it masquerades as a traditional strategy, meaning that your path forward is otherwise identical. Option three (and this isn’t novel), if you feel like there’s no good way to argue for a given position, you can pick a value (other than general welfare) that slants the debate in your favor by excluding arguments unfavorable to your side.
Hope y’all found this helpful!
Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He competed in Team Policy debate throughout high school and is currently a student at Hillsdale College. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, playing board games, or hanging out with friends and family.
What you’re describing is a very common tendency in contemporary national circuit LD debate. I think that a majority of rounds I’ve heard this season (and I’ve heard a lot) contained an AC which didn’t defend an explicit value/criterion structure but rather a “standard” of utilitarianism with a card stating that governments must act in a utilitarian fashion because util is the only way to aggregate disparate preferences among their citizens (no one reads Riley ’90 on this point anymore, but the argument is similar), maybe an argument that some particular type of impact (usually nuclear war or extinction but sometimes something a little less concrete like value to life, racism, or patriarchy) consequentially outweighs all others, maybe a plan text(!), and then a bunch of consequential offense. I know that some really old-fashioned high school coaches (of the generation who first got involved in LD just because they didn’t like policy debate and wanted a debate category which would be more rule-bound) really hate this tendency, but I also know that these tactics were making inroads into college LD 35 years ago. As the Good Book says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just got done judging the final round of international public forum at Harvard and am trying to wind down a bit, so I thought I’d see if there were anything new on this blog and found your article, with which I broadly agree.