Thoughts on Necessary But Insufficient Burdens in LD by Ryan Lawrence

The term “necessary but insufficient” has become vilified in the LD community as of late. While for the past couple of years there has been a growing swell of resistance to “NIBs” and theory arguments have always been levied against them, this year seems to have marked the conclusion of the NIBs debate. It seems as if this has become a settled issue, among the first in LD, and the NIB is dead. Since we have so few settled issues in the LD community I am hesitant to rock the boat; it is quite important that we settle theoretical issues in order to promote better, more substantive debates. However, I feel that the discussion surround NIBs has been mostly relegated to brief in-round theory debates and much has gone unsaid about them. The necessary but insufficient burden is far too vague of a concept to be monolithically categorized as “unfair” and has a relevant role in modern day LD debate.

To begin, we seem to be having difficulty pinning down exactly what constitutes a necessary but insufficient burden. I have witnessed debaters indict arguments on pretty much all levels of the debate as constituting a NIB: theory, framework, standards, and “substance.” The fact that we have been using one label for all necessary but insufficient arguments and in-round theory interpretation to indict them has short-circuited the ability to have a genuine discussion about the issue.

Theory functions as a necessary but insufficient argument presuming that it is not a reverse voting issue. It is no surprise then that the arguments made in favor of RVIs are often indistinguishable from those made against other necessary, but insufficient arguments (time/strategy skew arguments primarily). However, there are compelling justifications that legitimize the unidirectional nature of theory that would not equally apply to other NIBs (here think about most of the answers to RVIs that you have heard in rounds).  To avoid rehashing the RVI debate, I will simply note that I believe that theory ought to be unidirectional and serves as an example of a legitimate NIB.

On the subject of theory qua NIB, I have witnessed some debaters (one of mine included) argue that running theory against NIBs is contradictory because theory is a NIB too. While this seems to be an intuitive argument on face, it suffers from a number of problems. Most importantly, it conflates different types of necessary but insufficient arguments and presumes that the same advantages and disadvantages apply to each. Theory is fundamentally different from other aspects of the debate so its status as necessary but insufficient has different ramifications for the round than other NIBs do. While it may share some disadvantages with all other NIBs it is not necessarily equally bad, if bad at all. However, if the interpretation on theory is generic to all NIBs then it technically violates as well. For this reason, debaters running theory against NIBs should be more precise and specify what type of necessary but insufficient arguments are permissible and which are impermissible.

Arguments that function as necessary but insufficient on the “substantive” layer of the debate are the next type, and next in line in terms of their presumed legitimacy. A substantive NIB is one that must be met in order to         successfully achieve the conditions that the standard sets forth. A helpful example here would be a self-defense standard on the January/February 2012 topic. A debater may argue that to prove a justified case of self-defense, the typical legal criteria (proportionality, imminence, etc.) must be met. This constitutes a “substantive NIB” because it does not present an alternative burden structure that the affirmative must meet in addition to their own standard, but instead qualifies or re-defines the existing standard in the round. I will identify three reasons why this is an acceptable form of argumentation. These three arguments are not meant to be exhaustive, but merely representative of the myriad of reasons why these types of arguments should be okay.  First, to throw out substantive NIBs would involve throwing out a number of arguments that we intuitively know are valid. Solvency is a NIB because you do not get to win just because you prove solvency, but you don’t get to access your offense without it. Empirics may function as a NIB, as you may require them to legitimately prove an argument but do not win the round for presenting empirics. The list goes on.  Virtually any argument can be linguistically meddled with in order to make it sound like a NIB. A model of debate that throws out substantive NIBs has no way to filter out the “good” from the “bad” and as such is too simple a theory to be valuable for debates. Second, these arguments do not create a significant skew against the debater answering them. The time it takes for the debate to be developed on either side is roughly equal (both argue for and against the existence of the burden and for and against whether it has been met.) In the circumstance in which the debater establishing the burden is doing very little work in proving it, judges should consider it to be poorly justified and it should be easy to beat. In his recent article on NIBs on the January/February topic, Stephen Babb appealed to this same sort of judicial skepticism and I agree with his assessment. Third, these arguments provide nuance and content to debates that would otherwise be missing. If the affirmative presents as their standard an emaciated, inadequate theory of self-defense, negatives should not be forced to let them get away with it in the name of reciprocity. To do so a step in the direction of “lowest common denominator” debating where we make things as simple and unsophisticated as possible in the name of fairness.

Arguments that set up necessary but insufficient burdens on the framework level are the true culprits, but are not inherently problematic as arguments, only problematic as far as their function is concerned. Both debaters ought to either a) accept their opponent’s sufficient framework, or b) present a sufficient framework of their own. The fairness issues involved are clearly more relevant here since one debater would not be able to access the ballot under the standard at all, but are not the decisive matter. To me at least, framework NIBs fail because of their illogical nature, not because of their alleged lack of reciprocity. Just about all arguments appeal to a sufficient standard of some form, whether that standard is stated by the debater explicitly or not. This most often takes the form of a normative theory of everything – consequentialism, deontology, contractualism, etc. – that seek to be a sufficient proof of our ethical obligations. In the event that these do not apply, some other concept should be appealed to by the NIB if it is warranted at all. Debaters should be able to bypass the NIB entirely and link offense back to that higher standard and weigh versus the violation of the NIB. In other words, the NIB is not actually the burden/standard at all!

This layer conflation is possibly the root cause of the confusion I identified at the outset. If we can linguistically meddle with our arguments or restructure cases in order to make arguments appear to function in ways in which they do not, then what is a NIB one day is not a NIB the next. In the event that arguments are structured or articulated poorly to the point that their function becomes confused, the sufficient response should be to identify and rectify the error in-round. It does not seem to me that it is necessary to run and win on theory if a debate has a substantive NIB that has been misinterpreted as a true NIB; just point out that it isn’t really the standard and appeal to the real standard. Note that this is better than “artificial sufficiency” in that it allows debaters to outweigh the original “burden” instead of just meeting it to win.

In conclusion, I believe that I have identified a more appropriate model of burdens in LD that sufficiently protect debaters’ strategic options while not gutting the content of rounds. The affirmative must present a sufficient standard (the burden) for the debate. The negative may either present a competing, but also equally sufficient, burden for the debate, and/or choose to debate under the affirmative burden. In the event that a burden is misarticulated as insufficient, the true sufficient burden that functions as its justification should be sought out and used instead (or rejected for not being warranted properly.) Let’s stop using the term “burden” as a placeholder for “thing you have to do in the debate” and maintain its precise usage as the winning condition for the substantive debate. Let’s stop using the term “NIB” to apply to everything that is potentially a barrier to an extension of AC offense mattering. And finally, let’s stop the culture of fear where debaters need to be worried if their substantive arguments are going to be arbitrarily deemed unfair or not.

  • I

    • Adam Torson

      I'm going to be posting an article in the next few weeks about answering skepticism which suggests that such arguments problematically assume that debate resolutions must be proved True in some absolute objective sense. An argument like that could be framed as an attack on or perhaps even linking into some implicit standard to which such a skeptical position appeals. But more on that later.I think part of the difficulty here comes from the fact that we have conflated the terms "framework" and "standards." (Shout out to Christian Tarsney, who hates this conflation with a passion that burns with the fire of a thousand suns : ). This distinction is, to some extent, artificial, but as RL would no doubt say it has heuristic value. The ability to link into an implicit standard is usually pretty clear with straightforwardly normative NIBs, e.g. legitimate acts of self-defense must be in response to an imminent threat. This kind of argument appeals to some moral or political norm (e.g. the appropriate distribution of power between citizens and government, the utilitarian interest in preventing the unnecessary taking of life, a deontological prohibition on murder, etc.). This type of debate happens on what we used to call the standards.NIBs on the framework level tend to be apparently non-normative – they speak descriptively to the truth conditions for a given statement rather than some norm we would want to apply to the resolution's actor in a post-fiat world. I still think there are normative claims hidden in these framework level arguments (i.e. we ought to use certain epistemological methods or assumptions when deciding what norms to follow), but I think there is a reasonable distinction to be made between these two types of arguments. It seems like "standards" rather than "framework" NIBs are more susceptible to the type of argument Ryan describes (linking into a higher implicit standard), while the latter are more susceptible to theory. I think there are also good answers to framework NIBs that don't rely on theory, but I agree that it would make less sense to link into some higher standard to which they appeal.

    • I had edited out a caveat about things like skepticism to conserve space. As Adam pointed out, skepticism does indeed appeal to a truth burden that can be argued the AC meets independent of the skeptical argument, e.g. appeals to verisimilitude or some other re-articulation of the affirmative burden. Since these arguments would sufficiently take out skepticism and are inherent to the argument, I see these as sufficient ground for the aff in these cases.However, some would take issue with a theoretical response being the "ground" provided by an argument. If one were to take issue with the arguments above being sufficient affirmative ground, then the easy way out is just to say the skep is one of the examples where theory is warranted.

    • Anonymous

      This just seems like a problem with truth-testing. If the higher standard is the desirability of implementing the resolution, then the aff does have the ability to outweigh the NIB. In the context of moral skepticism, winning that the aff outweighs shouldn't be very difficult.