Stop Running “Deliberate” T by Stephen Babb

A menace is once again sweeping across the land, this time in the form of a topicality argument suggesting the use of deadly force is only “deliberate” if it is slow and unhurried. The implication is that the only topical use of deadly force is that which a victim plans thoroughly in pre-meditated fashion. These interpretations are meant to problematize the 1AC’s ability to justify deadly force on self-defense grounds (since an of self-defense would supposedly involve no planning, forethought, or consideration whatsoever).
To say nothing of how annoying it is to watch a meaningful debate get sidetracked by desperate strategic misgivings, this is also just a bad argument.

First, it overlooks two usages consistently found in the definitions of “deliberate”: (1) intentional or aware of consequences or (2) resulting from careful consideration. The notion that a 1AC should interpret “deliberate” according to these usages as well as the third (“unhurried,” etc.) is a bizarre burden, especially when it makes no sense to use a word simultaneously in three different ways. The most obvious rejoinder to these arguments, then, is that the 1AC’s interpretation is perfectly consistent with a common usage of “deliberate,” because no one is advocating “accidental” self-defense measures, and nor is anyone suggesting that a victim pressed into using deadly force is unaware of the potential consequences.

Second, even if the 1AC must defend situations in which there was careful prior consideration of deadly force, there’s no reason to believe this consideration is anything other than contingent planning. For example, victims of repeated abuse may speculate about what they would do should an ongoing threat escalate into an imminent danger of serious bodily harm or death. This deliberation could continue for months or longer, and yet in the midst of a dangerous confrontation, planned self-defense measures may come into effect. In other words, the “imminence” of a self-defense situation shouldn’t be mutually exclusive with prior contingency planning. It even reasons that victims may acquire lethal weapons so that they can defend themselves with deadly force when the need arises. While this involves planning, it doesn’t automatically entail that the victim is killing an abuser in his sleep (or some similar “elective” killing).

Third, it doesn’t even make sense to describe the “use of deadly force” as slow and unhurried. Remember, this is the phrase modified by “deliberate.” Suggesting that the use of force must be interpreted as “slow” and “unhurried” would laughably leave the 1AC with torture as its core ground (or otherwise, some incredibly inefficient method for killing). While there may indeed be scenarios in which a victim of domestic abuse opts to “slowly” poison or otherwise kill an abuser over a course of time, I highly doubt this is the most sensible usage of “deliberate.” I certainly understand interpretations that suggest “deliberate” be used as “premeditated,” but there’s no reason to believe premeditated action results exclusively from “slow” or “unhurried” consideration. When “deliberate” is used in this way, it’s typically a reference to someone walking or moving at a “slow” and “unhurried” pace. Given that this would make no sense when describing the use of deadly force, it’s a safer assumption for the AC to defend the intentional use of deadly force (at best) or the premeditated use of deadly force (at worst).

These interpretations also appear to be most consistent with the empirical data that suggest the vast majority of situations in which a victim kills an abuser occur during confrontations (rather than while the abuser is sleeping, for example). This should inform what topic literature we believe to be in fact “at the core” of the topic. It would make no sense to ignore a more frequent and socially pressing moral question so that we can discuss the comparatively few instances in which victims kill their abusers absent an imminent threat.

Accordingly, while it may be the case that 1ACs should be willing to defend situations in which there isn’t an imminent threat, they should not be forced into defending these situations exclusively. The best distribution of ground would allow for 1ACs to generate offense predicated upon imminent threats while also having to accept the consequences of a moral rule allowing for killing when there is no imminent threat. Perhaps the 1AC justifies an overly broad moral rule, and perhaps the 1NC is correct to prefer a more limited rule that only accounts for imminent threats. But, this is a reason why AFF ground is should be more expansive than some 1ACs contend. The problem with AFF interpretations isn’t that they are allowed to use self-defense as a justification; the problem is that they are skirting their responsibility to defend the minority of circumstances in which there is no imminent threat.

Again, let empirics be your guide. While the 1AC should be afforded the advantages associated with self-defense situations, they should also be burdened by those comparatively more rare situations in which there are no imminent threat to trigger traditional notions of self-defense. This means that the 1NC can lobby for access to this ground, but they must weigh the implications of killing without imminent threat (in fewer circumstances) against the advantages of self-defense (the majority of circumstances). I believe that this is the most equitable and pedagogically sound distribution of ground. While I’m sensitive to the NC’s position that self-defense is “impossible to answer,” I think it is equally difficult to credibly affirm in a world where “self-defense” is entirely off the table. There must be some form of compromise, and I’d encourage debaters to pursue reasonable solutions (ideally before the round or during cross-examination) and exploring community norms on this question might make that effort a bit easier. At the very least, it will be a sad state of affairs indeed if the TOC is beset by these kinds of theoretical exchanges at the expense of topic-focused debate.