Three Things You Can Do To Improve Your Standards Debating by Adam Torson

One of the most common mistakes the average debater makes when addressing the standards is to be insufficiently comparative. A judge is presented not with the question of whether a standard is the best of all possible standards, but rather whether it is the best standard presented in that particular round. A major source of forced judge intervention is debaters talking past each other on the standards debate. With that in mind, here are three things you can do to make your standards debating more effective.

1. Stop treating all defense as terminal defense.

Debaters invest a stunning amount of time spewing weak defense against the standard; what is even more surprising is how much credit these types of answers are given. A classic exchange:

AFF: The standard is utilitarianism.
NEG: One – We can’t predict the consequences of our actions with perfect accuracy, so utilitarianism sucks. Two – utilitarianism is vague because people have different conceptions of happiness. Three – Actions have infinite consequences so utilitarianism is indeterminate.

…and so on.

In a huge number of rounds the Aff’s response to this strategy is to answer these objections line-by-line. This is almost always a strategic blunder – it forces the aff to spend a ton of time answering defense just to earn of the privilege of trying to extend offense. In the abstract, the objections listed above would surely be important for a theorist to deal with, but compared with strong justifications for utilitarianism they can hardly be considered terminal defense. Spend your time telling judges why they are not compelling reasons to prefer your opponent’s standard rather than trying to eradicate any and all possible objections to your standard. A philosopher may have the luxury of falling back on skepticism, but when forced to make a choice about what we ought to do imperfect guidance is better than no guidance.

On the flip side, when you are answering a standard make sure to frame your answers comparatively. It is not enough to problematize – tell the judge why the defect you are pointing out is a reason to prefer your standard. That will a) make it easier for your judge to resolve the standards debate and b) improve your ability to assess the strength of your own arguments.

2. Utilize implicit clash.

Philosophers talk to each other – they read, criticize, interpret, and defend each other’s work and the works of philosophers throughout history. If you do a good job explicating the justifications for your standard, they will almost always implicitly or explicitly answer major objections from philosophical opponents. A little preparation will go a long way. You should plan ahead of time how you are going to extend your standard in a way that articulates the implicit clash with your opponent’s standard and why you come out ahead in that debate. For example, if you are running contractualism, your plan for answering utilitarianism should not be the string of weak defensive arguments I listed above. Rather, it should utilize the extensive literature on contractualism comparing it to the many flavors of util (and just about any other moral theory) so that your argument is not just “util bad,” but rather “contractualism is preferable to util in this instance.”

Utilizing topic specific literature to support the standard is also helpful in this vein. Often particular norms are contextually justified even if they ought not to be accepted as a general rule to govern all situations. Again, reasons why your standard is more contextually appropriate makes the standards debate more comparative.

3. Don’t give too much credit to metaethics, epistemology, or other choke-point layering strategies.

During the last two years it has been very common to see a metaethical framework employed to support a normative framework. This year it’s been increasingly common to also see an epistemological framework used for the same purpose. While these fields of study are interesting ways to go deep on the standards debate, often they are utilized as functionally impact exclusive meta-standards: “Your normative ethical theory doesn’t ‘link in’ to my epistemological framework, so your impacts don’t matter.” Debaters need to more critically assess the underlying logic of these arguments.

For example, many philosophers rightly criticize abstract moral reasoning as epistemically inadequate because it tends to assume that a particular privileged perspective is universally valid. Beliefs about what perfectly ‘rational’ people would do are very much influenced by a person’s particular experiences. Fair enough. Often times, however, debaters will run an epistemic framework making this claim and use it as a way to exclude normative ethics that employ these assumptions – e.g. “Contractualism fails to account for marginalized perspectives so disregard the NC.” That is a rather surprising conclusion to draw from the insight that contractualism uses problematic assumptions. The better strategy is for the person employing the epistemological framework to articulate what types of impacts are being missed or undervalued by the contractualist framework as a strategy to weigh against those impacts (or to prefer impacts to her standard, which is a functional equivalent of the weighing strategy). Conversely, the person being accused of failing to “link in” to an epistemic framework should argue that this is hardly terminal defense, and engage in weighing of their own.

The problematic logic of using these types of arguments as a choke-point is even more obvious when they have to be compared. “Metaethics trumps epistemology because it determines what counts as a warrant for the normative claims epistemology makes.” “Epistemology comes before metaethics because it determines what counts as valid knowledge.” Yuck. Epistemology and metaethics give us important theoretical tools to help us think through normative claims. They are not just another layer of normative standards that every argument on the flow must “link into” to be in any way significant. Instead, use the insights of these fields of study as a way to compare the validity of normative claims.