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.

  • Rebar Niemi

    the number two suggestion is definitely helpful.the numbers one and three make no sense to me (sorry babb). on the number one:1. your responses to the common responses to util all presume that the conclusion "we can predict and compare end states" is true. you cannot answer arguments that deny your conclusion by restating your conclusion. 2. your versions of the three arguments against util are not terminal defense against util, but those claims do have a version that completely takes out util. Unpredictable probability isn't terminal defense. absence of the ability to predict period IS. if a moral theory is founded on predictions of future states of affairs and comparative computation of those end states, and predictions will always be false – then a predictive model of how we should construct norms is impossible. similarly, if a moral theory relies on arbitrarily selected "end states" but there is no such thing as an "end state," then a theory that relies on them cannot be functional. similarly, if you presume aggregation of value is possible and an argument is made that such aggregation is impossible – then aggregation makes no sense and should not/cannot be used. 3. how the hell does a fundamental theoretical flaw just mean that the theory is "less desirable" rather than simply incorrect? 4. there is no possible justification for utilitarianism that could be "weighed" against denials of the functionality of utilitarianism. all such arguments would be simply nonresponsive. for instance, i say util is good. you say util is impossible because there is no such thing as an endstate. i say in response that there may not be an endstate, but we have to use util because it considers all possibly affected people and moral theories must treat people as equally relevant. my claim is A. non responsive and B. nonsensical and a total non-sequitur. the conclusion that util is true does not follow from "util is false but good because it applies to more people" 5. you assume that debaters don't offer a counter framework to default to and use counter claims on the framework level as a reason to default to skepticism. it doesn't work like that. debaters would run a contractarian or deontological framework of some sort, and then make the "terminally defensive" responses to util, which would thus prompt preference of the alternative framework.on the number three:1. you criticize false arguments that are never actually deployed in round. no one says "meta ethics above epistemology" because that's not true. epistemology comes before meta ethics. this is a one way street. there is no assumed knowledge that could come before argumentation about what knowledge is and what counts as true. 2. you're just wrong. if you make a normative claim and i make an epistemological claim that your normative claim is denied by, my epistemological claim supercedes your normative claim. 3. strategically, i simply disagree. i do agree that adding multiple choke point layers makes debates frustrating to adjudicate at times. i do not agree that choke points are bad debate or shouldn't be deployed or are unstrategic to deploy.4. epistemology and metaethics give us ways for understanding what claims are valid/sound and what claims are not. if your claim is not valid or sound according to my higher level analysis (be it ontology, epistemology, or metaethics), then your claim is simply nonfunctional. it doesn't merely decrease the probability that your claim is functional. it rules your claim out as nonfunctional. my larger problem with this post and babb's +1 is that every single claim made presumes there is a set of common sense reasonable ways to determine and evaluate ethical or normative claims. this is simply false. it fosters TERRIBLE education to tell debaters that common sense (whatever the hell that is) should come before actual in depth examinations of issues. similarly, it fosters TERRIBLE competitive practices for judges to select "common sense" or "smell test passing" frameworks above ones that are epistemologically or metaethically justified. all you prompt is a race to the lowest common denominator of "what claim is believed by the largest segment of the population even absent warrant or justified conclusion" honestly, i think standards debating could improve – and even in some of the ways you mention. however, the way it is presented in this post is simply wrong in my opinion and i very strongly disagree. babb – give me an example of how epistemological denials of normative claims generate "absurd and offensive" conclusions. perhaps if you're neglecting rigorous epistemological and metaethical justification of your normative claims, it is you who are making the "absurd and offensive" conclusions.

  • Love this (the 1 and 3 especially). It's absolutely AMAZING to me that debates are still decided on claims like "We can't perfectly predict the results of outcomes" or "The infinite chain of consequences makes util indeterminate." BOO HOO. The most hilarious part of it all is that the alternative framework almost always has similar (if not worse) cogency problems. The only difference is that one debater has time to make blippy, spurious complaints and frame them as "arguments." Non-comparative, oversimplified claims like this aren't arguments. Never have been.Torson's depiction of all the framework layering going is also dead on. These framework are SO disingenuous and almost always end up justifying the most absurd and offensive conclusions. Debaters need to be subjecting their args to a smell test!!! If it makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE in consistent real-world application, make a different argument. If you absolutely refuse, stop debating and find your nearest Lit department where your instructors and peers will HAVE to act like they're interested in what you're saying no matter how ridiculous it is "Oh, that's an interesting perspective… ." But yah, don't really quit debating. Just understand that anyone committed to debate's pedagogical aims is going to have a really hard time accepting pure nonsense.

    • Rebar Niemi

      i would surmise that we have very different views on what counts as pure nonsense. i'm pretty damn committed to debate's pedagogical aims.i think Kant is false. i think util is false. i think that magnitude over probability is a terrible way to weigh. i think that pretending we're policymakers is awful pedagogy. in fact, i think all the above claims i listed are potentially academically interesting but awful ways of actually understanding or interacting with the world. i bet you disagree. you're entitled to that opinion. you're not entitled to the opinion that you can determine what is "pure nonsense" and what is not.