Minimal Expectations for Clarity in LD by Jake Nebel

I’ve heard a lot of people — coaches, judges, and debaters — complain about the quality and clarity of debates throughout the year. Some of these complaints have to do with particular kinds of arguments that people run, but I don’t always agree with those opinions. The things that really worry me are practices, habits, and behaviors that make debate worse regardless of the argumentative content. The kinds of things I have in mind are typically strategic components that debaters have an incentive to use, so I don’t really blame debaters for using them. I also don’t blame judges, because they were often former debaters who used these tactics or are expected to vote for them because everyone else does. True, LD is the debaters’ game, but there are limits on how judges can adjudicate that game. The expectations below are norms that, I think, would prevent both bad debates and bad decisions, without telling debaters what arguments they can and can’t run.

The core problem is that clear communication of arguments is becoming rare. I support the use of academic philosophy in debate, but I sometimes think that debaters have adopted the bad habits of academic philosophers without carrying over the good ones. I have seen a large and increasing number of debates where judges and opponents alike have, at best, a partial grasp of the claims being made and the arguments used to support them — and not because they are lazy, stupid, or uninformed. (I include myself here. More of my decisions this year have included, “I didn’t understand p, why you think p is true, or why p justifies q,” than ever before… And I don’t think it’s because I’ve become much lazier, dumber, or more uninformed than I have always been.) Some of this has to do with speed and delivery, but much of it also has to do with a desire to economize and cut down on explanation in order to get more out there.

There are two major, mutually reinforcing disadvantages of this trend.

(1) When debaters don’t really understand each other’s arguments, clash becomes superficial. This decreases the educational benefits of running these arguments, since people rarely have to understand either their own arguments or their opponents in much depth in order to win. I take it that at least one reason why debate matters is because it fosters effective argumentation skills, so this impact should be relevant to anyone who cares about debate. I also take it that one reason why debate should involve philosophical arguments is because debaters learn something valuable from debating philosophy, so this impact should also be relevant to anyone who cares, more specifically, about philosophical education in debate. I care a lot about these things, so this disadvantage really matters to me.

(2) When debaters are unclear, judges are more likely to vote on claims that they do not understand. Why is this bad? Consider an extreme example to highlight the claim: suppose that judges let debaters speak incomprehensibly and vote for whatever they think is won based on the lines and arrows. That kind of system would be awful because (a) judges would often make bad decisions, and (b) debaters should not be expected to respond to arguments that the judge could not understand. I think (b) is the more important impact here, and perhaps the most important impact of the trend discussed here, but (a) is really important too. Bad decisions are bad for everyone, because it means that people leave a tournament with undeserved losses.

There are other disadvantages that crop up in different kinds of cases. Ambiguity in the framework leads to awful debates about whether some turn links to the standard, when it was never initially clear (to anyone!) what it took to link to the standard. Theory debates often turn on tiny questions that weren’t clearly explored by anyone, rather than developed arguments about what makes debate a meaningful activity. Finally, lower thresholds for clarity lead debaters to think that recycling a complicated card is OK, because the judge is likely to understand it already. I think that expectation is often false. But it is also harmful, because it lowers the incentive to make arguments because they are good, interesting, or important (as opposed to being familiar). People may not care about these impacts as much — I think they are important but not as important as the (1) and (2) above.

Here are some judging norms that, if practiced, would redirect debaters’ incentives towards clarity. I’ve skipped over the obvious ones like, “Don’t vote for claims that you don’t understand at all,” and, “Only vote for arguments.”

1. Ignore or assign low weight to claims expressed in undefined philosophical or technical terms.

Good philosophy papers are easy to read even though they deal with difficult subjects, because they are clear. Good philosophers explain what they mean by technical terms before using them. This practice prevents confusion, and it also prevents equivocation (when you use the same word in different senses in different parts of your argument). Defining technical terms makes people less likely to talk past each other, and more likely to engage in productive, rational disagreement.

This expectation should apply to any “ism” (yes, even “utilitarianism” and “consequentialism,” which mean different things) and to any word that debaters or their evidence use in a non-ordinary sense. It should also apply to technical debate terms when used to establish burdens or theory arguments. People mean very different things by “presumption,” “turn ground,” and “offense.” I’m fine with people using those terms to make things clearer (e.g., “Turn: [insert argument here]”), but debaters are increasingly using these terms to establish rules about those concepts, in which case it’s really important for them to explain what they mean. Basically, any time someone says, “I/you need to prove X in order to win/not lose,” the debater should explain X in non-technical terms.

If you are at all skeptical of this point, just think about the last time you saw a debate about “internalism,” necessary but insufficient burdens, or competing interpretations.

By “assign low weight” to such claims, I mean that, when in conflict, you should prefer claims that are stated clearly and explained to claims that use undefined terms.

2. Do not call for anything except quoted evidence or advocacy texts.

Calling for analytics and reading them — or even checking them — after the debate creates a counterproductive safety net for debaters to get by with incoherence, underdevelopment, and ambiguity. I see this happen a lot in theory debates and in framework debates that involve lots of spikes. This is unfair to the other debater because s/he had to catch, understand, and reply to the argument under time pressure, based on its first articulation. A judge who misses or doesn’t understand an argument should not expect a debater to answer it.

Even if you’re just checking to see if a claim was stated, that contributes to the problem. The relevant question is not whether a debater said something, but whether you understood it, which usually requires hearing it said. If you don’t have an argument on your flow or remember it being said, you should ignore it. It is the debater’s responsibility to make sure the judge understands the argument.

I can foresee people defending this practice by placing the blame on themselves. They might say something like, “I wouldn’t call the analytics if the ambiguity were their fault, but I just sometimes zone out or don’t pay attention or fail to get something down that I should have.” These judges should probably try to fix this or, otherwise, tell debaters that they have this problem in advance. But they shouldn’t just let debaters be as unclear as they want and retroactively clean things up by reading their analytics.

By “advocacy texts,” I mean things like plan texts, permutations, and theory interpretations. I think it’s okay to call those things because the precise wording may be especially relevant, and judges shouldn’t be expected to write down or remember every word.

3. Do not read debaters’ evidence to improve your understanding of the argument.

If you didn’t understand it, just don’t vote for it. You have no obligation to understand what a debater could not communicate effectively from the start. In fact, you have an obligation to the other debater not to give his/her opponent this kind of undeserved charity. Why should they have to respond to arguments with only a few minutes of prep time when you get to review a card with minimal pressure for as long as you please? That is an unfair expectation, and it is especially unrealistic because it creates an even greater incentive to run complicated arguments with minimal explanation and clarity.

This expectation does not apply to cases where a card’s content or meaning was in dispute, which sometimes requires the judge’s evaluation to figure out who’s right. That seems fine.

This expectation (arguably) applies to some kinds of evidence but not to others. For instance, I don’t think that empirical evidence supported by experiments or studies should require a high amount of explanation, unless those experiments or studies are in dispute. I think this exception also extends to highly technical warrants for plausible claims — for instance, a deduction from logical axioms. The debater should have to be able to explain those axioms, experiments, studies, etc., if questioned, but understanding the claim may be enough, unless it’s disputed. Note, however, that the answer here follows from a more general view about the degree of understanding you require in order to vote on an argument of a certain kind. That more general question is important, but it’s not specific to this particular expectation.

4. Ignore non sequiturs even if dropped.

A non sequitur is an argument whose conclusion does not follow from its premises. Debaters make non sequiturs all the time, and I think it’s getting worse and worse. Why do you, as a judge, have to interfere in this habit? Debaters have a strategic incentive to cut down on premises, so they have just enough to maintain the appearance that the conclusion follows. And they have an incentive to hide any implicit premises that would cast doubt on the argument’s validity. So, if you don’t draw the line at all, you’re just contributing to the problem.

The best arguments against judge intervention have to do with judges’ evaluations of claims’ plausibility. These arguments justify a world where judges do not ignore arguments simply because they disagree with the premises or with the conclusion. But they do not apply to the form of arguments — that is, to their validity or to their status as arguments.

What kind of decisions does this expectation rule out? The cases I have in mind are decisions where the judge assigns a function to arguments without being able to explain why the argument has that function. Here are some examples:

a. Arguments that say, “There are no moral facts, so affirm/negate because everything is morally permissible,” without a reason why, if there are no moral facts, then everything is morally permissible.
b. Arguments that say, “Affirm/negate if there are no moral facts,” and “Neither side has advanced a true moral theory,” without a reason why, if neither side has advanced a true moral theory, then there are no moral facts.
c. Arguments that say, “The aff/neg is unfair,” and “Fairness is important,” without a reason why unfairness (in this particular case) is a voting issue rather than a reason to drop the argument.

Note that this expectation does not rule out all unsupported claims. This expectation only applies to arguments, which require at least one premise in support of a claim. Sometimes debaters just make claims without arguments, which makes sense because justification must end somewhere, but I don’t have a proposal here to distinguish between plausible and implausible claims.

5. When evaluating theory, the burden of proof is on the person initiating theory to justify the violation.

The burden of proof is not on the defender to win the “I meet.” The person running theory has to show that his/her opponent broke the rule. New responses to an “I meet” are often just new warrants for the violation, which should have been in the first speech. Violations are often way too vague to have a clear grasp of whether the opponent really did break the rule. This is an area where judges have to figure out who is right because the arguments on the flow are rarely decisive.

Sometimes people make an argument that, if we accept competing interpretations, then even a risk of a violation is sufficient to vote. That’s a bad argument, and I expect that if people followed rule #1 (explain debate jargon and philosophical terms), they would see why. Competing interpretations is a way to evaluate theory once you’ve established the violation, the details of which are rarely established in any particular round. But the common feature of any plausible reading of competing interpretations is that it determines, in some way, how we figure out who won the theory debate. If there is no violation, there is no theory debate, and there is no offense: it’s an impact with no link, which is not an impact at all.

I suspect that judges are sometimes reluctant to ignore a large theory debate because one debater spends a lot of time on it. That’s a bad judging habit. You should not care how much time someone is spending on an argument if that argument is not shown to be relevant.


This activity is supposed to be about rational disagreement. But we are awful at it. Our disagreements are irrational outside of debates because, in my experience, most of us rarely change our minds. This shortcoming is not unique to debate, but I think we are particularly bad at it because (1) many of us our stubborn, (2) many of us care too much about consistency with our past beliefs and about our egos, and (3) many of us have learned how to defend false beliefs persuasively. We are also really bad at facilitating rational disagreement where it matters most — in round. Debaters often talk past each other, avoid clash, and make bad (invalid, unsound) arguments because they know they’ll get away with it by pushing the limits of clarity.

I have left many issues off this list because I want to focus on expectations to which everyone (or almost everyone) can agree. I find some of these issues very important but I’m not confident about what to do about them. One example here is respect: how is it okay for debaters to be disrespectful to each other when the disrespect doesn’t help them communicate their ideas more effectively?! I hope we can form some shared expectations about respect, but I suspect that we could only do so after we reach agreement on other issues (even though I think those issues are less important than respect).

There are plenty of bad habits in debate, and I don’t think that any of us are to blame for it. But perhaps if we apply some minimal expectations to our judging, debate will get better: debaters might learn more, debate better, and make the activity more worthwhile for everyone.