Affirmative Ethics Choice by Ryan Lawrence

The 2010-2011 academic year involved a number of debaters advocating for “affirmative framework choice” in the 1AC. Given the loaded nature of this term due to its origin in policy debate, I do not like the name that some debaters are using for it, nor do I think it is appropriate to read O’Donnell evidence in an LD round on this issue. Further, in LD I do not think that we all have a common understanding of what constitutes “framework,” particularly whether it is inclusive or exclusive of the standard. However, I believe that these arguments are oriented correctly and in this article advocate a form of affirmative choice which I shall call Affirmative Ethics Choice (AEC). AEC entails allowing the affirmative to determine what interpretation of ethics will be used for the debate – consequentialism or deontology, for example – within the constraints of providing a reasonable amount of ground for the negative. Responses to the affirmative ethical framework would need to be premised in its fairness given the resolution rather than attempting to prove another ethical approach superior on truth value.
*Please note that this article does not necessarily represent my opinions on this matter, at least not in their final form. It is meant more to be a source of discussion rather than a true call to action.

Affirmative Ethics Choice Explained

AEC would grant the affirmative the right to choose which philosophical school the round will be debated in, tabling the meta-ethics debate in favor of a topic-specific debate under a particular ethical framework. This does not shut down the standards debate. In fact, I would argue that this is the best way to re-invigorate it. Rather than the standard just becoming a placeholder for a meta-ethics debate, the standard would revert to being a weighing mechanism under the affirmative ethic. Granted, net-benefits may be the best consequentialist standard by way of its lack of arbitrary exclusion, there is nothing that prevents debaters from using more specific standards under the AEC model. Deontological standards debates would be better-developed discussions about which rights are more valuable than others, whose interpretation of deontology is more correct, etc.

Allowing AEC without any check, however, would result in affirmatives establishing debates that provide either very little ground to the negative or incredibly esoteric ground for them. In this way, affirmatives should be obligated to exercise their right responsibly and lay a fair debate for their opponent. The purpose of AEC is to table the ethics debate, not to gain a strategic upper-hand. However, it would be naïve to assume that people will not attempt to gain a competitive edge. As such, the negative should be able to indict the fairness of the affirmative ethical system under a reasonability standard.  What constitutes a “reasonable” ethical approach? That is clearly up to the debaters to decide. At bare minimum the standard would need to be sufficient for both debaters to win the round under. A non-comparative standard would be unreasonable by way of not providing both debaters the opportunity to win the round. It would be quite asinine to argue that the negative can neither contest one’s framework nor win under it. Even if reasonability is a vague standard, using competing interpretations would hamstring AEC by removing the “choice” from it and forcing affirmatives to pick the fairest ethic instead of a fair one. The ethics debate would just shift from a philosophical one to a theory one, mooting any benefit of AEC.

It is important to note that AEC does not include definitions and other framework issues. I do not necessarily condone or oppose the expansion of AEC to become inclusive of other aspects of the framework. However, it is beyond the scope of this article.

Benefits of AEC

The most obvious benefit of embracing AEC is that we get to avoid the same deontology vs. utilitarianism vs. contractualism debate that populates almost every LD round. To some, this may seem like a disadvantage rather than a benefit, but consider the following. First, the ethics debate has been going on for several hundred years and has not come even close to being resolved. To think that the discussion that happens in a 45 minute debate has any educational value on an issue that is so deep, nuanced, and irresolvable is delusional. Any education to be derived from this issue is best accessed by just reading articles. To call the dilapidated ethical discussions that currently occur in most LD rounds “good debate” is a giant misnomer. Second, the ethics debate trades off with a discussion of the resolution. Since debaters have a limited window of opportunity to debate the topic, we should prefer topic-specific discussions over generic ethics. Squads should not be able to run the same argument(s) for five years on the negative in LD instead of making new arguments on each resolution. What is more, if debate is supposed to educate its participants to become better-informed citizens and critical thinkers. An ivory tower discussion of meta-ethics has little practical value for high school debaters moving forward into college and beyond. Third, AEC does not make the discussion of ethics disappear; it just shifts its focus. Instead of debating about which ethical framework is better, we can have more nuanced and interesting debates about how we should interpret a particular ethical framework. Relieved of the burden of having to defend deontology vs. consequentialism, debaters can instead spend their time developing a cogent theory of rights, governmental obligations, etc. Under consequentialism, debaters can spend more time comparing impacts and engaging in the weighing debate that so many judges complain no longer occurs substantively. The question is not whether or not we should debate ethics, but instead how we should debate ethics and how much of the debate we should allocate to it.

AEC should also result in fairer debates. There has been much discussion lately of the “negative side bias” and the huge barriers to affirming. I have no doubt that one of those barriers has been the ethics debate. When the negative gets to provide an alternative system of ethics off-case and then move on to construct offense under the affirmative’s system on-case or with additional off-case argumentation, then the affirmative is always forced to jump through the ethics debate hoop before accessing any of their offense, and then still must deal with the negative strategy under that system. Of course, the affirmative can concede the ethics debate and try to construct offense under the negative framework, but a 4 minute 1AR makes that task nearly impossible, especially with the 6 minutes of the 1AC being mooted. What is more, the negative’s ability to collapse in the NR means that the affirmative will always be facing an NR that gets to capitalize on whatever strategic choice the 1AR makes. AEC has the immediate benefit of guaranteeing that the 1AC offense will be functional in the 1AR and beyond. Certainly the negative will still have 7 minutes to construct offense and will use several strategic tricks in order to make life difficult for the 1AR; however, when the affirmative has a guarantee of functional case offense, dealing with such strategies is far easier.

As a consequence of this, there will also be an increase in “clash” in debates as the negative will be required to make their arguments interact with the 1AC. This should be a boon for coaches and judges who are dismayed by the trend toward off-case argumentation that has little or nothing to do with the 1AC. Debates will once again come down to who has the better substantive argumentation about the topic instead of who has “a single piece of offense” that links back to whatever ethical framework ends up being used.

Ethical framework debates are also particularly prone to unpredictable judge intervention in debates. Given that the debate is rather irresolvable, judges will concomitantly find it difficult to resolve the line-by-line debate on similar issues. In an ideal world where LD rounds had a lot more time and debaters read better evidence that actually warranted their ethical frameworks, then maybe judges would be able to make accurate decisions on such an issue. However, the underdeveloped debates that currently exist usually come down to opposing cards or analytical claims with little reason to prefer one or the other.

There is also something to be said about the impact that the ethics debate has on the community at large. Philosophy articles are not the most accessible texts for high school students. Surely debaters are thought to be the best and brightest of high school students, but does that mean that we should have an expectation that they grapple with literature that many have trouble with in their pursuit of a graduate degree? I would guess that most of the people who pretend to understand meta-ethics really don’t have a clue, despite the conviction and resolve that they show in-round. Without access to a coach that is well-versed in philosophy (I am certainly not one of them!) many debaters will simply be sidelined by LD’s trend toward more and more advanced meta-ethics debates. Some may argue that the contention-level debate is more easily won by teams with a lot of card cutters and coaches. However, evidence is just as important for the ethics debate as it is for the contention debate. The difference is that is much easier for your average high school student to cut topic-specific cards than it is for them to cut philosophical articles. What is more, AEC should help to bridge the gap between local and national circuits by guaranteeing that local circuit debaters who may be less familiar with trends towards meta-ethics have an opportunity to engage in the debate on an equal footing with the rest.

Implementing AEC

The proliferation of AEC will require action on the part of coaches, judges, and debaters. Debaters will need to be initially prepared to forward AEC arguments in their 1AC in order to establish it as the framework for the round. I expect that many judges will be initially reticent to accept AEC, but minimally they will need to have an open mind and be willing to accept AEC if the affirmative is able to appropriately defend it. Ideally, judges will begin to adopt AEC as a paradigmatic issue so that affirmatives will not need to spend 1AC time justifying AEC. My fear here is that the ethics debate will simply be replaced with an AEC debate, short-circuiting both the fairness and education advantages of the framework. Adjustments to judge paradigms are consequently the most efficacious form of implementation. Judges will need to be transparent about their adoption of AEC so as to give debaters an opportunity to prepare to debate in front of them, and, tournament rules willing, preference judges accordingly.

Additionally, the LD topic wording committee ought to ensure that topics are framed so as to allow a fair division of ground for both sides under the most popular ethical approaches. Topics that do not do so would force the suspension of AEC and the benefits that it entails. With collective work on the behalf of all parties involved, AEC may flourish and we can move past the current ethics deadlock.

Conclusion

It is my belief that Affirmative Ethics Choice would have a positive impact on the development of LD for the near to long term future. Especially in this period of “growing pains,” we need the opportunity to better develop the theory of LD both in and out of round. Even if AEC is ultimately not the best solution to the problems identified in this article, it may be valuable as an interim solution until we as a community can find better ways to maintain the fairness and relevance of this activity. My hope with this article is to start a conversation among coaches, judges, and debaters about what we want the substance of LD rounds to be and how we can re-orient the activity to allow for that substantive discussion. With any luck, this discourse will benefit the community regardless of its outcome.