Where the Argument Leads by Jake Nebel


I try to judge debates fairly. This means that I don’t decide who wins or loses based on arbitrary factors — e.g., how much I like someone’s coach, which debater would be a better matchup for my students, how smart I would sound by giving some RFD, pre-arranged bribes, evening out my aff-neg distribution to appear unbiased, or promoting the sum of happiness in the universe. Most of us think that these would be bad reasons to decide a debate, and that judges ought not to decide rounds on such grounds. While we may disagree about what good judging entails, or the reasons why good judging is important, I think we can all agree that judges have some kind of duty to judge rounds fairly.

But some arguments seem to deny that judges have this duty. Thinking about the implications of these arguments leads to interesting questions.

Suppose the aff argues that individuals have a moral obligation to help people in need. The neg argues that individuals do not have this obligation because there are no moral obligations. Suppose the following CX occurs:

Aff: Do I have a moral obligation to limit my 1AR to four minutes, or not to make new arguments in the 2AR?

Neg: No, but you shouldn’t do those things. Otherwise, the judge would (rightly) ignore new arguments and arguments after the timer.

Aff: Would the judge have a moral obligation to do those things?

Neg: I guess not. But she still should do it.

Aff: Why? What reason does she have to ignore new arguments and arguments after the timer?

Neg: Well, it would be unfair of her to consider those arguments.

Aff: But why does she have to judge the round fairly?

Neg: It’s not a moral obligation. It’s just something she should do, as a debate judge.

Aff: What sense of ‘should’ are you using that avoids the objections to the existence of moral obligations?

Neg: Um, some kind of hypothetical imperative. Like, if the judge wants to evaluate the round fairly, then she should ignore new arguments and arguments after the timer. But I guess she has no moral obligation to evaluate the round fairly. She just wants to do so, or doing so is necessary to achieving her other ends (e.g., her desire to avoid confrontation, or to seem like a ‘good’ judge).

Aff: Okay… And if she doesn’t have those ends? If she no longer cares about evaluating the round fairly, or the other things that the perception of fairness helps her achieve?

Neg: Well, these things are in her paradigm, so that won’t happen. Or, if it does, she’s being dishonest.

Aff: Whatever. I concede skepticism. No one has any obligation to be honest, or to do anything else. Judge, just vote for whomever you want to vote for. [Sits down.]

Imagine you’re the judge in this debate. You probably do care about judging the round fairly. But suppose you realize that you only care about judging fairly for reasons that would be undermined by the neg’s skeptical arguments: you only care about judging rounds fairly because you think you ought to care about judging rounds fairly. If you discovered that you have no such obligation, then you would no longer care about judging rounds fairly, except when doing so would help achieve your other goals. And suppose that, in this case, your personal goals would be best served by voting aff because, say, you like the aff better, or you know that the aff will pay you a large sum of cash just in case you vote aff.

Is it permissible to vote aff? Here’s a reason to think Yes: fair judging requires you to follow the arguments where they lead, as developed by the debaters. But, in this case, accepting the conclusion means that you are freed of any obligations to either debater. So it’s not wrong to vote aff, since nothing is wrong by the neg’s own lights.

Do you have a reason to think No? Or a different reason to think Yes? If your decision depends on some particular detail of the above CX, say what that detail is and what you would do if something else happened instead.

Different answers to these questions have interesting implications for other issues in debate. I hope to discuss those in a future post.