Against Tabula Rasa, Part 2: Arguments and Assumptions

In my last post, I argued that judge must take rules of inference for granted. In this post, I argue that judges also have to do what many consider to be intervention.
Most of us think dropped claims don’t matter (e.g., the aff can’t just extend, “I win!”). What matters are dropped arguments. An argument has a warrant — i.e., a set of premises (often including empirical evidence) to justify the claim. 

But each premise can be either assumed or warranted by some other argument. And each premise of that argument can be either assumed or warranted by some other argument. And so on. Ultimately, the argument appeals to some assumptions — i.e., premises for which no argument is given. It is more reasonable for us to accept some assumptions than others.

Here’s the question I want to raise: when can a judge assume some premise, and when does she require further argument?

My answer is that it requires a judgment call, and that’s what judging is (largely) about. When there are two conflicting claims, the relevant question is not just whether each is warranted, but which warrant it is more reasonable to accept. And that question doesn’t just come down to the formulaic, “Which warrant is warranted?” because we can come up with awful arguments for anything. Consider:

The sky is green; if the sky is green, then the U.S. should let acts of terrorism occur; therefore, the U.S. should let acts of terrorism occur.

When it comes to a comparison of warrants, having an argument for your warrant does not always make your warrant better than your opponent’s. It usually does, but only when and because the argument appeals to assumptions that are more reasonable than your opponent’s. For example, the argument above does not appeal to assumptions that the judge should accept. It appeals to assumptions that the judge knows to be false. Of course, what the judge should accept depends on the other debater’s assumptions, so it ultimately requires a plausibility comparison. The judge must ask herself which assumptions are more reasonable to accept.

In debate-technical terms, the depth of a warrant is the extent to which you argue for the warrant. Warrants of depth 1 are sets of premises where each premise is an assumption. Warrants of depth 2 are sets of premises where each premise is warranted to depth 1. Warrants of depth 3 are sets of premises where each premise is warranted to depth 2. (Ignore cases where some premises are warranted to one depth, yet others are assumed or warranted to another depth.)

My point is just that the deeper warrant does not always win. The deeper warrant may lose to the better warrant. If a warrant of depth 3 appeals to assumptions that the judge finds wildly implausible (e.g., 2 + 2 = 5), it should lose to a warrant of depth 4 that appeals to assumptions that the judge knows to be true (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4).

Both sides must, by logical necessity, appeal to assumptions for which no argument is given. Sometimes one debater agrees to the other’s assumptions, whether in CX, explicitly, or through drops. But other times, the debaters disagree on those assumptions. The judge has to resolve the debate somehow.

 

Instead of appealing to vague concepts like knowledge and plausibility, we can think about this question in terms of the judge’s degrees of belief in different propositions. Thinking about it in this way may actually offer a solution for the proponent of tabula rasa judging. That’s what I discuss in the next post. But I then show that the solution fails.