Three Common Misunderstandings of Fiat

“Fiat” is a Latin word meaning “Let it be
done.” In debate, “fiat” refers to a debater’s right to assume that her
advocacy will happen. In other words, when a debater runs a plan or a
counterplan, she does not have to argue that the plan is likely to happen. She needs only to argue that it would be net
advantageous if the plan were
implemented.

To say that a plan is politically unpopular
and therefore unlikely to pass is no answer. The basic logic is that in debate
we want to argue about whether an advocacy is good or bad, not whether it is
likely to be implemented. On the current topic, the Affirmative might argue
that the United States should implement a single-payer healthcare system. The Negative
may argue that this is a bad idea relative to the status quo or a competitive
counterplan, but she may not argue “that would never get through Congress.” The
Affirmative debater gets to fiat that
the plan would pass congress.

This notion is not entirely uncontroversial,
and there are many complexities that are beyond the scope of this article, but
the basic idea that a debater has a right to fiat her advocacy is widely
accepted. Despite this, I see many rounds in which there is confusion about the
role of fiat. I hope to clear up a few common misconceptions.

1.
Pre-Fiat versus Post-Fiat

Many LD debaters have a hard time parsing the
distinction between pre-fiat and post-fiat arguments. This is not surprising,
given that the nature of fiat in more traditional LD cases is ambiguous. (For a
good discussion of this issue, see Scott Phillips’ article in the
victorybriefs.com archives on fiat in Kritik debate).

A “post-fiat” impact is one that happens in
the hypothetical world where the affirmative advocacy (or a counter-plan
advocacy) is implemented. “If we
implement a single-payer healthcare system, millions of people who were
otherwise uninsured will have access to healthcare services.” We don’t imagine
that this impact will actually happen
by virtue of the judge voting affirmative – it’s what would happen if the agent
in the resolution (in this case the United States) did what the affirmative
advocates.

A “pre-fiat” impact is one that we imagine
really occurs as a result of something happening in the debate round itself.
“If the judge votes for the Negative debater, it will teach the Affirmative
debater not to use offensive rhetoric.” “If the judge votes for the Negative,
other debaters will be deterred from using the abusive tactics the Affirmative
used.” Arguments that commonly have pre-fiat impacts include:

1. Theory: A
debater should lose or an argument should be disregarded in order to preserve
the fairness or educational value of the debate.

2. Kritiks: A
debater should lose or an argument should be rejected because the debater used
rhetoric which is offensive or makes problematic assumptions. Sometimes
debaters will make similar arguments without a full Kritik shell; these we
commonly call “discourse” arguments.

3. Performance: The
judge should vote for one debater or another to affirm a praiseworthy speech
act (e.g. one that helps the participants to better understand the gravity of
oppressive practices). For example, a debater may read a narrative written by
someone struggling without health insurance to convey the seriousness of
America’s uninsurance problem and inspire concrete action from fellow debaters
and judges.

Debaters typically assume that pre-fiat
impacts should be lexically prior to post-fiat impacts because the former really
happen (supposedly). This assumption can be challenged by the idea that
resolving the substance of the post-fiat debate is more important than the
pre-fiat impacts. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the details of the arguments
on both sides of that issue.

2.
Debaters fiat advocacies, not standards.

A common mistake in LD is to fail to
distinguish between a debater’s advocacy
and her standard. The standard,
usually a value and criterion, is typically a moral or political rule which the
debater claims is most germane to resolving the question posed by the
resolution. If I propose that Utilitarianism should be the standard on the
current topic, I am suggesting that whether we implement a universal healthcare
system turns on whether doing so maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain.

An advocacy, on the other hand, is what course
of action the debater proposes for the agent of the resolution. In the present
topic, I might advocate that the United States (the agent in the resolution)
implement a single-payer healthcare system.

The standard is NOT part of the advocacy. In
other words, I don’t “fiat” the standard (assume that it will be implemented);
I only fiat the advocacy (what course of action the agent will take). I don’t
have to argue that the United States should adopt
a utilitarian mindset and then implement a single-payer system as a result
.
I fiat that a single-payer system
will be implemented, and evaluate
that course of action by using the standard. The standard itself is not an
argument with post-fiat impacts.

Here is a common example of this mistake:

Affirmative:
   

Utilitarianism is the best moral
theory for evaluating government action. The United States should implement a
universal healthcare system because doing so would save 50,000 lives every
year, which is a huge advantage according to utilitarianism.

Negative:

Utilitarianism justifies genocide,
which would kill way more than 50,000 people, so the disadvantages to affirming
outweigh the advantages.

The Negative debater has made the mistake of
assuming that the agent (the United States) must adopt the standard, when in
fact the Affirmative has only argued that it should adopt the advocacy. The
argument that Utilitarianism justifies genocide might be a reason to reject it
in favor of another standard for evaluating the impacts, but it does not
generate any post-fiat impacts.

3.
Debaters advancing a probabilistic claim are not exercising the power of fiat.

The only thing that is fiated (assumed) in a
debate round is that a debater’s advocacy will happen. The impacts of that advocacy are not
assumed. They are probabilistic claims – claims about what is likely to happen as a result of the
advocacy. For that reason they can be contested. You can’t say that an advocacy is unlikely to pass Congress,
but you can say that the impacts your
opponent predicts are in fact unlikely to happen.

Affirmative:

Utilitarianism is the best moral
theory for evaluating government action. The United States should implement a
universal healthcare system because doing so would save 50,000 lives every
year, which is a huge advantage according to utilitarianism.

Negative:

My opponent fiats that 50,000 lives
will be saved, which is abusive because we don’t know for sure that this is
going to happen.

Here the negative has confused the Affirmative
advocacy with Affirmative impacts. The Affirmative argues that it
is probable that 50,000 lives will be saved, but he does not assume it without
argument. The Negative may argue that it is untrue that 50,000 lives will be
saved, but the Affirmative has not engaged in any kind of abusive fiat.

So, remember when you are thinking through
issues of fiat to distinguish the advocacy, the standard, and the impacts of a
position. Doing so will save you big headaches down the road.