Frameworks, Wide and Narrow (Part I)
A wide framework accepts the importance of more
than one kind of ethical consideration. This kind of framework used to be a
widespread practice in national circuit LD, and it may even have been an
unstated default assumption of many judges. But, over the years, wide frameworks
have been mostly replaced by narrow, preclusive frameworks that only count one
kind of moral consideration as relevant. My aim in this series is to push
against today’s somewhat conventional wisdom that wide frameworks are untenable
Before I do that, I need to clear up a common misconception.
Debaters often assume that consequences only matter on one view:
utilitarianism. There are two reasons why this is misguided. The first is that
utilitarianism is different from consequentialism, although debaters often
conflate them. According to consequentialism (roughly), the rightness of an act
is just a function of how good its consequences are — in other words,
consequences are all that matters when it comes to our moral obligations.
But consequentialism says nothing about which consequences count as good.
Utilitarianism is consequentialism plus the view that utility, or wellbeing, is
the only intrinsic good. You could be a consequentialist about fairness,
freedom, or fine dining, or about a plurality of intrinsic goods. I know
many debaters like to say “util” as an abbreviation for anything
having to do with consequences, but it’s simply misleading.
This distinction may be especially important on this topic.
Suppose the retributive theory of punishment means that deserved punishment is
intrinsically good. Debaters sometimes argue that this means retributivism must
be non-consequentialist. Not so. We can be consequentialists about deserved
punishment. But it is incompatible with utilitarianism, since
utilitarians deny that things other than wellbeing are intrinsically good.
There are lots of thorny issues here, including whether “retribution”
means the retributive theory of punishment, but let’s leave them aside for
But second, even if consequentialism (not just utilitarianism)
is false, non-consequentialists can still care about consequences. In fact, the
vast majority of them do! John Rawls, one of the most influential deontological
theorists, wrote, “All ethical doctrines worth our attention take
consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply
be irrational, crazy.” I am inclined to agree with Rawls, but even if you
disagree with him, you should still grant that the view is kosher in a debate round.
For example, almost everyone would agree that, other things
being equal, we ought to make the world better rather than worse. But
deontologists would add that other things are not equal when
there is some relevant side constraint, special relationship, strict duty, or
other kind of consideration. Consequences still matter on this view — just
think of them as outweighed by the side constraint (or whatever the
outcome-independent consideration happens to be). When I say
“outweighed,” I don’t mean that the outcome is worse because the
constraint is violated — this view is not like rule
consequentialism. I mean that, although the outcome may be better, the act is
wrong in virtue of violating some constraint. This kind of wide framework
is not just coherent, but very plausible!
In the next article, I plan to argue against the view that a
standard must be exclusively ends-based or exclusively means-based.
There are other assumptions about what deontological standards
imply and rule out. For example, some debaters simply assume that a
deontological standard means that intent is the only thing that matters —
excluding merely foreseen consequences (in criminal law, the distinction is
between “purposeful” and “unpurposeful” consequences).
Given that most deontologists are not this extreme, I don’t think any standard
gets this distinction for free, or any similar distinction that would
completely exclude offense that would otherwise be relevant to the
One final comment on the topic of deontological standards.
Debaters sometimes claim that if both sides violate a deontological standard,
then both sides are merely permissible. This is defended on the grounds that
deontological wrongdoings are binary, not scalar, and cannot be compared. If
that were true, then murder could not be a worse or more severe wrongdoing than
petty theft. No deontologist thinks that. So there must be some way to
weigh deontological violations; they don’t just lead to permissibility.
*Thanks to Eric Palmer, Jeff Liu, and Larry Liu for discussion
on some of these issues (in this article and in the rest of the series) at MBA.