What is Fairness?

By: Jerry Chen

Fairness: a word we’ve all heard one time too often in the
rounds we’ve debated or judged. Given the mass proliferation of theory on the
national circuit in recent years, it seems like more and more rounds these days
are decided on the theory layer, often to the exclusion of substantive and
topical debate (although that’s a different issue altogether). Everyone is
familiar with the voter of fairness; most judges paradigmatically assume that it
is important in some sense- but to what degree? What exactly does it mean to be
fair, and what implications does fairness have for debate? Let’s consult our
favorite dictionary…

fair  :


1. free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice: a fair decision; a fair judge

2. legitimately sought, pursued, done, given, etc.; proper under the rules: a fair fight


Let’s start from the first definition. In the context of a
debate round, judges are presumed to be unbiased, since their job is to
determine the better debater. The problem, then, seems to arise when the round
is such that the judge is unable to make an objective evaluation, even if they
wanted to. This is the usual justification for the fairness voter in a theory
shell- the judge’s highest priority is to be an impartial adjudicator. This is
where the second definition of fair comes into play- how do we determine what
it means to be fair? What exactly are the rules of debate?

Most debaters and judges seem to assume that fairness is
equal access to winning the ballot (at least, that’s how it’s generally
defined). Practices such as judge intervention and necessary-but-insufficient
burdens are decried as some of the most egregious violations of fairness, since
they supposedly prevent equal access to the ballot. Given the trends in the
community for the past couple of years, it seems like at least a couple of
these arguments have solidified into norms, eg. a priori/pre-standards arguments
have largely died out as common practices, since they have stopped winning as
many rounds as they have in the past. However, winning the ballot, in the
context of fairness, seems relatively arbitrary- although “unbiased”,
judges have a wide range of personal preferences. In the vast majority of
cases, one cannot expect to have a 100% “tab” judge. Some judges vote
on skeptical arguments and tricks, while others rule them out entirely. Those
judges would also still probably vote off pre-standards arguments and the like
if they were dropped. If that is the case, it doesn’t seem “fair” that
different judges make different decisions given the same kind of arguments,
relatively regardless of what the debaters do in the round. Moreover, there are
external considerations such as the resources that one has at his or her
disposal. The ability to prep or have multiple coaches is heavily skewed
throughout the circuit, often disadvantaging small schools. With all this in
mind, the first problem arises: what do we do with fairness? Here’s an analogy.
Think of your classic util vs. deont debate. Let’s assume that fairness is
valuable. Is it something we have to maximize, or is it simply a

In most debate rounds, debaters have empirically preferred a
utilitarian approach. Most obviously, in the case where both debaters have
reasonably legitimate claims that their opponent is being abusive, the
intuitive (and common) solution seems to be to determine who is comparatively
more abusive, or unfair- and in most of these cases, that is how judges end up
evaluating the round. But if we take this idea to its fullest logical extent,
it seems like that would imply that we could just flip a coin or use a random
number generator to determine the winner. Now, the objection I imagine most
would think of is that, flipping a coin would not determine the better debater,
and that debate would require some kind of substantive clash. But above, we’ve
already determined that being the better debater is quite arbitrary and that argumentation
doesn’t always matter, especially if a judge paradigmatically excludes certain
arguments. So, that objection doesn’t sound particularly strong in the face of
judges who could plausibly reject a multitude of different types of
argumentation. Moreover, even if we wouldn’t flip a coin with that logic in
mind, the problem still remains- if competitive equity is something we ought to
maximize, then we would still be logically obligated to take extreme measures.
Should we err on the side of small school debaters because they are
disadvantaged in terms of resources? This seems intuitively unappealing, and
also unfair. But more importantly, where is the cutoff for the practices we
must endorse or promote to make sure rounds are the most fair? A maximization
model of fairness, thus, is questionable.

Does this mean we ought to treat fairness as a constraint?
This view also seems unpalatable, because the theory debate looks irresolvable
when both debaters have some claim to a violation of fairness. A reasonable
solution might be to assume some kind of act-omission distinction in evaluating
fairness. In this way, there is no reason to maximize fairness to the extreme
degree of flipping a coin, but given multiple violations of fairness, it is
still possible to weigh comparatively worse violations. I do not have a clear
answer to this problem.

However, a secondary problem remains. Let us assume that
we’ve figured out if we want to maximize fairness or simply treat it as a
constraint. The question remains as to what the rules of debate ought to be in
the first place. Think back to the argument about small schools being
disadvantaged. It would definitely help equalize the playing field, and thus
access to the ballot, if we favored them in some way or another. I’ve heard
arguments along the lines of “err on the side of small schools on theory
debates”, or something to that effect. But once again, taking into account
considerations external to the issues brought up in the debate round is
intuitively unfair and antithetical to determining the better debater. Debate
is an esoteric activity that is also to a large extent, based on privilege- but
does that mean we ought to factor that into the way rounds are adjudicated? Obviously,
we should be proactive in making debate more accessible to all (again, a
different but very relevant and important discussion). But at first glance, it
doesn’t seem “fair” to punish debaters from bigger schools just because they
were lucky enough to be in that position in the first place.

The idea of fairness also seems to imply a factor of
“culpability”. Some scholars[1]
have written on the idea of fairness in game theory when applied to sports; for
example, violations such as handballs and slide tackling in soccer earn players
penalties. In debate, people run towards the penalty of “dropping the debater”
to gain a strategic advantage (for the most part), without often assessing
culpability. Specifically, this is especially apparent in claims of “time
skew”, in the sense that the affirmative is time crunched between two, longer
negative speeches. However, if we take culpability into account, it seems that
the negative has no control over the speech times, or structural rules of
debate. Moreover, debaters debate a roughly equal amount of rounds on both
sides, so why should one debater be punished to compensate the other for something
neither has control over? This issue also spills over to the previous issue I
have discussed- a common response to the objection to time skew is that we
still ought to balance the round even if it’s out of the debaters’ hands. But
then, it still seems arbitrary where we draw the line- to what extent do we
have to try to make the round more equitable or balanced? To that, I have no
real answer- this discussion is only the beginning of a much larger
conversation over a very abstract topic that is nevertheless pervasive in many
of the debates taking place these days on the circuit. What are your thoughts?

[1] Sigmund Loland, Professor, Norwegian University of
Sport and Physical Education, “Justice and Game Advantage in Sporting Games,
Ethical Theory and Moral Practice”, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1999.