Not So Different From Substance: Two Theory Tips and the Theory Behind Theory

Not So Different From Substance: Two Theory Tips and the Theory Behind Theory

By: Daniel Tartakovsky 

Theory is tricky to think about since most of what we’re taught focuses on jargon like reasonability versus competing interpretations, RVIs, and dropping the argument versus dropping the debater. Debaters throw around these terms without knowing the theory behind theory, and jargon often takes the place of actual argument.

This focus on the technical aspects of theory makes it seem different from other arguments when in reality it’s usually analogous to contention-level debate. In this article, I try to connect theory to other arguments in a way that makes it seem less daunting. 

Take the following back-and-forth, assuming the interpretation that “Debater A can’t read a plan.” 

Debater A: Plans are good because they contribute to an in-depth discussion of policy questions, allowing us weigh the costs and benefits of different approaches to better our decision-making skills. Improving our ability to make decisions is an important educational benefit. 

Debater B: Plans are bad because we don’t just need to weigh the costs and benefits of things; talking about different frameworks in the abstract is more valuable because we can gain philosophy education, which promotes unique critical thinking skills.

Debater A: Policy education outweighs philosophy education because we only have two months to talk about the policies I advocate, whereas we can always talk about philosophy. If you want to learn about Kant, go read a book!

As a disclaimer, there’s certainly room to argue about what I say about the truth of debater A’s arguments versus the truth of debater B’s arguments. My goal isn’t to convince you that plans are good or bad. I’m just using the example to explain how to approach theory debates more generally.

Tip 1: Always think about how arguments connect to the interpretation (and counter-interpretation).

Debater B latches onto A’s rhetoric in the standard without thinking about how A’s interpretation actually affects philosophical education.

Debater B’s claim is probably non-unique; a plan usually just narrows the topic to a particular advocacy without affecting the framework debate. B can still read a case with a different framework. Much like a non-unique disad doesn’t present an opportunity cost to the plan, a non-unique standard doesn’t present an opportunity cost to the interpretation that plans are fine.

If you’re debater B, think about what your opponent’s interpretation prevents you from doing. Then, argue why that’s bad, i.e., why you should still be able to do that thing.

This is analogous to how you would run a disad to a plan. 

Suppose A’s plan is to ban oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Your disad says the plan has a bad impact (i.e., by banning drilling, the plan harms economic growth).

In the same way, your theory standard says A’s interpretation has a bad impact (i.e., by preventing me from running different frameworks, the interpretation harms philosophy education).

Thinking about theory like this clarifies the link chain (from interps to standards to voters) and can help you identify when arguments are actually responsive.

If you’re debater A, explain why B’s argument doesn’t respond to your interpretation. Running a plan doesn’t hurt framework debate, so there won’t be less philosophy education. It’s like saying the disad doesn’t link to the plan (i.e., the plan doesn’t ban drilling or banning drilling doesn’t actually harm economic growth).

This approach is more strategic than what debater A does in the example. First, instead of conceding B’s argument and trying to outweigh, A can now neutralize B’s offense. Second, a quick delink is faster than making a few weighing arguments, so A saves time. Debater A can also both delink the argument and still weigh against it, creating two layers for B to tackle. 

Some might say that a delinking is a worse strategy because offense is better than defense. But the delink totally neutralizes B’s offense, leaving debater A clearly ahead. If debater A weighed without the delink, he’d sacrifice the place where he’s most ahead – the link – in favor of an impact debate that is likely far less clear.

Think of it like substance. If you want to win using your first contention, what’s better, delinking from the disad or trying to weigh the impacts? Ideally you can do both, but the latter is a safer bet if the disad doesn’t link. You’ve spent time developing your contention’s link story – why would you give your opponent a free pass by conceding the link?     

When you’re responding to a counter-interpretation, treat it like a counterplan. Same strategy applies.

The broader take-away here is that whether you are running or answering theory, always think about how arguments connect back to the interpretation. And don’t freak out, it’s just like answering an aff or neg contention. Interp-counterinterp can thus be thought of as plan-counterplan.


Tip 2: When weighing, don’t separate impacts from standards.

In the example above, A’s weighing totally ignores the standards debate. Debater A just says that one type of education outweighs the other without discussing how much each interpretation actually affects the two types of education.   

On a contention debate, debaters often actually talk about the strength of link – i.e., how much your opponent’s advocacy harms economic growth. This is what people mean when they say, “the size of the link determines the size of the impact.” 

For some reason, this idea hasn’t translated to theory. When weighing theory impacts, everyone just reads five reasons why “fairness outweighs education” instead of thinking about the strength of link to fairness or education – i.e., how much unfairness your opponent’s interpretation creates. 

Judges sometimes buy into this way of evaluating rounds. They first decide which voter is more important and then look at whose standards link best to that voter. But this view is implausible. 

Even if a regional conflict is generally worse than economic collapse, for instance, a tiny increase in regional tensions is probably less harmful than a protracted global depression.

Analogously, if B’s interpretation significantly harms policy education and A’s interpretation leads to a tiny bit less philosophy education, B’s interpretation is probably worse even if philosophy education is more important.

Some might argue that a voter is more similar to a value criterion than an impact. In that case, the argument goes, judges shouldn’t look at strength of link. But I think the strength of link approach is better. 

First, if we want to maximize fairness and education but, say, fairness matters more, why should we ignore education entirely? You might slightly prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate ice cream, but surely a lifetime supply of chocolate ice cream is better than one scoop of vanilla.

Second, even if fairness is a side constraint – i.e., we first care about ensuring a fair debate and then consider other impacts like education – I don’t see why it should be binding in all instances. The argument that the judge can’t evaluate arguments objectively when the round is skewed doesn’t imply that education doesn’t matter. At best, the reasons for why we need a fair debate before anything else are just weighing, and they don’t warrant why education doesn’t matter any better than “life is a prerequisite to autonomy because if you’re dead you can’t be free” warrants why autonomy doesn’t matter.

Without getting too much into a separate discussion, I actually think evaluating value criteria using a strength of link approach – i.e., both the aff and neg standards can be important to some degree and the judge considers the strength of the offense under each criterion – also makes more sense than just excluding one standard altogether. 



Broadly, I’ve argued that we should think of theory arguments as structurally identical to substantive arguments. In my experience, teaching debaters to think about theory in this way makes the answers to questions like, “How should I answer this standard?” and “How do I weigh between different voters?” much less confusing and makes theory as a whole less daunting.

Compare two cases: a standard aff advocacy and a standard neg theory shell. The two are structurally identical. I think it’s something many people don’t consider.

Case 1: Contention Debate 

Plan: Congress will ban drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

Banning drilling reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Fewer emissions reduce global warming 

Global warming is an important impact

Case 2: Theory Debate

Interpretation: The aff can’t run a plan

Plans skew my ground

Ground is key to fairness

Fairness is an important impact


Note that seeing theory as analogous to contention-level debate applies under any paradigmatic view. For instance, a reasonability claim that the abuse isn’t significant enough to warrant a loss depends on how strong of a link to the voter the standards establish. Under no paradigm would ignoring strength of link make sense.

From what I’ve seen, theory debates tend to consist of short, underdeveloped, unweighed analytics that the judge has to piece together. Substantive debates can be like this too, but the arguments are usually easier to resolve and slightly more developed. Perhaps this is because people erroneously see theory as a different kind of argument. In reality, it’s not.

Many judges have grown to dislike theory, which is unfortunate because the good theory debates I’ve seen – with developed offense, non-standard voters, and nuanced comparison – have been exciting and impressive. Hopefully, visualizing the interp-counterinterp as plan-counterplan will help debaters tie arguments back to their advocacies and more clearly understand how links and impacts work. Perhaps then people won’t hate theory quite so much.



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