Ethical Frameworks, Fiat, and Advocacy By Michael O’Krent


Michael O’Krent debated for four years at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, qualifying to the TOC thrice and appearing in the final rounds of the St. Mark’s Heart of Texas Invitational and The Meadows tournament. He is now majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Law at the University of Southern California, and he coaches Marlborough School in LA.


Something has been lost in the application of Policy concepts to LD. Unlike Policy, LD incorporates an evaluative standard. While Policy debate assumes an all-inclusive net benefits calculus absent contest, in LD both debaters are usually expected to present (and debate) an ethical theory or some kind of framing mechanism to determine what impacts are relevant. In short, we debate framework; Policy doesn’t (Or at least not in its traditional theory). Yet LD has adopted from policy the idea of plan focus, or more broadly a comparative worlds framework that evaluates the resolution as an action. We have also adopted the idea of fiat as theoretical background for affirmatives that approach the resolution through action. This article will discuss how the notion of fiat interacts with LD-style ethical frameworks, a major problem this interaction raises, and potential solutions.


I. Groundwork

In LD, the aff advocates either doing the resolution in general or doing a specific instance of the resolution – a whole-res approach or a plan. The former approach is the more traditional “LD” way, while the latter has been adopted from policy; however, both are just actions. For ease, I will use the term “plan” to stand in for any aff advocacy, including res-focus. At the end of the round, the judge determines the winner by deciding whether doing the plan would be a good idea or not (assuming no paradigm-altering argument, like theory or a kritik, was introduced).

Of course, the judge endorsing the plan has no effect on whether it actually happens. The plan is hypothetical. Borrowing again from policy, LD uses the concept of “fiat” to make arguments about the plan meaningful. Fiat, as properly understood, means taking the plan as a counterfactual. Less technically, to fiat the plan means to suspend considerations of whether the plan will or would happen in order to focus the debaters’ arguments and the judge’s decision on whether it should happen. All arguments about the plan function like answers to a “What if…?” question, namely, “What if the plan happened?” Keep in mind that fiat deals with action.

LD adds an extra layer by requiring an interpretation of “should,” or “ought,” as it appears in most of our resolutions. Policy just proceeds under the counterfactual plan. LD, on the other hand, requires arguments based both on the plan and an ethical framework. We ask not only “What if the plan happened?” but also “What would make the plan happening good or bad?” Again: we debate framework; Policy doesn’t.


II. The Problem

What I’ve said so far may seem obvious. The previous paragraphs have outlined a few simple, clean distinctions. We all think we know these basic facts about debate. However, the idea of fiat breaks down completely in the context of framework debate, that LD idiosyncrasy that the pioneers of Policy did not design to fit LD. The traditional understanding of fiat allows debaters to ask the first question, “What if?,” but ignores the implicit counterfactual in framework debate.

What? Implicit counterfactual in the framework? Is this a skep trigger?

No. It’s far more nefarious.

A basic understanding of what it means for a framework to be true, what we tell novices when we explain how framework works, holds that winning a framework debate makes that standard true only in that round. This principle seems intuitive because it allows us to have new framework debates in every round. The heuristic works, so nobody investigates further. But there’s another limit missing.

It is unclear, although commonsensical, why a framework only determines whether one action, the counterfactual plan, is good or bad. We separate the plan from reality with the label of fiat, but that label cannot apply to how we treat framework because framework is not an action. So the framework is, by default, true beyond the plan. After all, if the framework is true for the purposes of the round (the intuitive limitation), the judge would be acting immorally (or unjustly, or in some way differently than how she or he “ought to” act) if she or he did not decide the round based on the framework’s dictates. And the framework would probably say something in-round is more important than the plan, which is, after all, hypothetical.

Some might say that “fiat,” suspending considerations of reality, applies to framework as well. But the framework isn’t “different” than reality and can’t be. Debaters that present complete ethical theories like deontology or utilitarianism are asserting the truth of a philosophy that applies to everything. Although more specific or context-based standards exist, they are all applicable to more than just the plan. There is no such standard that is only capable of telling us whether the plan is good and nothing else. If the framework is true “in the round,” just like a plan might be plausible only in-round, then other actions that occur “in the round” should also be evaluated according to the framework, like how the judge decides the round, how the judge should decide the round, whether the judge should listen to anything the debaters say, even whether the judge should be there. Some examples can illustrate the madness that follows under the traditional understanding of framework truth:

Suppose the aff runs a utilitarian framework, instructing the judge to vote for the debater who best maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain. We would expect the judge to adopt this framework to calculate whether the plan is a good idea or not. But if utilitarianism is true, shouldn’t the judge vote for the debater who will be happier to win the round? The judge is in-round, and utilitarianism is true, so the judge should act based on utilitarianism.

If a debater reads a framework composed entirely of Ayn Rand, ought the judge to vote for the debater whose winning would best further the judge’s own interests, and then bill the other debater for her or his time, perhaps requiring payment only by check to avoid credit card fees and the inconvenience of carrying cash? Or ought the judge to do the right thing and kick the debater out of the tournament for reading a framework composed entirely of Ayn Rand? But the judge couldn’t do so while conforming to an in-round framework.

This example may be familiar: suppose a debater reads moral anti-realism, aka skep. If there are no obligations, then the judge could just get up in the middle of the 1AR, leave, go to Starbucks, and maybe turn in the ballot later if it’s convenient. If there are no obligations, there’s nothing requiring the judge to actually judge the round.

If rounds proceeded like this, debate would completely break down because nothing anyone said in round would have any meaning or function whatsoever. The judge would pick a framework, and then suddenly the resolution would disappear. Util debates would be about demonstrating how much each side wanted to win. Deon debates would become existential contemplations on the meaning of the round. Contractarian or egoist frameworks would devolve into bidding wars over whose win could benefit the judge. Our activity would become competitive bribing.

The last example may be the most illuminative, because that exact issue has come up in rounds before. The “judge has no obligation to vote” argument was once a common response to skep, but has disappeared because it is ultimately unpersuasive. Debaters successfully asserted that running skep is not an instruction to the judge but rather a statement about the resolution. That separation between skepticism applying to the resolution and skepticism applying to the ballot is the precise distinction necessary to save us from that bribing nonsense. The rest of this article will clarify and generalize that distinction to arrive at a deeper understanding of what it means to declare a standard.


III. Solutions

When debaters fiat a plan, they do so only for the sake of the round. Running a plan does not commit a debater to advocating it the rest of her or his life; in fact, the next round, that debater may have to argue against the very same plan they are running. Something similar must exist that limits ethical frameworks only to deciding whether the plan is a good idea or not. Otherwise, the strange situations from the last section would be logically consistent. There are three potential ways to escape this problem:

First, using a truth-testing paradigm dodges these problems. Recall that ethical frameworks become problematic when they evaluate actions, while fiat saves action-based advocacies. The trouble started with the lack of distinction between the hypothetical action (the plan) and the judge’s real actions in-round. Truth-testing erases this issue by removing action from the picture altogether. Under truth-testing, debaters argue over whether the resolutional principle is ethically good or bad. So there are no ethical evaluations of action at all, and there is no reason for the judge’s actions to conform to the framework.

This solution is clearly very effective; however, I would hesitate to mandate truth-testing. For starters, banning or reappropriating all action-based debate under truth-testing seems heavy-handed. Truth-testing essentially requires doing away with all plans because plans are actions. There must be a solution short of revolutionizing half of debate. In addition, because Policy assumes an ethical evaluation that must be defined implicitly (think of the Naturalistic Fallacy), and there is likely substantial merit in Policy Debate’s existence (both independently and in LD), an alternate solution would be preferable.

The second possible solution is that there is another obligation that overwhelms the ethical theory. The issue I take with framework as we currently understand it is essentially that its moral prescriptions would also impose obligations on the judge. For the judge to vote based on the resolution and not on the ethical theory itself, she or he needs a reason to disregard the internal obligations of the ethics debate. One reason to disregard an obligation is to have a more important conflicting one. Something more important than the framework might obligate the judge to vote on the resolution.

This accords with common responses debaters made to the “skep takes out the ballot” argument. The obligation to judge is procedural, contractual, or teleological, and as such, does not rely on the existence of morality at large. This is a good skep frontline (for debaters who are into that sort of thing, which I definitely don’t endorse) but does not illuminate how we ought to deal with frameworks because they would obligate the judge to vote on something other than the resolution. The conflict between that non-moral obligation and the ethical framework is inevitable; in order for the judge’s role to overwhelm the framework, the resolution must be morally more important than all of ethics.

However, it’s unlikely any procedural obligation could overwhelm the Grand Theories of Morality debaters present. “Here’s what the word ‘ought’ means; here’s what it means to have an obligation” is just more important than “here’s what some guy in tab said I had to do for $50.” Framework debate defines the good; non-moral obligations assume that definition. Even if the framework in round were less weighty and highly contextualized to the resolution, the application of this principle would become inconsistent at best. The existence of overarching moral theories in debate quashes hope of a superseding obligation.

Third, and most importantly, there can be an additional concept separating framework advocacy between saying it is “actually real” and “applicable only to the plan,” much like how we treat the plan as a counterfactual and not as an action debaters have legitimately proposed. Asserting that a particular framework is true and we ought to use it (in other words, advocating it) seems to involve a degree of supposition similar to what we assume when debating a plan. For plan debate, the issue is that the plan will probably never happen, so fiat makes an otherwise irrelevant conversation meaningful to debate. For framework debate, however, the issue is that every round would become incomprehensible without something assumptions about how the framework functions. “Framework fiat” limits framework debates only to the evaluation of the plan and not to other actions.

This is the implicit counterfactual in all frameworks. Framework fiat allows us to ask not only “What if the plan happened?” but also “What if the framework were true only for evaluating the plan?,” as described in Section I. The justification for framework fiat is theoretical: As the loopy exploration of debate without framework fiat above demonstrated, all resolutional discussion in LD should be predicated on limiting the framework. Because debating the topic, any topic, and its coordinate benefits like developing cases about hypothetical issues, switching sides, advocating and refuting different positions, researching deeply, thinking critically about the topic, etc. are all predicated on framework fiat, we should limit the framework to the plan.

My hope in writing this article has been twofold: First, to clarify a gnawing ambiguity in how we debate framework, and, second, to reveal a new concept that might impact framework debating. This article has sought to explicate this under-examined issue in framework debating by raising potential issues associated with the lack of clarity surrounding framework fiat. There are still some yet-to-be-clarified issues related to framework fiat, like whether we fiat the truth of the framework in aff world or assume it to be true here and limit it, or what the speech act of advocating a framework becomes given this acknowledgement. Certainly debaters who garner kritik links from opponents’ ethical frameworks should adjust their arguments to account for the contingent nature of framework discourse in LD.  Some current framework comparison arguments, as well, might function differently given framework fiat. For example, arguments about what society would look like if we adopted a particular framework might not be relevant, because nobody is saying that we should adopt a framework for all of society. Or arguments about how a moral system would actually function in society might not hold up either. These might be the framework equivalent of “logical consequence” arguments that argue the plan is implausible – the very consideration fiat suspends. I don’t know what crazy framework arguments philosophers will write or debaters will imagine in the future, but framework fiat is an important concept to clarify to ensure framework discussions stay relevant and logical.


Thanks to Catherine Tarsney, Jake Nebel, and Chris Theis for introducing this issue to me during the Victory Briefs Institute 2012 Seminar. I did not raise my hand then, but after two years of sporadic headaches I hope I have contributed a plausible answer.