The Scope of Fiat: A Response to O’Krent by Jacob Nails

A) A Minimalist Notion of Fiat

I. What is Fiat?

Many debate resolutions propose ideas which, regardless of their merits, are highly unlikely to be implemented. Few policy analysts would forecast global nuclear disarmament in the near future. Nevertheless, the September-October 2010 topic called for debaters to argue whether it would be desirable. Similarly, the United States is unlikely to join the ICC (Jan-Feb ’09), grant equal due process to terrorists (Sep-Oct ’12), or scale back attorney-client privilege (Nov-Dec ’13). Even the prospects of the few resolutions that have some popularity with Congress are from certain.

How can we debate a topic when we have no idea when or if it will ever come to pass? Fiat is the answer. For decades fiat has occupied a central role in competitive debate’s lexicon. When used as a term of debate jargon, fiat refers to the principle that the affirmative need not show that the resolution will in fact happen, only that it would be good if it did. Fiat thus allows the affirmative to bypass questions of whether the resolution is likely to come to fruition. The affirmative only has to show that the resolution would be the right option for us to choose, if we could.


II. Fiat as a Debate Convention

The most common view of fiat is that it is a useful convention for debate. Fiat operates as a universally agreed-upon custom among debaters and judges to ignore questions of likelihood and allow the affirmative to proceed as if the resolution could happen. All parties have a mutual interest in ignoring questions of probability to facilitate arguments over desirability, which make for better debates.

The idea of fiat as a practical norm is not new. Take this excerpt from a debate manual written two decades ago by collegiate policy debate coach David Snowball.[1]

“Fiat (from the Latin for ‘let it be done’) is a debate convention designed to focus attention on the substance of a resolution, rather than on questions of its political feasibility…Without the concept of fiat, all debate would come to a screeching halt as the negative team simply shrugged their shoulders, pointed to the inherency contention, and commented ‘well, it just ain’t gonna happen!’ (Emphasis mine)”

I would wager strongly that this definition was not new in 1994 either but extends much farther back into the history of policy debate.

In any case, fiat-as-debate-convention has not lost steam in recent years. Michael O’Krent’s recent article “Ethical Frameworks, Fiat, and Advocacy” appears to espouse this exact view. O’Krent holds fiat to be a principle of debate theory borrowed by LD from policy debate. He writes,[2]

“We have… adopted the idea of fiat as theoretical background for affirmatives that approach the resolution through action.”

I disagree with this view, but if fiat is not what the debate community has held it to be for decades, then what is it?


III. Fiat as a Normative Rule

The line of argument which fiat prohibits would, if allowed, break debate so badly that generations of debaters and coaches have tacitly agreed to debate as if this line of argument didn’t exist. In Snowball’s own words, if we dropped the convention of fiat, “all debate would come screeching to a halt.” What, says Snowball, is this response that would defeat any resolution so soundly that the community must construct the rule of fiat in order to expressly forbid its use? Snowball provides it: “Well, it just ain’t gonna happen!”

Does this response truly trump any and all resolutions of policy or value?

No. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

Fiat was “designed” to limit out an argument so fallacious it would not even pass muster in a debate among laypersons. Consider the following exchange among two non-debaters:

A: “You should stop murdering people.”

B: “Well, it just ain’t gonna happen!”

Has B soundly debunked A’s claim? Has the idea that one shouldn’t murder people been so easily invalidated with only that argument? Of course not. B hasn’t responded to A’s claim at all. A has asserted a normative premise about what one must do, and B has rejoined with a descriptive statement of what one will do (or in this case, won’t do).

We don’t need to construct a new rule of debate to inform ourselves that B’s argument is bad. The idea is intuitively, overwhelmingly obvious on its own. That’s because the principle of fiat is already implicit in any normative claim. When uttering a “should” or “ought” statement, one makes a claim about what ought to be rather than what is. Hence, “I won’t,” does not refute “you should.”

This same rule will hold for any argument inside or outside a debate round, with or without an agreed upon convention of fiat. Even in an argument between two people who had never so much as heard of competitive academic debate, a normative resolution that something ought to be done cannot be contested by a probability claim that it won’t be done.

Fiat is not a construction made by debaters. It is merely a heuristic representation of a deeper normative principle which existed before anyone named it “fiat.”

Attempting to directly justify or indict a debate practice by direct appeal to fiat puts the cart before the horse. There is no rule of fiat governing debates, over and above other considerations. It should be possible to drop the reference to debate fiat and make the same argument appealing to logic directly. After all, fiat is itself grounded in the logical principles of decision-making. If this task cannot be accomplished, the debater has most likely snuck some additional assumption into their notion of fiat that does not belong.

One could hold that a debate convention of fiat exists alongside the underlying notion of fiat laid out above, but insofar as the two principles would be coextensive, such a paradigm would only add confusion and redundancy. If the structure of decision-making already guarantees all the theoretical benefits that the construction of a debate norm of fiat is said to offer, why keep the norm around? And if the debate convention of fiat does differ in some circumstances from the normative principle of fiat that guides real-world decisions, we should be highly skeptical of those deviations where our debate norms steer us away from logical argumentation.


B) A Response to Michael O’Krent

I. The (In)Distinction in Fiat Between LD and Policy

O’Krent begins his article by sketching a distinction between LD and Policy debate with this analysis:

“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).”

The part of the explanation that rings true to me is that policy debate does assume a utilitarian net benefits calculus, but not in the way that Michael suggests. Michael argues that the assumption of util is part of “traditional policy theory.” In my two year experience in policy debate, I have not found that to be the norm. Debaters have made non-utilitarian claims every so often – myself included – and I have yet to see a team attempt to exclude such arguments by appeal to the rules or theory norms of the activity. Most teams will respond by reading a card to justify util (80% of the time it will be Isaacs 02) and moving on.

Having discussed the prevalence of utilitarian arguments in the activity with a number of other policy debaters and judges, I believe the presumption of util exists more as a substantive moral norm. Most participants in policy debate just don’t buy deontological claims. Bear in mind also that the topic committee does not craft policy topics with ethics debates in mind, so policy debaters rarely have debates grounded in the literature base these claims stem from. The fact that topics like energy policy tend to be less conducive to philosophical debates than topics like compulsory voting provides a second rationale why utilitarianism is more often assumed.

Regardless of the reason why utilitarian arguments uniformly win out over non-utilitarian ones when played out in policy debates, these debates happen and are not excluded by theory. The dearth of ethics debates is explained primarily by substantive norms and topic areas, so the prevalence of utilitarianism is not evidence of any necessary asymmetry in theoretical constraints regarding paradigms, fiat, or fairness.

The conception of fiat outlined in the previous section of the article applies at least as much to policy as to LD. Whereas most LD topics use normative terms like “right” or “ought,” all policy resolutions in recent history have used the normative term “should” (every high school resolution since 1972-’73 and every NDT resolution since 1927-’28). Insofar as both events use prescriptive topics, the same logic of fiat will apply to each.

Furthermore, in section II of his article, Michael outlines “The Problem” which purportedly befalls LD in a unique way due to its use of ethical frameworks. I do not agree that The Problem is so unique. It seems to extend to policy debate as well. The apparent dilemma is that “the idea of fiat breaks down completely in the context of framework debate.” Michael goes on to clarify that this break down of fiat would allow debaters to apply ethical theories to the debate round itself to reach unwanted conclusions. One stated example goes,

“[I]f 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.”

Why wouldn’t the exact same pitfall apply to policy debaters who, by Michael’s own admission, assume the moral theory of utilitarianism to be true each round they debate? Even if policy debaters do not frequently contest or justify the assumed utilitarian framework, this would not deny that it governs the judge’s decision. Fiat cannot be the answer as O’Krent himself writes,

“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.”

Policy resolutions are still normative, so there will always be an implicit normative framework that applies not only to the plan but to the debate as a whole. It just tends to be utilitarianism.


II. The (In)Distinction in Fiat Between Paradigms

One solution that Michael offers to The Problem comes from his interpretation of one of the main paradigms for Lincoln Douglas debate, truth-testing. Truth-testing, he asserts, shifts the debate away from actions, and evaluation of actions lies at the heart of The Problem. He argues,

“[U]sing 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.”

The truth-testing solution is not as clearly effective as Michael would hope. Even granting the dubious assumption that truth-testing shifts the focus of the debate away from actions, the paradigm would only steer us away from one hazard and into another.

Judgments about action are not the only way debaters might end up with The Problem. Other forms of evaluation could also be spun to justify wonky conclusions about the debate round. It seems, by his usage of “good or bad,” Michael intends to imply that truth-testing could force the debate to be about a purely axiological question of the resolution’s goodness rather than its rightness. Axiology has no fewer tripwires than action theory. Suppose a debater’s framework grants that aesthetic beauty has great intrinsic value. Might it be argued that the judge weigh the debaters’ personal appearances heavily in evaluating who counts as the better (in a now aesthetic sense) debater? What if the axiology justified in round puts no more value on fair end-states than unfair ones? Theory would be a doozy in that world. The room for contrived possibilities is endless.

Likewise, even if the debate focuses on “the resolutional principle” rather than a particular action, accepting a principle would commit the judge to certain actions as a consequence, and one ends up back at the same Problem, albeit more indirectly.

This whole train of reasoning rests, of course, on the assumption that the truth-testing paradigm would somehow shift the debate away from normative evaluation of actions. One could imagine resolutions where this conclusion would be almost inescapable, e.g. “Two plus two equals four,” “Unemployment will decline in 2015,” or “The Americas were populated by 10,000BC.” None remotely implies an action. But none remotely resembles an LD resolution, either.

Most LD resolutions are indeed normative truth statements about actions, and some would have to be severely mangled to reach any other conclusion. Consider the Jan-Feb 2007 topic, “Resolved: The actions of corporations ought to be held to the same moral standards as the actions of individuals.” Or what about, “Inaction in the face of injustice makes an individual morally culpable” (a possible topic on the slate for next year)? One would have to perform some gold medal-worthy mental gymnastics to interpret these topics as anything but normative truths about actions. How could “moral” not mean moral or “action” not refer to action?

Even though most topics don’t lay out in quite such stark terms the focus on morality and action, many come close. Statements about “right” and “ought” are intuitively normatively judgments about how to act. While some definitions of “ought” could support a non-moral focus on states of affairs, those usages of the term “ought” appear primarily in the context of the phrase “ought to be,”[3] as in “everyone ought to be happy,” not in sentences where “ought to” is paired with an action verb, as most resolutions are worded. Because most resolutions are framed in this fashion, truth-testing will not have the desired effect. Proving most LD topics true requires proving a normative statement about action.

What’s more, the distinction between truth-testing and alternative paradigms on this point is not particularly clear. While policy- and world-focused paradigms move the debate away from the resolution’s truth, they nevertheless only refocus the debate around a different normative truth about action, relevantly similar in function to the resolution itself. Jason Baldwin furthers,[4]

“[T]he world comparison paradigm does not shift the focus of the debate away from truth claims. It simply moves the debate from one type of truth claim (the resolution) to another (the claim that some set of possible worlds is more desirable or choice-worthy than a different set of possible worlds). Moreover, both types of truth claims are propositions of value in the broad sense in which LD has traditionally been thought to center on propositions of value. So any weaknesses the resolutional truth paradigm has in virtue of its focus on normative truth claims will be shared by the world comparison paradigm, since it, too, focuses on normative truth claims.”

If Baldwin is correct then the relevance of fiat (as well as the potential for debates to get bogged down in Michael’s Problem) will apply equally to essentially any paradigm. Some paradigms might center the debate on the whole resolution, while others will center it on a plan, but any reasonable paradigm will still require making the sort of truth-apt evaluative judgment, and that causes The Problem to arise.


III. Fiat Does Not Mean Switching Sides

At the start of the article’s final section, Michael touches on another vital assumption underlying debate, this one:

“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.”

The principle here is that debaters should be free to switch sides on any issue unbeholden to anything but the arguments they make in the current round; that is, the principle is that debate should be switch-sides and apolitical. UPitt debate coach Gordon Mitchell explains the reasoning behind switch side debate,[5]

“I was highly skeptical of the ‘laboratory model’ of ‘preparatory pedagogy,’ where students were kept, by fiat, in the proverbial pedagogical bullpen. Now I respect much more the value of a protected space where young people can experiment politically by taking imaginary positions, driving the heuristic process by arguing against their convictions. In fact, the integrity of this space could be compromised by ‘activist turn’ initiatives designed to bridge contest round advocacy with political activism. These days I have much more confidence in the importance and necessity of switch-side debating, and the heuristic value for debaters of arguing against their convictions.”

Rather than explicate this principle, Michael’s article appears to equivocate it with two other distinct claims. The first is fiat. He writes that “We separate the plan from reality with the label of fiat.” This claim seems bizarre. He seems to suggest that fiat is the principle which holds that debaters are only tied to their plans for the sake of the round. Lest there be any confusion on this point, Michael clarifies, “When debaters fiat a plan, they do so only for the sake of the round.”

This claim is entirely unrelated to the notion of fiat. Again, fiat is the principle explaining why descriptive facts about the resolution’s likelihood don’t bear on whether it ought to be done. Fiat holds for any normative claim, not just switch side debate rounds.

This conflation of concepts affects Michael’s later argument for “Framework Fiat.” When Michael argues that “Something similar must exist that limits ethical frameworks only to deciding whether the plan is a good idea or not,” he is in fact claiming that framework must function similarly to the principle of apolitical switch side debate, not the principle of fiat.

To demonstrate that the two concepts in question are independent of each other, one can merely imagine a scenario in which one principle holds true but the other does not.

— Debates could allow for free switching of ideas without involving fiat.

In a 6 round tournament on the aforementioned topic “Unemployment will decline in 2015,” debaters could argue for both sides and switch up their arguments for the same side each round. At no point does fiat come into play, as the topic only calls for a prediction about the long-term economic trends of the status quo which is not a normative question.

— Debates could also involve fiat without allowing for free switching of sides.

Visualize a tournament in which each debater must disclose beforehand a plan and an outline of its advantages which they will be bound to defend throughout the tournament. Debaters would of course use fiat in suggesting that a world of plan passage would be good, but they would still be tied to their pre-round case commitment and not be free to argue as they please.

Neither of these tournaments sounds very appealing (largely because fiat and free switching of sides are both sound principles that should not be removed), but the point remains that one could conceive of each principle without the other. The two are neither logically equivalent nor even directly connected.

What Michael has in mind has no relation to fiat, so to refer to it as “Framework Fiat” is a misnomer at best. Fiat absolves one of dealing with descriptive questions of probability. Free switching of sides absolves one from being tied to factors outside of the debate round. Whatever connection Framework Fiat has to the latter, it is unrelated to the former.

C) Conclusion

I. The Problem

I have not offered my own solution to The Problem that Michael described. Framework debates can arguably lead to peculiar conclusions when extended beyond the resolution’s context and applied to the debate round itself. My aim is only to clarify the murky question of fiat that underlies many of Michael’s arguments. Providing a solution to the core Problem is beyond the scope of this article. It is also beyond the scope of fiat.


II. An Afterthought

Might the same Problem exist for non-normative arguments? Certain empirical claims have the quality of being relevant to both the resolution and the round itself.

–If a debater argued successfully that Russia, since the start time of the round, had just instigated a nuclear attack on the US, the judge might have strong reason to sign the ballot immediately to maximize time to find a bomb shelter.

–If a debater responded to an education funding impact on a spending DA by impact turning the concept of education (ignorance is bliss, after all), such an argument could also have obvious ramifications on the theory debate.

–If nuclear war is inevitable within 5 years, long-term voting issues like advocacy skills may not matter, as the debaters will be incinerated before ever putting their advocacy skills to use in the real world.

The Problem extends far broader than framework claims, so framework-specific fixes like Framework Fiat seem unlikely to rectify it. Or maybe these arguments are legitimate, and there’s really no Problem at all?



[1] David Snowball (Former Director of Debate at Augustana College, IL). “THEORY AND PRACTICE IN ACADEMIC DEBATE.” A Reference Guide. Third Edition, 1994.

[2] Michael O’Krent. “Ethical Frameworks, Fiat, and Advocacy.” Victory Briefs. 21 August 2014.

[3] Richard Robinson. “Ought and Ought Not.” Philosophy, Vol. 46, No. 177 (July 1971), pp. 193-202.

[4]Jason Baldwin. “Truth or Consequences: A Response to Nelson’s World Comparison LD Paradigm.” December 2009.

[5] Gordon Mitchell, debate coach at Pittsburgh, Nov 09 2002,