Philosophy and Oppression by Shrey Desai

Shrey Desai debated for four years at Saratoga High School (CA). Shrey qualified to the California State Tournament, championed Western Championships and SCU (twice), and won speaker awards at the College Prep, Stanford, and Berkeley Invitationals. He would like to thank Chris Theis, Jake Nebel, Sajeev Saluja, and Prachit Bhike for their thoughtful comments and revisions.


As some of you may recall, the first article I wrote for Victory Briefs was Fairness vs. Critical Arguments. I discussed the importance of fairness and how it conflicted with and outweighed critical impacts, namely role of the ballot arguments that the affirmative or negative made. Without a doubt, this issue collected a lot of heat and there were controversial discussions surrounding rationale and real-world implications. Upon reading the comments, I noticed that many critical debaters reiterating one thing over and over again; each wanted their peers to engage their arguments substantively, rather than theoretically. For many critical debaters, their arguments are not merely 1AC or 1NC speech, but rather extensions of their identity, beliefs, and most importantly, voice.

Danielle Reyes, the 2016 Harvard Lincoln-Douglas Champion, put it best when she wrote in a Facebook post: “We have to pay close attention to how oppressive structures pervade academic spaces like debate, not just on an active violent level … but also on a passive exclusionary level [such as] reading fairness first against anti-blackness debaters…” Maybe a couple more spikes at the bottom of an affirmative case or hidden fairness outweighs arguments in the voter section of a 1AR theory argument are not the most respectful response to critical arguments on the circuit.

However effective those strategies could have been, I believe the fairness/critical impact debate has been going on for much too long. The more and more I witness and hear about them, these debates are often very frustrating as judges are left to resolve a large amount of buzzwords, competing assertions, and arguments to little to no weighing. Indeed, some judges are outright unconvinced by these debates. Terrence Lonam, a well respected adjudicator from the Lake Highland Preparatory School, recently expressed his discontent in his Lincoln-Douglas judging paradigm: “I think arguments saying T/Theory unilaterally outweigh Ks (or vice-versa) are nonsensical because they essentially saying the way you happen to organize an argument gives it some privileged space to come before other arguments that happen to be organized differently.”

I believe it is time for debaters to approach critical argumentation with a more educational and maybe even theoretically stable methodology – philosophy. Instead of answering role of the ballot arguments with theory, debaters should present counter-role of the ballot arguments through a philosophical lens. Section 1 will discuss the dichotomy between ideal, or philosophical, theory and non-ideal theory. Section 2 will consist of a defense of ideal theory against common criticisms non-ideal theorists have voiced. Finally, Section 3 will present a case study of philosophical role of the ballot arguments in action through an analysis of a popular ethical framework called virtue ethics.

I. Ideal theory and Non-ideal theory

Consider the following passage from Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle:

Let us not fail to notice, however, that there is a difference between arguments from and those to first principles. For Plato, too, was right in raising this question and asking, as he used to do, ‘Are we on the way from or to the first principles?’ There is a difference, as there is in a race-course between the course from the judges to the turning-point and the way back. For, while we must begin with what is evident, things are evident in two ways—some to us, some without qualification.

The first principles that Aristotle speaks of are philosophical principles. By definition, philosophy has first and foremost been a theoretical discipline. Its most popular project is that of ethics, which consists of different principles and theories used to guide action and govern human behavior. Even today, there is a relevant consideration of whether these ethical, or ideal, principles should be the starting point of societal conduct and law. This is the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory.

Wenar (2013) defines ideal theory as consisting of “idealizing assumptions about its subject matter.” Many popular ethical theories, such as Kantianism and contractualism, are derived from ideal subjects, ideal principles, and ideal conditions. For instance, Kantian ethics propose that all actions must be consistent with universal law; this implies that in all situations, one must never lie or never kill someone. These sorts of principles are only possible in an ideal world because they deviate from important practical considerations, such as whether a lie would save lives or whether the CIA should kill a terrorist. Contractualism is even more ideal because it argues that ethical actions are those that nobody would reasonably reject. Again, contractual actions only exist in ideal circumstances where people share the same psychological makeup and have the same interests. This theory would not function in non-ideal circumstances like the status quo. The current resolution is a great example; bipartisan support on a handgun prohibition bill would never happen because Democrats and Republicans are simply ideologically opposed. 

However, non-ideal theory is the opposite of ideal theory. It attempts to focus on the structural conditions that humans are in and how that affects their judgment, such as privilege, economic status, social conditions, etc. Non-ideal theory attempts to reject a comprehensive picture of ethics and takes into consideration questions such as political effectiveness and feasibility. Laurence (2012) clarifies, “Nonideal theory, by contrast, ‘asks how this long-term goal might be achieved, or worked towards…It looks for courses of action that are morally permissible and politically possible as well as likely to be effective.’”

In the context of debate, ideal theories and non-ideal theories are both very popular. Non-utilitarian affirmatives are usually ideal theories. Common frameworks read on the circuit include the veil of ignorance, equal freedom, virtue ethics, property rights, communitarianism, and other ethical theories. In contrast, most roles of the ballot arguments are non-ideal because they focus primarily on status quo conditions. Roles of the ballots such as capitalism, biopolitics, feminism, anti-blackness, and militarism are all examples of non-ideal theories because they are concerned with how people are poorly treated in the status quo, mostly as a result of the impacts stemming from the affirmative or negative advocacy.

As this analysis has proven, ethical frameworks that affirmatives read have more implicit clash (than one would think) with a critical role of the ballot argument, and vice versa. The most important distinction between the two is that of abstraction and idealism. In dealing with oppression, debaters have erred towards non-ideal theories. In responding to kritiks (Ks) in the past, affirmatives have mostly gone for policymaking good arguments or argued that other forms of oppression are the root cause of the impacts the negative discusses. There have been few situations in which non-utilitarian affirmatives have leveraged their ethical and normative frameworks, or ideal theories, against Ks. If a debater could prove that an ideal method to addressing oppression is far more effective than a non-ideal method, then that debater could win the round.

Let us consider the following scenario on the 2016 January/February topic to clarify: The private ownership of handguns ought to be banned in the United States. The AC is an intimate partner violence critical affirmative, which argues that a handgun ban would reduce intimate partner violence and therefore deconstruct patriarchal structures. The bottom of the affirmative case has the following argument: The role of the ballot is to vote for the debater that rejects intimate partner violence. The overarching concern here is oppression, but the method that the affirmative uses in order to address oppression is a focus on domestic structural violence and the material conditions of women, or non-ideal theory. The NC is a property rights case, which argues that a handgun ban would revoke the right to self-defense and is therefore impermissible. The negative agrees that addressing oppression is important, but he or she argues that the method to do so is incorrect. She argues that the counter-role of the ballot is to vote for the debater that better respects individual liberty. With this argument, the negative asserts that the discussion of the NC, or ideal theory, is much more fruitful in addressing oppression rather than non-ideal theory. If the negative can win that her method is super to that of the affirmative, then she will win the round.

II. A Defense of Ideal Theory

So far, the dichotomous relationship between ideal theory and non-ideal theory has been introduced, but the relevant question now is whether ideal theory is actually an effective method to addressing oppression. Intuitively, one would think that focusing on material conditions is far more effective, as oppression is a state that is not theoretical, but instead created from elements in the real world. In addition to this, non-ideal theorists have brought up a variety of criticisms against ideal theory, which I will discuss below.

Criticism #1: Abstracting from social realities cannot account for the dynamic nature of oppression.

Mills (2005) argues: “Almost by definition, it follows from the focus of ideal theory that little or nothing will be said on actual historic oppression and its legacy in the present, or current ongoing oppression, though these may be gestured at in a vague or promissory way (as something to be dealt with later).”

While non-ideal theorists are correct in pointing out that ideal theory is in fact “ideal,” they are incorrect in assuming that an ideal framework cannot be used to discuss oppression. Rawls (2009), one of the main proponents of ideal theory, insists: “The reason for beginning with ideal theory is that it provides, I believe, the only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems.” As Rawls suggests, the main reason we start from ideal theory is to set in stone principles that can be used to judge real world events. For example, egalitarianism is a philosophical doctrine that maintains all humans are equal in fundamental worth. If we start from the ideal egalitarian assumption that all humans are equal, then we can safely say that classist oppression or sexist oppression are wrong because they put one group of people on a higher pedestal than another group. Ideal theory allows us to picture a world with full equality, and if we see real world events that do not cohere with this picture, oppression can be detected.

Ideal theory is effective because it sets a goal for society. It is true that society will never have complete equality, but if we start from an ideal method, we can effectively measure progress. Consider the following debate scenario on the living wage topic. In response to a capitalism K arguing wages are capitalist, the affirmative turns this argument by saying living wage coalitions are key to stopping the spread of neoliberalism. Both arguments here deal with capitalism and making competing assertions, but it is difficult to adjudicate which side is in fact the most capitalist per se. A non-ideal theory of rejecting capitalism would have a difficult time comparing the two arguments because there is no fundamental and central standard by which one can compare the two arguments. What one needs to do is have an ideal scale: the left side is no capitalism and the right side is full capitalism. Through this spectrum, one can weigh between the “units of capitalism” the affirmative and negative produce. Robeyns (2008) concludes: “What is the goal of ideal theory so defined? Ideal theory functions as a lighthouse: it tells us in which direction we should be moving to reach a (minimally) just society, or a society that is just with respect to a particular domain.”

Criticism #2: Ethics are constantly under debate and there is no “correct” ethical theory.

Non-ideal theorists have commonly insisted that the multitude of ethical theories prevents us from using the “correct” framework in order to address oppression. In addition, there are a lot of ethical theories that conflict with each other; obviously, utilitarianism and deontology cannot reach the same conclusion regarding ethical scenarios.

Even though there are a lot of ethical projects to pick and choose from, many of them begin with similar assumptions about people. There are certain constraints that ethical theories must account for before they become ethical theories. Through his comprehensive analysis of ethics, Gosepath (2007) finds that “[t]he principle of equal dignity and respect is now accepted as a minimum standard throughout mainstream Western culture.” In utilitarian theories, the considerations and interests of one person do not automatically outweigh those of another. In deontological theories, each person is an autonomous agent and cannot infringe on the liberty of another. These normative constraints are the fundamental standards which ideal theory hinges on. Different forms of oppression fall under these guidelines as well; every single oppressive group tends to deny the respect and worth of another group. As Stemplowska (2008) concurs, “All normative theories must contain principles, that is normative statements expressing position(s) on one or more values.” There does not need to be one overarching and comprehensive ethical theory because this is extremely over-demanding and also unnecessary. The backbones ethical theories and doctrines are constructed upon suffice for adjudicating real world events.

In addition, the fact that ethics are constantly under debate can also aid the oppression debate. While it is intuitive that oppression is bad, there is still a gray area that must be discussed. For instance, is it moral to oppress a few people in order to save a large amount of people from oppression? Or, should we always avoid the active oppression of a single person, even if it causes pain and suffering to others? These are tough questions to answer, and the only way to answer them is to debate the philosophical justifications behind them. The former question is a utilitarian concern, which says that the ends justify the means, so as long as oppression is kept to a minimum, an action is permissible. The latter question is a deontological concern, which says that the means are important instead, so out of ethical duty, oppression to any single person should be avoided. Non-ideal theorists would be unable to answer these sorts of questions because these questions require an ethical principle to give it value and meaning. Our world is not black and white, and so our logic should not be either. It is not a question of rejecting oppression, but rather understanding why oppression is bad; the discussion of ethics can greatly benefit an individual’s understanding of societal injustices in the real world.

III. Ideal theory in action: Virtue ethics

One of the three most popular normative theories in mainstream ethics, virtue ethics “emphasize[s] the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences” (Athanassoulis). Unlike its counterparts – consequentialism and deontology – virtue ethics has proven to be a much more flexible and some might argue intuitive framework. Consequentialist principles, or those that weigh the net benefits and harms resulting from an action, are often criticized for reaching repugnant conclusions. Events such as the Holocaust, genocides, and slavery yielded positive consequences for the masses, but the minority voice was shut out and therefore not included in the moral calculus. Intuitively, this seems wrong and therefore consequentialist frameworks, at least from an individual standpoint, do not seem appropriate when dealing with sensitive topics such as oppression. Deontological principles, or those that stem from individual duties and obligations, are even more rigid than consequentialist principles. If not for the moral framework deontology provides, the history the ethical theory itself is rooted in seems to draw blame from various philosophers and historians. Soble (2003) has expressed his concerns regarding the categorical imperative and homosexuality, Bernasconi (2002) discussed the racist premises that philosopher Immanuel Kant rooted his theory upon, Mendus (2000) released an article criticizing deontology for excluding women, and Maslow (1981) has expressed his concerns regarding deontology as a classist and elitist theory. When weighing between possible ideal theories that can be used to address oppression, consequentialism and deontology do not seem like viable options.

What makes virtue ethics an attractive theory to address oppression is its emphasis on character. Moral character is achieved through societal deliberation and character traits such as respect, compassion, and benevolence are cultivated throughout the way. Virtue ethicists argue that a strong moral character is key to eudaimonia, the Greek word for “a good life.” In order to relate virtue ethics to oppression, I will use white supremacists as an example. White supremacists fundamentally believe that their race and culture is superior to those of others, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, or Asians. Through mere intuition, one can safely say that these white supremacists have inculcated a lot of vices; just to name a few, these supremacists lack empathy for the feelings of others and are definitely not humble when weighing between cultural beliefs. They are not leading “the good life,” and they are fundamentally devoid of important virtues and a strong moral character. Tessman (2005) argues that oppressors “exhibit moral vices (such as callousness, greed, selfcenteredness, dishonesty, cowardice, in addition to injustice) or at least the absence of certain specific moral virtues (perhaps compassion, generosity, cooperativeness, openness to appreciating others).” In order to cleanse themselves of their repugnant mindsets and oppressive tendencies, these oppressors must first and foremost rid themselves of these vices. Through the Aristotelian ways of moral education and practice, the oppressors can develop a moral character, ultimately solving for the root cause of their harm towards others.

This phenomenon also has historical precedent. The use of virtues was empirically successful in bringing down oppressors during the Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an important moral authority for the United States; he encouraged the discipline of nonviolence and tolerance in order to spread racial justice. The methods that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used were morally praiseworthy, and ultimately, successful. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 proved that policymakers in the United States federal government had come to terms with their vices and were cognizant of the racism that had infiltrated the nation. The same white supremacists that had segregated African-Americans were forced to develop a moral conscience and inculcate virtues such as respect and compassion that allowed them to view the African-American people as equals. Moral integrity and the promotion of virtue were not only effective but also essential in stopping real world oppression.

So, how would this function in a debate round? This approach would require the affirmative to set up a virtue ethics framework in the 1AC. Because virtue ethics is a popular and flexible theory, there is usually a lot of topic literature available, so there is no need to worry about contention-level offense. When the negative reads a criticism, or K, of the affirmative case, he or she will most likely set up a role of the ballot with a non-ideal theory to address the instances of oppression discussed in the 1NC. In the 1AR, the affirmative can argue for a counter-role of the ballot. Utilizing the virtue ethics example, a counter-role of the ballot text could read: The role of the ballot is to vote for the debater that best promotes virtue. The offense under this counter-role of the ballot would be the entirety of the affirmative case, and the net benefits to prefer this counter-role of the ballot would be reasons as to why virtue ethics, an ideal theory, is optimal to discuss oppression in academic spaces like debate. Personally, I would refer debaters looking to execute this strategy to the Tessman article; the entirety of her piece centers on why moral conscience and a virtue ethical character is necessary for liberatory movements.


With the expansion of critical argumentation, debaters must ultimately seek nuanced, educational, and also respectful strategies that can address these arguments. While philosophy and ideal theories do have their setbacks and disadvantages, this article has shown why philosophical approaches are an effective and also strategic method to addressing oppression. Ideal theories provide principles that allow individuals to track moral progress and normative reasoning that can provide insight into the “gray” area that many situations and policies fall under. Aside from philosophy, I encourage debaters to move away from excessive tendencies to pull up theory files or pre-written blips when encountering critical arguments. Debate, as a competitive and academic activity, should be as inclusive and educational as possible, and philosophical theory is a great starting point for debaters seeking to expand their knowledge base and skill set. 


Reyes, Danielle. Facebook Post. February 15, 2016.

Lonam, Terrence. “Lonam, Terrence.” Judge Philosophies. September 26, 2015.

Wenar, Leif, “John Rawls”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Laurence, Ben. “The Priority of Ideal Theory.” Practical Philosophy Workshop, University of Chicago. 2012.

Mills, Charles W. ““Ideal theory” as ideology.” Hypatia 20.3 (2005): 165-183.

Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Harvard university press, 2009.

Robeyns, Ingrid. “Ideal theory in theory and practice.” Social Theory and Practice 34.3 (2008): 341-362.

Gosepath, Stefan, “Equality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Stemplowska, Zofia. “What’s ideal about ideal theory?.” Social Theory and Practice 34.3 (2008): 319-340.

Athanassoulis, Nafsika. “Virtue Ethics” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Soble, Alan. “Kant and sexual perversion.” The Monist 86.1 (2003): 55-89.

Bernasconi, Robert. “Kant as an unfamiliar source of racism.” Philosophers on race: Critical essays (2002): 145-66.

Mendus, Susan. “Time and chance: Kantian ethics and feminist philosophy.”Feminism and Emotion. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2000. 55-68.

Maslow, William D. “Academic Sociology as a” Classist” Discipline.”Humanity and Society 5.3 (1981): 256.

Tessman, Lisa. Burdened virtues: Virtue ethics for liberatory struggles. Oxford University Press, 2005.