On Hypocritical Theory by Jake Nebel

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Jake Nebel is an executive director at Victory Briefs and (starting fall 2019) assistant professor of philosophy at USC. He recently completed his PhD in philosophy at NYU.

1 Introduction

Suppose you’re late to meet your friend for lunch. When you arrive fifteen minutes late, your friend is upset. They say that your tardiness was disrespectful, wrong, and so on. They blame you, and you have no excuse. But here’s the twist: your friend has been late to the past several lunch meetings you’ve had.

Is their blame appropriate? This question is distinct from two others: whether you did anything wrong, and whether you are thereby blameworthy. You did wrong by showing up late. And, since you have no excuse, you are blameworthy. But it doesn’t follow that your friend is right to blame you. Arguably, they don’t have the standing or authority to blame, condemn, or criticize you for being late, because they are so often late themselves.

This is an example of hypocritical blame. Hypocritical blame is when one person blames another for violating a norm that they (the blamer) themselves have recently violated or are disposed to violate. Intuitively, in such cases, the act of blame is inappropriate even if the person being blamed is blameworthy for acting wrongly.

My aim in this article is to highlight a practice in debate that is structurally analogous to hypocritical blame, and to suggest a strategy for dealing with this practice. The practice is what I call hypocritical theory. A hypocritical theory interpretation is one that a debater advocates that they themselves recently violated or will soon violate. A theory interpretation may become hypocritical at either of two times: first, when the debater advocates it (in, say, round 2) after having violated it in some prior round (round 1); or, second, when the debater violates it (in, say, round 2) after having advocated it in some prior round (round 1). I intend the label of “hypocritical theory” to apply to cases of both kinds.

Note that, in calling certain arguments or practices “hypocritical,” I don’t mean that they or their proponents are in any way bad or blameworthy or unvirtuous. I don’t mean that their proponents are hypocrites in the ordinary, morally loaded sense that they habitually do things that they believe or assert to be wrong. The definition is merely stipulative; the point of the label is just to highlight the structural analogy to hypocritical blame. Hypocritical theory is relevantly like hypocritical blame in that it involves complaint, criticism, or condemnation of an act that one has engaged in oneself, even if the nature of that complaint is not particularly moral.

Although my discussion is explicitly focused on theory interpretations, I suspect it may also apply to other kinds of pre-fiat criticism and advocacy (e.g., certain kritiks). What these positions have in common, for present purposes, is that their links/violations are committed by debaters—things they do or say—and that their alternatives/interpretations have or at least include debaters as their agents. If the affirmative debater is supposed to lose for being complicit with capitalism, for example, and if the “we” who should reject capitalism includes the debaters in the room (which it presumably does if the alternative requires the judge to vote one way or another), then this makes it possible for the advocacy to be hypocritical in the relevant sense—e.g., because its proponent linked in the very same way just last round.

I also intend the label of “hypocritical theory” to cover topicality, at least as it’s most commonly run. In most topicality debates, the negative argues that the affirmative should lose for failing to present an advocacy that affirms the resolution. This contains two logically independent parts: a theoretical rule requiring the affirmative to be topical, and an interpretation of what the resolution means. When these two advocacies are combined, they justify a single rule requiring the affirmative to affirm some particular proposition at tournaments using the given resolution. If the debater advancing that rule violates it in other rounds, by defending an advocacy that does not affirm that particular proposition, then the topicality challenge was, in the relevant sense, hypocritical.1

What I propose is a norm against hypocritical theory and hypocritical “debate blame” more generally. I believe that the norm should be imposed bottom-up by debaters, via theory argument, not top-down by judges. The content of the norm is this:

The Nonhypocrisy Norm:
Debaters must meet their own interpretations (and other pre-fiat advocacies) for at least the entire tournament in which those interpretations are proposed, and may only advocate interpretations that they have met throughout the tournament.

The penalty for violating the nonhypocrisy norm should be whatever penalty was proposed by the debater who violates it.

In stating this norm, I have specified a duration—the tournament—which is somewhat artificial and which may therefore seem arbitrary. Some arbitrariness is inevitable because the notion of hypocritical blame (and therefore hypocritical theory) is, to some extent, vague: it’s vague whether a person engaged in some behavior “recently.” Two hours ago may count as determinately recent, and three years ago may count as determinately not recent, but there is no precise threshold in between. Just because some debater ran multiple necessary-but-insufficient burdens as a freshman shouldn’t mean that they forfeit the right to run theory against those arguments as a senior. One has to choose between maintaining the vagueness of our ordinary concept and introducing an arbitrary threshold. I have chosen the latter, because a debate tournament is a natural unit of competitive preparation and allows for some adjustment in interpretations within a single topic and each debater’s career. But either path seems to me defensible.

In the rest of this article, I’ll give some arguments for the nonhypocrisy norm and consider several objections to it. I’ll start with arguments that appeal to the general impropriety of hypocritical blame, and then argue (more compellingly, I think) that adopting the nonhypocrisy norm would be good for debate.

2 Hypocritical Blame

The first kind of argument for the nonhypocrisy norm is that it is supported by the more general (non-debate-specific) reasons against hypocritical blame. The philosophical literature contains several accounts of the problem with hypocritical blame, but I’ll just mention three of them here.

According to Scanlon (2008), blame is supposed to mark an impairment in a relationship. But, in cases of hypocritical blame, the blamer has already impaired the relationship, and so lacks the key complaint that supports blame. This may be applied to debate because, even if a proponent of hypocritical theory has not impaired the narrow relationship between themselves and their opponent, they (arguably) impair a wider relationship—i.e., between all competitors in a tournament, or all participants of the activity. Theory interpretations are generally justified by the impairments to fairness and education caused by their violations. Harms to those common goods are impairments to debate as an activity or community even if no particular competitor or member of the community can be identified as harmed.

According to Wallace (2010), hypocritical blame is inappropriate because it denies our equal moral standing as persons. The hypocritical blamer treats their own interest in avoiding blame as more important than the corresponding interest of others. Similarly, since debaters have an interest in avoiding the kind of punishment involved in losing a theory argument, the proponent of a hypocritical theory interpretation treats their own interest in avoiding punishment as more important than the corresponding interest of others. This is unfair because all competitors have an equal claim to having that interest respected.

According to Fritz and Miller (2018), hypocritical blame is unfair because it manifests an unjustified “differential blaming disposition.” The idea is that we ought to treat people in different ways only if there is a morally relevant difference between those people’s behavior. If each of two people are equally blameworthy for the same kind of transgression, then it would be unfair to blame only one but not the other. This applies even when one of those people is the blamer themselves, and therefore to hypocritical blame. Similarly, when running hypocritical theory, you treat yourself as deserving the sanctions that apply to others for unfair behavior, and there is no justification for this special treatment. Since it would be unfair for the rules of debate to make an exception for you to engage in some practice from which others should refrain, violations of the nonhypocrisy norm are therefore unfair.

Even if these particular arguments fail as general accounts of what’s wrong with hypocritical blame, it’s clear that something is wrong with hypocritical theory in debate. Suppose that in their first round on some topic, some debater runs disclosure theory—i.e., the argument that all previously broken positions read in a debate must have been disclosed in advance—and so themselves have no broken positions to disclose, but have no intention of disclosing after this first round, and therefore never do. There is clearly something wrong with a world in which debaters can win on disclosure theory but then fail to disclose for the rest of the topic. The best explanation of this datum appeals to the nonhypocrisy norm: it’s wrong because it’s hypocritical theory. Similarly, something has gone wrong if a debater says that some aspect of their opponent’s methodology excludes marginalized individuals from debate and therefore warrants a loss, if they themselves go on to employ that same methodology in another round at the same tournament. And, similarly, something has gone wrong if someone runs the nonhypocrisy norm at the start of a tournament and then knowingly violates it in a later round, defending the violation as just part of the game. Generalizing from these examples, it seems that calling for the imposition of some penalty (e.g., a loss) as a response to violating what is or ought to be a rule for debate, or for otherwise undermining some values that are important to debate, warrants a kind of seriousness which hypocritical theory undermines. It is therefore reasonable to think that the nonhypocrisy norm is a good idea even if we don’t know what exactly is wrong with hypocritical theory and with hypocritical blame more generally. The onus is on the opponent of the nonhypocrisy norm to propose an alternative norm that prohibits hypocrisy in these particular examples in some nonarbitrary way without prohibiting hypocritical theory more generally, or to explain away the apparent compellingness of these examples.

3 Benefits of the Nonhypocrisy Norm

In this section, I argue that widespread acceptance of the nonhypocrisy norm would be good for the activity.

3.1 Decreasing frivolous theory

First, the nonhypocrisy norm would significantly lower the prevalence of frivolous or otherwise undesirable theory arguments. For example, since few would commit to conceding (or to contesting) the aff framework for an entire tournament, few would impose interpretations requiring their opponents to do so. Debaters could not alternate between two incompatible interpretations one of which is guaranteed to be violated, since they would then be guaranteed to violate the nonhypocrisy norm. This would greatly increase the amount of substantive debate because debaters would lose access to one-half of their incompatible binary interpretations for theory and topicality.

The textbook disadvantage that must usually be weighed against a decrease in frivolous theory arguments is the discouragement of good theory arguments, which are key to preventing unfair practices. I myself see little evidence that good arguments would decline as the result of any proposed change in the evaluation of theory debates. But I think that is particularly unlikely to result from the nonhypocrisy norm, because the nonhypocrisy norm just requires you only to run theory arguments that you can live with. If we are worried about some good interpretation disappearing from the scene, then it should be one that debaters cannot live without, let alone can live with. So relevantly good interpretations would not be discouraged.

3.2 Side bias and other unfair advantages

Second, the nonhypocrisy norm would decrease side bias and prevent debaters from engaging in unfair practices better than the existing norms of theory debate, by selecting for better—i.e., fairer and more educational—interpretations. In the status quo, debaters have an incentive to engage in practices that advantage whatever side they happen to be on. The limits to this incentive are just the theory interpretations that they expect to lose to, against whatever opponent and in front of whatever judge they happen to have. But, as everyone knows, this is not really a function of which theory interpretations are actually best with respect to the actual promotion of fairness, education, inclusion, and other values of debate. It is largely a function of factors that have little to do with fairness and education: hours of practice and preparation on the relevant theory debates, knowledge of whatever arcane concepts were most recently invented by debaters, the reputation of the debater and their opponent, the opinions of the judge, what each debater had for breakfast, and so on. Debaters have a similar incentive to try to prevent others from engaging in practices that are, in fact, completely fair, simply because doing so (via theory argument) can win them the round.

The nonhypocrisy norm would solve this issue by discouraging debaters from proposing interpretations that give one side an unfair advantage, because debaters would know that they would thereby disadvantage themselves about half the time. You would not want to engage in some practice that gives your side an unfair advantage, because you would then cede your future opponents’ right to engage in that same practice when it harms you. And you would not want to run theory against some practice that is perfectly fair, because you would then close off that option in your own future rounds. In expectation, then, debaters’ strategies would be more fair, because people could not get away with unfair strategies simply because their opponent in that round is worse at theory. An important consequence of this would be an expected decrease in side bias, since debaters would have an incentive to accept interpretations that give them a roughly equal chance of winning on both sides.

Consider, for example, affirmative advocacies that are so narrow and plausible as to be nearly impossible to negate.2 Most debaters who hit such positions would resort to topicality, defending a perfectly sensible interpretation which rules out such narrow affirmatives. But many of these debaters then go on, when affirming, to defend affirmatives that are no (or barely) more general, and their opponents run the same topicality challenge against them. It is a vicious cycle of topicality against ridiculously specific affirmatives. The nonhypocrisy norm would force debaters to forgo one side of that topicality debate, or to find some interpretive middle ground that is mutually acceptable to both sides, and then—finally—to debate the resolution as they interpret it, thereby increasing fairness and substantive debate. Dealing with other hyperspecific affirmatives which you cannot plausibly negate or prepare to debate becomes the cost of running your own hyperspecific affirmative which your opponents cannot plausibly negate or prepare to debate.

Or consider affirmative cases that are filled with ridiculous (or perhaps even incompatible) theory spikes. These spikes are designed to force the negative into an undesirable or even impossible strategic position. Refuting the spikes takes a lot of time away from debating the topic and requires an absurd amount of knowledge about arcane theoretical issues, which has massive opportunity costs in terms of substantive research. The nonhypocrisy norm would offer a simple and effective strategy against such cases, because the affirmative would never meet all of their ridiculous spikes when negating (or else they’d always lose). Indeed, this is a more promising strategy than directly answering those spikes or making other theoretical objections to the affirmative, because those strategies tend merely to invite new surprises—e.g., triggering latent conditions of other spikes—whereas it would be question-begging to leverage those spikes against the nonhypocrisy norm when they are merely further violations of it. In this way, the nonhypocrisy norm would decrease the net strategic utility and, therefore, prevalence of these unfair and largely uneducational strategies.

3.3 Improving theory debates

Third, the nonhypocrisy norm would improve the depth, quality, and evidential value of (as well as advocacy skills promoted by) theory debates. Until now, I have focused largely on the advantages of decreasing the prevalence of many theory arguments. But I’m not of the opinion that all theory debates are bad. I do, however, think that many theory debates in the status quo are bad. For example, theory interpretations are rarely (if ever) supported by empirical evidence or pedagogical theory. They are usually supported by hyperbolic predictions, inferred from the limited claimed experience of the debaters running them. It is sometimes claimed, for instance, that some practice makes it “impossible” for the aff or the neg to win, or makes debate so uneducational that few would want to engage in it, but I have never seen a reason to believe that such a claim is even close to true.

Under the nonhypocrisy norm, however, the proof is in the pudding! The fact that someone is actually defending, say, two conditional counterplans, or that the aff must be topical under some interpretation of the topic, would provide at least some evidence that the practice or interpretation is sufficiently fair or educational to make it worth permitting or requiring throughout the tournament. Obviously this evidence is quite limited, and it’s far from a sufficient condition for some practice being legitimate or some interpretation being mutually beneficial (e.g., people would still have incentives to select interpretations that advantage themselves, at the expense of others, over the course of a tournament). But it at least injects more evidence and honesty into the debate than there ever exists in the status quo.

Moreover, by discouraging a large number of meritless theory arguments, the nonhypocrisy norm would improve the depth of whatever education is provided by theory debates. The theory debates that remain would be serious intellectual disagreements between people who sincerely believe (or are, at least, willing to be governed by) their interpretations. Debaters would then have an incentive to prepare more deeply on a narrower range of theoretical issues, making the resulting theory debates more educational in ways that better train the debaters to advocate for their values in the activity. (See also Adam Torson’s “Debate and the Virtue of Intellectual Integrity.”)

4 Objections to the Nonhypocrisy Norm

What remains is a lengthy discussion of likely objections to the nonhypocrisy norm. I apologize for its length, but here is some justification for it.

This article began as a highly speculative exploration of an unorthodox idea—not an idea that I thought particularly likely to be correct, but just an idea that seemed to me to have some important truth to it. But, after thinking about the objections that people would make, I became more confident that the idea was correct. Given this effect on my own attitudes towards the nonhypocrisy norm, I thought it might be worth including my thoughts on these objections for readers.

4.1 Switch-Sides Debate

Objection: “One great thing about debate is that you have to switch sides. So we must value the opportunity for people to defend both sides of an issue, even if they strongly disagree with one side. The nonhypocrisy norm discourages debaters from making arguments for conclusions that they personally reject.”

I agree that it’s important for debaters to defend both sides of the resolution. But it doesn’t follow that it’s important for debaters to defend both sides of every issue whatsoever. Sometimes there is more value in weighing the reasons on both sides and trying to come to the conclusion that is best supported by the balance of reasons—particularly, when that conclusion is about how you yourself should behave. Given that debaters switch sides on so many different issues (so that the value of switch-sides debate remains strong even under the nonhypocrisy norm), and there is at least some value in forming convictions on the basis of what you believe to be right, fair, and good, there is a unique educational advantage to introducing some test of conviction into some aspect of debate. Doing so would make debaters better advocates for change in their activity.

However, it is also important to note that the nonhypocrisy norm doesn’t prohibit debaters from making arguments for conclusions they disagree with: their personal beliefs don’t directly enter into it. It prohibits them from defending rules that they themselves violate, whatever their opinions about it.

If anything, the nonhypocrisy norm would likely improve switch-sides debate about the resolution. In the status quo, one can affirm and negate essentially different topics, by defending different interpretations of the resolution depending on which side you’re on. When affirming, you defend an interpretation that makes it easier to affirm; when negating, you defend an interpretation that makes it easier to negate. That’s just basic strategy, given the norms that govern the status quo. But this undermines much of the value of resolutional debate, because it lets you off the hook of having to both affirm and negate the very same proposition. The nonhypocrisy norm would improve the quality of resolutional debate by prohibiting debaters from changing the topic whenever they switch sides. (And it would do this without forcing debaters to engage in switch-sides debate if they have some principled reason to refrain.)

4.2 No Difference

Objection: “But what distinguishes theory interpretations from any other argument—e.g., the likely economic effects of the plan? Surely debaters should be able to debate both sides of those issues. Why not theory issues?”

The relevant difference is that you can’t be hypocritical, in the relevant sense, with respect to claims about the likely economic effects of the plan. Those claims don’t say that debaters should or should not do something that a debater might or might not have done. Of course, a debater’s personal behavior might constitute evidence that they don’t believe some empirical claim that they advance in a debate. But I don’t see what’s wrong with bringing such evidence into the picture and debating its significance. That pattern doesn’t involve hypocrisy in the sense I’ve been discussing, because it doesn’t involve blame for engaging in behavior that one engages in oneself.

Some might worry that the nonhypocrisy norm would create a slippery slope to the cross-application of other arguments between different rounds, in undesirable ways. For example, it should obviously be irrelevant to the substance of a debater’s counterplan in some debate that they defended some permutation against it in another debate, when they were on the other side. But there is no reason why the nonhypocrisy norm would make such considerations relevant, since they don’t involve hypocritical theory. We would need some special reason (having nothing to do with the nonhypocrisy norm) to think that such considerations are relevant in order to count them as such; my arguments here provide no such reason. Nor do I think that any reason is forthcoming. We might have reason to consider a debater’s previous claim that p as evidence against their present claim that not-p if the reason to believe the present claim were simply because they said so (i.e., because they claim to be an authority on the question). For we would then have the same kind of reason on both sides. But few claims in debate are ever justified in that kind of way. Debaters usually provide arguments for their claims that appeal to evidence other than their own authority, and so their previous assertions provide no relevant evidence against their present ones. It is not obvious to me that, when debaters do try to justify claims by appeal to their own authority, their recent claims to the contrary should be off limits.

4.3 Moral Claims

Objection: “But some claims made in debates—e.g., moral ones—do apply to debaters, and so debaters can violate the moral norms that they themselves advocate. If, for example, the aff claims that everyone should do whatever maximizes aggregate welfare, then wouldn’t they be hypocritical in attending a debate tournament, which probably fails to maximize aggregate welfare?”

Although I agree that moral claims can have implications for what judges and debaters should do (see my “Where the Argument Leads”), there is an important difference between believing or asserting that an act is wrong and blaming someone for it. The claim that everyone should maximize aggregate welfare may entail that it’s wrong to compete in debate tournaments (given plausible empirical assumptions), but a proponent of that claim needn’t thereby blame people for competing in debate tournaments. Therefore, the impropriety of hypocritical blame doesn’t by itself entail any similar impropriety in believing or asserting that people ought to do things that you yourself don’t do.

Moreover, even if there were a similar impropriety in that pattern, there doesn’t appear to be any reasonable penalty to impose in debates in which that occurs, because one hasn’t called for any penalty against people who fail to live up to the proposed obligation. The crucial difference is the absence of a violation/link, and of a penalty or other implication. These features make the practices I’m discussing relevantly different from other claims in debate.

4.4 Unverifiability

Objection: “Violations of the nonhypocrisy norm cannot be verified because it depends on some out-of-round event—i.e., the debater’s having violated or run an interpretation in some prior round.”

There are many ways to know that a debater has violated the norm. It might be revealed on the NDCA Wiki, or transmitted by testimony, or admitted by the debater in CX. (Hey, at the very least, this article might provide a new argument for disclosure theory: disclosure is key to verifying compliance with the nonhypocrisy norm.) Some might object that these measures are not perfect: people might lie in CX; disclosures might not reveal relevant violations; it’s impossible to check every round on someone’s wiki. That’s true. But even if enforcement is imperfect or even somewhat rare, the mere risk of losing to the nonhypocrisy norm would deter many people from violating it—just as the relatively small risk of getting caught violating norms of evidence ethics deters many people from miscutting cards. And there is, comparatively, little to no unfairness suffered in cases where violations are not caught, because those and many other violations would still happen in a world where the nonhypocrisy norm is rejected. (The objection is also not unique to the nonhypocrisy norm: almost no interpretations or even official rules would ever be perfectly.)

Some might admit that everyone in the room might actually know that the nonhypocrisy norm has been violated but nonetheless claim that such knowledge is off limits. But most claims in debate are about out-of-round events. There is no reason to suppose that the only things that the debaters and judges can take to be known are the goings-on of their small room. If one debater says that humans have walked on the moon and the other denies it, let a a debate ensue. But absent solid evidence for the conspiracy theory, the judge ought to take as known what they and the students all know to be true.

4.5 Changing Our Minds

Objection: “Even if violations of the norm can be verified, you can’t verify that the violating debater has the objectionable pattern of attitudes that make hypocritical blame inappropriate. For example, the debater might have simply changed their mind in between the round where they proposed the interpretation and the round where they violated it. Changing one’s mind is a good thing and should be rewarded, not punished!”

I agree that changing our minds is particularly important for debaters (see, e.g., my “Changing Our Minds”). But here’s something better: not believing something unless one has sufficient evidence to conclude that it’s true. If a debater genuinely believes in one round that multiple conditional counterplans are bad, and genuinely changes their mind before running multiple conditional counterplans in the next round, coming to believe that they are perfectly fine, then the debater seems to have been overconfident at least one of those times. Better to suspend judgment until one has enough evidence to reach a conclusion that one can expect to remain stable for at least a weekend. Moreover, when a debater does form a belief on the basis of sufficient evidence and decides to adopt that interpretation throughout a tournament, the nonhypocrisy norm would give them more information that they can use to reevaluate the belief, and a greater incentive to actually change their mind in the event that they are wrong, since they would witness the effects of an interpretation over repeated trials (i.e., multiple rounds at a tournament).

Moreover, the scenario we’re considering seems to me extremely uncommon. Outside of debate, we would expect that the person show remorse and apologize to whomever they now believe they wronged. If a debater does those things, then perhaps some reason for enforcing the nonhypocrisy norm would be diminished. But note that this objection only applies to the first kind of argument for the nonhypocrisy norm, regarding the general impropriety of hypocritical blame. It doesn’t apply to second first kind of argument, from its good effects. So its importance is limited.

4.6 Hyperspecialization

Objection: “Many debaters already hyperspecialize in one aspect of debate, which is bad for dialogue between debaters of different interests and ideologies. The nonhypocrisy norm would worsen this problem by forcing them to prepare for all rounds at a given tournament in the same way.”

I agree that hyperspecialization is a problem, because I think there is much to learn from all the different styles of debating. But debaters would still have competitive incentives to branch out under the nonhypocrisy norm, in a couple of ways. First, different styles of debate don’t necessarily require different interpretations of what debaters must or may not do in the course of a round. In fact, the nonhypocrisy norm better promotes dialogue between debaters of different interests and ideologies for the following reason: debaters could be expected to converge upon mutually acceptable (and fairly permissive) interpretations because, in the absence of knowledge about what their opponents will do, they would want to preserve the flexibility to run a wide array of different positions; there would then be greater clash between those positions, rather than evasion of those positions via theory interpretations (see my “Fear of Clash”). It is important to note here that the nonhypocrisy norm does not require debaters to run theory against arguments or practices that they don’t engage in themselves; it just requires them not to run theory against arguments or practices that they do engage in themselves. And, second, debaters would have incentives to adjust their interpretations over the course of each topic—e.g., after encountering some unforeseen effect at some tournament, or in order to prevent their opponents from predicting their next move. The nonhypocrisy norm only requires nonhypocrisy within a single tournament, and there’s no reason why shifting strategies within that time frame is uniquely important. Debaters would have at least as much of an incentive to diversify their strategies over the course of their debate careers as they currently have.

4.7 Gerrymandering

Objection: “The nonhypocrisy norm would simply encourage debaters to propose gerrymandered or hyperspecific interpretations when running theory so that they technically don’t violate their own interpretations. So the norm would not significantly reduce frivolous theory and would make theory debates in another way worse.”

This disadvantage is not particularly unique, because gerrymandered theory interpretations—i.e., interpretations that contain arbitrary conditions or which target arbitrary combinations of arguments, such as “In round 4 of the Harvard Tournament, the neg may not run X, Y, and Z, if they are also doing Q”—are already prevalent in the status quo. But actually I think that widespread adoption of the nonhypocrisy norm would likely reduce the gerrymandering of theory interpretations. For it would then be a glaring disadvantage of such interpretations that they unfairly allow their proponents to skirt the nonhypocrisy norm. That disadvantage would arguably outweigh the tiny advantage of such a narrow interpretation, so it would be easy to argue that gerrymandered interpretations are bad. Theoretical gerrymandering would therefore go down. Disadvantage: straight-turned.

Gerrymandered interpretations could also be avoided in two other ways. They could be avoided, first, by a modified version of the nonhypocrisy norm: debaters must meet their own interpretations and relevantly similar interpretations for at least the entire tournament in which those interpretations are proposed; relevant similarity is determined by the reasons to prefer the interpretation. This prevents people from evading the nonhypocrisy norm by gerrymandering, without appealing to a sweeping “spirit of the interpretation” conception of violating theory. They can be avoided, second, by debaters emphasizing other disadvantages of gerrymandered interpretations. Here’s one example: a gerrymandered interpretation would, if widely accepted or internalized, make the activity significantly more confusing and difficult to learn in a way that has no compensating educational value, which would decrease participation; decreased participation harms not only those who don’t get the benefits of debate, but also the existing participants, because they would have fewer (and, in expectation, weaker) competitors to be challenged by and to learn from. So a possible rise in theoretical gerrymandering is not a reason to reject the nonhypocrisy norm.

4.8 Fun

Objection: “It’s fun and interesting to defend a wide variety of theory interpretations, even ones that aren’t particularly compelling. The nonhypocrisy norm would ruin some of this fun.”

Theory debates can be fun. But they can also be very much not fun for a lot of debaters (as well as judges)—particularly when the interpretation being defended is not something that anyone in the room actually thinks should be a rule for debate. The rampant use and abuse of cheap-shot theory arguments in LD has tempted (and probably led) many debaters to quit the activity altogether. And I see no reason to privilege the enjoyment that some derive from the activity as it is over the enjoyment that others would derive from the activity as it could be. You can have fun in debate in a lot of other ways, without ruining anyone else’s fun, while complying with the nonhypocrisy norm—including, I suspect, by defending the nonhypocrisy norm. The nonhypocrisy norm might even make theory debates more fun by incentivizing more nuanced and well-considered theory interpretations, rather than repetitive interpretations that few people take seriously enough to get excited about. So the nonhypocrisy norm seems to me worth trying out, even if only as an experiment.

4.9 The Basketball Analogy

Objection: “Debate theory is not relevantly like hypocritical blame. Making and voting on a ‘hypocritical’ theory argument is more like yelling at a basketball referee that you’ve been fouled on one play, and then intentionally fouling on the next. That’s just part of the strategy of the game—nothing wrong there.”3

I agree that some theory (and other “pre-fiat”) arguments lack the seriousness of moral blame—particularly when the impacts are merely to the competitive equity of the round at issue, and not to any seemingly higher values of the activity as a whole. And, although I know virtually nothing about any sport, it seems right that there is nothing inappropriate in the basketball example because the pattern of behavior is just part of the game. But the reason why this pattern is part of the game is because it’s built into the rules. Those rules can’t be changed by the players or referees mid-game, and they seem to be considered mutually acceptable by the players. But if the rules could be changed, as they effectively can in debate rounds, and if the players thought they had reason to, because they thought that intentional fouls and accusations of fouling were becoming problematic, then I think it could, in principle, be sensible to impose something like the nonhypocrisy norm with respect to fouling in basketball. Obviously I have no reason to think those conditions actually hold, so I’m not suggesting that such a norm actually be imposed in basketball. I’m just pointing out that debate is unlike basketball in certain ways—namely, by being governed by extremely malleable norms and because the behavior analogous to accusations of fouling and intentional fouling do seem undesirably rampant in debate—and that if basketball were more like debate in those ways, then a parallel proposal could possibly make sense in that context, too. Since the rules of our game are not fixed, we have little reason to take status-quo practices (e.g., insincere theory arguments) as given, or as having some privileged status, in the way that basketball players take their practices as given.

The other side of this coin is that those who think frivolous theory is desirable in debate and that the current norms are mutually acceptable to everyone have little reason to support the nonhypocrisy norm, except perhaps in cases where the violations appear to carry greater moral seriousness than accusations of fouling in basketball. This view might be defended on the grounds that theory arguments, whatever their substantive merit as proposed rules for debate, require strategic thinking, which is valuable. But, given that all arguments in debate have strategic costs and benefits, there is no evidence that the particular theory arguments discouraged by the nonhypocrisy norm are uniquely key to strategic thinking. And the nonhypocrisy norm would introduce a new and particularly valuable dimension of strategic thinking into debate, because debaters would have to consider more long-term costs and benefits of adopting various interpretations.

4.10 No Expectation of Sincerity

Objection: “But what the basketball analogy reveals is that theory arguments are not intended or expected to be sincere in a debate. No one thinks that whenever someone advances a theory interpretation, it’s because they actually believe that interpretation. They, like all other arguments, are mere strategic tools. And this lack of an expectation of sincerity makes theory (and other pre-fiat) arguments relevantly distinct from blame.”4

I don’t think we do (or should or can) treat all arguments in a debate as mere strategic tools with no expectation of sincerity. I’ve given the example of disclosure theory, as well as arguments which equate some aspect of a debater’s performance with serious harm or wrongdoing. And if it’s agreed that some theoretical (or otherwise “pre-fiat”) advocacies are relevantly like hypocritical blame, then we have reason to accept the nonhypocrisy norm more generally, because there is no fundamental difference between those arguments and other theory arguments which don’t carry the same expectation. That reason is not decisive. But it means that, if the nonhypocrisy norm is to be rejected, then we would need to radically revise our attitudes towards the arguments I have mentioned (e.g., disclosure theory). Even if we could revise those attitudes, there would be significant costs to doing so: I think it would breed cynicism and apathy about efforts to improve debate from the ground-up—i.e., via debate about debate—and those efforts are the primary way in which theory debate trains students to become better advocates for change.

But even if we had no expectation of sincerity (either for all arguments or for some set of theory arguments), this response would only address the first kind of justification for the nonhypocrisy norm (its grounding in more general norms against hypocritical blame), not the second kind (its good effects). And it magnifies that second kind of justification. For if proponents of theory interpretations do not in general believe them, this provides further evidence that the status quo is governed by interpretations that don’t promote good debate. Since proponents of a theory interpretation should be in a position to know the strongest arguments in their favor, the fact that one doesn’t believe that people should lose for violating one’s interpretation is good evidence that people should not lose for violating it. My claim here is not that there is anything morally wrong with insincere theory arguments, if there is no expectation that they be sincere; it’s that, to the extent that theory arguments are insincere, they’re more likely to be bad (i.e., unsound) arguments. And bad theory arguments are bad for debate, since they detract from clash about the proposition that all participants can (and should be expected to) prepare to debate beforehand, and because they unfairly penalize debaters for things that we have no reason to penalize, without any compensating increase in the fairness or educational value of debate. The nonhypocrisy norm would significantly decrease the prevalance of bad theory arguments by imposing a new strategic cost on advancing those arguments, and this impact is even more important if such arguments are rarely believed by their proponents.

4.11 Norm-Setting

Objection: “The arguments for the nonhypocrisy norm assume that the purpose of theory is to set community norms for the activity as a whole. But that’s false, because the vast majority of theory debates have no effect on community norms. So there is no reason to accept the nonhypocrisy norm.”5

Actually, none of my arguments assume that the purpose of theory is to set community norms. I have not made any assumptions about the purpose of theory, partly because I don’t think there is such a thing as “the purpose of theory.” Theory may very well have many different purposes: to rectify in-round unfairness, to promote educational or otherwise good debate, to allow debaters to vent their frustrations, to please Cthulu because he likes debate theory, and maybe some others—who knows? One of those might, or might not, be to set community norms. I don’t take a stance on that here.

To see more precisely why my arguments do not assume a “norm-setting” conception of theory, we should be more precise about what such a conception entails. In debate rounds and out-of-round discussions, the label of “norm-setting” is often used to refer to two distinct and independent ideas; my arguments don’t assume either of them.6

The first “norm-setting” view is a view about the reasons to vote (or drop the argument on) theory. The view is that the judge should vote on theory in order to deter future violations of the interpretation, thereby promoting fairness and education in other debates—as opposed to voting on theory in order to rectify unfairness in the present debate. This is the view that is (or would be) undermined by objections like, “Theory debates have little to no effect on community norms,” or “The judge lacks jurisdiction to consider effects on other rounds.” And this is the view that has been used to justify reverse voting issues via claims like, “If deterring violations of a good norm is a reason to vote for the norm, then encouraging violations of a bad norm is a reason to vote against the norm” (or something like that). I, therefore, believe that this first view has the strongest claim to the label of “norm-setting” (although, given the ambiguous usage in the status quo, some other label would likely be better).

The second view that sometimes gets called “norm-setting” is a method of evaluating and applying interpretations, the spirit of which may be captured by (one meaning of) the slogan, “It’s not what you do; it’s what you justify.” The method is to figure out which interpretation would be best for debate in general, and then to apply the best interpretation to the present round to see if there’s a violation. But, crucially, the claim isn’t that the violation is necessarily unfair or uneducational; this method eschews direct evaluation of practices in terms of fairness or education in favor of evaluation of norms that would promote fairness and education. This kind of view raises concerns about the relevance of merely potential unfairness, but these concerns are quite different from the worries about the first “norm-setting” view discussed in the previous paragraph.

I don’t know why exactly these two views are lumped together under the label of “norm-setting.” But one hypothesis is this: the second depends for its plausibility on the first. If the second view were correct, and the judge should penalize someone for a practice that violates a good norm but isn’t itself unfair, it would be hard to justify that punishment on any grounds other than deterrence. So the second view seems implausible if we reject the first. This may, in part, explain why people conflate the two views. But there may also be other reasons, which I won’t speculate about.

In any case, let me now explain the principle to which some of my arguments do appeal, in order to see how it’s distinct from the “norm-setting” views above. What I have assumed, in arguing from the good effects of the nonhypocrisy norm, is that an in-round practice (namely, hypocritical theory) is in one respect unfair if it violates some norm (namely, the nonhypocrisy norm) whose widespread acceptance would be best for debate, or would be justifiable to all participants. This is a criterion or heuristic for evaluating the fairness of a practice, not a justification for voting against unfair practices. It is, therefore, distinct from the first “norm-setting” view. My argument from the good effects of the nonhypocrisy norm is not that the judge should vote against hypocritical theory in order to deter it in other rounds. It is not committed to the empirical assumption that theory debates shape community norms. The argument is, rather, that hypocritical theory is unfair because it violates a norm that ought to regulate all debates. I haven’t tried to explain why the judge should vote against unfair practices, but many different explanations are compatible with my arguments—including, for example, the view that the only reason to drop an argument or debater on theory is to rectify in-round unfairness: a practice might be unfair by virtue of violating some rule that ought to be a norm, even if penalizing the debater for that practice would not do much to bring about that norm.7

The principle I have just stated is also distinct from the second “norm-setting” view, which asks the judge to punish debaters for practices which violate good norms even if those practices are not, in themselves, unfair. This view and mine may agree about which norms are good. But my principle adds that the judge should vote against the practice because it is unfair, and that it is unfair because it violates a principle that is mutually acceptable and beneficial to all participants. It is, therefore, not true of my principle that it justifies voting on merely potential unfairness, or voting against someone who debated fairly, or that it depends for its plausibility on the deterrent benefits of punishing someone with a loss.

I have just explained why my arguments do not presuppose a problematic notion of “norm-setting.” But some might wonder why the nearby principle that I’ve assumed is correct. Why exactly should the good effects or justifiability of a norm, if widely accepted, bear on the unfairness of practices that violate that norm? That’s a big question, which I’m not fully prepared to answer here. But reasoning of this kind is not unfamiliar. It is perhaps clearest in contractualist reasoning about ethics (Scanlon 1998), but it also has much wider appeal. Whatever the merits of Kant’s broader ethical theory, his concern with the universalizability of our maxims captures the strong intuition that it’s wrong, because unfair, to make an exception of yourself (Korsgaard 1985). And many consequentialists evaluate fairness by looking at the effects of certain principles in situations of full compliance—even in nonideal contexts where most people don’t comply (Murphy 2000). And particularly in the context of an activity or community with common goods, such as fairness and education in debate, a participant’s failure to abide by principles whose widespread adoption would promote those common goods amounts to a kind of free riding, which is unfair (see Cullity 2008). My arguments, therefore, appeal to a familiar way of reasoning about fairness, not a contentious claim about the purpose of theory or the effects of voting on theory.

Indeed, I find it hard to see how to reason about fairness in debate without appealing, in any respect, to the effects of an interpretation as a rule for the activity. Interpretations state requirements, prohibitions, or permissions for either one or both sides of the debate. But suppose the advocated interpretation is restricted only to the particular debate in which the interpretation is proposed. What explains why the relevant practice should be required, prohibited, or permitted in this debate but not in others? Why should your opponent have to do something in this debate that you and others should not have to do in other debates? Many philosophers follow Rawls (1999, 117) in imposing a “generality condition” on fairness, which rules out principles that are formulated using expressions like names (“Chris” and “TOC”), indexicals (“you” and “me”), and demonstratives (“this” and “that”) (see, e.g., Laden 1991). So if something is unfair in this debate, then it should also be unfair in other debates. There’s nothing special about any given debate from the perspective of fairness. (If there is some relevant feature about the circumstances of this debate that makes the practice uniquely unfair, then that should be baked into the interpretation—which remains advocated across debates—not as a restriction of the extent to which the interpretation is advocated.)

This kind of reasoning—from the universal adoption of a norm, to the unfairness of practices that violate that norm—also seems essential to our understanding of why certain practices are unfair. Suppose that, for no particular reason, you read an affirmative on the wrong topic. You provided ample warning to your opponent, who is better prepared on that topic, but they did not consent to using the wrong topic. This practice, in this particular instance, arguably does not disadvantage your opponent or impede impartial adjudication of the debate. It doesn’t seem to have any particularly detrimental effects on the present round. Nonetheless, the practice is clearly unfair. It is unfair because, as a matter of principle—and for reasons I have defended elsewhere—the affirmative should generally be expected to defend the resolution (at least, by default, absent any good reason to depart from this rule). It might be objected that this kind of judgment could be captured by appealing to other in-round harms, such as harms to education. But we can imagine a version of the case in which there are no net harms to in-round education. And, more importantly, it’s absurd to suppose that one should lose or be penalized merely by virtue of making the debate less educational than it could’ve been, since no debate round has ever been as educational as it could’ve been. We can make sense of education as a theory impact, it seems, only by considering the educational effects of certain practices or rules on the activity as a whole. (In some sense, then, my view sees education as an “internal link” to fairness: the educational benefits of universally adopting a norm can make it unfair to violate that norm.) The fact that the present judge does not actually control the rules of other debates, and so cannot do much to secure those impacts to education, no more undermines the relevance of those impacts than the fact that we can’t control each other’s actions undermines rule consequentialism, Kant’s formula of universal law, or the Golden Rule.

I have argued that it’s unfair to violate a norm that ought to govern all debates, and that this claim is distinct from the objectionable views that get called “norm-setting.” But it’s worth noting that the focus on other debates is, strictly speaking, dispensable for purposes of my argument. Although we have been reasoning about fairness in terms of the benefits of rules’ universal acceptance across rounds, we could also understand the fairness of a debate round in terms of the principles for the regulation of that round which both debaters would have reason to agree to under suitably impartial conditions. We can ensure such impartial conditions by imposing a kind of veil of ignorance. If you didn’t know which side you were on, what aspects of debate you’re best at, which aspects of the topic you researched most deeply, where you go to school, and so on, which principles would you have most reason to want to govern any given round? The imagined ignorance ensures impartiality along these dimensions, which is essential to a fair debate. The rules that you would have most reason to accept from behind this veil of ignorance are, I believe, the very same rules that would be best if universally accepted in all debates. That’s because the veil of ignorance essentially combines all these debates together into a single debate under uncertainty, since the present debate could, for all we know, turn out to be relevantly like any of those other debates; the probability of a practice being utilized in the present debate, conditional on being governed by a certain norm, reflects the frequency of that practice in possible future debates governed by that norm. In the presence of such uncertainty, we would have reason to minimize the risk of practices that advantage one side, or which supplant substantive education with frivolous theory debates, or which fail to treat all participants as moral equals, given that each debater has an interest in winning the round, in the educational value of the round, and in being treated with respect. We would, therefore, accept the nonhypocrisy norm (along with its proposed penalties), because the nonhypocrisy norm would decrease the prevalence of practices that compromise those interests. Violating the nonhypocrisy norm is, therefore, unfair, because we would have most reason to agree to its regulation of the present debate under suitably impartial conditions. This kind of reasoning moves from the expected benefits of a debate rule for participants to the unfairness of practices that violate that rule in a way that is obviously not committed to a “norm-setting” conception of theory.8

I have sketched various possible accounts of why the goodness of a norm for the activity gives participants reasons of fairness to abide by that norm. Even if these accounts are ultimately rejected, it would be unreasonable to entirely dismiss the relevance of such considerations to debate theory. This is because, if such considerations were unable to justify the in-round imposition of theoretical interpretations, there would be little to no competitive incentive for students to debate in ways that are good for the activity. Costs and benefits to the activity, community, and its participants would nearly always give way to the more immediate competitive considerations of any given debate. I see no reason to embrace that unhappy state of affairs. Debaters and judges should feel empowered to promote positive changes in round via good theory arguments; otherwise, change is extremely unlikely to happen, and we’ll be stuck with a highly suboptimal status quo. It is therefore reasonable to consider the effects of theoretical norms to be reasons for or against the in-round imposition of such norms, even in the absence of a general theory that explains why they are such reasons.

4.12 The Better Debating

Objection: “The ballot asks who did the better debating. In context, that’s clearly about who did the better debating in this round. And violations of the nonhypocrisy norm are not relevant to that question, because they are about what happens in other rounds.”

Violations of the nonhypocrisy norm are not (at least entirely) out-of-round violations. A debater must violate the nonhypocrisy norm in the round in which it’s run, either by violating a previous interpretation in this debate or by advancing an interpretation in this debate that one failed to meet in a previous round. Although such violations depend on out-of-round conditions, there is no violation without some relevant event happening in the present debate, and that in-round event is the violation itself. So the violation cannot be ruled out as in principle irrelevant to who did the better debating in the present round. And, more generally, it cannot be objectionable that the violation depends on some out-of-round conditions, because many arguments depend, in some way, on out-of-round conditions: topicality depends on some resolution having been selected by the NSDA and tournament; evidence ethics depends on some evidence reflecting what’s published in the world; politics disadvantages depend on what’s going on in Washington.

The objector might grant that out-of-round events can legitimately bear on the present round, while denying that hypocritical theory bears on the present round in the right way. For it might be thought that violations of the nonhypocrisy norm do not confer an advantage on the violating debater, understood as some factor which makes it easier for them to defend their side of the resolution, and which therefore allows them to win without doing the better debating. On one conception of theory, that is the only relevant kind of unfairness.

But violating the nonhypocrisy norm does involve such an advantage, because the debater who violates the nonhypocrisy norm employed a strategic option (either the theory argument or the thing that violates it) to which they shouldn’t have had access. Access to that argument is an advantage relative to not having access to it, and they shouldn’t have that advantage for the reasons I’ve already explained. So they might win without doing the better debating, by virtue of having that unmerited advantage.

Hypocritical theory is an advantage not only relative to the normative baseline of what the debater ought to have access to, but also relative to the opponent’s strategic assets, when one debater complies with the nonhypocrisy norm. Assuming that the violation of the nonhypocrisy norm is unique, the debater who meets it lacked access to certain strategic assets (namely, all positions which violate any interpretation they have proposed or may wish to propose later in the tournament, and all interpretations that would be violated by any position they have run or may wish to run later in the tournament) to which their opponent had access. So the violator of the nonhypocrisy norm has an easier route to the ballot than the nonviolator. And that advantage is unfair because it derives from a practice that ought to be prohibited.

It might be replied that meeting the nonhypocrisy norm was that debater’s choice; they could have violated it instead, and then the advantage would’ve been equal. But this is just the “reciprocity” objection to theory against multiple a prioris and necessary-but-insufficient burdens, which is widely and rightly rejected. The problem with the reciprocity objection is that it does not satisfy fairness for both sides to have been able to engage in some practice if (a) one side did not actually engage in that practice, and (b) they had strong impartial reasons to refrain from engaging in that practice. (b) seems necessary because willingly sacrificing some strategic asset that one’s opponent utilizes should not, by itself, constitute an unfair advantage if there was no good reason for the sacrifice. In the case of multiple a prioris and necessary-but-insufficient burdens, the good reason might be that both sides’ engaging in that practice would be bad for debate. These conditions hold for the nonhypocrisy norm, since the debater who meets that norm has not engaged in hypocritical theory, and for good reason, since hypocritical theory is bad for debate.

Maybe the unfair advantages in these cases don’t skew the substantive debate so badly that winning substance (even with the argument dropped) would provide zero evidence of doing the better debating, in which case the implication should maybe be dropping the argument rather than the debater. But if that’s the threshold for dropping the debater, I don’t think any theoretical violation has ever met it.

The “better debating” standard might be thought relevant in yet another way. I have compared hypocritical theory to hypocritical blame. In both cases, there is a kind of penalty or harm imposed or called for. But some might argue that theory is relevantly unlike blame because dropping the argument or debater is not a kind of penalty; it’s just a way of correcting the skew caused by arguments that make it easier for one side of the resolution.

But the fact that one debater could win the substantive debate without necessarily doing the better debating obviously does not show that they did the worse debating. So why should the result of theory be a loss for the debater who caused the substantive skew, rather than some other method of resolution—e.g., a coin flip? The reason is presumably that a loss is a penalty or harm (and the win a prize or benefit), which the judge has reason to distribute fairly rather than unfairly. There is an asymmetry between the two debaters—the skew is one debater’s fault, not the other’s—which makes it fairer to penalize the debater who caused it than to penalize the debater who suffered it. This makes it unfair to distribute that penalty by chance—e.g., via coin flip— because the debater who suffered the skew would have grounds for complaint if they lose. The debater who caused the skew, by contrast, would have no grounds for complaint if they lose, because they are (in some sense) culpable for the situation. So we do think of a loss via theory as something like a penalty, even if the reasons to impose it are not deeply retributive. If we don’t think of it this way, it’s hard to see why the debater who caused the skew should lose, rather than giving both debaters an equal chance via a coin flip.

The objector might reply that the judge should vote against the debater who caused the skew because they were shown to be the worse debater, by virtue of losing the theory debate. But that would seem to overgeneralize to all theory arguments, including ones that should intuitively be drop the argument, and including the nonhypocrisy norm, because there’s no reason to think that winning the theory debate is the best available evidence of better debating in some cases but not in those.

The “better debating” standard, therefore, does not undermine my arguments for the nonhypocrisy norm.

5 Conclusion

I have argued that a norm against hypocritical theory would be good for debate. I suspect that many readers will find this claim to be obviously false. That puzzles me: maybe it’s false, but it’s not obviously false. I suspect that hypocritical theory seems so clearly legitimate to many people at least partly because it is such a deeply entrenched practice in the contemporary norms of national circuit debate, and the nonhypocrisy norm will seem so obviously false to many people at least partly because it is so at odds with those norms. When debate dogma is challenged, many debaters and judges seem to be strongly biased in favor of the status quo. I think this bias is largely irrational, because debate norms emerge from some combination of competitive patterns and other arbitrary factors that we have little reason to expect to converge to a maximally fair and educational activity. Post hoc defenses of those norms often seem to me to have the character of rationalization rather than justification. Challenges to debate orthodoxy can only be given a fair hearing if we proactively try to counteract this bias. Even if we are not sure that hypocritical theory is bad, we have some reason to at least temporarily default to accepting the nonhypocrisy norm, because the advantages of openminded experimentation with debate norms outweigh the minor and unproven risks of deviating from the status quo, at least on the margin. We should always be questioning the conventional wisdom of national circuit debate, including the present focus on the individual round as the only relevant unit of advocacy.9

References

Cullity, Garrett. 2008. “Public Goods and Fairness.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86 (1): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1080/00048400701846491.

Fritz, Kyle G., and Daniel Miller. 2018. “Hypocrisy and the Standing to Blame.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 99 (1): 118–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/papq.12104.

Hart, H. L. A. 1959. “The Presidential Address: Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 60: 1–26.

Hooker, Brad. 2003. Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-Consequentialist Theory of Morality. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press.

Korsgaard, Christine M. 1985. “Kant’s Formula of Universal Law.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66 (1-2): 24–47.

Laden, Anthony. 1991. “Games, Fairness, and Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 189–222.

Loland, Sigmund. 1999. “Justice and Game Advantage in Sporting Games.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (2): 159–78. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009960012546.

Murphy, Liam B. 2000. Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory. Oxford Ethics Series. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rawls, John. 1955. “Two Concepts of Rules.” Philosophical Review 64 (1): 3–32.

———. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, Thomas. 1998. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

———. 2008. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wallace, R. Jay. 2010. “Hypocrisy, Moral Address, and the Equal Standing of Persons.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38 (4): 307–41. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40926873.


  1. It’s worth noting, though, that topicality need not have the structure of blame. Topicality could instead be used to refocus the debate on a proposition other than the affirmative advocacy. This would require the negative to negate that proposition in order to win the debate, and would allow the affirmative to use applicable AC offense to try to affirm the new proposition. That kind of topicality argument is not a form of blame or a call for punishment, and so cannot be hypocritical in the relevant sense. I am sympathetic to the idea that topicality should, at least in many circumstances, take this nonpunitive form.
  2. I owe this insight, and the one in the next paragraph, to Jackson Lallas.
  3. Thanks to Chris Theis for pressing this objection.
  4. Thanks to Nina Potischman for pressing this objection.
  5. Thanks to Lavanya Singh and Jack Wareham for pressing this objection (and the next).
  6. I owe the disambiguation in the next five paragraphs to Marshall Thompson.
  7. Here’s another, perhaps more fitting, justification for voting against unfair practices: fairness requires judges to penalize practices shown to be unfair, because universal acceptance of a norm requiring judges to penalize unfair practices would be best for debate. The very same principle that prohibits hypocritical theory would then require voting against it. And this principle, as before, does not assume that the judge’s action has effects on other rounds. It assumes only that the judge must be fair, and that violating a principle whose universal acceptance would best promote fairness and education in debate is itself unfair. For a more general principle of which this is an instance, see Hooker (2003, 51). For a quite different justification for penalizing unfair practices, see Loland (1999), especially sections 5 and 6.
  8. I should mention that although my strategy in this section has been to show how my arguments do not assume a “norm-setting” view, there is perhaps something to be said for such views. First, even though most theory debates do not shape community norms, some do. The mere threat of losing on disclosure theory, for example, has significantly increased the prevalence of disclosure. The nonhypocrisy norm would have a particularly strong effect because it affects the incentives of both potential violators and potential proponents, since one can run the argument successfully only by complying with it (and, therefore, one’s other interpretations) throughout the tournament. Second, many of the objections to the first “norm-setting” view misunderstand the shape and role of deterrence in justifying punishment (see Rawls (1955) and Hart (1959)), although making good on this thought would require another article.
  9. My thinking about these issues benefited from conversations with many people, including Ishan Bhatt, John Boals, Sekou Cisse, Rex Evans, Jackson Lallas, Daiya Massac, Jacob Nails, Raffi Piliero, Nina Potischman, Lavanya Singh, Nick Smith, Chris Theis, Kathy Wang, Jack Wareham, participants in an evening seminar at VBI 2018, and especially Marshall Thompson. I regret that I haven’t been able to address all of their comments here.