Author: Lawrence Zhou, University of Wyoming & WYVA debate coach
The following essay is adapted from a presentation given at the Wyoming High School Forensics Association’s Fall 2021 Conference.
The purpose of this series of essays is twofold.
First, I think that the value criterion is often poorly debated in local debate leagues. I think that is both painful to witness as a judge but also is a strategic error as debaters are forfeiting valuable opportunities to leverage their arguments in ways that pose serious threats for their opponents.
Second, I think Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate is a unique venue to teach philosophical concepts that most students will never get the chance to explore until their undergraduate studies. Nebel et al. write (2013) that “competitive LD debate as it is currently practiced brings students into contact with a considerable diversity of philosophical questions” and that “LD debate provides a unique way of appreciating the connections between different areas of philosophical investigation.” Being able to parse through complex philosophical concepts teaches a unique form of thinking that most other subjects are not able to impart. I think, pedagogically speaking, there is good reason for educators to demand higher quality debate about the value criterion.
This series will be organized into three essays, published in three parts. Part I will provide a brief overview of the value criterion and its proper function. Part II will cover three common misconceptions about the value criterion and explain why these mistakes are so damaging. Part III will cover five worrisome trends in contemporary traditional LD debate and ways to correct or reverse these trends.
This essay continues below the fold...
What matters more?
To provide context, we will be using the 2021 March/April LD topic, “Resolved: The United States ought to guarantee universal childcare.” Imagine the negative forwards an argument that universal childcare would cause $4 trillion to evaporate from the economy. The affirmative responds that universal childcare would actually recover $2 million from improved labor force participation. The negative points out in their final rebuttal speech that $4 trillion is orders of magnitude more than $2 million. In this scenario, the negative clearly wins. It is obvious that even if there is some positive economic benefit from universal childcare, the negative economic costs are literally three trillion nine hundred ninety-nine billion nine hundred ninety-eight million dollars more. The negative’s impacts here outweigh.
However, this is an easy case. Both teams agree on the value of a dollar and so agree on what constitutes a win condition—whichever team does best by the dollar! This is also similarly easy when it comes to other impacts that both debaters agree on. If both debaters agree that unnecessary suffering is bad, then the affirmative wins if affirming the resolution net reduces unnecessary suffering and the negative wins if affirming the resolution net increases unnecessary suffering. If both debaters agree that the most important goal is reducing exploitation, then the affirmative wins if affirming the resolution net reduces exploitation and the negative wins if affirming the resolution net increases exploitation. Here, both teams agree on the importance of certain impacts.
What happens when you disagree?
The difficulty arises when teams disagree on the relative importance of various values. What happens when one team claims that the most important impact is unnecessary suffering and the other team claims that the most important impact is exploitation?
The role of the value criterion is to settle the question of which impact(s) matter more when there is disagreement over what ought to take priority. When it comes to deeper moral disagreements such as whether dignity ought to be valued above pleasure, whether a society should care more about fairness or liberty, or whether economic systems ought to be more oriented around worker’s rights or consumer welfare, these are all disagreements that escape easy answers. That’s where the value criterion comes into play.
What is the value criterion?
The value criterion can best be summarized as a weighing standard. A cursory Google search returns some different definitions of the value criterion. Wikipedia—the most trusted of sources—defines the value criterion as “the means of weighing the value premise.” David Weeks, founder of the National High School Debate League of China, calls the value criterion “a ‘weighing standard’ for arguments. That is, it is the lens that the judge sees arguments through.” Nathan Carle, writing in an old copy of the Rostrom, claims that the “value criterion allows judges and debaters to weigh arguments in relation to the broad notion of good established by the value premise.”
All of these definitions revolve around establishing what impacts ought to take priority. In other words, the value criterion answers the question of which impacts outweigh. Do impacts about equality outweigh impacts about liberty? Do impacts about unnecessary suffering outweigh impacts about rule of law? The value criterion seeks to give an answer and a reason for that answer.
The value criterion is part of what is often referred to as the “framework.” The framework consists of two components: the value premise (often shortened to value) and the value criterion (often shortened to criterion, which is how it will be referred to from here on out).
The value attempts to answer the question of what is the general good outlined in the resolution. Usually, the value will be something like “justice” or “morality” and it will usually be specified in the resolution. This is often referred to in philosophy as the “theory of the good.”
The criterion—the singular of criteria—attempts to answer the question of what the value entails. This is often explained as how you get to or achieve the value. While I often also use this explanation, I find it to usually imply that consequences are what matters. The criterion should usually be the form of a verb and a noun. This is often referred to in philosophy as the “theory of the right.”
Using the universal childcare topic as an example, both sides should use the value of morality because that is implied by the phrase “ought” in the resolution. What ought a moral agent do? What is moral of course! Each side might offer different conceptions of morality. For example, the affirmative might forward a criterion of “Promoting equality.” Here, the affirmative is claiming that promoting equality is necessary to be moral. What does a moral agent do? Promote equality of course!
When put together, the value and criterion form the framework. This is distinct from the contentions. While the framework is concerned with values, the contentions are concerned with facts. While the framework is normative, the contentions are predictive or descriptive. While the framework is concerned with explaining what impacts matter more, the contentions are concerned with how the resolution relates to those impacts.
Example 1: Taxes
Take the debate over taxation. Generally, political liberals favor higher taxes on the wealthy while political conservatives favor lower taxes on the wealthy. There are two separate questions at play when determining one’s support or disagreement with higher taxes on the wealthy: The values question and the factual question.
Generally, political liberals give weight to values like fairness as equality while political conservatives are more likely to value goals like economic growth. Political liberals also think that higher taxes on the wealthy are likely to be an equalizing force while political conservatives think that lower taxes on the wealthy are likely to boost economic growth.
Notice here that one could disagree with either the values or the facts here. For example, a political liberal could contest whether low taxes actually contributed to economic growth or they could contest whether economic growth ought to be valued above concerns like equality.
But the question of values is more or less entirely distinct from the question of facts. For example, a political liberal could be committed to the value of equality as generally more important than the value of economic growth but could be swayed by empirical evidence that suggested that higher taxes on the wealthy actually increased inequality, thus opposing higher taxes on the wealthy. Similarly, a political conservative could be generally committed to the value of economic growth as being of greater importance than the value of equality but could believe that higher taxes on the wealthy were actually engines of economic growth.
The framework debate is entirely a question of the values at play here. It does not speak to the descriptive or predictive questions posed by the resolution. In some respects, the values question is broader than the question of the resolution.
Example 2: Social services
To illustrate the importance of these values-based debates, take another example. I am going to borrow the following example from Eugenia Cheng’s book The Art of Logic in an Illogical World. In the debate about expanding social services, political liberals generally favor more social services while political conservatives generally favor less social services. Debates about social services can focus on various factual or empirical considerations: Does welfare encourage laziness? Do work requirements actually incentivize work? Does welfare lift people out of poverty? And so on. These are important questions to answer, questions that many economists and researchers have dedicated countless journal publications and op-ed pieces to trying to settle. However, even if one agrees on the factual questions, the underlying value disagreements make seeking compromise quite difficult.
To lift Cheng’s verbiage, you can separate the value systems into two statements: False negatives and false negatives. A false negative refers to someone who needs a social service but fails to receive it while a false positive refers to someone who does not need a social service but does receive it. In general, political liberals are going to care more about false negatives while political conservatives are going to give greater weight to false positives. In this debate, neither extreme is going to be correct—no reasonable political liberal would deny that some people free-ride off of welfare programs and no reasonable political conservative would deny that some truly do need assistance from social services. Of course, there is much debate amongst experts about how many people who need social services aren’t currently receiving assistance and how many people are taking advantage of the system, but there is simply no way to get around the fact that even if there were agreement on the empirical facts, the diverging values make it impossible to come to agreement on desirability of social services.
If political liberals generally weight false negatives as more important than false positives, then no amount of evidence provided by political conservatives that people are free-riding would be able to convince political liberals to abandon their support of expanded social services (so long as there was some evidence that expanded social services helped those who needed assistance). Similarly, if political conservatives generally weight false positives as more important than false negatives, then no amount of evidence provided by political liberals that there are people who need help who aren’t receiving assistance would be able to convince political conservatives to abandon their crusade to decrease social services (so long as there was some evidence that some people were were taking advantage of social services). (Of course, this is an oversimplification as many other variables are at play here, but this simplification is useful enough at capturing the basic value disagreements at play here.)
This demonstrates the primacy of the values debate in understanding how to persuade those who simply disagree about what matters more. Assuming that the debate about social services can be settled by purely empirical matter is a recipe for deadlock.
Example 3: Universal childcare
Finally, let’s return to the childcare example we started off with. Generally, political liberals support universal childcare while political conservatives oppose universal childcare. Political liberals value things like promoting more workplace opportunity, especially for groups that have historically been relegated to the home. Political conservatives value things like centering the family as the basis for a healthy society. Political liberals believe that universal childcare would promote more labor force participation, particularly amongst women. Political conservatives believe that childcare not based around the family is more likely to introduce societal problems like increased crime. This example illustrates the importance of understanding the value disagreements that underlie many LD topics.
What is the purpose of framework?
With these examples in mind, we ask ourselves what the purpose of the criterion is in the context of a debate round? Up until now, the criterion has served as a useful tool for understanding the different types of disagreements present in a debate, but its strategic utility is unclear.
The purpose of a criterion in a debate round is to answer the question of which impact matters more. It tries to give clarity to the judge as to what values ought to take precedence when determining the truth or falsity of the resolution. In a debate about taxes, it argues that either equality or economic growth outweighs; in a debate about social services, it argues that either false positives or false negatives outweighs; in a debate about universal childcare, it argues that either labor force participation or family-based care outweighs. It provides a mechanism for the judge to determine which impacts matter more, and thus which contentions outweigh.
How can the framework be strategic?
Strategically, the function of a criterion is to include or inflate the relevance of certain impacts and to exclude or deflate the relevance of certain impacts. A good criterion should inflate your impacts while simultaneously deflating your opponent’s impacts. Here, we begin to see how we can effectively leverage a criterion to functionally neutralize a wide swath of your opponent’s arguments. For example, on the universal childcare topic, if the affirmative wins that labor force participation simply matters more than centering family-based care, then the negative could decisively win that universal childcare trades-off with family-based care but would still not be able to win the round because their impact simply doesn’t matter as much as the affirmative’s impacts. This allows the affirmative to functionally insulate themselves from risk—they can (and should) contest whether universal childcare trades-off with family-based care, but even if they lose that argument, they wouldn’t lose the debate.
The importance of constructing a strategic criterion is especially salient on topics in which the disagreement is primarily about values and not facts. For example, the compulsory voting topic did include many empirical questions (e.g. does compulsory voting raise turnout or does compulsory voting worsen the quality of the electorage), but at the end of the day, the affirmative was going to probably win that compulsory voting did increase turnout while the negative was probably going to win that compulsory voting did impose at least some infringement on liberty. The question is simply: Which matters more? The role of a good criterion would be to inflate your impacts (if you were affirmative, that turnout or representativeness is central to a legitimate democracy, and if you were negative, that the freedom from being compelled to vote is central to a legitimate democracy) while deflating your opponent’s impacts.
In sum, without a proper understanding of the role of framework, it becomes far more difficult to effectively engage the opposing side’s arguments.
In Part II, we will cover three common mistakes in framework debates and how to avoid them.
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