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.
In Part I of this essay series, we covered what the value criterion actually is. In Part II, we explored three common mistakes often seen in more traditional circuits as it pertains to the value criterion. In Part III, we will cover the state of contemporary criterion debate, why I find it subpar, and ways we can improve it.
In particular, I think there are five things that make contemporary criterion debate abysmal.
Read the rest after the fold!
In Part II, we covered some of the most common mistakes in modern framework debate. These mistakes are broadly reflective of a lack of knowledge about the criterion (which hopefully, these essays have helped with). I think the main reason why these mistakes arise is not just because they were improperly taught to students but mostly because students don’t take the time to reflect on what the role of the criterion actually is.
There is a lot of literature that suggests that teaching skills without content is pretty meaningless. Natalie Wexler’s book The Knowledge Gap focuses on the problem of teaching decontextualized skills in elementary school and how that actually increases educational inequality. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s book Make It Stick cites a litany of education research that shows that trying to teach abstract skills absent contextual knowledge is a fruitless effort. All this research suggests that trying to teach the role of the criterion without actually looking at real philosophical theories is unproductive. You have to know what you’re talking about.
Content knowledge is by far the hardest part of the criterion debate to teach. Philosophy, both the moral and the political variety, is not easy. It is a subject that spans hundreds of years and covers subjects that some of humanity’s most brilliant minds have dedicated their entire lives to. Usually, effectively learning philosophy requires a knowledgeable instructor who can clarify complex philosophical subjects and correct common misunderstandings. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many people running around with either a penchant for reading philosophy in their free time or a formal philosophy degree. Finding someone with a deep knowledge of philosophy is simply not possible for many schools. While a wealth of resources exists to teach philosophy, parsing through them and trying to determine the trustworthiness of certain sources is no easy task.
I hope that these essays have helped clarify some parts of the value criterion debate, but these essays cannot substitute for actual content knowledge about different ethical theories. To that end, I have created a lesson plan and reading list for learning the basics of philosophy which you can access via this link. In this Google Drive folder, I have provided a sample outline for learning philosophy and the full-text to several important works of philosophy that I think are excellent resources for introducing the core principles of various ethical theories to high school debaters.
For coaches reading this who don’t have a specialized background in philosophy, I designed most of the lesson plans with the assumption that the instructor does not have a deep background in philosophy. I believe that the role of a good coach should be to encourage discovery and growth, not just impart information to students. I think that even coaches without much background in philosophy can teach it if they encourage discussion, reflection, and the pursuit of knowledge.
And for debaters, there is really no substitute to reading. You just have to read a lot about philosophy. If you aren’t spending time enmeshed within the literature, you simply won’t get philosophy. It’s a tough subject to understand.
I plan on releasing a longer guide to using the lesson plan at some point in time, so stay tuned!
The flip side of the content knowledge problem is the accessibility problem. Once students discover the depth of philosophy, they typically become eager to display their newfound knowledge and intellectual superiority to audiences. On the one hand, this is good. There should be natural incentives that reward the acquisition of new knowledge. I think it is awesome when students finally understand what a concept like reflective equilibrium is!
However, the problem is that this type of intellectual showmanship often comes at the expense of communicating clearly to wide audiences. Often debaters get bogged down by the curse of knowledge, where debaters don’t know what it’s like to not know about certain concepts in philosophy. “How could the judge not know what the act-omission distinction is?” This makes it so that debaters are speaking to an audience that they assume can parse through complex jargon even when they can’t. This undermines clear communication of ideas and often ends up hurting debaters who have learned more advanced philosophical concepts (a perverse incentive, since it basically punishes debaters who have done extra work and reading into an important academic field).
While philosophy is complex, it doesn’t have to be presented in a complex fashion. There are ways of distilling down complicated philosophical concepts into ways that are understandable by audiences without a rigorous background in philosophy. The book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (available for free in the Google Drive linked above) is an excellent example of how a brilliant philosopher (Sandel has been called “the most important and influential living philosopher”) can take complex philosophical concepts and present them in a way palatable and understandable by an audience unfamiliar with philosophy. Sandel writes concisely, uses case studies and real world examples to illustrate his points, and never assumes knowledge on behalf of the reader that he has not already explained. I think debaters could learn a lot not just from Sandel’s content (which I sing the praises of in the lesson plan I put together) but also how he communicates the content.
I think the case studies approach provides a brilliant way to communicate complex philosophical ideas in language that the average person can understand and also provides a way to make abstract moral debates far more concrete.
For debaters, I think the core principle that should guide how to communicate these philosophically complex ideas is judge adaptation. I’ve given a few electives on this concept at camp, e.g. my Debating Traditionally series, (and the first episode of the podcast The Argument Clinic I used to host is dedicated to this subject), and although my thoughts on the subject have changed a lot throughout the years, the core driving idea behind judge adaption is that it’s about the audience and what persuades that particular audience. It’s hard to derive a comprehensive theory of judge adaptation in the abstract, but the key thing is that it is a learned skill that one must practice. Can you explain what civic republicanism, agent neutrality, or imperfect duties are to your parents, teachers, or classmates? If not, take the same concept and find a way to explain it (I find that analogical reasoning helps a lot here) say that the average layperson could easily understand your argument. If some of the world’s most brilliant philosophers like Will MacAskill (the youngest associate professor of philosophy in the world) can give a Ted Talk about complex moral issues to a non-specialized audience, you should be able to communicate even more basic ideas like the intent-foresight distinction to a wide variety of debate judges.
This process of ensuring that complex philosophical concepts are understandable does take time and effort. You have to be willing to invest that time and effort.
I could write more about this section because I think there is a deep misunderstanding at play when this crops up, but I will keep it relatively short because it’s not really all that important in most debate rounds.
The basic problem is that almost every impact gets deflated to a question of just pure wellbeing and suffering. One way this happens in a debate round is when someone asks, “So, is death bad?” Of course, the other debater replies, “Yes, obviously.” The original debater then goes, “Oh, if you think death is bad, you must be a utilitarian!”
Let’s briefly cover all the mistakes and fallacies present in this line of questioning.
First, there is a pretty obvious distinction between consequentialism and utilitarianism. While consequentialism is an umbrella view about morality producing the right kinds of overall consequences, utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. While utilitarianism is often said to be the “paradigm case of consequentialism,” there are many other forms of consequentialism that do not neatly align with an exclusive focus on pure wellbeing and suffering.
Second, even if two moral theories converge on a correct moral conclusion, e.g. that death is morally undesirable, that does not imply that they arrived at such conclusions by the same reasoning process. Non-consequentialists can hold that death is a moral wrong for a variety of reasons independent of the standard deprivation case.
Third, this flattens the terrain of the debate at the expense of more realistic moral questions. Sure, preventing death matters, but how we prevent death matters (e.g. the trolley problem), and the reasons why we prevent death matters (e.g. what are the reasons why life is valuable in the first place). If the government literally only ever considered pure body count, they would rightfully be called negligent for failing to consider a wide array of other morally relevant variables.
I generally find that debaters who deploy non-utilitarian frameworks (that are still sensitive to consequences) have trouble escaping such lines of questioning in CX. Here, I encourage debaters to reference other salient variables that should matter and explain why they should not be overlooked in one’s moral calculus.
In Part I, I argued that, “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.”
The main problem I see with contemporary LD framework debates is that students often pick criterions that don’t serve any real strategic utility and once students stop reading more complex philosophical positions (under the illusion that doing so doesn’t confer any real strategic advantage), that creates a spiral towards not even bothering to have any real philosophy debate at all.
On the one hand, I can see why this happens. A lot of debaters don’t know a lot about the content floating out there; once they do discover more dense content, they have trouble figuring out what is worth reading through and what’s not; and when they eventually figure out what to say, they often aren’t rewarded for doing the extra work either because debaters don’t put in the time to adapt the message (see above) or because a lot of judges simply don’t understand what’s going on and fail to reward the additional work. These are natural disincentives from getting deeper into the relevant literature and strategically deploying more niche or novel frameworks (and I think that it is unfortunate that the pool of Wyoming judges often actively discourages complexity in framework debating, a conversation for a later time).
On the other hand, I think debaters are failing to appreciate precisely how valuable a strategic criterion can be. Recall the examples from Part I with childcare and compulsory voting. These are real-world examples of how investing in the framework debate can confer a strong strategic advantage by framing out your opponent’s best impacts.
I think the mistake that debaters are making is mostly in figuring out how to design their case. Often, I think debaters assume that if they want to write a strategic framework, they should pick the best framework they can find and fit the contentions underneath that framework. As Marshall Thompson points out in his elective “Researching for Philosophy Debate,” that’s actually a massive mistake. The best part of the case should be the contentions; the framework should be far weaker. Why? Because if debaters start with the strongest framework, then the easiest part of the case to answer will be the contentions. And if the contentions are easier to answer, any reasonably competent opponent will happily concede the framework debate and just pummel the (often poor) contentions to death.
Instead, a good debater should start by picking the truest contention arguments on the topic. These should be well-grounded in the relevant academic literature, contain few moving parts, and have strong evidence to back it up. In other words, these contentions should be very refutation resistant. Then, a good debater should pick a framework that strategically inflates the value of your contention arguments while deflating the value of your opponent’s contentions.
For example, on the compulsory voting topic, one common argument for the negative was that more voters would lead to more bad voting (e.g. Hill and Brennan 2014). So, when I was designing an NC to write for a demo debate, I found really good evidence that compulsory voting would lower the quality of the electorate and result in worse voting patterns. I also anticipated some common affirmative responses to the contention and built-in responses into the negative case to preempt those. Then I designed a framework around the idea of an epistocracy. This forced affirmative debaters to spend more time challenging the notion of an epistocracy (not really that hard once you did the reading but difficult if you hadn’t thought about it). This strategically inflated the value of my contentions about bad voting while deflating the value of affirmative contentions about procedural democracy.
Something something conclusion
In sum, the value criterion is a weighing standard that inflates your impacts while deflating your opponent’s impacts. It has a lot of value in a round if deployed strategically. Learning the content and structure of the criterion takes some time and effort but I think it is worth it. I hope this essay series has helped elucidate on some common misconceptions about the framework and given debaters some resources for moving forward in their journey to understanding philosophy.
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