Policy Debate and the Theory of Argument

I haven’t written about it in a while – it may have been five years in fact – but I’m still coaching a high school debate team, and still enjoying it.  I thought I’d take a stab at writing about some distinction that exist within Debate that might be interesting to the philosophically minded sorts that read this blog.  Theoretically, Debate should bear on the theory of argumentation more generally.  At any rate, maybe this post (and hopefully future ones) will help me articulate how Debate works, and then perhaps this can make us all understand how argumentation works.

The Rhetorical Situation of Debate

The rhetorical situation of debate is fairly straightforward, revolving around four key elements.

#1 and #2 – There are two teams, one of which is designated “affirmative”, the other “negative.”  Which side is which is announced beforehand.

#3 – There is a resolution – that’s a “should” statement around which the debate is supposed to center (this year’s is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its military and/or police presence in one more of the following: Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Japan, South Korea, Turkey.”  This resolution is selected by a national organization, through a process of paper presentations, nomination, and ultimately the votes of interested organizations.

#4 – There is a panel of judges (most of the time this panel has one member; in more important debates, it can be 3, 5 or as many as 31 in one instance during the season).  The panel is charged with selecting a winner and a loser.  The ballot they are given generally says “The better debating was done by” or just “winner” followed by a blank line.

There are not very many formal rules for Debate, nor even any recognized canonical source for rules.  There are strongly held shared expectations about what people are allowed to do and not allowed to do, what should be rewarded and what should be punished, and in fact, one paradox of this situation is that there are at once no rules, in the sense of written regulations, and also, seemingly an extremely large body of rules, in the sense of implicitly agreed-upon governing norms.

One of the most important “unwritten rules” regards the manner in which the judge evaluates the debate and chooses a winner and a loser.  One common way a judge evaluates a debate is according to a “policymaker paradigm.”  Below is a description:

What is a “Policy” Debate?

A “policy” debate casts the judge in a sort of imagined role – as a “policymaker.”  On this view, the judge pretends to be something like a congressperson or senator, deciding how they will vote on a particular issue, and hearing arguments from both sides as regards their vote.   Since the resolution is a very broad statement, in a “policy” debate, the affirmative team does not affirm the entire resolution, but instead about one particular example of the sort of action to which the resolution refers.  This example is called a plan.

The job of the affirmative team is to convince the judge that the plan they present is two things – A) an example of the resolution (i.e., not something off-topic, over which this would-be policymaker would have no jurisdiction) and B) a good idea (i.e. something for which they vote, assuming they do have jurisdiction).  The affirmative team generally offers consequentialist justifications for their plan, usually centering around how enacting this plan as legislation would improve the state of the world, usually by preventing negative consequences that would otherwise ensue, were the plan not taken.  They could offer more “deontological” justifications of the plan (i.e. not to act would be immoral) but this is far less common.

Thus the affirmative team demonstrates the truth of a normative claim – let’s say, “The United States should initiate a phased withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan” -by attempting to prove the truth of a closely related counterfactual conditional statement – “if the United States federal government were to initiate a phased withdrawal of its combat troops from Afghanistan, the world would be a better place than were it not to do so.”  They might demonstrate this by explaining how the United States presence is actually destabilizing Pakistan and overstretching our military, making us ineffective as hegemonic managers of stabilizers of the world order.  The core of this “policy” paradigm is the evaluation of the normative statement of the plan in terms of this counterfactual situation.

The job of the negative team is to prove that either A) the plan is not an example of the resolution, or B) the plan is not a good idea.  More debates end up being contested in terms of (B) than (A), but both are important negative strategies.  Also, (B), it turns out, is rather complicated (so is A, but I’m less interested in writing about it right now).  There are two core ways that a “policy” debate round can be won by the negative:

1)      Demonstrate that doing the plan would be worse or only as good as the status quo.  If the negative team proves that the plan is “less than or equal” to the status quo, in the terms of the counterfactual situation and the imagined consequences of its action, the judge should vote negative.  The easiest way for the negative team to prove this is to prove that the advantages claimed by the affirmative are false or overstated, and/or prove that there are independent disadvantages to such plan action.  To use the Afghanistan example, the negative team might argue that leaving Afghanistan would embolden Iran to occupy or unduly influence Afghanistan, and that this would destabilize the region, rather than stabilize it, as the affirmative claimed.

2)      Demonstrate that there is a net-beneficial “counterplan” that would be better for the policymaker to enact than the affirmative’s plan.  To do this, the negative team proposes a counterplan and explains why it would have more advantages, or avoid some disadvantages that the plan would have.  Again, to use the Afghanistan example, the negative might offer a counterplan that, rather than removes troops from the region, adds more.  The negative might argue that the only real way to stabilize Afghanistan is to increase our troop presence far beyond current levels.  The two teams would then compare the costs and benefits of both actions.

(2) is very complicated.  Some questions that arise (and are regularly discussed within debates, even in debates where the “policy” paradigm is more or less accepted by both sides):

a) Is it fair for the negative to offer a counterplan (2), and then revert to a defense of the status quo (1) if that counterplan turns out to be a bad idea?  This is labeled the question of “conditionality” – may the negative conditionally affirm a counterplan, and then withdraw that advocacy later on if they’d like?  The consensus right now is, “yes they can.”  It’s generally agreed that the affirmative must continue to advocate their plan, but the negative can shift ground later in the debate if they would like.  This often strikes me as counterintuitive, but the core reason why most accept that it’s okay is that the negative’s task is only to disprove the affirmative’s counterfactual statement.  By offering another “hypothetical status quo” (i.e., counterplans) they can disprove the affirmative’s advocacy, but if that hypothetical status quo is proven wrong, they can revert to using the real the status quo instead.

b) Is it fair for the negative to offer multiple counterplans, subject to the same sort of reasoning as (a) above?  Can they present 3 different counterplans, and then see which one will disprove the affirmative?  Again, the consensus seems to be, “yes they can.”

c) Is it fair for the negative to offer multiple counterplans that contradict each other in their intent?  The consensus starts to break down a bit here, but not as much as you might think.

d) Is it fair for the negative to offer counterplans that discuss action taken by other government bodies (i.e., foreign governments) or by other parts of the United States federal government (i.e., the courts, the states, etc.)?  The consensus here has shifted dramatically in just the last year.  It used to be, yes, the negative can do any of these things.  Now, it’s moved towards “no, they can’t really.”  This has made debates much more interesting.

There are host of other counterplan-related questions, not least of which is, does the negative really get to advance a counterplan at all?  What does “hypothetical status quo” really mean anyway?

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2 Responses to Policy Debate and the Theory of Argument

  1. David says:

    Interesting and informative, Josh, thanks for posting.

    Obviously, the resolutions must be chosen carefully, so that the consequences of enacting a policy are neither clearly optimal nor clearly sub-optimal. In other words, there will likely be compelling consequentialist considerations both for and against enacting a certain policy. Otherwise, I imagine, ‘winning’ a debate would depend far too much on the luck of the draw (affirmative or negative).

    Given this original position, as it were, what are the hallmarks of the successful debate team? Are the members of such a team more imaginative than most at predicting potential consequences of enacting or not enacting a certain policy? Are they particularly adept at making the case for the high probability of the consequences they identify actually occuring?

    Also, do formal debates leave room for disagreements about the *value* of certain consequences C, in addition to disagreement about whether enacting a certain policy P would have C? So in formal debate would a team ever concede that enacting P would have C, but take issue with the claim that C is bad? It would be very interesting if these types of more fundamental normative disagreements were also a part of debate, but I suspect this would require an altogether different kind of argument, more in line with argument in moral philosophy than argument in public policy.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to hearing more!

  2. Josh says:

    David – I’ve got a lot to say to your questions – I’ll try to keep it brief:

    “Obviously, the resolutions must be chosen carefully, so that the consequences of enacting a policy are neither clearly optimal nor clearly sub-optimal. In other words, there will likely be compelling consequentialist considerations both for and against enacting a certain policy. Otherwise, I imagine, ‘winning’ a debate would depend far too much on the luck of the draw (affirmative or negative).”

    Yes – for sure. Also, there wouldn’t really be “luck” of the draw, since at every tournament, each team is affirmative half the time and negative half the time. If the topic didn’t fairly divide ground, it would be hard to differentiate yourself from the field, as everyone would win 3 and lose 3 (if there were 6 debates, which is pretty standard.

    It’s probably pretty tough, a priori, to select a good topic. Current events can intervene (as with last year’s health-care related topic). Arguments can seem more intuitively persuasive as possibilities than as actually round-winning arguments. Ground can exist that people refuse to take (this happens a lot, because the Debate world is by and large inhabited by left-wing types).

    Another (unrelated) problem with topics is wording. If words are selected for the topic with bad/vague words, there will not be consensus about what should be argued about, which means debates will be less in-depth and often spent arguing about the words themselves. Last year’s topic used the phrase “social services” – this phrase, to most untrained ears probably means things like health care, education, welfare, etc. United States federal code defines it in a much more limited way – to include things like social workers and job training programs only.

    “Given this original position, as it were, what are the hallmarks of the successful debate team?”

    That’s a huge question I’ll try to tackle in another post.

    “Also, do formal debates leave room for disagreements about the *value* of certain consequences C, in addition to disagreement about whether enacting a certain policy P would have C? So in formal debate would a team ever concede that enacting P would have C, but take issue with the claim that C is bad?”

    For almost all questions of the form “does debate allow disagreement about X” the answer is yes. Debaters refer to this the distinction between link-turning and impact-turning. If the argument is P–>C; the response is either “P prevents C” (a link turn) or “grant that P causes C, but C is a good thing” (that’s an impact turn).

    There are lots of ways this can happen – either on the strategic level of an entire debate, or on the micro-level of a specific argument within the larger debate.

    If the affirmative team says “the US should pull out of South Korea, it will prevent a conflict with North Korea.” The negative team could go one of two ways in refuting this claim – either (a) pulling out will allow North Korean expansion and aggression, which will lead to conflict, or (b) having a conflict with North Korea would actually be a good thing.

    This can happen in mild ways and extreme ways. There is literature that discusses counterintuitive consequences of all sorts of things – “North Korean conflict good” is just the tip of the iceberg. There are people who write about how a global economic downturn would be good, because it would save the environment. There are people who argue that global warming is good because it will increase crop yields (those people worked almost exclusively for the Reagan administration or the oil industry, but they exist). If someone in the policy literature has made a claim, and it’s potentially strategic for debate, it will probably find its way into debate.

    ” It would be very interesting if these types of more fundamental normative disagreements were also a part of debate, but I suspect this would require an altogether different kind of argument, more in line with argument in moral philosophy than argument in public policy.”

    I suspect you’re referring here more to a philosophical indictment of the value of C, rather than just whether C is, say, directly consequentially better than C. And yes, there is a way for this to happen in debate too – it’s called a “critique.” In debate, it’s spelled as in German (for random silly reasons) – a “Kritik” or, often, just a “K.” This is where one team indicts a larger narrative or systemically problematic aspect of C. And yes, intuitively, it doesn’t fit within the confines of the “policymaker” paradigm – but it still happens and is one of the most controversial aspects of Debate .

    I’ll write about it in a different post. My original intent for this post was to discuss this aspect of Debate, but my introduction to that got too long.

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