Utilitarianism and Deontology, or, the only time I'll ever argue against bacon

In my last post about impact comparisons, I made the point that "magnitude" is usually a straightforward comparison - which war is worse, which policy harms the economy more, which impact should we avoid if we want to save the most lives. Comparing the size of two impacts is easy if they are both measured in dollars or lives, but what if there is no such apples-to-apples comparison? How do you compare an economic collapse to the existence of institutional racism? How do you evaluate a policy which ends a human rights violation, but risks starting a war?

On the scale of governments, this weighing of different impacts is a normal fact of public policy, but when you ask these kinds of questions of individuals, you've begun a study of ethics. After all, individuals have to weigh costs and benefits for nearly every decision they make. There are many ways that individuals or governments could resolve these apples-to-oranges impact comparisons, but there are two particularly important tools from the world of ethics that debaters tend to find useful. Though you might not have heard the terms for these decisionmaking systems, you most likely use both of them everyday.

Consider, for a moment, the vegitarian. Most people aren't raised vegetarians (a least among people of my own cultural background), which means most vegetarians made the choice at some point in their lives to stop eating meat. Every person who makes this choice makes it for different reasons, but there are a few common justifications for vegetarianism.

1. Meat production takes more resources. To take grain, feed it to chickens or cows, and then feed people with the resulting chickens and cows takes more grain than it would take to feed the people directly. Meat production also uses up a lot of land and other resources that could be better used to grow more food for more people. If everyone stopped eating meat, world food prices would go down, and more people would be able to sustain a healthy diet. Even if eating meat is enjoyable, vegetarianism does the greatest good for the greatest number.

2. Animals have rights. The animals that we consume for food are sentient beings that make decisions and feel pain. If we can avoid it, it is wrong to inflict pain on another creature. Animals raised for human consumption are caged, forced to ingest chemicals that modify their body chemistry, and are killed in ways that are far from painless. Even if an individual's decision not to eat meat does not end animal suffering, choosing to eat meat is still wrong.

Not only are these two arguments independent (you might agree with one, or the other, or both, or neither), they are based on completely different ethical systems.

Vegetarian argument #1 is an example of utilitarianism. A utilitarian decision-making process seeks to maximize "utility," which usually means minimizing pain or loss of life. If we did not eat meat, then fewer people would starve to death or face the pain of too little nutrition. Notice that evaluating a utilitarian claim requires looking at an action's consequences (whether or not it leads to less starvation), which is why we say that it is a consequentialist framework.

Vegetarian argument #2, and its claims about "rights", is rooted in the language of Deontology. In a deontic ethical framework, there are certain actions that one should never do, regardless of consequences. Unlike utilitarianism, which presents "conditional imperatives" like "we shouldn't eat meat if meat-eating leads to more hunger," deontology is based around categorical imperatives, things we should or should not do regardless of the consequences. These categorical imperatives are tightly linked with the concept of human rights (or animal rights, as the case may be).

Not all impacts fit neatly into these two categories, but usually we can distinguish between utilitarian and deontic arguments. Any argument about preventing a war or calamity that would happen some time in the future is utilitarian. Disads are largely utilitarian, by consequence. Arguments that seek to establish a "moral obligation," "decision rule," or "you must..." are drawing heavily on deontology.

So when will these two systems come into conflict? If you've been paying attention, they already have. There are two distinct claims built into a tagline like "You must vote aff to overturn a racist government policy." These claims are (1) removing racist policy is a categorical imperative and (2) that the existence of such a categorical imperative means we ought to discard other considerations, usually other utilitarian impacts in the round.

If the negative just extends their impact within a utilitarian framework ("war kills more people than racism"), they aren't going to make it far in this debate. It doesn't matter how many lives the status quo saves if the neg drops the claim that we ought to ignore the consequences of plan. To re-gain the upper hand in this debate, the neg needs to do one or more of the following:

  • win that the government policy in question is not racist

  • win that racism is not a categorical imperative

  • win a stronger categorical imperative that the affirmative violates (support of capitalism will be a popular objection this coming year)

  • win that utilitarianism is a better framework, IE that categorical imperatives do not exist

The neg (or aff, whoever is arguing against the deontic impact) generally has a few more common-sense responses to make as well. On balance, most of the claimed categorical imperatives are over-stated, especially upon a close reading of the impact and link cards in play. The opponents' impact also might not be such pure deontology as they claim it is. There is a wide gap, for instance, between "overturning a racist policy" and "solving racism." You shouldn't let teams claim they are doing the latter when their plan merely does the former.

One last piece of advice: the "utilitarianism vs. deontology" debate tends to revolve around a few obvious arguments against both systems. You could probably think of all of these arguments if you put your mind to it. But no policymaker (or individual) accepts "utilitarianism" or "deontology" in full - we all let both of these philosophies inform our decisionmaking. As such, debaters who can focus their utilitarian/deontic on the plan in question rather than in general can usually get a leg up in these debates.

The Economy Links Debate: Pay Up, Uncle Sam

The next in my four-part series on Economics covers the economy link debate for the coming season, roughly will social services for people living in poverty help or hurt the US Economy?

Right up front, let me admit that I can't possibly cover every meaningful economics debate you are going to have this year, even as a novice. As the year progresses, smart negatives will find specific, nuanced stories of how affs ruin the economy, and affirmatives will develop specfic, nuanced link turn stories of how they save it. That being said, many debates this year will center around two negative link stories, so we'll start with the generics.

This year's topic calls on affirmatives to increase social services, which in most cases means increaed federal spending. The federal goverment as we know it needs to spend money to function, but for the past 10 years the federal government's debts (via spending) have grown faster than their ability to repay them (via taxes and other revenue), a situation we call a budget defecit.

If you or I want to spend money that we don't yet have, we have many different options. Depending on the situation we could take out a loan from a bank, borrow from family or friends, seek investor capital, or use a credit card. But when the federal government wants to spend more than it makes, it can't just reach for its American Express card. The government uses a more technical system called a Treasury Bill. Roughly, a treasury bill is a government I.O.U. given to an investor in exchange for cash up front. Treasury bills are usually very low interest loans, but they are useful because they are highly likely to be repaid. Uncle Sam is good for it.

The fact that Uncle Sam is good for it means that many investors are attracted to "buy" government debt, including businesses and governments in other nations. These foreign investors form a symbiotic relationship with our government for now. But there is some worry that if the federal government stretched its budget too far, it would scare these foreign investors off. If Uncle Sam suddenly doesn't seem so reliable, you might stop investing in new treasury bills or worse, try to "dump" them for less than you paid. The government would not be able to finance its current committments and would have to either raise taxes or make cuts to spending that is already promised. This would be disastrous for the US Economy.

So if you are a negative team, you might argue that there is an invisible threshold of spending that triggers this collapse, and that the aff's new spending pushes us over it. This is a popular story (often the first disad that new debaters learn) but it has some serious problems to overcome. The most glaring is that the government has just spent on the order of a Trillion Dollars in attempt to prevent an economic depression - if that didn't trigger an economic collapse, then a few billion here and there for social services shouldn't matter, should it? Coming up with answers to basic objectives like these are an important step for negatives that want to win on spending disads.

Though the behavior of government has a major effect on the economy, it is not the only economic factor worth considering. The majority of "the economy," after all, is made up by businesses. Though the decisions made by your local grocery store won't bring widespread success or ruin on their own, the aggregate behavior of the larger business community matters. Are businesses investing in new equipment, entering in new markets, and hiring more people? This is usually the key sign of economic success. Businesses only take these risks if they are likely to see a return on their investment. Debaters generally phrase the likelyhood of businesses to take risk on new investments as business confidence.

So, if you owned a business, what could the government do to make you less confident? That list will be different for different businesses, but "take away my market" would surely be high on the list for all of them. For example, if I made money by providing broadband internet access to individuals, I might not like it if the government started providing my product to people for free. Even if the government targets people who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford my services, the notion that net access is something you should get "for free" instead of paying your local cable company is surely detrimental to my long-term business model. This is the kind of policy that might make me reconsider hiring a bunch of people to lay new cable lines.

Regulation is another common point of contention between business and government. Right now, health insurance companies base their pricing model off of denying people with pre-existing conditions. If the government told all insurance companies that they had to cover anyone who wanted coverage, they might not like that.

Lucky for the aff, almost anything that hurts one business (or one type of business) helps another. Broadband companies might not be enthused if people got free broadband, but Google and Amazon would love it if a few million more people showed up on the internet tomorrow. Health insurance companies might not want to compete with the government to provide health care, but I can think of a few major companies that might like it if their employees had easier access to cheap healthcare. And the businesses that would have the largest effect on the US economy are not always the same ones that lobby the hardest to congress.

In addition to the tit-for-tat answers to the popular negative link scenarios, strategic affirmatives will come up with independent ways that their plan helps the economy. This year, many of those stories will revolve around the "hidden costs" of poverty. For example, even though many in the United States don't have adequate health care coverage, they still do occasionally show up at a hospital needing life-saving treatments. In fact, their lack of insurance makes them less likely to visit a doctor regularly and more likely to end up in the emergency room, where they receive expensive treatments for which they are unable to pay. There is some debate over exactly how large this problem is, but widespread health insurance would save costs, and might be a net positive for the economy.

These are the tools to get started, I look forward to writing a follow-up later in the season explaining all the new tricky link scenarios debaters have managed to craft.

Counterplans, or The Number 12 vs. Carnitas Burrito, Black Beans

As I mentioned, the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association recently set the coming year's Novice Case Limits, including limits on what positions negative teams can run in the novice division. These limits allow the "50 States counterplan" from the beginning of the year, meaning that States will be the counterplan that Minnesota novices will first learn.

This is fitting, since when asked open-ended questions like "how would you attack this plan?", a beginning debater's intuitive response is often "well, why don't we do this other plan instead?" Counterplans bring with them some more technical theory issues eventually, but the idea of debating "Option A" vs. "Option B" is pretty easy to grasp.

So how does the neg present a counterplan? A lot like the aff presents a plan, actually. The 1NC, as a seperate off-case position, usually reads a "plan text" and builds a prima facie case around thier counterplan. The counterplan text for the States Counterplan often looks quite a bit like the affirmative plan, substituting state governments in place of the federal government. If plan is "Congress should provide medical coverage to non-citizens living in poverty," counterplan will look something like "The 50 US State Governments should provide medical coverage to non-citizens living in poverty."

In building a case for the counterplan, the negative does not usually cover the same stock issues as the aff does. Counterplans don't have to be topical, and the counterplan is usually inherent for the same reasons that plan is, so new evidence is generally not needed there.

Before I continue, reflect for a moment on why we are running a counterplan, why your knee-jerk reaction is "why not do this other thing instead?" Usually, you react this way because you think that "this other thing" will solve the harms. Proving this assertion with Solvency evidence is a necessary component of a counterplan strategy.

So you've proven that your counterplan can solve... now what? Well, what if you had to choose between two different policies to solve a harm, and you knew that both policies would get the job done? How would you decide? To use the same silly example that I always do, if the harm is "I am hungry," how do you resolve the debate between the plan "go eat at Jimmy John's" and the counterplan "go eat at Chipotle"? Either plan will vanquish my hunger, so you are going to need to find other reasons to make a decision.

And as a negative, you want to give as many smart reasons as possible to prefer counterplan over plan. Just like there could be a lot of different reasons to prefer one restaurant over the other ("Chipotle is Closer," "Jimmy Johns is Cheaper," "Chipotle uses free-range pork"), you've got a lot of options for Net Benefits, reasons to prefer CP over plan:

  • Disadvantages that link to plan, but not to counterplan

  • Reasons plan won't solve (that don't apply to counterplan)

  • Seperate benefits to plan (usually just called "net benefits")

  • Impact turns to harms that counterplan doesn't solve

And here we can start to form a more complete negative strategy by choosing arguments that work well together. A States CP 1NC might also include a federal spending disad, a solvency argument that says that federal medical dollars are wasted, and an argument that major state-level action can strengthen state governments' role in providing healthcare and help the US healthcare system overall. Notice that sometimes the net benefit stems from what the counterplan is (major state action), and sometimes from what it is not (federal spending).

So if you were the affirmative, how would you answer a 1NC like that? It seems daunting (and the list of net benefits is often much bigger), but remember that every weapon the neg brings to the battlefield might end up being used against them. For every net benefit, you can challenge (with takeouts or turns)

  • The link to plan

  • The link to counterplan

  • The uniqueness of the link(s)

  • The uniqueness of the impact

  • The impact itself

And with all of these options, you can usually find something to challenge that the neg is not particularly prepared to defend.

Of course, with so many options, choosing what exactly to run has it's perils and challenges as well. That's why you should usually start with your case. How good is the evidence that states solve? This is the hardest part for the negative to research (there are usually a lot of affs out there), so it is often the most vulnerable spot of the counterplan. If you win a Solvency Defecit, your case becomes a "disad" to the counterplan, and it's a disad you've already spent 8 minutes building up.

And, just like the negative can be creative when researching disads to your plan, you can dig into the literature to find disadvantages to state action. State governments have to spend money too (for example), and the consequences of state budget overruns might be just as devestating as additional federal spending.

Counterplan-focused strategies can quickly turn into a mess with all these links and impacts flying around. The teams that tend to thrive in these debates have mastered two things. First, they have the ability to focus the debate down to the arguments that they are winning in the last rebuttals. This is easier said than done (and I'll have more guidance on this later), but one important point is that in 1AR and 2NR, every argument you extend should be either something you can win the debate on or something that you'll lose the debate on if you don't answer it. Sometmes your 2AC or 2NC has some "noise" arguments, by necessity or by design, but you need to make 1AR and 2NR tightly focused.

The second thing that will win you many a counterplan debate is mastering Impact Comparisons. I can't tell you how many debates I've judged with a dozen impacts on the flow and no effort from either side to compare them. If you find yourself in one of these debates, you might as well go ahead and win it.

Kritiks in Novice

Last week, I took part in the ad-hoc committee to set Minnesota's novice case limits. The primary purpose of this meeting is to create a sub-set of the coming year's policy resolution for novice debate. This limited number of cases helps to ease novices into the debate process and focus on fundamental skills like flowing, argumentation, and basic strategy.

Over the years this meeting has evolved to include discussions of limiting the negative strategies available to the novices as well. Although opinions about new limits/allowances on Novices tend to be divisive, we were able to craft a compromise guideline for counterplans in novice. In minnesota, novices can run the States counterplan from the beginning of the year and any "Branch of the USFG" counterplan starting in November. Personally, I think this is an excellent compromise between negative flexibility and affirmative predictability, but we'll see how it plays out.

Though some folks advocated the MDTA make a similar limitation on Kritiks, we did not put any limitation on Kritiks in novice. I don't usually consider "journalism" to be the purpose of this blog, but I feel like a mostly-objective discussion of the arguments for and against particular limits on Kritiks in novice could be useful to the community.

First, a little history, as I remember it. My first experience with novice debate in Minnesota came in 2001, when I was a Minnesota debate novice. At that time, the MDTA made no official policy regarding kritiks or counterplans in novice. I neither ran nor had to answer a Kritik or Counterplan all year. Over the rest of my tenure in high school I occasionally saw a novice team bust out a Counterplan at JV/Novice state, but it had to be a calculated decision based on the judge and opponent, and usually only happened in out-rounds if ever.

Over the years many discussions were had over Kritiks and Counterplans in novice. One year I remember that two of the Novice case limits actually made good counterplans to each other, and the argument was made that negatives should be able to run CPs in those rounds since the Aff had to be prepared to debate the case anyway. But I don't remember any official MDTA ruling on Counterplans and Kritiks until last year, when both were explicitly allowed after November 1st (the "home stretch" of the novice season in MN).

The arguments for regulating Kritiks became more strongly stated after this new allowance, but largely they are the same reasons that there was a norm against kritiks in novice historically. Novice debaters have to go from 0-60 on the stock issues, disads, argumentation, flowing, and so much more in the month between the first school day and the first tournament. It's a tall order even if they are are attending regular practice or debate class. If kids have to learn to read Heidegger or how to defeat every theoretical maneouver available in modern kritik debate, it turns learning to debate from "hard" to "sisyphean." Kids will just up and quit.

Even though kritik debate can be an equalizer between small/larger programs at higher levels, at the novice level the opposite might be true. K debate is much more accessible to novices with access to talented varsity debaters, coaches who have been in the activity for a while, and lots of available practice/class time. Obviously, resource inequality is much deeper than whether or not novices can run the Cap K, but if we want to keep this activity going then we need to find every opportunity posible to help small/new programs grow.

There are some equally important arguments that kritik debate, in some form or another, ought to be available to students at the novice level. Some kritiks are obviously generic and tangential to social services, but issues like racism, capitalism, gender, and the role of the state are central to the discussion of poverty in the US. There is also a negative ground issue if the aff has access to decision-rule type impacts but the neg is limited to disads. For example, If the aff runs a school de-segregation affirmative that impacts to the Barndt card tagged "vote aff to reject racism," then "vote negative to reject capitalism" is a germane, reasonable response, even at the novice level.

Even the very act of categorizing kritiks into their own special little box can be problematic. I've long argued (and it was argued at the meeting) that the distinctions we set up between "K debate" and "policy debate" are silly at best and harmful to the activity at worst. Sectioning off a set of arguments as "too hard for you" sends Novices the wrong message. We want to encourage kids to stretch their boundaries and become accustomed to many different styles of argument. Too harsh a restriction on Ks prevents both.

Which brings up another important point: what exactly is a kritik, anyway? If you wanted to restrict kritiks, how do you craft a briteline rule? Do you say "no alternatives?" Teams can still run a Nietzsche with a "do nothing" alternative. No non-utilitarian impacts? Limits out far to many legitimate, core-of-the-topic debates. No pre-fiat impacts? Try explaining the distinction to your novices (or, hell, to me!). There was a proposal to limit the content of Kritiks down to a few different "philosophical objections" which I think had some good things going for it, but if "capitalism" is on the list, with all its thousands of different critiques, is that even a limit?

This problem is amplified by the fact that any restriction that the MDTA puts in place will have to be enforced by judges, most of which would not have attended the meeting and might not know the rationale behind the rule. If the regulation is interpreted too tightly, kids might be voted down because they ran a solvency turn that was "too kritiky" or read a card from a "K author," even if it was germane and understandable. If the rule is interpreted too loosely, novices end up running whatever kritik the varsity debaters from their school carry with the same blocks. Not a great formula for a productive novice debate round.

There was some agreement in the meeting that we'd like to allow value-based arguments, but rid them of the theoretical baggage associated with "The K." Someone brought up that if we just say "No Kritiks," people will run the same arguments as solvency turns, and that is a good thing. I like this idea - make the novices think through the reasons their Capitalism argument turns case instead of letting them get an instant "voter" by labeling a flow with a K. The problems with a vague regulation are hard to ignore though - misinterpretation, chiling effects, pointless meta-debates on the MDTA forum over what constitutes a Kritik, etc.

Since I've been at the meeting, though, I've thought of another way of capturing this idea - allow the "solvency turn" but disallow the "kritik" - that might be more workable. Instead of phrasing the regulation as a "thou shalt not," we should write the negative case limits like we write the affirmative case limits - a list of allowable positions, with all other arguments assumed to be off limits. The negative limit might look something like this:

Negative teams can run:

  • Any Topicality argument

  • Any Inherency Argument

  • Any Harms Argument, including case Harms impact turns

  • Any Solvency Argument, including Solvnecy turns

  • Any Disadvantage

  • The "50 States" Counterplan, and any "Branch of the Federal Government" Counterplan after Nov. 1

So a team that wants to run anti-capitalism arguments can do so, but they have to structure it as a case turn or disad. The rules don't have to ban Kritiks or even take a position on what a "Kritik" is. Maybe we run into the same definitional issues with "disadvantage" and "solvency turn," but I'd argue that it would be much easier for the community to settle on a definition of a Disad than it would be to workably define Kritik. Maybe this would be interpreted as just "No Kritiks," with the same attendant problems as the vague regulation, but I think it comes off as much more constructive and objective.

But this isn't the regulation that is in place for 2009-10, so we'll give my proposal a year to marinate. Perhaps this is much ado about nothing. As a few folks brought up at the meeting, just because novices are allowed to run Kritiks doesn't mean that they will with any frequency. Last year we saw a couple Capitalism debates and a few Deep Eco rounds. We also saw teams run value-based arguments as solvency turns, just as my proposal would hope to create. August is an easy time for optimism, but I highly doubt that this year with bring on the K-pocalypse.