Monday, November 21, 2011

Moral Obligation and the Drowning Child

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As I post this we are approaching the mid-point of the Nov/Dec topic for Lincoln-Douglas debate. Now that we have seen what kind of cases are emerging, it may be worthwhile to look at the various kinds of arguments being used to negate the resolution, "individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need".  The Thanksgiving break affords many the opportunity to rewrite or greatly revise their existing cases in order to reduce vulnerability.  In general, from what I have seen or heard thus far in our district, many of the cases have been ordinary attempts to take on the philosophical issues without resorting to gimmicks, misdirection, technicalities, etc. even if the philosophies being used are at times, twisted in subtle ways or misinterpreted.

Dudley Do-Right and the Drowning Child
Typically when researching and discussing moral issues, one is often confronted with the Dudley Do-Right  or Drowning Child analogies.  Dudley Do-Right is a fictional, animated Canadian Mountie who frequently had to rescue Nell Fenwick from certain death after Snidely Whiplash tied her to the railroad tracks.  The drowning baby or drowning child illustration is another common analogy used to illustrate moral principles and forces us to consider what our moral responsibility is with regard to helping those in need. Using the drowning child illustration I thought it would be interesting to see how the analogy applied to the most common Neg arguments.

For the most part, the Neg cases can be roughly divided into three classes:
  1.  Assisting does not produce a moral result
  2.  The obligation is based on an untrue ethical framework.
  3.  The Aff case violates the resolution.

The Bad Consequences NEG
This argument essentially claims there is no moral obligation to assist the needy since every attempt to do so will result in some bad result.  Since the consequence is bad, it can not possibly be a moral obligation. There are many ways Neg can try to prove assisting the needy results in a negative consequences. For example, Neg may claim that rendering aid "otherizes" individuals and so dehumanizes them. Or Neg may claim that rendering aid violates the natural rights of the beneficiary or the obligation violates the natural rights of the doer. The Neg argument can be boiled down to "any act which produces a bad result can not be a moral obligation". So assuming we do not want to run down the rabbit-hole arguing definitions of words or phrases and agree with the generally accepted understanding of good and bad then Aff must be able to refute the argument by 

  • Showing that Neg is wrong since the act does not result in bad or the good somehow outweighs the bad 
  • Prove that even though the act results in a negative consequence, the act is conceptually good and so obligatory under the Aff ethical framework.

From a pragmatic point of view, could the Aff say one has a moral obligation to help a drowning child but if both drown during the rescue attempt, was it wrong to attempt rescue? What if the attempt to rescue the drowning child fails and only the child drowns? The result is bad so does that mean there was no moral obligation to assist the child? Finally what if the rescue of the child resulted in saving the child's life but the child was somehow permanently maimed as a consequence, does that mean there was no moral obligation?

The Bad Framework NEG
Usually this argument attempts to take on the moral framework presented by the Aff and prove it is faulty.  For example, should the Aff claim there is a moral obligation to assist based on utilitarian principles of acting to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Neg could try to show the Affirmative moral philosophy is flawed for various reasons.  For example, extending the Kantian idea that using people as a means to end is wrong directly attacks the ends justification of utility under certain conditions. Returning to the pragmatic illustration of the drowning child, we conclude Neg makes the claim, we do not have a moral obligation to rescue the child because in doing so we are using the child as a way to achieve a good end.  Stated this way, the argument sounds incredulous and it is simply incorrect. In this case of the child has not been used to achieve a good end if one rescues the child and it is not correct to claim one used the child as a means to achieve a good end as presumably, the child would consent to rescue.

A common complaint against the Categorical Imperative, is while it is capable of providing us with a method to decide what one should NOT do, it does not provide a guideline for deciding what one ought to do and so it is flawed. Such a claim is not applicable to this resolution since the resolution specifies, more or less, what we ought do.  So the other criticism is CI violates individual autonomy or it is inherently egoistic. The pragmatic illustration thus becomes, one ought not rescue the drowning child because in doing so his rights or self-determination are violated. Or one ought not rescue the drowning child because one's own rights or self-determination are violated. The simple answer to this, I suppose, is what would you expect if you were the drowning child?  Finally with regard to egoism or selfishness, would Kant deny in the case of the drowning child, that one ought not attempt rescue if the rescuer achieves self-fulfilment of some sort?

The Bad Topicality NEG
The Neg may argue that some aspect of the resolution has been violated by the Aff case and therefore should be voted down.  These arguments incorporate many of the technicalities and similar issues which revolve around the interpretation of the resolution and how it is worded.  One of the most common of these arguments will center on the issue of universality. This is not related to the universal law formulation of the Categorical Imperative but rather implied meaning in the wording of the resolution itself.  The phrase, "individuals have a moral obligation" implicitly means "ALL individuals..." so if the case does not apply to all individuals it violates topicality. Can the topicality challenges be answered by a pragmatic example such as the drowning child?  Probably not. Topicality should be answered in the usual way by showing how the Aff case meets the interpretation of the resolution, and answer any voting issues claimed by the Neg.  Then bring out the pragmatic illustrations.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Con Strategies for the 2011 December Resolution

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I have been looking closely at some of the evidence emerging on the Pro side of the income disparities resolution and thus far I am seeing clear trends emerging.  Most notably, the hard-core evidence is mainly the qualified speculation and well-reasoned opinions of certain outspoken professors and consultants. These opinions can be broadly categorized and it may be possible to challenge these ideas with a limited number of strong, generic rebuttals which categorically refute Pro arguments by undermining their assumptions. If so, this can reduce or eliminate the need to build a Con case around any kind of framework.

What the Pro will Claim
Putting a finger on "democratic ideals" is difficult but not impossible. As already discussed in my essay on Pro Strategies for the 2011 December resolution, the tendency to break the debate into very narrow and specific democratic ideals, however they are defined, is likely but should be avoided.  To that end I discussed the possibility of a framework approach to preempt such a debate.  Hopefully, it will not be necessary.  For the most part, the claims I am seeing in evidence tend to be broad and generally described and so I think the Con approach to refutation should also be expressed in broad terms.  Certainly a compelling case can be made without the need to nitpick specifics.

These, in no particular order, are the emerging claims I believe will be filling the speeches of the Pro side:

  1. Corruption of the political process as seen in voter apathy or non-participation and campaign funding, and the tendency for only the upper socio-economic class to seek office.
  2. Loss of opportunity as measured by decreased upward mobility, loss of jobs, and loss of educational opportunities.
  3. Loss of influence in policy decisions which can be seen when laws and policies are enacted which favor the wealthy and impede the lower socio-economic classes. These are often influenced by lobbying, media campaigns and political contributions.
  4. Decline in health and welfare of the lower classes including higher mortality, poorer health-care, psychological issues, and so forth.

The "A Priori" Issue and Causation
In order to win, Pro must first and foremost show there are income disparities in the United States. Without this knowledge, there is no case.  If Pro can successfully prove there is income disparity, Pro must then prove that left unchecked or if allowed to increase, resultant harm will occur to American democratic ideals.  The causal relationship of income disparity to harm, presents a great opportunity for Con to challenge the validity of the conclusion since the uniqueness of the cause-effect relationship is very difficult to prove, in my opinion. Therefore, it follows, the first thing Con should do is try to undermine the "a priori" knowledge of income disparity, by showing there is no income disparity.  While it may be that such convincing evidence does exist it may be difficult to convince the judge the evidence is valid and certainly, Pro will be able to read lots of supporting evidence, the income disparity is real.

Con must next seek to undermine the cause-effect relationship which implies that some quality of "income disparities" will harm "democratic ideals" based on the resolution's claim of "threaten" which implies an indication of impending harm. So look at the claim this way. Let's say we are seeing an increase in income disparity and parallel to that we note an increase in voter apathy. While there may be a correlation, this is no proof of cause-effect, between the two. The correlation may be completely coincidental or there may be another cause which is driving both, the disparity and apathy. Therefore, to show a cause, Pro must prove that income disparity is the only (or perhaps primary) cause of voter apathy.  Unless this unique, one-to-one relation exists, the Con can argue there are many other reasons for voter apathy and so Pro fails to establish causality. Pro's ability to establish the link between disparity and apathy will be directly related to the quality of their evidence and their rhetorical skill. A few historical examples of low-voter turnout during times of low income disparity will go a long way toward turning Pro's link. Bear in mind, no matter which democratic ideal Pro intends to claim is harmed by income disparity, the burden to establish causality is the same and is vulnerable to attack by the Con.

So What Are Democratic Ideals?
Democratic ideals are not easy to define.  It is intuitive, I suppose, that a democratic ideal is somehow directly tied to our understanding and definition of democracy. The definition will likely be some variant of the concept of government in which ordinary people have a voice in the laws and policies which affect them.  But you may be surprised to learn that government by the people, of the people and with the people are three models of democracy and the idyllic principles of each may vary.  So, the enterprising and well-informed Con debater can exploit this knowledge in order to undermine the ethos of Pro's case but I think any debate which goes this deeply into democratic theory is likely to lose the so-called "citizen" judge. Theorists and researchers whose evidence will be cited often look to the work of Robert Dahl who enumerated six institutions which describe a democracy (or more precisely in Dahl's view, a polyarchy):

  1. Elected officials,
  2. Fair and frequent elections
  3. Right to run for office (inclusive citizenry)
  4. Freedom of expression
  5. Access to independent (non-official) information
  6. Existence of autonomous associations

(see Democracy and its Critics, Yale University Press, 1989)

But the link between these institutions and the expression of democratic ideals is not always clear.  For example, the fact that increased voter apathy may be linked to income disparity does not mean the first three of Dahl's institutions enumerated above, are undermined or harmed in any way. So what then is the democratic ideal? Is it establishment of free and fair elections or is it voter motivation?  The theorist may say elections, the Pro evidence may say motivation. So once again, the Con can attack the assumptions of the Pro case by showing how the fundamental principles of democracy are not threatened so therefore democratic ideals remain intact.

Finally, for the really adventurous, and for those NFL districts which tolerate it, one can always take the contra-Dahl point of view and essentially claim, there is no democracy in the United States. Therefore, if income disparities do threaten democratic values it can not be happening in the United States. Professor G. William Dormhoff, is an outspoken critic of Dahl who takes a completely different point of view on the structure of power in America and world in general.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pro Strategies for the 2011 December Resolution

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A Class Discussion
Recently while discussing the resolution among our Public Forum debaters, some interesting thoughts emerged.  I drew a pyramid on the board and divided it into three parts. The very small upper segment representing the top 1%, a base segment representing the lower 19% and the largest area in between, the 80% middle class. As the discussion ensued, one imaginative debater suggested we separate the top of the pyramid at the 1% line from the lower 80%. We were now viewing the problem in a completely different light, graphically illustrating the gap between the upper 1% and the remaining 80% of Americans.  The illustration of the decapitated pyramid sparked new ideas and discussion as well as reminders of the French Revolution.  Certainly one of the key ideals of the American way of life is based on the concept of upward mobility.  This is the notion that any individual in America has the opportunity to better themselves and basically move up the pyramid, as it were, from the bottom to the top.  But perhaps it becomes increasingly difficult to attain the peak if the top is moving away at a rate that outpaces one's ability to climb the ladder of success.  I could sense frustration in the minds of the debaters as they began to think of approaches to debating the PRO side of the resolution.  Finally, at the end of the session, one novice debater expressed her concern about how broad the resolution really is and how does one defend against every possible example of non-threat to a democratic ideal, the CON side may choose to introduce?

The Decapitated Pyramid
The illustration of the decapitated pyramid serves very well to graphically depict the widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States.  David Lynch of reports  "A widening gap between rich and poor is reshaping the U.S. economy, leaving it more vulnerable to recurring financial crises and less likely to generate enduring expansions."  Susan Demas, a political commentator, reports, Charles Ballard of Michigan State University says "The gap between rich and poor is the least reported story in the last 25 years".  U.S. Census Bureau confirms the income gap is greater than it has been since tracking of income data began in the 1960's As an example of how the laws in the U.S. actually contribute to the gap, consider the article published in the Washington Post, Sep 6, 2011, "Capital gains tax rates benefiting wealthy feed growing gap between rich and poor".  Obviously, there is a wealth of evidence declaring the gap exists and describing how profound that gap really is but what are the implications?  The New York Times reported, the income gap can lead to worker health issues, corruption and psychological effects.  An interesting article, found online at the Santa Clara University, discusses the ethical issue of income disparity and links income disparity to loss of "democratic solidarity" and "positive liberty".  There is no question, even the most mildly inquisitive debater will be able to find links between income disparities and a plethora of negative impacts, many of which impact democratic ideals.

Refutation - The Ground
What exactly is a side's burden in this resolution and how does one go about meeting it? Clearly, most published guidelines for public forum debate will state neither side has a presumptive burden but each side supports an advocacy. This, of course, differentiates PF from LD which usually requires a value/criterion framework and Policy which requires advocating a specific plan within a (sort of) stock issues framework. So, if I identify certain democratic ideals and run a case which proves those ideals are either threatened or not threatened by democratic ideals, have I established an advocacy?  Assuming I have, how does the opposition refute my advocacy?  For example, I choose the "right to vote" as a democratic ideal and prove that income disparities have not threatened that ideal. Must PRO now, refute that with evidence that income disparities do threaten the right to vote?  What if I choose right to life, or the right to protest, or cultural freedom, or a laundry-list of random ideals? How is it possible to refute every ideal that may or may not be threatened? This seems to indicate that either side has unlimited ground in choosing from a long list of so-called democratic ideals which may or may not be true democratic ideals but if it connects in the experience of the judge, it is an ideal.

In PF debate, it is not enough to simply establish an advocacy and run it throughout the debate. A necessary part of the PF debate process requires refuting the opponent's position. This means establishing an offensive attack against the other side.  Since it is impossible to predict which of the many possible ideals the opponent may choose. It is vital, in my opinion, to establish some guidelines which allow the debate to be judged as an overview avoiding the collapse into arguing over very narrow and specific democratic ideals.

Creating a Framework
A framework is defined as a set of standards or assumptions which regulate behavior. In debate, a framework establishes various guidelines which determine how the judge should evaluate the round.  For this resolution, one way to avoid the unlimited ground of "democratic ideals" is to establish an evaluation strategy whereby Pro, for example, holds they must advocate that income disparities threaten democratic ideals where "democratic ideals" are to be treated as a collective idea or entity.  If there is an over-arching concept which establishes the basis for democratic ideals we can limit the debate to the specific concept and avoid the pitfalls of arguing specifics. To understand, lets look at example.

Resolved: In the United States, income disparities threaten democratic ideals.
Before beginning this round we note the resolution specifically limits the scope of the debate to the United States so an advocacy which focuses on income data or ideals not directly applicable to the United States are not topical. We also establish the following definitions, "income disparity" is ...., "threaten" means ...., a "democracy" is ...., "democratic ideals" are ....

Observation One: As seen in our definitions, a democracy may be guided by many ideals and any debate in which a side is allowed to choose from a laundry-list of ideals places an abusive burden on their opponents since it is impossible to anticipate, research and prepare rebuttals for every possible ideal that can be linked to democracy as practiced in the United States.

Observation two: American democratic ideals are based on the over-arching concept of "power to the people" so we urge the judge to evaluate the round on the basis of whether or not income disparities threaten the idealistic concept of "power to the people" and not random specifics which are impossible to know and research in advance.

Using the framework established in the definitions and observations the debater defines a set of standards and assumptions; in short, a framework, which gives the judge a mechanism for evaluating the round. Once the framework is created it then becomes paramount for the side to pin their constructive to the framework and in all of the claims, warrants and examples, show how they link to the concept of "power to the people".  Once the framework is established, the opposition will either, refute it, ignore it, or establish a counter-framework. Regardless, there is simply no way of knowing how the judge will react because he also has the option to accept or reject any framework a side attempts to create. Indeed, some judges simply refuse to be told how to evaluate the round.

The strange thing about PF debate is one can never be sure how the cases will evolve. Indeed, as the month progresses, the PF world tends to narrow their cases down to a few specific arguments which seem to work and catch the acceptance of the judges in their communities.  It may be, my concern of unlimited ground may prove to be incorrect and clever debaters will find tactics which connect with judges without over-burdening the opposition with impossible research tasks.  I think at the end of the month we will realize judges are going to weigh these rounds on the basis of some kind of framework, regardless of whether it is one established by the debaters or not. So let's see how this plays out.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

PF 2011 December Topic Analysis

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Resolved: In the United States, current income disparities threaten democratic ideals.

The NFL December resolution for Public Forum Debate promises to be an interesting topic, It will force debaters to define a set of democratic ideals and then try to convince a judge that the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the United States is threatening those ideals.

A democracy is a form of government where all people are said to have an equal voice in the affairs which effect their lives.  These include all manner of economic, security, health and welfare, and energy policies just to name a few.  Ideally, an individual's opinions should carry as much weight as another's opinion, regardless of their personal economic standing and it seems obvious, this resolution advocates economic standing is threatening the democratic ideal of equality when it comes to shaping policy in the United States.

Many studies have been published which provide evidence for the claim the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and fewer and fewer people are controlling more and more of the money. And, as the researcher will soon discover, there are also studies which tend to support the view the voice of America's poor is becoming weaker while more political attention is given to the wealthy.  The statistics and numbers will no doubt pour out of debate rooms and flood the halls of American schools this December as judges and debaters are forced to wade through rivers of numerical data.  But for this resolution, perhaps pathos will play a much bigger role in deciding rounds than ever before.

Wealth vs. Income
This debate topic will examine the distribution of income in the United States.  Understand that income is not the same as wealth and therefore, I am inclined to think the National Forensics League has been careless in the language of the resolution. Income is the amount of money an individual earns in their paycheck and in interest and dividends from their savings and investments.  The U.S. Federal Government levies a tax on income.  Wealth, on the other hand is a measure of an individual's total financial worth after subtracting debts.  Wealth is often tied up in long-term investments which do not necessarily generate income but easily could if needed simply, by selling the asset or converting the investment into cash.  So wealth is a measure of assets which have a market and are sellable, such as real-estate, stocks, bonds, financial instruments, savings plans, various properties, etc. Therefore, one may be wealthy but not necessarily have a large income. Conversely, and this is the weakness of the resolution language, a person with a large income may not necessarily be wealthy if most of the income is consumed on revolving debt and non-durable goods.  The unfortunate wording, in my opinion, forces us to find a definition which equates income and wealth or we must generally assume that people with higher incomes tend to have higher wealth in order to meet what I perceive is the intent of the resolution.

Distribution of Wealth and Income
Sociologists and economists study the distribution of wealth in the United States and around the world and as a result, we see that generally speaking, 1 percent of the population holds nearly half of the nation's wealth. Further we see that 80 percent of Americans hold less than 10 percent of the financial wealth.  This is the wealth disparity in America. A small minority controls most of the wealth, while the vast majority have very little.  In looking at the trends, however, one sees the disparity has been fairly consistent through the decades with only a slight upward trend in favor of the wealthiest.  A different story emerges when looking at income. Comparing the wealth of large wage owners versus lower income wage earners, one sees a sharper disparity. It may seem intuitive, but indications are, lower wage earners are becoming less wealthy which shows us that more and more, the low-income people are becoming less able to save or invest their incomes into wealth generating holdings. This could mean the ability for lower wage earners to build wealth is decreasing.

Statistical Traps
Beware of statistics wars when researching this resolution.  Very often one finds alarming statistics which speak of sharp changes in the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.  Don't be fooled by the numbers game.  If I take a figure for the year 2009 and compare it to the year 2008 one does well to remember I am citing only two data-points and no conclusions can be drawn from such an insignificant sample.  If I compare a 2010 figure to a 1950 figure, I am still comparing two data-points.  Proper studies will consist of multiple data points collected over decades. Only then will the true trends begin to emerge and the natural variation (statistical 'noise') which may occur year to year becomes less significant.  Looking at the figures over the long term will reveal the disparity between the wealthy and non-wealthy is relatively flat while the disparity between incomes is increasing.

The Link Between Wealth and Power
For the purpose of this discussion, let us define power as the quality which allows a person to exert influence over one's environment in order to accomplish desired goals.  Quite often in common parlance, we hear people speak of the "rich and powerful" and so we naturally believe there is a link between wealth, income and power.  It goes without saying, I think, that in the United States, money equals power.  Money buys expertise, influence, resources, and attention allowing those who have money to exert the necessary pressure to benefit the wealthy and make it easier for the wealthy to gain more wealth.  There are many theories which attempt to explain the stratification of wealth and power in most societies.  In the United States, for example, we are aware of three social classes, low, middle and upper, mainly divided by income and the political power exerted by these classes tends more and more to be concentrated in the upper class.

Democracy and Power
I find it interesting this debate resolution is introduced at a time of unprecedented growth of democracy as a form of government.  The democracy movement currently sweeping northern Africa and parts of the Middle-East are evidence of the growing acceptance of democracy and the ideals inherent in that form of government. Nevertheless, identifying the ideals that are fueling the current democracy movement may be impossible.  Quite often, democracies collapse into authoritarian forms of government very rapidly and in some cases there may be a correlation to the rise of a small power elite. One of the key principles of democracy is the idea of political freedom or self-determination devoid of oppression and coercion by special interests.  It is a government in which the governed enjoy an equal voice in deciding the policies which affect their lives and livelihoods.  But when a democratic society becomes stratified and power is concentrated with a wealthy elite, the government becomes an oligarchy and most oligarchies are or become tyrannical.

The issue this resolution brings to light, is will the current trend in income disparity lead to the collapse of democracy in the United States and if so, when will it happen?

The PRO Burden
PRO must establish the relationship between between power and income and prove that the disparity between the haves and have-nots threatens the ideals of democracy.  Connecting the dots between wealth, income and power should not prove too difficult as there are plenty of articles, papers and studies which discuss this topic.  Proving that disparities threaten democratic ideals is another matter and will depend mainly on the individual judges hearing the arguments.  I think it is important to identify which democratic principles are threatened by the income disparity.  For judges who tend to favor analytical or evidence-centered arguments, this may not be particularly simple.  The debater will need to rely on cogent analysis and historical examples.  For judges who are less driven by evidence, good pragmatic arguments may be persuasive since this is one of those topics in which it is very difficult to not let personal experience influence a judge's opinion.

The CON Burden
CON can utilize many tactics to win the debate.  First, CON can try to show that the present disparity is not really increasing significantly.  This will require a careful analysis of the statistical information and some knowledge of how trends are identified.  If CON is successful in arguing that the disparity is not growing appreciably, then it begs the question, if the disparity is dangerous, why has American democracy not collapsed already and in fact it has thrived since the industrial revolution?  CON may also argue that even though the disparity has increased, we are no where near the brink of collapse and still have time to correct the imbalance.  For me, though, the most compelling argument against the PRO is the fact that historically, people tend to backlash against growing elitism, especially in nations which have a long history of democratic stability. This means, that as income disparities increase, the voices of the disenfranchised tends to increase which may actually prove that democratic ideals become stronger under such conditions. One need only look to the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of political backlash against elitism.