Saturday, January 28, 2012

Domestic Violence Resolution - Can NEG make a case?

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Deadly Intentions
If I intentionally pick up and use a weapon capable of exerting deadly force can there be any doubt that I have foreknowledge use of the weapon could result in some one's death? It could be argued I foresee that use of the weapon could result in death but I do not intend death so therefore I am not acting immorally so long as my intentions were moral. So one must reasonably ask themselves, if I do not intend to use the weapon to kill, am I exerting deadly force?  Let's say, I pick up a gun to shoot the latch on a door for which I have no key.  I am using an instrument capable of killing someone but clearly I am not intending to use it to kill anyone, even if it would be enormously foolish to use it open a locked door.  Despite the stupidity of doing so, if I use the gun in such a way, am I exerting deadly force?  Maybe one could say no because a) there is little chance of anyone being killed or b) I am not intending to use it to kill. My intention is open the door which is a perfectly legitimate and moral intent. If someone should inadvertently die because I tried to open a locked door with an instrument of deadly force, am I morally culpable?  Intuitively, barring any other theory of morality I was say yes I would be morally culpable.  Further, lacking any other theory of morality, one could suggest I was morally culpable even if I did not foresee that someone might die if I foolishly used the deadly instrument in such a way because one can argue that any reasonable person should know that using a gun is such a way is inherently risky and potentially lethal. And indeed, it seems many laws and court decisions of legal culpability are based on the principle that "any reasonable person ought to know".

Nearly all moral theorists who support the idea that self defense is justified, require that the defensive action must be a proportional response to the threat.  Obviously if someone tried to steal some of my property and I shot and killed them to defend that property, it would be deemed that my response was unjustified because it exceeded the threat. One's life is not worth the value of the property.  Clearly, if you assault me and I shoot and kill you in response, it can be argued my response was not proportional to the threat unless I can prove "any reasonable person" would have believed that had I not responded in such a way, my own life would have been in danger.  But interestingly, as I see it, there is a kind of "double-effect" embedded in the idea of this proportional response.  On the one hand, the force I use to repel an attack should be proportional and on the other hand, any secondary consequences which arise should also be proportional to the consequences which would have resulted had I not acted to defend myself.  Let me explain by example.  If you grab me I may be expected to respond with sufficient force to break your grip.  If the force I exert is sufficient to overcome the grip and you release me, then my action may be moral.  But if you grab me, and in response I break your grip and as a consequence you fall down a flight of stairs and die your death would be an unintended consequence and that consequence exceeds the initial threat. Certainly one could claim my response was disproportionate because even though I may have legitimately acted to defend myself, any reasonable person should have foreseen the possibility of critical injury or death in the situation.

Close Proximity
Often one encounters moral theory which stipulates that a condition of morally permissible self-defense is related to proximity, immediacy or urgency. Therefore the assumption is the threat which warrants a deadly response must be so near, so imminent, there is no way to avoid it. Running away will not avert the threat.  Of course in terms of domestic violence there are again, varying analogies and scenarios to consider.  It may seem reasonable that if I am actively being physically attacked, I may take any and all necessary action to end the attack so long my response meets the other conditions of proportionality and moral intent.  But what about the situation where one is being threatened but not actively attacked?  Is a threat in and of itself sufficient ground to warrant a self-defense response if the source of the threat is not in front of your face?  This question may become less obvious if, for example I have attacked you in the past and I am threatening to attack you again at anytime. Would you be justified to shoot me from a distance?

Twisted Scenarios
By now you are probably thinking, in some ways what I say makes sense and at the same time you may may thinking of legitimate counter-arguments.  For example, in the situation where I break one's grip and they fall down the stairs and die, it can just as easily be argued, the attacker should have foreseen the possibility that my reaction could result in unintentional death and therefore should not have initiated the attack.  The point of presenting these  scenarios is to realize that framing a generalized moral theory of self-defense is an extremely difficult undertaking because it is usually possible to devise a scenario where the moral theory seems to fail and indeed, philosophers have continued to propose and debate moral theories for centuries and these theories often become somewhat arduous and complex to fully comprehend.

The NEG Strategy
On the face of it, this appears to be a very difficult resolution to debate.  If the Affirmative frames their case as a debate about the moral permissibility of self-defense, it seems to create difficult situations for Neg. After all, how can one effectively argue that self-defense is not morally permissible? Many believe it a natural right which supersedes religious values and societal prohibitions.  Even though in U.S. courts of law, the victims of domestic violence often face very difficult trials if they kill their attackers, somehow the moral permissibility of such action, under certain conditions, is unquestionable.  I don't feel it is necessary to talk about specific Aff cases nor present a detailed analysis of effective Neg arguments.  I will, however, discuss three generalized approaches for Neg to consider.

The Theoretical Debate
In my first post about this topic, I stated that I do not think the intent of this resolution was to discuss confrontational self-defense, that is, the kind where someone is engaged in a violent confrontation and so defends herself.  I felt from the very onset, a self-defense Aff would be too one-sided since it is universally agreed under certain conditions, self-defense is justified. And certainly those conditions are met in a case of repeated domestic violence which erupts into yet another violent episode ending in the defensive killing of the attacker. Who would possibly dare to argue otherwise?  Since the purpose of debate is to create clash between the Affirmative and Negative positions, each side must be given a reasonable ground upon which to stand.  If Neg has no ground, there can be no debate, and the educational purpose of debate as an academic exercise is not met so there is no real point in debating.  The NFL would not intentionally put out a resolution that limits the ground of a particular advocacy.  Unfortunately we have only the resolution upon which to judge the intent behind the wording.  I felt from the very beginning, that intent was a debate about non-confrontational self-defense.  In some debate leagues, theory arguments are perfectly fine and in this particular resolution, legitimate to argue Neg has no ground in cases of confrontational self-defense.

The Loophole Debate
I call it loophole debate because the principle requires Neg to exploit potential loopholes or weaknesses in the Affirmative position of self-defense.  It is mostly agreed that self-defense in morally justified if certain conditions are present at the time the deadly force is employed.  for example, proximity, proportionality, proper intentions, or others which vary slightly depending on the moral theory being applied.  So if the Neg knows her opponent will be using a particular moral theory, simply research the criticisms of that theory and exploit them.  I think that will usually take two approaches.  One approach requires devising scenarios which show the moral theory is not universally applicable to the array of situations which may present themselves in domestic violence situations; perhaps some, but not all. For example, one must ask the question, if a person is morally permitted to defend themselves, then is the attacker also allowed to defend himself when counter-attacked and if not, why not?  A second approach would be to effectively argue that one or more justifiable condition is not present. For example, argue the response is not proportional, or the intention is immoral.  Much of this approach, and this is my opinion, will come down to a clash of moral theories or simply the skill of the debater to make persuasive and compelling arguments.

The Traditional Debate
Finally, I think one need not directly debate moral permissibility at all.  Think about it.  At its most fundamental level, Lincoln Douglas debate is supposed to be a clash of values.  Consider that just because an act is morally permissible it does not mean it ought to be done and clearly in the case of this resolution, one does not have a moral obligation to use deadly force.  Therefore, I believe the Neg debater should clear her mind of bias and the pathos of the resolution and think about what over-arching values apply to these situations and debate them.  Is justice served, is societal welfare preserved, is life protected, are natural rights upheld?  There are so many values which may be effectively debated without making it all about moral permissibility.  Certainly traditional judges will be receptive to an old-fashioned straight up clash of competing values and this may ultimately prove to be most effective strategy of all.


  1. Finally, I think one need not directly debate moral permissibility at all.

    I shall hold you personally responsible if I hear one more non-topical debate. The resolution is all about moral permissibility. Ducking it is ignoring the crux of the resolution.


  2. Much of this approach, and this is my opinion, will come down to a clash of moral theories or simply the skill of the debater to make persuasive and compelling arguments.

    We should be so lucky.

    Kim, again


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