Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Novice LD Sep/Oct 2013 - Civil Disobedience, definitions.

Welcome Back

For those of you who may be new to the Everyday Debate blog, I typically post various articles of general interest to the debate community, including my opinions on certain matters as well as technical advice for Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum debaters.  I will post various analysis pieces and explorations of the Policy Debate topic. I also try to post detailed analysis of the topics as announced each month by the National Forensics League.  I have been very busy this summer.  Some of you may have had me as a judge at the National Tournament in Birmingham this past June.  Some of you may have been in my lecture sessions at our regional debate camp in August.  I have also written a paper on the state of Policy Debate in our region which I may publish on this blog in the near future as well as the content of some of my summer lectures on Public Forum basics and Policy Debate counterplans.  For now I would like to focus on the current crop of debate topics, even though our district will not debate any of these early topics released by the NFL.

This year the NFL has decided to release a novice LD topic for the September/October "novice" season.  Typically, my topic analysis of resolutions will be in three principle parts.  First the definitions of the words in the resolution and an interpretation of its meaning is discussed.  This is usually followed by a presentation of the Affirmative (PRO) and the Negative (CON) positions.  Some of the topics get very in-depth analysis spread over multiple articles.

NOVICE Lincoln-Douglas Debate
Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.


This topic is somewhat timely as we watch the developments in Syria, anticipating the emergence of a more "democratic" government, either by reform or regime change.  Also we have recently seen the results of civil disobedience by anti-government groups leading to a military coup (though the U.S. has failed to call it a coup for diplomatic reasons) and additional civil disobedience by a pro-government group in Egypt.  At stake in the resolution is the principle supported by 18th century political philosopher, John Locke, that if a government fails to uphold its part in the so-called social contract, the citizens have a right and perhaps one may say and obligation, to revolt if necessary to change the government.  This particular resolution uses the term "civil disobedience" which can be expressed in many forms, from simple (illegal) assembly up to and possible including some forms of insurrection, though generally there is a definitive distinction between civil disobedience and civil revolt.  Further, the resolution asks us to debate the issue with regards to democracies only.  Therefore, we need to understand, what exactly is "civil disobedience" and perhaps what is a democracy.  Then we can figure out how to frame Affirmative and Negative positions around the idea of whether the act of civil disobedience is moral justified.

Civil disobedience

The Merriam-Webster definition is:
noun - refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government.

Kimberley Brownlee, writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, states, "On the most widely accepted account of civil disobedience, famously defended by John Rawls (1971), civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. On this account, the persons who practice civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions, as this shows their fidelity to the rule of law. Civil disobedience, given its place at the boundary of fidelity to law, is said to fall between legal protest, on the one hand, and conscientious refusal, revolutionary action, militant protest and organised forcible resistance, on the other hand."


noun - government by the people; especially : rule of the majority; a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections; a political unit that has a democratic government.

William Reisinger of the University of Iowa provides a very nice list of interpretations of democracy: "The basic sense of democracy as a form of governance rests on its etymology as rule by the entire people rather than, as Shapiro puts it, by any "aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader." Beyond that, actual definitions of democracy come in all shapes and sizes. On the next page are a variety of others’ definitions for your perusal, presented in chronological order. Each emphasizes one or more things thought to be true about democracy: 1) it is a dangerous form of government; 2) it includes genuine competition for power; 3) it permits mass participation on a legally equal footing; 4) it provides civil and other liberties that restrict the sphere of state power within the society; or 5) it promotes widespread deliberation about how to make and enforce policy so as to promote the common good."

morally justified

Before we define moral justification let us first understand what it means to be justified.
From the root "to justify" - to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable; to show to have had a sufficient legal reason;
The idea of this definition is an act may be considered justified if it can be shown to be the right thing to do.  This implies, on the surface, the act may appear to be illegal or not socially acceptable but the perpetrator of the act can present some kind of proof the act is in fact, right and reasonable by some standard of evaluation.  In the resolution, the standard of evaluation would be is the act justified on the basis of some "moral" determination.


adjective - of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior; conforming to a standard of right behavior; sanctioned by or operative on one's conscience or ethical judgment.

When we look at the term, morally justified based on the dictionary definitions, we seem to be proclaiming, morally justified means an act is the right thing to do because is conforms to a standard of right of right behavior.  This all sounds a little circular, like saying civil disobedience is the right thing to do because it is doing the right thing.  However, hopefully we can interpret the resolution in such a way to clarify some valid and debatable affirmative and negative positions.

Some Examples

Generally, a strict definition of morality is difficult since things deemed moral are influenced by cultural, religious, nationalistic, and many other forms of rationalization.  For this reason, debates about morality tend to be generalized and broadly accepted to mean something which is considered "right" by any reasonable, thinking human being.  For example; stealing, killing, and dishonesty may be considered immoral by rational humans, but often we can think of certain circumstances where each of these may be necessary and perhaps deemed justifiable.  Therefore, while moral judgments do project a certain sense of absoluteness, they are circumstantial and thus "debatable".  It has been my experience, in most cases, debaters do tend to avoid the cloudier issues of defining morality in the context of cultural diversity.

This debate, superficially makes an assumption that civil disobedience, that is disobedience with respect to civil law, may be immoral in the Negative world but the Affirmative world is claiming that such acts are morally justified.  What is not specified are the conditions or circumstances which warrant civil disobedience.  It seems we can make an assumption that in the status quo, civil obedience is the norm and it is what to be expected in an orderly society.  Consider for example, a region in the U.S. may have a law which forbids parades without a permit.  If someone organizes, for example, a protest against the hiring practices of a certain employer and decides to organize a march down the street which blocks traffic, the act is illegal.  Law enforcement would act to stop the parade and clear the street under the provisions of the statutes forbidding unpermitted parades.  Since the law does have a procedure for obtaining the necessary permit, the disrupted parade may not necessarily be considered a violation of the protesters right of free speech. The law requiring a permit allows for proper societal order and safety since steps can be taken to reroute traffic, and contain the "parade" to the permitted route.  In this situation, the Affirmative would have to claim the protesters have a moral justification to parade without a permit as an expression of their disagreement with a certain company's hiring practices.  Nevertheless, defending their right to violate the law under that circumstance may prove to be difficult.

On the other hand, consider an example in which a local government decides to replace a popular park with a commercial office complex.  The government may deem the complex as beneficial as a source of new tax revenues which can be applied to other government initiatives.  In this scenario, a group of citizens organizes a rally and occupies the park to prevent if from being dismantled and converted.  Despite orders to exit the park they remain believing the park provides benefits to the society which outweigh the benefits the government hopes to receive.  In this case, perhaps there can be a moral justification to the illegal occupation of the park as a means to achieve a political goal but again, I think it would be a very difficult debate.

Personally, I think the best Affirmative cases will focus upon a universal understanding of what constitutes moral rightness and will defend big values such as justice, fairness, equality, etc.


The resolution assumes that civil obedience is the normal condition in democratic society and indeed, obedience to the law is a universally desirous form of behavior.  The Affirmative will argue that breaking certain laws in order to achieve a favorable change to existing government policy can be shown to be the right course of action in a democratic society. The negative will argue that disobedience to the law is not morally justified either because such disobedience violates normal standards of moral behavior or because by their very definition, democratic societies reflect the will of the governed.  Negative could take a strong position that civil disobedience threatens the basis of democracy or Negative may claim that a society which requires civil disobedience in order to effect change, is not a true democratic society to begin with.  I think the most interesting debates will center on the very broad conceptual debate about whether civil disobedience as a means of political expression is, in and of itself, a moral act.  The fact the resolution specifies a democracy may not be particularly important other than the fact we tend to think democratic societies are more likely to tolerate civil disobedience as a form of expression.  However, such an assumption would be totally unwarranted since historically we have seen positive results of civil disobedience under regimes which were not considered democratic.

The standard for moral rightness will be all important in this debate and so the debate could fall neatly into a common philosophical point of view which is utilitarian or deontological.  Utilitarian cases will tend to focus on a pragmatic cost/benefit analysis which will weigh the potential outcomes.  This will be very easy to do since the means, that is the actions which eventually lead to the ends (result) are by definition, non-violent acts of simple disobedience as opposed to violently resisting state actions to repress the disobedience.  The deontological view will no doubt focus on Kant's classic philosophy of the categorical imperative, which holds that people must never be used as a mere means to an end and actions which are deemed moral must be universally accepted as a universal law without contradiction.

For part 2 - the Affirmative position, click here.

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