Saturday, September 28, 2013

Values in Lincoln-Douglas Debate

This is part one of a multi-part series.

Lincoln-Douglas (LD) 101 - Intro

This year I have begun the process of indoctrinating a new group of novices into the wonderful world of LD Debate.  Let's face it, very few incoming freshman high school debaters are prepared to debate (argue, yes, debate? No.) let alone ask them to frame their debates around a value criterion framework.  That's the time half of them leave thinking they will find shelter in speech world.  Frankly, it's been a while since I have started day-one with a group of potential novice LD debaters.  Previously, an assistant coach took on the responsibilities of breaking in the novices and judging by some of the outcomes, she did a fine job.  Since I am pretty much dealing with the entire team alone, this year (I do have a worthy part-time PF assistant) I have been revisiting my lectures and materials.  Therefore, I thought, why not put it out there for the world to see?  For this reason, I will be publishing a series of posts dealing with the values and philosophies common to LD debate.  It will be geared toward the novice debater competing in a traditional LD circuit.

Lincoln-Douglas in traditional tournament circuits and as seen in the National Forensics League National Tournament finals, is built upon a "values" framework.  In other words, debaters will structure their cases so they are defending some lofty values all humans hold dear, such as life, justice, morality, etc. And sometimes, in fact quite often, debaters reference the philosophies of great thinkers to help support their positions.  To be sure, there are many, many philosophers and many ideas and justifications for how humans think, act, reason, and react but fortunately, in Lincoln-Douglas debate there are a limited number of basic philosophies which appear over and over in debates throughout the year and by gaining some understanding of these, the novices will begin to understand probably 75% of the case philosophies they will encounter.  The remaining are usually variants of the one's I will discuss in future articles.

However, before looking at philosophy, I want to look at the common values defended by LD debaters and discuss how to apply values and their standards to LD debate cases.

The Values of LD

As I have said in my introduction, the "values" in LD debate are the lofty ideals which most human beings hold dear.  The best "values" are those which are esteemed by the majority of humans and not dependent upon cultural, religious, nationalistic or other such boundaries.  They are universally appealing. Most of the time these values will fall into three groupings depending on the nature of the case or the resolution being debated.

The first group are the personal values - those which individuals cherish:
  • life - the supreme value perhaps and often related to quality of life
  • quality of life - qualities which make life worth living
  • liberty - freedom to do whatever, whenever
  • justice - receiving just desserts
  • happiness - the sense of pleasure
  • autonomy - self-determination
  • safety - free from all manner of threats
  • health - without physical limitation
  • well-being - general sense life is good
  • self-worth / dignity - one's life has value to others
  • privacy - anonymity or the right to keep some aspects of life non-public
  • morality - discernment of right behavior

Second are those values esteemed by societies or groups:
  • equality - all members have the same opportunities
  • egalitarianism - see equality above (more a philosophy of equality)
  • social justice - the society conforms to standards of just desserts
  • social harmony - everyone gets along
  • societal welfare / well-being - community care
  • upward mobility - ability to climb the ladder of success
  • fairness - everyone is treated justly
  • community / belonging - being accepted by the group
  • rule of law - willingness to submit to legal authority
  • democracy/democratic ideals - everyone has an equal voice
  • progress / social progress - ability to achieve higher ideals or standards
  • morality - group or corporate right behavior

Finally there values associated with governments, rulers and authorities:
  • government legitimacy - recognized authority granted to the government
  • security - duty of the government to protect citizens, lives, liberty and property
  • (open markets - sometimes) - freedom to participate in the market place
  • autonomy - freedom from outside interference
  • duty of government - values arising out of the social contract; duty to protect citizens
  • morality - right behavior of nations and governments

Notice, I have included morality in all three groups.  Morality can be a relative concept but we can think of moral actions as those which are generally accepted as the "right thing to do".  Very often when debates begin to explore the questions of whether groups, businesses, governments, etc. are moral agents the debates can get very interesting.  Also, you should realize there is nothing firm about these groupings.  A resolution which asks us to consider social or national issues, for example, may still require the protection of values pertinent to individuals.

Sometimes, the resolutions being debated will permit other kinds of values.  For example, a resolution which narrows the debate to only the U.S. may permit the use of values which may be considered uniquely American, such as individuality, or any of the liberties granted by the Bill of Rights and Constitution in general.  

The debaters must define the meanings of those values within the context of their cases so as to avoid any ambiguity. For example, justice is commonly defined as "giving each his due" but there are other interpretations of justice and so the debater must clarify what is meant when the claim is made that "justice" or any other value is the most important thing we must consider in the debate round.  What exactly is the form of justice, or equality, or fairness to be considered?

Choosing Values

How should a debater choose a value?  Indeed, this is not an easy question to answer for novices.  Some times the resolution itself gives the answer. For example, "Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights" strongly suggests a value of justice; "Resolved: Targeted killing is a morally permissible foreign policy tool" perhaps suggests a value of morality. Usually the values of justice and morality are the most common values embedded in LD resolutions.  There is nothing that says you must use the explicit value in the resolution, but if you are novice and you struggle with picking a good value, then why not go with it?
If the value is not so obvious, consider the scope of the resolution.  Does it deal with individuals, societies or governments and then consider any of the values categorized above.  For example, "Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need" would expect a personal value since it deals with individuals; "Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence" suggests a societal value, though it may support a personal value; "Resolved: States ought not possess nuclear weapons" suggests a governmental value.

Building On Values

I suggest doing some preliminary research, and outline some contentions prior to deciding on a value.  It's not a good idea to rely on your personal knowledge of a topic, in my opinion. Once you have a good idea of the kinds of arguments that can be authenticated with evidence, look at the values and see what kind of contention narratives can be constructed around the value. To construct the narrative, I will say to the debater, forget all the lingo, buzzwords and debate double-speak and just explain your contention to me.  For example, with the resolution, States ought not posses nuclear weapons, a debater may say, "I found evidence which says, nuclear war a is serious threat to human health so if we can eliminate nuclear weapons, we reduce the risk of war and so we can protect human health. Therefore I think we can protect the value of life or health or security, or the moral duty of nations."  Notice, in the example, based on the evidence, a very viable contention is set up by the debater linked to four possible values (life, health, security, duty of nations).
Continuing with the contention narrative, the debater may say, "I also found evidence that says nations which have nukes are more likely to be attacked with nukes so by getting rid of nukes we can increase national security, or protect lives".  Thus somewhere in the intersection of the two contention narratives, common values begin to emerge and we see security and life as common values.  Thus the debater, based on the narratives, isolates values which are common to all of the contentions and therefore, creates a value foundation for the case.  Anytime you as a debater think, "I found good evidence", ask yourself, knowing this fact, what values can I defend?  Soon, you should be able to put together a case narrative, with several contentions each supporting a common value.  Then the real research and case writing can commence.


  1. Hi I was trying to write a case and I was wondering if humanitarian welfare or I guess the welfare of humanity would work as a value? Or would I just use societal welfare? I guess I'm trying to say more something that is for the good of society, the world, everyone, and future generations to come??? I dont really know.....

    1. Hi KT. I guess it depends on the actor responsible for ensuring the value is achieved; whether it is an individual, society, or government providing for the well-being of present and future generations. I am not a fan of "societal welfare" since it implies some form of government assistance (as in social welfare) and societal well-being is usually in the context of human health. Maybe the "common good" works for your case. Generally, the idea of "thriving" (eudaimonia) has long been a subject of classical philosophy and is similar to the idea you are trying to support.

    2. I do support the societal welfare value, especially when it deals with government action. If I can prove that the government is fully complicit with any harm it allows and that it has a moral obligation to minimize harm, I believe societal welfare is a reasonable value.

    3. i dont support societal welfare :(

  2. Is it possible to have a value as a criterion as well? For example, one of the values listed above is morality, but can I also use morality as a criterion? Also, when I write a contention, is it limited to only a one-word or two-word phrase? Am I able to write my contention in a full sentence? Thank you! :)

    1. A criterion provides a way for the judge to decide if the value is being supported in some specific way related to the case. If one defines morality as "doing the right thing or making 'right' choices" it is better if you can specify some specific "right actions" which support the intended value. Morality by itself is kind of vague and so risks the judge applying her own standards which may not be the ones you intended.

    2. Okay, thank you so much for your help Mr. Kellams! I truly appreciate it and I am loving this blog! :) Keep up the great work!

  3. I have a LD debate on "College education is worth money and time". Can anybody help with value and criterion?

  4. Thank you so much for this series! I am my teams debate captain and my "coach" has tasked me with teaching the novices. With this series I am feeling more optimistic about shaping these novices into champions.

  5. What would a criterion be for a value of morality for aff? The topic is Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, jury nullification ought to be used in the face of perceived injustice.

  6. I'm doing a debate on whether it is worth risking ones life for great cultural achievements anyone have an idea what value I should use for either side

  7. So how do we find philosophy to go along with the value to back it up? Is that just from experience or what? Because googling it really doesn't work...

    1. I did write some articles on basic philosophy, but that may not help you figure out how to support a particular value. Often it helps to do deep research. By that, I mean, do the simple google thing and as you pull up scholarly articles, begin to research the references and citations used in the article. Eventually, the instinct will develop.

  8. Can these values listed be used as criterions also?

    1. Some people try to use values as criteria but I don't recommend it. Values are vague. The criterion is supposed to be specific and show how, by voting for your case, the value is supported. For example, my value is life, and the best way to uphold life such and such... This such and such is the specific way the value is supported, thus it is the value criterion. Now you may be inclined to say something like, my value is life and the best way to promote life is through governmental legitimacy (another value). It can work but now you have to show, how is government legitimacy upheld? If you can answer that, then why not make that answer the criterion for supporting life rather than provide a second value as a kind of intermediate step?

  9. If I'm debating against the use of Nuclear Power with the value of quality of life, what criterion should I use?

    1. A few obvious criteria: 1. "Reducing the risk of environmental harms", covering leaks, meltdowns, etc. 2. "Limiting nuclear proliferation", covering scenarios where there is risk of nuclear power technology being used for weapons development. 3. "Promoting clean, alternative energy", covering the idea that wide-spread use of nuclear power reduces incentives to develop other, less-risky alternatives. What you choose or how you word it depends on what your evidence describes.

  10. If my value is Security for the affirmation of the topic Countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power, what should the criterion be?

    1. Please ask questions about the topic, where I posted the Aff or Neg positions on the topic. I don't know what your contentions are, but I have already discussed the value of security and suggested a criterion, here.

  11. Hi, I am a novice debater and I don't know what criterion to use for my value Human Dignity. The resolution is; Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in criminal justice systems. To be frank I'm not even sure what a criterion is.

    1. Hi. Contentions are simply the main points you make to support your side of the debate. You can read my analysis of this topic starting here. You did not tell me if you are using human dignity on the Aff or Neg. I assume Aff. The VC you choose depends on the contentions and main arguments you plan to make. As I explain in my Aff Position post on the topic, maybe you will uphold human dignity by "minimizing human suffering", "maximizing education", "minimizing recidivism". Good luck in debate.

    2. Your welcome. The value criterion defines how your case achieves your value. In your situation, you claim, human dignity is the most important value in today's round. The judge thinks, so how do you achieve human dignity? Your criterion answers that by saying, we achieve human dignity by ... fill-in the value criterion, for example, 'reducing human suffering'. Then use you contentions to show how preferring rehabilitation reduces human suffering, or whatever criterion you picked.

  12. Hi, I'm a member of speech and debate in wyoming, and have gone to nationals 4 years in a row, I was just wondering with your morality point, can't you just counter that with morality isn't a blanketed state?

  13. At nationals, for instance, my opponent used morality, and I hit him with that... He lost the round to it, any advice for using morality? Should you use objective?

    1. Good questions. In my experience as a coach and watching my students deal with morality as a value, I agree it can be a difficult debate. Generally, moral standards are cultural and so, difficult to convey as a universal value. Nevertheless, there is a persistent school of thought that morality is an objective value insofar as humans have an innate sense of right and wrong behavior. But, I think that sensibility is easily shaded by cultural norms and in my opinion, too narrow for the kinds of topics we debate. On the other hand, traditional philosophers from Kant to Rawls have tried to create objective standards for determining moral "correctness" and all of them have their critics. Moral realism (or moral objectivity or universalism - the differences are blurry) and the approach of more modern, normative ethics-based philosophers (for example a few my students have favored Philippa Foot but tend to avoid Ayn Rand's version of objectivism) are intriguing but difficult to convey to traditional LD judges because often the student and the judge fail to grasp the nuances even if they are simple concepts. At least traditional (say Kantian, or Rawlsian) moral standards are fairly easy to comprehend, and somewhat objectively measurable by a majority of U.S. judges who themselves have debated or taught traditional LD moral standards. Having said all of that, if a skillful debater is determined to use a more objective moral philosophy and can present it to the "everyday" LD judge in an effective and persuasive way, I would probably favor it over the traditional kind of moral debate. But then again, I love fresh approaches to resolutions even though I teach traditional debate. Generaliy, I will tend to advise my students to avoid morality as a value even though classical moral philosophies can be used as criteria or warrants to support other values.


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