Friday, November 22, 2013

Philosophy In Lincoln-Douglas Debate

This is a continuation of a series aimed at familiarizing Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debaters and potential judges with the basic concepts of LD debate.  This discussion of the common philosophy used by debaters is part one of a two-part essay.

The Philosophy of LD

In continuing my series on elementary Lincoln-Douglas debate which began with a two part discussion about values and their criteria I want to provide an introduction to philosophy commonly used in Lincoln Douglas debate.  The propensity for philosophical contentions in Lincoln-Douglas is both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing because philosophy introduces a way of examining and justifying ideas which are rooted in beliefs about human nature and why humans and their organizations do what they do.  It is a curse because, philosophy scares-off potential debaters and judges who believe the debates will be too 'heavy' or esoteric. Fortunately, the fears of Lincoln-Douglas philosophy being too esoteric are rarely realized because very few debaters truly understand deep philosophical concepts and those who may understand the random 'deep' philosophy realize they are limited to what can be conveyed to most ordinary judges before they throw down their pens and say "what in the world is this kid talking about?" In fact, even with more common theories such as "jus ad bellum" (just war theory), there is no need to recall the five basic justifications for war since most debaters will review them in their cases if they are trying to win a debate on that basis.  After judging LD for eight years, having started with essentially zero knowledge of philosophy (hey, I took an engineering track in college), I believe that once debaters and judges gain a working understanding of a few basic philosophical ideas, they will be able to understand or judge the majority of Lincoln-Douglas debates.

About LD Philosophy

Competitive, high-school level Lincoln-Douglas debate tends to focus on a relatively few, popular philosophical ideas which can be very roughly categorized into two principle classes; political and moral philosophies.  Political philosophy (not politics) focuses on the institutions of societies and governments while moral theories (not religion) focus on human behavior and determining what actions people should take under various circumstances. That's pretty much it.  Occasionally one hears other kinds of philosophies such as determinism (a theory of human behavior) or biopower (a political theory) which are considered a little on the fringes of mainstream ideas, but as I said before, usually debaters will explain these ideas in more detail when they use them.  It's not that the fringe philosophers are actually "fringe".  For many in the study of philosophy, they are very common, very well accepted philosophies.  They are fringe in the world of Lincoln-Douglas debate where the best cases tend to be those which are understandable to ordinary high-school or college educated, women and men who judge LD rounds across the country.

The Basic Political Theories

The State of Nature

The state of nature is an idea which imagines life prior to the creation of societies and government.  Basically it is a condition of "every person for themselves" in which all freedoms exists but they are not restrained by laws or authority.  Most political philosophers have expressed some opinion about the state of nature, often as an undesirable condition under which human beings eventually determine that forming societies for mutual protection was a more desirable state.  Thomas Hobbes, for example, viewed life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" and a condition of every person at war with every person.  Such a portrayal gave rise to his ideas which justifies the supremacy of monarchies (kingdoms).  Other philosophers such as John Locke, did not necessarily visualize the state of nature as a nasty, dangerous place.  Instead, he saw it as place of absolute freedom where people were free to arrange their lives and dispose of their possessions in any way they saw fit within the constraints of the law of nature".  In Locke's view, this "law of nature" gives rises to the understanding that one should not inflict harms on another and violators need punished.  Therefore, people form governments to provide authorities to deal with the transgressors.  Another, well known political philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau and to some extent, Montesquieu (actually he was Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron of La Breda and Montesquieu) believed the state of nature was a more or less idyllic condition in which people were gentle and somewhat fearful of one another.  governments arose as certain individuals usurped possessions and power for themselves.  So, while there are various philosophical ideas about the state of nature, most LD debaters will argue that it is an undesirable condition which justifies the authority of governments.

The Social Contract

Building upon the theme of the state of nature, the so-called social contract is the idea that human beings will create a sort of contract, or agreement to give up certain freedoms to a central authority in order to enjoy the protective benefits of that authority.  For example, in the state of nature one may have the absolute right to do what is necessary to defend one's possessions but under the social contract, one relinquishes that right and gives it to the authority.  There are good reasons to do this, according to various ideas under social contract theory.  Most importantly, the authority, in exchange for individuals giving up certain rights, agrees to defend the individual's remaining rights both from threats within the society and from outside threats.  Additionally, there is implicit understanding that judgement and punishment for violations is carried out by an impartial party, not motivated by revenge or passion.  Again, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau are typically cited as social contract theorists.  In LD debate, the social contract is the philosophical basis for many arguments around governmental legitimacy as well as the responsibilities of government and duty of the people to submit to its authority.  It conveys the idea that governments receive their authority from the consent of the governed. It is not an actual contract, signed by individuals.  It merely conveys the idea behind why people choose to submit to authority in exchange for the benefits the authority can offer in exchange and under some theories, like that of John Locke, if the authority does not perform its duty, the people have a right to replace it.

Natural Rights and Natural Law

Quite often in LD debate words such as rights, natural rights, liberties and freedoms are used and often interchangeably and this is the source of debate among debaters and confusion with judges.  Most of the classic political philosophers will assert that people are born with certain "natural rights".  These may be thought of as those rights every human being possesses by virtue of the fact they are born human.  Philosophers speak of the right to life, liberty (freedom to move about and do things) and property as natural rights.  These rights are considered inalienable.  In other words, they cannot be infringed or taken away without some really, really good justification.  Governments may grant additional "rights" and these are typically "legal rights" such as the right to vote or drive.  Closely related to natural rights is the idea of "human rights" which tend to be a modern formulation of natural rights for political purposes.   LD debaters will commonly cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a United Nations product) when defending the primacy of human rights in cases.

As for freedom and liberty, the two terms are often used interchangeably not only in debate but in the popular lexicon.  However, in the past there were specific differences which could have significance in LD debate.   Freedom generally means a condition of acting without restraint.  Liberty, on the other hand, suggests a system of restrained and ordered freedom.  Thus we think of freedoms in the same context as the state of nature; the unrestrained capacity to act as one sees fit, whereas we think of liberties within the context of a political or societal structure; the freedom to act within limits which respect the rights of others members of the society.

Closely related to natural rights is the idea of natural law.  This the system of laws which are governed by nature.  This is not the law of gravity  or the laws of physics.  It attempts to explain the laws which govern human nature and since it is difficult for human beings to change their very nature, natural law provides a standard for judging man-made laws.  For example, it is considered within the realm of natural law, that a person has a right to self-defense and thus any law which would deny the right to self-defense could be criticized on the basis it violates natural law.

John Rawls

I want to isolate John Rawls in this discussion of philosophy because he was a prominent, modern philosopher who is often used by LD debaters when debating the principles of individual justice or justice and fairness in society.  In practically every resolution which lend themselves to discussion of such kinds of justice, there will be debaters citing Rawls.  In most cases, debaters will have enough of an understanding of Rawls' philosophy they will see it as helping their position and yet most of the time it is poorly understood and poorly debated.  Rawls is known for several principle ideas: the original position and the veil of ignorance, and justice as fairness; each of which interlock so it is difficult to understand, justice as fairness without understanding the original position.

The Original Position
Rawls' idea of the original position is a thought experiment in which one imagines a group of persons in a place where they must create a cooperative society.  But each person views himself from "behind a veil of ignorance" so they have no idea whether they are male of female, rich or poor, educated or not, or whether they are a member of a particular race, or possess particular abilities or skills.  Knowing nothing about the very kinds of things which typically classify individuals within a society, what kind of society would they create for themselves?  Rawls speculated that individuals in this "original position", functioning behind a "veil of ignorance" would make choices which gave them the best benefits and advantages.  No one for example, would say, in our society, certain kinds of people should not be allowed to vote, or certain people should not be allowed to marry because one would not know if they were one of those "certain kinds" of people.  This thought experiment establishes the idea that the choices which maximize benefit for the least advantaged become the basis for all that is rational, just and fair because they are the choices humans would make for themselves if they knew nothing about their personal social status.  Debaters will tend to use the veil of ignorance as a value criterion but it is often poorly explained how the judge should apply it when evaluating a round.  Nevertheless, the basic idea for evaluating a debater's position from behind the veil of ignorance is, would I as a judge, favor the Aff or Neg position if I were choosing from behind a veil of ignorance.  If the choice makes no sense to you, it is probably because the debater had no idea how to set up the criterion.

Justice as Fairness
Rawls' theory of justice if often cited in LD rounds so it is important to understand what it says. His idea of justice is based upon three principles which are also three priorities.  The liberty principle is the most important, followed by the fairness principle and finally the difference principle.  The liberty principle proclaims that all people have an equal right to a basic and inalienable set of freedoms or liberties and these can not be denied by any government or law (for example, life and property).  The fairness principle claims that all individuals should have equal opportunity.  This is rooted in the idea of the original position and thus affords opportunity which is blind to social differences.  Under this principle, everyone of equal skill has an equal chance as anyone else in obtaining a position, office or opportunity.  The difference principle then compensates for inequalities between individuals (some are weaker, some are less intelligent, etc) by favoring those who are least advantaged. This principle, dovetailing the fairness principle is rooted in the concept of the original position.

What we see in Rawls' philosophy of justice as fairness is the idea that a just society is one that provides opportunities by applying the principles of liberty, fairness and differences.  In my opinion, such a definition of justice does not lend itself to Lincoln-Douglas debate cases which defend the value of justice for individuals in isolation.  It does work for evaluating which social institutions, systems and laws are just.  To be sure, Rawls' theory of justice and social justice in particular goes much, much deeper but the deeper concepts are rarely debated in LD. Hopefully, this overview of the basic principle of original position and justice is sufficient for most purposes in debating or judging rounds.

In part two of this essay, I address the common moral philosophies.

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