Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Philosophy in Lincoln-Douglas Debate (cont.)

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 two of a two-part essay.

The Moral Philosophies (Ethics)

LD debaters are fond of using moral philosophies to justify human behavior or describe how humans ought to act under various conditions.  These kinds of philosophies describe how we may know that a course of action is a "moral" one, that is, an action which is considered "the right thing to do".  Usually, these philosophies will examine a basic question such as "do the ends justify the means?" and in some cases will look at intentions as a rationale for determining correct behavior.  Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy which incorporates the study of ethics.  This is a fairly complex topic when examined in all of its historical context and various incarnations.  My intent is to keep the discussion about the topic, as simple as possible.  For that reason, I focus on the most common, modern theories of normative ethics.  I am not a student of philosophy as I am sure many reading this are not as well.  While I will no doubt miss many of the nuances and details of these theories, I hope to convey enough accurate information to be useful to competitors and judges.

Semantics of Morality

Very often debaters speak of morality and will espouse a value of morality as the most important value in a round. It all gets a little confusing and muddled together if we do not understand what is meant by "morality" as a value versus the philosophies of moral behavior versus a system of morals. It is further muddled when debaters suggest morality is a culturally relative construct. Additionally, we note distinctions between individual morality and social morality.  Descriptive morality constitutes a system of codes or rules established by a social group.  Normative morality is conduct that all persons would (or should) consider the right thing to do because it is rational.  Therefore, if no rules exist, the moral philosophies explain, how one may rationalize correct behavior by virtue of the fact we are humans and not by virtue of the fact we are members a particular group.


To begin the discussion let us look at consequentialism.  It is derived from the word "consequence" and so is a reference to moral philosophies which look at the outcome or consequence of actions.  It is very commonly summarized in the expression, "the ends justifies the means" and so, if the outcome is good, then the actions taken to achieve the outcome (or consequences) are moral in the normative sense.  How one determines "good" outcomes is an open question and so, specific criteria are required to make that decision and the chosen criteria will necessarily be very dependent upon the resolution being debated or value being defended.


Utilitarianism is a consequentialist philosophy which justifies actions as long as it maximizes benefit for the majority.  It is summarized in the expression, "the greatest good for the greatest number of people".  Jeremy Bentham, one of the principle philosophers that promoted utilitarianism, claimed the action should maximize "happiness". Another leading proponent of utilitarianism was John Stuart Mill.  In my opinion, it is important to note, that maximizing happiness or benefits usually means making the greatest number of people happy. For this reason, in my opinion, utilitarianism does not work well for outcomes which maximize benefits (e.g. happiness) for only one person but works very well when looking at the actions which are directed to the well-being of a population.  Another important consideration for utility is the idea that right actions are not connected with motivations.  An individual may have any number of different motivations for engaging in a set of actions, but as long as the consequences are good, the action is moral.  Mill makes a very strong distinction between motive and intentions and claims that intention is very much a determinate of whether on not an action is moral.  A moral act is one that was intended to maximize a good end and ultimately does so. I think a good way to understand the distinctions is as follows.  I may decide to do something either because I want to profit by the result or simply because I want to help others.  That is motive.  But my intention is decided by what I foresee as a consequences of my action for others. If I foresee a good outcome (or I hope to achieve a good outcome) and if I succeed then my action is moral, even if I did it with a purely selfish motivation.  On the other hand, if the consequence is good for me, but does not end well for others, the action was not moral.  I hope that trivial explanation is not too trivial and fails to capture the nuances of Mill's distinctions between motive and intent in case they become issues in a debate.


In contrast to consequentialist theories of morality is the idea we must consider the actions themselves and carry out our duty to do that which is good.  For the deontologist, the acts are examined in complete isolation of the motives which spawned them and are not judged by the outcomes they reveal.  They are acts which are inherently good and they are carried out from a sense of duty.  It is how one determines which acts are inherently good which differentiates the various schools of deontological thought.  For example, the maxim, "treat others the way I want to be treated" could be a criterion for deciding an action is inherently good.

The Categorical Imperative

One particularly well know philosopher cited by many LD debaters is Immanuel Kant, who was considered a deontologist and who developed a set of criteria for determining whether not an action is inherently good and thus an obligation to carry out.  The famous "categorical imperative" describes a duty that is universal and unconditional. For Kant, good actions are predicated by good will which is an innate quality of humans when they take actions out of a sense of duty and no other motivation other than respect for moral law. The CI specifies several "tests" for measuring what is "moral law".

The first formulation is to act according to the maxim that you would wish (will) the action to be a universal law.  This is generally interpreted by debaters and LD judges to mean, if it's good enough for one it should be good enough for all.  Therefore the first formulation requires one to consider the action is moral if it is something everyone ought do. This is generally accurate (although the maxims should be logically consistent) and is best personalized by considering, would I want to live in a world where everyone did this act out of a sense of duty with no conditions?

The second formulation is never treat people (including ourselves) as a mere means to an end but always as an end.  This is generally interpreted by LD debaters to mean that if one uses people to achieve some outcome that does not benefit them, it is immoral.  In reality, this formulation is much more complex than using people to achieve our ends is immoral.  It deals more with the idea of preserving the human dignity of persons or respecting individuals as fellow human beings since it is nearly impossible to go through life without taking advantage of the services, acts and availability of others in some capacity or another.  This formulation is kind of derived from the first in that the treatment of others is one we would desire for ourselves and so it consistent with the principle of universality.

There are two additional tests which are not usually cited in LD debates even if they are important in completing the formulation of moral acts.  For the most part, if debaters think they are important to making a point in the case, the debater has the responsibility to communicate the concept so the judge can properly evaluate the application to the debater's case.  Generally, Kant's moral philosophy was centered around the idea of moral duty arising from good will which is not motivated or driven by any intentions other than the intent to do what is right.

Virtue Ethics

The modern conception of virtue ethics expands upon classical Greek philosophies and provides an alternative to the deontological, rules-based imperatives and consequentialist ends-based evaluations. Modern virtue ethics recognizes that philosophers like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill and others ultimately ground their idea in some kind of moral absolutism (as with deontology) or undefined objective standards (as with consequentialism).  Virtue ethics holds that a person's actions are a reflection of their innate virtue or character.  Therefore, the virtue ethicist does not look at rules or outcomes, but rather what the action indicates about a person's character.  As a result, virtue ethics does consider the intentions behind actions.  It is not always easy to objectify or identify what is virtuous and so it must be evaluated within the context of understanding the purpose of being human.  What does it mean to be a human being?  If we know that, then anything which promotes that purpose is virtuous.  In ancient Greece, Aristotle promoted that idea of "eudaimonia" as the objective state to which humans aspire.  Eudaimonia is associated with well-being or the idea of human flourishing and that has carried over into the modern conceptions of the theory of virtue ethics.  LD debaters will use virtue ethics in their debates but I have yet to see it applied well in a typical case.  Because it requires this concept of human purpose, it often comes across as vague and indeed, defining what is virtuous is the biggest difficulty of virtue ethics.  Nevertheless, some virtues do seem play well, such as moderation, reasonableness, courage, etc.

Doctrine of Double Effect

Famously known in the LD world as DDE, the doctrine (or principle) of double effect measures the morality of an act based on intention in situations where the final outcome was something that should have been avoided.  One particular example I can think of (though not a great example), is suppose someone collapses and you begin performing CPR in an effort to save their life but the compressions break the victims ribs and cause additional physical damage that was not intended.  Because the original action was good (for sure the victim would have died if you did nothing), you are blameless for what came about in the side effect. There are standards applied to justify an action under DDE.

  1. The initial act is morally good (or morally neutral).
  2. The intention of the act was to bring about a good end.
  3. The bad was not the means to bring about the good (it was an unintended side-effect)
  4. The good effects must not be outweighed by the bad effect

DDE is a formulation of the idea, the ends do NOT justify the means unless the doctrine of double effect is applicable.  DDE is widely used in LD debates to justify actions which are initially carried out with every intention of bringing about a good result but end up causing unintended harms.  Also, because of the standards used to measure DDE, it is possible the bad secondary effect will be previously known to the agent carrying out the act.  Knowledge that a bad result is possible or even likely is not a criterion for evaluation.  The common example I have heard, is physician who wishes to end the terrible pain and suffering experienced by a terminally ill patient, delivers a potentially fatal dose of pain-killer knowing the patient may die.  The doctor's knowledge of potential death does not make the act immoral if the intent was end suffering rather than cause death.


Thus I wish to conclude my basic introduction to the philosophy of Lincoln-Douglas debate.  The typical political philosophies discussed in part one of this series (seen here) along with this basic review of the most common moral theories covers the vast majority of philosophies used in LD debate.  There are times when other philosophies are discussed and there are other categories of philosophy and theories which define human behavior, individually or corporately.  In most cases, these will be explained in the debater's case.  Since they are not always that common, I have not taken the space the review them here.  By familiarizing yourself with these philosophies, either as a competitor or judge, you will be well-prepared to evaluate the kinds of cases typically presented.

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