Feb 7, 2007

defining the criterion in Lincoln-Douglas debate

How do you know your criterion is good? It'd better be--after all, debates often hinge on the criterion clash.

Here are six simple questions that may not have simple answers. Use them when developing your case, to ensure that your criterion is useful, valid, and defensible. You might also use these questions (or variants) in C/X to set up attacks on your opponent's criterion, or to determine where the criterion debate should go. (I owe the wording of #s 1-6 to a former CHS debater who won't be named unless he really needs the ego boost. The explanations are my own.)

1. Is the criterion defined?
A "rookie mistake" is to simply put a criterion out there, as if it magically defines itself, or, even more magically, everyone agrees on the definition. Consider a common criterion: utilitarianism. If you (or your opponent) say, "Utilitarianism should weigh the round, because we have to judge moral actions by their consequences," you've missed a step. Fundamentally, utilitarianism considers consequences in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number. However, that's not even far enough: there are several shades of utilitarianism, including act utility (weighing consequences of each action) and rule utility (weighing consequences of a moral rule). If, in cross-examination, your opponent can't distinguish the two, then you have grounds to toss out their criterion and the judge should adopt yours.

2. What falls under the criterion? What is its "bright line?"
Consider utilitarianism. Does it account for agency? In other words, could we use it to judge the actions of robots or animals or hurricanes? Must one be a fully rational agent to successfully implement a utilitarian moral calculus? Is utility positively or negatively defined--in other words, by benefits conferred, or by harms reduced? Or both?

Also, what is the bright line in utilitarianism between a bad action and a good one? How does one measure "goodness?" Is it good enough to have a majority of 50.00001%?

3. Does the criterion weigh both sides of the resolution?
If you are operating on the assumption that the criterion is a moral philosophy by which we compare values, or weigh arguments, then this question is essential. A criterion that links to only one side doesn't help a judge use it to weigh the round. It acts instead like a second value or a sub-value, or a precondition to "fulfilling the value." That's okay in some judges' estimations, but at least to me, it makes deciding the round awkward--it forces me to develop my own bright line to compare case structures and arguments.

If you ask yourself, "How would my opponent win my criterion," and you find yourself thinking, there's just no way, then you have a criterion that works for only your side. Will that work for your judge? That's an open question.

4. How does the criterion link to the value?
Consider a value of justice (defined as fairness) and a criterion of utilitarianism (defined as the greatest good for the greatest number). Is it fair to give the greatest good to the greatest number, or is it fair to give a moderate amount of goodness to everyone, or neither, or something else entirely? You must make the link. You cannot assume your judge will make it for you.

5. Is the criterion universal, or at least widely accepted?
Let's go back to utilitarianism, just to be consistent. Do many or most cultures agree that goodness for the greatest number is a valid form of moral decision-making? Or is it inherently masculine, heterosexist, ethnocentric, racist, or limited in any other potentially debilitating fashion?

6. Is the criterion generally good?
Nihilism might be clever and make a great case, but most people find it intuitively disturbing or unsettling, creating an artificially high burden of proof should you adopt it. The same goes for other out-there stances that are unfamiliar--they often require so much explanation that the work of affirming or negating the resolution is pushed to the fringe.

On the other hand, it's fun to learn about new philosophies and moral theories, and it's fun to introduce them to others. It can also throw your opponent off track. Use your best judgment.

7. Do I understand the criterion?
For your case, it's essential that you can defend and develop arguments relating to and consistent with your criterion. Have your peers or your coach walk you through potential C/X minefields before running it at a tournament. General rule: if you're not sure how to pronounce it, stay away.

In C/X, if you don't understand a criterion, chances are your opponent doesn't either. Have your opponent explain it and re-explain it or give examples of applying it until you're either satisfied with the explanation, or sure that your opponent is blowing smoke.

8. Can I explain the criterion in one sentence or less?
This helps with #7. If it takes a paragraph or a page to put into words, you might be lugging a forty-pound broadsword into battle when you really need a dagger. (Or insert your own less nerdy metaphor here.)

Have other good (general) questions about criteria? Add them in the comments. Or, trash these ones, and explain why my analysis is flawed. You're a debater, after all.


Anonymous said...

do you think that utilitarianism is too much of an opinion to be a strong criterion?

and if we choose utilitarianism as our criterion..what would some good contentions be?

how would we back utilitarianism up so there is little doubt in the judges' minds?

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, good questions. (For those who don't know, s/he refers to the plea bargaining resolution, in particular.)

I'll answer each in turn.

1. All of LD is based fundamentally on opinions, and anyone who says differently is a little deluded. Opinions backed with good reasons and evidence are what we want. Thus, utilitarianism should be judged on the strength of reasons for or against its usefulness as a criterion.

2. Utilitarianism focuses on the needs of society as a whole--the "greatest good for the greatest number." Thus, your PBET contentions have to show that the practice of plea bargaining in exchange for testimony is unjust because it increases the amount of injustice in society--or, conversely, it's just because it increases the amount of justice. (I discuss a mathematical way to think about that here.)

Also, utilitarianism is a forward-looking criterion, as opposed to backward-looking criteria like retribution. Utility forces us to examine the potential consequences of our actions. What will the consequences of PBET be, societally speaking?

3. Utilitarianism is a well-defended philosophy within a strong tradition, from Bentham and Mill up to the present. It offers clarity and forward-thinking, tries to quantify difficult questions, and emphasizes societal needs over individual squabbles. Also, when it comes to punishment, there's a strong tradition of utilitarian reasoning, from such writers as HLA Hart.

Those are several of the many reasons utilitarianism can be a good way to approach this--or any--resolution. It may have its flaws, but so does every philosophical perspective. That's what makes debate fun.

Anonymous said...

CHS as in Churchill High School?

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, that'd be Capital High School, home of the Cougars. Thanks for visiting!

LD crazed said...

hey with the example of util. as a VC

i'm a novice but even I know, if you are running Justice as your value (especially justice as giving each his due)

i am so sick of having to explain to my opponet in rebuttals that we can't weigh achieving justice by a concept of justice, the same with deontology as a criterion under justice. it doesn't work.

i mean i may be way off base here but thats my general opinion on running util. under justice, anyway is utilitarianism kinda iffy for a criterion anyway? like what value could you run that under?

Jim Anderson said...

LD crazed, Utilitarianism is commonly run under Societal Welfare.

Anonymous said...

If I was going to run my value as security, would self-preservation be a good criterion?

Jim Anderson said...

Security as in safety as in self-preservation? I'm not sure I see a real difference between the concepts. Security could be achieved in many ways...

Destroying enemies. Threat containment. Political realism. Diplomacy. Counterproliferation. Isolationism. Avoiding blowback. All of these are forms of self-preservation, but much more specific, and perhaps more defensible.

Anonymous said...

Hey could you help me answer a few questions? They're really bugging me with the march-april resolution.

Could societal welfare work as a VC under a value of Justice? Morality? If so how would you warrant it?


Jim Anderson said...

Societal Welfare seems more like a value, paired with either of those, if the purpose of justice (or morality) is to maintain a flourishing society.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing my first LD debate in school and the topic is Resolved: Capital punishment is justified. I was thinking of using utilitarianism as my value, but I have absolutely no idea how to put a criterion with it. Any ideas?

Jim Anderson said...

anonymous, you'll want to use utilitarianism as a criterion (see the discussion above), since it's a way to determine how we parcel out various goods, or how we choose between courses of action: by determining which choice will lead to the greatest good for the greatest number. (This is also known as "maximizing utility.")

Thus, you choose your value--life, perhaps--and then explain how affirming or negating the resolution provides the greatest good (life, in this example) for the greatest number, thus fulfilling your criterion.

You would have to warrant your criterion, or, in other words, explain why utilitarianism is a justifiable way to determine a moral choice such as whether to apply the death penalty.

Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

can you think of any philosophical warrant for "maximizing international stability"?

Jim Anderson said...

That seems like it would be paired with a utilitarian stance. Stability needs defining--it makes me think, at least, of peace, or at least limited conflict, of economic harmony, of limited disease and suffering. You might be able to argue that it represents the greatest possible good for the greatest possible number. It would take fairly strong empirical support, I'd think.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Anderson...

How funny is this- I am writing a college paper, and typed in "criterion" and you page popped up. I remember you mentioning this before.

I started reading it because it brought back memories of high school debate, and then I remebered you wrote it! :) I thought it was funny. Well I hope your are doing great! And that you have gotten plenty of new amazing students!


kelley said...

I'm in debate, and my case is based on Resolved: Federal Government bailouts for major corporations are just. I'm assigned to negate the case, my value is Justice, but i'm having a hard time finding a criterion. help????

Jim Anderson said...

kelley, if you define "justice" as "to each their due," then your criterion will be related to something people are due--or not due. For example, one way to reach justice is by protecting rights, or, in other words, making sure rights aren't being violated. When it comes to property rights / resources, we call this "distributive justice." In the case of the resolution you describe, you might focus on liberty or autonomy or property rights as a criterion, to specify the particular "justice issue" under consideration.

(Another is by punishing violators, since they are due punishment. That's "retributive" justice.)

Anonymous said...

Im a novice debater doing a LD debate for the first time and im stuck at what my criterion should be. The topic is Resolved: laws which protect citizens from themselves are justified. Im the negative and my value is liberty. What would you do as your criteria in this stituation?

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, how do we measure, achieve, or define what constitutes liberty? That resolution, at least on the Negative, seems tailor-made for Mill's "Harm principle." If you haven't checked out On Liberty, you definitely should.

Anonymous said...

Hello there, im still a rookie at LD, and I have been having a hard time thinking of VC's for the resolution: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize Universal Human Rights over its National Interest. Can you help me think of some? I am on the negative side btw.

oh, and I did not do so well on my practice debate round, can you give me some tips on how to think of rebuttals or arguments on the spot, for the next time I do a debate round?

Jim Anderson said...


If you're on the Negative, the key question is, why should governments uphold their national interest? One of the best answers is that it's their only obligation regarding the social contract.

Thus, your criterion might be "upholding the social contract" with a value of "national security" or "governmental legitimacy." (And, of course, you'd have to explain why these values were most important.)

Regarding your rebuttal question, I'd need some more information. What kind of arguments did you face? Why do you think you struggled? I'd suggest describing your full experience in an email--and that way, I can respond to your questions in a post all its own.

Anonymous said...

I'm very new to debate and I'm going into my first competition and I'm don't want to be murdered. My coach teaches us nothing haha. I hear all of this stuff about philosophy and I don't get any of it and I hope I don't need to know it! anyway, so as a newbie, do you have a different value/ criterion for your neg case and your aff case? And is global security a good criterion?

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous... well... hate to break it to you, but you really do need to start learning some philosophy--political and moral philosophy, mostly, starting with the social contract, utilitarianism, and deontology, at the very least--if you want to succeed in LD. It takes a lot of effort, but it's worth it. (Here's a list of philosophers to narrow your search.)

As to your questions...

You don't necessarily need to have a different V/C for your Aff and Neg. For instance, if we're arguing about nuclear weapons, I might have a value of Global Welfare with a criterion of Reducing Conflict. On the Aff, I might argue that nuclear weapons increase the destructiveness of conflict, while on the Neg, I might argue that nuclear weapons deter conflict. Same V/C, but the arguments "in case" make all the difference.

(This is why you can sometimes win the round even though you've lost the "V/C debate.")

Global security can work (especially for a resolution like the nuclear weapons resolution), aligned with a value like Human Life or Peace. It might be better as a value, with a criterion of International Law (which, regarding nuclear weapons, supports an Aff position these days).

Anonymous said...

Thanks! How do you suggest I go about "learning" philosophy? And my value w/that criterion was going to be peace. What you said pretty much aligns with what I had planned. Also, as a novice, debating in the "novice" division, what kind of skill level, and knowledge of philosophy, can I expect from my opponents? And finally, how do I incorporate the philosophy I learn into my debate?

Hopeless Anon said...

Hey Hopeless Anon again, I wanted to ask you how you would define "Societal Welfare?" I'm working on my Aff right now and I'm liking the new suggestion about the quarantine idea, since the government DOES have a duty to protect its people- it's in the constitution as well.
But I'm also having trouble displaying it such a way that my opponent doesn't scream "COMMIE!!" and throw various strange objects at me. any ideas for a starting and ending contention? My second is focusing on harm reduction for societal welfare.

(and thanks to your suggestion on going balance Neg and how to go about it, hopeless Anon is now not as hopeless, I won my Neg case because it is very effective in this Nov/Dec resolution. The only downside is- be prepared for having a case similar to the Aff, but stress the importance of the ILLEGIAL drugs. Thank you again!!)

M,loves! said...

Hi. The new NFL Topic has came out for the time period of January/February 2010.

Resolved: In the United States, juveniles charged with violent felonies ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice systems.

I am doing a value of morality for my aff case. What are some popular criterions?

Jim Anderson said...

You may enjoy this post.

Anonymous said...

As a freshman, new to debate beyond the lunch time cat fights with TMI; I have a question about our up coming Debate "Rehabilitation vs Punishment."

I have the positive position on the side of "Rehab" and have chosen a value of "Redemption". Not wanting to be unnecessarily punished in the debate; could you give me an example of how you would state your "Criterion" with redemption as your value. Cold and stuck in SD.

Jim Anderson said...

Interesting question. Redemption is a process, instrumental to some other end. It would seem to me that if you focus on the good that it brings to society, then your criterion would be a form of consequentialism or utilitarianism--all of which are ends-based--with an ultimate goal of societal welfare.

Then, in your contentions, you would explain how rehab leads to redemption, which improves individuals and society in various ways, thus fulfilling your value (societal welfare) as measured / weighed through your criterion (utilitarianism or consequentialism).

Does that make sense?

Help Me! said...

Help me, i have been in search for a criterion for my case. My resolution for now is "Privacy is Undervalued". What should I use for my criterion? Please help. I am totally blank now. Please!!!

Rebecca said...

I still do not understand what a criterion is all in all. the debator defintion for it.

Rebecca said...

I am still not sure what a criterion is all in all. What is the debator definition for it?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a second year L-D debator competing in NCFCA. The resolution is "Resolved: Governments have a moral obligation to assist other nations in need." I was thinking of having a value of Knowledge, any ideas for a criterion...?

Anonymous said...

If my value is safety, would I want to use something like protecting life for my vc, or should I use utilitarianism or something like that?

Anonymous said...

If my value is safety would I want my vc to be protecting life or something like utilitarianism?