Nov 10, 2008

LD mailbag: the unavoidable social contract

Another day, another batch of LD emails regarding the felon voting resolution. Let's wade right in.
I stumbled across your page as I was searching for information for the November/December LD resolution. I'm a novice (so I haven't competed in LD before) and I wanted to use the social contract in my Neg. Here's what I have so far:
“Good and evil; reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided."

What John Locke meant by this statement is that for a society to be functional, good and evil in addition to reward and punishment must coexist within it. In a democratic society, all of the preceding conditions can impact the right of voting.

The value being held in this debate is societal welfare. Most people would contest that societal welfare is the well being of a society in matters of health, safety, order, and economics. So how does a democratic society achieve societal welfare? Abraham Lincoln once said “democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Therefore, in a democracy, societal welfare is the responsibility of the people. To maintain societal welfare, we must adhere to the social contract, the value criterion of this debate.
The Locke quote is interesting, since it provides a glimpse into Locke's moral thinking regarding education in virtue. As John Marshall notes in John Locke: Resistance, Religion, and Responsibility, children's fundamental appetite for pleasure could only be moderated by persistent and consistent education. "This task was enormously difficult, but it was possible since the mind at birth was a tabula rasa and since [children] were extremely concerned... with how others viewed them." It might be argued that this extends to individuals' roles vis a vis the State; those who impetuously or impertinently disobey the law show a lack of virtue, thus grounding their disqualification from the franchise in accordance with Lockean contractarianism.

Of course, how upholding the social contract gets us to societal welfare requires some warranting, but it can be done.

I had been looking for the fundamental principle underlying a Lockean approach to disenfranchisement. This angle--that the felon's lack of virtue disqualifies her from voting--would sit well with the argument that felons have, in essence, declared war on the Contract, which is the Lockean argument I've seen argued most frequently in the literature.

Okay, on to another case by a completely different author.
Hi, I'm completely new to Lincoln-Douglas Debate, and was hoping you could review the basic thoughts behind my cases.


V: Justice
C: Utilitarian Punishment

1. Purpose of Legal System is Utilitarian
2. Punishments sanctioned by the U.S. Legal Code are justified through the concepts of deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.
3. As disenfranchisement does not serve any of those purposes, it is not legally justified.
4. As disenfranchisement is carried out through the legal system, if it cannot be legally justified, it does not serve the system's purpose (utilitarian)
5. As disenfranchisement is carried out through the legal system, it must be justified legally, as it is not, an affirmation of the resolution is forced.
Problem: how do we extend the utilitarian concepts found in the US Legal Code into a general depiction of "a democratic society?" It can be done, but it needs explanation.

Secondly, the "ought" in the resolution must be defined carefully to include a legal perspective. Or, if we stick with a moral "ought," we have to explain why / how utilitarian punishment fulfills a moral obligation.

Be on the lookout, though, for a Neg who argues that utilitarian punishment is not a sufficient criterion for justice; as some critics note, utilitarian concerns might not include "due process" or "cruel and unusual punishment" constraints, as long as it can be shown that society benefits overall from a harsher penal regime.

Next case, same author:

V: Democratic Society
C: Upholding Moral and Political Standards of the Mainstream

1. Basic Purpose of Political Deliberation in a Democratic Society is to uphold the moral and political viewpoints of the mainstream
2. Felons, through committing criminal actions, have classified themselves as having atypical moral and political beliefs
3. Allowing Felons to Become a Constituency would, by the nature of a democratic society which represents the people, cause the degradation of the moral standards of society, and directly work against the purpose of a democratic society
4. As affirming the resolution causes moral degradation on a societal level, and works against the purpose of a democratic society, it must be negated

My main problem is with #3 of the Con Case, in that felons, as an unrealized constituency, despite being 4.7 million in number, are spread out geographically, making their impact on society doubtful. Any thoughts on how to address this?
#1 is interesting; it squares with an older view of democracy that doesn't include provisions for minority rights. (This narrow view, though, is susceptible to the charge that the democracy will use felony laws as a way to purposefully disenfranchise dissenters.)

#3 should be argued along largely theoretical lines, with a nod to perhaps the Florida experience in 2000, when Gore lost narrowly and, according to some scholars, likely would have won if felons had been able to vote. (Note that this example can backfire, though.) Regardless of the particular outcome, felon suffrage could have made a big difference.

# 3 isn't sufficient; it needs some help. What of the victims who, seeing that those who injured them are able to vote, become disenchanted with the system? A government that allows felons to shape its course could be deemed illegitimate by those who had traded their liberties to ensure their security, never thinking that the contract could be gamed by those who don't play by the rules. (Whoa... there's the social contract again, sneaking into every Neg case.)

'Tis all for now. Questions? Comments? Fire away!


Lydia said...

I have a simple question that's a bit unrelated to this, but it's been praying on my mind.

If I ran a case that stated you must negate because affirming would mean that all felons to vote--which would include treasonous felons who pose a greater threat to democracy--would that be considered abusive?

Possible impacts include: affirming would discourage law-abiding citizens and would make them feel as though the government values their voices on the same level as that of traitors (which would discourage obedience/participation in the political process).

My justification is that the resolution is a true/false statement (ie. if one part of the statement is false, all of it is)...

What do you think?

Jim Anderson said...

It's an interesting argument. If faced with it, I'd respond in at least two ways.

1. Arguing that treason is a voluntary renunciation of citizenship, and therefore a form of self-disenfranchisement, and non-controversial, especially since (according to LD rules) we have to defend the resolution's truth "as a general principle." This would square well with a social contract Neg.

2. Arguing that the proper punishment for treason is death, which eliminates any need for disenfranchisement. This is what I"d use with a retributive case.

Alex said...

I would argue against Lydia's case: How do you specifically decide which felons to disenfranchise? If you're only disenfranchising certain felons (the alternative that NEG. is providing), someone must be in charge of deciding who gets in and who doesn't. There is lots of room for manipulation here; let's say the incumbent power's party was less likely to be favored by those who deal drugs, but more likely to be favored by those who commit other types of felonies (say, embezzlement). They could easily enfranchise the embezzlers while keeping the vote away from drug-dealers, thus enlarging their base while diminishing that of their opponents.

Elizabeth said...

I'm a debate from Oklahoma with a few years of experience and I've been reading your blog for help for a while now. First, I'd like to say it's wonderful and very helpful. Second, have you (or anyone) seen any neg cases on this resolution that aren't social contract? I went to my first tournament for this year and that's all I saw as well as what I'm running. That said, this is Oklahoma debate where nobody knows how to use anything other than Locke's Social Contract as a criterion. I guess I was just curious about what other ideas people are using?

Alex said...

Thanks for running this blog, Jim! I've read all your recent posts and they've helped me get thinking about the resolution...

I had a(nother) question. Would it be a good idea for the affirmative to argue that votes on certain issues, like the legalization of activities that are currently illegal (I'm thinking marijuana, etc.), would be unfairly swayed towards the keep-it-illegal side if felons were denied the right to vote.

It's possible that the grounds on which they were arrested were unfair, and that the society would be better if those laws were taken off the books. A felon who has had experience with the topic would hold strong opinions, maybe, about the topic.

@Elizabeth: I'm a first-time debater, so I don't know if my case will work, but I'm not running social contract for my negative. I think social contract is a measure of justice, and the resolution doesn't ask what's just here. It asks what a society "ought" to do. One definition of ought is "indicating advisability or prudence". I would say that what is advisable to society is what ends up increasing societal welfare, and has the greatest overall effect on the citizens of a society. (Especially in a democracy, where the government is--as Lincoln put it--"of the people, by the people, for the people".

My negative is based on refuting affirmative claims (most of them can be refuted somehow) and showing how allowing felons to vote is detrimental to society. If victims and law-abiding citizens, for instance, see that the state is allowing those who harmed them an equal voice in choosing how to protect people, then what message does that send about the democratic process? Will they be less likely to get involved?

It needs some work, but it's not social contract, at least.

Danny said...

alex: The basis of your initial argument is looking at the goodness in felons, which may seem inherently positive, but can easily be turned. Felons who are in jail must be considered guilty in any case unless you can provide empirics of those who aren't, and that alone is controversial. If you're claiming that the majority of felons didn't commit a crime that they were convicted of, you're being treasonous. Experience and strong opinions don't always lead to the right answer, especially if the felons indeed have flawed judgment. You're practically implying it would be better for us if only felons voted.

eliz: Social contract is the basis of every negative case except those with extremely unique arguments, which are usually weaker than normal. As demonstrated by Jim, most realistic cases have at least the slightest twinge of social contract in them.

Jim Anderson said...

The potential for unjust laws is true of every democracy, since the law is a creation of the democratic process rather than willed from Up Above. Democracy admits to changes and evolution, rather than a static Rule of Law.

I'd add to Danny's comment the fact that by advocating prudence over justice will require some good warranting beyond defining it away through your reading of "ought."

Danny, felony conviction (in a democracy, and this is key) isn't necessarily proof of some sort of ontological deviance. The law of the land is not necessarily the Moral Law. It's hardly treasonous to suggest that some people might be unjustly imprisoned, even in a democracy (and especially if there's a temptation to use disenfranchisement laws to tamp down on dissent).

Jim Anderson said...

Elizabeth, I'm working on a sample Neg case based on human dignity, but haven't had time to put it up just yet. Hopefully sometime before Friday....

Alex said...

Danny: Thanks for your feedback. I guess this would be my defense...

In a democracy, shouldn't laws be based on what the majority think? In the case of marijuana legalization, it's safe to assume that a number of people don't hold strong views on the topic. A number of people will believe strongly that it should be illegal, and a number will believe that it should be legal. In a democracy, whichever group has the greatest numbers should prevail.

Now consider felons who have been convicted of selling marijuana or trafficking it. They probably belong to the group of people, for whatever reason, that believe that it should be legal. Why should their voices not be heard on this issue?


Jim: thanks for your comments! As to valuing prudence over justice, would there be other ways to warrant it?

Looking at the resolution, it asking whether in a democratic society, felons ought to retain the right to vote.

The key word here IS "ought"--what does the resolution mean? We can say that it does not indicate obligation of any sort--it would be odd to suggest the felons carried the obligation of retaining their right to vote. (Of course, by looking at the sentence in a different word order--"a democratic society ought to allow felons to retain the right to vote"--does destroy that argument...)

The only other definition of "ought" is that something is advisable. And from there you can say that something advisable for a democratic society is something that helps its people prosper (it is, after all, a government "of, by, for the people").

Assuming this argument doesn't fly, what other warrants could be used? Surely the practical repercussions of denying felons the vote must be considered. Should I argue that Societal Welfare is more important than justice when considering what a society ought to do? And does the burden of saying which value should be favored lie with the affirmative, the negative, or equally on both? How would a justice-based negative go about refuting my claim that societal welfare is the value here, that justice would be a better one? Other than redefining "ought", is there another way?

Another possible warrant for valuing overall social welfare over justice would be that a democratic society should accurately represent the people and govern them in the way that ends up in their maximum wellbeing, while giving them a say in how it's done. (by and FOR the people). Whether or not the people perceive the government to be acting justly is certainly a concern, as it may decrease societal welfare if they do not think it is. However, if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages overall, shouldn't we do what's best for democracy and particularly our democratic society?

Just thinking aloud here...

thanks again!

Soda said...

What is the "majority"?
I know that sounds like a stupid question, but I can't quite wrap my head around it.
Is it only applicable on an idea-by-idea basis? So, when 3rd case author says "Basic Purpose of Political Deliberation in a Democratic Society is to uphold the moral and political viewpoints of the mainstream", is he referring to the mainstream on each individual political issue, or is the "mainstream" a set group of people?
If it were a set group of people, then which people does it consist of? We're all part of a minority on some extent, right?
I'm not sure this question makes much sense...

Anonymous said...

btw, i didn't run a social contract neg

c1-we are not letting felons retain their right to liberty (jail)
taking away right to vote pales in comparison & complaining about it seems hypocritical
NOTE: this doesn't prove nething, but i like it in that it puts this resolution into a perspective that favors me
c2-recidvism & bad judgement
60+% of felons are repeat offenders
c3-social contract+utily
quotes from hobbes, rousseau, mills
(no locke!)
did have a bit of social contract but no locke
the obvious problem w/ a case like this is that the contentions aren't rly connected...but its not too big a deal in my league =p
@soda: majority is rly a theoretical idea...u usually don't know which side is the actual majority
however we can assume that the view of the people in power is majority 'cuz they were voted in (w/ the majority)...not sure how this relates to resolution though
LD can be theoretical :D

Jim Anderson said...

Alex, those "out-loud" thoughts are exactly where you need to take it. Even if you lose the "definition battle" (or, to pre-empt the battle entirely) you can argue, along the lines you've mentioned, that upholding societal welfare would fulfill the moral obligation of a democratic society.

Soda, that question makes perfect sense. People aren't only members of one constituency or social group. Consider me: white, male, youngish, married, no kids, middle class, a teacher, among many other things.... Any of those categories could put me in a majority or a minority depending on the context of political debate.

Your question would be great for CX, as it could expose an argument that was only half thought-out, and potentially self-contradictory, inconsistent, or difficult to square with the resolution.

Anonymous said...

Your arguments seem interesting. I was just wondering, if something is unjust but it upholds societal welfare, do we ought to do it?

Anonymous said...

I'm a novice in LD, and I was wondering if using Universal Suffrage as a criteria is better than using maximizing protection of rights as a criteria. My value is Justice and I defined it as giving people what they are due.

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous II, universal suffrage is a more limited criterion than maximizing rights; it also isn't sufficient to prove justice (though violating it might be sufficient to prove an injustice).

Anand said...

Hey Jim, it's me again.

It seems like you are working on answering the same question for the neg that I've been struggling with: what part of the social contract inherently that violations should lead to disenfranchisement.

I kind of like your idea about it being a disqualifier from the voting process, but find the retribution arguement a bit weak.

I think I'm going to go with an arguement that also focuses on felons losing their franchise while imprisoned. I'll emphasize the fact that they can regain the right upon release, but that they ought not retain it the entire time because lust as their liberty is curtailed, their political rights ought to be curtailed.

Perhaps this could be a retributive arguement in that violating the social contract is an attack on the political system, and therefore recinding political rights (at least temporairly) is proportional.

May be this is what you were implying, but I thought you meant disenfranchisement was retribution for violating another's rights as opposed to for attacking the political system.

Jim Anderson said...

anand, I haven't really developed a retributive argument (at least on the Neg); if I would, it would be developed along the lines you suggest, that a crime has effects beyond the victim, and that the reason the State is justified in punishment is that the offense is against the community and the Contract, and not against the individual. (I covered those issues back on the old plea bargaining resolution, but they're worth bringing back. Now, only if I could get some free time...)

Anand said...

Thanks for the response Jim, and would you mind clarifying your idea about a felony disqualifying one from voting?

Is this simply because of displayed moral degeneracy? Because that position seems a little hard to defend.

For what other reasons would a felony disqualify one from voting?

Alex said...


Because there is no such thing as absolute justice and a democracy has no duty to uphold absolute justice--just to listen to its people and implement their policies--my answer to your question would be that yes, we ought to do something, even something unjust, if it increases social welfare.

Amnesty is a good example--it is absolutely unjust to allow illegal immigrants immediate, unquestioned citizenship. However, if it can be shown to lead to increased societal welfare and happiness, why not? We have no obligation to uphold some abstract concept of "justice".

Morality is a somewhat different matter, but altogether I think that especially in this resolution, the correct interpretation would be that societal welfare is what to go for.

Jim Anderson said...

Anand, I think I'd use a concept based on what Rawls called the "principle of fair play," a more particular view of the grounding of the social contract. If you agree to accept the benefits of the contract, you also agree to play by the rules; your refusal, then, is a reasoned, voluntary dismissal of those rules and thus grounds for disqualification from the political process.

Jim Anderson said...

All this is to say that it feels circular at its foundation; I can think of good reasons not to affirm, but have difficulty expressing an incontrovertible, positively-phrased reason for disenfranchisement without relapsing into special pleading.

Anonymous said...

I came across two arguments of the neg. that I don't have a response to. Would someone please help me out?
1. Felons have broken the social contract, so their right to vote should be taken away because they failed to uphold their end of the contract.
2. Felons know of consequences they will receive and therefore, they should not be able to vote because they knowingly commit a crime. (She supported this with the fact that felons run or try to hide from the police because they fear of the consequences they will face)
Also, what would be a criteria to the value of societal welfare.
Another question, does anyone know how I should support the argument that society owes nothing to felons?

Anand said...

Anon, your first question can be answered in a few ways.

First, you could argue it is an unjust or undemocratic way to to punish violations of the social contract, just as the death penalty for a speeding ticket would seem absurd.

Second you can argue that voting is the fundamental principle of a democratic society, and that any action you take to limit the right moves a society away from what a democratic society ought to be.

Remember, felons don't love all their rights, so why should they specifically lose the right to vote?

The second question is a little easier to answer. You can simply challenge the validity of the idea that felons realize how they will be punished. Disenfranchisement is not a well known punishment, and rather than being judicially decreed, it is an administrative function.

The criteria for societal welfare depends greatly on your arguments. Basically it should be able to link your arguments to the value, so without knowing what you're running, I don't really know what criterion would be most appropriate. Also, make sure you warrant the claim that societal welfare is important in a democracy. It is a legitimate idea, but one that you can't automatically assume.

And finally, no, society does still have obligations towards felons. It is illegal to kill them because the state continues to protect them.

Anand said...

Jim, thanks for the Rawlsian gem.
I'll be running Rawlsian social contract on both sides now, yay! (I should be okay as long as I know the philosophy and can argue it better than an opponent)

Now I just have to find a strong tie between Rawls and retribution.

I know what you mean about the neg feeling a little loopy. I'm having plenty of issues with it, and I think it is the first time since I've started LD that I believe one side is just plainly incorrect.

Arguments that sacrifice individual rights to maintain a pool of voters with a homogeneous conception of morality bug me.

If some sort of corrupt view of morality ever became so widespread as to be capable of singlehandedly controlling the electoral process, then it would probably not be so bad after all.

Sexy Beast said...

I don't know if someone posted this yet, but every time I encounter the social contract on this resolution (which is virtually every neg case in existence), I simply attack the social contract by saying that it's not consistent with a democracy, so it should not be used to evaluate a democracy. This is warranted by the fact that in every democracy in existence, such as the United States, felons retain citizenship status during prison, or are at least allowed to become citizens after prison. Under the social contract, however, committing a crime makes you a non-citizen forever.

Does this seem viable? It's worked in the past, but furthermore input would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Sexy, you bring up a very good point in that the United States, as well as other Democracies, are not in accordance with parts of the social contract. However, One could easily argue, with following the social contract as a criterion, that since your examples are not examples of "perfect democracies" that therefore your point of inconsistency is void based on the ideal that a Perfect Democracy would be one that follows the social contract, for this case Locke's, completely.