Feb 5, 2009

Black's Law and the vigilantism resolution

Black's Law Dictionary is the premier source for LD definitions. This is uncontroversial. Because of it, all LDers considering the March / April vigilantism resolution should be very, very familiar with two key definitions from that source.

1. Vigilantism
Black's (8th ed.) defines it as "The act of a citizen who takes the law into his or her own hands by apprehending and punishing suspected criminals."

This is important for at least two reasons. First, it makes vigilantism primarily an individual act, rather than the domain of "vigilance committees," along with the concomitant advantages (it's therefore not necessarily widespread, threatening anarchy) and disadvantages (it may lack popular support or legitimacy). Second, the definition requires that the criminals in question are only suspected, raising an epistemic hurdle that the Aff must be able to clear. Negs are going to argue that individuals lack the resources, time, motivation*, and legal knowledge to fully pursue justice, and that vigilantism is thus inherently corrupt.

*In fact, their primary motivation, it can be argued, is to speed up the process of apprehension and punishment, reducing or eliminating the rights of suspects--if there even is a process!

2. Enforcement
Black's again: "To give force or effect to (a law, etc.); to compel obedience to." This prompts an interesting and critical question: does enforcement include punishment? If not, then the Aff can argue that we're not talking about a situation where the government has failed to convict known criminals. Rather, we're talking about a government that has failed to deter crime. This is good for the affirmative, since it means that the rule of law has, if not utterly toppled, at least reached a tipping point.

I've only begun to consider the implications of these definitions. Your thoughts and suggestions, as always, are welcomed in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Jim, are you suggesting that if there is a debate over definitions, both sides should agree to the definition used in Black's Law dictionary?
Also, how is the aff going to overcome the phrase "suspected criminals"?

Jim Anderson said...

No, no. It's just that Black's Law Dictionary carries a lot of heft in a round. Definitions have to be fair and warranted, and the source--a dictionary written with a legal audience in mind--is its own kind of warrant. It's certainly easy to defend against Webster's.

And regarding your second question, I don't yet know.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the definition of enforcement, what exactly are you trying to say? I don't quite understand what you are getting at with that definition.

Jim Anderson said...

Two ways of reading a failure of enforcement:

1. The government has failed to punish someone in a specific instance--they "get away with it." (This may fit with the "give force to a law" part of the definition.)

2. The government has failed to keep law and order. People are violating laws all over the place. (They have failed to "compel obedience" to the law, a lack of deterrence.)

Does that help?

Anonymouse said...

I like the implication on "enforce," but it raises some additional questions for me.

Assuming failure is significant but not universal (failure to deter point pollution, for example), wouldn't vigilantism be justified only in the scope of the failure? If super-criminals start robbing banks because police officers don't scare them, wouldn't that limit super-heroes justifiable vigilantism to stopping them?

Of course, that raises other ethical questions about the obligations of the powerful...

LDn00b said...

Mr Anderson, how would you warrent black's dictionary being the best? How would you defend it in a round?

Anonymouse said...

The other issue I see is that of vigilantism as unsanctioned law enforcement. If enforcement is equated with deterrence, then vigilantism is primarily interested in deterring crimes rather than specifically punishing criminals. In my mind, that poses a serious risk to justice.

Jim Anderson said...

ldn00b, Black's website says it all: "Black’s Law Dictionary is the definitive legal resource for lawyers, law students and laypeople alike. Edited by the world’s foremost legal lexicographer, Bryan A. Garner, Black's Law Dictionary is known for its clear and precise legal definitions, substantive accuracy, and stylistic clarity — making it the most cited legal dictionary in print."

Or, as someone in a round once put it, "It's a law dictionary--because we're talking about the law!"

F. Ivie said...

Would the definition regarding individual citizen vigilantism as opposed to committee vigilantism only work in favor of the negative? I'm trying to find a way to swing it in the affirmative favor, but can only think of a way to throw the negative out of topicality (i.e. if they're a novice and raise the issue of the KKK or another "evil" vigilante organization, one could state that the topic excludes them), not enough on which to build a full affirmative case.

Have any ideas to help the affirmative to use Black's?

Anonymous said...

One comment, whats to stop a single citizen from organizing a group of citizens to enforce the law? Vigilantism could lead to groups if a single individual decides to get together with a group

braevans said...

I think the idea behind the aff definition is not meant for one individual, but the idea behind a citizen committing vigilantism. If the neg gets picky, say each person was a seperate count of vigilantism, cooperating.

ldn00b said...

About the topicallity argument, it seems that because the resolution is talking about the concept of vigilanteism, not the acts of vigilantees, we can't negate based on groups such as the KKK. (And, correct me if I'm wrong, the KKK wasn't enforcing any unenforced laws, was it?)

okiedebater said...

Regarding the failure to enforce, I see two main interpretations:

1) The failure of the government to enforce the law is a result of an inability to do so, OR

2) The failure of the government to enforce the law is a result of an unwillingness to do so.

The AFF could argue either one of these interpretations (or both). It seems to me like the NEG could better counter (1) by saying that there is no need for vigilantism, b/c if the inability is financial, evidentiary... then some laws could be modified to deal with that inability. There would be no true need for vigilantism.
Then, if the AFF is arguing (2), could the NEG say that if the gov't is unwilling to enforce its own laws it violates its obligation to its citizens (by some Social Contract theory)? Therefore, a state of nature exists, such that there is no true law (besides the law of nature), such that there could be no true vigilantism (acting outside the law).

"the law"

This is extremely vague. Is the government failing to punish murder? Rape? Tax evasion? Speeding??
With no clear definition as to the severity, the NEG could try to say that the AFF side would allow someone to attack another person who got away with going over the speed limit. (Of course, this is an extreme example, but if the AFF puts on too many qualifiers about what "the law" means, you can try to attack them for not upholding the resolution as written)


Does this assume the government WILL fail to uphold the law? It doesn't state "if", but "when". This seems to indicate that these failures already take place.


Is this federal? State? County? Municipal? Any or all?
I ask because they indicate different severity of crimes they fail to punish/laws they fail to enforce.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that defining 'enforcement' as 'deterring crime' really only helps neg....as vigilantism will chiefly be punishing crime...not deterring it. Is there an aff argument for this? This definition also brings up another problem: how do we legitimately prove the government 'fails to deter' crime? ...I think it might be easier and better for both sides to just define 'enforce' as 'carrying something through,' or punishment, basically. Unless you could find a really good way to base a case off of the deterrance idea.

liz said...


i'm writing my affirmative cases,
and i plan on valuing some type of safety. My case will be frmulating around the black's def of vigilantism. do you have any suggestions for VC's?

Jim Anderson said...

liz, it depends on bow you plan to use your criterion--as a weighing mechanism for both sides, or as a way to fulfill your value.

liz said...

hi jim
i'm looking for a VC that can do both weighing and achieving. Acxtually, i'm switching over to moral obligations, what could the VC be there? i want the aff case to be about domestic realism, and as long as the government has failed, in a state of nature, vigilantism is ok. whats a good VC??

Jim Anderson said...

Well... moral responsibility could be a criterion for justice, insofar as everyone is obligated to do their part to achieve justice, giving you the "fulfilling" side, and that either side of the resolution can be weighed against the way it provides for or denies individuals' moral responsibility.

liz said...


myself as well as those on my team say that moral responsibility or morality is something
a little too vague, and it should be a value, not a standard? If it were a standard, would it be too vague? If so, how could i specify i criterion for morality?

Jim Anderson said...

It could be something akin to Kant's categorical imperative: for every individual, it is a universal moral obligation to pursue justice.

Or perhaps there's a virtue ethics angle to take here. At any rate, it's often tough to find a "bright line" for morality, as a criterion or when searching for a criterion for morality as a value.

liz said...

Yeah, I know

But i feel as if with this topic, it's impossible to have a brightline when you don't know how people's perspectives collide.

Melissa said...

I see in the post that a point was made about how enforcement does not necessarily include punishment.

However, doesn't the law prescribe punishment for different crimes? Or is the law just a set of rules in which the punishment for violation is not given?

Melissa said...

I just thought about my question a bit more.

For the most part, isn't punishment handed down by the courts? They are the places, after all, where sentences are meted out.

But then again, the judicial system is part of the government isn't it?

This is all very interesting.

Does anyone know examples of a crime for which there is an automatic punishment? (one that is applied under all circumstances).

Anonymous said...

Would the categorical imperative be an effective VC for justice for aff?

Melissa said...

Hi guys.

I've already posted a question but I'll ask again because my debate is in 2 days.

On AFF I want to define the failure to enforce as one that INCLUDES failure to punish. However, there may be a clash of definitions.

Could someone please give an example of a law for which violation results in some blanket punishment? Where there is a punishment that must be applied in all cases because the specific law demands so?

Jim Anderson said...

Melissa, I think even without a specific example of a law with an automatic penalty, you're safe arguing that "to give force or effect to (a law)" can include the act of punishing a violation of that law. After all, the sanctions for crimes are a part of the law as well.

Melissa said...

Thanks Jim!

KK said...

Jim, how do you think this will go in a round?

Law is created/enforced to protect its people, and when the government fails to protect, (violates social contract) But also the people must then protect themselves, correct?

and achieve justice, and given that you can prove how the citizens/gov. have same perspective of justice, (or we wouldve rebelled awhile ago) we can be viglant.. and the violence thing, well the gov. has prison- takes away property and liberty, death penalty, life. we wouldn't have anything execeding that violence..

good stuff? or nay? how do you think it will go?

. said...

what is the best possible definition for justice?

Anonymous said...

In a democracy the government includes the people, so is there anyway to spin the argument that vigilantes don't even exist in that sort of government?
Since the people are never outside the government. In other words, what necessarily is defined as the government?
Plus, in some governments the law justifies terrorism, governments such as in the middle east, where the constitution is the Qur'an.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I have a few questions/suggestions in mind.

This question will probably bring about a "duh" response, but do all societies necessarily have a social contract?

Bentham's panopticon concept(under a value of societal welfare as AFF)?
vigilantes are just another form of it by assuming the role of "big brother" and act as a deterrent to crime. Thus, improving the welfare of society.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Jim! I fell upon this site and it's helped a lot with my debating. But i need some help. I am debating at state with this topic this coming Friday,and i need to know...categorical imperative? ethical justice? ay or nay?