Oct 31, 2010

the most destructive drug

Mentioned in an article that may be of interest to students debating the current LD resolution, a new Lancet study has determined the overall most destructive drug.

Hint: most places, it's legal.
When drunk in excess, alcohol damages nearly all organ systems. It is also connected to higher death rates and is involved in a greater percentage of crime than most other drugs, including heroin.

But experts said it would be impractical and incorrect to outlaw alcohol.

"We cannot return to the days of prohibition," said Leslie King, an adviser to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and one of the study's authors. "Alcohol is too embedded in our culture and it won't go away."

King said countries should target problem drinkers, not the vast majority of people who indulge in a drink or two. He said governments should consider more education programs and raising the price of alcohol so it isn't as widely available.
Non-rhetorical question: Why not take the same approach to all drugs?

Added: Sullum (linked above) highlights and critiques the study.

Oct 25, 2010

value and criterion pairs for the illegal drugs resolution

The NFL LD resolution for November / December 2010 offers many options for frameworks.
Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.
The following list--a work in progress--should be taken as a set of suggestions. You might have better ideas, and you know what you know, and what you'll need to research. If you have any brilliant ideas or questions, feel free to share in the comments.

I've separated the pairs into three groups.

Trending Affirmative

V: Justice (defined as "to each their due," or a similar concept)
C: Retribution
Some varieties of retributivism match well with the Affirmative argument that drug abuse itself is not a crime, and hence punishing it is as such is immoral. For the dissenting view--that drug abuse could represent a violation of "equal liberty for all," and its punishment justified on retributivist grounds--see here.

V: Liberty or Autonomy
C: Mill's Harm Principle
Liberty is the basis of human rights and flourishing. Its close cousin, autonomy, precedes any sort of societal or law-and-order consideration, because it is the foundation of human rights and societal order. If the Aff can show that drug abuse is a separate moral matter from drug manufacture or trafficking, then people have a right to hurt themselves through drug abuse. (If they hurt others, we already have justification enough for punishment.)

Trending Negative

V: Health or Societal Welfare
C: Paternalism (via Utilitarianism)
One Aff strategy will be to declare that drug abuse is a "victimless crime." To a paternalist, this is irrelevant; the state has a responsibility to keep folks from harming themselves. (A utilitarian justification exists: one's suffering, or even lack of productivity, inevitably affects society.) The danger, of course, is a slippery slope to tyranny. A paternal state is seldom satisfied with the limits of its power.

V: Societal Welfare
C: Upholding Moral Standards
Morality is good because it holds society together. (There may be social contract implications lurking beneath the surface of this structure.) If the core value of a society, then we are justified in punishing those who commit offenses against morality.
Strategy for Success: This criterion respects differences across societies, since the resolution doesn't specify any particular society. However, it also leaves one open to the attack that morality is difficult to define and agree upon, even within a society.

Could Go Either Way

V: Societal Welfare
C: Utilitarianism
The utilitarian theory of criminal justice is based on the beneficial outcomes of punishment: preventing future crimes through deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. However, in the wider context of utilitarianism, punishment is counterproductive if its costs outweigh the benefits. Any statistical argument about treatment outcomes or deterrence is most likely utilitarian in nature.

Strategy for Success: Be sure to show how Util leads to SW. Watch out for the "50.01% can kill 49.99%" response, an oversimplification of Utilitarianism. Learn about the nuances and varieties of the moral philosophy. They're worth exploring.

V: Human Rights / Justice
C: International Law / International Human Rights Norms
Since the resolution does not specify a particular society, we can't be 100% certain which rights must be protected. Best, then, to look to the prevailing standards of international law--the rights that people across societies, cultures, and even times have agreed are essential. Is this criterion open to attack? Certainly. But it also presents a clear, highly defensible set of rights (and jurisprudence as evidence). It's worth looking into the international perspective on drug offenses, and whether it supports a public health or a mixed approach.

V: Justice
C: Rawls' first principle of justice (or, more generally, the Rawlsian social contract)

V: Justice
C: Equal protection of the laws

V: Human Rights
C: Locke's Social Contract

V: The General Will
C: Rousseau's Social Contract

V: Justice (defined in terms of morality)
C: The Categorical Imperative
According to Kant, moral actions are good in and of themselves. Furthermore, Kantian theory applies to all rational agents--criminals and law enforcers alike. Those who punish criminals are bound by moral obligation to punish them to the fullest.
Strategy for Success: Many people misunderstand Kant and the Categorical Imperative, so make sure you do the research first.

V: Justice / Societal Welfare
C: The Rule of Law
The Aff could argue that criminalizing drug abuse leads to a War on Drugs, that dehumanizes drug abusers, empowers criminals, sets children against parents and parents against children. This diminishes respect for the law, which is the closest approximation to real justice in a given society. Further, diminishing the rule of law has wider social consequences. (Or, on the Negative, would decriminalizing drugs via a public health approach do the same? Do we risk a slippery slope to drug-fueled, soporific anarchy?)

Oct 23, 2010

advice on cross-examination

Words of advice from Mr. Cushman, a friend and fellow LD aficionado.
Cross-examination is a speech you force your opponent to make on your behalf, by asking loaded and leading questions.

It should be organized like a speech, using principles of primacy and recency. Start and end strongly, with attack questions.

If you have clarifying questions, ask them in the middle, so they don't detract from the rhetorical force of cross-examination.

Oct 22, 2010

from the retribution vault

The November/December resolution for 2010 invites us to contrast a public health approach to a criminal justice approach to illegal drug abuse. One of the most fruitful ways to address the conflict is through the lens of retributive justice.

I haven't sketched out an entire position for each side--I'm too busy helping my debate team figure out their cases--but I do have time to post some links to previous writing on the subject. Enjoy.

1. Gerard Bradley's take on punishment as a way of maintaining "equal legal liberty for all."

2. Sharon Dolovich's Rawlsian perspective arrives at a similar destination by a different route.

3. There's more than one kind of retributivism, mind you.

4. A while back I wrote a case about plea bargaining that employed several good retributive arguments.

5. On the other hand, how about a virtue ethics approach?

Oct 20, 2010

the eleventy-sixth amendment

I've been staying out of the political fray this season, since I'm far too busy with far more pressing things. (Today in Debate: a half-hour skirmish on the meaning of history.) Why am I posting this, then? I don't know. I guess it's because I loathe confident ignorance.

I tried to watch Christine O'Donnell's dust-up with Chris Coons over the interpretation of the First Amendment, and whether it lays the groundwork for the separation of church and state. I was hoping to see if O'Donnell's reported ignorance ("The First Amendment?") was, in fact, an uncharitable fallacy of accent in interpretation. (Point. Counterpoint.)

I couldn't get that far. It took only 1 minute and 8 seconds to determine that O'Donnell's grasp of the Constitution is tenuous, if not fatuous. When Coons argues that schools shouldn't be allowed to teach religious doctrine, O'Donnell fires back,
"Public schools do not have the right to teach what they feel? [Turns to the audience.] Well there you go. Do you want a senator who would impose his beliefs? Talk about imposing your beliefs on the local school!
At this point, O'Donnell is at least courting an actual controversy. Local school boards have long wrestled with the First Amendment, and there are plenty of folks who want to keep the feds out of their schoolhouse. (Ironically, a lot of them are the same folks who voted for the president most responsible for the raging federalization of education, George W. Bush.)

But then, after reiterating her support of teaching Intelligent Design in the classroom, O'Donnell tries to hammer the point home:
You have just stated that you will impose your will on local school boards, and that is a blatant violation of the Constitution."
Which Constitution? The one that hides out in the National Archives makes no mention of education, leaving the matter entirely to the states. Nothing in the Constitution would prohibit the establishment of a national education system, which seems to be the trend these days.

So I never made it to the moments when O'Donnell reportedly was baffled by the placement of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. I was too astonished at her novel interpolation of the Eleventy-Sixth.

Oct 19, 2010

LD mailbag: what the drug resolution is all about

Recently I received a string of great questions about the illegal drugs resolution that deserve reply in a complete post. Hence, the latest LD Mailbag, non-email edition. Enjoy.
I am new to debate and we have to learn LD first and she threw the topic on us and showed us how to format it but i am so stuck!!!!!! I dont want to quit debate but i am so lost... I am stuck on Aff and Neg cases... the cases are due tomorrow! I am so screwed!
1. Don't panic.
2. Have you read about how to write a case?
3. Seriously: breathe. And keep reading.
Neil Mehta said...

Hey Jim,
First of all I'd like to say that your blog helps me and all my friends start our cases each year. But this year, especially this topic, I'm having trouble grasping what the resolution actually means and what we are supposed to be debating
Thanks for the help.

Public health is a largely preventive approach to medical matters that affect the community--harms inflicted by disease, malnutrition, environmental hazards, and the like. Its primary tools are education, inoculation, sanitation, and regulation. Criminal justice, on the other hand, is society's response to harms inflicted by individuals. It employs punishment for many reasons, chief among them retribution, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and deterrence.

Which is a more effective approach? That's the utilitarian or pragmatic (and hence empirical) question.

Which is a more just, fair, or moral approach? That's where we bring in arguments based on rights, liberty, the "harm principle," and more.

All kinds of questions circulate around us. What is crime? What is the purpose of punishment? Is drug addiction a disease? When, if ever, is the state justified in forcing someone to seek treatment?

Anonymous said...

Hey Jim, your site has always been very helpful to me, and I'd like to sincerely thank you for all the help; the articles you post really jumpstart my cases.

As for this resolution: I'm having a really hard time grasping what the rez is asking of us, and which philosophy each side pertains to. I feel as though both aff and neg can argue many of the same philosophers and things, and its really confusing me. Both sides can use Kant, Societal Welfare, Rawls, the Social Contract, and something to the effect of: "deterrence of crime is necessary."

I guess the most stable affirmative ground would be proving that public health is effective in reducing drug use, and that criminal justice isn't.. and then linking it all together with claims to Justice or Societal Welfare

I guess the most stable negative ground would be proving that public health does not actually deter drug use, and that crime only has one solution: criminal justice.

Both seem to clash well, but I don't think they get to the heart of the rez, which is: what should be done of the individuals who commit these actions.. and whether those individuals are responsible for their actions.

At this point, I'm putting together cases with tape and toothpicks because I don't quite understand what it is I truly should be debating as a traditional debater. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

For "tape and toothpicks," I think you're doing rather well. One of the primary philosophical questions is whether the state is justified in coercing drug abusers into treatment for what, in many cases, is a "victimless crime." The resolution focuses on abuse, which may not imply that anyone is even suffering personally from the effects of the illegal drug. Most drug users, statistically, are not hardcore heroin addicts or tweaked-out meth-heads.

But what of those who are? Abetted or spurred on by the abuse, they can wreak havoc on society, and, via the social contract, we expect them to suffer, and society to respond to their crimes with fitting punishment.

But it's not so simple: even a public health approach can be coercive, as doctors take on the role of law enforcers, infringing on liberties without strict guidelines to limit their power. At least in the criminal justice system, you have an adversarial framework meant to protect the rights of the accused. When it comes to the "soft power" of public health, the experts always seem to win.

I agree that there is a strong element of either-side-can-use-the-same-framework, but, honestly, that's often true of LD resolutions, the most recent nuclear weapons resolution being a perfect example.

Anonymous said...


I noticed you mentioned drug courts as a matter of criminal justice. Is there any way for the negative to include drug courts in his advocacy, and if so, how?
Drug court (Wikipedia has a decent summary), a relatively modern invention, is a great way to focus a balance Neg, in which you argue that criminal justice and public health officials need to join forces. Mandatory treatment with improved recidivism rates: what's not to love?

Oct 18, 2010

some Afghanistan links

Since my debaters are still researching the Afghanistan topic, here are a few links I've come across in the last couple days. Does NATO presence improve Afghan lives? Well...

1. The first in a Slate series covering efforts to beef up the Afghan police force. The gist: not going well.

2. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

3. The statistics analyzed in greater depth.

4. Changing counterinsurgency tactics.

5. The latest election brings news of vote fraud.

6. Andrew Bacevich lists the lessons of Year Ten.

7. Added 11/3: Nobody said nation-building would be easy. (Via Brian Doherty)

Oct 13, 2010

could public health officials quarantine drug abusers?

1. Let's say that a ranking public health official decides that abuse of illegal drugs is a literal epidemic.

2. How do you contain an epidemic? By quarantine, of course.

3. So the official decides to have drug abusers quarantined in rehab until clean, and, more important, no longer able to spread the mental and emotional virus of addiction.

4. Would that pass muster in a free society? If not, why not?

5. Would it fulfill the affirmative burden of the November-December 2010 LD resolution?

Added: Lest you think it's too far afield, consider the fact that anti-drug vaccines are within the realm of the plausible. So why not take it a step further?

Oct 11, 2010

how to road-test a thesaurus

How do you tell one thesaurus from another? They're all so doggone / darn / gosh-darn / danged similar.

Here's one way, which I invented this morning while teaching.

During a conversation about reading strategies, one of my students suggested the thesaurus as a place to look up unfamiliar words. "That's a good emergency option if you don't have a dictionary," I said. "But thesauruses just can't list as many entry words as a dictionary can. For instance, my guess is that you'll find 'pulchitrudinous' as a synonym for 'beautiful,' but not the other way around."

She seemed a little dubious, so I said to grab a random thesaurus off my pile of random thesauruses, and test my theory.

Of course, the first one she opened had "pulchitrudinous" as its own entry.

I laughed and admitted that I hadn't chosen the best example, but that my reasoning was generally still sound. After class ended, I checked the rest of the thesauruses--big ones, small ones, medium-sized ones, college editions or average Joe versions, even Roget's II. Turns out about half of them had "pulchitrudinous" or "pulchitrude" as its own entry. (I was doubly disappointed that The Superior Person's Book of Words didn't include the term. Perhaps it's not as uncommon as I had hoped.)

So that's when I turned lemonade into an Arnold Palmer, and devised this handy way of picking a good thesaurus. Open it up to P, and if it has "pulchitrudinous" or "pulchitrude" as an entry (usually "Pulchitrudinous: See beautiful"), you're probably / likely / possibly / potentially holding a good one.

Of course, Firefox's automatic spell-checker, which dutifully underlines every perceived orthographical slight, doesn't recognize "pulchitrudinous" or "pulchitrude" as legitimate.

Oct 8, 2010

Capital debater to have breakfast with Biden

Cameron Seib, a leading debater for Capital High School, will dine over hash browns and coffee with the talkingest politician who ever talked, one Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Seib, 17, of Olympia. “You don’t get too many chances to meet such important people, and I’m definitely excited that not only is he coming to Seattle, but I get to meet him as well.”

The teenager was invited to the political fundraiser by 3rd Congressional District candidate Denny Heck. He spent the summer volunteering for Heck’s campaign.
Biden's in the region to stump for Patty Murray, who's hoping for a campaign that goes the way I like my eggs: over easy.

Oct 7, 2010

thoughts about the illegal drugs resolution

The Nov/Dec LD resolution for 2010, just in case you forgot:
Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.
1. Recognize that the resolution isn't just about marijuana. An affirmative that focuses exclusively on pot is not sufficiently affirming--unless able to warrant the exclusive focus. (On the other hand, it's not just about meth or heroin, either. Sorry, Neg.)

2. How much the debate concerns "the real world" is a central question. Do we look at illegal drug abuse policies around the globe? Every nation seems to have its own approach to drug abuse, so it's difficult to ascertain impacts (for those who argue largely in those terms). What if we focus on the United States, as some debaters like to do? How many of the impacts are due to prohibition?

3. Does the Aff have to advocate for some form of legalization? Is "decriminalization" sufficient? Or can the Neg argue that full-scale legalization is a Negative stance, since it would negate the existence of "illegal drugs?"

4. The "balance Neg" approach seems fruitful. A coercive mechanism, via the criminal justice system, to force illegal drug abusers into rehab, combined with a public health approach.

5. Is it a kritik to say "neither?" Public health is itself coercive, as the body politic seeks further control over the body human. (If you hear echoes of Foucault, you're in the right hallway.) Imagine the possibility of vaccinating children (or adults) against drug abuse. Soon, you may not have to imagine it.

6. Statistics on drug abuse are probably useful and reliable, but I'd be cautious with some of the "facts" about drugs, which are not only controversial (due in some cases to a lack of research compounded by the drugs' very illegality), but subject to dizzying amounts of spin, by prohibitionists and legalizers alike.

7. If I were the Aff, I would stay away from the utilitarian argument altogether, arguing instead from a rights-based perspective. The criminal justice system can already handle the societal harms caused by drug abusers--DUIs, thefts, etc.--because they're harms regardless. (We can punish someone for driving while stoned, just like we punish someone for driving drunk. The law even punishes public intoxication. Same for negligent behavior.) The point is, if we don't accept a utilitarian justification of punishment--deterrence--then we have no good reason to criminalize getting high. Even if the law deters it.

8. Drug abuse isn't drug trafficking or possession... or is it? If I were on the Aff, I might argue for a narrow definition of drug abuse, and then show that only an Orwellian police state can successfully criminalize being high. For the Neg, I'd argue that outlawing trafficking or possession is a / the legitimate way to make drug abuse a matter of criminal justice--only through an indirect route.

9. Is there any compelling reason for why alcohol is legal and marijuana isn't? If you have one, please share it in the comments. Even looking through the government's "Marijuana Myths and Facts," I'm struggling to find relevant distinction.

10. Do us all a favor and don't use any pot jokes in your case. Thanks.

Oct 5, 2010

Washington state tournaments to use October Public Forum topic in November 2010

In Washington state, we'll use the October topic for November tournaments this year. Via email:

First off, I would thank to thank everyone for the great discourse of the last two days. I appreciate everyone's feedback and thoughtful comments. Based on the overall feedback from the community, opinions of the Public Forum Committee and tournament directors, we have decided to use the October Public Forum topic at the tournaments in Washington in November.

I know this will not make everyone happy, but I hope we can come together and make the October topic work. Thank you to everyone for enduring all the emails the past few days. At this point, please do not reply to all on this thread anymore. I think everyone is worn out, and I'm sure there are many who are not interested in this discussion at all.

If you have questions, please email me and I will do my best to get back to you.

This email also serves as the official announcement that the Gig Harbor Invitational will be using the October Public Forum topic:

Resolved: NATO presence improves the lives of Afghan citizens.

Thank you again for your patience. I think all of us hope that we can avoid this situation in the future.

Chris Coovert
Gig Harbor HS
Thanks to Chris for taking the lead on this. The whole situation has been a great way for debate coaches (and teams) to talk about what really matters, to change minds through argumentation, and to reach a workable decision through discourse.

Oct 2, 2010

NFL retracts "Ground Zero Islamic Center" topic

My debaters were in an uproar last Friday, when the original Public Forum topic for November 2010 was announced:
Resolved: An Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero.
They were incensed that the matter should even be debated, and at a complete loss to fathom arguing the Con.

As I'd already given thought to most of the reasons to disallow the "Ground Zero mosque," and hadn't been persuaded by any of them, I was a bit flummoxed, too, until I thought of a way for the Con to argue without sounding bigoted: to define "should" as a moral imperative, and then place a burden on the Pro to prove that society has a moral duty to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. My guess is that many Pro teams would mostly be arguing for the right to build the center--not the duty, and would fail to meet the burden. Anyhow, it was the best hope I saw for the Con at least having a tiny chance to win in a particularly liberal region of the country.

All that's unnecessary now, since the NFL has retracted the topic. Via email:
Overwhelming concerns have been expressed by our membership regarding the November 2010 resolution. The Public Forum wording advisory committee worked diligently and thoughtfully to create a timely resolution. However, after due consideration, the National Forensic League has changed the November 2010 Public Forum resolution.

We realize that it is unusual to change a topic after posting. We hope that this new resolution will allow educators and competitors to explore core issues that face high school academic debate.

The November 2010 Public Forum resolution is
Resolved: High school Public Forum Debate resolutions should not confront sensitive religious issues.

J. Scott Wunn
Executive Director
I applaud the decision--and I really like the topic.

Update: ...and here's how Washington state has resolved the matter.

Oct 1, 2010

Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.

The NFL Lincoln Douglas debate resolution for November / December has been released:
Resolved: The abuse of illegal drugs ought to be treated as a matter of public health, not of criminal justice.
It raises all kinds of interesting questions.

Why do we criminalize certain bad behaviors, but not others? When it comes to illegal drugs, who chooses what's legal--alcohol, tobacco, caffeine--and what's illegal? What can we safely assume about the criminal justice system (or the society) in question? What would a public health response look like? Does prohibition lead inexorably to a War on Drugs? What exactly constitutes "abuse of illegal drugs?" Would drugging someone else be a public health matter if the resolution were affirmed? And who makes the decision to decriminalize drugs--do we use democratic methods? Listen to the experts? What if no consensus can be found? Who has an interest in preserving the status quo? In what ways might prohibition increase the problems of drug abuse? And, from a critical perspective, what about a libertarian stance that says neither option presented by the resolution is valid--that drugs should be a matter of individual choice, and not the State's concern?

John Stuart Mill's "harm principle" offers a good access point for someone unsure of where to begin. You can also bet that utilitarianism will be a popular position, especially for Affirmatives trying to link any kind of prohibition to the War on Drugs.

This should be interesting. As a person who, over time, has come to believe that the American drug war is a tragedy, my inclination is to see the resolution as tough for the Negative to win. I guess we'll see. Regardless, it's a fantastic resolution from an educational perspective--there's a lot of hype, misinformation, and propaganda to sift through, on all sides.

More links, analysis, and observations to come. As always, share your questions and ideas in the comments--they're what make this site so useful for so many!

Added 10/7: Some thoughts about both sides of the resolution.

Added 10/13: One of my PuFo debaters got me thinking: could a public health official quarantine drug abusers?

Added 10/19: Another attempt to cut to the core of the resolution in an LD mailbag.

Added 10/22: Some links to older material on retributive justice.

Added 10/25: Value and criterion pairs.

Added 10/31: What's the most destructive drug?

Added 11/2: A couple links from the IDPC. The first: examining countries that use the death penalty for drug offenses. The second: a policy paper encouraging a treatment-based approach.

Added 11/7: I discuss some cross-examination strategies for this resolution.

Added 11/9: I write about definitions and uniqueness in an LD mailbag.

Added 11/10: A public health effort to warn students away from drugs by having them feel the damaged organs of deceased drug addicts. "This is your brain on drugs" taken to a whole new palpable level.

Added 11/11: Slate magazine's piece about Vancouver BC's "harm reduction" efforts is well worth reading. It's perhaps the continent's most coordinated--and controversial--public health approach.

Added 11/16: I discuss alternative approaches to legalization on the Affirmative. The upshot: you may be able to argue for full legalization and still be resolutional.

Added 11/21: Taking a break from resolution-specific blogging, I offer general advice about countering The Spread.

Added 11/22: Considering civil commitment as an Aff justification.