Apr 13, 2011

Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations

With North Africa and the Middle East exploding in conflict, now's a perfect time for the NCFL's LD resolution for the May championship.
Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations.
At a reader's prompting, here are some initial thoughts.

First, generally, why might just governance in developing nations be important? Lots of potential reasons, each of which would require some research for warranting:

* It's just / the right thing to do, which is reason enough
* Improves lives / protects rights of citizens of those developing nations
* Reduces conflict / promotes international stability
* Economic security for nations and their trading partners
* Just governance probably better protects the environment
* Reduces the growing pains of globalization

Still, we're not yet to the level of a moral obligation; not all good things are obligatory. We have some hurdles to clear:

1. The Affirmative has to warrant the notion that nations have moral obligations.
Such obligations could arise from several places: the social contract, universal moral schemes (utilitarianism, Kantianism), or legal frameworks (the Constitution, treaties, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international law). They may be corporate (the U.S. as a government has the obligation) or aggregate (the U.S.'s government agents as a collection of independent moral actors have the obligation).

The choice of moral framework will be critical to establishing the level of the obligation as well. Even from a purely pragmatic or instrumental perspective--that the U.S.'s only moral obligation is to its own needs--if, empirically, promoting just governance is critical to the U.S.'s own security, then we vote Aff.

2. "Just governance" has to be clearly, compellingly defined
Here's where a broader contractarian perspective offers a coherent framework without demanding particulars (What kind of governmental structures? What sort of democratic institutions, if any? What kinds of civil rights?). Delving into specifics potentially makes the Aff an uphill battle. However, it's not impossible to narrow the focus to something like international legal norms, which offer a widely agreed-upon set of "best practices" for just governance.

3. What does it mean to "promote" just governance? Does mere cheerleading suffice?
On the Neg, I'd use a "fork" strategy:
a. If the obligation is mere cheerleading, it's not morally significant, and therefore no obligation.
b. If the obligation requires economic or military action, it's too costly, and therefore no obligation.
c. If the obligation is something else--diplomatic efforts? winning a war of ideas?--it's ineffectual and pointless and wasteful, and therefore no obligation.

4. Is it ever to the U.S.'s advantage to allow--or even promote--unjust governance in developing nations?
It sounds like a question a terrible person would ask, but then, political philosophers are terrible people. We can't presume that just governance provides automatic benefits for surrounding or affiliated nations, never mind the citizens of the developing nation, unless we construe "just" so broadly as to include beneficial outcomes by definition.

In fact, for the U.S. to maintain economic and military hegemony, perhaps it's best to let developing nations remain mired in dictatorships or muddle their own way through. As the Egyptian non-intervention and the Libyan intervention shows, getting involved isn't automatically the best option. More cynically, if developing nations gain power through just governance, they may threaten the long-term interests of the United States.

At any rate, there are no easy, knock-down arguments for either side, although it seems that the Negative, by sheer number of hurdles, has the advantage in this debate.

If you have any questions or would like any further analysis, let me know in the comments. I don't usually cover the NCFL, so I won't blog extensively on this resolution without your prompting.


Anonymous said...

Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

In your fork strategy section, how would one go about arguing these things? For instance, how would you defend that "cheerleading" has no moral significance? Also do you have any advice on case structure? I've been trying to decide on whether it should be a purely moral case or have some sort of evidence. A moral case seems noble but might have many flaws. HELP

Jon said...

Anon, personally, if I were to argue that "cheerleading" has no moral significance, I feel like I'd have to slot it into some sort of ends-based moral framework and say that "cheerleading" produces no actual end. I dunno, I'm not running that.

Also, on the subject of moral cases vs. empirics, it all goes back to moral frameworks - if you're going to say that we have a moral obligation insofar as it is successful or produces good ends, then you may want to provide some empirics. However, I like the fact that the resolution is simply asking whether a moral obligation exists to do something, which gives you a number of approaches from both sides, some of which don't necessarily rely on hard facts.

Also, Jim: if you do any more blogging on NCFL, I would much appreciate some V/VC pairs, if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

In LD, it's all based on the way things "should be," not the way things "are" or the way things "can be." If cheerleading is just, it doesn't matter if it works or not. For example, at the beginning of this year, I ran a case on nuclear weapons and one of my contentions was that the whole world would be safer without any nuclear weapons-- impossible, but no one cares.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, I'll probably stick with an entirely moral framework. Here's an interesting argument if you are crazy enough to try and argue it.

There's no such thing as just government, it doesn't exist.

This may seem hard to prove, but all you have to do is find enough evidence to support a specific definition for "just governance" as treating everyone equally and preventing poverty and death and crime, of which there is no government. And can't be.

Food for thought

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, by "cheerleading has no moral significance," I mean that it's not enough to prove that the U.S. ought to, say, fund "consciousness raising" initiatives--interventions that have only a minimal cost. The verb "promote" may mean that in one sense, but on the Neg I'd argue that it waters down the debate.

Your case, I would think, requires a moral framework (utility? deontology), if we're bound to show a moral obligation to promote. Otherwise, without a clear definition of morality, the Neg will point out the lack of a standard for resolving the debate.

Other Anonymous, you have to be very careful with language: something may be "just" without being a "moral obligation." For instance, it may be just to promote just governance--but it could merely be a nice thing to do, or, in ethical terms, supererogatory.

Jon, I would think that "Justice" as a value with some kind of moral approach as your criterion would be the starting point for the Aff.

The justice-based options for a moral framework include Constitutionalism, the social contract, human rights / human rights law / international law, deontology, and the like. As you point out, ends-based standards like utility may also apply, with a value of American or global welfare.

For the Neg, political realism seems like a strong foundation, as would classic conservatism / isolationism, a narrower view of the Social Contract, or pacifism (with the argument that promotion leads to intervention, often militarily). National sovereignty or cultural relativism could work, too.

Anonymous said...

I would personally think that "Morality" would be a better choice for a value seeing as the resolution specifically asks for the morality of the obligation. The Aff then would probably have an end result of morality while the neg has a choice of whether to just denounce the moral obligation or to go to the extreme of trying to argue that it is the moral obligation of the U.S. NOT to promote just governance, or somewhere in the middle.

The only time neg would use Morality as a value is if they are arguing the exact opposite side, which I would not recommend. For a best result probably one would argue somewhere in the middle; that the U.S. does not have any obligation to other nations, but should respect their sovereignty. The aff in turn would have to justify the moral obligation of the U.S. to promote government around the world instead of respecting their sovereignty.

On another note, I think it would be best if everyone came to a unanimous agreement not to spend the entire debate on definitions like "just governance" and "promote". I know they're ambiguous but it's not fun to debate definitions. That's why I am personally forming both my cases so that the definitions won't matter so much and neither extreme side will be able to shake my case.

I also would recommend a completely moral framework because there's no evidence for this debate, which leads me to my final point; beware of jumping to conclusions, we're not assuming that the just governments have succeeded, we're just debating the U.S.'s obligation in the ordeal. So don't assume a perfect world will follow and base your entire case on that.

Good luck to everyone going to nationals, I'm hoping for a great debate!

Anonymous said...

If anyone could leave a comment with some aff/neg positions it would be greatly appreciated

AHCthe3 said...

Jim: For Aff, could a debate effectively use historical evidence, such as when the United States intervened in WWII?

As for Neg, could a case bring up the recent (and seemingly failed) attempts in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and even the Korean and Vietnam Wars?

Jim Anderson said...

AHC, one certainly could, although those examples imply a fairly intense level of commitment for "promote," going far beyond boosterism by diplomatic / economic / other "soft power" means. The Aff example would lead to the Neg counterexamples you cited, which could be counterproductive.

If I were on the Aff, I'd have a resolutional analysis eliminating military intervention as outside the scope of the resolution, because the verb "promote" doesn't imply force.

Anonymous said...

I would really really really really really love for you to continue covering this topic :)


Kc said...

Morality as a value? So the United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations because we find morality important. It seems to me that this is a circular argument that relies on itself for substance.

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts about the semantics of the resolution:

1. I think drawing a distinction between justice and morality (and ethnics) is dangerous and wasteful. All of these concepts prescribe what we ought to do, and you can't have conflicting things that you ought to do, so the various concepts must prescribe the same thing to be valid. Sometimes philosophers distinguish using, say, "justice" to talk about the structure of institutions or society and "morality" to talk about individual behavior, but this isn't meant to be a metaphysical distinction, merely a semantic one.

2. While it can to the advantage of the negative to draw out the implications of "obligated," I don't think it's going to stand up to much scrutiny. Governments take our resources and our liberty to act, so they better darn well do the best possible job. In other words, with an individual it makes sense to have a realm of virtuous actions that they don't "have" to do, but a government isn't a being with feelings; it's a complex, resource-intensive entity designed to achieve certain ends. Especially when a lot of the aff topic lit (I'm thinking specifically about Pogge here)is pointing out that the very existence of the US in the international order implies complicity with the consequences of that order, or when other topic lit (I'm thinking of Democratic Peace Theory hear) shows how it's directly in the US' interest to spread democracy. It's not very persuasive, at least to me, to say "sure, the US government COULD make taxpayers safer by taking action X (which also benefits people in other countries), but they're not OBLIGATED. What if the State Department is having a bad day and doesn't feel like it?"

Anonymous said...

What I'd like to see even more than V/VC pairs is efficacy mechanisms, especially non-violent ones. Right now I have economic sanctions (but people should be able to recycle their prep on both sides of that one) and free trade agreements (I know that sounds like a stretch but I found some pretty sweet free trade --> human rights arguments.) Is there a good source for evidence about, say, UN programs (other than military-based peacekeeping?) that the US pays for?

Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, don't limit yourself to researching UN programs that the US pays for (and, it should be noted, the US is a major backer of the UN, providing something like 22% of its general funds, and 27% of its peacekeeping funds).

After all, the resolution doesn't limit us to thinking solely in terms of what the US does in the status quo. It could be that we have an obligation to pursue a program that we're currently not pursuing.

clair said...

working on the aff

what would a good definition for just governance be?

would justice work together with the social contract?

love your blog jim :)

clair said...


also, would morality work in the place of justice?

thank you, clair.

Jim Anderson said...

clair, I don't think there's an easy, shorthand definition of "just governance." Setting up your framework is the most important decision you'll make, because you want to have a consistent, coherent approach that not only defines the U.S.'s moral obligation to promote just governance, but what just governance means.

For instance, if you say that a nation's moral obligations derive from the social contract (in Lockean terms), then you can look to Locke to define the principles of just governance.

As to your second question, I'd go with Justice over Morality because the former is narrower and more clearly tied to government agents and actions. (In Rawls' phrasing, justice is the "first virtue of social institutions." (Some will disagree, arguing that morality and justice are essentially interchangeable.)

AHCthe3 said...

I'm having difficulty coming up with a value and criterion for negation. I've heard morality thrown around often, but it's too overused and by who's moral standard are we judging morality? I was thinking possible value: national security, criterion: sovereignty, but any and all suggestions are appreciated.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be quite a bit of debate over if the actor in this resolution is the government, or if since it doesn't specify we ought to include corporations, citizens, etc. has having this obligation?

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

It seems like any utilitarian approaches are way off base...because the rez asks if something (the moral obligation) EXISTS, not if it's preferable for us to actually carry out this obligation. Is this correct? Thanks!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


What would be a good criterion for a national sovereignty approach for the NEG