May 1, 2011

Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest.

The NFL has released the topic for the 2011 national tournament:
Resolved: When forced to choose, a just government ought to prioritize universal human rights over its national interest.
It's classic LD, a clash between cosmopolitanism and sovereignty, and among competing visions of the social contract. It's timeless--and, thanks to recent American involvement in Libyan strife, perfectly timely.

I wrote about this resolution in my summer preview of my favorite topics; it was number three on my list. It reminds me of the UN vs. sovereignty resolution from a few years ago, and will include some of the same basic arguments.

I've reposted some of my initial thoughts, have added more, and will continue to add more material as demand arises.

First, some key questions:

What is a "just government?" What is the nature of its social contract? And which contractarian gets it right? If the world is a Hobbsean "war of all against all," the argument is quite different than if the ideal of justice is Rawlsian egalitarianism.

I'd imagine that many Affs would have a value of justice aligned with a criterion of "protecting rights." But the Neg has to ask in Cross-Ex, immediately: where do rights come from? What defines or limits them? If "universal human rights" includes, for instance, trade or labor rights, must nations abandon protectionist trade schemes, or, conversely, stop trading with nations that allow sweatshops--even if it means a loss of economic security?

Why have nations at all? Why not have a universal government? Wouldn't that be the best way to protect universal human rights? Would affirming the resolution lead to a super-state?

Who or what defines "national interest?" Who is the "agent of action" in the resolution? The people? Government agents? Can we make any assumptions about the nature of the government in the debate?

What situations might lead to an forced choice between universal human rights and a nation's interest? (Some might include, but are not limited to, war, torturing terror suspects, immigration / refugee crises, trade agreements, dealing with dictatorships / oppressive societies.)

If a nation's citizens know that its government is going to prioritize universal human rights, will they remain loyal in a time of crisis? What are the upsides of nationalism?

What obligations follow from prioritizing universal human rights?

Do universal human rights exist? Can the Aff, for the sake of clarity, presume that they do--otherwise there's no forced choice?

Links, Analysis, etc.
1. Which human rights? A post from the vault noting the fractious origins of the United Nations' approach to human rights law.
2. Speaking of, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
3. The SEP's article on human rights is, as typical, excellent.
4. How should we define "national interest?"


John Locke said...

Good post! This is a great topic, and your analysis seems to be spot on. I think an analysis of what constitutes a just government is going to be crucial on this topic, and the side that wins that their interpretation is best will have the clear advantage in the round. Also, I think it's understand the implications of "when forced to choose". Does this mean that the two are entirely mutually exclusive, or simply that we ought to have a greater degree of one than the other? And on that note, we aren't necessarily discussing which is more desirable, we are asking ourselves which one the government has the greater moral obligation to defend.

Ultimately, this resolution is a question of competing governmental obligations, and to what extent practical considerations play in the debate remains to be seen.

Jim Anderson said...

The threshold of "forced to choose" is interesting indeed. In a utilitarian framework, a difference in degree is a forced choice (because the moral agent is obligated to go with the option that maximizes utility), but in a non-consequentialist framework, you'd think that the two would have to be mutually exclusive. But the word "prioritize" also comes into play there, too--does it mean throwing more resources at something, doing something first, or something else?

Anonymous said...

I think a great way to negate the resolution would be placing strategic burdens so that you only have to uphold that the two should AT LEAST be given equal priority. You can absorb all offense for your own case, provided you give some argument as to why doing both is better (for example, that UHR lead to ^ heg = national interest - sorry for the policy stuff) and if an aff doesn't have a counter burden or an argument saying why weighing them equally is bad, the negative could win the round.

Anonymous said...

for neg, i want to talk about specific instances of extraterritorial ventures. It says "when forced to choose," so i want to interpret it to mean in the most severe cases. The justification is simple; as a general principle, nations usually try to maximize human rights while primarily pursuing natl interests. No one wants collateral damage-hence, "collateral." A situation where those would need to be pitted against each other would be extenuating, or not normal. In that case, like US wars or something, it might be good to weigh national interest higher b/c in such an extenuating circumstance, trying to protect something universal is too difficult.

Jim Anderson said...

First Anonymous, the "balance Neg" approach seems plausible, although I wonder how it fits with the phrase "when forced to choose." If the gov't is forced to choose, and prioritizes them equally, what would be the decision calculus at that point: a coin flip?

Second Anonymous, you can make that argument, but I'm not sure how persuasive it is. If you limit your advocacy to "extraterritorial ventures," the Aff will fire back that you're ignoring diplomatic and economic concerns, and thus only partly fulfilling your burden of proving the resolution false as a general principle.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I would first like to thank you for this blog. It has been extremely helpful, since this topic seems especially hard to research.

I am having a lot of trouble defining "national interest". I feel like definitions are going to be extremely important for this resolution.

Anonymous said...

I'm putting this question in this thread because of the word 'priortize.' The question is, do you think prioritizing an action BeCAUSe of its impacts is the same as prioritzing the impacts themselves? i.e... Can prioritizing national interest because it benefits UHR (if I can make that link) be differentiated from prioritizing UHR themselves?

Anonymous said...


For aff, how do you avoid the pitfalls of having to define, specifically, which rights are UHR? I seems hard advocating for a aff, and yet not knowing exactly which rights I am advocating for. Lots of people say that there is no such thing as "universal" HR.


Jim Anderson said...

First Anonymous, I'm going to answer your question about defining "national interest" in its own post, later today.

Second Anonymous, that is a fantastic linguistic and philosophical question--the word "prioritize" can be temporal, meaning that we must do something first... in which case your argument might work.

However, if "priority" is in terms of importance--which is a completely and equally valid way of defining the term--then the act/aim distinction is no distinction at all, and would erode the Aff's ground.

I think that the phrase "when forced to choose" works best with temporal priority, allowing your line of argument. I'd love to hear other perspectives, though.

Third Anonymous, go broad--"'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"--or look to a particular document like the UDHR, and bite the bullet, saying that they're all important, dang it. Either has its advantages, and the debate is balanced by the fact that "national interest" is equally vague and tough to defend.

Jim Anderson said...

... and that post defining "national interest" is here

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Anderson,

This is my first time qualifying for nationals, and I am wondering what the judging pool will be like.
Will there be a lot of experienced LD judges, or will there be a lot of lay judges?


Jim Anderson said...

Anonymous, great question. In my limited experience at Nats for LD, the judging pool seemed really solid, and fairly traditional. Many, if not most, are coaches.

The NFL has all the judges fill out a paradigm sheet, so you'll know going into your round just what your judge is looking for. (They hand out the sheets when your register.)

Good luck!

Suhi said...

Hi! I am reserching this resolution as well, and i need some advice on events in history where 1)negative wouldn't be applicable because of it's results then, and 2) affirmatives side wouldn't work either. Thanks

Anonymous said...


I am the anonymous that asked about the judging pool. Thank you so much for answering! I can hardly believe that Nats is only a week away. May I also ask if you know generally, how many entries are in LD and how many break?

Thanks again!

abirenbaum1 said...

First of all thank you very much for the great analysis. I was wondering if you could publish some value pairs for the topic too.