Addressing theory debate philosophically
I’ll start with an anecdote. I was debating a teammate at practice and my NC strat involved reading a framework block that claimed the world is part of a multiverse made up of infinitely many parallel universes in which everything that could ever possibly happen happens. Not my best moment, I’ll admit. I also went for theory without checking it in cross-ex. In the 1AR, my teammate extended cross-ex checks from the AC, saying my shell should be dropped because I didn’t read the interp in CX. I answered it in the 2NR by extending the multiverse card and claiming that I met his interp because he hadn’t specified the level of the multiverse in which I needed to check theory interps in cross-ex, and since multiverse theory means everything happens somewhere, I had in fact checked my interp in CX. After the round we all laughed about how silly – albeit creative – my strategy was. But then I began to wonder whether there might have been some logic to it, even though the multiverse argument was far-fetched. If framework determines which arguments matter in the round, why shouldn’t I be able to use framework to contextualize theory?
Almost everyone will agree that theory comes before substance, and we tend to think of framework as part of substance because it’s read on case. However, philosophical framework arguments aren’t topic-specific and don’t depend on the resolution being implemented, so they’re not equivalent to post-fiat substantive arguments. Framework is more of a meta-layer; it pertains to everything else that happens in-round, but it’s above it all. It merely determines which pieces of offense matter. And since framework is just a lens for evaluating offense, it seems logical that framework should also apply to offense on theory.
Furthermore, if we start to question what fairness and education mean and why they should matter it becomes clear that there is overlap between framework and theory, since many theoretical arguments already contain an ethical dimension. Arguing about fairness assumes we care about equality of opportunity. Card-clipping, strawpeople, and ellipses are frowned upon because we think those practices are dishonest. Dropping the debater involves considerations of just desert.
Fairness and education are not value-neutral. Our understanding of them depends on our views on ethics, competition, and the overall purpose of debate. There’s not one monolithic definition of fairness, nor is there one cohesive understanding of what education should look like. Under util, education might outweigh fairness because we get more utility from real-world education than we do from marginal increases in fairness in any given round. But under a Rawlsian framework, debaters might argue that the best interp is the one that better minimizes inequality between the most- and least-privileged debaters. They could argue reasonability should be preferred over competing interps because competing interps advantages debaters who have the resources to go to camp and learn to write the best possible shells. In contrast, arguments that the judge must be able to fairly adjudicate the round would be mitigated by arguments that the judge ought to act as a Hobbesian sovereign and therefore has the right to make arbitrary decisions so long as they keep everyone out of the Debate of Nature.
Debating theory in terms of framework also makes sense in light of the interaction between theory and kritiks. Theory, like many Ks, is pre-fiat. They’re both concerned with what is said and done in round, not with the passing of the resolution. When both are introduced, debaters have to argue about which layer comes first. K debaters often argue that the K comes before theory because it questions our ability to determine what’s fair and educational. A debater reading Freire might argue that we need to broaden our view of education to incorporate the viewpoints of the oppressed, so we need to look to critical pedagogy first. Or a debater reading a race K might argue that racism is so deeply ingrained in society that it’s impossible to achieve fairness until we break down the current power structures. The K debater is questioning the legitimacy of the theory voters and framing how they should be evaluated. If this works for critical philosophy, it should work for other kinds of philosophy too.
Moreover, even when debaters don’t explicitly invoke norm-setting, interps are treated as normative. Judges are asked to drop the argument or debater because of the belief that this will promote better norms. Standards give reasons why certain practices are bad for debate, not bad for one specific debater in one specific round. No one reads “Susie must not run multiple conditional counterplans in round three of the Bobcat Bonanza” because there’s a general understanding that if multiple conditional counterplans are bad for Susie, they’re bad for debaters in general, and because it’s hard to think of a single reason why Susie running them is bad that would not apply to other debaters.
Since interps are essentially normative claims about debate, it makes sense to contextualize them with normative ethics (or even indicts of normative ethics). For example, util debaters could argue that RVIs are good because they decrease frivolous theory, and that’s important because it means we get more real-world education (and judges will be happier not listening to a whiny theory debate). However, under a Kantian framework a good interp would have to be a universalizable maxim, e.g., “Debaters must not run descriptive frameworks because if that were universalized, ground would always be skewed towards the person defending the status quo, which would make it impossible to have a fair debate. And if we universalize unfair practices it becomes impossible to determine who did the better debating, which negates the purpose of the activity.” But under virtue ethics, a good interp might be one that a virtuous person would follow. (Think, “Would Jesus run a plan inclusive counterplan? He did perm the Old Testament and add on the New Testament… Looks like PICs are fine!”). If debaters want to set good norms, it makes sense to first address the question of what a good norm is.
There are several benefits to debating theory in terms of framework. First, it would make theory easier to judge. There would be more in-depth, philosophical theory debates as opposed to a blipstorm of tech and jargon since debaters would have to impact theory arguments to a framework, not just appeal to judges’ intuitions. Many judges might be more open to theory if it seemed more substantive. Judges who like kritiks and philosophy would find judging theory more tolerable if it could be repackaged in terms of the framework debate. It would also help reduce subjectivity. Theory is arguably the most subjective type of argument because, while most people do not have particularly strong opinions on topics like attorney-client privilege, virtually every judge has some preconceived notions of how debate should be, and in the absence of a clear weighing mechanism for what’s fair and educational – let alone a universal definition for fairness – theory tends to invite intervention. It doesn’t help that theory arguments are typically short analytics that are difficult to flow. But if judges can resolve the framework debate and then evaluate theory, it would be much easier to make an objective decision without having to default to their own interpretations of fairness and education. Less judge intervention makes for happier debaters who feel more in control of the outcome of the round.
Second, it would be good for philosophical education because debaters would have to be prepared to apply and defend the ethical implications of their framework when it directly affects them in round. Debaters would probably think more carefully about which shells to go for if the shells didn’t exist in an ethical vacuum. They wouldn’t be able to get away with performative contradictions like running skep while complaining that their opponent is cheating, or worse – spending forty-five minutes being dishonest and shady right after asserting that they value morality. Applying framework to theory would help debaters understand what it would mean to adopt a particular philosophy in daily life.
Third, by making theory more complex, using framework in theory debate could discourage frivolous theory and encourage fewer, better-developed theory debates. Debaters would be incentivized to write better shells since they would have to identify the underlying assumptions of their arguments. Generic shells wouldn’t link to every framework so debaters would have to either tweak shells for specific cases or write new ones, which would encourage more critical thinking on theory and fewer regurgitated backfiles. It would also be harder to win by just reading as many shells as possible since certain shells could be excluded by winning framework. Hiding a lot of theory spikes in the AC would become a less viable strategy since they might not link to the NC framework. The importance of theory itself could be diminished under certain frameworks (e.g. util, which might prioritize substance for its real-world utility).
I realize there could be practical challenges to implementing this idea, namely time constraints and the fact that both theory and framework debate can be difficult to master, let alone understanding the interaction between the two. However, I think the advantages of this approach, as well as the fact that the two seem to logically interact, outweigh potential challenges in implementation. Specifically, the benefits of more in-depth debates and fewer blippy and frivolous ones would override concerns relating to time constraints. As for being difficult to learn, theory might make more sense if debaters were taught that it functions like any other argument that links to a framework. I would also argue that framework in theory debates could function similarly to metaethics; it doesn’t necessarily have to be used in every round, but when employed, it could add another layer to the debate and address the underlying assumptions of arguments.
It also seems to me that this strategy could work well on the Arizona circuit. While theory is almost never a good idea in front of a “lay” judge, there are several flow judges on the circuit who dislike theory, but may be more open to it if it were more substantive. The fact that the LD circuit is relatively small also means it could be fairly easy to make framework/theory interaction a norm if enough people decided to implement it. However, at the risk of sounding like a drug commercial, I would suggest talking to your judge before using framework with theory. Also, do not run theory while driving or operating heavy machinery.
For more on this topic, see Ben Koh’s article on NSD update, “Breaking Down Borders: Rethinking the Interaction Between Theory and Ethics.”
And if you still disagree with me after reading this article, I’m afraid I have bad news for you. This is how everyone will be debating theory someday in at least one level of the multiverse.