TAUTOLOGIES AND TRUISMS
by Jim Hanson and Todd Borden
Imagine yourself encountering a case whose sole contention is that it is wrong to commit genocides, on the resolution that “This house would support human rights.” Your devilishly clever opponents (the government) seem within the resolution so a topicality/link argument is not going to work. What should you do? Should you throw your hands in the air, shout a profane exclamation of disgust, and leave the room? While this is indeed tempting, there is another option. You can suggest that the advocacy of the government is a truism that does not present fair ground for a debate.
So, what exactly is a “truism”? Is this different than a “tautology”? How could I run such an argument? In this essay, we’ll examine the difference between and how to argue tautologies and truisms.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A TRUISM AND A TAUTOLOGY
What is a tautology? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines tautology as “A compound proposition which is unconditionally true for all the truth-possibilities of its elementary propositions and by virtue of its logical form.” For those of you who haven’t taken a course in modal logic lately, a tautology is an argument that is true by how the arguer defined it. For example, if the resolution is “This House would uphold human rights,” and the government sets a criterion whereby the team that best upholds human rights wins the debate, they have committed a tautology.
A truism is distinct from a tautology in that it is not true by definition. Instead, a truism is an argument that is considered to be true by the vast majority of people; it is an argument that really is not disputable. For example, the argument that “genocide is bad” is a truism; virtually no one is going to argue that a genocide is good. Clearly, the truism argument is more tricky than a tautology in that it is rooted in what people believe and not pure logic, as a tautology argument is rooted. This said, let us explore how we might employ these arguments in a debate.
How do you argue a tautology? You state that the case is a tautology, explain how it is a tautology, and why this means the case should be rejected. For example, on the topic “This House would uphold human rights,” you might argue:
“The government case is a tautology. The government has said that the winner of the debate is whoever best upholds human rights. But by just supporting the topic, they will have won the debate. You cannot win a debate by defining yourself the winner. That is a tautology and it is a fallacy and it makes it impossible for the opposition to win the debate. The government case should be dismissed.”
Follow up your tautology argument with your own definitions and explanations of why these definitions provide a fairer ground for debate.
Note that many judges are skeptical of arguments claiming that a case is a tautology. These judges will see reasons in the government case beyond the definitions. For example, they’ll say to themselves “yes, that isn’t a very strong case but the opposition can just show that human rights should not be upheld.” Further, these judges will say “the government gave some reasons for why human rights are good in their case, meaning it was not entirely dependent on the tautology for proof.” So, you should almost always debate the case itself in addition to making the tautology argument.
As a government trying to respond to a tautology, try to point out how your case is not true simply because of how you defined the topic. Show the reasons you gave that do not depend on your definitions of the topic. For example, “We showed human rights are important to saving lives, to prevent torture, and to respect international law. None of these reasons are arguments dependent on our definition of the topic.” Also, try placing a very high standard of proof on the opposition for what they must argue to prove your case is a tautology. For example, “The opposition must show that we have given no reason whatsoever beyond definitions. They don’t so their tautology claim falls.” Further, take action to avoid getting into this kind of a situation. In preparation time, ask yourself if you’re needlessly making your definitions too specific in such a way that could make it so your case true by definition. Always, give reasons for your case that do not depend on your definition of the resolution.
How do you argue a truism? Pretty much the same way as a tautology. You state that the case is a truism, explain how it is a truism, and why this means the case should be rejected. For example, to show that “genocide is bad” is a truism, you would argue:
“Saying that genocide is bad is a truism. No one disagrees with this. The government case makes it virtually impossible to argue against their case. You should dismiss the government case as being a truism unworthy of debate.”
Follow up your truism argument with your own definitions and explanations of why these definitions provide a fairer ground for debate.
Be wary of making a “truism” argument. Much of the community does not think that a truism means a government should lose. Usually, if a government runs a fairly common sense case, you can press for details about implementation so you can make arguments about the way in which they address or solve the problem they cite or make topicality arguments based on how their advocacy falls within the words of the resolution.
Responding to a truism is a much easier task. Point to specific people who argue for the ground you have set for the opposition. Accuse the opposition of failing to debate the merits of the case or even tell them to “Stop whining!” Argue that it is the opposition’s job to find and defend their ground creatively. Further, assuming the opposition made arguments against your case, point out they made arguments thus showing that it is possible to argue against the case.