Using Values and Criteria to Win LD Debates

Leah Castella

Pi Kappa Delta National Lincoln-Douglas Champion, Fifth Place Winner and Third Speaker at the CEDA National Championship


                       A few months ago I went to judge at a debate tournament for the first time in quite a while.  I went to the ballot table and they handed me a ballot for Lincoln Douglas debate. I was really excited to have the opportunity to watch a L.D. round.  It had been quite a long time since I had seen one- almost two years- and I was interested to see how the event had changed.    I went to the round and sat down and within minutes two women walked into the room and sat down on opposite sides of the table.  After they got all of their things set up, one of the women turned to me and asked me what my judging philosophy was.  I was slightly perplexed.  I had competed in L.D. for four years in high school, and it seemed to me that the event didn’t provide a lot of room for varying philosophies.  To me, evaluating an L.D. round was wonderfully simplistic.   You evaluated the round using the value and criteria that the debaters set up for you, and the winner was the one who best upheld that value and criteria.  I told the debaters as much and the round began.  After forty-five minutes of eloquent speaking that didn’t seem to have much to do with anything, I sat back with my ballot and literally glared at the debaters.  It seemed to me that they had ignored the entire issue of value and criteria and consequently I found it almost impossible to make a decision.

                       When I was an L.D. debater, I never understood why people got so frustrated with the event, but as a critic that frustration became very clear to me.  Unlike policy debate, L.D. does not have a set of issues within which you can adjudicate the round.  The parameters of the debate are set up by the debaters within the framework of their case.  Those parameters are what debaters call value and criteria.  The problem is that more often than not, the affirmative sets up a value and criteria, then the negative sets up a counter value and counter-criteria and that’s it- the discussion of the issue ends.  The rest of the debate is focused on the various contentions within the affirmative and negative cases.  What debaters often fail to realize is that without debating out which value and criteria are superior, it becomes impossible for the critic to know how to evaluate the round.

                       For example, lets take a pretty rough sketch of a value and criteria on the topic, “Resolved: That the spirit of the law ought to be valued above the letter of the law.”  The affirmative sets up the value of justice and the criteria of giving each person their due.  The affirmative then outlines three contentions which are designed to show that the spirit of the law does a better job of upholding justice because it is more able to give each person their due.  The negative team then stands up and sets up a counter value of societal good and the criteria of maintaining order and stability within a society.  (once again- a rough sketch but . . . .)  The negative then offers three contentions, which illustrate that the letter of the law allows for society to maintain a precise set of rules which in the long run preserve order and stability and consequently enhance societal good.   For the rest of the round, both debaters spend all of their time showing why their opponents cases are wrong.  During the negative rebuttal, the negative argues that the spirit of the law does not serve justice.  During the affirmative rebuttal, the affirmative argue that the letter of the law does not lead to societal good.    At no point during the debate, however, do either of the debaters explain why justice would be more important than societal good or vice versa.  Furthermore, neither of the debaters ever explain why a discussion of justice would be more appropriate to this topic than a discussion of societal good or vice versa.    This leaves the critic in a really bad situation.  Absent a debate about which is the proper way to evaluate the round, it is very difficult to make a decision.  There is a fairly high probability that even with all of its problems, the affirmative is going to do a better job then the negative of showing why the spirit of the law upholds justice.   On the flip side, the negative is going to do a better job then the affirmative of showing why the letter of the law upholds societal good.    If neither debater has given the critic a reason to accept their value and criteria over their opponents, then it is impossible to make a decision based on substantive issues.  The only recourse for the critic is to decide the round on rhetorical skills, which isn’t always fair to the competitors.

                       On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a hard problem to resolve.  Debaters should simply spend more time arguing value and criteria.  Unfortunately it is not quite that simple.  Some debaters do argue value and criteria - they spend about thirty seconds telling the judge why their value and criteria is the better way to evaluate the round.  That just isn’t enough time to make a compelling argument.  The rationale behind a certain framework for a debate round is not something that can be explained briefly.  There are literally hundreds of different ways to interpret any given topic and each one of those ways is legitimate.  If debaters have two separate interpretations, more often than not, a judge’s decision will come down to which interpretation they consider to be more legitimate.  The question then becomes how do you effectively persuade the judge that your way of evaluating the round is the best way while at the same time having enough time to respond to your opponent’s arguments?   The answer to this question is, in my opinion   what I call the “exclusive criteria.”  Although this phrase is my own, the idea is something that top-notch debaters have been using for a while.  The exclusive criteria simply sets up parameters for the debate that exclude many of the opponents arguments.  Consequently, if you win your criteria then you can use that criteria to exclude many of your opponent’s arguments from the round.  Not only can you use your value and criteria to set up these parameters, but you can also use definitions.   One mistake that debaters often make is to separate definitions and criteria.  Although this is necessary to some degree, the exclusion criteria calls for a mesh of these two things.  Defining words in a way that keeps many of your opponent’s arguments from being relevant within the round is more legitimate if it is done through the criteria.   Furthermore, the difference between definitions and criteria in L.D. is minimal.  Words like “ought,” “best” and “morality” are all value laden terms.  In other words, there isn’t a clear definition for them. By combining value/criteria and definitions, debaters can define what these words mean and at the same time set up a framework for the round.  Take for example, the topic “Resolved: That the government that governs best, governs least.”  An exclusive criteria would set up something like the following.  First, let’s define “government” as a body with a legitimate claim to the exercise of power.  This statement already limits the debate down to “bodies with a legitimate claim to the exercise of power” so in the debate round you can attempt to argue that the bodies that your opponents are talking about do not have a “legitimate claim to the exercise of power” and should therefore not be included within the round.    Second, let’s define “best” as that which comes the closest to fulfilling its purpose.   Then, you must establish what the purpose of a government is.    If you are writing an affirmative case, then you are going to want to establish that the purpose of government is something minimal like “to maintain order.”  If you are negative, you are going to want to establish that the purpose of government is something broader like “to guarantee the happiness of it’s citizens .”   When you put all of these elements together, you have limited the discussion of the debate to which government does a better job of serving the purpose that you have outlined.  If you can win that your interpretation is the best and most legitimate interpretation of the topic, then you can use your criteria to screen your opponent’s arguments.  Let’s say that you are affirmative and you have established that the purpose of government is to maintain order.  Through your contentions, you have proved that the government that governs least does the best job of maintaining order.  In response to this, your opponent offers a negative case that proves that a government that governs least does not guarantee it’s citizens happiness because it plays such a limited role in their lives.  As the affirmative, instead of attempting to prove that your opponent is incorrect, you can instead argue that the purpose of government is not to make people happy so whether or not it does has no relevance in determining if it is the best type of government.  In this way,  you can use your criteria to exclude your opponents arguments from the round without ever having to address the consistency or merits of what they are saying.  That’s not to say that you should not also debate their arguments- you should- but the exclusive criteria gives you another way to win.  This is especially useful when you are affirmative.  As all debaters know, the time constraints on the affirmative are hard to deal with.   It is incredibly difficult to get to everything in your last rebuttal speech while at the same time summing up the round and being convincing.  The exclusive criteria provides you with a very neat way to sum up the round.  Not only that, but it also sounds convincing, which gives you an added benefit.

                       The obvious result of this theory of debate is that the majority of the round will be about value and criteria.   To me, that’s what L.D. should be about.  Value and criteria are what make L.D. unique and separate it from policy.   A large part of the reason that LD has often been called dueling oratories is that there is not clash.  The reason for this is that debaters start from completely different assumptions about what the round should be about when they are constructing their arguments.  Then, instead of debating these assumptions they debate the arguments.  The problem is that given the assumptions, both sets of arguments can be true.  This puts the judge in an incredibly difficult position.  It seems to me, that if debaters just focused most of their time on debating the assumptions of the topic then there would be clash.    The bottom line is that value debate is debate about these kinds of assumptions.  Justice isn’t just a given, its a dynamic idea that has lots of layers and interpretations.  Major philosophers have spent years writing books about what justice is and how you measure it and why it is important.   It’s not enough to say my value is justice and my criteria is fairness.  Debaters need to explain what justice is and why it should be debated.  Moreover, they need to analyze why in the context of the topic, justice is important and how affirming or negating the resolution would effect justice.   These are the kinds of issues that L.D. should focus on.  In this way, L.D. can move beyond its current status as “dueling oratories.”

                       I have been debating for a long time.  In fact, sometimes I sit back and think about how long I’ve been involved in this activity and I almost faint.   The reason I’ve done it so long is because I love it.  Although I now debate CEDA, I still really care about L.D.  I coach it and judge it and I want to see it develop into a debate form that is respected.  The person who taught me L.D. influenced the way that I perceive the event.  To me, L.D. isn’t about squeezing a policy round into forty-five minutes.  It isn’t about research, it isn’t about speed---it’s about thinking.  I have debated policy and I sincerely believe that it is far easier than L.D.  The preparation for policy may be intense, but the actual round is not as hard.  L.D. requires you to think about the assumptions of what you say and what you believe.  It also forces you to analyze both sides of a value claim.  In this way, L.D. is incredibly important.    There is no question that the way people perceive the world is very different.   In many cases, people’s refusal to attempt to understand these differences is the cause of much conflict.     The kind of questions that I believe L.D. should address are the kinds of questions that everyone should think about because it is these questions that call into question the fundamental assumptions that make us see the world in the way that we do.  By calling into question these assumptions, people are better equipped to understand that there are different ways of viewing the world, none of which is fundamentally more legitimate than another.  By placing these issues into the framework of debate, L.D.  forces young people to expand their own thought processes.  This is the aspect of the event that I would like to see grow and in the end, I believe that if this type of L.D. debate becomes more common, people will begin to recognize the value inherent in the activity.