In increasing numbers, LD debaters are arguing for ethical modesty or “maximizing expected value” as an alternative method of framework evaluation. This article series will explain the argument, discuss its strategic value, and answer some common objections.

Ed Note: We’ve changed the terminology used in the article to be more accurate. Originally, the terms “epistemic confidence” and “epistemic modesty” were used following Ryan Davis’s (2010) unpublished “Some Thoughts on Standards Debate.” However, those terms have a specific meaning in the context of epistemology of disagreement, and we’d like to avoid confusion. Sepielli (2009) calls the modest view “maximizing expect value.” Others have called it “hedging.”  We like “ethical modesty.”

Confidence vs. Modesty

Consider the following scenario:

Close Debate: In a debate on the 2014 Sept/Oct topic, the aff defends a consequentialist framework and contends that presumed consent policies will increase organ supplies and thereby reduce preventable deaths from disease and organ failure. The neg defends a rights-based framework and contends that presumed consent policies violate the right to individual autonomy. At the end of the debate, the judges believe:

  • The neg has marginally won the framework debate that the rights-based framework is preferable to the consequentialist framework
  • The aff has decisively won that the plan reduces preventable deaths
  • The aff has decisively won that the plan does not violate rights

Judge 1 votes neg. The RFD is that the neg is ahead on the framework debate and according to the rights-based framework, the only relevant impacts are rights-violations. Though the aff won the claim that the plan does not violate rights, there is some risk that rights might be violated. The aff only has a defensive press against the neg contention.

Judge 2 votes aff. The RFD is that the neg is only marginally ahead on the framework debate, so rights-based impacts matter more but not that much more. There is only some slight chance of a rights-violation while there is an overwhelming chance that presumed consent will save lives.

Which way would you vote? It depends on your method. Judge 1’s method was to first determine the outcome of the framework debate and then apply one ethical theory to the exclusion of all other moral reasons. This is ethical confidence. Judge 2’s method was to compare the aff and neg’s moral claims taking into account both the strength of the framework argument and the strength of the contention argument. This is ethical modesty. The outcome of Close Debate and many actual debates turn on which method is employed, so it is certainly worth discussing.

In Favor of Modesty

There is substantial philosophical debate about normative uncertainty. Let’s sketch some arguments for why some philosophers have found the modest view persuasive.

First, ethical modesty seems consistent with everyday decision-making. The following example is taken from the dissertation of Andrew Sepielli, now a professor at the University of Toronto:

Suppose that I am deciding whether to drink a cup of coffee. I have a degree of belief of .2 that the coffee is mixed with a deadly poison, and a degree of belief of .8 that it’s perfectly safe. If I act on the hypothesis in which I have the highest credence, I’ll drink the coffee. But this seems like a bad call. A good chance of coffee isn’t worth such a significant risk of death – at least, not if I assign commonsensical values to coffee and death, respectively.[1]

It’s hard to argue that confidence gets it right here. We should think similarly when deliberating about normative theories. Employing some social-contract theory, we might think that the United States government should take only Constitutional action; however, some Constitutional violation might be permissible to protect a large city from a terrorist attack even if we care less about utilitarian reasons.

Or what if we have equal credence in two different ethical theories? Ethical confidence would be of no help since neither has priority. Ethical modesty, on the other hand, can deal with these cases in a compelling way. Suppose we are choosing between (1) saving one person and letting two die and (2) saving two persons and letting one die and our credence is divided equally between theory A and theory B. Theory A is aggregative (in this case, saving more is better) and recommends option (2) and Theory B is non-aggregative and indifferent between options (1) and (2). In short, Theory A says save more lives and Theory B doesn’t care. If we don’t know which theory is right, we should err on the side of saving more lives, since Theory A says that’s valuable. Ethical confidence comes to the bizarre conclusion that (1) and (2) are equally rational even though we are 50% sure (2) is better than (1). Ethical confidence thus prevents common sense applications of rational choice.

That’s all well and good but why should we adopt it in debate? Ethical modesty might remedy a lot of the fairness concerns with frameworks. Necessary/insufficient burdens, skepticism, and unturnable cases lose their force when the criterion is no longer all-or-nothing. Those arguments create reciprocity problems precisely because they exclude the opponent’s offense. Under a frame of ethical modesty, they would not be exclusive; the aff can weigh its offense. Status quo LD framework debate incentivizes finding frameworks that heavily favor one side such that winning the criterion is sufficient to vote. More reasonable, inclusive frameworks are crowded out in favor of more unfair ones.

For instance, a deontological framework is a predictable, reasonable framework, but ethical confidence makes it much more likely to create structural unfairness. If the neg defends a narrow conception of deontology, a strong act/omission distinction, that perfect duties strictly precede imperfect duties, and that any risk of a violation of the standard is sufficient to negate, aff offense under the neg framework is effectively impossible. These arguments alone are not problematic, however. If the aff can weigh the advantages of the plan even when the framework debate favors the neg, then the aff still has options. Modesty makes the strength of the aff impacts matter at the end of the day. Perhaps such a method of evaluation will help the time-pressured 1AR beat back neg layering strategies without resorting to theory arguments.

Ethical modesty might also encourage LDers to make multiple kinds of moral arguments in a given round. For instance, instead of defending utilitarianism to the death, a debater might also forward rights-based or contract-based reasons. This model would be a less dogmatic form of framework debating that largely reflects how applied philosophy is done. When thinking about abortion, drone strikes, or physician-assisted suicide, a comprehensive analysis would include justification from a variety of moral perspectives. Additionally, with more frameworks in any given debate, the cost to introducing an ethical principle would be much lower since a debater would have others to fall back on. If a framework can be ‘kicked’ at little strategic loss, debaters might be more willing to ditch their tired framework backfiles in favor of more innovative strategies. Ethical modesty might inject some life into deont vs. util debates that have largely characterized even the best framework debates in LD for some time.

Finally, ethical modesty might “get it right” in more debates in the sense that it more often leads the judge to vote for the better debater. In the Close Debate scenario above, the aff has decisively won two-thirds of the arguments in the debate, and the neg has only marginally won one-third of the arguments. An observer unfamiliar with the norms for framework evaluation in LD (ethical confidence) would be inclined to vote aff[2]. Certainly, the fact that the neg adapted to these judging norms better than the aff is relevant, but we should privilege a form of evaluation that encourages more, high-quality refutation, embedded clash, and round vision. The aff might be the better debater all-in-all but lose on a framework trick or a one-line weighing argument. Modesty lessens the impact that any one argument can have by considering all moral reasons forwarded. This means the best moral reasoning and the best debaters win out.

[1] Andrew Sepielli, “’Along an Imperfectly-Lighted Path’: Practical Rationality and Normative Uncertainty” (dissertation, Rutgers University, 2010), 54

[2] In fact, this is one of the main frustrations we’ve heard our students voice when dealing with non-LD judges.


Bob Overing and Adam Bistagne are coaches for Loyola High School in Los Angeles.