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. In this segment, TOC finalist Chris Kymn answers questions about how he deployed the strategy at TOC 2014.
PDT: Chris, a big portion of your TOC strategy was based on the “ethical modesty” argument. How did you use it, and do you think it’s a better aff or neg strategy?
Chris: I used ethical modesty (what we called “epistemic modesty” (EM) at the time) in two main ways. First, on a substantive level, EM helped to leverage the affirmative contention against debaters who invested heavily in the standards or framework debate. The explanation for this is fairly simple- proving slightly higher credence in one’s ethical theory does not grant sufficient reason to entirely disregard the strength of link to the opposite theory. I think the best application of EM was with plans where the topic literature flowed heavily aff, making the contention difficult to turn, and forcing the negative’s substantive strategy to defend a more unreasonable framework. No matter how much preparation they may have had on such framework, under EM the strategic utility of winning that framework is diminished.
Second, epistemic modesty can be used as a theoretical check against exclusionary frameworks. The reasons in favor can be fairness-based (eliminates strategic value of unturnable cases, limits arbitrary ground loss) or education-oriented (encourages clash, better to debate using multiple frameworks). Since EM functions as a paradigm for evaluating framework in a similar way to how comparing worlds might frame advocacy comparison, CX is often important in establishing a violation for an offensive theory out.
I think the substantive implications are more strategic for the affirmative, and the theoretical strategy is better for the negative. In my experience, most negative debaters conceded EM when it was a fleshed out shell in the AC. By contrast, most affirmatives were more reticent to admit that impacts external to their standard may matter, making it much easier to establish a violation.
PDT: Were you not worried about limiting your rebuttal options? Under ethical modesty, it seems, it’s harder to kick the aff and go for just turns to the neg, since that offense might still be relevant. Similarly on the neg, you don’t get to choose whether to go for offense to the AC or NC framework. Both are relevant at the end of the day.
Chris: The affirmative has a couple of ways to escape that dilemma. EM could be introduced as inter-framework weighing in the 1AR, so that the aff only has to employ EM when it’s strategic for him/her. Debaters can also be more selective of when they choose to read EM, for example only using it when it is unlikely that the negative will turn the aff’s contention.
While more difficult for the negative to deploy effectively, I don’t think it’s effectively harder to debate underneath. If the aff introduced EM, they are already at a time disadvantage if the negative concedes the paradigm and reads 7 minutes of offense, and can’t collapse in the 2AR either. If the neg introduced EM as a theory shell, then the worst case is that they would lose the theory debate, and standards debate would continue as it normally does in most rounds.
I think an important component of an EM-based strategy is setting up a metric to determine various levels of credence amongst competing frameworks. Even though EM may tell us not to discount any standard completely, it seems fairly straightforward that a standard of “maximizing utility” is more plausible than one of “maximizing disutility.” Reflective equilibrium is one useful philosophical method to allow such comparisons while still maintaining EM.
PDT: Should debaters justify ethical modesty theoretically (with fairness and education arguments) or philosophically or both?
Chris: It depends on what debaters intend to utilize EM for. Generally, I think the substantive arguments in favor of epistemic modesty are sufficient and applicable to more situations, such as when the judge would not want to vote on theory or when a skeptical argument is claimed to apply to theory. Theoretical justifications for EM seem best used in cases where the neg wants a theory out, to leverage against a role of the ballot or theoretically-justified framework, or when the opponent’s ethical standard is clear abuse of epistemically confident methods.
PDT: Did you develop this strategy specifically for TOC? How long before the TOC should one start thinking about TOC-specific strategies?
Chris: EM was a strategy I developed along with my coaches specifically for TOC, although the strategy was broken at round robins leading up to the tournament. I don’t think design of strategies for TOC should be confined to a particular time, and debaters shouldn’t be afraid to try out what they perceive to be the best strategies earlier in the season. Plenty of debaters do well without necessarily crafting new arguments. I think the more important factor in deciding TOC-specific strategies is finding arguments that capitalize upon one’s strengths in debate and neutralize other top debaters’ best skills and preparation to previous strategies.
PDT: Lastly, do you think that more LDers will adopt ethical modesty? Is it going to be a trend for the 2014-15 season? What do you think is the primary resistance to this framework strategy?
Chris: At least by my observation, more debaters seemed to be interested in reading epistemic modesty during the upcoming season. I think the trendiness of the position depends on how successfully debaters can apply EM in rounds. The primary resistance to the strategy will likely be in application problems to the usage of epistemic modesty, such as how to compare across different value theories and how exactly to determine credence levels in closer standard or contention debates. But if debaters can explain their way through or escape such potential problems, they may find EM to be a useful strategy.