Today we aim to add some clarity to an increasingly argued issue in LD theory debates: the substantive/structural fairness divide.

Theory introduces a new method of evaluation for the judge. Instead of evaluating the merits of the aff and neg cases, the judge is to determine the theory debate based on which interpretation is most fair and educational. To do this, we must have some definition of fairness.

A commonly-accepted understanding of fairness in debate is something like

Fairness 1: A debate is fair when the judge impartially determines who the better debater is in a given round.

Contrast this with another definition:

Fairness 2: A debate is fair when both debaters have an equal chance of winning a given round.

Fairness 2 is obviously wrong. First, it would imply that an adjudication method like flipping a coin is fair because both debaters have an equal chance of success. The first definition would exclude coin-flipping because it would not result in a determination of skill nor would it be impartial: it would disadvantage the more skilled debater relative to other models. Second, Fairness 2 would never be satisfied in a normal debate. Any skill discrepancy (being a better researcher, writer, or arguer) would mean that one debater has a greater chance of success. Thus, our definition of fairness must be concerned with impartial adjudication and not producing equal outcomes.

What kinds of practices compromise the judge’s ability to impartially determine the better debater? The term “structural abuse” is used to describe practices that would violate Fairness 1 and “substantive abuse” to describe practices that would violate Fairness 2 but not Fairness 1. Let’s give some examples.

Negative NIB: The neg debater is of inferior skill but reads a necessary/insufficient burden, an argument about epistemic skepticism, and then turns the aff case. Now, the neg has two ways to win while the aff only has one.

In Negative NIB, Fairness 1 is compromised because the judge cannot impartially determine the better debater given that the neg was at an arbitrary advantage.

Better Evidence: The neg debater is of superior skill because she reads a solvency turn backed by better evidence than the solvency of the aff.

In Better Evidence, Fairness 2 is compromised because the neg has a better chance of winning, but Fairness 1 is not compromised because the judge can still make an impartial decision about who is more skilled. The difference between the two cases is that in Negative NIB, the advantage gained cannot be traced to superior skill, but in Better Evidence, we can say the neg is more skilled in the area of research. In Negative NIB, the aff might win the debate, but nothing could allow the judge to make a completely impartial evaluation of skill. Consider a basketball game where team A was allowed a three-point shot and team B was not. It would be difficult to determine which team is truly better. Some amount of skill might allow team B to win, but we still would not call that arrangement fair.

Allowing abuse claims based on Fairness 2 creates a contradiction. Say in Better Evidence that the aff debater advances a theory argument that says “I do not have an equal chance to win the round because the neg has better evidence, so the round is unfair. Cast your ballot that I am the better debater.” Because this substantive abuse claim isolates a skill discrepancy, the theory argument really says “I am the worse debater because the neg has better evidence. Cast your ballot that I am the better debater.”

We should reject any definition of fairness that allows “I am the worse debater; vote for me” to be a valid theory argument.


John and Bob are co-directors of Premier Debate. During the last 5 years John’s students have earned 66 bids to the tournament of champions. John has coached 2 TOC finalists, a TOC quarterfinalist, and champions of many major national tournaments across the country. Bob has coached students to 32 bids in 2 years. In high school, he earned 13 TOC bids and was 2nd at the TOC. He currently debates for the USC Trojan Debate Squad.

premierdebate