Ethical Modesty as Judge Default

We have argued previously (part 1 and part 2) that ethical modesty (EM) is preferable to ethical confidence (EC) on both philosophical and debate-theoretical grounds (it’s more fair and educational). This article defends the claim that judges should adopt EM as a feature of their paradigms. We are not advocating that judges should impose EM on the round regardless of argument. Rather, we think it is consistent with being a tab judge to include EM as a paradigmatic default. Still, two major objections are 1) EC is the norm, and judges should follow the norm, and 2) EM could be incorrect. We argue that if our previous arguments for the merits of modesty are correct, then its benefits outweigh these two costs.

Against the Norm

For judges, the primary ideological barrier to adopting EM is likely some notion of tabula rasa. Judges may be wary of the method because it could seem interventionist if not argued in the round, but in most debates, neither EC nor EM is explicitly defended, so either way the interventionist objection applies. This kind of “interpretive intervention” used to make sense of the debate is inevitable. However, there is a sense in which EC is less interventionist because it aligns with the communal norm. If the two debaters assume the confident paradigm, then shouldn’t the tab judge go along with their assumptions?

First, judges should state their stance on EC/EM in their online paradigms. This solves the problem because the judge’s decision no longer needs to align with the communal norm. The assumption is that the paradigm is the new norm for this particular debate. The debaters should adapt to the paradigm defaults or argue against them when necessary. If judges are worried that debaters won’t read their paradigm, they could even alert the debaters to their default before the debate.

But sometimes EC isn’t the assumed norm anyway. We have seen many more traditional-style debaters presumably unaware of the circuit norm of EC assuming the judge would operate under modesty. Similarly, many policy judges and debaters assume modesty instead of the winner-take-all model. Judges are reluctant to say the aff can’t weigh their impacts simply because the neg was marginally ahead on some framing issue. When they come to LD, they likely bring their framework beliefs with them.

Finally, sometimes norms need changing. The activity will have a hard time evolving if judges are afraid to buck the trend. LD has undergone many argumentative shifts in the last ten years, and part of what helps the activity grow is change in how judges respond to certain arguments. At a point, the benefit to the judging practice outweighs the slight unpredictability of the new paradigm.

What If We’re Wrong?

Another concern with adopting EM as a paradigmatic default is the chance that it might be wrong. There are two kinds of judges with this worry: 1) judges who are unfamiliar with the EC/EM debate and 2) judges who are familiar but unconvinced that EM is correct.

For the first group, defaulting to either would be inappropriate on philosophical grounds, since they are insufficiently confident in either side. They should instead decide based on debate theory reasons (fairness and education – see our previous post), on which EM comes out ahead. For the second more knowledgeable group, debate theory reasons might still outweigh. They might think that confidence is the better approach philosophically, but in debate, it makes more sense to adopt modesty.

One objection is that we should only consider philosophical reasons or that we should strictly prefer philosophical reasons to theoretical ones. This seems at odds with the need to remain tab. The defender of EC is asking judges to pick the method they personally think is more philosophically valid, yet our principle of tabula rasa tells judges to abstract from any philosophical predispositions.

A judge deciding based on philosophical reasons that weren’t given in the debate is much more worrisome than theoretical reasons. First, debaters have no means of predicting a judge’s philosophical bent, whereas it’s assumed the judge will judge in a fair and educational way. Second, the motivation for adopting a tabula rasa paradigm is rooted in fairness, not any particular philosophical perspective. Fairness is valued by any tab judge, but the reasons behind EC/EM might not be. Third, common practice allows judges to appeal to debate theoretical reasons, not philosophical ones. Consider a case where the 2AR made new arguments and the judge disregards them. She might explain, “Allowing these new 2AR arguments would be unfair to the negative, so I didn’t count them in your favor.” That seems reasonable. Now what if she said, “Allowing these new 2AR arguments would violate our universal moral duty to treat the negative as an end, not a means, so I didn’t count them in your favor.” Most would be unsatisfied with such an arbitrary explanation.

Added Motivation — Example Cases

Here are four common cases where ethical confidence seems inappropriate. All are derived from debates on the 2015 January/February topic. To us, a)-c) seem uncontroversial, but d) may pose a problem.

a) Poor Framework Debate: The aff runs a societal welfare-based framework; the neg runs an autonomy-based framework. Neither is winning the framework debate decisively. Say they both have one poorly-explained framework argument, but the two don’t obviously interact, they are not compared to one another, and they are not extended in full. Further, the aff makes turns to the neg’s autonomy contention while the neg concedes the aff’s contention about poverty.

Many judges have been sitting in the back listening to rounds like Poor Framework Debate develop. It could be because debaters assume EM or simply because they’re poor framework debaters. Either way, it seems arbitrary to parse through an underdeveloped framework debate to make a decision when EM makes it very clear that the aff is ahead.

b) Anarchy NC Plus CP: The aff presents a compelling global warming advantage in favor of the living wage. The neg reads an NC based in philosophical anarchism and an unconditional CP that abolishes the minimum wage while contesting the aff framework but not the warming advantage. The 1AR argues that the anarchy case is largely non-unique because the CP is no more anarchic than the aff. The 2NR claims the CP is marginally more consistent with the NC because it removes a law while the aff enacts a law. This argument allows the neg to spend most of the 2NR on framework since there’s little risk of losing the contention debate on the anarchy NC. In sum, there is a strong consequentialist reason to affirm and an extremely weak anarchy/autonomy-based reason to negate, but there is slightly more evidence in favor of the anarchy theory.

These positions are very obviously at odds, but ethical confidence allows the strategy. And it’s not just means-based NCs. Consider a similar example with a neg util case:

c) Tiny Tiny Util DA: The aff presents a compelling Kantian case for affirming – living wage aims at rectifying coercive status quo bargaining asymmetries between employers and employees. The neg reads an act-utilitarian framework, contends that the aff will cause a slight employment effect, answers the aff framework and concedes the aff contention. The 1AR reads meta-analyses concluding there is no employment effect. The 2NR argues that the aff’s studies only mitigate the risk of the employment effect, but on utilitarianism, even one job lost is reason to negate absent any benefits from affirming framed in utilitarian terms. In sum, there is a strong Kantian reason to affirm and an extremely weak utilitarian reason to negate, but there is slightly more evidence in favor of utilitarianism.

We think these cases are times when judges can easily justify EM if neither EC nor EM is argued in the debate.

And Ks can also create very silly situations if we assume confidence.

d) Cap K without an Alt: The neg goes for the cap K but kicks the alternative in the 2NR, arguing that on the capitalism bad framework, even if the living wage is slightly inconsistent, there is reason to negate. The aff claims that minimum wage and other capitalist systems exist in the status quo, so the link to the aff is almost entirely non-unique; without a kritik alternative, the two worlds look very similar with regard to how capitalist they are. The 2AR wins the aff case but loses a close framework debate. In sum, there is a strong reason to affirm on the aff case and a minuscule anti-capitalist reason to negate, but there is slightly more evidence for the cap bad framework.

This last one is a common scenario in K debates. Both positions are very clearly capitalist, but even a minor preference for the anti-capitalist role of the ballot means that any risk the aff is slightly more capitalist is enough to negate on EC. Winning one small link is enough to vote neg. Why? We have to reject capitalism in every instance! On this view, the aff case no longer matters. Reducing the alternative solvency to zero no longer matters. Impact turning capitalism no longer matters. The aff’s only hope is link turns and significant alt solvency takeouts, and that’s the regrettable result of confidence.

One potential objection is that the role of the ballot and other claims like “reject X in every instance” are implicit defenses of EC, so it would be interventionist to impose EM. First, debaters should have to make arguments for EC, so just saying the words “my role of the ballot is…” is just as much a defense of EC as “my criterion is.” Second, if this is enough, debaters would say “and that comes first” after every argument, and a tab judge would be expected to oblige, which is implausible.


Modesty opens up the debate so that more of what’s said matters in the end. In too many debates, confidence allows the judge to sift through a framework debate and call it a day. That’s unjustified laziness. Ethical confidence has gotten too comfortable, and it’s time for a change.

The authors would like to thank Chris Kymn for his comments on an earlier draft.





Bob co-directs Premier Debate, coaches his alma mater Loyola High School and debates on the NDT/CEDA circuit for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. His students earned 32 TOC bids in his first two years coaching. As a senior at Loyola, Bob earned 11 bids and was a TOC finalist.





Adam coaches his alma mater Loyola High School and debates British Parliamentary for Loyola Marymount University. He is a triple-major in Philosophy, Economics and Mathematics. His students have won 1st at Alta, Berkeley, CPS  (twice), and USC.