Expanding the Scope of Intuitions

LD debaters are relying more and more on intuitions as data for framework arguments. Here are a few examples I’ve seen in the past two years:

  1. Racism as absolutely unjustifiable regardless of moral framework
  2. Reflective equilibrium as a moral method
  3. Counter-examples as responses to frameworks

A number of debate theorists, many trained in moral philosophy, have espoused a model where framework debates involve greater reliance on intuitions. Take two different responses to utilitarianism. On their view, answers such as the paraphrasing of Taurek’s argument, “two headaches don’t make a migraine, so aggregation is nonsensical,” should lose ground to answers with more intuitive strength such as “utilitarianism would allow slavery if it happened to promote the greatest good.” The former has long been common in circuit LD while the latter has not, but a shift is occurring nonetheless.

My central question: Would these same theorists defend the use of intuitions for evaluating other parts of the debate? Specifically, should judges use intuitions to evaluate theory and topicality?

First, let’s consider when judges should not employ intuitions. The Jan/Feb 2015 topic has produced plenty of debates where intuitions would be inappropriate. A judge shouldn’t decide if the living wage produces an employment effect, for instance, through intuitions; there should be a debate about the merits of the economic research. Few economists would accept answers on the basis of intuitions alone, yet many moral philosophers seem married to the idea of intuitions as an integral part of their method.

So is theory more like an empirical science or moral philosophy? Questions like “Does topicality deter non-topical affs?” and “How much literature is accessible under my definition?” are purely descriptive. However, “Should we accept NIBs bad as a general rule?” or “Should we promote fairness in debate?” are distinctly ethical. No, theory isn’t Kant vs. consequentialism, but it seems that some theory debates are ripe for the same kind of intuition-pumping that’s happening on the framework level. Ryan Davis and Ben Koh come to mind as two who have independently defended the thesis that theory voters should be subject to more robust ethical criticism. If they’re right, we should port all the methods of framework debate too.

I realize the suggestion might be scary. No one wants the judge who just “gut-checks” in the back of the room. What if your opponent reads ten conditional counterplans? What if everything goes wrong and theory is your only out? You want the debate to be in your control, and intuitions seem to move away from that.

Yet many judges are already using intuitions to make sense of “muddled” theory debates, so why not make the practice known so debaters can anticipate it? Replace the image of the LD judge from “before theory was a thing” who votes seemingly at random with a more sophisticated image of a judge weighing principles and intuitions just as in a framework debate. What previously unpersuasive arguments gain weight? What previously successful arguments lose ground? Here are some quick ideas:

  • “Fairness not an impact” and “education not an impact” become unviable.
  • Weighing between standards becomes more modest such that if ground outweighs predictability, predictability is still relevant. Same goes for weighing between voters.
  • Reasonability is more persuasive.
  • The strength of utterly false theory arguments is diminished.
  • The strength of utterly false theory arguments is diminished (for emphasis).

The last reason is a pretty good one. Even if you like theory debate, you can appreciate the increase in quality that could come from greater use of intuitions.

Weigh in on how you think intuitions could be used in non-framework portions of the debate. I’m also interested in hearing more creative ideas for reducing the prevalence of theory in LD – for related discussions, see my post on theory spikes and John’s post on the RVI.





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.