By Bob Overing

A little while ago I posted the paper I presented at the 2015 Alta Conference on Argumentation. The gist of the argument is to apply the model of LD framework debate I’ve written about here, here, and here, to evaluative structures in debate like roles of the ballot (ROBs).

Here’s an example for clarity’s sake. The neg wins 1) that their ROB of ‘voting down oppressive discourse’ is slightly better than the aff’s ROB of ‘endorsing the best policy option,’ and 2) a risk of a kritik link, proving the aff’s discourse only slightly oppressive. On the other hand, the aff wins that the plan is a better policy option than the status quo by a wide margin (perhaps the case debate is conceded by the 2NR). The confident option is to pick one evaluative structure (one ROB) and decide the debate using that frame. In the example, the confident judge would vote neg. The modest option is to employ both evaluative structures, each to the degree it’s won, and measure the total offense for each side given both ROBs. In the example, the modest judge would vote aff.

Note that the argument styles can be switched. Modesty can aid the team going for the discourse kritik as well. To see this, imagine the policy-making ROB is slightly better and the aff is doing the better policymaking, but the neg points out that the aff said something so offensive that it merits the ballot (even if policymaking is generally better). The content of the arguments is irrelevant.

On my Facebook page, Christian Chessman made a number of comments in response. He was uninterested in continuing the dialogue, so I’m not addressing this post to him; still, his comments might be useful for debaters and theorists interested in my argument and related arguments on kritiks in LD and policy debate. He made roughly two objections.

  • Too Casual: Chessman claims that modesty fails to treat ‘performative’ impacts with proper seriousness. Impacts that affect real people, debaters and judges obviously outweigh impacts that affect people in a post-fiat, pretend world where the plan passes. According to Chessman, these ‘performative’ impacts (pre-fiat, discursive, whatever you want to call them) are lexically prior to all other impacts.
  • Incommensurability: Chessman claims that modesty is impossible because there is no common metric to evaluate offense relating to two distinct ROBs. This objection parallels the Problem of Intertheoretic Value Comparisons, which Andrew Sepielli has dealt with in the context of the family of views we’ve called ethical modesty.

I’ll discuss each in turn.

Too Casual

The problem with the first objection is that the type of performative impacts Chessman’s talking about don’t always outweigh. For one, that would lead to ridiculous and poor debates. Instead of debating the topic, each debater would only kritik each other’s performance as much as possible. Why debate the researched, mutually-agreed upon, and predictable resolution when performative impacts are always the highest layer? At the beginning of the season, Scoggin and I argued against the notion that resolutional debate is the be-all-end-all of debate, but to reverse that dogmatism is also unproductive. There is value to topic debate. There is value to all sorts of debate styles, but only one is a dominant strategy on Chessman’s view. The risk that a carded author in a different publication cited a three hundred year-old philosophy text that on one page referred to humanity as “mankind” rather than “humankind” could be a voting issue. I seriously doubt that anyone thinks that’s a valuable debate argument to entertain. The Smith and Vincent cards often trotted out to justify performative focus or the relevance of pre-fiat impacts do not conclude that only these impacts matter to deciding a debate.

Perhaps my counter-example isn’t persuasive. Maybe the attenuated link chain resulting in some distant use of gendered language does suffice for a voting issue. Maybe there is no link chain long enough to persuade someone that the resulting performative harm is outweighed by good post-fiat debating. My next line of argument should be less controversial. Recall that the principle Chessman defends is that impacts to ‘real people, debaters and judges’ always outweigh. Now, think of the most asinine and unnecessary theory shell conceivable. Surely, there is some theory argument so bad that good post-fiat debating deserves the ballot, not the bad theory argument. This is true even though the theory impacts, fairness or education, affect real people, and the impacts of the plan do not. Even if theory generally comes first, there may be cases of particularly poor theory arguments where it’s better to judge the debate elsewhere. What I’ve described sounds like an argument for reasonability or ‘reject the argument, not the team.’ Communal acceptance of reasonability as an argument prove that theory and performative/pre-fiat impacts cannot always come first, yet this is exactly what Chessman’s position implies.

There’s a third, more principled way to respond. So far I’ve accepted for the sake of argument Chessman’s dichotomy between performative and non-performative impacts. This is the wrong way to think about modesty. We’re not comparing the hypothetical post-fiat global warming impact to the use of offensive language in a debate round. We’re comparing the justifications for voting aff or neg, which are always the sort of ‘actual’ impacts we really care about. The team forwarding the policymaking ROB will probably argue that deciding according to who presents the best policy option is a fair and educational way to judge. These are benefits for ‘real people’ in the same way that discursive analysis benefits ‘real people.’

Further, if I’m right that modesty is the most fair and educational way to judge debates, then there are real harms to evaluative confidence we should avoid. If all we care about is what’s best for debaters/judges, then these justifications for modesty as a general practice should outweigh the few instances he thinks it could backfire.

Finally, if none of the above objections succeed, modesty can still be revised. Some in-round practice X could be so abhorrent that alternative ROBs are not only useless but offensive to consider. Granting X very high weight in one’s evaluation is not enough: it must be on a tier of its own, something modesty seems to forbid. However, this stance could be an exception to modesty rather than a substitute. A judge could grant priority to impact X in debates where X is an issue, but employ modesty in all other instances. This ‘side-constraint, then modesty’ approach might be attractive to someone persuaded by Chessman’s first objection.


I am not going to canvas the literature on normative uncertainty and potential resolutions to the Problem of Intertheoretic Value Comparisons here. Those arguments would be sufficient to defeat Chessman’s second objection, but there’s another option in the debate-specific context. In debate, unlike in moral philosophy, we have an agreed-upon/standard metric for decision-making: Who won the debate? Or, who did the better debating?

Those phrases don’t seem very helpful on face, but they’re exactly what we need to resolve competing ROBs. If the neg marginally wins their ROB and marginally wins offense to that ROB, but the aff is out-debating that team on every issue, then, as I’ve argued previously, the aff may be doing the better debating. Take the most contrived performative kritik you can imagine, and even if you think that performative impacts are most important and there is a “risk of a link,” you might think the team responding to the kritik is doing the better debating. When you do this analysis, you are proving that the ROBs do not create an incommensurability problem. You’re resolving the problem by reference to an underlying metric: better debating.

Salim Damerdji has impressed upon me that “better debating” is not a defined metric by which we can judge debates. It’s settled on the line-by-line by the debaters and is not on its own helpful for resolving debates. If his claim is true, my argument might collapse, and I may have to resort to responses to the Problem of Intertheoretic Value Comparisons in moral philosophy. However, I reject the view that there is nothing substantive to say about “better debating.” Marshall Thompson wrote in his piece on spikes on this website last spring about “better debating” and how spike debate privileges strategies that do not track “better debating.” While the phrase is difficult to define, I share Marshall’s intuition that judges can and do evaluate debates with some underlying idea of “better debating” in mind. I’ve long held that to make coherent theory arguments, we have to have a notion of “better debating” that delineates between unfair strategies and strategies that count toward being the better debater. If I’m right, we can rely on principles of better debating though I’ll admit they could use some more explaining than I do here.

A second response is to make the case that ROBs share more specific metrics than simply “better debating”; in general, they appeal to values like competitive equity, education, activism, topical debate, clash, etc. There must be something that two seemingly distinct ROBs both appeal to if we keep asking for further justification. E.g. one ROB argues that it encourages debaters to be better social justice activists, and another encourage debaters to do deeper research on the topic. Perhaps both of these appeal, at some level, to education or some other long-lasting impact from debate. If there is no shared value at all, then modesty would be impossible, but so would confidence. Evaluative confidence requires that we compare the ROBs to find the best one, but without a shared underlying metric or value system, even this comparison would be impossible.

Finally, incommensurability should apply to other layers of the debate like theory, but judges make decisions all the time that seem perfectly fine, despite a lack of weighing between evaluative metrics. I have in mind debates where there are fairness, education, or maybe jurisdiction or other theory voters, but none are weighed against each other. On the confident view, a judge would do a lot of legwork to find the most important theory voter, and then evaluate the links to that voter only. But we normally think it’s permissible or even better for the judge to compare strengths of link to each voter, so if the fairness impact is small, even if fairness is more important, education can outweigh. This ‘strength of link’ weighing is modesty applied to one part of the debate, and it’s an application we already accept.

I hope to have shown that these objections to evaluative modesty as applied to ROBs are unfounded or fixable while retaining the general theory. I’m happy to get feedback like this on my writing – please let me know what you think!


Bob Overing | Co-Director

Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Loyola in Los Angeles, and debater for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 60 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.