A plan advocating action by a single country or set of countries is the only legitimate way to affirm the September-October 2016 LD topic Resolved: Countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power [1]. In general, affirmatives that advocate plans that specify actors are more fair and educational than those that don’t, and this is especially true on the current topic. I will defend this view with both pragmatic and semantic considerations, but as frequent readers know, I find the former much stronger.

This post does not expressly differentiate between plans that advocate action by a single country, multiple countries, or all countries. Any of those three is superior to the “general principle” or “whole resolution” approach, which allows the aff to advocate the resolution “in general” rather than propose a specific plan. I don’t define the “general principle” approach any further since I’m unaware of any consensus on its precise meaning.

I. Recall all the pragmatic benefits of plans in LD debate.

The many virtues of plans in LD has been a consistent theme in my blogging on this site, especially herehere, and even here. While those pieces defended much narrower claims, my arguments often had broader applicability. Here are the relevant takeaways for today:

  1. Plans increase clarity by resolving ambiguities in the first speech
  2. Plans promote deep clash on the core of the topic and the relevant academic literature
  3. Plans prevent squirreliness on both sides: aff shiftiness and neg “counterwarrants”
  4. Plans are a predictable and appropriate way to affirm policy and quasi-policy topics
  5. Plans of some sort are inevitable

It’s fairly easy to see how these five arguments apply here. My primary argument relates to (1), so I’ll explore it in some depth, touching on (2)-(5) along the way. When an argument relates to one of the five above, I’ll cite it like this (#).

II. “General principle” affirmatives are vague and uneducational, especially on this topic.

Affixing “In general” to the start of the resolution may resolve one source of ambiguity while introducing another. “In general” likely rules out advocacies defending “Some countries” and “All countries,” but there are at least two ways to interpret “In general” itself.

One possible reading is that affirming in general means the aff defends that most countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power. On this view, affirming in general is like plans that advocate action by over half of the world’s countries. The major difference is that we don’t know which countries those are. Thus, the import of specific examples of countries is unclear[2]. Can the aff respond to neg disadvantages based on specific countries by saying that country is in the minority? Do both sides concede the obvious examples (E.g. France should not prohibit nuclear power, but Iran should) and only debate the marginal cases to determine what most should do? Is every country up for grabs, so the aff must either speak very rapidly or make very generally applicable arguments to prove that most should prohibit nuclear power?

There may be right answers to these questions, but I don’t think they’re obvious enough to redeem the “most countries” view. Without elaboration, this vagueness makes the “general principle” approach unfair to the negative and a poor candidate for a theory interpretation. If an aff takes this route, (s)he should at least specify each side’s burdens and what a debate about most countries generally looks like. This added clarity would shore up the deficit with regard to (1) and (3), but (2) and (4) would still be major disadvantages to the “general principle” approach. Lumping together most of the world’s countries eviscerates any hope of thorough policy analysis. The relevance of much of the academic literature on nuclear power in specific countries would be significantly diminished. The result is far less predictable and educational debates on the topic (See [2] for more on this).

A second reading is that affirming in general means the aff defends that a hypothetical, unspecified country or set of countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power. Another way to put it is that each side reasons from the concept or form of countries rather than any contingent facts about actual countries. I don’t have a very precise definition of this view because debaters and theorists rarely spell it out. That said, I suspect something like it is what most “general principle” advocates have in mind. Feel free to tighten up my explanation in the comments below.

In any event, this second route is about as bad as the first for determining what to do with specific country examples. Suppose the aff wanted to argue that the situation with nuclear power in Iran is a good example in favor of the “general principle.” On this approach, the neg can argue that Iran does not represent a hypothetical country – the factors at play are not generalizable to the “concept” or “form” of a country. This sort of debate is lamentable because it makes it too easy to avoid clash and topic literature (2) in favor of debates over generalizability.

But one might think that the generalizability debate is better than a debate on Iran and nuclear power, since there’s limited neg ground against that example. The problem is that the “general principle” approach allows that both sides can always argue generalizability, creating a necessary-but-insufficient burden for the opponent. Introducing a one-liner that threatens to destroy an entire contention is almost always strategic (3). And while both sides can argue generalizability, the neg has the clear advantage in time to develop and the ability to adapt to the aff’s examples.

It’s also unclear to me how to resolve generalizability debates. Is Germany more generalizable than South Africa? What factors matter for determining whether a country example is generalizable? Size? Type of government? Geography? Location? History? Demographics? Role in international relations? Entire debates could center on the generalizability of particular examples, totally supplanting any debate on the topic at hand (2). (See my “Topicality and Plans in LD” linked above for additional discussion of generalizability and citations for further debate theory research).

These objections are particularly relevant on the current topic, which lacks the built-in normative language of previous topics where “plans bad” arguments were popular. On September-October 2014 (SO14) and January-February 2015 (JF15), debating about what a hypothetically just government or just society ought to do seemed more like part of the topic. I still maintain that hypothetical debates about the concept/form of the actor are distracting and create poor clash on consequentialist standards, but they at least seem more relevant and predictable on those past topics.

III. Plans are semantically justified on this topic.

One of the things that “general principle” folks like to say is that we on the other side do interpretive violence by forcing plan affs on every topic. I’ll happily accept that charge when it’s merited because I believe the pragmatic benefits listed above make “general principle” affs incoherent and uneducational. On this topic, however, those ardently defending plans bad on semantic grounds are the ones forcing the issue. As it turns out, plans are better affs on this topic for both pragmatic and semantic reasons.

Here I will make a linguistic assertion of the kind that seems to win circuit LD debates. To my ear, “Countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power” sounds like a claim about a particular set of actual countries (the existential reading, allowing plans) rather than a hypothetical set or general idea of countries (the generic reading, barring plans). Nebel (2014) provides two tests that verify my linguistic intuition that countries is existential, not generic. First, a “competent speaker of English” would endorse an inference from a plan involving two countries to the resolution, e.g. If the U.S. and Canada ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power, then countries ought to. Second, a competent speaker of English would endorse an inference from the fact that no countries exist to “it is not the case that ‘Countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power.’” Unlike with the “Just governments” resolution, both are legitimate inferences here, so countries is existential.

If my linguistic intuitions aren’t persuasive, consider the distinction Nebel cites from Carlson (1977) about predicates. Carlson says that a plural like dogs is generic when the predicate is property-like in applying to dogs as a kind, e.g. “Dogs run.” But a plural like dogs is existential when the predicate is stage-like in applying to individual, spatially-bound dogs, e.g. “Dogs are running” (p. 451). Another way to put it is that the former predicate applies to all dog-stages, but the latter does not [3].

The question for our purposes is whether the predicate “ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power” is property- or stage-like when we ascribe it to countries. I think it’s stage-like because depending on when and where you ask the question, it may or may not be correct to apply the predicate. Property-like predicates we can ascribe to countries include “have governments” and “occupy territories” or even “ought not to war.” These predicates lead to a generic reading of countries because they can be ascribed to all country-stages. “Ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power” leads to an existential reading because it can only be ascribed to some country-stages. Consider that countries as a kind of thing existed long before the first production of nuclear power; thus, a predicate involving nuclear power could not possibly be property-like unless countries is constantly gaining new properties or had the property even before the actual production of nuclear power. Neither option is attractive.

Keep in mind that Carlson’s distinction merely posits a sufficient condition for the existential and generic readings, not a necessary one. The above arguments need not be convincing for the thesis of this section.

My last attempt at a semantic argument is to contrast just governments with countries. To my ear, it seems far more plausible that the JF15 resolution is about debating the properties of just governments than to say the SO16 topic is about debating the properties of countries. The prompt “Countries ought to prohibit the production of nuclear power” is not asking if we can ascribe a timeless property to the concept countries. It’s about a particular policy option that particular entities could take in the status quo.

The upshot of all of this is that if you endorse Nebel’s assumptions (that semantic considerations are what matter, that we can and should debate what inferences a competent speaker of English would endorse, etc.), you should conclude that plans are the only legitimate affs on this topic.

IV. The major objections are not so bad.

The best objection to the pragmatic benefits of plans is the limits/predictability problem. Our resolutions in LD generally lack modifiers like “substantial” that check against the multitude of tiny, squirrely affirmatives. When the actor in the resolution is countries, nations, or just governments, the aff has many, many choices. We should worry about under-limited topics, especially for younger debaters. Further, when certain teams still refuse to disclose or disclose properly, predicting their plans is nearly impossible. This is a serious impediment to the kind of high-quality research and preparation that plan affs promote. The two best solutions are (1) better resolutions with definite actors like “The United States Federal Government” and (2) universal disclosure. Absent these solutions, the benefits of plan affs are severely mitigated. Nevertheless, we should not elect to debate on a horribly broken “general principle” approach; we should demand better topics and better disclosure.

The best objection to the semantic justifications for plans is that it’s all poppycock. Debating based on the most linguistically accurate reading of the resolution may be marginally more predictable, but ultimately, the impact can be easily outweighed. Rebar Niemi, John Scoggin and I have said enough about this in other posts.

If both of my main lines of argument here fail, never fear! There are still a number of ways to justify plans on the current topic. The most promising, in my opinion, is to defend a different model of topicality for plans than the logical entailment view. See my “Topicality and Plans in LD” post linked above for some ideas.

End Notes

[1] I don’t intend this post to depart from the position John Scoggin and I advocated last fall. I take it that the arguments, styles, and debaters potentially excluded by the hardline truth-testing views we rebutted are not trying to “affirm the September-October 2016 LD topic.” As such, this post is not about them.

[2] One might suggest that we shouldn’t care much about examples involving specific countries. I disagree. First, these examples are particularly important for consequentialist debates on the topic. They change very little about how most common non-consequentialist moral frameworks apply, but make for far superior consequentialist debates. This reason alone motivates most of my discussion in this post. Second, oodles of academic literature deals with the contingent facts about nuclear power production in specific places. One might think that the existence of a literature base doesn’t prove its own relevance to a debate, but the articles I have in mind share a lot of the resolution’s terms and are cited by the articles that “general principle” folks would find most relevant. There’s also a major bright-line problem in how we define the scope of the topic literature. My tentative view is that an interpretation of the topic that excludes much of the scholarship on “the production of nuclear power” is probably wrong. Third, these examples are inevitable. Most cases I’ve seen on the topic and most that I’ve seen disclosed argue based on empirical example, even if they don’t defend a plan. This matters because judges have to decide how these examples relate to their decision. In short, there is a resolvability disadvantage to “general principle” views.

[3] This is a simplified version of Carlson’s view. He says an explanation of this sort is “most assuredly on the right path” but provides a more nuanced view later in the paper (p. 448). I present the more simplified version because I don’t believe Carlson’s complications will make a difference for our purposes.


 

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Bob Overing | Co-Director

Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. 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 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.

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