Monday, February 20, 2012

Would that we had more of this.

The final of the LSE Open 2012 is an excellent example of what it means to debate outside the standard liberal paradigm.  All of the speeches are very, very good, and aspiring BP debaters would do well to observe the range of argumentative strategies and rhetorical methods deployed.

Infoslide: For the purposes of this debate, "Marxism" refers to a political ideology that:
1. Asserts that political activity is driven by class conflict
2. Argues that the free market is inherently exploitative
3. Advocates the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with an egalitarian economic system

The motion: This House Regrets the Decline of Marxism in Western Liberal Democracies.

The debate

Spoilers after the break.  (Really, watch it first if you don't yet know the result.)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Prehistory recalled

On the motion: THBT democracy is a necessary condition for economic growth and stability.

Prop:  "How do we know that China is growing, if none of its growth is going to the people?!"
Opp:  "Its GDP is going up."

A New Standard for Knifing

Despite the best efforts of CA teams worldwide, there isn't really yet an operational standard for when it's acceptable for closing teams in BP to knife.  There are many different rules of thumb that judges follow, and these are seldom articulated explicitly.  This creates obvious problems that I will not belabour.  Teams should sometimes knife, and we need a clear rule for knifing that is common knowledge and is part of an overlapping consensus.

At Euros we proposed the following standard for knifing, which is an articulation of a rule of thumb that many (but not all) good judges use:  Teams should only contradict the team before them on claims that are plainly impossible to make persuasive to a reasonable person with common sense and a conscience.  These include gross factual errors and morally repugnant ethical positions.

Upon further consideration, I think that rule is problematic.  (I say that, as the person responsible for writing the briefing document that publicly advocated it.)  There are several problems with it:
  1. The rule involves a tricky judgement as to what the bounds of possibility in debating are.  Is it possible, for instance, to make extreme consequentialist positions persuasive to the hypothetical reasonable person?  Will she ever buy that we may eat babies that good may come?  Maybe there is a way to make the position persuasive, but the judge hasn't thought of it yet.
  2. The rule specifies a standard for behaviour but not the penalty for breaking it.  All good judges are agreed that knifing cannot be grounds for an automatic fourth (I do hope we can agree to this on a priori logical grounds, since obviously more than one team can knife).  One can contradict claims of varying degrees of centrality to the opening team's case.
  3. The rule commits teams to defending driftwood in the opening team's case.  If the opening team has made a weak claim that has been thoroughly rebutted, it may often be a more persuasive argumentative strategy to concede that claim, and instead argue a point that contradicts it.  ("Ok, so we concede that America bombing Syria will have a non-negligible effect on its government infrastructure.  In fact, there is a risk that it will in fact break the government into warring factions and plunge the country into anarchy.")
Because of that (and at the risk of adding to the existing muddle of rules of thumb) I'd like to propose a new standard for when it is acceptable to knife.  Namely: Closing teams that contradict a claim made by the opening team should be treated as though they had conceded entirely the opening team's claim.  The degree to which they are penalised should depend precisely on how that changes the overall persuasiveness of that teams case.

To take some illustrative examples, this means that a closing team that contradicts a weak or unpersuasive claim from the opening team, in order to replace it with a stronger argument, should be counted as thereby having made a net contribution to their side's case.  (Though, obviously, not as much a contribution as would be counted if adding this argument would have involved no knifing at all.)  By contrast, a closing team that contradicts a strong argument, central to the opening team's case, in order to replace it with a weak argument, should receive a penalty for having done damage to their side's case.

This straightforwardly addresses all three problems that I illustrated above.  (It is much easier for judges to decide which of two contradictory arguments is more persuasive, and how much so, than to decide when teams cross the line into "impossible" claims that trigger the possibility of knifing.)  I think it's a better standard, that means that the Opening teams arguments do affect and constrain what the Closing team can say, but only to the extent that those arguments are useful and persuasive.  It may, however, introduce new problems.  I'd be interested to hear what experienced judges think about it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to get better at debating

Natural talent is, of course, a necessary condition for being an excellent debater.  But frequently the real bottleneck is getting serious about becoming a better debater.  This seems counter-intuitive; many moderately experienced debaters drive themselves to frustration, going to one competition after another without feeling any appreciable improvement.  They seem to exert great effort for little reward.

However, even though these debaters are trying hard at debating, they often aren't trying hard to improve.  Learning the initial steps of debating is easy; how the format works, how to structure a speech, the basics of speaking in public.  These are easy to teach.  Progress in these aspects is frequently swift and smooth.  But once that honeymoon phase is over, you need to take charge of your own development as a debater.  Improvement becomes much more difficult; it requires much more reflection and the ability to be self-critical.  Frequently one can plateau for a period of weeks or months, and any advancement comes in sudden, discontinuous jumps that accompany cracking the next step in an internal puzzle.

I'd like to give some advice to moderately experienced debaters who would like to try to become really good.  I'm not (in this post) going to give general recommendations about how to debate well; those will vary massively from case to case, and can be acquired from a rich variety of good sources.  To be precise, rather than advice, I'd like to give meta-advice; a set of directions for how to take charge of your own improvement.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Social Contract arguments are almost always wrong.

Social contract arguments are incredibly painful to watch.  A debater is making a speech.  He wants to argue that some person has such-and-such a legal right.  Or maybe such-and-such an obligation.  But he can't for the life of him think of why.  Flash of brilliance:  There exists a mythical contract that no one has ever seen or signed, and its terms include exactly the moral stipulation that he's looking to prove.

This approach has its slightly more contorted variations.  Maybe the social contract was broken, so the person breaking that contract is going to lose certain legal/moral rights.  (Often only loosely connected to the clause 'broken' in the first place.)  Or maybe the speaker asserts that the social contract involved some 'trading' of rights, where some pre-civilised caveman gained certain social duties in return for a right not to be clubbed over the head.  All these variations are also terrible.

Few top-tier debaters, and virtually no professional political philosophers, would nowadays make or defend the social contract argument as it is used in debating today.  Here's why:  Social contract arguments are transparently false and intellectually dishonest, even though they are so commonplace in debating that most debaters don't question their basic premises.  Let's run through several interpretations of what a 'social contract' could mean, and see why they are all deeply problematic.