Coach Noah McKay Breaks Down the 2019-20 NCFCA LD Resolution

I have heard a number of concerns voiced by students and parents about the feasibility of arguing the affirmative side of the NCFCA’s 2019-2020 LD resolution. Granted, preventive war sounds like an ethically dubious activity on its face, and the resolution appears to make some ambitious claims. How can we reasonably make a blanket statement condoning what looks, from most angles, like blunt military aggression? If you don’t have the Lasting Impact! LD Guide, which has tons of ideas and an excellent resource, this article represents my attempt to put such concerns to rest and to show how this resolution can produce interesting and well-balanced debate rounds.

  1. How can AFF shoulder his or her burden?

​At first glance, AFF’s burden may seem unbearable. How is it possible to show that preventive war, generally, is ethical? Doesn’t it seem like most preventive wars are or would be fought for the wrong reasons? Must AFF condone such preventive measures as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the War of the Spanish Succession in order to win the round?

The short answer is: no. There are ways that AFF can argue, very persuasively, for a much lighter burden. Notice that the resolution includes no quantifier: it does not say that “all” preventive wars are ethical, or even that “most” preventive wars are ethical. It could even be interpreted as the modest claim that merely some preventive wars are ethical. So the debaters will have to insert one of these three quantifiers themselves. Which one is most reasonable?

First, AFF might argue that to insist that he or she prove that all preventive war is ethical is highly unreasonable — after all, is any kind of war ethical 100% of the time? Alright then, how about most preventive war? This burden seems less outlandish, but how could AFF shoulder it? Does he or she have to look at historical cases of preventive war, hypothetical cases, or both? And either way, how can he sift through every case, analyze it, and tally up the number of ethical and unethical instances in the 13 minutes of speaking time he has been allotted? Such a task seems impossible.

Only one quantifier remains as a viable candidate: “some.” Appending this quantifier to the resolution leaves AFF with an attainable burden: he must show only that there is at least one ethical way to wage preventive war. Indeed, of the three possible burdens mentioned thus far, this is the only attainable one, and thus the only reasonable one, that can be placed on AFF. Once this has been made clear to the judge, AFF’s job looks much more manageable.

This might raise a further concern: is this burden too easily attainable for AFF? After all, isn’t it easy to think up some wild hypothetical scenario in which any reasonable person would have to concede that preventive war is an ethical option? This is a valid complaint, but there is a way for Negative to “couch” the burden, so to speak: he can restrict AFF to politically relevant or feasible scenarios, that is, scenarios that are likely to arise in the actual world. Since the resolution is, presumably, intended to have real-world significance, AFF cannot claim to have settled the issue by reference to implausible abstractions; he must show that the resolution is true in some non-trivial way, i.e. in some way that is relevant to real-world ethical decision-making. And this means he must offer feasible real-world scenarios in which preventive war is ethical. Once this qualification has been made, AFF is left with the burden of showing that there are some feasible real-world scenarios in which preventive war is ethical, which seems to me like an eminently reasonable, well-balanced standard for the round.

2. How can AFF argue for violence against innocent nations?

​It seems, at first glance, that AFF must defend the initiation of hostilities against a party that has committed no crime. Doesn’t this offend our basic sense of justice? Shouldn’t activity like this be rejected outright?

However simple it may be, this is actually a very good argument, probably the most important one for AFF to formulate a response to. While I recommend that debaters prepare their own replies, for the encouragement of those in despair, here is a suggested rejoinder: who said that the party being attacked is innocent? Ever since 9/11, rogue states and terrorists have been the chief proposed targets of preventive military action, and it would be very difficult to convince your judge that these actors are “innocent.” Few would shed tears of moral indignation at the demise of, say, Kim John Un’s rule at the hands of preventive war.

​“But,” NEG might reply, “the relevant question isn’t whether the party being attacked is innocent simpliciter; the question is whether they are guilty of some wrongdoing toward us. If they are not, we do not have just cause for waging war against them, though others might.” AFF can handle this response by explaining the concept of negative retributivism. Negative retributivism is the view that, while wrongdoing does not demand punishment, wrongdoing permits us to punish the wrongdoer if doing so would contribute to the wellbeing of innocent people, whoever those innocent people may be. For instance, if someone is convicted of murder, this permits us to lock him up for the purpose of communal security. The punishment is legitimized by the fact that the criminal committed a crime, even though the punishment itself is for the benefit of those to whom he did no harm (the broader community). In the same way, if a terrorist group or a rogue state commits crimes against humanity, this makes them a legitimate target of military action, even if that action is motivated by the security of a nation against whom they have committed no crime.

I hope I have demonstrated, or at least bolstered, the feasibility of arguing AFF under this new resolution. Of course, the above arguments are not indefeasible — no argument is if your opponent is clever enough (or if your defense of your arguments is poor enough). But I think they are at least enough to give AFF confidence in the defensibility of his position. Arguing for preventive war will not be easy — it is intuitively difficult to condone. But nobody broadens their argumentative repertoire by defending easy positions, so I would encourage you to see this as an opportunity for growth, rather than a hindrance to victory.

Noah McKay is a Lasting Impact! Coach. He would love to work with you or your student. Schedule an appointment with him today!