Why Your Student Should Start with LD Debate by: Noah McKay

The perennial debate between LD- and TP-firsters is unlikely to come to and end any time soon. Probably, you’ve already heard several of the considerations I am about to offer in defense of the LD-first position. But I am willing to bet you haven’t heard them all. My hope is that these arguments will make the decision easier for those of you who are on the fence. (And, of course, I hope you choose LD.)

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to suggest that TP is a waste of time, even for beginning students. I do, however, mean to suggest that LD is a better use of beginning students’ time, at least as long as they are still beginners.

I’ll start by addressing the most common objection to the LD-first view and afterwards offer a few independent reasons for accepting it.

  1. LD is no more abstract than TP.

In my experience, the most common worry among TP-first debate parents is that LD is too abstract for younger debaters to practice well. TP is preferable, they say, because it deals exclusively in the concrete: students must defend or critique real-world policy proposals, and this easy-to-grasp subject matter better prepares them for future forrays into the Platonic world of moral and metaphysical disputes.

This objection is based on a misconception. As a graduate student in philosophy, I can safely say that moral philosophers spend practically all of their time in the concrete (at least when they are discussing normative and applied ethics, which are the kinds of ethics most relevant to LD). This is because most contemporary moral philosophy is done via thought experiment – in other words, moral philosophers “test” their theories by applying them to real-world cases and checking to see whether they deliver the right verdicts. Consider, for example, the following classic anti-utilitarian thought experiment:

Quentin’s Quandary: Quentin is the presiding judge in a murder trial and knows, on the basis of the evidence, that the defendant is innocent. However, the trial has received much media attention and been heavily politicized, and Quentin is virtually certain that violent and destructive riots will break out if he refuses to sentence the defendant to death. Quentin is a committed utilitarian and always lives by John Stuart Mill’s famous directive: “Do what will result in the greatest good for the greatest number.” So, in the interest of preserving peace, Quentin orders that the innocent defendant be executed.

Almost everyone – including fans of utilitarianism – will agree that Quentin has made the wrong decision in this case. So either utilitarianism is false, or it needs to be modified in such a way that it allows Quentin to set the defendant free. (One response to this problem is to adopt rule-utilitarianism, which says that we should live by rules that maximize the collective good, even if those rules lead to individual actions that don’t. Since as a general rule it is better for societies to have fair, stable criminal justice systems, Quentin should refuse to condemn the defendant, even if this will cause turmoil in the short-term.) 

The point is that serious moral philosophy is always tied to real-world scenarios. And the best philosophical LD cases draw on thought experiments like Quentin’s Quandary in order to persuade judges of moral claims. (Those of you who have read my LD cases know that there are thought experiments like this in at least half of them.) These thought experiments are just as concrete as policy proposals and are even easier to understand, and they help everyone, including (especially) beginning students, clarify their thinking about important moral questions.

So arguing about moral philosophy does not require especially complex, abstract thinking. Arguing about policy proposals, on the other hand, does. The real world is enormously complex, and human beings are famously bad at forecasting the consequences of policy changes, since such forecasting requires us to build conceptual models of the worlds that often ignore crucial, unknown variables. Moral questions are much more relevant to our everyday lives than large-scale policy questions, and for that reason they are usually easier to think and talk about. (This does not mean, of course, that asking policy questions is futile, but it is definitely not an easier place to start.)

  1. Most beginning students aren’t prepared to work with a partner.

As a former moot court champion and a married man, I can testify that working with a partner is far more difficult than working alone, even if it is significantly more rewarding. Working with a partner takes patience and maturity, and it also requires both partners to bring a baseline level of competence to the table. Otherwise, the partnership doesn’t benefit anyone. 

Partnerships give rise to disagreements. And debate partnerships in particular give rise to disagreements about which evidence and arguments are worth running, which refutations are most likely to be successful, etc. And adjudicating those questions requires that both partners are already able to evaluate arguments well and disagree graciously, which are the very skills beginning debaters are least likely to have. Furthermore, maintaining a healthy partnership requires explicitly and clearly articulating expectations and then taking responsibility for meeting those expectations, which is extraordinarily difficult, even for adults (just ask my wife). I have seen many relationships strained or destroyed because young students were tied up in debate partnerships that they were neither experienced nor mature enough to navigate well.

Learning to debate and learning to manage a partnership are distinct skills, and they are both difficult to master. In my opinion, we do a disservice to students when we require them to learn both simultaneously. For advanced students who already grasp the contours of debate, partnerships provide tremendous opportunities for collaboration and growth. My moot court partner and I had (and still have) an excellent relationship and worked seamlessly together, and I credit that to the fact that we were both accomplished LD debaters before we competed in moot court. But in my experience, beginning students are more likely to be discouraged by partnerships than they are to grow through them. This isn’t to say that most partnerships will fail – most students will persevere, if only out of a sense of obligation. But that doesn’t mean they will benefit from the partnership itself. Of course, this isn’t true of every student. But I am convinced it is true of most of them.

  1. Policy debates are usually about values anyway.

If you are a TPer, that heading probably made you shudder. But it’s true. Every conceivable argument for policy change is parasitic on a prior value judgment. Unless an affirmative team clearly identifies harms in the status quo and defends their significance, no debate can be had about the other stock issues. You can’t have solvency if there’s nothing to solve, and you can’t have inherency without some harm that inheres. And to claim that the status quo is harmful in some significant way is to make a value judgment. For example, an affirmative plan that aims to improve living conditions in federal prisons is rooted in the value judgment that improving quality of life for federal inmates ought to be a priority. If the negative team challenges the significance of AFF’s harms on grounds that convicts are not entitled to any more tax revenue than is necessary to uphold their most basic human rights, then the significance issue reduces to a values debate. Even disputes that are not obviously morally charged are similarly grounded in values: cutting red tape to reduce costs presupposes that saving money is more important than maintaining whatever function the red tape was fulfilling. Running income stratification as a disadvantage presupposes that economic inequality is intrinsically bad. Defending a plan on grounds that it bolsters the United States’ geopolitical strength presupposes that it is a good thing for the United States to be geopolitically dominant. And so on. In my view, students should learn to think critically about the values that motivate policy before they set about the profoundly complex task of implementing those values. Doing it the other way round puts the cart before the horse.

Far, far more importantly: Practically every dispute in contemporary American politics is grounded in disagreement about values, not implementation. Americans don’t disagree about which abortion procedures are most cost-effective. We disagree about whether abortion is murder. Americans don’t disagree about how much funding public schools should receive for sex education. We disagree about whether teachers should instruct small children about sex or gender at all. We don’t disagree about whether racism has left a socioeconomic mark on America. We disagree about whether white people should be collectively punished for it, whether discrimination in the present is the only remedy to discrimination in the past, and whether victim- or oppressor-status attaches to someone merely by dint of the color of their skin. Those are not policy questions; they are value questions. And until students understand them, there’s no point in spending several hundred hours combing through government databases for statistics on health outcomes among federal convicts. Until you know what you’re aiming for, every policy proposal is a shot in the dark.

Noah is one of our Lasting Impact! Coaches. He is leading an LD Club, as well as Apologetics in the fall. He will be writing our LD Guides for NCFCA and Stoa – COMING SOON! Sign up to work with Noah NOW!

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