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Before I begin my discussion of the topic itself, I'd like to first make a few points about the way I envision this topic analysis being used. As a debater, I always found topic analyses to be very useful, as they provide a detailed insight into the ideas that I would be debating for the next two months. While, of course, it's true that I would have my own initial thoughts on the topic, being exposed to the views of someone else prompted me to question my own initial assumptions and forced me to examine the topic in a new and distinct way. Now, as the person writing the topic analysis, I'm inclined to offer a word of caution: what I'm presenting here is an accurate reflection of what I believe to be a thorough and strategic impression of the topic; however, it's important to understand that these are also my first impressions. Anyone who has been involved in debate knows that the communal understanding of a topic (i.e. the most strategic positions, and the way that people debate the topic in general) shifts drastically over the course of a couple of months. Essentially, debaters should take the ideas contained herein as a starting point, not as an entire and complete analysis of the topic. With that in mind, I do think that what follows will be helpful in kick-starting topical discussions and getting debaters into an appropriate mindset to be thinking about the topic.
There are a number of very important interpretational issues on this topic - however, it's important to first flesh out exactly what I mean by an 'interpretational issue.' Essentially, interpretational issues are questions that are necessarily brought forth by the text or phrasing of the topic, either due to a certain word or phrase that is present in the topic, or due to a particular vagueness in the way the topic is constructed. These issues are of incredible importance to debaters, as they determine things like what the valid ground on a topic is, or whether certain arguments affirm or negate. These are issues that you should at least consider discussing in your constructive, as contained within them is the ability to exclude your opponent's arguments, or even, potentially, to make those arguments reasons to vote for you.
Issue 1: Parametrics
The first interpretational issue I'd like to discuss is one that is commonly referred to as 'parametrics' - it's also sometimes referred to as 'conditionality,' but that particular phrase has fallen out of use due to its different meaning in Policy debate. What we mean by the word 'parametrics' is actually rather simple - it's the question of whether or not the affirmative or negative debater can specify a particular instance in which the resolution is true or false, and if that specification is actually sufficient to either affirm or negate. For instance, on this particular topic, if the affirmative is allowed to parametricize, then they could win the round by proving that in the United States, voting ought to be compulsory (assuming, of course, that the United States is a democratic society of the type presented by the resolution).
So, what are the reasons for why the affirmative should be allowed to parametricize?
First, there seems to be a strong textual justification for affirmative parametricization, which is the resolution's use of the word 'a.' Discussions of the importance of certain words in the resolution are very important in terms of justifying interpretational issues - however, it's very difficult to understand the importance of any given word or phrase in the resolution in a vacuum. Instead, debaters should compare the actual phrasing of the resolution to the various ways in which it could have been phrased. In this particular instance, debaters could compare the actual wording of the resolution, which uses the phrase "in a democratic society" with another potential phrasing of the resolution, such as "in democratic societies." The distinction here is clear - in the first example, i.e. the actual phrasing of the resolution, it's clear that the statement is true if, in a singular democratic society, voting ought to be compulsory. However, if we were to take the potential phrasing of the resolution that I've offered, then we could only say that the resolution is true if it is the case for all democratic societies (or at the very least, for more than one). This contrast is incredibly important, as it illustrates the importance of the particular way that the resolution has been phrased - essentially, the wording of the resolution could have been such that affirmative parametricization would be excluded. However, the wording of the resolution clearly doesn't exclude such interpretations. This argument then needs to be grounded with a discussion of why the text of the resolution is important in the first place, but such arguments are beyond the scope of this topic analysis.
Second, there are also strong theoretical justifications for why the affirmative should be allowed to parametricize. As a brief tangent: when I talk about an argument as being theoretical, I mean that it is grounded in the importance of some overarching "debate concept," such as fairness or education. These arguments are contrasted with textual ones, such as the one discussed above, as those draw their legitimacy from the resolution itself. Because of this distinction, there is (usually) a far greater breadth of theoretical justifications to be made for an interpretational issue than there are textual ones. As such, when I'm discussing the ways in which an interpretational issue can be warranted, rather than outlining all the various possible arguments, I'll instead explain the primary thrust of those warrants in terms of fairness and education.
The reasons why fairness would necessitate the affirmative being able to parametricize are relatively straightforward, though on this particular issue they're less common than reasons grounded in education. The vast majority of fairness arguments concern themselves with the ground that either debater has access to - which is to say, the kinds of arguments that each debater is allowed to make. Rather than making abstract and ambiguous claims about this ground, however, it's important to specify the particular ground loss or skew which would occur if the interpretation you're trying to justify wasn't the case. In this instance, it could be said that the affirmative not being able to parametricize would deprive them of the ability to read empirical (as opposed to analytical) evidence in round, because empirical studies are grounded in specific policy options. This would then need to be given importance via a discussion of why the aff's ability to read empirical evidence is key to fairness, perhaps because it enables them access to the entirety of the topic literature. As a general note: It's important, when justifying an interpretive issue theoretically, to warrant the claims you're making as deeply and precisely as possible. When discussing a textual warrant (as opposed to a theoretical one), questions like the importance of the text are almost trivial - after all, the topic is what we're debating, right? However, the implicit importance of things like education, fairness, and discrete limitations on ground are significantly murkier. This isn't to say that these things aren't important, but that your justifications for why they're important need to be as well-warranted as possible.
Justifications for affirmative parametricization grounded in education are far more common, and typically concern themselves with one (or both) of two particular kinds of educational benefit. The first is the education that comes from debating about specific kinds of issues. In this case, this would entail a discussion of why allowing the affirmative to parametricize, and thus focusing the debate on specific policy options rather than the resolution as a general principle, would foster some uniquely educational discourse in the round. This usually takes the form of explaining that policy discussions foster critical thinking, or is a skill that translates more readily to the "real world." The second kind of educational benefit is the education that occurs prior the round, when debaters are doing research and constructing their positions. This argument would claim that allowing the affirmative to parametricize is good because it forces debaters to research all the various possible policies that have been implemented and determine what the issues with those policies are. It certainly seems true, after all, that an in-depth and detail-oriented discussion of the validity of two competing policy options would be incredibly educational. However, as has already been discussed, that link needs to be fleshed out substantially when you're making the argument in a round.
What are the reasons for why the affirmative should not be able to parametricize?
Justifications for the abusiveness of affirmative parametricization will most likely be grounded in one of two objections. The first concerns itself with what exactly it means to affirm a truth statement like the resolution. Essentially, the argument is that the truth of generalized, over-arching statements (especially moral statements) like the resolution, is contingent on that statement being true more often than not. The reasons for why this would be the case are varied, but among the strongest seems to be that this is the only interpretation that equips us to make a decision at the end of the debate round. Imagine this: if we assume that the truth or falsity of the resolution can be demonstrated by reference to a particular scenario, then what happens when the debaters have demonstrated that in one scenario the resolution is true, and in another false? This conflict is irresolvable, and the source of that conflict can be traced directly to the interpretation that the affirmative is proposing.
The second justification for the illegitimacy of affirmative parametricization is a bit more straightforward, but still quite valid. This argument concerns itself with the variety of positions open to the affirmative to choose from, and the possible negative ramifications that could stem from that variety. Where one of the affirmative justifications we discussed above isolated this variety as good thing because it forced the negative to be better prepared/fostered better educational dialogue, this argument demonstrates that such variety can be actively harmful to both fairness and education. The reason is grounded in the notion of predictability, i.e. how readily the other debater could research and prepare responses to a given argument. If the affirmative has the ability to specify to literally any possible advocacy, that completely eliminates any sort of predictability that the negative could be depending on prior the round. This may sound like a trivial or silly concern - after all, why should my opponent be able to predict my arguments before I make them? In reality, the validity of predictability claims is grounded in the interpretations they oppose justify rather than what they actually allow to happen. That is to say, in this particular instance, affirmative parametricization is not bad because the affirmative's advocacy is demonstrably unpredictable, but rather because it allows for entirely unpredictable advocacies to be considered legitimate. As always, this then needs to be underscored by an explanation of why predictability is key to either fairness or education, and I think the potential links to either are both relatively strong.
Issue No. 2: Skepticism
Skepticism is a word that many of you may have heard before, but if not, don't worry - the concept itself is relatively simple. In debate, skeptical arguments are simply ones which are skeptical of the validity or existence of certain claims about morality, or of the existence of morality altogether. Where the moralist offers such proclamations as "human worth is morally inviolable," the moral skeptic questions the supposedly-intuitive groundings of those claims. So, with regard to the vast majority of skeptical arguments people make in debate, if skepticism is true, then making overarching moral claims like "human worth is morally inviolable" is functionally impossible. Understand, this is an extreme simplification of the argument, but it will suffice for my discussion here. Various flavors and variations of skepticism can result in condemnations of differing kinds of moral proclamations, but the key thing to understand is that all of them question the assumptions that moral systems are founded upon.
The interpretational issue that arises from the skeptical question is whether skepticism being true is a reason to affirm or to negate.
So, what are the reasons for why, on this particular topic, skepticism is a reason to affirm?
First, I believe that the only proper way to answer this question is to delve into both the moral question of the resolution, and also what it means to answer moral questions in general. This first justification will be centered on what exactly is sufficient to satisfy an 'ought' statement, such as the one provided by the resolution. It centers on a particular definition of 'ought,' which is that we ought to take an action if we have a sufficient reason to take that action. This definition, while a helpful starting point, is terminally unhelpful, as it still leaves open the vagueness of what exactly a sufficient reason is. To clarify that question, a sufficient reason is simply a reason that is greater than or equal to its competing reasons with respect to morality. In other words, I ought to take an action if, according to morality, my reason for taking that action is better than or equal to my reasons for taking a competing action. So, the question becomes, how does this definition of ought function when the skeptical challenge is introduced? Well, if skepticism is true, then that would imply that our moral evaluations of reason wouldn't be possible - which is to say, that any of our reasons for acting would be understood as neither good reasons nor bad reasons, as either of those judgments would constitute an understanding of morality. Under further examination, however, this situation still allows us to satisfy the ought statement. If all of our reasons for taking various actions are equally valid (and also equally invalid), then each of those reasons is a sufficient reason, meaning that any ought statement would be true. There are, admittedly, clear issues with this argument, namely that it results in justifying contradictory and mutually exclusive actions. However, on a semantic level, this interpretation still results in the truth of an ought statement, and so long as you can justify and explain your particular interpretation of 'ought' and how that leads to your conclusion, the vast majority of your opponents will have a very difficult time answering this argument.
The second reason for why skepticism would be sufficient to affirm requires that we delve into what exactly moral systems look like. Here, I'll contend that moral systems are constituted by a series of prohibitions - i.e. moral systems tell us that we should not do x, y, and z. They do not, however, tell us what we should do; they simply tell us what we should not do. As such, under this interpretation of morality, we would say that we ought to do something if there is no moral prohibition against that action. There are a number of possible justifications for this interpretation of moral systems, but I leave those to you (as I simply don't have room to flesh out any of them here). The relevant question, however, is how this interpretation of moral systems translates into skepticism arriving at an affirmative conclusion. Essentially, if morality is a series of prohibitions and skepticism is true, then that just means that we wouldn't be able to prohibit any action. As we've already established, under this interpretation of morality, a lack of prohibition is sufficient to satisfy an ought statement - therefore, if skepticism is true, then the 'ought' statement of the resolution is also true, and you affirm.
Now, the more astute among you may have realized that there are most certainly problems with both of these arguments. In that vein, there are a couple of extrapolations I'd like to make. First, that an argument need not be true in the strictest sense for it to be a strategic argument for you to be making. The reasons for this are varied, but they essentially boil down to the time that these arguments require your opponent to invest. Grappling with the specific characteristics of a moral system is not something that most debaters are accustomed to doing, and if you've thought about these issues more than your opponent, then you're going to win the argument, even if the side that they're arguing is technically more true than yours is. Second, it's important to recognize that the issue of skepticism, especially on certain topics, goes pretty definitively in a certain direction. While I do believe that engaging in the skepticism debate is still absolutely valuable, you should keep these limitations in mind when considering the possibility of going for skepticism in a round.
What are the reasons for why skepticism negates?
First, the obvious one: if skepticism is true, and 'ought' necessitates a moral evaluation, then it makes absolutely no sense to call an 'ought' statement true. In other words, we can't say that we 'ought' or 'ought not' do anything, because such a statement necessarily requires the very kind of evaluation that skepticism itself problematizes. At best for the affirmative, this would just make the resolution impossible to evaluate (and this conclusion itself can be made to be sufficient to negate). However, there also seem to be compelling reasons as to why skepticism being the case makes 'ought' statements actively false, as they're dependent on assumptions that don't make any sense in the first place.
The second reason I'll present for why skepticism negates requires a similar kind of investigation into the content of moral systems as we engaged in previously. My contention here, however, is that rather than being constituted by a series of prohibitions, morality is instead a series of obligations. If this is the case, then that implies that the moral evaluations we have to engage in to test the validity of an 'ought' statement consist of determining whether or not a proposed action is consistent with what our moral obligations are. In other words, an 'ought' statement is true if and only if the action it's proposing is one which is necessitated by morality. If that's not the case, then we would consider the statement to be false. As such, the relevant question is how this interpretation of morality interacts with the skeptical premise. It seems clear that if morality is indeterminate, then making the kinds of moral evaluations that the truth of an 'ought' statement calls for is impossible. Because of this, if skepticism is true, we would be unable to say that any 'ought' statement is in fact true in the moral sense - and perhaps more strongly, we could say that those statements are in fact false.
Before I move on to the final interpretational issue, I'd like to first make a general point about the kind of analysis I've done here. As some of you may be aware, debates about this particular issue (skepticism), and also debates about issues that function in similar ways, are often demonized or thought to be uneducational. This criticism certainly carries some validity - the vast majority of the time, these debates are fraught with half-baked claims and unjustified conclusions. However, this need not be the case. When approaching a question as complex as how the skeptical challenge interacts with moral truths, it's important to be as diligent and thorough as possible, which means delving into a complete analysis of what exactly moral systems would look like. My point is this: as with theoretical debates, debates about the abstract nature of moral systems have the potential to become very convoluted very quickly, as they're prone to collapsing down to supposedly-intuitive claims that aren't, in fact, grounded in truthful analysis. The solution to this issue, as it was with theory, is not to demonize the practice itself, but instead to require a substantial amount of argumentative rigor and thorough justification. Final Thoughts on Interpretational Issues
Before I move on to discussing various positions on the topic, I'd like to first make what I think are some very important points about the kinds of arguments we've been talking about thus far. I'm sure that there are those among you that are thinking to yourself, 'Well, that's cool and everything, but people on my circuit don't make those kinds of arguments' or 'Most judges that I debate in front of don't want to hear these kinds of arguments.' These are both valid concerns, and ones that I frequently ran into as a debater. Here, I'd like to briefly propose a solution.
First, I'd like to point out that the majority of these concerns stem not from the kinds of arguments you're making, but with the language you're using to make them. Throwing around words like 'skepticism' or 'parametrics' is clearly going to confuse someone that's not familiar with those terms and doesn't hear debates about them often (if at all). What this suggests is that the solution to these concerns is to repackage your arguments. The bottom line is that, in any given round, there are a number of interpretational issues that have to be addressed for an evaluation of that round to make sense. If the aff is parametricizing, but neither debater is discussing the legitimacy of that strategy, then it's very unclear as to whether or not what the affirmative is doing is in fact sufficient to vote for them. Similarly, if one debater proves that skepticism is the case, but there's not an in-depth discussion of how skepticism implicates the truth-value of the resolution, that round is essentially irresolvable. What this means is that saying 'I don't want to make these kinds of arguments' ignores the way that debate rounds function. Rather than saying 'If skepticism is the case,' say something like 'If we don't know what morality looks like.' This difference may seem trivial, but it makes a world of difference depending on who you're debating in front of.
The first kind of affirmative position I'd like to touch on is one which I'm sure will be very widespread, but is worth discussing here nonetheless. Recently, there has been a trend in debate to make arguments that sort of blur the line between what we traditionally conceived of as framework and contention level arguments. These arguments, which were very popular on last year's Jan/Feb topic, claim that some aspect of the resolution is inherently consistent with some moral theory, and then go on to justify why that moral theory is the correct understanding of morality. On the Jan/Feb topic of last year, which had to do with rehabilitative versus retributive modes of punishment, these arguments took the form of identifying rehabilitation as being "inherently utilitarian" for whatever reason, and then spending the rest of the case justifying utilitarianism. I'd like to suggest a similar move on this topic. It seems to me, and there are large swathes of literature that suggest this as well, that the notion of compulsory voting is necessarily consistent with the idea of utilitarianism. There are a myriad of reasons for why this could be the case, but among the strongest seems to be that the aim of democratic systems in the first place is to produce the greatest good for the greatest portion of the population. However, in order to know what that good would be (which is to say, in order to know what the populace desires), it's necessary to ensure that all sections of the community are able to express their political will. Compulsory voting accomplishes this goal by ensuring turnout for all sections of the population, meaning that it is a necessary component of utilitarian moral ideology. I think this position is especially strategic when built into traditional utilitarian arguments - i.e. a position which begins by warranting utilitarianism, then reads the standard util offense, and then finally makes this argument about how, if utilitarianism is true, then compulsory voting is inherently and absolutely necessary.
The second kind of affirmative position I'd like to discuss takes a framework position that would usually be understood to negate, and demonstrates that it does, in fact, affirm the resolution. It seems clear, based on both the topic literature and communal trends, that deontological autonomy arguments are going to be very popular on the negative on this topic. I sketch these arguments in more detail in the following section, but suffice to say here, the argument is that the notion of being compelled to vote is antithetical to the importance of liberty and autonomy in a democracy. The first thing to note here is that, while these arguments typically hinge on preserving the right of citizens to abstain from voting, or to be apolitical, compulsory voting does not actually violate these rights. Under compulsory voting practices, individuals are obligated to show up to the polling booths, sure, but due to secret voting laws, they are perfectly free to not fill out the ballot, or fill in their own name, or to choose a nominee that is not from either party. However, the argument can even go a step further - in the political sense, autonomy is not simply freedom from any kind of coercion. After all, we don't consider it a breach of autonomy that there are laws preventing me from killing other human beings. Instead, we recognize those laws as respecting autonomy, precisely because they keep me from infringing upon the rights of another. So, a proper understanding of autonomy in the political sense is that it promotes the populace's ability to follow and abide by laws that they have rationally created and put into place. From this conception of autonomy, it should be clear not only why the negative's concerns are false, but also why compulsory voting could in fact be considered legitimate.
The first subset of negative positions I'd like to discuss is one that I'm sure is going to be incredibly prevalent on this topic, both on local and national circuits. The argument is this: that the idea of compulsory voting is problematic because it violates the autonomy of various members of the political community. I see this argument as taking two distinct forms.
The first of this is perhaps the simplest, though that's not to say that it doesn't have value. This argument would seek to prove that autonomy is important in and of itself, and the importance of autonomy is necessitated by the existence of moral systems in the first place. This is the kind of argument that is usually made by various deontological thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant or Christine Korsgaard. There are a number of possible justifications for the importance of autonomy, but I'll (roughly) sketch one of them here. The argument, made by both of the authors mentioned above, centers on the source of our moral considerations and decisions, which these authors identify as human rationality. The reason for this is that, as humans, we rationally assign value to various end-states, and that assignment of value is what motivates us to not only act, but also to call an act moral in the first place. So, if this is the case, then it is necessarily immoral to act in a way that constrains the ability of humans to make rational decisions, or to act on the decisions that they have made. The conclusion, then, is that the only way to respect the rationality of humans is to allow them the autonomy to act as they see fit. It should be noted that, as I said before, this is a very rough sketch of what this argument actually looks like. It does, however, adequately describe the general form that these kinds of arguments tend to take.
The second, and more nuanced form of autonomy arguments I'd like to discuss is concerned with political autonomy, grounded in a respect for the authority of democracy. Essentially, the argument is that the foundation of a democratic system is the ability of its citizens to express their political will in a free and unrestricted manner. This is the significance of the very act of voting - that individuals are not constrained in the political message that they send to the state through their vote. With that in mind, however, it seems clear that abstaining from voting is, also, a means of political expression. Especially given the party-centric democratic systems that have emerged in the majority of democratic nations, it seems entirely possible that there could be a situation in which a given individual does not feel compelled to vote for either party. In that situation, compulsory voting would necessarily act as a constraint on that individual's political autonomy, which is antithetical to the idea of democracy in the first place.
The final subset of negative positions I'd like to touch on concerns itself with the implications of compulsory voting on democracies themselves. This position would begin (in a fashion similar the majority of positions on this topic) by describing necessary features of a democratic system - in this case, specifically isolating its supposed lack of bias. After all, the goal of a democratic system seems to be, unquestionably, to accurately express the will of the populace, and to translate that expression into political action. The problem, however, is that compulsory voting necessarily disadvantages certain groups of individuals, namely lower-class individuals. The reason for this is due to the way in which compulsory voting is usually implemented. Essentially, the argument is that individuals of a certain socioeconomic class simply can't afford to take time off of work in order to go vote. Now, there are certainly uniqueness concerns with this argument, which is to say, this particular harm is not necessarily uniquely attributable to compulsory voting (for instance, this is a concern that is already raised regarding the United States' current non-compulsory stance). However, these claims are unfounded - the issue is that, while compulsory voting laws would clearly increase voter turnout amongst those of a higher socioeconomic status by forcing those with the time but not the motivation to turn out to the voting booths, such an increase in turnout would not be seen amongst those of a lower socioeconomic position. It's this disparity that the argument claims is undemocratic in nature.
As a final note, there are a couple of things I'd like to emphasize. First and foremost, I'd like to echo my sentiment from the introduction to this analysis - what I've written here is a starting point, not an exhaustive description of the topic. My goal is to get you guys to start thinking about the resolution in a thorough and meaningful way, and the most effective way of thinking like that is to delve into the implications of the resolution as we have here. This segues well into the second thing I want to emphasize, which is the general mode of reasoning and argumentation that I've endorsed time and again so far. I can't emphasize enough that thinking about the arguments you're making deeply and thoroughly, and taking time to construct truly well-warranted arguments is unquestionably in your favor. Speed, technical skills, and debate jargon can only get someone so far, and if you're deficient in any of those areas, then it's even more important that you ensure that the arguments you're making are well-reasoned and cogent. After all, it doesn't matter how fast you are, so long as the argument you're making is just true.
Good luck this month!
Brian Hodge attended and competed for Cypress Falls High School and graduated in June 2012. He competed in Lincoln Douglas debate for 4 years, achieving success on both the regional and national levels. He qualified for the TFA State Tournament four times, and reached elimination rounds his junior and senior years. In addition, he received bids to the Tournament of Champions his sophomore and junior years, fully qualifying his senior year with a total of five career bids. He was the champion of the Houston Memorial tournament, a finalist at the St. Mark's Invitational, and a quarterfinalist at the Berkeley Invitational. He is currently a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is studying Mechanical Engineering.