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Competing Interpretations and Actual Abuse
by Jake Nebel
Note: Most of this was written up directly from my notes for my Theory and Philosophy module at VBI 2013. I remember that many students asked probing questions and made excellent objections to some of the ideas in this brief part of the module. But I didn’t take notes while giving the module, so I’ve forgotten those questions and objections. I would greatly appreciate if anyone who attended the module could send me notes that include the comments from other students.
Theory in LD is often framed in terms of ‘abuse.’ When people frame theory in this way, they seem to mean that a debater’s practice is unfair only if it harms the opponent (where harms are understood in terms of the opportunity to win). But this idea has always seemed a bit strange to me, because we do not generally characterize fairness outside of debate in terms of abuse or harm. It doesn’t seem like a general principle that one only acts unfairly by harming or abusing someone. In fact, I think the basic mindset that underlies competing interpretations is that one can act unfairly by violating a rule that one expects others to follow.
Let me take a step back. Competing interpretations is the idea that a practice should be rejected if it violates the best rules for how debate should be. The judge might reject a practice by excluding arguments that stem from it, or by voting against the debater who engaged in it.
One way to argue for competing interpretations is through rule consequentialism. Rule consequentialism is the view that we ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance or compliance would make things go best. Some arguments for rule consequentialism might be applied to say that debaters should follow the rules whose universal acceptance or compliance within the debate community would create the best activity. But notice that a lot of the arguments people make for competing interpretations implicitly appeal to consequentialism—e.g., ‘norms creation’ and ‘race to the bottom’ arguments. So, if one construes competing interpretations in a consequentialist way, these arguments for competing interpretations might beg the question. Maybe the consequences for debate would be best if we were rule consequentialists about debate practices, but why does that matter if we don’t care about the consequences for debate?
However, you don’t have to be a consequentialist to believe that competing interpretations is right.
Suppose you agree that there should be a rule against some practice, X. It seems that if you do X anyway, then you have acted unfairly or wrongly even if you haven’t harmed anyone. There are several analogies one might use to support this argument: fair play arguments for following the law, and arguments against free riding on public goods, telling white lies, certain kinds of hypocrisy, and making an exception for oneself. (The fair play analogy is especially on point because fairness isn’t needed to show why any particular law is a good idea. Fairness comes in to generate the obligation to follow the rule even in cases where violations cause no harm. Just as a defender of the fair play argument can justify laws on grounds of total welfare, this proponent of competing interpretations could justify debate rules on grounds of education or other benefits unrelated to fairness.) These are familiar aspects of moral thought, which we might gleam from Kant’s concept of universalizability or the utilitarians’ focus on impartiality of moral rules in relevantly similar circumstances.
How might this argument affect the debate over ‘actual vs. potential abuse’? Well, it seems worse to violate a rule in a way that harms someone than it is to violate a rule in a way that doesn’t harm someone. But that doesn’t make it okay to violate a rule in a way that doesn’t harm someone. So, on the fairness story for competing interpretations that I have sketched, one might still think that actual abuse matters more at the impact level. Furthermore, there are other important roles to play for actual abuse, while maintaining that actual abuse is not all that matters. Actual abuse may be evidence that confirms some reason why a rule is good. Or perhaps the presence of actual abuse is a greater reason to drop the debater, rather than merely the argument.
There are other reasons to think that actual abuse is not all that matters when it comes to fairness. One reason has to do with moral luck. Many of us believe that morality shouldn’t depend on luck, although this idea is notoriously hard to spell out. Whether something is right or wrong, or fair or unfair, doesn’t just depend on how things happen to be. Even if some disadvantage is not actual, that fact doesn’t seem sufficient to undermine the unfairness if things very easily could’ve turned out to hurt one’s opponent. Moreover, unlike moral luck due to (say) the lottery of birth or other factors outside of one’s control, potential abuse seems to be a case where one’s chances are at the whim of another. (If you’re interested in following the line of thought in the previous sentence, you might look into Philip Pettit’s theory of freedom as non-domination, and his idea that certain values such as fairness are affected by how things go in other possible worlds. Also, you have to be careful when running arguments about moral luck, because those issues can get very slippery.)
Jake Nebel is a curriculum director at VBI. He studies Philosophy at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship and coached the winner of the 2013 Tournament of Champions.