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Back to Basics: The Counterplan in Traditional LD by Lawrence Zhou
Lawrence Zhou is currently a Fulbright Taiwan Debate Coach and Trainer and an assistant coach at Apple Valley High School. He was formerly the Director of Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the Victory Briefs Institute.
In this article, Lawrence presents his case for why counterplans are legitimate in traditional Lincoln-Douglas settings. He briefly explains what a counterplan is, refutes some of the arguments against counterplans in traditional Lincoln-Douglas debate, and provides some links to resources that may help debaters learn more about counterplans and how to deploy them in more traditional settings.
Updated: 8-19-2022—Updated section on NCFL rules
Now that the 2022-2023 season is underway, I'm hoping to see an uptick in new participants (the trends suggesting that there were fewer competitors that competed more frequently were not healthy for long-term debate participation). While many series exist on how to improve at the novice and varsity level (for example, Raffi Piliero published a number of articles on Briefly that I think are worth a read), I find that the number of resources available to more traditional or JV level debaters is a little lacking.
In that spirit, I'm launching a monthly blog series here on Briefly called "Back to Basics" which will cover issues that I think are more advanced than what you might want to teach at the novice level but frequently ignored when instructing students at the second- or third-year level. There exists a number of basic skills and concepts that I think are easy to take for granted after years in this activity that are worth covering explicitly. This month, I'll be covering the logic of counterplans in more traditional circuits and releasing a second follow up article about principles of good case writing next month.
In my recent topic analysis essay for the September/October 2022 Lincoln-Douglas topic, I launched into a mildly lengthy diatribe about why counterplans are obviously logical arguments that should be included in debate. This is a continuation of my similar rants in many of the topic analysis essays I write for Public Forum debate topics, especially as counterplans are also starting to find purchase in PF. In fact, camp director Chris Theis and several other Public Forum admins have repeatedly given an elective at camp called “Counterplans in PF” (available as a lecture as part of Victory Briefs Classroom) in which they argue that counterplans should be included in Public Forum (a take I wholeheartedly agree with).
To those that have more familiarity with counterplans in debate, this conclusion seems banal, perhaps offensively obvious—clearly counterplans should be included in debate! However, every year that I teach at camp, I interact with a significant number of debaters from fairly conservative or traditional circuits who stress that counterplans are barred in their local circuits either formally (i.e., forbidden by the rules) or informally (i.e., the judges that populate that circuit are unlikely to be sympathetic to the introduction of counterplans and so unlikely to vote for them).
Typically, I find the reasons proffered to be unpersuasive, relying on either false factual premises or specious reasoning that could be a textbook case of what a logical fallacy is. However, many coaches and competitors still hold the view that, for some reason or another, counterplans don’t belong in debate. While I doubt this essay will be the nail in the coffin against the many bad reasons barring counterplans in debate, I do want to summarize some of the more common arguments against counterplans and explain why I find them ultimately unpersuasive. Hopefully, this may sway a student or two reading this or at least provide the necessary ammunition to debate with others on this issue (as I find this “are counterplans legitimate or not” debate to be one of the more common ones I have with students from more traditional circuits).
On the one hand, nothing that I say here should be that complicated or original; on the other hand, I do think many debaters from more local or traditional circuits haven’t been exposed to these arguments. Since I think that one of debate’s many values is exposing students to viewpoints that they haven’t heard or deeply considered before, I hope that even ardent opponents of counterplans can at least consider what I argue here and engage the argument on its merits before just discarding what I have to say. And to students reading this because you’re not sure if counterplans belong in debate, it’s my hope that you can use some of what’s written here to help develop your own thoughts as to what a counterplan is and why it’s a justified argument that ought to be included within all styles of debate, including traditional LD debate.
I expect that many debaters from more traditional circuits will be familiar with the term “counterplan” but lack actual knowledge of the logic of a counterplan. In order to make my case for counterplans, it is unnecessary to know the nitty-gritty details of what a counterplan is (although I’ll provide resources at the end that should help explain what a counterplan is in greater detail); all that is needed is a basic idea of the logic behind a counterplan.
In this essay, I want to briefly introduce what a counterplan is, why the arguments against counterplans in traditional Lincoln-Douglas debate are ultimately unpersuasive to me, and provide some links to resources that may help debaters learn more about counterplans and how to deploy them in more traditional settings.
What is a Counterplan?
There are a variety of definitions of counterplans floating around out there. Many of those definitions merely aim to capture what a counterplan is often trying to do (e.g., many definitions of counterplan revolve around the idea that they are trying to “solve the AFF case”1). For example, the NSDA textbook on policy debate Debate 101: Everything You Need to Know About Policy Debate: You Learned Here by Bill and Will Smelko says:
What is a COUNTERPLAN? Easy, a COUNTERPLAN is a proposal offered by the negative that solves the significant problem(s) that the affirmative claims to exist and that creates some “net benefit” making it better at the end of the debate if the judge votes negative and prefers the COUNTERPLAN to the affirmative plan. Understanding how to debate COUNTERPLANS is immensely more complicated than the simplicity of the term’s definition.
Debate 101, p. 23
Ignoring the policy-specific jargon of “plan” and “net benefit” for a second, the basic logic here is that the negative is allowed to propose a change just like the affirmative is allowed to propose a change (that change being the one indicated in the resolution). The reasoning for this? That it would be unfair for the affirmative to be able to solve some of the harms that exist now (e.g., the lack of access to healthcare on this current single-payer topic) while the negative is restricted from also solving this harm.
This, I think, is the wrong way to think about counterplans at their core.2 These definitions don’t really attempt to get at what a counterplan is (although these definitions are far better than some of the misconceptions surrounding counterplans, see here for a particularly egregious example of an article from the NCFCA that clearly doesn't understand counterplans). And I think that the only real basis for allowing or disallowing a type of argument is simply whether the argument itself is logical, not extraneous considerations of “fairness” or “education” (for what is more fair and educational than considering logical arguments in the first place?).
So, what is a counterplan really?
At its core, a counterplan is nothing more than an opportunity cost. The concept of an opportunity cost might be a foreign one, so it’s worth explaining what an opportunity cost is. If you Google the definition, it’s defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”
We consider opportunity costs all the time—when we decide whether to go out to eat, whether to study, whether to make that impulse shopping purchase, etc. Each and every time, we’re considering whether we’re giving up something of greater value when we make a decision. Should you go out to eat if you could stay home and cook instead? Should you study now or go hang out with your friends? Should you make that impulse shopping purchase or save for something else later?
Each of these decisions requires you to weigh the relevant opportunity costs—is the potential gain of choosing another alternative (whether it be staying home to cook, hanging out with friends, or saving your money) greater than the gain of choosing the original option? If the answer is yes, then don’t take that course of action! If you think it’s better to stay home to cook than go out to eat, better to hang out with friends than to study, or to save your money than spend it all now, then you should not go out to eat, study, or make that impulse purchase.
Notice how the concept of an opportunity cost—an idea central to the entire field of economics—is nothing more than a logical argument against taking one course of action. It is not some artificial debate construct, but rather a logical extension of how we ought to make decisions.
If that still doesn’t make it super obvious what a counterplan is, maybe this example will help:
Larry is considering what to have for lunch today. He only has an hour to get lunch before he needs to be back in the classroom teaching. There are two options nearby: a Chipotle a block to the east and an In-N-Out Burger a block to the west. While Chipotle has guac and burritos, In-N-Out has animal style fries and the double-double burger. Chipotle would be more expensive, but the In-N-Out line is also substantially longer. Where should Larry go eat lunch? Should Larry eat at the Chipotle or the In-N-Out?
Typically, people might make a pros-and-cons list to decide where to eat. Weigh up the pros and cons for each restaurant and consider which one wins! This is similar to how a debater might propose an argument in a debate round. Suppose Debater Ashley is tasked with arguing in favor of Chipotle. They argue that Chipotle is a good option because Larry is currently hungry and needs food.
Debater Nathan might choose to respond by arguing that Chipotle is bad because it costs money or because of the risk of getting a food borne illness from the establishment. Ashley points out that the cost of Chipotle isn’t a lot, that the risk of getting sick from Chipotle isn’t very high, and that both costs are acceptable because of how hungry Larry is. Nathan seems to be in a losing position.
In a typical traditional LD debate round, this is Nathan’s only available strategy—because he is not allowed to advocate for alternatives, Nathan can only argue that eating at Chipotle is worse for Larry than not eating at all, a losing strategy because, in general, the importance of hunger will outweigh the loss of a few dollars or the small risk of getting food poisoning.
However, in the real world, it seems obvious that Nathan has a better set of arguments available—the counterplan to go to In-N-Out instead! Nathan points out that Ashley has only argued that Chipotle is good because Larry is currently hungry and needs food. Nathan agrees to the fact that Larry is hungry, but correctly identifies that such a fact isn’t a strong reason to get Chipotle—why not just go eat somewhere else instead? Why does it have to be Chipotle?
In fact, Nathan argues, we should go to In-N-Out because Larry really likes animal style fries and that’s something Chipotle doesn’t have (sidenote: the animal style fries are overrated, just like In-N-Out is). Here, Nathan has given a strong argument against going to Chipotle—Larry can only choose one option, and since both options solve the hunger problem, In-N-Out is the clear choice because it also has animal style fries.
In other words, Nathan has pointed out an opportunity cost—if Larry had chosen to go to Chipotle, he would’ve missed out on the potential benefits of going to In-N-Out, namely missing out on those animal style fries. Here, the opportunity to eat animal style fries represents the opportunity cost to eating at Chipotle. Consequently, it should be easy to understand why a counterplan is a logical argument for the negative to advance. All it’s doing is pointing out one of the fundamental parts of economics—the consideration of opportunity costs. It should be obvious that pointing out that In-N-Out is superior is a reason to negate Ashley’s proposal of going to Chipotle.
If you’re still a little confused about the logic of opportunity costs, I’d watch this video from Marginal Revolution, this one from Khan Academy, or this one from EconClips. There are also some explainer articles like this one from Econlib, this one from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and trusty ole Wikipedia.
This is as real-world and logical as it gets. Take the central debate on this single-payer universal healthcare topic. It’s not enough that the affirmative demonstrates that single-payer is one way to achieve universal coverage—the affirmative should prove that single-payer is superior to the existence of alternative health systems. For example, one of the core debates in the Democratic primaries was between more “progressive” healthcare proposals like Medicare For All and more “moderate” healthcare proposals like expanding Obamacare.
Just like it would silly to force the Nathan to negate the “go to Chipotle” AFF just with contentions about why Chipotle is bad in a vacuum (e.g., it costs money or it might make you sick)—an unwinnable strategy because those arguments probably don’t outweigh the importance of hunger, it is silly to force negative debaters in traditional LD to negate the single-payer good AFF with just reasons why single-payer is bad in a vacuum—also probably an unwinnable strategy given just how bad our current healthcare system is. Just like it would be silly to say that Nathan advocating to go to In-N-Out is somehow illogical or unfair in a debate about whether Larry should eat at Chipotle, it would be silly to say negative debaters advocating for the public option is somehow illogical or unfair in a debate about healthcare reform.
In summary, counterplans are not some artificial debate convention, but are instead arguments that naturally follow from the logic of opportunity costs. Counterplans merely aim to demonstrate that the opportunity cost of affirming is greater than the gain of affirming.
Why Should Counterplans Be Allowed?
The threshold to meet to bar an argument should be pretty high. In general, I’m quite sympathetic to the view that the only legitimate constraint on what arguments can be introduced in debate is merely whether they meet some baseline standard of logical coherence. One would need to think the argument is so illogical or ridiculous that teaching it would be antithetical to the pedagogical goals of the activity or just so blatantly offensive (e.g., racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) that barring it would be needed to protect the safety of students in the activity. I can’t really think of very many other conditions that would justify flatly barring a type of argument otherwise—that, I think, sets the threshold for barring counterplans in debate pretty high. Unless the opponent of counterplans can demonstrate that counterplans are so obviously bad for the educational value of the activity (and even that wouldn’t be particularly convincing considering the number of patently false arguments that win debates nowadays) or student safety, I think the default rests strongly with their inclusion rather than their exclusion.
Additionally, arguments need not be ruled out on theoretical grounds—they can be dealt with merely by pointing out the absence of a warrant. For example, if one were deeply persuaded by the objection that counterplans simply don’t negate the resolution, I would not see this as a strong reason to bar counterplans generally—I would only see this as a reason why the affirmative debater should advance that objection in a rebuttal speech. For reasons elaborated upon by debate coach Jacob Nails in “Two Dogmas of Fiat,” I think it’s silly to appeal to the “rules of debate” to bar certain arguments when simply pointing out why the argument is substantively weak would suffice. Similarly, if one thought that counterplans were merely bad arguments, I wouldn’t think of that as a strong reason to prohibit counterplans wholesale—just a great response for the affirmative debater to make in the rebuttal speech.
Consequently, I think the case for counterplans in traditional LD is fairly straightforward—they are logical arguments that negate the resolution and so they ought to be included. I would think that the opponent of counterplans in traditional LD has a high bar to clear—whatever the downside to introducing counterplans in traditional LD is, it has to be important enough to meet the threshold of barring an argument.
Therefore, I won’t lay out a particularly active case for including counterplans—I don’t think the counterplan needs an active case for its inclusion anymore than I think that the introduction of quoted evidence in debate needs an active case for its inclusion. Rather, I turn now to deflating some of the most common objections to incorporating counterplans in traditional LD circuits.
What are the Objections to Counterplans?
Objection 1: Counterplans Violate NSDA Rules
One of the most common charges levied against reading counterplans in traditional settings is that they violate the rules laid out by the National Speech and Debate Association. While it is true that back when the NSDA was still the NFL (National Forensic League), there were some versions of the rules that did technically prohibit the use of counterplans in Lincoln-Douglas debate. However, this rule no longer exists, rendering this objection patently false.
If you go to the most recent edition of the NSDA’s High School Unified Manual (I’m writing this essay on August 16, 2022, so I am utilizing the version updated on June 2, 2022) and search for the term “counterplan,” you’ll notice that it only shows up three times, all on page 25. For convenience, I’ve posted the entire paragraph in which the results appear (and feel free to check me on this):
Plans/Counterplans: In Public Forum Debate, the Association defines a plan or counterplan as a formalized, comprehensive proposal for implementation. Neither the pro or con side is permitted to offer a plan or counterplan; rather, they should offer reasoning to support a position of advocacy. Debaters may offer generalized, practical solutions.
There are a few things to note here. First, notice that this is only in the context of Public Forum Debate, not LD. Already, the idea that reading a counterplan in LD violates some “rule” is based on some antiquated understanding of the rules of LD debate. There is simply no such prohibition on reading counterplans in LD debate.
Second, even if these rules did somehow translate over to LD, it’s not at all clear that reading a “counterplan” would violate them. Notice that it is defined as a “formalized, comprehensive proposal for implementation.” Most counterplans would not meet that threshold.
Let’s use the current LD topic (Resolved: The United States ought to implement a single-payer universal healthcare system) as an example. I fail to see how saying something such as, “Contention 2: The public option is superior” and then reading some evidence that suggests that a public option for healthcare would be a superior version of healthcare reform would violate the rule. How would this qualify as a “formalized, comprehensive proposal for implementation”?
In contrast, take a look at the full text of the Medicare For All Act of 2019 proposed by Senator Bernard Sanders. That is something that would probably violate the threshold set forth by the NSDA. Saying, “Maybe we should do something like a public option instead” certainly does not! And if it does violate that threshold, then it’s clear the affirmative would violate it too since they too specify a similar level of detail relative to the counterplan!
Simply put, there are simply no rules set forth by the NSDA that prohibits counterplans in LD, and even if the rules did apply, “counterplans” as a general category of negative argument would not violate the rules as written.
Objection 1a: Counterplans Violate NCFL Rules
A commenter on a thread about this article noted that the National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL)—the host of NCFL Grand Nationals, generally considered one of the three major national championships in LD along with the NSDA National Tournament and the Tournament of Champions (TOC)—bars counterplans in debate. I had totally overlooked this and it turns out that on page 9 of the 2022 update of their bylaws, it does indeed prohibit plans and counterplans:
b. Lincoln-Douglas Debate:
1) The resolution is a proposition of value, not policy. Debaters are to develop argumentation on the resolution in its entirety, based on conflicting underlying principles and values to support their positions. To that end, they are not responsible for practical applications. No plan or counterplan shall be offered by either debater.
Putting aside the fact that I think this description is mostly nonsensical (e.g., how could one not be responsible for practical applications? That is a patently absurd view that does not align with any real philosophical work), does this description, as written, actually bar counterplans? I think not.
To illustrate, let me just list a few of the recent NCFL Grand Nationals topics (a shockingly difficult list to construct because there appears to be no actual list of previous NCFL LD topics, hence why some are missing):
2021—Resolved: The U.S. presidency ought to be decided by a national popular vote instead of the electoral college.
2019—Resolved: Developed nations have a moral obligation to admit people fleeing oppression.
2018—Resolved: Bystanders have a moral obligation to act in the face of injustice.
2017—Resolved: The people’s right to know ought to be valued above the government’s need for secrecy.
2015—Resolved: When in conflict, international actions to counter terrorism ought to take priority over national interests.
2014—Resolved: When in conflict, national security concerns ought to be valued above personal privacy.
2013—Resolved: Just societies should never deliberately initiate war.
2012—Resolved: The United States ought not to intervene in the political processes of other sovereign nations.
2011—Resolved: The United States has a moral obligation to promote just governance in developing nations.
2010—Resolved: That the United States government has a moral obligation to afford the same Constitutional rights to all people on United States soil.
The fact that they have not defined what a counterplan is makes it quite difficult to prohibit. As written, I think it’s clear that they conceive of counterplans solely as a potential “policy” alternative. Recall the example of Ashley and Nathan considering which establishment Larry ought to eat lunch at—it’s clear that the “counterplan” of going to In-N-Out is a logical and important counterargument against going to Chipotle while also not being a policy option. Again, if counterplans are nothing more than opportunity costs, then there is nothing that requires counterplans be policy options. All choices involve opportunity costs, counterplans merely point those out, whether they be policies or not.
Take any of the given resolutions listed above and it’s clear why counterplans should be allowed even when it comes to questions of value not policy. For example, the 2019 topic about admitting people fleeing oppression. First, horrible topic—the negative ground basically amounts to “watching the child drown in the pond is good,” hardly a balanced topic. Second, why isn’t the negative allowed to propose a variety of alternatives to admitting people fleeing from oppression? It seems totally fair and reasonable to allow the negative to say things like, “Even if developed nations don’t have to admit people fleeing oppression, they still can help in other ways such as providing humanitarian aid or coordinating with multilateral institutions to address the issue.” The moral obligation to admit people fleeing oppression may not be quite as strong in the face of other (perhaps more effective) alternatives to address the issue at hand.
Or take the 2013 topic about never initiating war. I think the negative should obviously be allowed to propose some conditions on which war could be initiated to help avoid common affirmative criticisms of deliberating initiating war. For example, if the affirmative had a contention about deliberating initiating war against countries without a standing army being bad, I would think it’s reasonable for the negative to say, “Hey, maybe don’t do that, but that’s not a reason to affirm because I don’t think I need to prove it’s always okay to deliberating initiate war, just that it’s okay in some limited circumstances such as to stop genocide.”
Really, take any topic debated at NCFL Grand Nationals in the last decade and you can see that they all encourage counterplans of some sort, and—most importantly—none of those counterplans are “policies” per se. Instead, they are merely pointing out an opportunity cost to affirming, a relevant consideration in both ethics and policy making!
Objection 2: Counterplans Are Illogical
I admit that I truly do not understand this objection, making it difficult for me to give a particularly good-faith summary of it. However, what I think people are trying to say when they make this argument is something akin to “Proving that the counterplan is good doesn’t prove the resolution is false.”
If this is the sentiment being expressed, then I wholeheartedly agree! Demonstrating that a counterplan is good does not, by itself, demonstrate that the resolution is false (or that whatever the affirmative proposals is undesirable). For example, if the negative proposed a counterplan of “The United States should end world hunger” on this healthcare topic, I think the affirmative should (correctly) point out that the counterplan is not a persuasive reason to negate the resolution. In other words, the affirmative should point out that the counterplan isn’t a real “opportunity cost” (in debate jargon, we might say that the affirmative debater should “permute” or “perm” the counterplan, arguing that the United States could both implement single-payer and end world hunger).
Consequently, while we agree on the problem—counterplans that aren’t competitive—we clearly disagree on the resolution. My solution is simple—the affirmative should point out that many counterplans simply are not an opportunity cost! The other solution is far more strained—barring an entire category of arguments that overlooks that many counterplans are, in fact, logical opportunity costs.
For example, if the negative argues that a single-payer healthcare system would be too expensive and that a public option would similarly ensure universal coverage at a fraction of the cost, that would obviously be an opportunity cost to single-payer! You can’t really have a single-payer healthcare system that eliminates private insurance while simultaneously endorsing a healthcare system that largely preserves private insurance (in debate jargon, we might call this counterplan “mutually exclusive” with the affirmative).
If the negative demonstrates that a public option is indeed superior to a single-payer system, that would seem to entail that we ought not implement a single-payer healthcare system because the opportunity cost of a public option outweighs the potential gain of a single-payer system. In the same way that proving that In-N-Out is a better place to eat lunch than Chipotle would be a good reason to not eat lunch at Chipotle, this would prove that we ought not implement single-payer.
Consequently, it seems far more illogical to artificially bracket off considerations of alternatives, especially within the context of healthcare where the main debate is not about single-payer versus no single-payer in a vacuum, but rather about whether single-payer is the best proposed option compared to alternatives like a public option or multi-payer system.
In summary, I think this objection rests on a conflation of substantive versus theoretical challenges to counterplans. This is the equivalent of saying that because some negative frameworks don’t really disagree with the affirmative framework, we should ban the negative from reading frameworks—this is patently absurd. Clearly, the solution is that we encourage the negative to pick better frameworks that actually disagree with the affirmative’s framework. Similarly, the solution is that we encourage negative debaters to pick counterplans that actually demonstrate a relevant opportunity cost, not to ban them wholesale.
While many counterplans do not present actual opportunity costs to affirming, that is a reason those are bad counterplans, not a reason why counterplans are bad.
Objection 3: Counterplans Turn LD Into Policy
It seems to me that many of the coaches and judges that seem to despise counterplans are ones that are (rightfully) concerned about devolution of LD into one-on-one policy debate. Given that the language of a “counterplan” itself already sounds suspiciously like the domain of policy debate, I can sympathize with this concern. As much as I think that policy debate has immense educational value to offer (e.g., see Becca Rothfeld’s piece here, my piece here, or this study here), I also recognize that other debate styles teach valuable skills (e.g., Lincoln-Douglas represents a particularly unique avenue to teach philosophy). I do not want to see all debate flattened into policy debate, especially because the barriers to entry for policy debate remain largely inaccessible for many students across the country.
For now, I’ll separate out the two concerns—I’ll tackle whether the introduction of counterplans does actually trade off with other forms of education such as philosophical debate later. For now, I’ll address the more surface level concern that counterplans make LD into policy.
Ultimately, I think this objection is nothing more than guilt by association. Policy debate also has norms of reading evidence and doing research—is it now the case that is also bad? This is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is incumbent upon the critic of counterplans to demonstrate something uniquely bad with counterplans themselves rather than trying to handwave them away by saying the words “policy, scary.” I am not the biggest fan of policy-style debating myself (do students really need to know how to comprehend someone spreading at 450 wpm to gain real-world skills?). However, I am a big fan of logical arguments and this objection simply isn’t one.
How does the introduction of counterplans lead to more “policy-style” debating? Why would this necessarily encourage debaters to start doing silly things like spreading, introducing technically complex arguments like topicality, or reading kritiks? I simply don’t see how this would be the case. It’s not like arguing about a counterplan requires immense debate jargon—it merely requires the negative to logically explain why a counterplan presents a valid opportunity cost. Most real-world debates have counterplans because most real-world discussions recognize that you can’t consider proposals in a vacuum—you have to weigh proposals against each other! Just like the public can broadly understand why politicians debate between different tax reform or health care proposals, so too can the public broadly understand why the negative is saying that some alternative course of action is preferable to the one that the affirmative proposed.
Objection 4: Counterplans Undermine Philosophical Debating
Similar to the above objection, opponents of counterplans occasionally argue that one reason to bar counterplans is that they trade off with debating broad philosophical principles. By allowing the negative to focus on more nuanced policy questions, that undercuts the importance of developing well-justified philosophical arguments in LD.
I am quite a fan of philosophy in LD personally (hence why fellow Apple Valley debate coach Nick Smith and I authored a course on philosophy in debate for the NSDA) and I’m also quite a fan of debating the resolution as a general principle (as it was written!). However, as much as I also bemoan the decline of philosophical debating in LD, I don’t find this argument all that persuasive even if it was afforded its full weight.
First, I largely think that the best way to capture the educational value of debate is to simply debate the resolution. Some topics are going to privilege more principled philosophical debate while some topics will be more favorable for debates that are largely empirical in nature. So long as the community submits a decent spread of topic areas (and the topic committee continues to seek diversity in topic areas in their finalized public list), I think we’ll be fine!
As debate coach and now Professor of Philosophy Jake Nebel argues that, “I don’t really care for clash-of-civilizations debates between policymakers and philosophers: I think it’s a mistake to privilege, without much empirical evidence, either abstract philosophical debate or concrete public policy debate as more fair or educational than the other. Some approaches are more germane to certain resolutions than they are to others. Most resolutions call for elements of both, but the balance depends on precise aspects of wording.”
I am inclined to agree—I think it’s a mistake to artificially bracket off one type of education as somehow categorically more valuable than others. Some topics will naturally lend themselves to interesting and literature-based debates about alternatives (e.g., this topic about single-payer) while others naturally draw from a much more philosophical literature base. For example, I think something has gone horribly awry if debaters leave this topic unaware of the differences of single-payer healthcare systems compared to other models of healthcare (I would struggle to think of any philosopher writing on the issue of ethics in healthcare who thought it was fine to simply jettison such concerns from consideration).
Second, I’m not convinced any such trade off exists. For instance, many debaters who do policy-style debating in LD are actually quite familiar with the intricacies of moral and political philosophy. I’d want to see some empirical evidence that actually validates this trade off hypothesis; otherwise, I have equally strong evidence that the trade off doesn’t exist.
Third, I could easily see counterplans as facilitating more in-depth philosophical debating. One common affirmative case I saw on this topic was largely Rawlsian in nature. I think the best version of this affirmative case suggested that a right to healthcare emerged from a consideration of the equal liberty principle. However, many affirmative cases largely focused their contentions around the difference principle and the more egalitarian nature of Rawls’ theory, pointing out that access to healthcare is unequal and largely divided along lines of class and race. The weakness of this approach is that merely focusing on the importance of equal and universal access doesn’t provide a strong reason in favor of single-payer healthcare—it just emphasizes the importance of universal coverage which could be achieved in a myriad of ways, e.g., through a public option, regulated market system, or multi-payer system.
However, in many traditional circuits where counterplans are banned, the affirmative doesn’t need to develop a particularly rigorous defense of the mechanism of single-payer because the negative cannot propose alternative methods to reach universal coverage via a different mechanism. Consequently, this actually worsens the quality of philosophical debating because the affirmative never had to find a good philosophical argument in favor of single-payer beyond the obvious ones about equality. However, if the negative were allowed access to counterplans, that would force the affirmative to be more detail-oriented about their philosophical arguments and encourage them to spend a little more time digging through actual philosophy texts that provide more nuanced arguments. Affirmative debaters would finally have an incentive to pick the more interesting warrants out of their philosophical theory to explain the more nuanced arguments in favor of single-payer specifically.
Ultimately, I sympathize with this concern, but find it to be largely persuasive enough to scale up to the point of prohibiting counterplans.
Objection 4a: “Opportunity Cost” Logic Necessarily Undermines Philosophical Debating
I think a similar sentiment is shared when people argue that the term “opportunity costs” is itself already biased in favor of utilitarian ethics and away from non-consequentialist considerations. I think this is incorrect. Even non-utilitarian philosophers consider opportunity costs all the time. How could one even debate about questions in practical ethics without considering opportunity costs? How could any philosopher debate about what “ought” to be done if they arbitrarily disregarded all considerations of opportunity costs?
One key thing to note here is that “costs” is a broad term, not to be conflated with the more straight-forward usage of “costs” purely in monetary terms. In fact, the whole point of framework in LD is just to identify what counts as a relevant “cost” according to different ethical theories. For example, libertarians emphasize harms to liberty as more “costly” than committed egalitarians who find patterns of inequality to be more “costly.”
This objection turns out to be nothing more than an equivocation about the term “costs.”
Objection 4b: Counterplans Detract From General Principle Debating
Similar to the above objection, this version suggests that the introduction of counterplans will force debates into questions about nitty-gritty details at the expense of debating about the resolution as a general principle.
I think many of the responses I laid out previously apply here. I have no reason to think that the type of thing we’re supposed to be debating is anything other than what’s determined by the topic literature, I’d like to see some empirical evidence of this, and I think that debating about counterplans is often the best way to capture meaningful debates about the general principle.
To elaborate on the last point, given that the core point of disagreement between two sides on a topic is often not about the existence of a problem but rather about the appropriate solution, it seems odd to artificially bracket off literature-based general principle debates about the best solution to a problem. It seems to make debating about the topic as a general principle more shallow and less nuanced.
Besides, you can debate about the topic as a general principle against counterplans because you have to debate about the general features of single-payer that make it desirable compared to different healthcare reforms. And you can debate about the topic in the realm of nitty-gritty policy details without counterplans (and many traditional rounds I’ve watched have devolved into shouting matches about the funding source for the affirmative’s proposal, all without the need for counterplans).
As I mentioned above, I think that the threshold that one would need to clear for barring an argument is pretty high—I simply don’t see how any of the objections listed gets anywhere close. Rather, I speculate that many of the opponents of counterplans are those that are relying on a few heuristics to rationalize their prior beliefs about the evil nature of counterplans.
Believe me, I’ve seen where the logic of counterplans taken to the extreme can take you (the States CP or other silly counterplans) and I have good reason to not want to end up there. That isn’t a reason not to allow the good in. Any argument can be taken to the extremes. Arguments about the political or public backlash of passing some policy have somehow morphed into nonsensical disadvantages often termed the “politics DA” (which I find to be quite silly). That’s not a reason why arguments about political or public backlash should no longer be considered.
Counterplans can make traditional interesting and, more importantly, logical and educational. I think it would be a shame if debaters in traditional circuits never got to learn about some of the most important parts of healthcare reform. I think we would be doing students a disservice if they never considered why single-payer healthcare is a superior reform compared to a multi-payer or regulated market system. I think we would be encouraging worse quality debating if affirmative debaters did not have to develop a defense of “single-payer” as opposed to just defending that universal healthcare is good.
How Do I Learn More About Counterplans?
The section introducing counterplans was heavily simplified in order to make the basic idea of a counterplan understandable enough to talk about without having to reference unnecessarily advanced jargon or concepts. However, if you wish to learn more about counterplans, there are lots of resources online that can help you learn more about what counterplans are and how to use them in traditional LD settings. I’ve listed some below:
Victory Briefs Virtual Classroom: https://classroom.victorybriefs.com/virtual-classroom. There are a great number of lectures and lessons on counterplans and what they entail! They even have a textbook (available here) on basic policy concepts (that I helped co-author) that I think contains a pretty comprehensive introduction to a lot of the logic of policy debate arguments.
Intro to Plans and CPs: https://youtu.be/D4fK6-BqCzY. This lecture, given by Jacob Nails at the Victory Briefs Institute in 2017, is a great introduction to what a counterplan is. I have given a similar elective here, but I prefer the way that Nails explains things.
Debating Traditionally: https://youtu.be/dhLK7zbhi7U. In this series, I discuss a lot of my core advice for how to leverage technical skills into success in more traditional circuits. In the third part of the series, I have a brief discussion about how to deploy counterplans in more traditional settings.
Wyoming Debate Roundup: https://wyodebateroundup.weebly.com/blog/counterplans-101-series. This series is written by my former boss and current Director of Debate at the University of Wyoming Matt Liu. It covers a lot of the issues typically associated with counterplans, e.g., more advanced issues of competition and other theoretical issues related to the counterplan. I wouldn’t read this until I felt that I had a decent understanding of the logic of counterplans more generally; however, once you’re familiar with the basic idea, I’d read this series to start gaining more insight into the more advanced ideas associated with counterplans in debate. (However, I vehemently disagree with Liu’s take that agent counterplans are competitive because it’s not an opportunity cost for another agent to take a course of action.)
Digital Speech and Debate: https://www.digitalspeechanddebate.com/beginnercurriculum. This project seems wildly underutilized and contains some of the best resources out there for learning policy debate (I really think that the series “Elevating the AFF” by Anthony Trufanov is one of the best I’ve watched and I felt that I learned something out of it as a coach).
Dartmouth Debate Institute: https://youtu.be/ubm3bunm8lQ. The lecture, given by Anthony Trufanov, is a great introduction to counterplans. As I expressed above, I think that Trufanov is incredible and while this introduction of counterplans seems like it’s introductory level on face, don’t let that fool you—there are incredibly dense thoughts about counterplans woven throughout this lecture that leave you learning something the second or third time that you watch this.
The HSLD Facebook Resource Directory: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1w_Qrm3LUNrDDgOzc-h7i_3UDaV3OniNN29FMk5ZI-Ek/edit?fbclid=IwAR1vGQGS-jztRdDWFWoZ6Vkn4tbXE9LNP2-U3mC0UpbXJsh3yo7q7UG8Nx4#gid=0. While I can’t vouch for everything in here, this resource directory (part of the High School LD Facebook group) contains a lot of links to useful repositories of information that could help someone learn more about counterplans.
 For an additional example, see this introduction to counterplans in the 2008 book The Policy Debate Manual by Joe Bellon and Abhi Smith Williams:
The Negative’s Turn to Argue for Change
Sometimes the world is messed up, and there’s just no arguing about it. For the affirmative, this can be great news (well, in a totally weird kind of way). The point is that the affirmative has a great advantage when there are terrible, indisputable problems in the world that can be solved by the affirmative plan. Sometimes these problems consist of ongoing problems that are inherent in the current system (like racism, environmental destruction, poverty, disease, and so on). Other times these problems take the form of crises that are on their way but might still be prevented by timely action (global warming or imminent nuclear conflict, for example).
When the consensus of experts is that things are (or are about to be) really bad, the affirmative can have a competitive advantage that it is hard for the negative to overcome. After all, if we are sure that the current system is causing a lot of harms, then it may be a good idea to pass the affirmative plan even if it might not be completely effective — or even if it causes some disadvantages. If the harms caused by the status quo are bad enough, then the advantages of the plan can be nearly impossible for the negative to overcome.
A long time ago, some clever negative debaters thought to themselves, “hey, it isn’t fair that the affirmative is the only team that gets to propose a plan for change! And anyway, that’s not how the real world works. If someone proposes one idea for change, another person comes up with some different idea. We don’t just debate about whether or not to act; we debate about what action to take, too.” It is because of bitter, unhappy rants like this that great progress is made. Before long, it became common for negative debaters to propose their own plans for change. These negative plans are called “counterplans.”
The Policy Debate Manual, p. 47
 I also think that the Smelko and Smelko definition is incorrect because it is not the case that counterplans must necessarily solve the significant problem(s) that the affirmative claims to exist. Take a debate between going to get lunch or finishing up some debate work. It is clear that the counterplan—to finish debate work—solves none of the harms that the affirmative will identify—hunger. However, it is clear that the “finish debate work” counterplan is a legitimate counterplan that the affirmative must refute.