Written by Ybo Buruma
Principled argumentation is arguably no longer as prevalent as it was when I first started debating. Back in those days (long, long ago) proposition teams were basically required to bring at least some principled justification for their plans. Sometimes, these justifications were rather short. For instance, when the government already had very similar policies in place, or when a prisoner’s dilemma occurred. However, quite often, the principled discussion was the more important one in the debate: is the government allowed to protect you from yourself to this extent? Is the government allowed to torture someone to save millions of innocents? Those questions happen less and less frequently in the debates I’ve seen over the last few months and I think that’s a shame: principled arguments are both extremely interesting and can be very compelling.
In this short piece I’m going to look at the three things I believe are needed for a principled argument to stand, on top of that, I’m going to look at a few different ways for principled arguments to be used in the current ‘meta’ of debating.
The very first step of explaining principled arguments is that the principle should be true in general. This might seem obvious, but even at the highest level of debating this often goes awry. Think of all the times that people have stated there’s a right to property, without actually explaining why it exists in the first place. For a more recent example, think of the Dutch Nationals semi-final where one team tried to make the principled argument (on the motion that the Netherlands should veto any further extension of the Brexit deadline), that governments should never overturn decisions before they had tried it out. This principle might sound intuitive, but without further explanation it’s easy to dismiss, for example by pointing out that when we know we’ve sent an innocent man to death row, it might be better to change our decision before it’s carried out.
This brings us to the way we can explain whether a principle is true. Explaining principled argumentation is very similar to many other ways of debating: you start out by something that intuitively feels right (you own your own body) and you proceed logically from there: because you own your own body and you sacrificed parts of that body (the time, blood sweat and tears of working), you, by extension, own whatever you earned with your body. Refuting principled analysis on this level is often done by explaining why one of the logical steps doesn’t work, or by attacking the core premise, which is usually done by giving counterexamples such as the one above.
The second part of explaining principled arguments is about explaining why this principle is relevant in this scenario. To illustrate the importance of this step let’s look at the right to self-defence. Even if you explain the principle really well (for instance by giving examples describing that people have the right to fight back when they’re attacked, even if it harms them in the long run), and the argument is impacted well enough (see nr. 3), it might still not win you the debate if you don’t explain the relevance of self-defence within the context of the debate. That makes sense, since obviously just randomly attacking someone else, who’s not threatening you, wouldn’t be allowed under the principle of self-defence, so you have to explain that the person you’re harming was attacking you, and thus that self-defence applied here. In essence: if Johnny comes after me with a knife, I’m not allowed to hit Hank, unless you explain A) hitting Hank helps you as well and you have a right to self-preservation or B) Hank was also culpable of the attack and therefore deserves to be hit.
However, the most difficult part of principled analysis remains the last question: what’s the ‘impact’ of the argument. The impact here is usually not measured in happiness (such as with utilitarian arguments), but with the impact it has on a debate and I think we can split that up into three different categories of impact:
The first category of impact is the one that most of us associate with principled argumentation, but it is, in my opinion, the one that’s least likely to actually work in a debate. For example, when someone tells us property rights are absolute, that’s refuted by pointing out that we limit your property all the time, by taxing it or by forbidding you to buy weapons. Or when the right to your own body is brought as a principle, that could be refuted by explaining that we sometimes have to lock people up to protect society. One of the only cases where an ‘absolute’ principle holds out a little longer is when we talk about torture. Most people (luckily) believe that the state shouldn’t torture people, and many of them still believe it even when torturing would bring a utilitarian benefit to society (by for example saving hundreds of lives). However, explaining that argument is really quite difficult and often doesn’t go much further than ‘but you’re not allowed to torture someone’, or by falling back on utilitarian (non-principled) reasons (such as the extreme suffering of the tortured, or the political ramifications such an action might have).
The second category of impact is a lot more useful: the principle can convince the judges that something is only allowed under very specific circumstances: for example, we’re only allowed to limit your ownership of your body under extreme circumstances where you would otherwise be a threat to society (prisons), or we can only take away your property when that’s necessary for society to continue to thrive (such as with taxes). That means that simply arguing that the government is *sometimes* allowed to take away your property doesn’t mean they’re allowed to do so in this specific scenario, because apparently that only happens under strict circumstances.
Lastly, principled argumentation can be used to explain that the state has a certain duty towards a group of people. For example, the state might have a bigger responsibility to protect its own citizens than the citizens of a different country, or the state has a bigger responsibility towards innocents than towards villains.
Importantly, making a principled argument doesn’t automatically win the entire debate by saying “this is the only thing that’s important”. Weigh-offs still have to be made within those arguments: for example, we might all have an intuitive feeling that innocents should be protected more than villains and when a building is on fire and we can only save one individual, most of us would try to save the innocent person trapped in the fire instead of the pyromaniac who lighted it in the first place. However, that might change as soon as the pyromaniac is relatively innocent themselves (they’re only 12), or when there are 10 pyromaniacs and only 1 innocent person and we must choose between both groups. Explaining which group is more important comes down to simply debating: explaining why your group is the most important, why our duty towards children is bigger or smaller than towards the other people in burning buildings etc. etc.
In conclusion, I’d like you to keep three things in mind when you’re considering running a principled argument. First, most principles shouldn’t be run as absolute truths or falsehoods, but as an argument on a spectrum that’s to be weighed off just as any other argument within the debate. Just as when we say that it’s not 100% believable that a practical argument would be true or important, but we still value the argument, so it should be with principled argumentation. Second, principles often work on the basis of examples. Principles can in themselves be refuted by examples, but, more often, can be mitigated and coaxed by examples: yes, you have a right to not be locked up, but not in all scenario’s, yes, you have a right to property, but not all the time. Working well with examples is thus key to working well with principles, explain why your example is more true, or more analogous than the example of the other team: in short: explain why this measure is closer to taxing than to stealing the clothes off your back. Third, running principled arguments isn’t scary or that hard to do, keep on trying it out and keep getting better at making those arguments.
Written by Lena
Now that the Debatbond board members are in the final months, it was a good opportunity for 720 to interview them once more. Importantly, the Debatbond will be recruiting for a new board soon. If you are thinking of potentially applying, this is where you can get to know everything your heart desires to know about the Debatbond! Who are the board members? How have they changed during their board year? What have they done in the past years? Those are all the questions you might be asking yourself. We are hoping to inform you all about the organization for you by getting to know the members, what they do and what they have been able to accomplish.
For those that are unfamiliar with what the Debatbond is, Debatbond is an umbrella organization that exists to help other societies. Membership was recently expanded and Chronos joined the other eleven societies. Board members are elected for a two-year term. If you are keeping track, current board members’ term is due to end at the end of this academic year, and it is a good opportunity to review what the Debatbond was able to accomplish.
As any board member would tell you, being on the board can be both challenging but also quite rewarding. You are able to put in a lot of input in tweaking and improving the legacy of the previous boards. This is something that Jelte recognizes. Initially, it is a tough experience. You are thrown into a board “with five other people you did not necessarily know very well personally”, as well as having to align your own individual visions with others. Jos shares Jelte’s sentiment. It was hard, but the experience of working with different ideas and visions of what they want to see makes the experience worth it. This board consists of six individuals who have gotten together to work on implementing a strategy to make debating in the Netherlands more accessible.
Over the course of two years, board members implemented various projects. Some were more successful than others, but all deserve to be mentioned. Here are some of the highlights.
First of all, there is the most famous project which is the Dutch Debating League. The aim of the league is for eight societies to get together over the course of 8 months and debate against one another. Societies accumulate points and at the end, the society with the most points is Dutch best debating society. In its second year, the league has faced some problems surrounding attendance, however Jelte still believes in the project as it still does what it is meant to do: contribute to inter-society engagement. In the summer, the Debatbond will be working on reviewing the current format and improving it where necessary!
Second, it was identified that the previous speaker ranking was ineffective and the manner in which the ranking list was made was not representational. Now, only the top four tournaments in the academic year are counted and they are based on the percentile. This is meant to show a more realistic overview of who is the best debater as it highlights the more active debaters.
Thirdly, the Debatbond created platforms for its members to receive help. Throughout the first year, guidelines were published on various things, from organizing a tournament, to recruiting members, to judging manuals amongst others. Providing guidance did not stop there, however. To get a more accurate view of where societies stand and what they need help with, Tom and Jos visited other societies to get their perspective on what they need help with the most. Finally, to give an opportunity to board members to learn more and to discuss things amongst each other, Debatbond created a board-day. So far two were organized, both aimed at training societies how to cope with certain problems such as recruitment, promotion or fundraising.
Fundraising is also a vital part of Debatbond. One of the aims of the board was to provide more opportunities for societies for activities, however that was not always possible due to funding difficulties. The new plan that Tom and Jelte are hoping to work in the last half-year is two-fold. First is to help individual societies to develop a sponsoring strategy to attract sponsoring for specific things that benefit their societies. Second is to look for sponsors as the Debatbond which would benefit the community as a whole.
One thing that was identified over the course of the year is the fact that debating in the Netherlands has been on a downward trend not only in terms of membership numbers but also in terms of tournament participation, and a natural question that was asked was
“How can the Debatbond step in?” Tom’s solution is to “organize events for new groups of people that are currently not being reached” and this is something that will be looked into over the last couple of months. What is a unique quality of the Debatbond in this regard, is that is the optimal platform for inter-society discussion. Jos and Tom note that on their many board trips, they noticed similar issues and discussion kept popping up in their discussion with different societies. Discussing these issues on a national-level can be to everyone’s benefit.
In addition to all of these projects, there are other smaller tasks or projects the board works on. It aims to occasionally spark a discussion within the community, on topics such as judge quality, mainly through the 720 platform. Also, there is the infamous Debatbond board chat, where literally all current ongoings of the Dutch debating community are discussed. If you want to stay up to date with all the rumours from different societies, the Debatbond surely is a great place for you.
The most important part for the next few months? Firstly, Ybo says it is important to “institutionalize what has already been made to ensure that future boards have an easier time implementing their ideas and continue what has already been started”. Secondly, recruiting an excellent board that will be able to take over and continue what was started, says Jos. Societies can also expect a final Board Day organized by Linsey, which aims to “focus on how to have a smooth transitions and all the things new board members need to know to get started, as well as specific sessions on how to lead training evenings.” As the president, Ybo’s hope for the future is the creation of a “more lasting legacy [with] Debatbond as a functioning and useful institution in the debating world.” As with any board, it is sometimes easy to overreach and try to do more than you are able to. This sometimes can result in situations where the board doesn’t do as much as it could be doing. Nevertheless, the accomplishments the Debatbond was able to implement are important accomplishments. Debatbond struggled over the past years to really define itself and set expectations as to what it is and what it is supposed to be doing. We made important steps in that regard. Hopefully future boards will continue what this board has been doing.
And on a personal note, how do the board members feel about being part of a board-year? Ybo enjoyed his time because of everything being so vague and unclear in the beginning. This was an opportunity for everyone to create and start something new. It is also a good opportunity to work with and get to know other board members, as Adrienne and Jos explain it. Because of the fact that the board members come from different societies, this was effectively a rare opportunity to work together. The position of being the central platform for all debating societies to engage is what Jelte enjoyed greatly whilst being in the board, since you truly start thinking about what’s best for everyone and not only for your society.
Thinking of applying yourself? Keep an eye for out the application procedures to be posted in the upcoming months! If you want to know more about the mysterious board, they all assured me you can send each one of them a message – or if you want the less formal answers, contact 720.