Principled arguments in debating

doorNederlandse Debatbond

Principled arguments in debating

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.

  1. The speaker should explain that the principle is true.

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.

  1. The principle is relevant in this scenario

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.

  1. The impact of the principle

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 absolute principle: we’re never allowed to do something
  • Using a principle to raise the burden of proof for the other team
  • Using a principle to show a special duty towards someone or something

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.

De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.

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Nederlandse Debatbond administrator

De Nederlandse Debatbond (NDB) stelt zich als doel het wedstrijddebat te bevorderen en ondersteunen in Nederland. Als nationaal overkoepelend orgaan vertegenwoordigt de NDB ongeveer 1.000 leden waarvan de meesten lid zijn van één van de debatverenigingen die Nederland rijk is.