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Argument Comparisons and Weighing Mechanisms

Argument Comparisons and Weighing Mechanisms

In the final speeches of the debate, it is important that all debaters weigh arguments – that they compare their arguments against their opponents’ arguments and then explain why their arguments are more important than their opponents’ arguments.

Traditionally, debaters use a number of “weighing mechanisms” to compare arguments.

Magnitude.  Magnitude is the simples of the weighing mechanisms to understand, as it simply asks which argument has the biggest impact.  If the Pro’s advocacy saves 500 lives but kills 200 people according to the Con, the Pro will argue they outweigh on magnitude.  Magnitude is a simple utilitarian (greatest good for the greatest number) impact calculus and helps to explain why debaters are always searching for large impacts.

Probability.  Probability simply relates to how likely an impact is to happen. For example, if the Pro’s advocacy  (perhaps increasing employment) could lead to increased wages and increased jobs, but how likely is it that inflation will result and how likely is it that greater inflation will lead to an economic downturn?  Public Forum debaters often try to quantify these impacts in terms of percentages (there is a 2% chance that arms races trigger war, for example), but most risks are difficult to quantify and convincing anyone that something is a big enough risk to worry about involves persuasion, which is a core part of debate.

Time frame. Time frame just speaks to which impact happens first.  For example, economic development may increase employment and reduce poverty in the short-term but trigger global warming and environmental decline in the long-term.  Debaters will argue that the impact that happens first should be prioritized, as we can always try to address other impacts later. Plus, we should try to live as long as we can J

Reversability. There are two ways to think about reversibility.  First, is an impact reversible? For example, death is not reversible but broken arms and some forms of environmental damage are reversible. Economic decline is almost always reversible J. Second, does one impact reverse another impact?. For example, if the Pro’s advocacy causes economic decline, the Con can argue that it makes any impact the Pro claims to solve for (health problems, racism, etc) worse.  This is often expressed as, “our impact turns their impact…”

Moral side constraint.  Some debaters will argue that we have a “moral obligation” to support their advocacy, regardless of the consequences.  This is a simple Kantian “moral side constraint” argument.

Scope.  While the impact framing methods discussed above apply to all events, discussions of “scope” as a “weigh mechanism” only occur in Public Forum.  Scope deals with how many people are affected as compare to how many people die (which a magnitude claim usually gets at). So, for example, a policy may cause 100 broken arms, negatively affecting many people, but no one dies.

In a straight comparison on any of these tests, the team that is ahead will win.  So, for example, if one team’s argument has a larger magnitude than another team’s argument, they can easily win on magnitude. Similarly, if one team’s argument has a faster time-frame, they can win on time-frame.

Where it gets more complicated is how to weigh if one team is ahead magnitude but behind on time-frame.  So, for example, what if the Pro team wins they save 100 lives now but the Con team wins that the policy change the Pro advocates will likely kill 110 people in 15  years? Or 135 in 20 years? 200 in 50 years?

What if the Pro saves 100 lives but there is a small chance (10%) that the policy change they  advocate will kill 10,000 people in 10 years? What if it’s a 20% chance? 50% chance? 75% chance?

There are no simple answers to the questions just asked.  What is important, however, is to think in any debate you are in about what your team is likely winning and what the other team may be winning.  You should then compare those arguments for the judge to explain why you think your argument is the one the judge should vote for.

When you are doing this you do not have to concede that you are winning an argument, you only need to  say, “if they win X argument, we still win because (we have a greater magnitude, time frame, etc).

It is very important that you do weigh, because no matter how well you think you are doing in a debate, you it is very unlikely that the judge thinks you are winning every argument in the debate. IN almost all debates, the judge thinks that your opponents are also winning arguments. Given this, you need to have a self-realization and weigh arguments.