Why Do We Use Values?

This article originally appeared in the NCFCA edition of Dominate 2013.


Values and criteria are the bread and butter of value debate. The value and criterion, for many debaters, define what LD is. But how often do we take a step back to look at why value debate has these components? Not often enough.

When I debated in high school LD, there were three widespread ideas for how criteria were to be used: the means criterion, the weighing criterion, and the limiting criterion. At the time, I questioned the validity of the limiting criterion because I perceived it to be abusive and arbitrary. This past summer, I came across another definition for criterion: what we would normally call the value was labelled the “criterion,” and what we know to be the criterion was called the “value.” Do any of these terms mean anything?

I hesitate to call any of these mechanisms or their use incorrect, because the truth is, all debate is arbitrary. In fact, the modern value and criterion structure of a standard LD case wasn’t developed until the 80s and 90s, and is usually attributed to Patricia Bailey of Homewood High School and Marilee Dukes of Vestavia Hills High. When we refer to a certain practice in debate as wrong, we sometimes mean “What you’re doing is abusive,” but more often, we really mean to say, “What you’re doing doesn’t match what has traditionally been done. You’re calling the components in your case (value, criterion, etc.) something I wouldn’t call them.” If you ask the average Stoa or NCFCA LD debater what values are, you’ll get a variety of answers. They might tell you values are goals, standards, reasons to vote for your side, or principles in conflict. Ask them what goals, standards, voters, and principles mean and how they function, and you might get fewer answers. All that is to say, as arbitrary as the criterion is, it isn’t the only part of LD that’s ridiculously arbitrary—even the idea of a value is arbitrary as well.


 The way we use values and criteria is not, and should not be derived merely from tradition. We ought to derive every component of a case from the logic necessary to prove our cases true.


But it shouldn’t be. There is a reason for criteria and values. The way we use values and criteria is not, and should not be derived merely from tradition. We ought to derive every component of a case from the logic necessary to prove our cases true. If you ever find that you have logically proven your point despite omitting certain traditional components of a case, I would suggest that your case need not follow the traditional model.

The idea of values debate and values clash originates from fundamental clashes in principle—justice versus mercy, life versus quality of life, individual good versus collective good, environmental protection versus economic well-being and so on. A values clash takes real-life moral dilemmas that we face and distills them down to two basic conflicting ideas, and resolving the conflict between those basic ideas helps us solve the original moral dilemma.

For example, euthanasia is a real life controversy that can get mired in pragmatic or implementation-level questions such as the specific method of assisted suicide or the mental state of the patient. However, if we eliminate the surface questions of brightline and implementation, we can distill the debate down to a value conflict between life and quality of life. On one side, we argue that life is so sacred no one should have the right to terminate it; on the other, we argue that life is no longer life at all if not for some basic level of humanity that we can experience through it. Values help cut through the noise and establish the core issues underlying complex debates.

Another controversy that boils down to value conflicts is abortion. For many, abortion boils down to a conflict between life and self-determination. Is the fetus’ life more important, or is a woman’s bodily integrity more important? We can have long debates over when life begins, but even when that question is answered, it comes down to a question of whether the fetus’ life or the woman’s self-determination is more important. Some abortion advocates, understanding that the core of the issue is not a question of when life begins, but a question of which value is more important, concede that the fetus is alive from the point of conception, and even go so far as to concede that the fetus is human—what else could it be?—but simply argue that the woman’s right to bodily integrity is more important. Not every abortion debate reaches a discussion at that basic level, since some people will concede that life is paramount and simply argue that the fetus is not human or truly living. Regardless, the controversy surrounding abortion ultimately boils down to said core conflicts.

The value clash in a debate also establishes a values hierarchy. In a perfect world, we would be able to have all values all the time. But in an imperfect world, which values should we prioritize?

Values and value clash don’t have to be the obligatory tacked-on components of cases that they’ve become today. Values can distill debates. Values can focus conversations. It is logical that we use values for debates like the ones above, because they perform valuable functions for us. In those debates, the entire debate is a values debate.


Value Clash as Weighing Mechanism

A weighing criterion is something that the judge evaluates each team by to determine who wins the round. For example, in team policy, the most common criterion is Net Benefits, a broad term used to describe overall benefits after taking into consideration the costs involved. The judge looks at the two sides and asks, which world gives me the most benefits after I take into account the advantages and disadvantages of the plan?

In an LD value debate, the winner of the value clash functions as the criterion. The first step is hashing out the value debate. Let’s say the values were life and quality of life, and let’s assume that quality of life won out as the better value. Quality of life now becomes the criterion. We take quality of life and ask, which side best upholds quality of life? That debater wins the round. Thus, in the classic value debate, the value clash produces a criterion that both sides are weighed against.


Fundamental-ness or Supreme-ness

The value chosen to represent each side should be so fundamental that it can, in the debate, be defended against any other value. In other words, each side may have a variety of choices of values or principles that their advocacy can be reduced to. However, the most fundamental one or the most important one ultimately should be chosen because it represents the number one argument for the affirmative or negative.



No Core Conflict

Not all resolutions are as clear cut as the hypothetical value debates I discussed above. Consider this resolution: That the United States of America ought to more highly value isolationism. What are the core values there? Suppose the argument is that we should be less interventionist because it harms our reputation and the national sovereignty of the other nations involved when we intervene. Where is the fundamental value conflict? There wasn’t any in the example above. Suppose we say that it comes down to valuing one country’s citizens, or nationalism, over global welfare, or globalism. What irreconcilable principles or values can we boil the two sides down to? There still aren’t any. “Big group of people” versus “Multiple big groups of people” has as much inherent value conflict as Grande Iced Coffee versus Venti Iced Coffee at Starbucks. Perhaps we say that the debate is fundamentally a question of numbers—utilitarianism—that globalism versus nationalism is a question of whether we should look to the individual or the collective for answers. But here, we have constructed an artificial environment of conflict, external to the resolution, in order to force a values clash. Utilitarianism isn’t even hinted at by the resolution. The nation can’t by any stretch be compared with the individual, and it takes skilled parametricizing to focus the debate solely on the conflicts that show a philosophical tussle between individualism and collectivism. I would suggest that this resolution does not come down to a fundamental value clash on the level of euthanasia, or abortion. Most resolutions don’t.


In the last decade of NCFCA resolutions, few of them have involved issues that can be better explained using a clash of fundamental principles.


In the last decade of NCFCA resolutions, few of them have involved issues that can be better explained using a clash of fundamental principles. I would venture to say that none of the cases run in the last five years have used values in a way that allows values to fundamentally clash the way I described above.


Means Resolutions

Or consider this resolution: In the pursuit of justice, due process ought to be valued above the discovery of fact. Is there a fundamental principle behind due process that conflicts with the principle behind discovery of fact? If there is one, I cannot find it. Due process as a whole involves discovery of fact, and the driving principle behind both is justice. In fact, “in the pursuit of justice” tells us that both due process and discovery of fact are means to a singular end—justice. To engage in the topic, the debater must dredge up form the cesspool of legal history one or two golden scenarios where due process and discovery of fact disagreed on a course of action. Only then is there disagreement between the affirmative and negative. Not only is there no fundamental conflict of values between the two sides, there is no fundamental conflict—of any kind—between the two advocacies.

The core debate is not over principles, but over the application of principles. Note that I am not saying a debate over application of principles is any less valid a Lincoln-Douglas debate; in fact, the past several decades of NFL LD resolutions have focused largely on the application of principles, which ultimately require more nuance than the broad values discussions.


Impacts as Values

If talking about basic values in conflict doesn’t work for the majority of our debates, is there a model for values that allows us to broadly evaluate any resolution, regardless of the structure and subject matter of the resolution? Is there a model that allows us to evaluate debates even if there is no inherent value conflict in the resolution?

The answer is that most debaters on the homeschool circuit are using the values as impact model. Rather than using values to define the core conflict between the two sides, values now serve to define the benefits of each side so that both sides can be weighed against each other. Values are the impact level of the debate. In policy debate, advantages and disadvantages have impacts—articulated consequences of doing or not doing something. In LD, values represent the articulated consequences of taking or not taking a given position.


What’s different about this model?

Why should I care about this, if everyone’s already following the gist of this model? It matters because it affects the logic people use to build cases, and because it makes LD less nonsensical. If values are not the core conflict that comprises a debate, it should not be the first thing you think about when writing a case. You can’t talk about the benefits of a car without first knowing what car it is you’re selling; you can’t talk about the impacts of your case unless you first know what argument you’re running. Rather than beginning with a value and working your way to arguments that support that value, you begin with brainstorming arguments and finding the biggest benefit that argument brings for your side. This is critical. Too many debaters start by asking, “what’s a good value?” when they should be asking “what’s a good argument?” followed by “what value (or benefit) comes with my best argument?”

Is there an element of choice to the value? Sure. After coming up with the argument and seeing the value that naturally comes with the argument, you might find that the value is not potent enough. That is the cue to come up with a different argument that naturally provides a stronger value.


Justice and peace and human rights don’t at any level disagree with each other. Thank God. We do not have to make it sound like there is some huge philosophical difference between “life” and “life, liberty, and property.”


Impacts do not fundamentally conflict with each other. Justice and peace and human rights don’t at any level disagree with each other. Thank God. We do not have to make it sound like there is some huge philosophical difference between “life” and “life, liberty, and property.” Positive impacts don’t often philosophically conflict. That’s okay.

As a result, there should be broad agreement about the values—in a resolution like ours this year, for example—both sides probably agree that life, justice, peace, human rights, and economic security are all good things. Suppose your value is life and your opponent’s value is human rights. Do you and your opponent really have fundamentally different value systems or value hierarchies that you’re fighting over? Do you really have two positions that point down to different principles that help evaluate the round? Not really, so you don’t have to make it sound that way.

Jason Baldwin, former ToC LD champion, said “…moral and political philosophers who write about some of the same issues debated in LD never appeal a value premise or criterion (in the LD sense). Instead, their arguments resemble the formally valid sets of premises and conclusions we have examined above. The key point to notice is that there are no missing steps in a formally valid argument-there is nothing left that a value premise or criterion could add.”

Baldwin argues that no LD cases should require the use of a value and I would agree, but add that with some resolutions, the value can provide clarity. However, in most of our debates, where the only disagreement is over the application of principles, there is no need for a value. Resolutions about the process of reaching a value don’t require a grand moral disagreement. The logic of the resolution does not demand it.


Comparing Values 

Values should be weighed the same way impacts are weighed. Which impact leaves a deeper mark on society? Which impact has a more severe consequence? Which impact’s consequences are more longstanding? All the standard ways of weighing impacts from policy debate can be applied to LD, and provide extremely concrete methods of comparison that we can use when we stop forcing ourselves to talk about nonexistent philosophical differences. When you agree with someone, just acknowledge that you agree and debate what you actually disagree about. If both sides can agree on the basic value that they’re working towards, that agreement can be incredibly conducive to a productive and enjoyable debate.