Why You Should Ditch Your Criterion

Having a criterion had always been a no-brainer for me. At the very first debate tournament I attended, I noticed that almost all the debaters there were using criteria. A coach I met at that tournament explained that criteria help to simplify your case, strengthen your logical links, and overall help your judge to understand your position. However, my experience has been quite the opposite- criteria draw attention to your case’s weaknesses, expose it to new levels of attack and distract the round from what really matters.

As most of you already know, LD centers around a value. Your side leads to an excellent value, and the fact that you can achieve that value means that you should win the round. That connection should look like this:

My Side –>  My Value –> I Win!

In order to really win a round, you need to do more than attack examples and taglines- you need to disrupt those logical links. If you can prove that their side doesn’t lead to their value, you’ve beaten the case. OR if you can prove that their value shouldn’t win them the round, you have again beaten their case. Either one of these arguments are what I like to call Case Bombs- arguments that can single-handedly win you the round. Let’s see what this looks like with the addition of a criterion:

My Side –> My Criterion –> My Value –> I Win!

You just significantly increased the number of logical links within your case. If your opponent can prove that your side doesn’t lead to your criterion, your criterion doesn’t lead to your value, your side doesn’t lead to your value as a whole OR that your value shouldn’t win you the round, your case has been beaten. You just increased the number of case-bombs from two to four, effectively DOUBLING  your opponent’s chances of winning.

But in addition to making your case increasingly vulnerable, I have also found that criteria help to alienate tired judges and inexperienced judges. As I’ve already shown, criteria double the number of logical links in your case, forcing your judges to think harder about exactly what you’re trying to say. For some judges, criteria are an entirely new concept, so it may take them longer to understand  the thesis of your case. Since your criteria will give your opponent more venues of attack, your opponent will have more arguments. That will make it appear as though your opponent has found many, many flaws in your case that you never knew about. Even if you do respond to these arguments, the sheer number of arguments coming from the negative will enhance the appearance that the negative is winning. That’s a dangerous position to put yourself in, especially when your judge is tired or inexperienced.

A criterion can even draw attention to the weak points of your case. I remember this being a huge problem for me two years ago, the last time I used a criterion. I was arguing that the will of the people is the basis for all society. To make this concept incredibly clear, I had a value of Stability and a criterion of Social Contract. I explained that societies need to be stable, that the social contract stabilizes societies and the will of the people creates social contracts. It was a huge time suck for me to explain these details in a way that made sense, and the fact that my case needed so much explanation made my judges somewhat suspicious of my logic. Additionally, by providing all these details up front, I was inviting my opponent to explore every detail of my case. (What exactly is the will of the people and how can we measure it? If the will of the people is always changing, how can we achieve stability? What if the social contract itself is unstable?) Later, I saw [a debater] run a case very similar to mine in out rounds at nationals. Instead of using all these details, he focused only on the social contract as his value, without using a real criterion. By this design, he could overcome details to focus on the big picture. In every philosophy debate, there are unanswerable questions. Criteria tie you down to these questions and draw attention to the fact that you don’t know the answers.

Overall, I see criteria as an unnecessary waste of time. The time spent introducing your criterion could be better spent on another example, a breathtaking closer or a great quote. I have found that it’s much more beneficial to rely on a value that clearly links with your case without the use of a middle-man criterion. Of course you should still know the details of how your side links with your value. But imagine this- instead of using up valuable time in your speech explaining why your side leads to your value, wait for your opponent to ask you in cross-examination. Then you can strengthen your logical links during his cross-ex time, without the use of messy criteria.