Argument and Debate: Forms and Techniques, Part 1
Debate: Forms, Practices, and Techniques
This essay, along with those that follow, is designed to serve three purposes. First, it will help the reader understand the difference between a proper debate in the legal, scientific, or philosophical sense, and a debate in the colloquial sense. Second, he will be able to examine his own beliefs and determine if they are sufficiently developed to be qualified for a debate. Third, the reader will be able to formulate and articulate their position effectively and convincingly. In order to maintain neutrality, I will avoid using examples from religious debates. The sources for this essay are many, and I will not be posting a full bibliography, but for primary reference, I am using Argumentation and Debate: Rational Decision Making, Austin J. Freeley, John Carroll University, and Patterns of Argument, Bliskey, Harcourt College Press. You will note that both of these books are over fifty years old. Rather than reflecting an outdated approach, these books demonstrate the longevity and consistency of the forms and patterns of debate. A careful study of more current texts will show a remarkable level of agreement with these older texts.
The first task when discussing debate is to properly define what a debate is, and more importantly, what it is not. Debate, in its simplest form, is an exchange of reasoned arguments for and against a proposition. In educational debate or factual debate, the end result is determined by evaluating the cogency of each side's arguments. Emotional appeal is not considered, nor is the opinion of any audience that may be present as to the relative charisma of either side's spokesperson. Persuasion and Propaganda are not acceptable.
Persuasion is the use of extra-logical appeals. Public debate should give priority to logic while maintaining awareness of emotional appeals. Persuasion does precisely the opposite, for the purpose of overriding logic. Propaganda is an organized campaign of persuasion, and it is characteristically one-sided. In some cases, the opposing side may be explained, but only in a caricature or strawman.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Possibly the most common mistake in debate is incorrectly identifying the disagreement. There are several steps that can be used to identify and clearly articulate what the debate is actually about. When beginning a debate, check your proposition for the following:
A. It is an affirmative statement. This means that your proposition states the fact of a thing's specific existence, or that something acts in a specific way. It can also express a value judgment, or assert that a thing ought to be a certain way. “The United States should discontinue its policy of allowing irradiated fruit from Argentina to be sold domestically” is a positive statement. “The United States should not allow irradiated fruit into the country” is a negative statement, since it offers no opinion on what should be done, only what should not be done. "The United States should institute a ban on irradiated fruit from Argentina" is a positive statement. Similarly, “The morning-after pill is not equivalent to abortion” is negative. “The morning-after pill functions differently from invasive abortion procedures, and is technically a form of birth control based on that function,” is a positive statement. The necessity of affirmatives also applies to definitions, as we shall see later.
B. It is a clear basis for a debate. If you suggest that we argue foreign policy, you are not suggesting a debate, but rather a broad topic from which a debatable point could be extracted. “The United State's current philosophy of acting as a unilateral police force in the Middle East” is a much more refined topic, but it is still lacking the specificity necessary for a proper debate. Remember, the proposition must be a positive statement. The above examples are simply topics. “The U.S.'s current philosophy of acting as a unilateral police force in the Middle East is a counterproductive policy with regard to foreign relations interests” is a good debate proposition. Note that this does not propose something that should be done. This is a debate of fact, even though it appears to be a value debate. See below for more details.
C It narrows the Argument. “The Welfare State is bad and should be changed” is entirely too broad for a meaningful debate. Which aspect of the welfare state is bad? Is welfare in and of itself bad? What should be changed?
D It involves only one central idea. This is essentially an avoidance of the loaded question. “The union should have a party for the outgoing president, and it should be on July 1st” is an unnecessarily convoluted idea. First, the party should be agreed upon. Then, a new debate can focus on the date of the party. Contingent ideas should not be presented. Only the core idea from which contingencies arise.
E It is stated in neutral terms. “The cruel and inhuman butchering of innocent babies should be immediately outlawed” is obviously not neutral. “Abortion should be illegal” is neutral.
F It states the desired outcome. “The welfare state is bad” leaves nothing to be actually won, even if the debate goes in favor of this position. Note that this is somewhat flexible, as it might be necessary to establish that something needs to be done in order to even begin the debate about what should be done! In an earlier example, establishing that current Middle East policy is counterproductive is a formidable task, and should be dealt with before even considering what the new policy should be. The factual results of the first debate would be useful in the second should the debate proposition carry.
G It places the presumption and burden of proof correctly. Presumption and burden of proof are often misunderstood. The difference is quite simple, but it is crucially important to keep them separate and properly assigned at all stages of a debate.
Presumption favors the status quo. In other words, the debater taking the positive side must overcome the presumption that the status quo is true. In all cases, if the positive claimant cannot demonstrate his position convincingly, the status quo always wins. This is evident in our legal system. If the state cannot prove that a man has committed a crime, the status quo is maintained, and the man is still, as ever, innocent until proven otherwise.
The burden of proof always rests on the positive claimant. Lack of proof will always result in the presumption of the status quo. If the positive side fails to make a convincing argument, the status quo prevails as if nothing happened. The negative claimant simply has no obligation to present any evidence to support his own side.
In proper debate, there is no possibility of a tie. The claimant is completely responsible for proving his case. There are no exceptions to this rule.
There are some variants on the burden of proof that must be addressed. First, although the burden of proof always rests on the claimant, there also exists a burden of refutation. Take, for example, the claim that last Saturday, I was in Toledo at a Mud Hens game and spilled a drink on the lady in front of me. If you were to claim this, and I was to provide you with a credit card receipt with my signature from a store in New York at the same time as the alleged incident, you would then be under a burden of refutation. Either side may have a burden of refutation. Failing to meet the burden of refutation does not necessarily invalidate an entire argument (although it often does), but it necessarily weakens it.
Prima facie is a legal term often used in conjunction with the burden of proof. A prima facie case is one in which the evidence is solid enough that, barring sufficient weakening, the case wins on its own merits. In the previous example, I have a credit card receipt from New York. Barring substantial evidence indicating that I was in Toledo, and also explaining how I have the credit card receipt, I have a prima facie case for being in New York. I win by default until you can cast credible doubt on my case. Note: Credible doubt can be established, such that a case is no longer prima facie. However, the claimant must still prove his own case. Loss of prima facie is NOT an automatic win for the other side.
H. Identifying the TYPE of Proposition. There are three basic propositional types: Fact, value, and policy.
A debate of fact always follows this form: The claimant states that a certain thing is true while the negative maintains that it is false. Note that "false" is the status quo. The debate is automatically won by the negative unless the positive produces enough factual, scientific data to prove his statement.
A debate of value is one in which the claimant maintains that a certain thing is good, and the negative claims that it is either neutral or bad. There is a major pitfall in this type of debate. Good, bad, and neutral must have a referent. Without a properly defined basis for goodness or badness, this argument is moot. To be properly defined, something must be identified as good with regard to something else, based on other properly defined criteria. This type of debate, while more subjective, still holds to the rule that the negative position wins by presumption if a competent case is not presented by the positive claimant.
Policy debate is slightly different than value debate. Again, the positive side maintains that a certain action should be adopted while the negative asserts that it should not. The subtle difference here is that there is no imperative that policy be good by any set standard. In other words, this is where good is weighed against greater good. This is obviously the least objective style of debate, and is usually left to political topics.
Stay tuned to installment number two:
HOW TO DEFINE WORDS PROPERLY