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posted May 17, 2012, 8:35 PM by Anthony Severin   [ updated May 20, 2012, 11:53 PM ]

To give a background, my original intention was not to start a debate on the legitimacy of criteria in policy. It was strictly to encourage debaters to take them seriously. That said, I expected it to happen, and I indeed welcome this debate since I believe it is good for everyone to think about these things extensively.

Thus, let it begin:
The default criteria in policy debate is net benefits. The difference between net benefits and any other proposed criteria is simple: net benefits includes arguments which other criteria do not (this will become important a little later on). Criteria also    encourage debate of the underlying principles behind each side's position. However, I don't believe that debaters need to (nor should they) sacrifice a variety of possible arguments in order to debate these underlying principles. Ultimately, I hope that we will come to the conclusion that setting any criterion other than net benefits is necessarily too narrow.

My argument against criteria in policy debate is fairly simple
1. Criteria limit arguments in policy debate.
2. Real policy should be made on a net benefits standard (we most certainly expect the government to evaluate more than just "public safety" or "effective law" when evaluating a policy-- if a policy is going to cost us a billion dollars, we most certainly shouldn't just evaluate public safety.)
3. Policy debate should mirror policymaking, except when doing so would harm education.
4. Therefore, a policy debate should always be adjudged from a net benefits criterion.

Thus, the only point of contention is "does a net benefits standard harm education?", or, "could debate be more educational if a criterion was set?"

Some argue that criteria are justified because they encourage debate regarding underlying principles. While I agree that this purpose is a worthy one, I have two points for consideration: 

First, are criteria necessary for debating these underlying principles? I think the answer here is "of course not." In fact, (and I want to make this perfectly clear to debaters specifically, so the "you" here is directed at debaters) if you are not comparing the underlying principles to one another when weighing the arguments, you're missing a tremendous part of debate. Every disadvantage you bring up should be thoroughly weighed against the aff's advantages. If you're not comparing the impacts of these arguments using underlying principles like justice, fiscal responsibility or some other value, you're missing something. Debaters should be able to "evaluate, decide and defend what they believe and why." If this "why" part is missing from your argumentation without criteria, you're missing half of the point of debate. Criteria were brought into policy in order to attempt to bring those underlying issues into more clear view, however a criterion is absolutely not necessary to do so. These underlying issues should already be a part of the weighing process that every debate team should be doing in every round, regardless of the presence of a criterion.

I want to give a brief explanation of what this looks like before moving into the second point under the initial question.

Suppose the affirmative's case is focused on justice. The negative's position is two-fold: fiscal responsibility and economic stability. Instead of proposing two counter-criteria, the negative simply says "judge, let's evaluate this on all of the relevant effects of the plan. We want to ensure that you have the arguments you need to make an informed decision on an important policy, but the negative's criterion excludes important arguments. Thus, you should vote on all of the effects-- the net benefits as a whole." Then, during the negative speeches, the negative chooses to intelligently weigh the individual arguments. So, the negative speakers go through and say "Judge, sure, the affirmative may bring a certain number of criminals to justice. But you also see our disadvantages of increased spending and partial economic collapse with skyrocketing unemployment. We should value the economic stability of our nation higher than bringing a few criminals to justice, since economic stability will ultimately reduce the number of people who choose to break the law in the first place. Therefore, you should vote negative."

Notice the italicized line-- it clearly shows the underlying values under each result of the affirmative plan, and we are able to evaluate them without the use of criteria.  If this evaluation is not happening, there's a deeper problem with the team's argumentation and there's no reason to expect criteria-analysis debate will solve it.

Second, criteria hamper educational debate. By their very nature, they limit the types of arguments one may bring up. I may have four or five different disadvantages on different topics. Would anyone suggest that I bring up four criteria just to have the debate about underlying principles? Of course not-- the criteria debate would quickly become convoluted. Net benefits already requires me to properly weigh my arguments against the affirmative advantages. There is no need for a criteria to restrict the arguments I can bring up, and the rich debate you describe happening last year can happen wonderfully well without criteria-- indeed, perhaps better, since I can present more important arguments that would otherwise be ignored. Again, if I'm not debating these underlying principles, I'm doing something wrong (something like this).

To summarize:
The intention of criteria is to bring the underlying principles
 into clear view. However, the effect of criteria is to restrict debate and discard arguments simply because they don't impact to an arbitrary standard.

Thus, because there is no additional benefit that criteria necessarily bring to debate, and because criteria restrict arguments that should be discussed for maximum educational value, criteria should not be a part of policy debate. I think it's unfortunate that more people have adopted criteria across the league, but I am hopeful that debaters will come to realize the effect of criteria and will no longer continue to box themselves in (sort of like this).