Argument Generation

By Will Meyer, Swarthmore College ’17

At its core, debate is about arguments. Hopefully this doesn’t surprise anyone reading this. While rhetoric helps people present their arguments in the most persuasive manner, without good arguments, the judge will be persuaded of nothing. But while the necessity of good arguments is obvious, how to come up with them is not. Whether you major in political science or physics, became a debate champion in high school or never went to a tournament, anyone can learn the basic skills to generate arguments in a debate round. Of course, there are nearly an unlimited number of specific arguments that may be necessary in any individual circumstance. So how does one generate arguments? A good way of approaching a round is not only thinking about what arguments would make good responses, but also to ask certain questions of your opponent. When you hear your opponent’s case, ask the following questions. The answers to those questions can be the foundation for a strong off case in the LOC.

1. What is the goal of the actor?

In APDA, cases are often written from the perspective of a specific entity. We tend to call this entity the “actor.” For example, a case that says “China should dramatically reduce carbon emissions” is written from the perspective of the China government. A case that says “the Republican National Committee should kick Donald Trump out of the primary” is written from the perspective of the Republican leadership. Most cases are written from the perspective of either a government, a person, or an organization. Analyzing the goals of the actor involved in the case is one of the easiest ways to think of good opposition arguments. Asking yourself what the actor in this case wants, and whether the advocacy of the government team is consistent with the actors’s wants, can illustrate deficiencies in the government case. For example, if the case is asking whether China should dramatically reduce carbon emissions, it might be easy to argue that it is good for the world that China reduces emissions. However, if China is the actor, there are plenty of reasons for it not to reduce emissions. For China, particularly the current government, economic productivity in the short term might be more important than climate change. This is particularly plausible given the current economic slowdown in China. Analyzing the goals of the actor, particularly with that type of detail, can allow you to come up with arguments to beat back on your opponent’s claims. One important caveat here is that some topics are written from the perspective of any “normative actor.” In other words, the topic is asking what “normatively” or ethically is the right thing to do. If this is the case, actor analysis is irrelevant and only debating the merits of the idea from an ethical perspective is important.

2. Can this case be implemented?

There are lots of reasons a case may be infeasible. It may be a policy that the country is constitutionally constrained from implementing. It might be a foreign policy plan that is unlikely to suceed. The case arguing that “the US ought to ban firearms,” is a bad case, because it is unconstitutional. The case arguing that “Argentina ought rid of the world of nuclear weapons” is a bad case because it is clearly not something Argentina can do. In some cases, such as the Argentina example, the case may still be net good and this argument is merely mitigatory. In other cases, like the unconstitutional gun ban, the argument is basically round-winning, as an actor cannot take an action they are not allowed to take.

3. Who’s affected by this case?

Policies can have massive implications for large numbers of people. For example, a case on the legalization of illegal drugs would involve not just people who use drugs, but also people involved with the supply of drugs, people involved in the production of drugs, people with illnesses who may benefit of the drugs, and law enforcement involved in the criminalization of those drugs. Making sure you think about every group impacted by a case may allow you to identify negative side-effects to the government case that the government team may be hoping you fail to notice. Just because the government team fails to mention a group in the PMC, doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant.

4.What incentives does this case create?

Most cases in APDA tend to be specific plans. They tend to say that a government or interest group should take a specific action. The government team will then say the positive impacts of that action. This may seem obvious, but it is important to fully analyze what a world where this action occurs would look like. A good example of this is the topic “this house would use eminent domain to seize un-occupied houses.” You may think of the debate as being about the fairness of such a policy, or the good the government could do for those who are homeless if the houses are seized. While these are relevant arguments, they miss the important part of the debate. It is clear that in a world where this policy is implemented, owners of multiple homes would make sure to always rent out their unoccupied houses. That way they can continue to profit off of their property. This is the obvious economic incentive of those who own these homes. Thinking about that will allow you to contest arguments the government team makes about how the government could take these houses and give them to the homeless. Dramatic policy changes like this one often have far-reaching impacts that individual debaters haven’t thought of. Think about what those impacts might be, and use them to your advantage.

5. What are the root problems of the issue this case is trying to solve?

Some arguments the government team makes might be entirely wrong, while others are merely overstated. In order to successfully weigh the arguments for your side against the arguments from your opponent, it’s critical to make arguments that mitigate the benefits your opponents claim. The best way to do that is to analyze the problems your opponent’s case is trying to solve. Let’s say the case is “abolish mandatory minimums.” Your opponent might talk about the massive harms of racial injustice in the criminal justice system and how mandatory minimums disproportionately harm minorities. This is simply true. However, think about the root causes of racism in the criminal justice system. Think about how law enforcement officers and legislatures are racist in a myriad of ways. There’s a good chance that abolishing mandatory minimums will still leave minorities nearly equally discriminated against by that system. Because mandatory minimums are a symptom and not a cause of racism in the system, abolishing them will only do so much to fix it. Of course, arguments like this are not arguments to vote for your side. Policies can be imperfect but still good. However, if you are able to come up with other arguments that do stand as reasons to vote for you, mitigating the importance of your opponent’s best arguments is a good way to win the round without winning every single argument.

6. Will this prevent better policies from being implemented?

Sometime cases are good ideas, but they stop other ideas from being implemented that would solve the same problem better. Some of this relates to counter-casing, which you can read Miriam discuss in a different article. However, other times you don’t need to counter-case. The best example of this is the political backlash argument. Let’s say the government team proposes raising the minimum wage to $25 an hour. This is obviously an incredibly liberal policy in the US, one that would not have a great deal of public support. We know that the last major progressive policy shift (Obamacare) resulted in a significant reverse shift to the right (2010 midterm elections.) An argument about political backlash would argue that while this minimum wage increase might be good, it would lead to a backlash that prevents other more important liberal policies from being implemented. This is an especially good argument in conjunction with the previous type of argument regarding solving the root cause of problems. If a policy fails to solve the root problems of a problem (economic inequality) but seems very radical (a $25 minimum wage,) a good argument to make is that such a policy does more harm than good as it fails to solve the problem and only creates a backlash that prevents further progressive economic legislation. These types of arguments are always good in response to politically unpopular policy proposals. Remember, the country as a whole is far more conservative than APDA, and thinking about how the American voters will react to a policy is critical when debating American policy.

Like any skill, argument generation requires not just knowledge, but practice. This article can serve as a framework for how to think about arguments during rounds, but nothing can replace the real thing. The best way to get better at argument generation is by debating. That includes not just tournaments and practice rounds, but watching rounds and doing drills. Watching a PMC and making your own LOC, and then seeing which arguments the real LO made that you missed, is the best way to get better at arguement generation. I know the idea of coming up with these types of arguments on the spot may seem daunting, but all other novices are in the same boat. If you practice rebutting, attend tournaments and ask yourselves these types of questions in your rounds, you will be well on your way to becoming an argument-generating machine on APDA.

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