Responding to Arguments

By Matt Rohn, Franklin & Marshall ’16

The constructive speeches (the first four) are primarily about two things, making arguments and responding to the other team’s arguments. Once the LOC goes oncase almost everything until rebuttals will be responses to arguments that have already been made in the round. Those responses are then arguments in their own right and will be responded to, etc. A lot of times advice about the LOC, MG, and MO will tell you “and then respond to their argument” but it’s up to you to figure out how. Obviously every case is different, the arguments within those cases are also different, and you have very little time to generate responses, but understanding the underlying mechanisms of how arguments operate will help inform your snap decisions and sometimes help you figure out a response to a particularly difficult argument.

There are several different ways that you can respond to an argument, and this requires an understanding of how an argument actually works. The basic way that an argument works is “based on premise A, by way of reasoning (warrant) B, we arrive at conclusion C, and conclusion C is good because of impact D”. This is the framework that underlies almost all arguments. The great thing about this is that, much like supply lines, you don’t have to be able to effectively attack it at every point, just its weakest point, because the logical chain is dependent upon all components being intact. We’ll go through each of the ways to respond with the example argument “Iran is unlikely to take real military action against US interests in the region because Iran is a democracy and democracies do not go to war with eachother since the voting population attempts to avoid going to war since they know it will impose costs on them, and ideologically similar governments are less likely to be belligerent towards eachother. This is good because it means that the US doesn’t have to engage militarily (less lives lost, avoids harms to international reputation, and cheaper).

Option 1 – Attack the premises: If the premise of the argument is untrue then the logic doesn’t matter because it is operating off of an assumption which is unrelated to the real world (or the world in which the case is set) and is therefore irrelevant to the round. In this example you would attack the premise by pointing out that Iran isn’t really a democracy. They have elections but they are not free and fair, and all candidates are pre-screened to make sure that they meet certain ideological standards. Therefore, even if democratic peace theory is true and avoiding military conflict is good for the US, democratic peace theory doesn’t apply to a nondemocratic country. It will often be the case that the premise is true because debaters are generally well informed and will call out teams that are misrepresenting the real world. If it is true then don’t attempt to dispute it in order to gain an advantage. Disputes over premises can have the potential to become messy since they’re ultimately contradictory truth claims about the world. However, most judges are reasonably well informed and will side with the team that is actually correct, especially because attacking the premise usually means addressing nuance where the other team made a sweeping generalization rather than calling out the other team for just outright lying about facts. If you are going to dispute the premises of the argument and are unsure whether the judge will know that your claim about what is true is correct then you should do your best to warrant that claim. The simplest way to do this is to show why your claim about the facts is more compatible with other things we know are true than the other team’s claim about the facts. In this example you could challenge the other team to explain why the attempted Green Revolution happened in 2009 if Iran is actually a well-functioning liberal democracy.

2 – Attack the warrants: Assertions don’t hold much weight so it’s important to explain why you can get to the conclusion you want to reach. If you disprove the warrants then the other team is just left with two unconnected statements: a fact about the world and something that they would like to achieve, but no way to bridge that gap. In this example you would attack the warrants by explaining (1) reasons voters in a democracy would often be willing to take on the costs of fighting a war, like the US has done during all wars we’ve fought, (2) even if voters seek to avoid those costs, the people in the government can often unilaterally begin the conflict which the people then defend once it escalates, and (3) democratic countries can still have radically different ideologies which give them interests in opposing eachother. This also shows the usefulness of redundancy. If a team has multiple warrants for an argument then you have to beat all of them if you’re going to attack warrants because any number of remaining warrants will still support the argument. Redundancy is also why you want multiple points of response when possible. The more responses you have the more the next speaker has to beat in order to recover the argument. Lastly here there are defensive and offensive ways to attack warrants and they can be used effectively in conjunction with eachother. A defensive response takes one of the other team’s warrants and explains why it is untrue. An offensive response is a new warrant you introduce which leads to a different conclusion than the other team was trying to reach.

3 – Attack the impacts. The only reason that the other team wants to prove their conclusion is because they believe it is good for them. Therefore if you can show that the conclusion is actually bad for them then you’ve just let the other team do 2\3 of the work for you. This can be done either by showing why the impacts that the other team talks about are not actually in their interest, or by explaining that there are other impacts which weren’t addressed before, and why those negative impacts are more significant than the other team’s positive ones. Lastly, if all else fails you can mitigate the impacts. Even if what gov says is true, showing that it’s on a much smaller scale makes the argument less important in the round. So if gov says that people will die in a conflict and you can’t disprove it, but can show why it’s more likely to be around 100 deaths instead of 10,000, because modern military technology allows us to keep infantry off the front lines and win the war quickly, then this argument will have a much smaller role in the round. In this example you could attack the impact of reduced likelihood of Iran instigating a military conflict with the US by claiming that US intervention would be good because it will allow us to install a democratic regime, or dismantle their nuclear program, and Iranian instigation gives us a reasonable cause to intervene, which makes this good intervention more likely and is better for our international perception.

So which of these options should you use? Should you only use one against any given argument? Ultimately which one of these options is best to use is entirely dependent upon the argument that the other team is making.

Attack the weak point when you need to and the strong point when you can: Finding the argument’s weakest point and focusing there maximizes the likelihood that you successfully break the logical chain in a way that the other team can’t recover. However only having one response that you think is great leaves the possibility that there’s a counterresponse you didn’t anticipate and if there is then their argument if fully revived. That’s why you generally want to strike at every point where you think you can win. Attacking at multiple points increases the likelihood that the other team will fail to beat one of your responses, and that response can be carried through your next speech or rebuttal. The reason that you generally don’t want to try to attack the strongest point of the argument is that the strongest point is definitionally the hardest to beat. However, if you think that you can soundly beat the best version of their argument then go for it. If you can demonstrate why this is a terrible idea even if everything plays out exactly like the other teams wants it to then it’s a lot harder for them to recover by simply filling in another warrant to replace the one you attacked. Ultimately what you want most of the time is an collapsing “even if structure”. So you can show why the premises aren’t true, but even if they were here’s three reasons their warrants don’t work, and even if those warrants did work, here’s why there are almost no impacts.

One thing to be careful of is that if you’re going to show why the impacts actually work in your favor, then this is in tension with attacking the premises or warrants, because if the conclusion is good for you then you want the conclusion to happen. As a general rule, if you’re going to admit that the conclusion is good for the other team (even if you heavily mitigate it), then you want to show why they don’t get to that conclusion and attack the premises and warrants as much as is reasonable. If you’re going to show why the impacts are actually bad for the other team, and you think you can win this argument, then don’t dispute that the conclusion will happen because that means those impacts are out of the round.

Hopefully this has given you a framework to deliberately think through responses in situations where they don’t naturally come to mind. With practice, identifying the right points of response to in an argument will become increasingly intuitive, even for arguments that you’ve never heard in a round before.

254 thoughts on “Responding to Arguments

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