The ‘Fairness Principle’ in Debating

Gemma Buckley and Josh Taylor
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Debating is an inherently arbitrary, and therefore unfair, activity. However, much of the arbitrariness and unfairness is a result of how we currently choose to implement the rules and procedures around the activity. This article will propose a radical shift in the way we go about adjudicating debates, in hopes of achieving fairer outcomes.

Part One: Fairness matters

It might seem redundant to begin this article by establishing that fairness is of the utmost importance in awarding the result of a debate; hopefully all readers agree intuitively that the goal of debating should be to find a fair result. We can probably all acknowledge that individuals spend countless hours, huge sums of money and much emotional turmoil to hone their debating skills in pursuit of success. This reason alone is enough to suggest that we ought to ensure the right, or the most deserving, teams are rewarded.

However, it is also in the interests of the debate community as a whole to ensure fairness in the adjudication of debates. Debating as a sport gains its uniqueness and credibility by rising above many of the worst parts of political discourse – a platform which is most definitely unfair. Half the reason some of the brightest university students from around the globe dedicate their lives, often at the cost of other pursuits, to competitive debating is that it rewards merit and logic and creates constructive discussion. As such, there is no doubt that a frustration debaters face – something which no doubt drives people away – is the feeling that the results of debates are unfair. The idea that considerations beyond the skill and talent of a team will ultimately play a part in the result of a debate is enough to discourage effort and reduce the overall quality of debating. Why would any reasonable person expend resources on trying to make themselves the best debater they can be, when there is a good chance that their individual merit will not be a decisive factor in the result of any given round? The answer is of course that they would not, and we believe this is something regrettable for all who share a passion for debate.

As such, we would argue that establishing a level of fairness ought to be the number one priority for the debating community. For the purposes of this article we will advocate a view that fairness is achieved when the merit of each team is the sole consideration of the judge in coming to a decision, meaning that factors outside of the control of the team ought not be determinative.


Part Two: The way we assess debates right now is unfair

There are obviously countless ways in which the assessment of debates right now is unfair. Many former articles in this publication and others have dealt extensively with some of these issues, including gender, nationality and language biases. As such, this article will take issue with a very specific manifestation of unfairness, which can be described as unfairness in the substratum, or parameters, of debates. A judge ought to be believe that all four teams have an equal opportunity to get every result. However, often this basis is changing. This article focuses on situations where teams find themselves in substantially unequal positions due to a range of factors, which in application gives teams unequal opportunities to succeed.

Firstly, unfairness occurs when the very foundation nature of the debate is unequal. For example the topic itself sets up a much more difficult task for one team or side than the other, teams have unequal prospects of success.. Secondly, even if the motion has potential of fairness, actions of teams required to set up the parameters of the debate may create unfairness within the debate. For example, when a team squirrels or challenges a definition, teams within the debate may find themselves, through no fault of their own, in untenable positions. Thirdly, when the intuitions and biases of the judge establish and unequal playing ground, for example a judge is simply more receptive to arguments from a particular philosophical framework, teams may find themselves fighting from unequal ground. In this section we will deal with each of these situations in turn and make an argument that the status quo often prevents the most meritorious team from achieving success.

When debates are unevenly weighted.

It is (hopefully) a rare situation, but there are times when the very ground on which the debate is built is uneven by nature of the motion. Some ideas are simply good or bad. No matter what you believe about the capacity of debate to create logical arguments for anything, you must acknowledge that there are some cases where that is not true, or at the very least it is differentially difficult on one side or team. It is certainly very uncommon for something genuinely indefensible to be set as a topic (although not unheard of), but as with anything, there is a spectrum of unfairness. Topics that are counterintuitive or incredibly complicated may force a certain team or bench to do more work than another in order to convince an average judge. We would argue that even that is unfair.

The WUDC in Chennai provides a clear example of this. Six of the top nine ranked teams on the tab (teams ranked 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th to be specific) were all knocked out in the Octo-final round by lower seeded teams from the government side of the controversial motion “THBT Japan should shame its soldiers who participated in WWII, including those who did not commit war crimes themselves”. To be clear, it is not our argument that there is nothing to be said on the government side of the debate, nor is it our belief that higher seeded teams are always the most meritorious in a round. However, we would suggest that the overwhelming preference for opposition teams getting through, despite their seed, seems to suggest that the topic was far more difficult for those on the government. Some teams did manage to get through from the government side. However, that does not invalidate the claim that the task of the opposition was easier in this round. We believe that an unbalanced topic is one of the external factors which prevents merit from being rewarded.

When teams muddy the parameters of the debate.

Even when the topic is balanced and has sufficient depth to allow all teams an equal shot at winning, the actions of teams within the round can create a more difficult task for some. We are all familiar with the concept of squirreling, and it is true that we discourage it under the status quo. However, we also ask opposition teams to default to accepting the set up of the Opening Government team, so long as it is “debateable”. As it is now, Closing Government can only use a new definition if Opening Opposition challenges. In the instance where no challenge is offered by the Opening Opposition, the Closing Government is left with two choices – either defend the silly thing that their opening set up (something which the adjudication core did not intend) or be penalised for knifing. Through no fault of their own, this team is now in a more difficult position than other teams in the round, and has limited capacity to equalise the score. Similarly in this case, presuming the Closing Government choose to knife, the job of the Closing Opposition arguably becomes harder, with them having to oppose two different entire cases.

Again to offer an (albeit extreme) illustrative example from the authors own experience – a few years back in an out round at the Red Sea Open, the Opening Government misinterpreted or squirreled a motion and ended up running the opposition line rather than that prescribed for the government. The Opening Opposition, recognising that there was still ‘a debate’ to be had chose not to formally challenge the definition and instead offer some casual mockery. The Closing Government chose to run the topic as it was, therefore knifing the OG completely and also running the same case as the Opening Opposition. Finally the Closing Opposition were left to argue against two entirely contradictory cases, whilst also being incapable of defending their own for fear of agreeing with half of the Government bench. Obviously this kind of debate does not take place every day, but it does illustrate that sometimes the actions of a certain team create unfathomably difficult burdens for others. Much less egregious versions of this happen every day, when teams choose to block out other teams or simply make strategic errors that affect the capacity of the other team on their bench to win. We contend that the actions of team can create unfairness within the debate.

When the judge has prejudice.

Finally, we would suggest that the intuition and bias of the judge can artificially make one team’s job more difficult. Some judges have a preference for certain philosophical frameworks or simply believe particular arguments to be true. For example if a judge vehemently believes in a utilitarian framework, there is no doubt that any side of the debate that is mounting a rights based argument will have a more difficult time convincing that judge. This can often occur in debates that others may consider fair. An Adj. Core may value arguments on a side of a motion, but by virtue of landing a judge who rejects the same arguments, teams find themselves in substantially unfair positions. Regardless of which of these circumstances unfolds, it is clear that there is a pervasive unfairness with competitive debate.


Part Three: There are unacceptable deficiencies in our current approaches to solving unfairness

Obviously we are not the first people to notice or identify these problems, nor will we be the last. Many potential solutions have been discussed and implemented, however it is our belief that they have been hitherto ineffective at meaningfully resolving the issues of unfairness explained above

With regards to unbalanced topics, there have been moves to create more rigorous assessments of the success of topics, with tournaments offering motion balance analysis as common practice. However, of course there are limitations to this approach. In the first place, it does nothing to resolve the unfairness that teams at that tournament faced, although it may prevent unbalanced topics from being set again in the future. Secondly, it is unlikely to even do that, given there is no systematic approach to ensuring balance employed by most adjudication cores. The current approach seems to be to presume that adjudication cores know best and assert that all topics that are set can be won by any team. The fact is that this is wrong. This is in no way intended to be accusatory – the authors of this article are guilty of setting unbalanced motions too. However, it is important to recognise that setting unbalanced motions is always a possibility, given the way in which topics are set. Adjudication cores are predominantly made up of excellent and accomplished debaters, meaning their interpretation of what can be reasonably expected of teams is skewed. They also spend a long time talking about and thinking about their topics, leading to an echo chamber effect and also probably the belief that good cases are possible on either side – it is easy to forget that what is possible in days and weeks is near to impossible in 15 minutes. Forcing teams to suck it up and just try their best to overcome the inbuilt bias in a topic is unacceptable and frustrating.

To the credit of adjudication cores and the debating community, there have been greater attempts to resolve the issues of unfairness within debates, for example with moves towards mandating engagement through the POI rule. However, there is still a significant problem in the way we deal with squirrels and knifing. We ask the opposition team to simply run with whatever they are dealt, and penalise a closing team who choose not to defend something preposterous set up by their opening. Why should we choose to punish these teams and make their jobs more difficult through no fault of their own? We believe unfairness pervades these arenas of adjudication.

Finally, right now we attempt to deal with judge bias by asserting that judges ought not have bias. Of course we offering training, judge tests and feedback systems to try to weed out those with bias and demote them, however that does not really deal with the core problem. Bias will always exist, even amongst the best and most well enlightened judges, and no methods that we have right now are sufficient at overcoming that fact. Some of the current strategies can obviously be expanded upon: stricter selection of adjudication cores, more rigorous assessment of topic balance, mandatory POI’s and clearer rules about squirreling etc. may all help to limit the degree of unfairness within debate, but they will not eliminate it.


Part Four: The application of the ‘degree of difficulty’ metric will help to correct these problems

When all else fails, and by virtue of either the topic, actions of the teams or the inbuilt biases of the judge, the capacity of one team or bench to win on merit is reduced, the question remains: what do we do? This article advocates a controversial solution which advocates for judges to explicitly account for the degree of difficulty faced by each team in coming to a result. While this intuitively seems quite extreme, this is actually an extension of an already accepted principle, both in the adjudication of debates and other sports. In the debating status-quo, we tell judges to ‘be lenient’ to Opening Oppositions who are faced with squirrels, given their relative disadvantage of having to make up a case on the spot. We also ask judges to weigh the contributions of the closing teams, accounting for their relative advantages of additional preparation time and seeing the issues of the debate play out in front of them. However, we are unwilling to codify the right of a judge to explicitly take into account, and reference in their judgements, the degree of difficulty faced by each team. To the extent we do, we limit it to very specific circumstances. We believe the same principle that underpins these already accepted norms ought to be formalised and extended to all situations – essentially that we reimagine one of the core roles of the judge.

What is the ‘degree of difficulty’ principle, and how would it be used?
At this point you may be asking: what does any of this actually mean for a judge in a round like one we have described? No longer is the winner just the team that most convinced you; it is the team who convinced you most given their likelihood of convincing you at all. This doctrine is a fundamental rethinking of the scope of the judges role, and would require judges to ask themselves a new set of questions when coming to their decision. We would require judges, as a last step in coming to a decision, to adjust results based on the ‘degree of difficulty’. Judges would need to ask themselves: do I believe, given the way the debate unfolded, that this team had an equal opportunity for success? If the answer is no, we would require judges to adjust their result to account for this. This assessment will need to account for the topic itself and any perceived balance or depth issues; things that took place within a round that artificially changed the difficulty of one team’s task; and the judges own preconceived bias.

With regards to accounting for the topic itself and the way the debate plays out, judges would be required to think about any issues regarding the topic and reward teams who made the best arguments they could, even if those things were ultimately defeated within the debate. This will serve to address the situations outlined above.

Assessing judge bias may seem impossible to do, and to some extent that is true. However, we believe that encouraging a judge to think about their own opinions on the issue and be cognizant of those when coming to a decision is the best approach. For example, if a judge is encouraged to acknowledge (rather than hide) their bias, then they can attempt to correct for it. For example, a judge who is very predisposed to believe that liberty is good and government intervention is bad, may penalise a team that argued things they agreed with in a basic superficial way as compared to a team that argued things which they disagree with in a more logical way – this would be independent to some extent of who ultimately convinced them at the end of the day. For example, perhaps it is true that they still believed a world with small government was good, but might reward a team on government for making the best of (what they perceive to be) a bad situation. This is more likely to ensure that the most meritorious teams succeed.

Principally justifying the ‘degree of difficulty” standard.

The underlying principle of this policy is to account for substantial inequality that occurs in a debate – even though all four teams, on paper, have the same chances of success. In defending this principle, we would draw an analogy to the underlying principle of Affirmative Action policies or redistributive taxation – the idea that merit can only truly be understood and rewarded when all begin from the same point. Those who support AA policies would make the argument that right now ‘merit’ based entrance requirements, for example to universities, do not really reflect the true merit of the individuals, given that one group begun from a disadvantaged position. It is our opinion that the way the role of the adjudicator is currently constructed limits their capacity to account for the relative difficulty in the starting positions of each team within a debate, and therefore prevents fair results from being achieved.

Difficulty is fundamental consideration in fairness. Consider a second analogy – a diving contest. Each dive that a contestant undertakes is given a difficulty rating and then the ultimate score that is awarded accounts for the degree of success at that dive, meaning that someone who poorly executes a very difficult dive may get a similar score to someone who executes a very easy dive quite well. The only real difference between this situation and the aforementioned ones is that these divers get to make the choice to attempt a more difficult manoeuvre, whereas the relative difficulty a team faces is out of their hands in debates. If anything, that suggests the introduction of a degree of difficulty criteria is even more important in the realm of debate than anywhere else in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.


Part Five: There are legitimate criticisms of this approach, but on balance, it will ensure greater fairness in results

The most fundamental criticism of this way of thinking is the idea that it jeopardises the key aim of debate, which we all know is the elusive ‘persuasion’. If the point of the debate is to convince the judge that they should agree with your side and want to do or not do the thing you say, surely failure to do that means you have lost. To some extent that is true. However, we would suggest that winning a race when you had a 50 metre head start is not truly winning at all. More than that, we would of course suggest caution with the use of this principle – the degree of difficulty should only be one of many considerations a panel takes into account, and of course they should weigh it against whom they ultimately thought was the most persuasive in the round. However, the alternative is that they are precluded from accounting for it at all. For us this is a far greater concern.

Another legitimate grievance with this approach is that it is highly subjective and essentially means that the beliefs of the individual judge are determinative in the result of the debate. We acknowledge that, but would suggest a couple of important caveats. Firstly, British Parliamentary has the benefit of consensus adjudication. What that means is that issues of fairness and assessments of the degree of difficulty would be discussed and fought over by the panel, in the same way as all other aspects of the debate. If one person on the panel thought a topic was very Government weighted, one thought it lent to the Opposition and the other thought it was balanced, it would be unlikely that any degree of difficulty consideration would come into play. However, in the circumstance when the entire panel agrees that a topic is near impossible from one side, should they not have the right to account for that in their decision?

Secondly, all adjudication is subjective and that is a reality we ought to embrace rather than ignore. The particular opinions of the judge about the arguments, style and rules are decisive in results right now. What this approach does is to use that subjectivity in a more constructive way, by asking that judges embrace their preconceived bias and make an attempt to correct for it. We would argue that the consistency is found, counterintuitively, in the realisation that there is no consistency.

For those who fear overcorrection (for example that it will reverse the bias and make it basically impossible to win from the intuitive side of a motion), we would suggest again that it ought only be one factor judges consider. We would also question whether it is likely that a judge is going to go so far as to say that they cannot be convinced by the side they are naturally more convinced by. But again, we must compare with the alternative, which is a world where we make no effort to correct for the difficulty some teams face in winning from a particular side or position in front of a certain judge.

Finally, people may sensibly argue that all of these considerations (regarding motion balance, and the application of the knifing rule etc) should remain in the hands of the adjudication core. After all, these people are appointed due to their achievements, experience and respect, and we ought to trust them, more than any random judge, to fairly resolve these issues. Of course we will not question that adjudication cores do a generally fantastic job, and are certainly made up of incredibly qualified people. However, we would point out that there are some things that are structurally problematic about the way adjudication cores function, as discussed earlier. Beyond that, we would say that an adjudication core can never really account for the individual circumstances of any debate, nor the particular biases of any given judge. As such, we believe that the greatest amount of flexibility ought to be given to judges to deliver a fair decision in the context of the round they were entrusted to adjudicate.

Part Six/Conclusion: Setting an agenda for adjudication

We accept that many of the suggestions in this radical are both radical and controversial. Rather than discounting them out hand, we hope that readers will consider some of the problems we have outlined – problems we believe are widely recognised – and whether the ‘degree of difficulty’ principle is an acceptable and an effective solution to them. We contend that current strategies, at best, limit the regularity of unfair outcomes, rather than establishing a solution to them in their entirety. By no means do we argue that this paradigm shift is without fault or risk, but we believe it to be a necessary step in ensuring the integrity of the activity of competitive debate. Considering the starting position of teams within a debate, and their capacities to achieve a successful result is something we ought to allow judges to do in pursuit of creating a more enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone.