Blind Gazelles And All Of Their Friends: Hypothetical Motions In Debating

Vincent Chiang
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In one of the ANU Spring BP Debating Championships semi-finals this year, the Prime Minister began their speech with the statement (paraphrased): “Well, when I saw this motion, I immediately regretted my decision not to retire sooner, because we’ve well and truly jumped down the debating rabbit hole.”  The tournament in question was one of the most prestigious and competitive in Australia, and the debater in question an extremely senior and accomplished member of the Australian debating community.  The motion?

You are the loving parent of a 16 year old. Your child has been involved in a gang-related murder, and comes to you for help to cover up their involvement. You believe that your child has been pressured into playing a part in this crime. Based on your knowledge, you also think that it is possible your child could be tried as an adult, and that there is a strong likelihood of their conviction.

This house would help cover up their involvement in the murder.

Personally speaking, I felt both the motion and the resulting debate were excellent; nevertheless, I can appreciate the PM speaker’s concern, and their statement was hardly the only reservation I had heard expressed about this motion.  Indeed, it is hardly the only reservation I have heard about aforementioned motion, or about others like it.

Simultaneously, however, it is clear that motions like the above – featuring extensive infoslides and/or hypothetical scenarios – are becoming increasingly common.  At WUDC 2015, there was a motion where debaters had to argue, from the perspective of a doctor working for the US military, whether or not one should treat torture victims.1  At Australs 2015, a round featured such motions: one about inhabiting a digital reality, and one about a memory-erasing machine.2  All sorts of weird and wacky scenarios have been debated, from superheroes,3 to worlds where everyone is blind, to the actions of sentient gazelles.  And moreso than any other motion, in my experience, it is motions such as these (which I will label “Hypothetical Motions”4) which most commonly attract ridicule and contempt.  It is also motions such as the above, however, which most commonly attract admiration and praise.

This article will sit as a response somewhere between love and hate.  It will do two things.  Firstly, it will make a case defending the value of Hypothetical Motions, responding to critiques of them whilst also advancing a positive case exploring their value within debating.  Specifically, the article will argue that the setting of these motions in competitive debating keeps the competition dynamic and relevant, producing unique, valuable clashes which are well worth debating.  There will also be discussion of how the epistemological difficulties with these motions are not actually particularly problematic, and are easily resolvable with certain guidelines.  Secondly, the article will set forth a number of recommendations on how these motions can be treated in the future.  Specifically, it will offer 1. a set of guidelines for how we should deal with some of the epistemological issues that arise from these motions and 2. a framework for when and where adj cores should set these motions, which would maximise their utility to debating.

What World Are We Discussing Today?  Defining Hypothetical Motions

Prior to the more substantive components of this article, however, it is necessary to clearly delineate the context and definitions of this article.

Broadly speaking, I believe there are two major classes of motions, relevant to the discussion at hand, which can be included in the umbrella term Hypothetical Motions.  The first class are what I will call “Unusual Actor Motions”.5 These are motions such as the one mentioned in the introduction, where debaters discuss what a certain individual or group should do in a highly particular, detailed scenario, which is generally provided on an infoslide.  The second class are what I will call “Fictional Worlds Motion”.6 These motions will generally require debaters to discuss things which do not currently exist within our reality such as ghosts, or a hypothetical technology.  Sometimes, these motions will even exist in another universe altogether (such as the universe of the Harry Potter novels).

Some may find the conflation of Unusual Actor Motions and Fictional Worlds Motions a bit strange.  After all, they seemingly require debaters to do rather different things: the former encourages debaters to think about either unconventional issues or unconventional perspectives on issues, whilst the latter encourages debaters to consider the implications of largely unreal scenarios.  Nevertheless, there are enough unifying features between these two kinds of motions for us to group them together in this article.  Firstly, both of these classes of motions seem to garner the extreme responses detailed in the introductions.  Secondly (and possibly directly causing said responses), both of these classes of motions significantly differ from the kinds of motions that are the norm in competitive debating.  Generally speaking, there is a tendency for debates to centre around socio-political issues, often current affairs, which are of a certain degree of “seriousness”.7 The norm also tends to focus on motions which propose policies, and discussing the pros and cons of a policy with regards to a generalised set of stakeholders.  Hypothetical Motions obviously challenge these norms significantly: they are “deviant” motions, and encourage debaters to speak less as public policy-makers, and more as philosophers, pondering over somewhat abstract thought experiments.

Let’s Have Some (Surprisingly Sophisticated) Fun: In Praise of Hypothetical Motions

With these contexts and definitions clear, this article will now advance a case defending the value of Hypothetical Motions.

Broadly speaking, the most obvious value of Hypothetical Motions is that they add to the dynamism and “freshness” of competitive debating.  As previously mentioned, there is a tendency for debating adj cores to set motions about public policy and current affairs.  Even in our ever-changing world, there are only so many issues that can be meaningfully discussed before these kinds of motions become somewhat stale.  Moreover, these kinds of motions tend to draw on a very particular set of knowledge, gleaned from reading articles in The Economist, The Atlantic, and the news.  They tend to emphasise a certain kind of rationalist, detached approach to analysis, due in part to the need to argue for generalised patterns of behaviour.  They also tend to revolve around similar clashes, about governments, economics, liberty, etc.

Hypothetical Motions are obviously different.  By sheer virtue of being about individuals in unusual scenarios, or fictional worlds, Hypothetical Motions explore different realms of discussion.  They broaden the scope of debating, and give adj cores more capacity to be innovative and novel.  They ask us to explore issues of superpowers and ghosts and space aliens, or the implications of highly specific actions by mothers or doctors.  At the extreme, they even force us to engage with the question of ethics in judging intervarsity, as in the case of a motion from Korea’s KIDA IV.8  For many, the virtue of this is intuitive enough; after all, debating does not want to be boring, and anything preventing that is surely good.

There is, beyond this, competitive and intellectual benefits to Hypothetical Motions.  Unusual Actor Motions encourage contextualised analysis about actors; they place the locus of the debate in close proximity to the individual’s life, and thus encourages complex analysis of one actor, instead of somewhat more superficial analysis of many.   In contrast, Fictional Worlds Motion encourage debaters to be imaginative, to engage with new possibilities and realities, instead of simply retreading the issues of our current one.  It is likelier, in a Fictional Worlds Motion debate, that speakers will be forced to be inventive with their analysis, and make points that they have not simply regurgitated from previous debates.  Hypothetical Motions also tend to be particularly good for creating conceptually abstract, philosophical and ethical discussions: for instance, it is much easier to create debates which focus on the “consequentialism versus duty” clash in Unusual Actor Motions, or to actively encourage speakers to question the meaning of existence itself.9

One might question whether these supposed benefits are actually valuable.  After all, diversity of discussion is hardly a good if the discussion added is not desirable.  With that said, I do believe that there is probably inherent good to creativity, innovation, rigour, and conceptual complexity in intelligent discussion.  These are traits which we seem to find important in ordinary speech, in real world problem solving, and indeed, in the process of persuading people within the real world.  It also seems frankly intuitive that debating should not be about constantly regurgitating the same arguments, or the same kinds of lines of analysis; otherwise, adj cores would not continually seek new and novel motions to set, and debaters would not complain when they see the same motions over and over again.

Some argue, however, that the forms of discussion Hypothetical Motions raise are actively harmful: it is often expressed that these motions seem a bit absurd, or even ridiculous.  Taken at their best, such critiques seem to imply that discussing magic, or drastically unreal scenarios, undermines the seriousness of debating, and its value as an activity which helps with real world problem-solving.   I have two responses to this.  Firstly, I will concede that if debating were constantly a discussion about people’s sex lives, or orcs and elves, it might seem to some a bit of a niche, frivolous activity.   The reality, however, is that debating is not constantly about bizarre hypotheticals, and is unlikely to be as well; so long as Hypothetical Motions are set in moderation, and not in excess, the bulk of this problem can be avoided.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is worth bearing in mind that for many, the issues that many Hypothetical Motions present are of equal intellectual value to more mainstream policy motions.  To be fair, it is unlikely that many will find the politics of the Harry Potter universe to be the single most important intellectual issue of the age; but then it is also vastly unlikely that a three state solution will present itself with Israel-Palestine any time soon.  Meanwhile, the ethics of cloning, or of AI, or of space travel or even of virtual realities are real issues that are already having implications on real-world research and science that could change our world forever.  Who is to say that they are less important than economic policy?  Moreover, with regards to Unusual Actor Motions: many of us will never be in the position of being policy-makers, or have significant sway over the political outcomes of our countries.  But many of us do have to make ethical calls at a day to day level: for many of us, the most pressing questions aren’t about free trade agreements, and instead, are about whom we should fall in love with, or how we should parent our children.  It seems hard to me, at least, to justify why these kinds of questions aren’t in fact just as significant and central to the human condition as ones about general policy.  And that, indeed, is one final positive argument in favour of Hypothetical Motions – that is, that they encourage us to debate about issues that are of profound significance, not to our political lives, but to our personal ones.

Naval Gazing For Knowledge: The Issue of Epistemology

There is one other significant challenge to Hypothetical Motions, in the form of epistemology.[The study of what we can and cannot know.] Anecdotally, many of the critiques of Hypothetical Motions seem to be concerned with the notion that they are undebatable, as they are epistemologically impossible to assess.  In plain language, the critiques seem to suggest that it might be difficult to weigh up the likelihood of what might occur (eg. If the technology to become a ghost existed, what might the experience of being a ghost be like?  How many would choose to use said technology?); we cannot know the worlds that these Hypothetical Motions ask debaters to discuss, because they are so deeply hypothetical.    These critiques, I believe, are perhaps the more serious ones that must be overcome for Hypothetical Motions to be legitimate in competitive debating.  As such, I will now spend a bit of time engaging with the epistemological status of Hypothetical Motions.

Broadly speaking, I think it is important to note that a significant proportion of debating is extraordinarily speculative.  As I illustrated in the last point, many of the policies proposed in mainstream debating are unlikely to ever eventuate in the real world (such as invading Zimbabwe, or the West replacing Saudi Arabia with Iran as its primary partner in the Middle East).  It is very difficult to imagine how states or groups might respond to these policies being introduced; similarly difficult, I believe, to imagining what we might do if we had the ability to read minds, or if we could become immortal.  Generally, we would respond by saying that it is still meaningful to discuss these policies, however, as we can reasonably predict what might happen if these policies were implemented.  We can do this both theoretically (for instance, by assuming people are rational actors and working from there), or via precedent/empiricism (looking at how these states/groups might have acted in the past in relevant or analogous scenarios, and making predictions based on that).10

To this, I would respond “well, exactly.”  Extreme policy motions are debatable because there are still methods that we can use to explain the worlds they create.  And exactly the same applies to Hypothetical Motions.  In the same way that we can use theories about people are rational or irrational actors to predict behaviour with extreme real world policy, so too can we use such theory to predict how people might respond to being offered the opportunity to become ghosts, or immortal digital avatars.  We can also look at analogous scenarios in history (for instance, how people acted when they believed there was an afterlife; or even when they reflect on their lives or think about their futures).  We can even look at the myriad of art, which is premised upon realistically exploring what might happen in these kinds of scenarios (and, if the art is successful, generally does).  Intuitively, these tools are just as capable of explaining speculative sci-fi or personal scenarios as they are of explaining extreme international relations or social policy: after all, the actors are still humans, at the end of the day, and none of these experiences are entirely removed from the lives that we lead already.  Thus, there are a multitude of reference points we can use to ground our discussions – and, as adjudicators can arbitrate which team was more persuasively able to use theory and examples to debate about extreme policies, so too can they do so with Hypothetical Motions.

There is also a second class of epistemological critique, which suggests that it is unclear how you might weigh up the relative value of outcomes in Hypothetical Motions. These critiques might state that, for instance, it is hard to weigh up the right to become a ghost versus the harm of lacking consent, in a motion about people becoming ghosts.  I strongly believe, however, that Hypothetical Motions are no more problematic than mainstream policy motions with regards to how adjudicators might be forced to weigh up the benefits and harms of both teams.    In many mainstream debates, for instance, adjudicators must weigh up the value of an abstract right (eg. Liberty) versus the consequences to a stakeholder (eg. Suffering), or even versus another abstract right.  If one thinks carefully, it is easy to see that there is not clearly objective measure of weighing these conceptually different things against one another: after all, this is the matter of continued and ongoing debate even in academic philosophy, where there are still no clear answers.  At the end of the day, it is the level of analysis provided, and the rhetoric and examples used that sway judges towards preferring one outcome over another, as per the rules of debating.  Analysis, rhetoric, and examples can also be used to explain why we might prefer becoming a ghost to the possible harm of consent.  The problems and solutions are broadly the same.

One final issue that seems to be of concern is that Hypothetical Motions often inherently contain many problematic ambiguities.  For instance, with the motion in this article’s introduction, the socio-economic status of the mother and her child, the capabilities of the gang, etc., are all somewhat unclear, and this might lead to messiness within the debate.  These can be addressed simply by good motion drafting (ie. Including all relevant details in the motion), and also by forcing teams to simply “play fair”, and to apply a bit of common sense.  Elaborations upon what this might mean in practice are provided in the next section.

You Are The International Debating Community.  This House Would Set: Recommendations

The final substantive section of this article will provide a number of recommendations, for how, as a community, we should treat Hypothetical Motions.  Most of these recommendations are drawn from my own experiences debating, adjudicating, and setting Hypothetical Motions in a number of different regions.  They are designed to address the common concerns about Hypothetical Motions, and to ensure that they remain functional and fair within competitive debating.

The first set of recommendations are specifically for adj cores:

  1. Adj cores should aim to set a maximum of 1-2 rounds of Hypothetical Motions per tournament, with the exact number dependent on the tone of the tournament and the overall number of rounds. Anecdotally, debaters find it tiresome to have to repeatedly engage in extraordinary discussions. Moreover, having too many Hypothetical Motions probably means that other areas of discussion equally important to debating (eg. Topic areas such as economics, international relations, identity politics) are not being adequately aired at the tournament.  The exception to this rule should be when tournaments are premised upon and advertised as featuring plentiful Hypothetical Motions, for instance, in the case of the Griffith Harry Potter IV of 2014.
  2. Adj cores should ensure that infoslides11 for Hypothetical Motions are relevant, but also comprehensive. Particularly, adj cores should think carefully about ambiguities in the scenarios presented by Hypothetical Motions, and consider addressing ambiguities that might drastically affect the messiness of the debate. For instance, with regards to the Australs 2015 motion about a digital reality, (anecdotally) there were many rooms where the outcome of the debate was decided by whether or not the digital existence was controlled by a private corporation.  Whilst suggestions #5 and 6 (written below) are also designed to address this kind of scenario, it may sometimes make for cleaner debates if adj cores spend time pre-emptively addressing these kinds of issues within their infoslides.  In particular, adj cores should watch out for making their actors/scenarios too broad, or for leaving speculative concepts in Hypothetical Motions overly ambiguous.  For instance, if the motion is about an individual cheating on their partner whilst on study exchange, it should probably be clear as to what kind of relationship the two individuals have, and what their expectations/life situations are.  If the motion is about a hypothetical ghost technology, then it should be clear as to what ghosts can and cannot do, what the terms of becoming a ghost are, etc.
  3. Adj cores should consider using debater and adjudicator briefings to explain how Hypothetical Motions work to debaters, and the kinds of expectations they have of how these motions are to be debated and judged. This should be actively done at any tournament with a Hypothetical Motion, especially for debaters unfamiliar with these kinds of motions.
  4. Adj cores should ensure that they do not get carried away with setting novel Hypothetical Motions for novelty’s sake. The normal rules of motion setting still apply, and adj cores should ensure that looking for silver bullets, or making sure that motions don’t have gaping holes in them, are processes that do not get lost amidst indulgent creativity. This article’s title is somewhat of a reference to this: I was part of an adj core which set a motion about a world where everyone was without sight.12  The debate on the motion ended up being very sophisticated and interesting, but upon reflection, I (speaking as a private individual) believe that there were perhaps a few too many potential silver bullets and ambiguities in the motion for it to be set as it was (and we were lucky the debaters decided to “play fair”).  The same applies to another somewhat infamous motion set at an Australian tournament, where the Unusual Actor is a sentient gazelle (who must sacrifice its children to a horde of hungry lions).

The next set of recommendations are for the entire community, and offer a perspective on how we should debate and judge these motions.  They are the kinds of recommendations that might be included in briefings, as per recommendation #3:

  1. The first speaker of the debate (eg. The prime minister, in BP format) should offer “characterisation” (clarification) on any terms that might be somewhat ambiguous within the motion (eg. what a digital existence might entail, the rules governing it, etc.), assuming the infoslide hasn’t provided a definition already. These characterisation should follow the same rules as the definitions provided by first speakers: they should be reasonable and lead to a fair debate, and should moreover be accepted by all other speakers within the debate. Points of clarification should be offered if important aspects of the motion are still unaddressed.  The characterisations provided by the first speaker, which clarify the motion, should moreover only be challenged if they are unfair and squirrel the debate (or otherwise break the rules of debating).
  2. The metric for how judges weigh up the persuasiveness of claims in Hypothetical Motions should be broadly the same as in any other motion, with one clear exception. Any premise that is explicitly stated in the infoslide should be taken as irrefutable fact. However, any inferences drawn from the infoslide, but which are not explicitly stated, should be judged as if it were a fact claim made in a regular argument: that is, judges should weigh up whether or not an informed, reasonable individual would find the inference plausible at face value, and whether reasoning has been provided to make the inference plausible.  For instance, in the motion in the introduction (about gangs), in the debate that I saw, teams suggested that the actor of the motion as likely to be of low socio-economic status, as it is generally people who are economically disadvantaged who are forced to join gangs.  This would be an example of a persuasive and reasonable inference, which is both a. plausible at face level and b. made even more plausible by a basic level of analysis.

A Final Adjudication: The Conclusion

This article has examined the phenomena of Hypothetical Motions as a recent trend in debating.  It has evaluated the value of Hypothetical Motions, arguing that they are both legitimate and desirable within competitive debating.  It has also provided a set of recommendations for how these motions should be set, debated, and judged in the future.

Of course, there is still much discussion to be had.  For one, the set of recommendations is unlikely to be complete, and future adj cores and MDR writers may want to consider other problems with Hypothetical Motions that this article has not addressed.  There is also plausibly still a discussion to be had on how debaters might want to prepare for Hypothetical Motions, on what kind of Hypothetical Motions tend to lead to the best and fairest debates, etc.  One thing is for certain, however: whether we like it or not, superheroes, digital existences, loving parents, blind gazelles, and all of their friends will be with us for some time.  Hypothetical Motions are here to stay.

  1. The exact motion: “This house, as a medical professional employed by the United States military or security services, would, and would encourage others, to refuse orders to provide medical treatment to individuals undergoing ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’”
  2. The exact motions: “presuming feasibility, That we should allow individuals to selectively erase others’ memories of them” and “presuming it were possible, That we would opt for a digital existence over a physical one.”
  3. Eg. “This House, as a superhero, would agree to use their powers solely in service of the democratic state”, set at Cambridge IV 2014
  4. Named for the sake of convenience, even though these motions are often based on scenarios that are very plausibly occurring in reality.
  5. Another example of this kind of motion: “You are an 18 year-old feminist-identifying female pop star, who has enjoyed celebrity status for several years. You are now considering to target the adult market. This house believes that we should aggressively self-sexualise our image.”
  6. Eg. “That as the wizarding community of the Harry Potter universe, this house would reveal itself to the Muggle world.”
  7. Notice how motions about, for instance, school uniforms, are often treated with a degree of disdain when they are set: there is an assumption that such motions are intellectually juvenile and not worthy of competitive debate.  There was (and perhaps still is) a kind of assumption similar to this about sports motions, discussed in Rob Mars’ article “It’s not all balls”, in MDR volume 10.
  8. The exact motion: “You are a very respected debater from a very underrepresented institution. You are judging at a major international BP tournament, and in a bubble round that you chair, there is an exceptionally close decision for 1st and 2nd. One of the two teams in this close split is a prestigious institution, and the other is from a very underrepresented and small one with no break history. Your reasoning leads you to believe that the team from the prestigious institution probably won; your single panellist, who is a suspected biased judge, also believes it was a close win to the prestigious institution. This house would actively push for the call to the underrepresented institution and inflate speaker scores.”
  9. See for instance the motion in the introduction, motions about individuals cheating on their lovers, or motions set in post-apocalyptic scenarios.
  10. It should be noted that these are basically just the processes of deductive and inductive reasoning.
  11. Or the part of the motion which details the scenario of the motion.
  12. The exact motion: “Assuming that no sight leads to a slight heightening of the four other senses (hearing, touch, smell, taste), this house prefers a world where everyone is born blind.”