By David Weeks

David was a high school debater in Louisianna and Texas and won 2nd place at the Tournament of Champions (TOC) in 2006.  He is currently a senior at Swarthmore College.

The Function of the Criterion

The value criterion (also known as a “standard”) is probably the most important individual part of any LD case. Above all, the value criterion is a “weighing standard” for arguments. That is, it is the lens that the judge sees arguments through. If the accepted criterion in the round is the protection of life, arguments about protecting privacy rights don’t matter. Judges often use the criterion as a “filter” for arguments, in that arguments whose impacts don’t pertain to the criterion are ignored. In this way, you should choose a value criterion that allows the judge to evaluate arguments in terms of it. That means your criterion will often be [verb + object], such as protecting life, minimizing suffering, rejecting violence, encouraging participation, etc.

If the judge cannot evaluate both your and your opponents’ arguments with your criterion, then it is likely a bad choice, because you aren’t telling the judge how to adjudicate clash between yours and your opponents’ arguments. This is not to say that you can’t have a strategic value criterion, or that you can’t frame the round to your advantage. Certainly, both of these are good ideas. However, this does mean that your opponent should be able to make arguments as to why their side could achieve your criterion. If there is no conceivable argument that your opponent can make as to why their side achieves your criterion, then you have most likely gone too far and made your criterion very unfair. On the other hand, if your opponent can make only make a few unconvincing or easily-outweighed arguments as to why their side achieves your value criterion, then you might have a promising criterion.

It is important to note that, if you chose to have a value premise, you must explain why the value criterion “achieves” your value premise. Different kinds of criteria go about this in different ways, so we’ll return to this later. Keep in mind that a value criterion is not a good criterion just because it achieves the value. Many novice often make the mistake of assuming that anything that might lead to or be consistent with the value premise is a good criterion. In many cases, this assumption leads to very boring, very annoying-to-judge criterion debates. So in the future, remember that the primary concern is to offer the judge a means of evaluating both sides’ arguments.

“Achieving the Criterion”

Many debaters throw around the rhetoric of “achieving the criterion” without any substantial explanation. There are several ways of achieving your value premise with your criterion, and you should understand how they all work.

The concepts of necessary and sufficient are useful here. Necessary is what is required. If x is necessary for y, then you cannot have y without x. An engine is necessary for a car. No engine, no (functioning) car. However, you don’t automatically have a car just because you have an engine. An engine is not sufficient for a car; you also need brakes, a steering wheel, etc. Thus, an engine is necessary, but insufficient for a car. When x is sufficient for y, then x achieves the entirety of y. For example, if you need a to use a pen, stealing a pen would be sufficient in order to attain a pen. However, you could also borrow or buy one from someone else.  If something is both necessary and sufficient, then it is the one and only thing that can achieve the entire value premise. If x is necessary and sufficient for y, then y is true if and only if x is true.  Usually, your value criterion aims to be both necessary and sufficient, but there are a few exceptions.

Remember that necessary, sufficient criteria can be difficult to develop, because devising a three-word phrase that describes everything that justice or morality could mean is impossible. This is why you must consider the criterion as a weighing mechanism, and not simply as a logical conduit leading to your value. You must consider the context of the resolution and common arguments from the other side. Think about what scenarios best represent the conflict between aff and neg, and devise your criteria with these conflict scenarios and common arguments in mind. Your criterion should be necessary and sufficient for your value premise, but in terms of the specifics of the resolution.

While the necessary sufficient structure is most common, some situations might leave room for a necessary, insufficient criterion. Some negatives use a necessary, insufficient standard in a clever way. The negative would accept the affirmative’s value premise while reading the negative case, and make arguments as to why the negative criterion is necessary, but insufficient to achieve the value premise. You may ask yourself, “why would it be strategic to intentionally make my criterion insufficient?” The answer is that, if you’re negative, you can force the affirmative to jump through two hoops: they have to achieve your criterion, since yours is necessary to the value. However, because your criterion is insufficient, the affirmative must also win their own criterion, since winning yours would not be enough to achieve the value. In this way, a necessary insufficient standard can be strategic because it forces the other side to prove that they fulfill two criteria, as opposed to just one. (Keep in mind that, for this strategy to work, you probably need to prove that negatives only need to deny the truth of the resolution in order to win, rather than win a counter-advocacy with pro-active reasons to negate.)

Necessary insufficient standards can be used in some affirmatives as well.  For instance, say the resolution is “Gun control laws are unjust.” The affirmative could say that the negative has the burden to prove that gun control is just, and that the affirmative merely has to demonstrate any form of injustice in gun control laws. By shifting the positive burden of proof to the negative side, the affirmative can offer multiple necessary insufficient criteria, and claim that the negative must meet all of the criteria, since each serves as an indicator of a specific level of injustice.  You can easily see why this might get out of hand, since a debater can impose seven necessary insufficient criteria upon the other side, which would be next to impossible.  Absolutely avoid using more than three standards, since many judges have becomes disgruntled with this trend. Also, be prepared to answer arguments about why multiple insufficient criteria is unfair because each side should have reciprocal burdens.

It is possible to have multiple criteria that function differently. With the necessary insufficient criteria, making your opponent lose one of the criteria will likely make them lose the round. You can also have multiple criteria that allow reciprocal burdens. For example, you could have three criteria, and whichever side that wins two or more of them wins. You can also have dual criteria, as long as you tell the judge what to do if each of you wins impacts to only one criterion.

A final consideration in formulating your value criterion is whether it is a maximization or “brightline” criterion. Some criteria, such as maximizing utility or minimizing suffering, do not proscribe how far to go. That is, there is no absolute threshold of suffering that you’d want to stay above under the “minimizing suffering” criterion; all that matters is that your side contributes to less suffering than your opponent’s side. A brightline criterion, on the other hand, establishes some specific threshold for when something is good or bad. Agency or side-constraint-related arguments are good examples of this. They say that there are certain non-negotiable things that the government cannot morally do, regardless of the benefits that might follow. For example, slavery might or might not have increased the south’s agricultural productivity before the Civil War, but we consider slavery unjust regardless of the benefits or harms. With brightline criteria, you don’t try to meet the criterion better than your opponent; you either simply meet the criterion, or you don’t. With maximization criteria, weighing impacts is critically important.

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