Is the ideal judge a blank slate?
Lots of experienced debaters keep discussing what might be the best way to adjudicate in British Parliamentary Style. Today, Stefan Torges wants to discuss the perfect adjudicator’s position.
The ideal judge
I believe that in BPS the ideal judge is underdetermined because existing guidelines do not address some fundamental questions. However, for various reasons I find it crucial to formulate a shared understanding of the ideal judge:
- It allows the community to judge whether they find this understanding appropriate;
- it provides a shared foundation to resolve conflicts during adjudication discussions;
- it facilitates the training of trainee judges;
- it provides increased transparency for speakers.
Fundamentally, during a debate speakers seek to convince judges of certain propositions. So the ideal judge has to rate statements according to their plausibility. At the end, given all statements and their plausibilities the ideal judge arrives at a ranking. The crucial question is then what determines the plausibility of a statement: What reasons do they give to explain the degree of plausibility for a given statement? To answer this question it is important to distinguish between descriptive and normative statements.
Descriptive or empirical statements are those that refer to the world “out there”. Whenever we as judges are confronted with a descriptive statement, we have to determine its credibility. I know of three consistent solutions for this task:
- Blank slate (p=100%): The judge believes this statement at face value – without explanation – until somebody disputes it.
- Ignorance (p=50%): As long as a statement is not explained, the judge remains agnostic. They cannot judge whether this statement is true or false.
- Informed estimate (p=X%): The judge attempts to honestly estimate the credibility of the statement.
To me there appears to be no clear consensus regarding these three solutions because I have seen experienced judges defend any one of them before. Existing guidelines also do not answer the question conclusively as far as I can tell, although they do seem to favor the second and third interpretation.
I believe that we should use the third approach. It best captures the role of a critical and informed audience. When confronted with obvious falsehoods we already seem to employ this approach as well. I do not see a reason to to limit this principle to these cases alone.
All other approaches seem weird and unfair. The probability of a nuclear war following the suspension of compulsory schooling is simply not 100%, 99% or even 50%. As a result opposing teams would have to dispute even the most absurd claims to prevent a default victory of the other team. (e.g. “Unfortunately, you forgot to quickly mention that compulsory schooling does not lead to nuclear war.”) Clearly this would create perverse incentives. There are a host of other structural reasons to prefer this approach as well but we need not get into them here.
So when judges are faced with making an informed estimate, we have to decide which information they should use to do so:
- (A) The judge attempts to approximate the estimate of the “average informed world citizen”.
- (B) The judge uses (all of) their own knowledge to make an honest estimate.
I am highly uncertain about which approach to favor because there are good reasons for either of them. In any case, however, it is important that the judge critically examines statements before arriving at their estimate.
Explanations (debate jargon: analysis) under this model are reasons why the informed estimate of the judge does not adequately reflect reality. These should also be subjected to an informed estimate by the judge (if they were not part of the estimate for the original statement). Such an explanation should cause the judge to gradually tweak their previous assessment depending on the credibility and scope of the explanation.
The probability that compulsory schooling leads to nuclear war should be judged as pretty low when first confronted with it. However, perhaps the judge did not take into account that such a policy would lead to a drop in the overall educational level which would make it more likely that a dangerous demagogue would be elected president of the United States which in turn (slightly) increases the likelihood of nuclear war.
With this in mind, the statement “You merely claimed that.” is only sometimes appropriate. A claim can be persuasive without providing any reasoning. Only if the claim is very unreasonable should the judge demand an explanation. Opposing teams also do not need to dispute a given statement for a judge to be able to reject it. If a judge finds a claim to be unpersuasive, the opposing teams do not need to state that. (Although they can earn credit for doing so.)
Normative statements are moral judgments (e.g. “Stealing is bad”). Without them adjudicators would be unable to evaluate the consequences of any policy. Similar to descriptive statements, the ideal judge should also attempt an informed estimate in these cases. However, the word “informed” is somewhat misleading in this context because normative judgments are not based on facts but values. So in order to be more precise we would need to speak of “estimates that are informed by certain fundamental moral values”. Unfortunately, these fundamental values are rarely talked about explicitly within the debating community.
The adjudication process still works because there is a (relatively broad) implicit consensus regarding the relevant fundamental values. So in most debates speakers make very, very few moral statements proper because they (rightly) take certain fundamental values for granted. (When a team makes the plausible argument that the odds of a nuclear war would rise, they usually do not need to explain why that is problematic.) However, for a shared understanding of the ideal judge, there are still two interesting questions:
1. What are the (shared) moral fundamental values (of the ideal judge)?
Shengwu Li has written a good post on this topic where he makes the following proposal:
- Strong belief in the importance of certain kinds of human goods – freedom, happiness, life, etc.;
- moderate presumption in favour of democracy, free speech, and equal treatment;
- defeasible belief in Mill’s harm principle (i.e. insofar as an action affects just the actor, the judge has a presumption against government action);
- belief that important moral questions should be resolved by reasoned deliberation, not appeals to unquestionable (divine) authority.
This list is a decent starting point and I would welcome a more explicit discussion on this topic that would ideally lead to updating existing guidelines. Contrary to descriptive statements I strongly believe that when it comes to normative issues a judge has to leave their personal convictions behind and assume the role of the ideal judge with a specified value set. If these values are not determined across judges, extreme distortions of results are conceivable as proper fundamental values are not subject to arguments in the usual sense.
2. When different fundamental values conflict, how should the ideal judge reach a resolution?
If such a resolution were not possible, debates could not be decided. There are two solutions to this problem:
- (A) There is only one fundamental value for debating purposes.
- All other values are merely instrumental or useful proxies for the actual fundamental value. In principle, however, one could reduce them to the lowest level. That way all conflicts could be resolved there. Utilitarianism is the classical theory of this approach.
- (B) We use trade-off ratios between different fundamental values.
- For example, a speaker could claim that 200 insults are not worth the loss of an arm (assuming that these are fundamental values).
Trade-off ratios however, tend to be problematic. Either these would have to be defined by the community – what is theoretically and practically hopeless – or we would have to accept that judges with their own values, trade-offs, and intuitions decide the outcomes of debates. Because on the lowest level you cannot convince somebody through arguments in the usual sense. Otherwise there would be an infinite regress. As a result, some normative premises have to be accepted without argument. Only thought experiments and intuition pumps may sway a given judge to adopt a different value set. However, such an approach would sacrifice the objectivity of adjudications and reduce transparency for speakers. Judges could legitimately proclaim winners with statements such as “I just believe that this is more important.” They would not need to provide a deeper explanation. I find that unsatisfactory. That’s the main reason why I prefer a form of utilitarianism. There is still room for such values as democracy, liberty etc. to the extent that they further the fundamental value at the heart of the theory. This way one can always (theoretically) reach a ranking while preventing arbitrariness.
I realize that this post makes many idealized assumptions and is pretty technical. That is necessary, however, to come to a consistent and appropriate understanding of the ideal judge. This post is intended as a suggestion and I welcome constructive feedback. I am very uncertain regarding many of these considerations. During discussions that also shaped this article I often realized just how unclear many assumptions about how to judge a debate are. That needs to change.
P.S.: Thanks to Julian Stastny for many helpful discussions on this topic.
Stefan Torges is finalist of many German and international tournaments. He won the ZEIT DEBATTE Tübingen [belonging to the most prestigous German tournament series] in May 2015. At Chennai WUDC 2014 he made it to the ESL quarterfinals. 2011-2015 he debated for Debattierclub Magdeburg [Magdeburg’s debating society] whilst studying philosophy-neuro science-cognition at the Otto-von-Guericke-University. Afterwards he moved to Berlin, joining the Berlin Debating Union and working at the foundation for effective altruism, where he supports nonhuman animals’ interests.
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