Debate 101 Method

Debate 101: Principle Arguments

Principle arguments accept that something might be harmless – even beneficial – but question whether it’s right to do so regardless.

Principle arguments (a.k.a justification/nonconsequentialist arguments) accept that something might be harmless – even beneficial – but question whether it’s right to do so regardless.

Emphasis on right and regardless. Because principle arguments, when not sufficiently challenged, can swallow your opponent’s entire practical arguments whole and win you the round. “Even though stealing might make you richer, is it right to steal?” — these are the kinds of questions you ask in principle arguments.

The basic question to ask is always “Why is it morally correct to propose/oppose this motion?”

Characteristics of a principle argument

  • Universal and timeless — applies in all kinds of places/contexts/status quos.
  • Doesn’t care about the success/failure/harm/benefit of a motion.
  • No actors are actually harmed, but a certain moral value is harmed.

Structure of a principle argument

This takes the motion This House opposes sweatshops* and breaks down the argument Why exploitation violates people’s rights to not be used as a means to an end — in simpler words, why exploitation makes people tools, kinda like slavery, and why that’s horrible to do as a human being.

  • Why is it a principle? → Not being used as a means to an end is a principle because everyone has free will and goals that they want to achieve in life.
  • Why is it wrong to infringe it? → It’s wrong to infringe it because people would be controlled by someone else and become unable to make choices that give them what they want in life.
  • Why is the principle being infringed on your opponent’s side? → Because poor, unskilled labors with very little choice of jobs are trapped in bad conditions just for the companies’ benefit. They’re overworked, they get just enough to survive, their health and safety aren’t insured, and they usually also receive abusive treatment by authorities. They can’t reach their bigger goals because they tire themselves from overworking, and don’t get enough money to support their more-than-basic needs.
  • Why is the principle protected on your side? → Because we will oppose the poor treatment sweatshops give and demand better treatment, making sure people aren’t overworked, get decent earnings to live a decent life (perhaps even some disposable income), and receive basic health and safety insurance from the companies.
  • How does it compare to other principles? (Have we seen analogous principles? Is it more important than a principle your opponent will defend?) → This is just as immoral as saving a drowning man only if he throws you his wallet. These people signed up for the job because they had no other choice, and companies profit from this unfortunate life condition they were born into.

That ends the brainstorming process of a principle argument. Look out for these kinds of ideas in your next debate!

I suggest you to move on to the next article, but if you’re still curious about principle arguments (types, how to rebut, tips), check this out.

*sweatshops = companies where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions.

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