Principle arguments

Picture a scenario where you’re drowning. The man in front of you will only save you if you throw him your wallet. Fair trade, but is this moral?

Picture a scenario where you’re drowning. The man in front of you will only save you if you throw him your wallet. Getting your life saved for just some bucks seems like a fair trade, but is this act moral?

Welcome to Principle Arguments, where you accept that something might be harmless – even beneficial – but question whether it’s right to do so regardless.

And I emphasize right and regardless. Because principle arguments, when not sufficiently challenged, can swallow your opponent’s entire practical arguments whole and win you the round. Because even though stealing might make you richer, is it right to steal?

These may seem like basic things for now, but I’ll later tell you how scenarios like theft and the drowning man often happen without us realizing it (and how you can turn them into arguments!). Keep reading.

Characteristics of a principle argument

  • Doesn’t care about the success/failure/harm/benefit of a motion.
  • No actors are actually harmed, but a certain moral value is harmed.

How do you make a principle argument?

In summary, a principle argument, sometimes also known as a justification or nonconsequentialist argument, is an argument that questions the justification of an action and doesn’t care about the consequences. It insists “no ifs and no buts”.

The burning question is then, how do you make one?

Well, you do that by questioning the moral correctness of an act. Principle argument titles are often brave questions themselves, like Why exploitation violates freedom of choice, or Why private property assaults human dignity.

Let’s just go through a simple motion — This House opposes sweatshops (companies where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions).

Why, that’s exploitation! But why is exploitation morally wrong?

The companies take in blue collar workers who are already vulnerable, make them overwork, and give them inadequate compensation — just for their benefit. They’re using these people **as if they’re tools; as a means to an end. And that’s something horrible.

You can then make an argument title. Why sweatshops violate people’s rights to not be used as a means to an end should be alright.

What’s next?

There’s a set of questions you can ask to construct a principle argument

(skip this if you’ve read Beginner’s Guide)

  • Why is it a principle? → Not being used as a means to an end is a principle because everyone has autonomy 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.

There we have it! Just make sure you have all those questions answered every time and you’ll do great.

Hmm, but what if you can’t even find the first idea? What if you don’t know what principle argument to bring?

There are types of principle arguments you can look out for

We’ve got your back. Knowing what types of principle arguments there are will help you brainstorm ideas better.

  • Purpose
    In this type of argument, you question the purpose of a certain subject in the motion — often it’s the heading itself. When you’re not debating, ask yourself, what’s the purpose of religion, education, media, feminism, and all these social constructs we invented? It’ll help you launch these types of arguments during debates.
    Example: This House believes that scholarships should only be based on financial need
    As Prop, you can say the purpose of education is to equalise everyone’s opportunities to better their lives. Therefore, scholarships should unconditionally help the ones that are furthest away from those opportunities, not the ones whose futures are probably already secure (the academically gifted who usually win merit scholarships).1
  • Rights
    Rights arguments are pretty straightforward. Rights can be upheld when they guarantee freedom of choice and can be limited when they harm freedom of choice.
    Example: This House would make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for all citizens
    You can justify the mandate by saying an unvaccinated person risks infecting other people, making them ill and limiting their rights to health/security/choice.
  • Responsibilities
    Responsibility arguments analyze relationships between actors or between an actor and an action. Is someone the cause of a problem? Do they profit from something, thus enabling them to be held liable?
    Example: This House would hold military superiors liable for actions done by subordinates
    Prop can say superiors should be responsible for their subordinates’ wrongdoings, because it’s often their orders or the culture they enforce throughout military training that causes the problem.
  • Take and give
    For this type of principle argument, simply notice a trade between two actors. Has one taken or given too much?
    Example: This House believes that children should take in and care for their elderly parents
    You can say children should take care of their parents when they’re old, regardless of the financial, physical, or mental burden because parents also took care of their children without those conditions! Having a child had a lot of impacts on the parents’ career and personal freedom, so the child should be ready to give back.

What if your opponent makes a principle argument?

As I said, principle arguments can swallow your entire case if you don’t rebut them correctly. Let’s have some silver bullets ready so we can watch out.

There are three ways that you can respond to a principle argument.

  • Your principle doesn’t exist
    Example: This House believes that state-owned enterprises should focus on distributive function (distributing services, providing jobs), even at the expense on revenue generation
    Okay, this one debate I watched was savage. Prop said that state-owned enterprises have an obligation to give back to taxpayers. Opp gave it a second thought and said, “State-owned enterprises are not public facilities. They’re not 100% funded by taxpayers’ money, so they don’t owe taxpayers all that much. There are shareholders that need them to make profit.”
  • My principle is more important than your principle Example: This House believes that freedom of speech should not extend to insult of religion
    Two rights always clash in freedom of speech debates: protection (from hate) and, well, freedom of speech. One way you can make freedom of speech more important is by addressing the issue of religious intolerance. Many hate people outside of their religion and express it through insults, and debates happen. Not so pretty, but it’s the only way to, say, clarify people’s misunderstandings of a religion. Otherwise, that intolerance persists in people’s minds and there will be no discussion to change it.
  • My principle is your principle properly applied
    Example: This House believes that liberal democracies should constitutionally enshrine the right of regions to unilaterally secede
    In separatist debates, you often expect a Prop that gives a long speech about how separatists haven’t been getting proper rights in their country. But, you can flip that argument by saying that exactly because they haven’t been getting proper rights, the country has an obligation to fulfill those rights and fix the problem, not leave them out in the cold.

Aha, now we’re debating. These might turn into a heated battle in later speakers, so make sure you layer your responses to make them invulnerable to further attacks!

What this means for you

When you know how to make principle arguments and practical arguments, you can attack your opponent on more fronts. When you lose on one, the other can still win you the round!

Plus, principles are less obvious arguments, so people sometimes don’t expect them coming. Therefore, they also don’t have rebuttals prepared! Take your time during casebuild and explore to shock your opponent.

Oh, and an extra tip is be brave with experimenting. Principle arguments are high risk high reward arguments. Sometimes they flop, but they have GREAT potential. If you’re still not sure, maybe watch any Bo Seo debate on YouTube, because he always magically comes up with these arguments. You can learn a lot from him.

Good luck with questioning humanity in your next debate, then. Peace out.

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