The fine line between principles and practicals: are you using it to your advantage?

Differentiating principle and practical arguments, and separating them, helps you make a more nuanced and non-repetitive case.

Differentiating principle and practical arguments, and separating them, helps you make a more nuanced and non-repetitive case. Often times, debaters fall into the trap of outcome-based principles; in other words, the utilitarianism principle, which grounds the idea that the moral thing to do is to create the least amount of harm in quantity and quality.

Take the motion: Instead of leaving the decision up to the producing company, This House would legally require self-driving cars to always choose to maximise the number of lives saved, even if it leads to the death of the passengers.

Generally, there is an increasing trend of self-driving cars which catalyses a fundamental question in our ethical framework: if faced with touch decisions, such as killing three children on the zebra cross or driving against a wall and killing the passenger, what should this car do? This motion mandates self-driving cars to maximise the numbers of lives, which means killing the passenger and saving the three children.

If you don’t differentiate your principle and practical arguments, you might run a case like this:

The proposal is ethical because it maximises the number of lives savedThe proposal is beneficial because it saves more lives

Do you see the similarity?

With that strategy, the strength of your principle argument is contingent on the practical argument. When your arguments are contingent to one another, in the worst-case scenario, your principle argument will automatically fall if your practical argument is vulnerable or successfully nullified by your opponent.

This means you really have to pull a robust practical in order to pull off your principle. Sometimes the practical argument works, sometimes it doesn’t. Preparing a robust principle beforehand is also better to prevent unnecessary repetition in your speech.

Let’s look at how we can instead diversify our arguments.

The proposal is within the boundaries of government regulationThis proposal is beneficial because it saves more lives

With this principle we can argue that the government is obligated to maximise the amount of people that can be saved, serving the public interest at the expense of individual interest through this motion. This is similar to how hospitals try to save as many lives as possible even at the expense of one individual (in a case of transplantation), which serves public interest as opposed to the interest of the individual. And you’ll find that this applies to a lot of other government policy. In education, the government prioritises the accessibility of education over its quality for the most amount of people. This is evident in the big number of public schools with big classes as opposed to a small number of schools with small concentrated classes.

You can then argue why saving more lives is beneficial. This can also be framed or packaged as the utilitarianism principle.

So, how can we tell the difference?

GoalTo defend the moral, philosophical or principle grounds of a motionTo defend certain mechanisms and its implications or outcomes, harms or benefits
ConclusionAside from the harms or benefits, why is this motion moral or immoral?Why is this motion and its implementation going to create change, either progress or regress?

When your arguments are nicely separated and differentiated, in the worst-case scenario, either your principle or practical argument falls. It allows you to defend one of your arguments while trying to nullify your opponent’s case which might have

  1. arguments that are contingent to one another: here, you can try to nullify them by pointing out their practical flaw and then pointing out the contingency in their arguments
  2. either a strong principle or a strong practical argument: here, you can try to construct a strategy to frame why your strongest case is the case that matters the most in comparison to your opponents case while trying to nullify their strongest case
  3. weak principle and practical arguments: here, you can easily try to nullify both of your opponent’s arguments
  4. strong principle and practical arguments: here, when you lose at least, you can get a decent score.

How can you intuitively think about distinct principle and practical arguments?

Well, we have a separate article on basic Principle Arguments which can act as a toolbox for your next debate.

Apart from that, practice, practice, and practice!

Few motions you can try to practice with:

  1. This House believes that it is immoral for individuals who have met their basic needs to not donate any excess wealth to utility maximising causes
  2. This House would ban video games in which the player engages in brutal and immoral violence in a realistic setting

Let us know what you came up with in the comments!

Good luck with your next debate!

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