Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Conliff on Counter-Advantages

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

When digging through old debate theory scholarship, I often find remarkable consistency across eras. While theories evolve, many foundational issues have remained perennial controversies for several decades (or longer). I have already shared many articles in this series that demonstrate this surprising consistency.

While these are enlightening articles to revisit and study, I also enjoy uncovering articles that propose novel theories that never caught on and that have been lost to history. Here, I will share one example: an article proposing a position called the “counter-advantage.”

Published in 1993 in Debate Issues, the article was written by Charles Conliff, a Miami University of Ohio college debater. As far as I can tell, it has never been made available online; there is no reference to it on Google.

Conliff contrasts the counter-advantage to a counterplan. Whereas a counterplan agrees with the affirmative’s harms but argues that there is a better policy to solve them, the counter-advantage agrees with the affirmative’s plan but argues that it should be used to solve a different harm. Modern readers will likely find this idea very strange; I certainly did.

The reason I was particularly interested in the idea is because Conliff explained it in the context of the 1985-1986 water topic (Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.) Updated to account for more modern practices, his example might play out like this:

Affirmative Plan: The United States federal government should increase the use of solar power in order to protect the quality of water in the United States.

Affirmative Advantage: Increasing solar power will reduce coal consumption. That will protect lakes and rivers from acid rain.

Negative Counter-Advantage: The use of solar power should be increased in order to increase U.S. economic competitiveness.

The negative would then argue that increasing the use of solar power is good, but that doing so in order to increase competitiveness is better than doing so in order to protect water quality.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem competitive. If it was a counterplan, it wouldn’t be; it agrees with the plan. The concept of the counter-advantage is distinct: instead of negating the affirmative by negating the plan, it allows the negative to negate the affirmative by negating its advantage.

Conliff proposes three standards for legitimate counter-advantages. First, they must be non-topical. This is because the negative’s role in a debate is to negate the resolution. (This assumption has mostly fallen out of favor in recent decades, but there is an increasing trend toward resolution-based counterplan competition. The counter-advantage is a similar concept.)

Second, they must be in competition with the affirmative advantage. In the above example, the negative would need to prove that increasing solar power for the purpose of increasing U.S. competitiveness was mutually exclusive with doing so in order to protect water quality. One can imagine several ways that the negative might attempt to prove this. For example, they could argue that increased competitiveness requires domestic industrial production that jeopardizes water quality. Or they could argue that in order to boost U.S. competitiveness, increases in solar power must be achieved primarily through technology exports to developing countries; those exports wouldn’t protect water quality in the United States. Affirmative responses to these arguments are relatively obvious, but the point is that there would be a debate about whether the affirmative’s advantage and the counter-advantage were competitive or compatible.

Third, they must be inherent to the present system. This is the most confusing standard, but I think Conliff means that the counter-advantage should receive presumption if the negative can prove that its goal is “less change” from current goals than is the affirmative’s advantage. This is an interesting application of the concept of presumption from counterplans. In the same way that the policy that requires “less change” receives presumption in a counterplan debate, the advantage that is most consistent with status quo goals receives presumption in a counter-advantage debate.

In the above example, the negative could argue that economic competitiveness is a more urgent goal of the status quo than is water quality protection. Therefore, the negative’s counter-advantage (to increase solar power in order to boost U.S. competitiveness) wins on presumption if the benefits of the counter-advantage and advantage are similar (within the margin of error). To defeat the counter-advantage, the affirmative would need to prove that the value of their advantage is significantly greater than the value of the counter-advantage.

I find Conliff’s idea fascinating. It is somewhat incomplete, and it would need to be updated to better comport with modern practices. Still, I think it offers a potentially valuable strategic option for negative teams who are confronted with “effects topical” affirmative cases. At its core, it is an attempt to force affirmatives to defend their resolutional advantage; instead of “external” advantages to solar power, they must defend the (intrinsic to the resolution) water quality advantage to solar power.

Negative strategies against this style of affirmative case are difficult to construct. To date, counterplan-based strategies that attempt to “PIC out of” or offset the resolution have proven difficult to defend theoretically. Affirmative teams have also become much more adept at crafting plans that make these counterplans questionably competitive. Instead of a counterplan-based approach, perhaps it is time for the negative to consider the counter-advantage. When affirmatives use planicality-style plan-writing to make questionably topical (or non-topical) policies topical, the counter-advantage is a new option for the negative to consider that might force the affirmative to defend the resolution.

The full text of Conliff’s article is below.

Conliff, Charles M. “The Counter-Advantage.” Debate Issues, Volume 26, Number 5, March 1993, pp. 8-10.

The purpose of debate is to discuss two diverging policy systems so that a critic can make a value judgment on these policies. Although some might argue that a judge is making a policy decision, in reality he or she must decide which is the better policy, so therefore a value judgment is attached. This value judgment is usually subconscious, when the judge mentally weighs the advantages (lack of harms) of the affirmative system versus the disadvantages (harms it causes) of the same system.

The policy system of the status quo, however, receives no real, fair comparison to that which the affirmatives present, since the judge knows only the piecemeal philosophies which the negatives present of the status quo—not the totality that the system actually is. Meanwhile, the affirmatives have presented an organized system, where the mandates and structure are specifically spelled out to the critic. The critic looks at the organized affirmative policy—which outlines not only the mandates, but the method of administration, funding, enforcement, etc. of the plan as well—and compares it to the dishevel of the status quo: the lame, bandaged policy composed of minute scraps of one policy combined with more scraps from another, and some more from a third, which the first negative hastily constructed two minutes before his or her speech. Can the critic really give presumption to such a system?

The answer to this question is, of course, no. In theory, the negatives receive presumption because the critic supposedly knows what he/she is getting with the status quo, since it has functioned for umpteen years, while the affirmative policy is new, and regardless of how good it might seem, a certain amount of risk is present in any new proposal, a risk the status quo lacks. Therefore, the textbooks go, since the present system has no such risk, there is a psychological tendency to accept it before accepting the new proposal: this is presumption.1 But out of the magical realm of theory and back into the real world of practice, we find this is not true, because the development of affirmative plans has not been matched in complexity by negative refutation, and the affirmative policy, being more organized and more coherent than the negative gibberish, appears to even the most unbiased of critics as much more certain than the negatives’. In other words, the status quo appears to be the risk, so the affirmatives are given presumption (albeit subconsciously), and the piecemeal philosophy the negatives present is compared to the affirmative standard—that is, the burden of proof is shifted to the negatives.

Subconsciously, then, the affirmatives receive presumption because the judge knows so very little of the negative policy system, while he/she has the affirmative policy system specifically spelled out. The two diverging policies can’t be compared equally when one is so overwhelmingly more specific than the second. This is why the affirmatives have received such an overwhelming advantage over the negatives during the present, as compared to the past—not only do they still retain their massive advantage of being able to define the scope of the resolution (a power that only grows with each topic), but they have been able to purloin the traditional negative counterbalance—presumption—while simultaneously imposing upon the negatives the burden of proof. Not only do they have their cake, but they can eat it too!

To counter the massive advantages the affirmatives have thus received, I have developed what is known as the counter-advantage. The counter-advantage has two basic objectives: (1) to force the affirmatives into proving the unsaid, subconscious value of the policy they are asking the judge to ratify, and (2) to reachieve the comparison of policy systems that debate should be by using the same system for comparison.


The counter-advantage is, structurally, the converse of the counterplan. With a counterplan, a [end page 8] negative team agrees that there is a need and harm, but argues that a better plan might solve the problems. With a counter-advantage, the negatives would agree that the affirmative plan should be adopted, but that a different advantage should emanate from it. The plan becomes the standard, while the advantages—affirmative advantage and the negative counter-advantage—become the two policies which are compared in the debate.

An example is in order. Under the 1985-1986 high school topic, “resolved: That the Federal Government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States,”2 an affirmative team might argue that we should ban the use of coal in order to protect our lakes and rivers from acid rain. To do this, they might advocate that we should switch to solar energy. A negative team employing the counter-advantage strategy would argue that solar energy is, in fact, a desirable policy—and the status quo should mandate its adoption—but rather than using the net increase in energy generated by solar power as a way to eliminate coal use, we should, instead, eliminate nuclear power, because the radiation generated from nuclear plants is more harmful to life than is acid rain. Or, perhaps, we should ban imported oil, because of the danger that dependence has on our national security. The focus of the debate, then, would be not on the advantages of the affirmative policy versus its own disadvantages, but rather on the advantages of the affirmative vis-a-vis the counter-advantages of the negative, both of whom use the same plan.


There are several important burdens a negative team employing this strategy must fulfill. These burdens are, more or less, equivalent to the burdens a negative must fulfill when running a counterplan. First, the counter-advantage must be non-topical. Since it is the primary duty of the negatives to deny the resolution, any alternative policy proposed by them which is simply another interpretation of the topic fails to fulfill their primary duty, and in fact, they would be asking the judge to adopt the resolution.3 In the example provided, some might contend that eliminating nuclear power would help to save our rivers from nuclear waste. A negative would need to demonstrate that the counter-advantage does not fulfill the resolution, perhaps by showing that nuclear power plants don’t pollute rivers.

The second burden is that a counter-advantage must be in competition with the affirmative advantage. If the affirmative plan can achieve both advantages, there is no reason why the negative counter-advantage should be adopted. The best way to fulfill this burden is for the counter-advantage to be mutually exclusive of the affirmative advantage. In the example provided, a negative might contend that if we were to eliminate both nuclear and coal plants, then we would have a massive energy shortage, resulting in a situation more harmful than the combined harms of the affirmative and the negative. On the other hand, eliminating both partially would mean (1) that the affirmatives aren’t totally protecting our water from acid rain, and (2) that the affirmatives can’t eliminate nuclear power because it is an extratopical advantage. To achieve an inherent comparison, both advantage and counter-advantage must be competitive.

Finally, to gain presumption, the negative must prove that the counter-advantage is the goal of the status quo, and that forces independent of the status quo have forced them into a position where the present system cannot achieve the counteradvantage without the affirmative plan. Alternately, the negative might contend that there is no barrier to achieving the counter-advantage, but the affirmative proposal merely offers a superior method of achieving it. To return to the previous example, a negative might prove that the status quo wants to eliminate nuclear power, but can’t because the electric utilities wish to maintain a monopoly, or that nuclear power is being eliminated now, and solar power gives us a way to do it more quickly.

Some might contend that the negatives can’t advocate such a change and still retain presumption.4 However, the negatives are not changing the policy of the status quo, only the means to achieve it; the policy of the status quo receives presumption (at least that’s the way the theory goes), not the means it is achieved with.

Overall, the counter-advantage meets the competitive requirements of the negative—and, therefore, the burden of rejoinder. By arguing that the counter-advantage is non-topical and mutually exclusive, the negatives demonstrate that the affirmatives can’t achieve the counter-advantage, and the negatives are, therefore, in opposition to the affirmatives. By arguing that the counter-advantage is the goal of the status quo, the negatives [end page 9] retain presumption by supporting the present system.

Criteria Negative

The final consideration is the weighing of the advantage and the counter-advantage value-wise. The affirmative contention is that the value of their advantage is the elimination of harm x. The negative contention is that since they eliminate harm y, they too are advantageous; what makes harm x more harmful than harm y? Quantitatively, it is impossible to compare apples to oranges, which is what affirmatives ask judges to do when they compare their policy to the status quo, what negatives do when they compare disadvantages to advantages. THIS IS THE CRUX OF THE COUNTER-ADVANTAGE: TO FORCE AFFIRMATIVES TO PROVE QUALITATIVELY THE VALUE OF THEIR ADVANTAGE COMPARED TO THE NEGATIVE POLICY (in this case, the counter-advantage), TO PROVE THE QUALITATIVE VALUE THEY ARE ASKING THE JUDGE TO ASSUME WHEN HE MAKES HIS POLICY DECISION. As it stands now, a judge has to make this value judgment (importance of the harms) independently of the debaters, using his or her own criteria. It is the burden of the affirmatives to provide criteria for their policy-system’s advantage. Otherwise, the judge knows not what his/her vote stands for, the negatives know not what they argue against.


The counter-advantage has two intrinsic advantages to negatives: First, it forces the affirmatives to run a criteria case whether they want to or not, because the affirmatives must provide the value of their advantage, and criteria for judging that value; Second, it forces the affirmatives into defending a plan they weren’t running. In the above example, no longer are the affirmatives defending solar power as a “good” policy system—everyone agrees on that. Rather, they must defend nuclear power as an energy system that we should keep instead of coal. The counter-advantage will, therefore, allow the negatives to restrict the topic to a somewhat more reasonable area, in a time when affirmatives can get away with practically any squirrel case.

In conclusion, I feel that the counter-advantage will help negatives gain a new perspective on debate, which they have seemed to lack for years. Such a tool in the hands of experienced debaters should inject some creativity into debating negative.


Charles Conliff, at the time this paper was submitted for publication, was a senior at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, and a student teacher at Princeton High School, Cincinnati, Ohio.

1. Allan J. Lichtman and Daniel M. Rohrer, “A Systems Approach to Presumption and Burden of Proof,” Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice and Teaching, 1st. ed., ed. David A. Thomas (Skokie, lllinois, National Textbook Co., 1975), pp. 36-38.

2. There are a few other topics that I have debated or judged where the counter-advantage might have been useful. The energy independence topic of 1978-1979, “that the Federal Government should establish a comprehensive program to significantly increase the energy independence of the United States,” is a good example. Instead of banning oil imports, as most affirmatives mandated, a negative might have banned nuclear power while utilizing the affirmative plan (say solar) as the mechanism to do this. Last year’s high school topic also presented possibilities for counter-advantages: instead of creating jobs to employ the poor, we could employ the non-poor, because many of the jobs that the middle class holds presently will be eliminated as our economy becomes more technology-oriented, and we need to create new jobs for these people. There are also a couple of recent college topics where it might have been used as well. Unfortunately, under many topics, the counter-advantage is not so useful. In order for it to be used, the topic must be worded in a way which sets up a dichotomy between the advantages an affirmative plan could achieve, and the ones which the resolution will accept. That is, there must be advantages which are topical and ones which are not topical (such as employing the non-poor). Not all topics have done this.

3. M. Gordon Widenhouse and Dean Fadely, “Negative Constructs: A Perspective,” Debate Issues 11 (January 1978), p. 11.

4. It is not, of course, a necessity to retain presumption although it is desirable. As with the counterplan, one running the counter-advantage must be willing to sacrifice the advantages of presumption for the unique benefits of this strategy, if necessary.