Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Cheshier on Justification Arguments

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.

In tracking the transition from what I called the “policy testing” paradigm of the late 1990s and 2000s to the currently predominant “hypothesis planning” paradigm that first emerged in the 2010s, I noted the importance of the view — derived originally from the hypothesis testing paradigm of the 1970s — that counterplans are merely “justification arguments,” not counter-advocacies. As described by David Zarefsky, the leading theorist of the hypothesis testing paradigm, the counterplan “is merely the justification argument in a different form.”

To understand modern counterplan theory thus requires one to understand the justification argument. While rarely encountered in modern debate, this genre of argument was once quite popular even on the national circuit. Conceptualized as a way for the negative to import the concept of a counterplan into a more traditional stock issues or conservative policymaking paradigm, the most common version of the justification argument claimed that the affirmative had failed to justify some part of the resolution.

For example, if action by state governments could possibly address the harms outlined by the affirmative, the negative would claim that the affirmative had not “justified” the need for federal government action. Framed as a justification argument, the negative was not advocating a states counterplan; it was instead arguing that the affirmative had failed to meet their burden to defeat a potential states counterplan, even though the negative had not specifically proposed one.

The appeal of this style of argument was that it used the language of “burdens” that was central to the stock issues paradigm. In the same way that the affirmative was obligated to meet its prima facie stock issues burdens (most commonly understood to include topicality, inherency, significance, harms, and solvency), the negative argued that there were other prima facie burdens that the affirmative must also meet. This allowed the negative to adapt counterplan-style arguments to appeal to judges that were unfamiliar with or opposed to the use of counterplans as a negative strategy. Even in the early 2000s, it was still common to see justification arguments at the CFL and NSDA (then NFL) National tournaments where conservative judges made up a significant percentage of the pool.

Over time, the counterplan fully replaced the justification argument. However, the underlying theory of the justification argument still plays a major role in how counterplans are understood and debated. Many plan-inclusive and plan-contingent counterplans are still defended on the theoretical grounds that they test whether the affirmative has met its burden to justify particular parts of the plan or resolution. The increasingly popular genre of resolution-based counterplans takes this logic even farther, arguing that counterplans can compete based on the resolution (not just the plan) because the affirmative has the burden to justify all parts of the resolution.

Thankfully, students seeking to better understand the theoretical basis for these arguments can revisit the debate about justification from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here, I have shared an article by David Cheshier (then a debater at Wake Forest University; he later became the most prolific published debate theorist of his era) summarizing the state of the justification argument and arguing that it should be replaced by the counterplan. Thinking through his arguments (and the arguments of the theorists he cites) will be helpful for contemporary students as they seek to improve and refine their counterplan theory arguments.

The full text of Cheshier’s article is reproduced below.

Cheshier, David M. “Justification vs. the Counterplan.” Debater’s Research Guide (Alternatives in Education: Stagnation or Renewal), 1981.

Many coaches and commentators on high school (and college) debate are critical of the growing tendency of students to revert to complex gamesmanship in rounds where a more reasoned approach would suffice. This complaint carries a great deal of persuasive validity; too often semantic “games” are played for no apparent reason than that the guilty debater is unprepared for the round.

It is this predominant sentiment, right or wrong, that has triggered the overuse of the justification argument. Many debaters see the justification argument as a “safe” way to argue a counterplan, without the concurrent assumption of competitiveness and topicality burdens. This paper will argue that debaters have unfortunately taken a misguided and somewhat convoluted view of what was intended to be nothing more than a simple explanation of the debate process.

Justification is a catchword run wild. It is a word describing the sum-total of prima facie burdens. That is, if I win inherency, harm, significance, solvency, and topicality, I can be said to have justified the resolution. Justification means nothing more, nothing less. But negatives have taken the label and given it a life and rhetorical power of its own, arguing in essence that:

You may be solvent, but not solvent enough to justify adoption. You may be topical, but not enough. You may win some harm, but not enough

… ad nauseum. Unfortunately, the debater is never able to tell you what “enough” is. And with good reason. It cannot be done; for once prima facie burdens are met, any additional requirements are by necessity purely arbitrary and/or superfluous. Justification has been granted substance without authority, becoming a sixth prima facie burden. This tilt in the strategic balance in favor of the negative, as below indicated, can only damage the activity.

Justification is at best a vague concept. Even those textbooks purporting to define the word for the lay audience describe it in overly broad, open-ended phrases. Sayers, for example, describes the term as follows:

Justification — to uphold the burden of proof, those advocating change must demonstrate a need or rationale for making the change, a method whereby change can be practically implemented, and the method must not be so disadvantageous as to overwhelm the benefits of the new system.1

Although all debate concepts are of necessity somewhat broad, this vagueness has allowed debaters to widely misinterpret and misuse the concept of justification. The result is a construct so diluted that it lacks argumentative validity. Definitional latitude is also reflected in the more “popular” literature on the topic. Even the most cursory reading tends to divide this discussion into two parts.

The first group of theorists, reflecting an older view of the term, argue that the plan, including each of its independent provisions, must justify the resolution. This point of view was explained by Sklansky:

The justification argument…maintains that the affirmative has not justified adoption of all its plan, and therefore still has not justified the entire resolution.2

Gary Turner, representing this viewpoint, argues that debaters too often under- or over-justify plan provisions. By this he means that the plan planks (or even more generally, plan mandates) and case-side advantages do not adequately correspond.3 If, for example, solvency evidence indicates that sex education in high schools only is needed to reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancy, but the plan offers sex education in both secondary and elementary schools (presumably this part unexplained), the latter half would not be justified. To Turner, these “mis”-justification arguments are underdeveloped, and could possibly become voting issues.

This view, however, is not the most common interpretation of justification as articulated in most debate rounds. In fact, by the end of the second affirmative’s rebuttal the typical judge is often faced with a situation where strategic concessions render much of the plan irrelevant. Especially at the higher levels of high school debate, some teams purposely write plans with full intent to jettison planks late in the debate, presumably having diverted negative attention from the more critical, “hidden” advantages.

The second general view is a more refined interpretation of the first. It evaluates justification as it regards the resolution. As many debaters now argue the issue, and as Thomas explains:

The affirmative team is bound to justify acceptance of the resolution, not the affirmative plan whether it implements the resolution or not.4

On the 1981-82 high school resolution the negative might, for example, argue that the word “educational” and the phrase “elementary and secondary schools” were unjustified by an affirmative case advocating vocational training. They might instead argue for expanded work-site training as a preferable policy. In short, the plan becomes an argument for a different resolution; namely, that the federal government should expand job training programs for United States citizens.

Thomas and Trapp view this interpretation from more sophisticated, if opposing, viewpoints. Both argue that the justification argument, although distinct, is closely related to topicality analysis. Thomas, however, gives the argument much more credibility than Trapp. He asserts:

The affirmative is vulnerable to topicality attacks (1) when the plan fails to fully implement the resolution in all its operative terms, (2) when the plan goes beyond the requirements of the resolution, or (3) when the case does not justify all the proposed changes in policy required by the resolution.5

As Trapp points out, however:

The first two items ask whether the affirmative plan when implemented conforms to a reasonable definition of the resolution. The third item asks whether the affirmative case justifies each individual term of the resolution. The first two items will be referred to as topicality while the third will be referred to in this analysis as justification.7

Once analysis is crystallized to this degree, essentially we have returned to Turner’s point of view, and the relatively outmoded concepts it engenders. Thus, even this more reasoned discussion of the issue fails to aid the contemporary debater. Instead, we are once again left with the outmoded construct where every plank and phrase must in some way be “justified” by the case.

Trapp indicts the Turner/Thomas view of justification, claiming it is an abuse of presumption.7 More recent views of presumption make this a tepid indictment with little or no “impact” on current discussion. Most judges rarely think about presumption, let alone factor it into their decision-making calculus. It has been ignored — if only because of utter subjectivity in its application. Who knows, or cares to speculate, what level of presumption the affirmative has to overcome to warrant change?

The wide disagreement between theorists should alone indicate the ambiguity of its interpretation by the more confused debater. Not only is there a great difference in the literature as to what justification is, but there is no conceivable theoretical framework or argumentative consensus as to how it should be dealt with in a round. This conflict has left the door open to widespread exploitation of the argument, especially at the high school level (where at least perceived ambivalence to the counterplan renders justification a viable alternative). Why should a judge’s decision be risked because of resistance to the state counterplan when it can be rephrased as a “federal” justification argument?

There are several serious problems with this view, in light of a number of flaws in the justification argument. A failure to acknowledge such flaws creates the appearance of logical validity when in fact no substance exists, posing a danger to high quality debate.

To state the obvious, the very fact that justification is so broadly defined makes it nearly impossible to pragmatically evaluate in a given round. Presumably, judge subjectivity should be reduced to the lowest level possible, leading to a more precise and fair evaluation of relative skills and proposals. This increased objectivity concurrently reduces the judge’s ability to vote on specious arguments. This goal is destroyed by the justification argument. As the Sayers definition proves, the word justification is essentially a blanket term, describing the larger debate process. It includes topicality (as Thomas and Trapp point out), and all other prima facie burdens as well (as Sayers proves).

This broadness could perhaps be warranted if it created a unique argumentative circumstance. However, it does not.. As several commentators have pointed out, all the “advantages” of the justification argument can be easily achieved (and with a much higher degree of argumentative specificity) through alternative conventional means. The most obvious is the counterplan. As Trapp notes:

Given the views expressed above, a more consistent approach than the justification argument would be a counterplan… The negative would then argue that their counterplan would produce the same advantages while avoiding unique disadvantages of the affirmative plan.8

This analysis seems particularly persuasive, for the justification argument is today used increasingly to hide non-competitive policies behind a cloak of respectability that affirmative analysis should expose. Or, as Sklansky points out:

A justification argument…is simply the threat of a counterplan. The negative team is saying that the affirmative team has not shown why the affirmative plan is superior to a counterplan the negative could propose.9

How is the judge to weigh the justification argument? Proponents of the argument leave this question vaguely overlooked or tantalizingly unanswered. Turner writes:

To what degree should underjustification or overjustification be a voting issue in the debate? For underjustification the issue is centered around the degree that an affirmative can make the unjustified planks viable… (O)verjustification the issue is centered around the degree that the negative can minimize the advantage through a plan-meet-need.10

In other words, evaluate other prima facie as met by the affirmative for that portion of the plan. Given this option, then, why bother with justification when solvency can serve the same function without justification’s accompanying ambiguity?

In addition, the justification argument is singularly out of place in nearly every current decision-making paradigm. A brief survey of the policymaking paradigm proves this especially true. There is no corollary in the real world of decision-making that reflects the debate justification argument. The most critical distinction is that the real world simply views the “resolution” as implying jurisdiction. Or, more simply, the resolution is something to be met, not justified. How often, for example, does Jesse Helms justify his committee’s jurisdiction when considering a tobacco subsidy bill? One can scarcely imagine him, or any other Congressman for that matter, interrupting each committee hearing to expressly “justify” the jurisdiction of the committee over that day’s set of bills. It is like saying that Helm’s agriculture committee has a bill on food stamps before it, but that the bill must be rejected because some other committee could hear it, and might be better equipped. Or similarly arguing that the House Committee on Education and Labor should reject a bill to mandate civics education because another group of Representatives might be entitled to hear it also. The Congress would be running circles around itself. This failure to reflect the real world is true for good reason — such confines would bog down the world of policymaking in endless discourse, for no apparent purpose. This is especially true in a situation where branches of the decision-making process are set in opposition to each other (like the American system). As Reike and Sillars explain:

… (J)ustification satisfactory in one context may not serve another. A Senate committee may be satisfied, and say so in its report, that government officials are guilty. But the materials on which they justify that position might be rejected in a court of law or a political meeting. A justification for expenditure of billions of dollars for space exploration may be satisfactory in Congress, but be rejected by groups representing the poor… (C)ases must be constructed in such a way as to provide sufficient justification for the adherence of all decision makers.11

Likewise, the debate process gets bogged down in an argumentative swamp, one with which the judge (faced with absolute vagueness) is ill-equipped to extricate himself.

There are a number of other reasons why justification makes for bad debate. For one, it can only stifle substantive and innovative research by the negative. Educational value cannot be served where debaters need not research beyond a bad counterplan, as hidden in justification. Additionally, justification creates a situation where a negative can conceivably research one argument to last for the entire year. If, for example, I find evidence saying workplace education is great and occasionally better than school-based standards (as in the 1981-82 high school debate topic), I can presumably read that against every topical case, and, judge willing, win every negative. Evidence used will carry a much lower degree of specificity (as regards the case). Any generic negative card comparing the resolution with some alternative would presumably cast enough doubt on the affirmative’s interpretation of a resolutional word to force the affirmative to read only case specific evidence. In this event, the negative is instantly granted an evidentiary advantage. This problem is unique to justification, for these arguments, if properly argued as counterplans, could often be reasonably disposed of via competitiveness or topicality arguments. Finally, justification arguments allow the negative to “implicitly defend” any number of positions, without a simultaneous advocacy burden to actually argue the specific of the issue. Thus, the judge, by the utterance of a few phrases in first negative is forced to analyze multiples of decision-making combinations. As Trapp explains:

The negative in essence is supporting the present system, but arguing that there is a policy system outside the affirmative resolution (which the negative team does not support) that also produces the benefits of the affirmative resolution-plan. The question now becomes, should the judge weigh three policy systems in the balance even though only one system is not supported by either team or should the judge weigh only two policy systems — the resolution; as supported by the affirmative team vs. the present system as supported by the negative team? I obviously support the latter view.12

Sklansky agrees, adding:

Unless a negative is actually proposing the counterplan, however, its merit is irrelevant. Only two systems are being compared: the status quo and the affirmative plan. If the affirmative shows its proposal to the present system, the proposal, and thus the resolution, has been fully justified. If we require the affirmative to attack a counterplan that has not been proposed, the negative can threaten to propose any number of counterplans. It is physically impossible for the affirmative to attack what is obviously an infinite number of alternate systems. To expect it to do so would be equivalent to asking the negative to attack all possible examples of the resolution.13

Justification is easy to criticize, if only for its abuse in the typical round. What is more important than this consideration however (all arguments tend to be abused at some point), is the simple fact that justification encourages vagueness, illegitimate approaches to complex problem areas, and unnecessarily shifts the argumentative advantage to the negative. Such a practice should be discouraged, hopefully stopped together, given its theoretical weakness as a legitimate argument. Certainly it should not become a voting issue — ever: other prima facie burdens are quite capable of determining the winner of the round, and (as in the case of the counterplan) in a much more satisfactory way. Avoid the temptation to run “federal” justification when a state counterplan will do just as well, if not better. In spite of the counterplan’s occasional accompanying ambiguity, it is vastly superior to the muck of justification.

At the time of publication, David M. Cheshier was an undergraduate student and debater at Wake Forest University.


1. James Edward Sayers, Argument and Debate (Sherman Oaks, California: Alfred Publishing Co. Inc., 1980), p. 125.
2. David Sklansky, “A Response to Gary Turner,” in Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice, and Teaching, ed. David Thomas (Skokie, Illinois: National Textbook Co., 1979), p. 81.
3. Gary Owen Turner, “Attacks on Misjustification,” in Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice, and Teaching, pp. 79-80.
4. David Thomas, “What Makes an Affirmative Case Topical?” in Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice, and Teaching, ed. David Thomas.
5. Ibid., p. 74.
6. Robert Trapp, “A Response to Thomas,” Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice, and Teaching, p. 75.
7. Trapp, p. 75 writes: “The first reason that justification arguments are not as valid as topicality arguments is that they misapply the concept of presumption. We presume that the negative team preoccupies a piece of argumentative ground. We should not presume, however, that the negative occupies all argumentative ground not claimed by the affirmative resolution (that is, all policy systems except the affirmative resolution) but simply that ground defined as the policy system currently in force.
8. Ibid., p. 76.
9. Sklansky, p. 81.
10. Turner, p. 80.
11. Richard Reike and Malcolm Sillars, Argumentation and The Decision Making Process (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1975) pp. l68-169.
12. Trapp, p. 76.
13. Sklansky, p. 81.

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