Conditionality - A Numerical Limit?

Raffi Piliero | Jan 05, 2022
5 min read

In contemporary Lincoln-Douglas (LD), a great many debates concern the theoretical legitimacy of counterplan conditionality (sometimes, perhaps illogically, written in shorthand as “condo”), the practice of the Neg introducing an advocacy that they can elect to no longer defend under any circumstance.

In many of the debates, the practice of conditionality itself will be debated—is it overall illegitimate for the Neg to be able to kick a counterplan? The debate will be abstracted from the number of counterplans or types of counterplans (not discussing kicking 3 PICs, for example) and instead on the concept of conditionality itself. The Aff will likely advance arguments about time skew, clash, advocacy skills, etc. while the Neg may make appeals to Neg flex, logic, real world education, and others. 

Yet there are some debates that do center on a quantitative or numerical distinction between legitimate and illegitimate conditionality, where the Neg is permitted a certain number of conditional advocacies but not more. Perhaps the most famous published version of this view was a piece by Roger Solt arguing that a form of “logical, limited conditionality” would justify the Neg having one conditional counterplan. This was reciprocal, since the Aff gets perm do both and the Aff; the Neg should reciprocally get the Counterplan and “reject, do neither.” Other appeals to a numerical limit on conditionality are contextual to the round at hand, with the Aff often claiming that the precise number that the Neg ran was illegitimate (for example, saying that the Neg cannot read 4 Counterplans). 

Is this reasonable? Defenders of this practice will likely assert that the harms of conditionality are non-linear, given the time-crunched 1AR. While one counterplan—or even two—might be reasonable, perhaps going above three quickly becomes unreasonable for a short, four-minute LD 1AR to have to cover. As a result, drawing a line somewhere is necessary. While the precise place the line is drawn may very well be arbitrary, this does not make a line less necessary, for proponents of this practice; one could argue that rejecting a line drawn due to arbitrariness commits the “Fallacy of Loki’s Wager,” akin to suggesting that the lack of a clear line between yellow and orange on the color spectrum means neither colors exist as coherent entities (or, in the original case, that the lack of a clear demarcation between the head and neck makes neither separate entities). 

I believe this view, while intuitively appealing, suffers from a couple of fatal flaws. For one, the line-drawing problem is much more serious than defenders of the practice believe. But more problematic, I believe, is the presupposition that number of conditional advocacies magnifies abuse. Instead, I’d argue that the abusive aspect of conditionality is something qualitative, not quantitative. 

To begin, the line-drawing problem cannot be written off as a mere logical fallacy. It has material implications for the solvency of the interpretation in question. Debaters are taught to craft theory interpretations with precision, aiming to capture as much offense as possible while minimizing powerful defensive arguments. This is for good reason; in some respects, a theory interpretation is like a plan, where the wording and scope of the plan can determine susceptibility to disads and solvency presses. Just as a sloppily worded plan leaves the Aff open to circumvention and other solvency presses, a poorly worded—or arbitrary—interpretation makes it harder to win a cogent abuse story. This is a serious issue for numerical limits on conditionality. Is there really a big difference between two counterplans and three? Or three and four? The powerful Neg answer to such an interpretation is that the offense is non-unique—the Neg will just read one counterplan short of the limit. Or, the Neg will just read one counterplan that is perhaps more abusive conditionally (like a conditional Word PIC). As a result, the onus is on the Aff to articulate a cogent reason why one counterplan vs two (or two versus three) contributes to all of their offense. 

The other challenge with a numbers-driven approach to conditionality is that the abuse on conditionality is qualitative, not quantitative. Put differently, conditionality is ostensibly unfair because of the ways that conditional advocacies distort 1AR time allocation and strategic judgment, disentangled from the number of advocacies introduced. Why is this? I think it’s true for a few reasons. First, the offense typically advanced in favor of a particular number is a worst-case of “unlimited” advocacies, but this is not terribly daunting when you actually put it to the test. Suppose the Neg introduced 15 counterplans in the 1NC. It would be nearly impossible for all of these to be developed and the 1AR could dispatch them quickly. LD is not Policy – there is no 2NC after the 1NC to read more cards and develop a position. A sound 1AR will deal with the 15 counterplans in about as much time as it took to read them, if not significantly less, by highlighting their brevity and the fact that the 2NR is too late for development. Second, a strong 1AC will have a defense of every internal link read, which means counterplans that attempt to solve those internal links can be dealt with in a fairly expedient fashion. 

However, the more persuasive arguments against conditionality don’t have to do with a particular number of positions, but the nature of conditionality itself. The education-based arguments against conditionality (clash, advocacy skills, real-world, logic, etc.) don’t make any sense quantitatively – there isn’t a persuasive reason one conditional counterplan is real-world but two would not be. Instead, they’re leveraged against the practice itself. Less frequently discussed, however, are fairness arguments that are about the practice. The argument I find compelling is the distortion of 1AR offense by conditionality, even if it is just one counterplan. The more egregious – and challenging – forms of conditionality aren’t just lots of counterplans to solve the Aff but making new 1AR offense impossible. Suppose the Neg reads an agenda politics disad susceptible to an impact turn – on that same disad page, the Neg throws a one-sentence counterplan to not pass that legislation. If the Aff impact turns the disad, the Neg spikes it immediately by extending this conditional counterplan to not pass the bill. This is something much more challenging for Aff strategy – an inability to straight or impact turn a disad because of a preemptive neg answer that wholly undercuts it. Yet this is a qualitative – and under-utilized, I might add – dimension to conditionality.

In sum, I find numerical accounts of conditionality unpersuasive – this is not meant to say conditionality is good (or bad), but to posit a reframing of the debate. Hopefully, this helps you add a level of complexity and sophistication to your theory arguments.

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

Related Articles