The kritik has long been an established position in Lincoln Douglas debate. When read as a negative (neg) advocacy the kritik is meant to attack the assumptions inherent to the affirmative (aff) advocacy. When read as an aff position the kritik attacks the assumptions inherent in the resolution. To this end, aff kritiks will often ignore the established resolution in favour of offering a criticism of a structure or system of beliefs. If you’re reading this blog chances are you’re familiar with a kritik’s basic structure: link, impact, alternative (alt), and role of the ballot (ROB). For those of you who aren’t the role of each part is ordinarily presented as follows.
The Kritik as a DA & CP
- The link is the proof that your opponent engages in a given system or ideology; for example, their advocacy provides business loans to workers in an attempt to avert economic harm. This strengthens the capitalist system thus “linking” the aff into a criticism of capitalism.
- The impact is the reason why a particular ideology or system is bad. For example, overconsumption is a fundamental feature of capitalism, therefore capitalism will inevitably result in environmental destruction/human extinction, a self-evident harm.
- The alt is the method by which the kritik seeks to resolve the problematic system/ideology. For example, in order to overthrow capitalism, the working class must unify and seize the means of production from the wealthy ruling class.
- The ROB is vaguely defined, but in general it refers to a concluding framing argument which establishes either a normative (moral) burden or pragmatic incentive to endorse the kritik’s arguments. For example, we have a moral/pedagogical burden to reject capitalism because it results in material harm and debate is an educational space in which we are uniquely equipped to question its values.
Put together we are given a picture of a standard kritik as essentially a disadvantage specific to a form of critical literature paired with a counterplan. The problem is that kritiks which follow the aforementioned structure make absolutely no sense. Let’s re-examine the previous example of a generic capitalism critique.
Critique of the DA & CP Kritik
To begin with the link is articulated incoherently. To claim a position “strengthens” or otherwise “increases” a system/ideology would require the quantification of said system/ideology. And it is essentially impossible to literally measure the amount of capitalism, racism, sexism, etc within a given society.
This problem with the link carries into the articulation of the impact. As we know, in a disad, the strength of the link determines the strength of the impact. The stronger capitalism is, the faster it destroys the environment, and the harder it is to reverse. But if we can’t determine the extent to which the aff strengthens capitalism, then it is impossible to measure the extent of its impact. Moreover, since kritiks inherently assume uniqueness, ergo they assume the system they are criticizing exists, this almost always makes their impact non-unique. Which is to say, because capitalism is already deeply entrenched in the status quo, even if the aff increases capitalism, it’s not going to make capitalism’s ultimate impact (extinction) any worse.
Next we come to the alt. The problem with alts that are framed as specific actions, like communist revolution, are that they are almost always non-competitive (can be done in conjunction with the aff advocacy), and they are too vulnerable to a perm (a combination of the aff and neg advocacies). The common objection to this statement is that the link makes the alt mutually exclusive. Perhaps the kritik has framed its alt as “reject all instances of capitalism in order to participate in communist revolution”. The kritik debater will then claim that because the aff participates in capitalism and the alt specifically “rejects” all capitalism, the two advocacies must be mutually exclusive and the aff cannot “perm” the alt. Of course this competition is clearly arbitrary. For example, even if there is some teleological tension between an aff plan to offer business loans to workers, and a neg alt to engage in communist revolution, it is not literally impossible to do both at once. And because communist revolution literally gets rid of all capitalism, if the aff is able to perm it then there is no longer any impact to its capitalist advocacy. Again the savvy objector might state that any links to the aff function as disadvantages to the perm in the sense that a communist revolution on its own is more efficient than an endorsement of capitalism combined with a communist revolution. But even if we grant this to be true the difference in efficiency between the perm and the alt is negligible so long as they both prevent environmental destruction. And any external benefit of an aff advantage would outweigh the marginal difference in efficiency between the perm and the alt anyway.
This leaves us with the ROB. In this context the ROB serves no purpose. The link, impact, and alt collectively establish all the reasons to vote negative. So either the ROB introduces additional evidence capitalism leads to extinction, which is redundant; or, it provides a different reason capitalism is bad, like commodification, which is more confusing than helpful since there is no framework to weigh between both harms. To circumvent this weighing problem many ROBs try to gain unique offense by claiming that a certain system is harmful to the practice of debate itself, and therefore is a preclusionary or “pre-fiat” concern that takes precedent over the hypothetical world. This incorrectly assumes a distinction between pre and post fiat, a topic I may address in a later blog post. But even if we assume there is such a distinction it’s always unclear how the hypothetical proposal of a policy impacts the practice of debate, and how the kritik proposes to resolve this harm via the ballot. So having established the problematic form of kritiks, how can we amend it to make more sense?
The Kritik as an NC
The answer is to conceptualize kritiks as philosophical NCs. We ought to think of a kritik as providing a normative statement about the world, and through it, establishing an ethical burden for both sides. It wins rounds by proving the opponent has failed to meet this burden and therefore ought to be voted down. To clarify, this does not necessarily require that the kritik place a deontic constraint on action or evaluate it via intent. In other words, your kritik can still be consequentialist, it just has to derive offense from its framework not its advocacy. For example, if I was reading a deontic kritik of capitalism my framework could argue that any deliberate use of capitalism is unethical because a system of wage labor changes the inherent value of human life. Affixing a price to human labour commodifies them, replacing their inherent value with market/exchange value and eliminating their agency. Thus, even if capitalism results in positive material goods like technological innovation, it continually wills the negation of agency, which is principally wrong. Conversely, if my framework was consequentialist, I could straightforwardly argue that capitalism always results in a tremendous amount of suffering endured by a permanent working class, for the benefit of a permanent upper class, and ultimately leads to the extinction of both. What’s important is that both frameworks can claim that the opponent’s endorsement of capitalism is morally abhorrent, without necessitating that the kritik resolve capitalism. The amended structure of the kritik should be as follows: framework, link, impact, alternative.
Instead of a ROB which is a meaningless amalgamation of vague and contradictory ideas, kritiks should read a framework. As far as I’m concerned it's irrelevant as to whether one includes a value or standard text, but the kritik should begin with a logical syllogism (a sound set of premises resulting in a conclusion) of why a certain idea/system is morally wrong, and what our moral burden is in light of it. For example, if one were reading a capitalism kritik, it should begin with reasons why marxist epistemology is a relevant constraint on ethical action, and whether we evaluate consistency with anti-capitalism based on intent or foreseen consequences.
The link changes from being a qualitative assessment of the opponent’s position to a binary one. There is no longer a consideration of increasing or otherwise strengthening a certain structure/ideology. In the same way that an action is either moral or immoral, either their advocacy is consistent with the ethics of your framework, or it is not.
The impact becomes optional depending on what type of framework you’re running. Specifically, if your framework is deontic, then a separate impact section becomes unnecessary. This is because the impact of the link is simply that your opponent is acting unethically as contextualized by your framework. Thus, an appeal to a material consequentialist harm created by belief in a system/idea is useless. Although in place of this section one can always add external offense that may be relevant to your opponent’s framework. Even if your framework is deontic, you can still read reasons why the thing you’re critiquing is bad via an opponent’s utilitarian calculus.
Lastly, the alternative should not read like an actual advocacy that is meant to resolve a problem. As discussed previously this shackles you with the burden of actually solving some massive system/belief like racism or capitalism, and allows your opponent to dodge most of the kritik’s offense via the perm. Instead, your alternative should be a straightforward explanation of why either the alternative world or the status quo does not actively endorse the system/belief your framework is criticizing. Many debaters are concerned that without the ability to fiat away a problematic structure/belief, they risk linking into their own kritik. But this misunderstands how the framework functions. The kritik is meant to evaluate the ethicality of particular actions, not the cumulative ethicality of the entire aff and neg worlds. For example, if your opponent’s plan is to commit murder, and your kritik’s position is, “murder is unethical so vote them down”, your opponent cannot not win by claiming you link to your own kritik because murders occur in the status quo as well. This is because your ethical burden is simply not to commit murder, not to stop all murders from happenning. All that is relevant is whether or not either side chooses to commit murder (deontology) or whether the actions of either side results in foreseable murder (consequentialism).
A good rule of thumb to remember is that kritiks aren’t a comparison of solutions to a problem, they’re moral criticisms of an action.
All expressed opinions are those of the author