Debating on Ethics. Hints, recommendations and evaluation of debating applied ethical issues

Elaboration 2011 35 Pages

Philosophy - Practical (Ethics, Aesthetics, Culture, Nature, Right, ...)



1. Introduction: The Art of Debating

2. Ethics

3. Debating moral issues
3.1 Debating on Ethics
3.2 Ethics of Debate

4. Evaluation of debates

5. Conclusion: Applied ethical issues




The present script deals with debating on ethics. Its purpose is to give recommendations, hints and tips for debating applied ethical issues. It gives an introduction into ethics and the main theoretical approaches concerning moral philosophy. Beginning from the preparation and organization of a debate to the actual debating and performance of team and individual speakers the procedure and functions of debates are examined. Specific interest is given to rebuttals, points of interests as well as (logical) fallacies of argumentation that may occur during a speech and requires qualities in language and rhetorical skills in general. Individual speaker performance is considered by matter (content), method (strategy) and manner (style). For these areas of debating the paper gives recommendations and provides useful phrases to the student. Likewise ethics of debate give further insight into rules how to behave in a debate and how fruitful debating should be.

The second part considers the evaluation of debates. Usually the performance of teams are assessed and one team may provide better arguments and pursue a better strategy than the other party. General recommendations for adjudicators shall alleviate the process of judgment during the debating process as well as afterwards when the performance of parties is reviewed. The script proposes a possible evaluation scheme and a marking system that considers the individual performance but also recognizes the team strategy when debating applied ethical issues.

Finally a concluding section will summarize the main topics of the script by providing some examples of applied ethical issues.

1. Introduction: The Art of Debating

Debating is a an art. An art that goes back to ancient times. Almost everybody will remember from school or by general knowledge that Greeks and Romans were masterminds of debate, at least their intellectual and political elite.

Names like that of Cicero who was probably the greatest orator of his time are connected with debating and rhetorical skills. Rhetoric can be considered as the tool box for debating. Thus, when we talk about debating skills we implicitly refer to rhetoric although rhetoric skills are useful in other contexts as well, be it a sales presentation or a speech.

A debate according to definitions.net (2011) is defined as

1. (n.) debate

a discussion, esp. of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints.


a formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition are advocated by opposing speakers.

Thus, the character of a debate comprises of an interaction between two parties who have a different point of view about a specific issue. The focus here is on rhetorical debates rather than written debates which also could be meant by the term.

Thus a debate in this paper means

“basically, an argument. That is not to say that it is an undisciplined shouting match between parties that passionately believe in a particular point of view. In fact the opposite is true. Debating has strict rules of conduct and quite sophisticated arguing techniques and you will often be in a position where you will have to argue the opposite of what you believe in” (ACT Debating 2011).

Debates about moral issues are definitely a special field of debating. Often we are not conscious about that we are debating on issues which are eventually moral issues. With attributes like good and bad we refer implicitly to ethical or moral or unethical or immoral behavior. Take the example of borrowing 10 € from your best friend and later you forget about it. You may have offended your friend and although you did not want to do something bad to him or her one could argue that actually you did something wrong regardless if it was your intention or not. Hence, you are in the middle of a debate.

The objective of this paper is to provide the student with recommendations, hints and useful phrases for debating, particularly debating moral issues. As we will see later this does not necessarily mean being right about something and the opponent being wrong but grasping some truth and evaluate the arguments. Thus the second aim of this paper is proposing an evaluation scheme that provides the judges with a flexible method to assess the arguments of the different parties as well as the overall debate in terms of quality.

The paper is structured as follows: after a short introduction into debating and ethics section three provides useful phrases and recommendations. Chapter 4 provides methods for evaluating debates while the last chapter gives some examples of applied ethical issues for debating on.

2. Ethics

Philosophy is concerned with three areas of study: epistemology (the study of knowledge), metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality) and ethics which is the study of morality (Thiroux 1998, 2). However, the three areas intersect in specific cases. For example, ethics seeks to assess what is right and wrong of an action but how do we know what is right and wrong is a question of epistemology.

Ethics refers according to Thiroux (1998, 3) to “the area of morality, which concentrates on human conduct and human values.” The word Ethics derives from the Greek Ethos which means character. Morality comes from the Latin word moralis and means customs or manners. Although in ordinary language ethics and morality are interchangeable, ethics relies more on the individual character while morality describes the relationships between human beings (Thiroux 1998, 3).

Moral philosophy is the theoretical reflection on morality. The ultimate goal of moral philosophy is to discover valid principles for behavior. It refers “to the systematic endeavor to understand moral concepts and justify moral principles and theories” (Pojman 2006, 2). However, to put it simple in the context of this paper ethics as one strand of philosophy serves as an overarching concept of morality and moral philosophy.

Ethics is concerned with what ought to be. Therefore ethics deals with norms like other moral precepts such as religion, law, and etiquette. The issue if a woman ought to ever have an abortion is clearly a question for ethics, law and religion. Ethics has some characteristics with other normative subjects but can also be distinguished from them. For an adherent of a religion moral behavior is defined by his or her religion. While religious ethics has a vertical dimension grounded in divine revelation or authority, secular ethics is horizontal deriving from reason and human experience. Due to this it may be difficult to convince a religious person by pure reason. Law and morality also have a close relationship but some aspects of morality are not covered by law or some laws may be judged as immoral by ethics. Furthermore, some aspects are considered as immoral but cannot be prosecuted legally. An intention that is not exercised can be assessed as immoral but in legal terms a preemptive punishment for presumed malicious intentions is an illegal act[1]. Finally etiquette norms determine what is polite but do not touch right behavior in a deeper sense (Pojman 2006, 2 et seqq.).

The following table adopted from Pojman (2006, 5) characterizes the relationship among ethics, religion, law and etiquette.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Usually moral principles should consist of five traits:

prescriptivity (action guiding nature), universalizability [2] (applyable to all who are in a similar situation), overridingness (take precedence over other considerations), publicity and practicability (Pojman 2006, 6 et seqq.).

Domains of ethical assessment can be separated into four sections according to Pojman (2006, 9 et seqq.):

1. Action (the act): evaluated terms are right, wrong, obligatory or optional. A right act is permissible to do. It may be optional as it is not perceived as a duty but could in some cases be highly altruistic. However, it could also be obligatory to act in a certain situation and one cannot refrain from doing it.
2. Consequences of a decision or non-decision: evaluated as good, bad or indifferent
3. Character: evaluated as virtuous, vicious or neutral. Character is the basis for every action.
4. Motive: Evaluative terms are good will, evil will or neutral.

Ethical or moral theories are based around these four domains as they analyze the rules of conduct for human beings. Most notably are three prominent contemporary approaches to ethics: Consequentialism, Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics. They are not competing theories as they look at different domains of ethical assessment but can be described as competing approaches to ethics (Baron 1997, 4 et seq.).

The core idea of consequentialism is that “what makes an action (or a policy) right is that it brings about better consequences than any of its alternatives (Baron 1997, 5).

This type of ethical system is teleological, that means it is goal-directed. Besides of ethical egoism which states in its universal form that human beings should always act in their self interest, Utilitarianism is the most influential form of consequentialism. The two main features of utilitarianism are its consequentialist principle that an act should be reviewed by the goodness or badness of its results and its hedonist (utility) principle. According to this principle an act is wrong if it brings more pain than pleasure or if it prevents pleasure from occurring similar to a cost-benefit analysis. The two most well-known representatives of utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (Pojman 2006,105 et seqq.).

This approach is criticized by Kantian ethics as it symbols the disputed saying ‘the end justifies the means’. It argues, that moral rightness and wrongness cannot be judged by non-moral values like happiness or utility The rightness or wrongness of an act are determined of certain features of the act itself. This ethical system based on the works of Immanuel Kant, is a deontoligical type, meaning that there is a duty deriving from logic. Telling the truth is the right action although it may bring some conflict as a consequence (Pojman 2006, 131 et seq.). Kantian ethics are also called duty ethics and looks for an absolute moral truth (Thiroux 1998, 60 et seqq.). The most well-known concept of Kant is the categorical imperative that states that you should only act according to the maxim by which you will that it would become a universal law. It is a test for the universalizability of an action to assess the rightness or wrongness of that action (Pojman 2006, 139).

A third tradition coming from the Greek philosopher Aristotle is called virtue based ethics. Virtue ethics are neither deontologically duty-oriented nor teleologically goal-oriented but centers ethics in the character of a human being. Instead of being action governed by focusing on doing virtue ethics is agent governed and emphasizes on being. Thus, action or non-action are just an outflow of the certain type of person. The teleology of virtue ethics focuses on the goal of life and the question what sort of person should I become (Pojman 2006, 155 et seq.).

By having briefly introduced the concept of ethics and three main theoretical approaches to ethics and moral philosophy the next chapter concentrates on the practical work in debating around moral issues. It should be noted that it is important in debating to keep in mind the theoretical background as it works like a determination of certain position and alleviates to structure a debate beforehand but also during and after debating, particularly for (self-)reflection).

For further reflection (Pojman 2006, 20 et seqq.) :

In a moral dilemma, no matter what action you take, some evil will result or two accepted moral principles will meaningfully conflict

Discuss: You are driving a trolley down the track, when suddenly the brakes fail and you cannot stop the trolley at the red light. Ahead of you are ten men working on the track, whom you will kill if you do nothing. Fortunately, there is a side spur you can turn onto and, thus, spare the men. But unfortunately, if you do turn onto it, you will kill a child who is playing there. So if you do nothing, ten men will die because of the brake failure; but if you act voluntarily, you will kill the child. What should you do?

Another example: You and twenty friends are spelunking in a coastal cave when Freddie gets caught in the cave´s mouth. The tide is rising, and soon all of you will drown (except Freddy, whose head is outside the cave) if Freddy isn´t dislodged from the cave´s mouth. Fortuitously, you have a stick of dynamite with you. Your options are to blow Freddy from his place or drown along with nineteen friends. What should you do?

More practical: You have discovered that your best friend´s husband is having an affair. Should you tell her and risk ruining her marriage, should you approach her husband or should you do nothing? Do you have a moral duty at all here? Suppose you decide to talk to him first, and he denies the affair. You are convinced that he is lying. What should you do?

Begin to outline your own views on moral philosophy? Why is morality important? Why should we be moral? Think of some difficult moral issues and keep them in mind as you work through the rest of this script, asking yourself how the various theories would treat these issues.

For further reading:

Baron, Marcia; Pettit, Philip; Slote, Michael A. (1997): Ethical theory. For and against : consequences, maxims, and virtues. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass: Blackwell.

Luper, Steven (2002): A guide to Ethics, McGraw-Hill.

Pojman, Louis P. (2006): Ethics. Discovering right and wrong. 5th edition, Australia ;, Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth

Thiroux, Jacques (1998): Ethics. Theory and practice. 6th edition, Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice-Hall. Online

Williams, Bernard (1972): Morality: An introduction to Ethics, Harper Torchbooks, New York.

3. Debating moral issues

3.1 Debating on Ethics

The following section gives recommendations and useful phrases for debating moral issues but also for debating more in general. Normally a debate consists of three speakers of each team, a chair and at least one judge (adjudicator). The tasks of the latter will be discussed in Chapter IV. The chair organizes and controls the debate. The duty of the chair is to call each speaker in turn (Learn Debating 2011).


A good debate and good debaters need skills and knowledge. Two aspects which can be fairly achieved by planning. For assuring the goal to have a good debate the team should plan well beforehand. It should study the material in depth and develop thoughts and arguments together for elaborating a strategy that comprises logic and unity. It is important to think of the opponent´s strategy and arguments. To put oneself in the position of the other party allows the team to modify your own strategy. However, as von Moltke has stated around 200 years ago “No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy”[3] there is always uncertainty until you start the debate. Thus, a good debater should allow for flexibility to adapt to new situations and arguments and switch methods if necessary during the debate (Glass 2011).

First one have to agree on a topic (motion) that allows to debate from two sides. That means there are two groups. One is called the AFFIRMATIVE group that is in favor of the motion while the other group that disagrees with the issue is called the NEGATIVE group. When agreeing on a topic it should be clear to both groups what the topic means. Defining the topic could be the step before the actual debating begins or may take place during the debate. Then, the affirmative group starts by giving their definition and the negative group may challenge it and propose a better definition. Important is that both groups have a clear idea on the definition in order to avoid being at cross-purposes (ACT Debating 2011).

The debate

During the debate different speakers of each team have the chance to make their arguments and obtain specified roles. During the planning phase the party develops a team strategy.

For a team that consists of three members each the debating process is structured normally like this: the first speaker of the affirmative party define the topic, present the team line and some of the main arguments. The first speaker of the negative team accepts or rejects the definition, present the team line and probably rebut the main points of the other party and present strong arguments for the team´s case. A useful strategy is to use just one quarter of the given time for rebutting. Note that if the definition is not rejected it is assumed that it is accepted by the negative party. The 2nd speaker of the affirmative team rebut the arguments of the opponent team. Furthermore, the speaker should present the rest of the team´s arguments. The 2nd negative speaker should likewise rebut the arguments of the team in favor of the motion and present the remaining arguments. Both speakers of the second round should use about one-third of the given time for rebutting. The third speakers of both parties reaffirm their team lines and rebut remaining points or main arguments of the opponent team. At the end both present the summary of their team´s case. Both third speakers should not introduce new arguments but make a strong conclusion in favor of their team´s stance. As both teams take turns during the debate the negative speaker concludes the debate (ACT debating) 2011).

The following figure (Learndebating 2011, 3) shows the procedure of a debate with three speakers on each team.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


The concept of rebuttal calls for special interest. Criticizing the arguments of the other team is an important point for debating that can contribute for empowering a team´s line but also weaken a team´s stance if it fails to convince. By showing that the other side is wrong it is essential to show reasonably why this is the case. Logic argumentation applied quick and flexible is a crucial tool for rebutting. Furthermore, one should concentrate on the main points and not being distracted by negligible issues. Self-evidently it is necessary to focus on content, not on the speaker (ACT debating 2011).


[1] In 2003 this was a hot contested issue among experts of international law but also politicians when the Bush administration legitimized the Iraq war by pre-emptive self defense, the so-called Bush Doctrine (Craven et al. 2004).

[2] This point calls for attention as some claim that what is considered morally right and wrong depends on society or culture. This so called ethical relativism however, is disputed and arguable (Pojman 2006, 35 et seqq.)

[3] See http://www.searchquotes.com/quotation/No_plan_of_battle_ever_survives_contact_with_the_enemy./171100/.


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debating ethics hints




Title: Debating on Ethics. Hints, recommendations and evaluation  of debating applied ethical issues