Monash Association of Debaters

Stephen M. Llano

Setting Motions

The current movement among CA teams is to set motions that are not only interesting to debate but that attempt to educate as well. The general acceptance of videos, context slides, and information slides at nearly every tournament has liberated CA teams in their motion writing. Now that it has become a norm to provide additional information to debaters, the process of motion setting has become more imaginative, more creative, and clearly broader in scope. What was once seen as normal – looking at the daily news to set the afternoon’s debate motions – now is considered lazy practice. CAs regularly set motions that focus on larger political theory and philosophy, and debaters are expected to use current events to fill in the gaps.

This is to be celebrated. It wasn’t that long ago that CAs considered it appropriate to set motions based on fortune cookies. But as competition at Worlds has become increasingly competitive, the motions have followed suit. Once one could be witty, clever, and familiar with the past two days of headlines and win a lot of debates. Today one has to be much more familiar with larger trends in global affairs and the theories behind them to be successful in BP debate.

This change has some dangers. The most crucial is the risk that in our excitement to set deep, novel, and complex motions for debate we forget that debate in all aspects should be accessible to the reasonable audience. This link is what keeps BP relevant, valuable, and competitively fair. Debating should always maintain a familial relationship with public sphere discourse in some way in order to remain recognizable. Consider martial arts – a highly technical practice that appears mysterious from the outside. But placed within a real-world context, martial arts is more than just making the moves for the approval for the master. It can serve as exercise, improving the health of the person, or it can serve as self-defense in dire situations. There are martial arts competitions held more frequently than debating competitions I would bet. And each of them preserve this balance between a fair and engaging competition that rewards the making of good moves while maintaining connection to relevance to the outside world.

I suggest a check on motion crafting that extends from the judging standard in British Parliamentary debating – the reasonable person. Although the reasonable person standard has been discussed frequently within this journal and other sources, it has primarily been considered a theory of judging. 1 I believe that the reasonable person standard should not be just for judging, but for judging motion quality as well. This extends the reasonable person standard to the ability of debaters to create arguments. I argue that the concept of the Universal Audience, created by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca in their work The New Rhetoric is the mechanism by which CA teams can check to ensure motions are set within the scope of the audience of debaters at the competition, avoiding the risk of setting a motion that although deep and interesting, might be inaccessible to those speaking simply because it isn’t accessible to reasonable people.

Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca write about argument inductively, finding the places and the means from which people generate argumentation in their daily life. Their theory is meant to help ground, expand, and improve what we might call “debate” – debates that happen in daily life as a matter of course. Within competitions we attempt to mimic this practice and create an art out of it suitable for competitive judgment. This art is often viewed as only a competition, meant to identify who is really good at it. At the same time, this competition is engaged in teaching a rhetorical relationship to the world, toward argumentation, discussion, disagreement, and toward how to engage other people about their ideas. This activity – which I call “debating” – is usually a mix of both of these ideals. Sometimes, “debating” is used to critique “debates” – what counts as good argument in the world is not viewed as such by debaters. What contemporary motion writing gets right is the idea that we should broaden our comfort zone about what we choose to debate about in order to ensure we are attentive to the entire world of potential controversy. What they get wrong is to sever this connection to public discourse nearly entirely, replacing it with their own form of the civic voice, or what seems “cool to debate.” This results in two forms of motion that debating should do without.

Where Do Motions Come From?

When we consider the needs of a debating competition, motion setting is always at the top of the list. This is the opposite of reality where the decision of what to debate is what motivates the acquisition of a space, a time to meet, and an order of speakers as well as time limits or whatever other restrictions are necessary. In the world of debating, these concerns are dealt with first, and the CA team begins the motion conversation after they have been asked to serve.

I describe this process as anti-mimetic, meaning that it follows a pattern opposite its “natural” counterpart. Debating and debate have little in common beyond name, and what they do have in common could be described with the same ancient Greek word Aristotle used to describe the relationship between dialectic and rhetoric – antistrophos, or in the words of Jeffrey Walker, its “distant sister.” He explains that the best way to view it is that, “the relation is one of systematic difference as well as similarity.”2. Debate as a natural, public sphere phenomenon is related to but twisted away from debating, which is crisis and disagreement imposed from outside onto a group of people who have arrived precisely because they all agree that vehemently disagreeing on a few different topics for the weekend would be a great thing to take part in. They are sisters like Anna and Elsa from the film Frozen. The familial relationship is always present, but very distant in the way the two women engage the world.

The generation of motions leans toward the Elsa side – the creation of a world of controversy out of what is immediately present. Anna, in contrast, engages the world with what she finds in order to construct her engagement. Debating tournaments are like ice castles in the sense that they spring out of nothing, are really fantastic, and are unsustainable – their amazingness is possible due to their fragility. The competitors have not assembled to solve anything. They are not like debate attendees who are looking for a way to overcome an impasse. They are looking for rather exciting impasses to become involved in arguing about. The news is just one source, and not the best one, for the generation of debatable topics that would fit the situation. CA teams are under a lot of pressure to meet this need, and a good solution might be to put distance between the motions and the “real world.” An Anna-style of motion setting would be to use what’s available to solve the problem. Both have mixed results, and the film of course proves to us by the end that we are best with both approaches – a little magic and a little pragmatism.

Part of the problem with reaching this blend is well described by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca in their discussion of the function of elite audiences. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca define the elite audience as an audience that believes the way it behaves should be a normative prescription upon all audiences. They confuse their way of thinking and believing as the norm toward which all audiences aspire. “The elite audience is regarded as a model to which men should conform in order to be worthy of the name: in other words, the elite audience sets the norm for everybody. In this case, the elite is the vanguard all will follow and conform to. Its opinion is the only one that matters, for, in final analysis, it is the determining one.”3 Setting up a debate for the elite quickly becomes setting up a norm by which audience quality is judged.

CA teams can easily fall into believing that a motion is good because it is something the debaters “should know about.” Often this claim is ungrounded – rarely do CA teams point to a collection of literature that would be accessible and within the purview of those debating. Something that someone is writing or reading about for an advanced degree is often used as a motion with the defense that this controversy is current in the field, forgetting that most debaters do not have the ability to become familiar with that field. A paragraph on an information slide is insufficient to make debaters familiar with the controversy. Instead, speakers turn toward it as the grounding for proof instead of the grounding of the root of the controversy. The difference is between a good debate and one that the adjudicators wish they didn’t have to decide.

An example of this sort of motion was set at the Vienna IV two years ago. Before the debate, a rather long YouTube video was played that detailed how the U.K. bombed German cities after hostilities had ended in World War II. The motion was This House Believes That school children in the UK should be taught that their country engaged in war crimes. Although this is the start of a very stimulating discussion and debate, or possibly larger research project, it lacks important contextual elements that a debate should have – namely, it needs agreement on the controversy. Facts about the historical incident are not enough – to debate the motion at a depth that would be satisfactory one needs further insight. Why is this issue controversial? Who are the people involved in the discussion? The CA team believed that since people should know about this issue, it made for a good debate. What was missing was the in-depth reading, or access to debate arguments made in the world, that would indicate a number of starting points that inductively stem from the controversy. Instead, the information video and text is used as fact that becomes support for a deductive argument about rights, state obligation, or the value and scope of education that is only tangentially related to the issue.

Another example of this sort of motion was set at Yale involving the practice of “bug chasing” where people participate in orgies with HIV positive individuals. Although the issue is worthy of reading about, controversial, and very novel, the lack of access to much of the larger controversy around it harms the debaters’ ability to create arguments oriented toward a reasonable person. The surprise and shock of learning about such a practice would overwhelm the reasonable audience at first, as it would the debaters. Without access to the arguments that the practitioners might make in media to defend their choice to be “bug chasers,” the debate will suffer from this lack of perspective. Again, debaters will be required to access arguments familiar to the context of the community of debaters not the groups involved in the controversy. The starting points for argument construction should be accessible.

Another concern with vanguard motion setting is the concern that because the CA team likes the motion and finds it really interesting, it passes the test for being a good motion for the competition. These motions are identifiable due to the lack of grounding in anything other than the opportunity for debaters to employ highly technical moves to access the tropes familiar to all those who debate. The motion, This House would randomly assign official first names at birth, suffers from a lack of a public sphere discussion entirely. The reasonable person, imagined as a member of the universal audience, would not recognize this topic as debatable, but more ridiculous. It would be hard for the reasonable person to see this as possibly controversial. The lack of conversation in the public sphere through accessible media make this topic hard to see as appropriately controversial, although it is clearly something that would be controversial if suggested.

These two main ideas – that reasonable audiences are the target of debaters’ speeches, and that motions should be fair and accessible is not a new idea, in fact, it is the norm that we aspire to in designing our competitions. What should be clear from these two examples is that a better system of checking the quality of a motion is needed. Debatability and controversy are not enough if they are not provided within a larger context of accessibility to the debaters.

Grounding Motion Setting in the Universal Audience

The concern I have for the rift developing between debating’s connection to debate is rooted in a concern that our rhetoric is becoming overspecialized. “Argumentation aimed exclusively at a particular audience has the drawback that the speaker, by the very fact of adapting to the views of his listeners, might rely on arguments that are foreign or even directly opposed to what is acceptable to persons other than those he is directly addressing.”4 People usually overcome this concern by attempting to offer arguments that they feel any reasonable person would find persuasive. Sometimes this takes the form of addressing a timeless audience of listeners, but we should realize that this audience is an imagined one, crafted from knowledge we have via experience about how people act and react to particular persuasive claims. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca identify the operation of this concern rhetorically as the Universal Audience. This is not an ontological universality – on the contrary, the Universal Audience is constructed based on concerns of context and culture. “Everyone constitutes the universal audience from what he knows of his fellow men, in such a way as to transcend the few oppositions he is aware of.”5 The universal audience is made from the material concerns that come about from connection to society, culture, and institutions. One imagines the objections that situated people would make to one’s argument, and attempts to account for them.

The Universal Audience is the check that the rhetor uses to ensure that they are not overspecializing their argumentation. Adaptation to the audience is a good thing up until the point where the arguments work to exclude particular groups of people who the speaker may want to persuade, or more likely, groups that the speaker would like to identify with in order to make her argumentation more compelling to the immediate audience. This is the case in debating where the speaker attempts to link her argumentation at all times to the thinking of the reasonable person. “There can only be adherence to this idea of excluding individuals from the human community if the number and intellectual value of those banned are not so high as to make such a procedure ridiculous.”5 That is, one cannot dismiss a large segment of the debaters as being ignorant because they could not debate a particular motion properly. An argument that is unconvincing might not be so because the majority of the audience is incapable of thinking. It is more reasonable to assume that the argument does not resonate with their experiences and thoughts. The same goes with motions – sometimes motions fail to produce good debates because they are not properly adapted for those who would debate them.

The use of the universal audience in motion setting would be for the CA team to think about the reasonable person standard away from judges and within the context of argument creation. The central method of using the universal audience as a guideline is to make sure that there is enough context accessible to debaters to ensure that they can construct arguments for a reasonable person.

Reasonable Motion Setting: A Method

This process consists of three parts. First, any motion must be grounded in public deliberation. This means that there must be a test to see if reasonable, interested people could get access to a variety of sources of public debate on the topic. This is vital to access the rhetoric surrounding the controversy, which helps debaters ground their arguments within the realm of the reasonable person standard. This access should not be purely academic – the majority of reasonable people in the world do not have access to scholarly sources. Care must be ensured that there is not a lean toward such sources, considering most contemporary CAs hold advanced degrees or are studying for them. This test is most similar to the “Five Arguments” test that many CA teams employ to determine if side bias is present in a motion. This additional test of access is the same, but grounds the test outside of the competition, connecting it to the presence of such lines of argument in the public sphere.

Secondly, the team should ask if the discourse is recent enough to warrant setting the motion. CAs should check to see if the controversy is bubbling up in one form or another in ways that the reasonable person would notice. A motion could have a lot of things written about it, but if they are not circulating in current media, the reasonable person might not have an opportunity to access that controversy. There is solid and healthy conversation to be had by the CA team on this issue, as recency can have many meanings. Some topics, although not directly under robust discussion by public intellectuals or other media sources, are still things that can be assumed to be present, as they form the background of myriad arguments within states today.

One final check is related to pandering to the audience. Certainly, one should not set motions because one feels they are simple enough for debaters any more than they should set motions as a normative judgment on the quality of the debaters. There is no shortage on controversial, important, and vital issues for us to learn about and discuss. Motions should contain this spirit of the “push” toward broadening one’s familiarity with the world, no question. But using this check of the Universal Audience, one might construct them as the opposite of the elite audience. This could lead to the setting of some motions that are pedantic. How can this be avoided?

Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca realized this might happen with their theory, since the universal audience is an imaginary judge over one’s argumentation. To check against making the mistake of low-balling the average, reasonable person, one uses the undefined universal audience as a check. It is “invoked to pass judgment on what is the concept of the universal audience appropriate to such a concrete audience, to examine, simultaneously, the manner in which it was composed, which are the individuals who comprise it, according to the adopted criterion, and whether this criterion is legitimate.”7 Said another way, there are moments when a concern for accessibility might trump the presence of the actual audience, rendering them irrelevant – the arguments would appeal to a universal audience that might trump actual audience concerns or abilities. This is the moment where the CAs do a reality check, and make sure they are not overreaching in the direction of these concerns, and whether or not the debaters present can debate the motion at a quality level that preserves connection to the world while also delivering an engaging and fair competitive moment.

Let’s test the motion, This House believes that the countries of the world should create and participate in a global carbon cap and trade system. The first thing the CA proposing this motion should do is some research – not about cap and trade and the arguments for or against it, but research to see where this issue is coming up in the debate world – media, public intellectuals, or other sources. This motion, like many, is unclear on this question. CAs can defend it being present due to the increasing public discourse on global climate change shifting from a stasis of conjecture to one of quality – “it’s happening, so what should the response be?” This would be something the CA team should discuss to see if the public deliberation is suggesting this as a part of the controversy.

The recency question is also one that would need significant discussion, but if the CAs see the motion as a part of the larger discussion on global climate change, the answer is clear that this motion should be set. Passing this part of the consideration is often subjective, but checked by the CAs reminding one another that the reasonable person is also debating as well as judging – would the reasonable person find this issue controversial in a temporal sense?

Finally, the question of the undefined universal audience and that of pandering. In this case, this motion suggests a concern for meeting debaters exactly where they are. It is a debate about climate change, but also pushes them to investigate cap and trade – something that is not appearing in the surface news sources that debaters might frequent – or it rewards those who have delved a bit deeper into the debate and not into the techniques of debating.   A CA team concerned about the presence of cap and trade in the motion might choose to reword it to be about climate change – a clear trumping of the universal audience with the one that is present, and a move that could be considered pandering – keeping out the more complex argumentative possibilities over the fear that the debaters “won’t get it.”


 Motion setting is the unenviable task of satisfying both one’s ethical relationship to debating along with the obligation to provide the raw materials for an excellent competition. CA teams have taken on a mantle of prescribing not only motions that are good to debate about, but many motions that imply what issues debaters should be familiar with. Unfortunately, this normative push in motion setting turns debating inward, using itself as the metric of whether a motion is good for debating or not. This further isolates the competitive act of debating from real-world argumentation situations that I term debate. The debate/debating link should be preserved not only to tie value to debating, but to increase the quality of competition as well .The Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca notion of the universal audience is the check that, if used by CA teams in motion setting, can bring more balance and less shallow debating based on information slides. The universal audience checks the motion to ensure that the reasonable person would consider this motion to be worth debating by asking if it is circulating in the collective discussion recently. It also checks CA teams from low-balling their audience at a tournament, and gives warrants to the normative push for inclusion of more complex or specialized terms in motions. Debating’s value, as in martial arts, is in the application of complex moves both in the tournament and in the world. Without attention to preserving that connection, debating will become an irrelevant society of inward turned thinkers, performing what they think the vanguard will want to hear, ignoring the vast array of controversies present in the world at any given time.

  1. As a starting point, see Bibby, Block, and Llano, Eds. Adjudication: Essays on the Philosophy, Practice, and Pedagogy of Judging British Parliamentary Debate (New York: IDEA Press, 2013).

  2. Jeffrey Walker, Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 171

  3. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (London and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 34.

  4. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (London and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 31.

  5. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (London and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 33.

  6. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (London and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 33.

  7. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation trans. John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver (London and Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 35.