Monash Association of Debaters

Eusebius McKaiser

The Fate of Conservative Arguments in a Liberal Debate Universe

About the author:

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Democracy based in Johannesburg. He broke 9th and placed in the top twenty speakers at the 2005 World University Debating Championships in Malaysia. McKaiser studied philosophy at Rhodes University and Oxford University (as an international Rhodes Scholar). This paper is based on an earlier publication in Molotov that was reworked and published here with kind permission from the magazine‘s editorial team.


Ever since I can recall, I have dreaded having to defend the conservative side of a motion - particularly on moral and social policy issues. The chances of winning a debate concerning homosexuality, for example, by arguing for the claim that gay persons should not be allowed to adopt children or that they should not have their partnerships recognized by the state seemed slim to none. The last few years I have been reflecting on this fear of conservatism in order to puzzle through a persisting question: do non-liberal arguments face a higher burden of proof in competitive debate?

One simple possible explanation for my fear‘ might be the fact I – personally - happen to be deeply committed to liberalism. And so it is very likely that I just have a personal preference for arguing in favour of liberal values and principles. Upon reflection, however, that cannot be the end of the matter. The international debate community, in general, is a community of liberal interlocutors. There is therefore a higher burden of proof that falls on non-liberal arguments.

The gap between a logically sound argument and a psychologically persuasive one is not always admitted by debaters. But if we are honest about this extra ingredient that is required of logically sound arguments – i.e. that they should also be psychologically persuasive – then we are closer to recognizing how our personal and overlapping, deeply-held, beliefs and values affect debate outcomes. The implication for competitive international parliamentary debate is that the general dominance of liberalism in the beliefs of individual debaters and judges drive the (implicit) higher burden of proof faced by conservative propositions – or rather, faced by those debaters who have to defend these propositions. This is not always recognized explicitly since doing so would betray the desperately neutral gazes and body language of many judges.

I should qualify my thesis further. There certainly are some debaters within the international debate community who wear their actual conservatism on their sleeves. My particular interest, however, is in respect of what happens during debate rounds and when it is time for judges to evaluate the arguments that had been presented. In these contexts, in my experience, even those minority of debaters and judges (and they are, importantly, a minority) who have deep personal commitments to conservatism, also demonstrate (or accept) an implicit expectation of a higher burden for proving non-liberal arguments to be cogent. Put differently, even a genuinely conservative debater would more likely kick him or herself for losing‘ a liberal argument than for failing to persuade judges and audiences of the cogency of a conservative proposition.

This essay is a meditation on this trend. I narrate an illustrative example (at some length) of how this liberal bias in parliamentary debate arises from as early as when we are taught the rules of competitive debate. My reflective intuition is that this is, perhaps, somewhat unavoidable as liberalism is inherent in debate. Still, this raises a critical, evaluative question: is this bias good, bad or innocuous and what can we do about it? Before we can embark on any of these journeys, however, it is important to do some definitional work– what exactly do I mean by liberalism‘?


First, it is important to distinguish economic policy debates from social and moral policy ones. The reflections that inspire and drive this essay are exclusively those relating to social and moral policy motions. We can therefore set aside substantive definitional issues related to the economy.

It will suffice to point out that, interestingly though perhaps not unexpectedly, debaters are less personally married to ideological positions within economic policy debates than they are within social and moral policy ones. Debates about economic liberalism, for example, have a roughly equal chance of being won by either side of a motion. This speaks to the personal nature of questions of identity and the role of the state in our individual lifestyle-choices that morality and social policy centre on. This is not, of course, to suggest that economic policy is less relevant to us or disconnected from our lives. It simply reflects the less immediately existential nature of economic discourse – telling me who I can have sexual intercourse with affects me on a psycho-sexual level that touches the core of my being in a way in which telling me how much tax I should pay, does not. Due to these less emotive overtones of economic policy debate, there is less bias in favour of any particular ideological position with regards to economic motions. For these reasons, economic policy motions are not the central site of the action for examining the thesis under discussion in this essay.

Let us set economics aside then, and assume that liberalism – to be defined shortly – is intended to range over issues of morality and social policy, and not economic policy.

The definition of liberalism‘ that I have in mind throughout is derived from John Stuart Mill‘s essay, On Liberty, which sets out the moral constraints on the exercise of power by the state over citizens.1 As already circumscribed, I am particularly restricting this state-citizen relationship to the domains of morality and social policy. Liberalism, in Mill‘s sense of the term, implies a few theses: first, there are many different conceptions of the good‘ that exist in society; second, the state should not prioritize any particular conception of the good; third, the state should not interfere in an citizen‘s exercise of their individual conception of the good unless such interference in required in order to prevent harm to others (other-regarding‘ harm) and, in some cases, harm to oneself (self-regarding harm‘). This third feature of Mill‘s blueprint of a morally liberal society is captured in his so-called Harm Principle‘ – ―That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.2

Conception of the good‘ simply means a vision of what constitutes an ideal life, or a life form that is worth living. Some person might judge, for example, that the introspective aesthetic life of a hermit artist is ideal, while someone else might think that a public political life is most desirable. In Mill‘s ideal society, no moral judgment is made as to which of these life forms are preferable. In that sense, we can explain the Harm Principle from a different angle: it requires a state that is a morally minimalist one. In other words, just as economic liberalism implies – broadly speaking – a state that stays out of the marketplace and broader economy so far as possible, similarly, Mill‘s ideal government refrains from interfering in the moral choices – including moral ranking of choices – of its citizens. It has a minimal role; safeguarding the space within which individuals have the maximum possible freedom and opportunity, consistent with the Harm Principle, to exercise, and live, their conceptions of the good.

There are many nuances, and criticisms, of Mill‘s conception of morality, and the relationship between the state and citizen as he posits it, that have been widely examined.3 It is beyond the scope of this essay to rehearse these (ongoing) academic debates. The central insight from Mill, for my purpose, can be captured as follows: the essence of liberalism finds expression in a pluralistic society with a non-judgmental state that allows for wide ranging conceptions of morality to exist and be the determinants of people‘s life forms.

There is, in addition, debate within moral liberalism. It is important to acknowledge disagreement that liberals have with each other. Some, like Isaiah Berlin most famously, have argued that only negative liberty is worth pursuing.4 Negative liberty, in essence, implies that the state refrains from interfering in our lives but places no obligation on the state to ensure that the enabling conditions for a successful life are in place. Put in practical terms, this means that while the state should not stop me from living, say, the life of an artist, the state equally does not have a duty to provide me with money and other resources to live the life of an artist. This can, as one might expect, be contrasted with positive liberalism, which is premised on the equally plausible intuition that a right to live your preferred conception of the good is worthless if it cannot be realized. Hence – going all the way back to Rousseau and more recently theorists like Thomas Hill Green – these thinkers insist on a notion of positive liberty in society‘s political and legal architecture, i.e. arguing that the state must create the conditions that will make it possible for all us to live genuinely autonomous lives.5

The liberal bias within competitive debate is a bias in favour of both negative and positive liberty, though more strongly in favour of negative liberty. There is less agreement – but only marginally so – about the extent to which governments need to provide material conditions for citizens to successfully realize their individual conceptions of the good‘ than there is agreement that negative liberty is a good. In fact, the overlapping consensus between all liberals can more adequately be expressed as agreement that negative liberty is a great‘, not just a good.

The lesser agreement on positive liberty reflects differences in the class, constitutional and geographical backgrounds of debaters. Someone coming from a country such as India or South Africa with a constitutional system that enshrines citizens‘ entitlement to force the state to provide for their socio-economic well-being may already be socialized into a prima facie acceptance of positive liberty as a good. If, on the one hand, you were raised in a context with only civil and political rights to protect citizens against an overzealous state, then you may cherish and prioritize negative liberty over positive liberty.

Still, these cleavages – details about the nature of what constitutes sufficient harm‘ for the state to be justified in constraining our freedom; what the full reach of liberalism is (economic versus moral); the intra-liberal dialectic about versions of liberalism, such as the negative-positive rights discourse and debates – should not be overstated. The overarching intuition that you and I have the freedom to live self-authored lives and that the state has a duty, in some shape or form, to ensure this is possible, encapsulates liberalism. This, in turn, captures the substance of the liberal bias that is inherent in parliamentary debate.

The liberal bias in action: an illustrative journey to the Middle East

December 2007. A group of Oxford University debaters are dispatched by a Qatari non-governmental organisation (the Qatar Foundation) to set-up, promote and develop debate in schools and universities across Doha.

After a few workshops in which we had reinforced the rules of formal parliamentary debate, it was time for some practice debates. Thinking it is best to choose social policy motions, rather than complex political motions that require greater factual knowledge, we decided to flirt with homosexuality (Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar). So I announced, not without some trepidation that This house would legalise homosexuality in Qatar‘.

The students wrote down the motion quietly, before one debater shouted rather excitedly, ―I am so glad to be on the opposition for this one!!‖ while another (realising he‘s on the proposition team) moaned, ―Oh no!!‖ We were promptly served a choice buffet of assorted homophobic assertions as argument‘. I was grateful that my feminist co-judge (and friend) agreed to do the bulk of the oral feedback after the debate.

The arguments themselves are not worth deconstructing. Besides, many countries that are supposedly liberal democratic, like South Africa, are also still deeply homophobic, despite constitutional commitments to protect gay people. When a student asked us to change the motion before the debate, however, I was truly stumped. After twenty minutes of searching for the relevant explanation, he finally explained that while he ―did not have a problem with discussing homosexuality, he could not do so in the presence of women. That would be inimical to his brand of Islam. He ended with a plea that this business of spreading debate in the Middle East should not, as it had started to do already, lead to an erosion of local culture and religion. He had already seen the changes in his own sister, who had started dressing differently, and was starting to comport like a (Western) boy.

How does one respond to what is surely not an unreasonable fear of Western cultural imperialism under the pretext of promoting value-neutral debate? How can one convince a group of students of the instrumental value of debate while not offending local norms and culture with the choice of subject matter – yet, at the same time, not being so politically correct as to undermine the very telos of debate?

The truth, I began to realise, is that there is a liberal bias inherent in parliamentary debate. It is no coincidence that most competitive debaters in the West are liberal. Of course not all of them are liberal. But even the ones who self-identify with conservatism accept the fundamental tenets of a liberal democratic state. You are unlikely to find a trained debater in the West at an anti-gay rally. You are unlikely to find a trained debater in the West opposing a woman‘s right to take up leadership positions in politics or business. You are unlikely to find a trained debater in the West lobbying against my entitlement to consume self-destructive quantities of alcohol or tobacco (barring cases where this might harm others.) At the very least, then, even conservative debaters accept that they have to tolerate‘ the pluralism of modern, multicultural societies. At most they lobby for the right to carve out some private spaces (like church communities) within which they can participate in praxis that express their particular conceptions of the good life.

Still, even such liberal conservatism is the exception. Most debaters I have come to know over the past ten years are, quite simply, full blooded liberals who accept an orthodox reading of Mill‘s Harm Principle as the correct way of delineating what the bounds of acceptable state power is. For most of these debaters, state and mosque should always be kept apart.

With these sociological (if anecdotal) facts in hand, it would be fanciful to imagine that a debate program would not cause substantive value shifts within Qatari debaters – in the direction of a substantive liberal orientation towards life.

In theory, parliamentary debate is merely a formal vehicle for thrashing out different solutions to the world‘s problems. No particular solution has priority over any other. Evidence, argument and rhetoric determine which solutions, or policy proposals, survive a debate round. I successfully sold this half-truth to the Muslim student who wanted the motion about homosexuality changed, partly because I almost believe it but mostly because we had to get on with the workshop.

It is a half-truth because the whole-truth contains a few more uncomfortable edges. The half-truth is that the criteria by which parliamentary debates are judged do, of course, emphasise evidence, argument and rhetoric. The winners are therefore chosen by a process that is mostly objective. The key outcome that debate training leads to is a sharpened ability to analyse problems, and learning to justify why a particular policy proposal is both desirable and feasible, with fewer or no side-effects compared to competing solutions. How can training students to think through problems in such a systematic manner not be an inherently pedagogically useful tool?

Yet, the whole truth is fuzzier. There are norms implicit in the very activity of parliamentary debate. These norms are not value-neutral. One norm at the heart of parliamentary debate is openness to the possibility that a view contrary to one‘s most cherished convictions just might be right. This norm is practised, and reinforced, by asking debaters (depending on which side of a motion they randomly end up) to rehearse the arguments for views they do not actually hold.

Surely, you might say, a little bit of open-mindedness can‘t hurt anyone?! Well, it could. The fact is that conservative moral codes partly sustain themselves by regarding certain propositions as beyond the pale. Of course there is no need to discuss homosexuality. Why? Because homosexuality is obviously wrong! Of course there is no need to discuss whether or not alcohol should be more widely, and easily, available in Qatar. Why? Because consuming alcohol is obviously bad.

A debate program that instills in conservative students a healthy, almost chronic, skepticism about their own convictions will shatter a key meta-belief they always had – propositions that were beyond the critical pale must be susceptible to radical revision. Liberal tolerance replaces conservative dogmatism, even if liberal values are not yet taken to heart (that takes a little longer). Is such open-mindedness a good thing? Perhaps. Those of us who would say yes‘, almost unreflectively, answer the question from within the liberal paradigm. Outside the liberal paradigm, this value-shift represents a dismantling of conservative morality. This undercuts the claim that debate programs merely impart critical thinking and public speaking skills. Such programs cause deeper, more substantive, and very personal changes.

The students themselves seemed as yet unaware of the inevitability of some of these changes. I asked one student what motion they had debated at school the previous week. She gave a fascinating response: ―This house would legalise prostitution in the West.

Why in the West? Why not in the Middle East‘?‖ I asked. My inner-anthropologist was getting excited. ―If that was the motion there would be no arguments for the proposition team. They would lose!‖ That response intrigued me on many levels. There I was imagining that the rules of logic are, in fact, universal. Surely an argument that is valid in London ought to remain valid in Doha? Yet, here was a bunch of students who thought that an analysis of the right to bodily integrity or the value of autonomy can only be persuasive if judges, audience members and fellow debaters pretended to be British rather than Qatari. Perhaps logic is culturally relative after all. Of course, this is not what was going on here.

Upon reflection this exchange made me appreciate the difference (discussed above) between logical soundness and persuasiveness. While a mathematically talented student could complete the worksheets for a course in symbolic logic, he could not necessarily persuade an audience of anything – even maths-related. The spoken word introduces a psychological element that is absent in formal logic. So while debate requires the most rudimentary of formal logical rules to be observed, it requires more than just formal logical skills. No amount of logic training can tell you which argument, among an array of equally-plausible (often non-deductive) arguments, will be regarded as persuasive by an audience. That requires psychological insight rather than rule-manipulation.

These young debaters had in fact already demonstrated the pay-offs of a good debate program. One debate penny had clearly dropped: persuasiveness is context-dependent.

Soon they would mimic their liberal Oxford trainers more fluently. But what they did not realise, it seemed to me, is that one can pretend to be a liberal for only so long. After a while, you start to mimic these liberal trainers, befriend them, become part of the liberal debate fraternity and before long you take to heart the attitudes and arguments that you had initially merely rehearsed. Liberalism and multiculturalism lie around the next corner.


To some extent, as already argued, the bias in favour of liberalism is inevitable. A meta-belief inherent in debate is that debate, as an activity, constitutes an orientation towards accepting the possibility of any proposition being false, unacceptable or unpersuasive. Substantive liberal theses, and forms of life that flow from them, are consistent with this openness to changing one‘s mind.

Inherent in conservatism, on the other hand, is a general resistance to change. This is not to conflate conservatism with recalcitrance. That would be both unfair and simply wrong. Many liberals are recalcitrant, and many conservatives are open-minded. But there is no denying that at the heart of conservatism there is a spirit of resisting radical changes in how society is organised and in considering what customs and forms of life we should abandon or alter. To that extent, non-liberal arguments will always be more difficult to prove.

This is not an innocuous fact about competitive debate. It is undesirable. Motions dealing with social policy and questions of morality are inevitable at debate tournaments. So we cannot avoid the liberal bias coming into play, yet the bias (barring explicit mechanisms to address it) will skew evaluation of who the best debaters in a round – including a World Championship final – are.

Yet, in the final analysis, there really is no quick-fix solution. However, we can begin to do two things as a debating community. First, we need to own up to this liberal bias, debate the extent of its reality, and become self-aware on an individual level about how it impacts our own orientation towards motions, teams, and debate. This exercise of personal reflection is particularly crucial for judges who decide the competitive fate of teams. Second, once we acknowledge this trend, we simply need to work hard to guard against undue favouritism of liberal arguments. This can be achieved in at least two ways, from a judge‘s perspective: i) always ask yourself whether a liberal conclusion had, in fact, been successfully established with adequate logical and evidential substantiation, or whether you are imputing the arguments to the debater because you own them yourself; ii) in coaching and oral feedback, it is important to hint at the kinds of argument that can, in fact, be built in support of conservative propositions in order to slowly start to dismantle the false belief that there are no persuasive ways in which conservative theses can be established. Obviously such remarks should be carefully distinguished from the rationale for a ranking, and offered as additional, beyond-the-round comments for future debate success by the participants.

In the final analysis, parliamentary debate‘s core value of promoting healthy belief- scepticism would be prosaically undercut should we not become capable of checking our liberal biases at the debate door. It is worth reminding ourselves, that when a debate is called to order, good conservative arguments are good arguments.


1 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, London, Longman, Robers and Green, 1869.

2 Ibid., p. 13.

3 See, for example, Joseph Hamburger, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999 and William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, London, John W. Parker, 1837.

4 Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958.

5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses (G.D.H. Cole, trans.), New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1973; Paul Harris & John Morrow, eds., Thomas Hill Green: Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation and Other Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.