About the author:
Tim Sonnreich graduated from Monash University in 2008 with a MA
(politics) and BA Hons (politics) and is currently employed as a Senior Advisor to the Premier
of Victoria, the Hon. John Brumby MP.
During his time as an intervarsity debater Tim was a runner-up at the 2003 World
Championships, three-time winner of the Australasian IV in 2000, 2001 and 2004 and twice
best speaker in Australasia in 2002 and 2003. He has judged the grand final, and served as a
deputy chief adjudicator of both competitions.
He is a Life Member of both the Monash Association of Debaters (MAD) and the Australasian
Intervarsity Debating Association (AIDA), having served in a variety of elected positions
including as President of MAD and was the founding editor of the Monash Debating Review
The concept of ‘first principles’ debating is gaining traction, particularly in
Australasian debating, but as yet there no truly clear and comprehensive
definition of the theory available for speakers or coaches.1 That’s a great boon
to those of us who are invited to provide training in distant and exotic lands,
but at the cost of reduced consistency and access to the ideas. This article seeks
to redress that by providing an overview of the core concepts, and
demonstrating the progression from beginner to advanced skill sets. It should
hopefully be useful to speakers and coaches alike.
Making Cases from First Principles
Many people reading this article may not be familiar with the term ‘first
principles debating’, so it’s worth defining it before attempting to unpack it in
detail. Essentially, first principles are a methodology for approaching topics and
case construction when you lack a detailed understanding of the specific issues
in the topic. The idea starts off quite simply, with some basic logical principles,
and then becomes more complex as speakers gain experience.
Basic first principles – logically consistent
(1) A good understanding of the principles of logic (i.e knowing how to show that an
argument is logically flawed without knowing any facts about the issue).
(2) A good understanding of the key concepts that form the fundamental ‘clash’ in the
Novice debaters often think case building is simply an exercise in stacking
together as many arguments as they can think of without necessarily having any
clear organising principle or structure. Clearly this is a flawed strategy.
Therefore, the most basic first principles skill is applying a clear principle to
your case. One of the first such ‘debating useful’ principles that people learn is
the ‘role of government’, which can be characterised as the choice between ‘big
government’ and ‘small government’.
‘Big government’ thinkers are conventionally on the Left, and want government
to take a direct role in a range of social and economic issues, such as services
like electricity and water, or regulating aspects of speech and behaviour in the
interests of society as a whole. ‘Small government’ advocates tend to be on the
Right and argue for government’s economic role to minimal, replaced by the
efficiencies of the private sector, and for individual liberties to override wider
That’s about all you need to know to make a basic and logically consistent case
for a wide range of topics, from privatisation to free speech, from gun
ownership to gambling, and many more. As long as you can correctly identity
which side of the debate fits most comfortably with the logic of either big or
small government, then even if you know nothing of the successes or failures of
privatised public services, you can build a case about why the government does
or doesn’t have a role to play in directly providing those services.
Naturally, such a case would be unsophisticated, and unlikely to prevail against
more experienced teams, but no other realistic strategy is likely leave a novice
team better off. The point is that your case will have core consistency, and for
novices that is the crucial thing to master, as it forms the basis of more
The next level of sophistication comes from recognising that structurally the
number of debate-types is limited. A few examples of these debate-types are:
• Tradeoffs – choice between two objectively good, but zero-sum options
• Values – choice between two mutually hostile visions of what is right
• Cookie Cutters – debates where the same collection of issues repeat,
across ostensibly dissimilar issues
A classic example of a Tradeoff is Efficiency versus Accountability. If you were
designing a government you would surely think both these concepts were
crucial, but the reality is that in many instances efforts to increase one of these
values necessitates a reduction in the other.
Consider the choice between unicameral and bicameral parliaments.
Theoretically, a unicameral parliament is more efficient at decision making, but
a bicameral parliament allows for greater accountability. It’s a subjective
question of which arrangement best suits the country in question. The same
tradeoff applies to a range of politically themed topics, while other tradeoffs,
such as equity versus efficiency cover off on a range of economics topics, etc.
However, the Values debate-type is a different style of topic, with the two
competing values systems rather than a tradeoff between two objectively good
choices. Striped of all the hyperbole and practical limitations a death penalty
debate is a clash of values – fundamentally you either think it’s right and proper
for the state to kill criminals or you don’t, you must support one value to the
exclusion of the other.
Finally, there are Cookie Cutters, which are cases which have reoccurring
constellations (rather than just a single core difference like in Tradeoffs) of
arguments in otherwise seemingly different topics. Ban versus Regulate debates
are the best example – whether its drugs, gambling, prostitution, etc, similar
arguments repeat (protection of consumers, quality of product, taxation of
product, minimising harm, etc).
These are just three examples, and not every topic fits conveniently into one of
these moulds, but many do, and for the novice speaker these basic insights can
reduce the seeming randomness of topics and help them to leverage what little
experience they do have in a logically consistent way.
Intermediate First Principles – Spectrum of Ideas
Basic first principles helps to give new debaters confidence and consistency.
However, this approach also risks oversimplification, with speakers looking for
binary dichotomies in every topic. While these crude cases are far superior to
the disorganised aggregation of ideas they replaced, they will remove too much
of the art and strategy of case construction by blinding teams to the options
available to them in the topic.
Therefore the aim of intermediate first principles is to broader speaker’s
ideological horizons, revealing the gradation of options from moderate to
hardline that exist on both sides of the topic.
The simplest way to illustrate this is through a spectrum of ideas, with the most
polar opposite views on either end, and more moderate positions closer to the
centre. This is a method used by many academics to show the range of views in
a given discipline. One example I give is a bastardized version of the spectrum
of views on environmental politics I was taught as an undergraduate by Prof.
Robyn Eckersley. With apologies to the professor I sometimes summarize her
spectrum as this:
The further ‘left’ you travel, the more you move into the traditional
environmentalist perspective, basically the view that the environment’s true
value cannot be expressed in monetary terms, and that animals and even
ecosystems should be protected because of their intrinsic value. On the ‘right’ is
a more human-centred ethic that respects the environment but gives preference
to human needs and interests, and sees the environment in essentially
instrumental terms – the environment is important because of what it does (eg.
produce fresh water), not what it is. These benefits can often be monetized and
commoditized, which helps to judge when it should be protected or exploited.
Unsurprisingly, the middle position seeks a balance of both philosophies,
recognising that while it is not inappropriate in principle to seek to exploit
environmental resources, commoditising nature is a cause way of assigning
To briefly illustrate this, consider topics regarding the commercial trade in
endangered species, the most common version of this is probably commercial
whaling, but it could also be the ivory trade in Africa2, or less well know issues
like the coral trade3, are all cookie cutters that come from the environmental
politics spectrum. Assuming both sides accept that the species in question is
endangered, then both will likely agree that conversation is important. But how
can we best protect them?
Deep Green Ecologists will all say that making the species commercially
available is a mistake. Endangered species should be protected, through a ban
on their harvesting and trade, plus protection for their natural habitats. No level
of profit or human enjoyment can justify risking the extinction of an important
species. Technological ecologists will say that giving them a commercial value
helps to protect them.
Without the ability to profit from them, local people/government’s have no
incentive (or obvious source of revenue) to protect them. But if you making
your living from selling a given species then you have a strong incentive to do
so sustainably. The market is self-regulating – the less there are, the more they
are worth, the more incentive to invest in protecting them. Sustainable
Development theory would look for a way to balance the environmental and
human needs – probably through some kind of quota system, as currently exists
for various fisheries industries around the world. Each of those debates is a
little different, but at its core, the fundamental clash is the same.
From that example, it should be easy to think of how you would run a case on
whether mining should be allowed in ecologically sensitive areas, whether the
topic is about drilling for oil in Alaska, or controversy over the proposed
Crucitas open cut gold mine in Costa Rica.4 The ideological options are
essentially the same, regardless of how much you know about either of those
issues. That’s the essence of first principles.
That’s very helpful if you’ve had the lecture (preferably by Prof. Eckersley) and
have a good idea of the principles on which each of those ideologies operates,
but what do you do if you don’t have any such background?
Well you should be able to intuit the key points of the spectrum through logical
inference. To stick with one of the earlier examples I used, privatisation, for any
given service or asset in question, the spectrum of views on privatising it should
be obvious. The spectrum is really all the possible answers to the central
question of the debate – should the government own and operate its public
services? Broadly there are really only three answers to that question – yes, no
So thinking about the topic from (intermediate) first principles reveals all the
options for both your team and your opposition. The wording of the topic will
determine which team has the option of the middle position. Those choices are
profoundly significant strategic decisions for teams, but they are revealed with
little or no specific knowledge of the issues, just the application of logic.
Of course that’s not to say there is no value to research and specific knowledge
– it is incredibly valuable, but you don’t need it to construct a valid and
consistent case. However, since you can construct various models for each of
those positions, and the subtle differences in them might affect your arguments,
you now know what to research (i.e. models of full government ownership and
operation, hybrid models and fully privatised models) which is a lot more
effective than simply researching ‘privatization’ and hoping you cover all the
Effective research will reveal a plethora of options for models. For instance,
transport academic Paul Mees’ recent book Transport for Suburbia5 included a
spectrum with seven options for models (three kinds of government operations
models, two hybrids public/private models and two forms of entirely private
ownership), but the differences between the three kinds of government
operations models only really matter in real world of public policy making and
are unlikely to be relevant in the more limited context of a debate. Knowing all
seven of those options might give you some useful ideas, but I would be
surprised if a pro-public ownership team ever had need to clarify whether they
were proposing the “public transport federation or verkehrsverbund” model or
the “public corporation” model (options 3 and 2 on Mees’ spectrum
respectively). Similarly, there are other positions on Eckersley’s spectrum, but
the additional distinctions are too fine to be picked up in the vast majority of
environment topics at debating tournaments.
The key difference between basic and intermediate first principles is nuance.
Basic first principles seek to draw the clearest black and white distinctions
between the two teams, but intermediate first principles introduce a little grey.
But why does that matter? How does it help you?
The benefits are three fold, firstly if you know all the options for your case
then you can choose the version of your argument that you think is strongest.
Secondly, you’ll know what your opponent’s options are, and that allows you to
quickly identify their case from the earliest point in the debate, and to know
exactly how it differs from yours. That will affect your tone and your
prioritisation of issues. Finally it gives you a more refined version of the benefit
that comes from basic first principles. Basic first principles gives you a clear
principle to build your case on – so you know what you can agree with, and
what you have to oppose. Understanding the spectrum develops this skill
further, so you should always know how to react to an argument (or
importantly, how to respond to an unexpected POI or definition).
Advanced First Principles – Spectrum of World Views
While intermediate first principles has a significant degree of nuance that is
absent in basic first principles, it still suffers from oversimplification of ideas.
Take the environment politics spectrum described above. Each of those points
on the spectrum is a legitimate and well constructed philosophy, but in the real
world very few people conform entirely to such easy categorisation of their
views. They are, in essence, characterisations of how people might choose to
the see the world, but the world is too complicated for any one theory or
philosophy to point the way on every issue. It’s a point comedian Chris Rock
makes well, if crudely:
“The whole country's got a screwed up up mentality. We all got a gang
mentality. Republicans are idiots. Democrats are idiots. Conservatives are
idiots and liberals are idiots.
Anyone who makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a fool.
Everybody, nah, nah, nah, everybody is so busy wanting to be down with
a gang! I'm a conservative! I'm a liberal! I'm a conservative!
Be a person. Listen! Let it swirl around your head. Then form your
opinion. No normal, decent person is one thing. Ok I got some stuff I'm
conservative about, I got some shit I'm liberal about. Crime - I'm
conservative. Prostitution - I'm liberal.”6
If all you have is basic first principles skills then you can get away with running
a case based on crude big/small government thinking, but you’d be better off
with a more nuanced position such as you would find if you plotted the
intermediate first principles spectrum for the debate. But similarly, you would
be better off again if you had a fully nuanced worldview. Not just a philosophy
but a set of principles mediated by real world considerations, because then you
truly have principled and practical arguments that are consistent and well
That does not mean that you always abandon the more hardline views for the
centre of the spectrum, it means understanding what that there is always a range
of equally philosophically valid options available to you in any topic, so you
should choose the one that best suits the context – the specific topic, the
strengths and weaknesses of your team, etc.
In the case of the environment spectrum there are many examples of this.
Nuclear power is an extremely common topic, and ostensibly the affirmative
and negative teams’ cases should slot nicely into the spectrum I described
earlier, with the anti-nuclear team taking up a ‘deep-green’ position, and the
pro-nuclear team choosing one of the other positions, but most likely a
technological ecologist position (which advocates for technological solutions to
environmental problems like pollution). Such a debate would work well, both
teams would understand and be clearly differentiated from their opponent. But
in the real world the debate isn’t always as neatly defined as that. Certainly most
deep green ecologists oppose nuclear power, but they don’t all do so and those
that don’t are able to reconcile their support for nuclear with their eco-centric
worldview. An example of this is the noted author and environmentalist James
Lovelock who is as much a deep green ecologist as any member of Greenpeace,
but who supports nuclear power because he sees it as necessary to rapidly
reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.7
He acknowledges the parochial risks of nuclear energy, but sees protection of a
stable climate as an over-riding concern, and doesn’t see alternative policies as
viable without nuclear power. In other words he supports nuclear power
because he’s deep-green, not in spite of it. If climate change didn’t exist he’d
oppose nuclear for the usual reasons, but since it does exist it’s the pre-eminent
Why does this matter? How is it superior to intermediate first principles? Well
firstly by definition a worldview is more practical than an ideology. As Homer
Simpson famously opined, “Marge, I agree with you - in theory. In theory,
communism works. In theory”.8 A consistent principle is crucial for a strong
case, but that’s the beginning of case construction, not the end. The other
ingredient in a strong case is clear and practical benefits. Advanced first
principles encourages you to not only know what you are (deep green ecologist,
etc) but to know who you are (Lovelock, etc) which is more difficult, but much
In the earlier discussion of intermediate first principles I argued that there was a
little value to further breaking down the spectrum beyond three or four key
positions, and yet advanced first principles is about finding extra nuance. This
apparent contradiction is easily resolved. Further fragmentation of the
intermediate spectrum beyond three or four key points is ill-advised because the
new points on the spectrum you would create are too similar to the existing
points to be of any use (one legal structure for full privatisation of public
transport, is effectively the same as any other in a debate because you never
really get into that sort of detail). But advanced first principles are useful
modifications or variations to those intermediate points – not wholly new and
discrete points on the spectrum. So a deep green ecologist that can support
nuclear power is a useful variant, but only in one instance (the instance where
you need to defend nuclear power), whereas points on the intermediate
spectrum are useful in a wide variety of topics.
How can you learn the appropriate worldviews for any given first principles
spectrum? Unfortunately here is where the limits of pure logic are reached. The
only way to learn that within the deep-green point of the spectrum there is a
Lovelock version and say a George Monbiot version (who says that nuclear
power is “second from last in my list of preferences” for energy systems, just
ahead of coal9) is to read. But again, the spectrum helps because it tells you
what the broad options are, and then you can progressively research variations
on the core principles to suit particular topics. So while in a debate about
traditional conservation issues (eg. whaling) there is unlikely to be any useful
variation to the orthodox deep-green perspective, but in a debate about nuclear
power as a solution to climate change, there are differences and knowing them
gives you more options for how to frame your case.
It’s worth remembering the point of having a basic and intermediate levels of
first principles, when clearly advanced first principles is the most effective
technique. It’s not a choice between the levels, it’s an expectation that people
will progress through them with effort and experience. The basic level is a way
for novice debaters to quickly improve their case construction skills through the
application of a small number of ideas. Once mastered, the speaker can develop
more complex intermediate skills, but still the purpose is to find a ‘shortcut’, to
compensate for the speakers lack of detailed knowledge about the specifics of
any given topic. But finally, at the most advanced levels speakers are confident
enough about their intermediate skills to allow for some attention to be given to
studying arguments specific to a small number of topics – the luxury that
novices couldn’t afford because of the diversity and unpredictability of topics
Ultimately that’s what first principles are about – giving teams more options for
building their case, so they can make the best strategic choice. In its advanced
form it should also mean that debates are as closely grounded in the real-world
policy discussions as possible. That’s important if you think debating is
fundamentally a training ground for good citizens – people who have well
considered opinions and are capable to persuading others to agree with them.
It’s also important if you want to have complex, nuanced and challenging
debates. These are difficult techniques to master, but the rewards are more than
1 My own previous effort Introduction to Training Guide for University Debating: Tips, Tactics and First
Principles is close but incomplete. My apologies to anyone who has compiled such a resource without my
2 While stocks last, The Economist online, 16/3/10
3 Victoria Gomelsky, “Jewellers Divided Over Use of Coral”, International Herald Tribune, 8/12/09
4 Leslie Josephs, “Costa Rica gold mine stalled by environmental claims”, Reuters, 26/4/10
5 Mees, Paul, Transport for Suburbia; Beyond the Automobile Age, Earthscan, London, 2010, p.72-75.
6 Chris Rock Never Scared, HBO, 2004.
7 Lovelock, James, “Nuclear power is the only green solution”, The Independent, 24/5/04, available at
8 The Simpsons, “Bart Gets an Elephant”, Episode 15, Season 5.
9 Monbiot, George, Heat: How to Stop a Planet Burning, Allan Lane, Victoria, 2006, p.99.