Quinn Maingi Reviews Middlebury 2013 Semifinals

Middlebury 2013 Semis Ballot- Quinn Maingi

Note: Quinn has kindly invited novices to contact him with any questions. His email address is raman.quinn.maingi[at]gmail.com.

Case and link: Given that you are planning on having a child, you should adopt.

Decision: Opp

PM: 25.5/4

MG: 26/3

LO: 26.5/1

MO: 26.25/2

RFD:        The first question I need to answer to judge this round is: is there an action-inaction distinction? It seems pretty clear that if there is not one, this is a gov ballot, since then you are literally committing murder, which opp implicitly conceded that they would not be okay with through various points in the round. Thus, I evaluate what morality looks like in a world without an action-inaction distinction. Here, I conclude that a system with an action-inaction distinction is preferable to a system without one for a few reasons. Government’s argumentation is concentrated in a couple areas that attempt to pre-empt possible distinctions that opp could have drawn or examples opp could use to undermine confidence in their moral system. For example, gov argues that here you have clear knowledge, are able to prevent the harm, from the original position you would prefer adoption, and it is a minimal moral cost to you. All these arguments mentioned above all fall to various arguments made by opp.

First, knowledge and ability seem to fail opp’s hard case test. Gov tries to regain this ground in MG and PMR by saying maybe you should ‘help people more’ and that it is only a slight inconvenience. This is a ridiculous strawman of opp’s examples, such as killing yourself to save two people. Thus, I have to evaluate whether the hard case test is a valid test of a moral framework. Gov argues that it is not a valid test, since there is a minimal moral cost to this specific action given that you are already having a child. However, as opp points out, this is a completely subjective statement that cannot be evaluated by the judge- the MO points out the rather extreme but still true example that some people have a preference for having biological children that is comparable to the preference to not die due to how fundamental it is to their identity. Thus, since in the case where you commit suicide to give up your organs you would both know that you could save someone and do have the ability to do so, I dismiss these two distinctions by gov. The above is also sufficient to explain why I reject the ‘easy case’ distinction made by gov, although there is also other substantive argumentation by opp that could be used to reject this distinction.

Thus, all that gov has left is that you would prefer this from the original position. However, this argument also does not hold up to opp’s argumentation that is made in this round. I reject this for two separate reasons. First, gov fails to prove that there is anything left of a person when you strip away all of their ‘morally arbitrary preferences’, since all preferences are just morally arbitrary- as opp points out, there is no ontological reason why people dying or suffering is bad- it is just that people have  a preference about that.  The best articulation by opp as of this comes at the end of LOR, where he clarifies that anything that gov says that sounds sympathetic is simply because you have a preference to do that, such as ruining your suit to save a drowning child, and not because there is an objective value to that decision. This also implicitly responds to the primary claim of the argument, which is that from the original position, you would prefer to adopt- this is also just an assertion that people have a certain kind of preference, which is insufficient to prove a categorical moral obligation.

Thus, gov fails to provide distinctions from the bulk of opp’s argumentation about why an action-inaction distinction is necessary. Opp clearly shows a strong moral worth to an action-inaction distinction through their argumentation about autonomy- clearly, without an action-inaction distinction MO’s articulation that there is always something that you have to do to maximize utility is true, given a certain set of knowledge and efficacy restrictions as articulated in the PMR. Thus, I buy that an action-inaction distinction is necessary to maintain human autonomy, which is what gives human dignity its worth and thus the reason to have a moral system in the first place.

Given my conclusion that there should be an action-inaction distinction, I have to ask how to evaluate morality in the case of a direct action. Gov’s arguments essentially boil down to utilitarianism- there are more or less people suffering in a certain state of the world etc. Opp argues that we should look to people’s preferences and that these are the only morally relevant factor. However, here I end up evaluating this competing standard on the basis of a drop from MG that is extended into PMR- ethics and morality exist to constrain preference and thus you cannot solely use preference as the sole morally relevant criterion to evaluate the value of actions. Opp to a certain extent also concedes that morality has value as a series of should statements to ensure maximization of human dignity- thus it seems that opp also concedes solely using preferences as the standard as to whether you should take an action is undesirable. The final remaining issue in the question of preferences is whether or not you actually have a preference to have a biological child. Gov tries to argue that their case is morally equivalent to ‘you should have a preference to adopt’. This is bullshit. Their case statement was ‘given that you are planning to have a child and are eligible for adoption, you should instead adopt’. This does not state at any point that you should also have a preference to adopt, and both of opp’s objections from the MO and the LOR are sufficient to dismiss this squirrel. Therefore, while I conclude that utility is the primary metric that should be used to evaluate decisions, I do not completely discount the relevance of preferences- I still buy some moral value to autonomy and thus preferences can be considered somewhat morally relevant if there is not a clearly preferable side from a utilitarian perspective but one is clear from a preferences perspective.

Given that I have concluded that utility with a secondary consideration of preferences is the metric to be used to evaluate actions, I now must evaluate the net utility of the decision to conceive a child. Gov’s primary line of argumentation is that you will dramatically improve the life of another child if you chose not to conceive. Ultimately, I am convinced this line of argumentation is irrelevant- both opp debaters give me sufficient reason to believe if opportunity cost is morally relevant, there is always a correct action and thus the action-inaction distinction would cease to exist. Thus, I must evaluate the utility of conceiving a child. Ultimately, I conclude that it is very possibly net positive utility to conceive a child given argumentation from both the MO and LO about how children may end up being net positive utility. In addition, given that opp clearly wins the preference question, I end up voting opp in this round.



PMC was generally okay and fairly well argued. I appreciate that this PMC actually warrant some arguments about morality which just doesn’t happen in a decent number of moral theory rounds. That said, there are some claims that are just asserted towards the end of the PMC due to relatively poor time management, which make it so this is just a reasonably strong PMC, not one of particular note.

PMR made a large number of mistakes that took a round in which there was a plausible gov ballot given a good pmr and made it extremely difficult to vote gov. First, PMR simply refuses to engage with several important parts of opp’s argumentation or strawmans them (Opp’s philosophy justifies literally anything, while that is clearly not the case given the way LOR frames morality). On top of this, the PMR does not fully address a couple of important lines of argumentation from MO, such as the argument that ended up signing the ballot for opp in the end (comparatively less resources may be generated from an adopted child if the parents have a strong preference for biological children, to which PMR only responds ‘it is still better for the child who is adopted’, which is irrelevant to the question at hand). This lack of responsiveness makes it so gov loses a number of important questions pretty conclusively, which makes this PM the clear 4 in this round.

Comments for MG: There were some parts of this MG that were quite good. At a lot of important junctures, MG established several critical links to prove gov’s case. However, at most of these junctures, the MG came up a little bit short of proving the claims that she made. For example, in the overview, the MG establishes most of what would be necessary to beat the hard cases test- She makes three claims that are useful to beat the test, but none of them are quite sufficient. First, she makes the claim that hard cases are distinct- taking this a little bit further to show that distinction may have been sufficient to beat this test, which may have made gov win the action-inaction distinction question. Second, she establishes that this is a minimal moral cost because you have already decided to have a child- also an important argument, but she does not establish why the preference for a biological child would be a small moral cost categorically- if she had, it may have been sufficient to win. Finally, she says that maybe gov is okay with the hard cases, which is also a valid strategy. However, she decides to chicken out and only defend giving up your kidney, which is not the same kind of hard case the opp stakes their ground on.  Any of those three areas of attack could have been sufficient to either win the round outright or provide a springboard to actually engage with opp’s philosophy, which could have easily turned the round around.

However, this MG still gets the 3 and a 26 because she only went 80 percent of the way in engaging with opp’s argumentation and failed to properly handle a couple of critical areas of the round (for example, she simply tried to laugh off opp’s arguments are preferences being central to personhood, which was a fairly critical link in the opp case). In addition, she attempted to squirrel and say that the case was ‘you should have a preference to adopt’ instead of ‘you should adopt’ and does not make adequate theory arguments to justify why the two are equivalent. Thus, while this MG was almost good enough at a lot of points, she falls short at a lot of critical junctures meaning that she still deserves the 3.


As an overview, both of the LO’s speeches were exceptional nearly across the board, and I am on the fence about giving him a 26.75 instead of a 26.5, although I think there are enough material issues with this LO that make it so the lower score is justified.

LOC: Strategically, this speech is close to perfect. First, it pre-empts the obvious collapse coming in MG (we only said should, not that you are obligated) and it spends the correct amount of time. In addition, develops all of the arguments that are needed to beat the case with strong warating. There are only a few material flaws to this speech. First, case coverage is a bit spotty, and does leave a few important claims by gov unanswered from PMC which are extended by MG (in point 1 and 2- the response to point 2 is a bit weird and seems to just be playing semantic games). Second, there could have been more direct argumentation on why the opportunity cost of an action was irrelevant- this was just implicit in the argumentation. Third, the off-case argument about why your action itself is not harmful fails to be comparative. Either the second or the third would have been a very complete opp, but the fact that both are missing make it so the loc isn’t materially flawless in terms of off-case.

LOR: This speech is an excellent example of what a rebuttal is supposed to do. It focuses in on a couple major areas of clash that are very important to the decision and both brings the important lines of argumentation that opp has provided and gives excellent examples to support his side (e.g. his does x>y imply 3x>3y?). In addition, the closing of this LOR was particularly exceptional in that it pre-empted literally any appeal to intuition that side opp could make, which is something that is quite difficult to pull off, but this LOR did. This LOR could have done a slightly better job in terms of engaging more directly with gov’s remaining argumentation (e.g. clearly indicating when his arguments beat the action-inaction distinction instead of generally talking about the morality question). In addition, this LOR could have done a slightly better job linking back to case statement and other arguments in general, such as spending maybe 15 seconds explaining how consideration of hard cases clearly defeats almost all of opp’s argumentation. Overall though, this was a quite excellent rebuttal, also in the 26.5-26.75 range

MO: This MO contributed some very important links to the RFD that were very important to opp’s victory in this round. For example, the main link in the utilitarian argument that ended up beating gov’s voting issue in this round and making me vote on preferences. This MO also did a generally pretty good job of dealing with the MG and pointing out where her argumentation was insufficient. There are a couple notable flaws in this MO. First, the flow coverage is a bit spotty off-case, although on case he does an okay job of picking up drops by the LO that were extended by the MG for the most part. Second, this MO makes a couple of facially ridiculous claims which is just bad strategy. For example, the MO says that you don’t have an obligation to press a button to save a life, but you do have an obligation to not press a button that would kill someone- this sort of distinction requires a little bit more than just the intuition that pressing vs. not pressing the button is a morally relevant factor and is something that generally should be avoided if possible (this argument would have likely been better handled the way that the LOR handled this class of argumentation i.e. ‘you as the judge have a preference to press the button but that cannot be extended to a universal moral obligation’). Overall though, there were no major mistakes in this MO that would normally cost a team the round, and it did some very important work towards the opp win, so it earns the 2.