Ethics:  Preparing for Debates

[this is a condensed version of your earlier handout]

Usually, ethical debates focus on topics that involve moral dilemmas.  Recall, in a moral dilemma, there are two or more moral positions that support contradictory judgments or decisions.   In a debate, one is expected to support one of these moral positions over the other.  Thus, in general, preparing for an ethical debate can be divided into the following steps:

  1. Identify the moral dilemma.

·        Identify, in detail, the moral position (how one ought to act) you must defend.

·        Identify, in detail, the moral position you must oppose.

·        Show how these positions support contradictory moral judgments.

  1. Identify the arguments in favor of your position.

·        Identify those ethical theories that support your position

·        Identify those reasons why the principles involved in your moral position are more important or stronger than those of your opposition.

  1. Identify the arguments in favor of your opposition’s position.

·        Identify those ethical theories that they might use to support their position. 

·        Identify the arguments and theories they might use to suggest that their moral position is stronger or more important than yours.

  1. Identify the objections to each position.

·        Identify the objections you might make to your opposition’s moral position and their ethical arguments.  Anticipate possible responses.

·        Identify the objections the opposition might make to your moral position and ethical arguments.  How do you respond to these objections?

Two main kinds of reasons can be offered as evidence to justify an ethical decision. You can offer reasons based on (a) the effects of the decision and (b) reasons based on relevant ethical principles. a responsible decision regarding a personal ethical problem should emerge from careful evaluation of both kinds of reasons both for and against all the available options.

Step 1 involves the formulation of each moral position (moral reasoning).  Steps 2 through 4 involve ways to support and object to each position (ethical reasoning).  It is important that you provide arguments in favor of both positions.  This allows you to provide objections to the opposing position and prepare for objections from them.


The Preparation Document:  This document, a draft of which must be supplied to the instructor no later than the day of the debate, prior to the beginning of the debate, should be around three to four pages in length. After the actual debate, you will revise this document, and hand in the revisions during the next class meeting. It should include the following:

The Jury’s Preparation Document:  The jury must submit a preparation document as well.  This document must include an analysis and criticism of each position. A draft will be handed in before the debate; this will be revised (including the decision on how to act), and passed in the next class day. It should include the following:

The Debate Structure

Our debate structure will be modeled after the L-D debate format, also known as a “values” debate.  L-D is an acronym for “Lincoln-Douglas,” referring to the famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.    For those familiar with this type of debate, our format is similar, but not identical to the classic LD format.

The debate focuses on a particular resolution.  For instance, “Resolved:  The government should give up its war on drugs and focus on legalizing and regulating drugs and drug use.”  Usually, the resolution is the judgment supported by the pro-position.

Part 1:  The Pro-position:  This is where the pro-position gives a brief speech supporting the moral judgment, or resolution.  Use your key moral and ethical arguments in formulating the pro-position.  This should be, at most, three minutes in length.

Part 2:  Cross Examination of Pro-Position:  The members of the con-position can make objections and ask critical questions of the pro-position members.  Pro-position members give responses (based on their ethical arguments and prepared responses).  The con-members can then object to these responses.  This will be, at most, fifteen minutes in length.

Part 3:  The Con-Position:  This is the same as part 1, but for the con-position.  As with the pro-position, the speech should be at most three minutes in length.

Part 4:  Cross Examination of Con-Position:  This is the same as part 2, but for the pro-position (fifteen minutes in length).

Part 5:  Jury Cross Examination:  The jury asks critical questions of each group.  These questions should be both pre-prepared and based on comments or arguments made during the debate.  This will be no more than fifteen minutes in length.

Part 6:  Jury Decision:  The jury will vote individually and give reasons for their vote.  The jury will be judged on how well they justify their decision.  Decisions should be thoughtful, reflective and make substantive reference to the arguments given in the debate.

Review criteria:  The following criteria are used to evaluate preparation for and participation in the debate.  Note that the number values are not used in the computation of the grade.  The numbers are used to give you a general idea of your areas of strength and the areas in which you need work.

Preparation Document:

Analysis of moral position*

3:  Excellent understanding of each moral position, as well as the moral dilemma.  Highly insightful and complete.

2:  Good understanding of each moral position and dilemma.

1:  Less than adequate understanding of each moral position.  Incomplete or lacking in sufficient insight.

Ethical theories and arguments*

3:  Excellent understanding and explication of the ethical theories and arguments for your position. 

2:  Good understanding of relevant ethical theories and arguments.

1:  Less than adequate or incomplete understanding of ethical theories and arguments.

Prepared criticisms and questions*

            3:  Insightful, challenging criticisms of opposition.

            2:  Adequate criticisms, but nothing the opposition can’t handle.

1:  Less than adequate questions, either lacking in number or critical insight.

Prepared responses

3:  Excellent anticipation of critical questions, as well as insightful, defensible responses.

2:  Adequate anticipation and response.

1:  Either inadequate anticipation, inadequate response or both.

Debate Execution


3:  Substantial, informed participation by all group members.

2:  Adequate participation by each member, but with varying degrees of substance.

1:  Inadequate participation.  Either no participation by some group members or obvious “token” participation.

Cross Examination*

3:  Excellent, relevant criticisms and questions of the opposition’s constructive.

2:  Adequate criticisms and questions of opposition’s constructive.

1:  Less than adequate criticisms and questions


3:  Excellent, confident response to questions and criticisms

2:  Adequate response to questions and criticisms

1:  Inadequate response.  Either fumbled or unconvincing.

Response to Jury

3:  Excellent, confident response to questions and criticisms

2:  Adequate response to questions and criticisms

1:  Inadequate response.  Either fumbled or unconvincing.

Jury Decision (jury only)

3:  Decision based on insightful comments, making substantive reference to the debate.  Each jury member offers unique insights into decision

2:  Decision based on adequate comments.  Some repetition in jury member insights.  Possible moderate reference to debate.

1:  Less than adequate justification of decision.  Repetition in jury insights.  No real substantive reference to debate.

Those sections marked with an asterisk (*) are used to evaluate jury, as well as pro and con.  Each group member will receive an evaluation sheet addressing each of these considerations, in addition to general comments about their preparation and execution.  If you have any additional questions about your evaluation, it is your responsibility to contact the instructor.