Donald W. Klopf and James C. McCroskey

The ethics of both-sides debate has been a subject of considerable controversy. No attempt, however, seems to have been made to discover how the nation's debate coaches feel about this subject. A survey of coaches was conducted and its results reported here. The results support the contention that this controversy is finished. A more important one perhaps exists: the pedagogical value of two-sides debate.

Our intention is not to continue the controversy on the ethics of debating both sides; our intention is to call for an end to it. We think the dispute is pau--finished! Debating both sides is ethical!

The battle flared syllogistic with skill and art eristic during the past several years. Most speech educators and debate mentors are familiar with the arguments.1 As we view it, the controversy revolves between those supporting the absolute ethic, as applied to debate as public speaking, and those supporting the relative ethic, as applied to debate as a pedagogical device.

Those who favor the absolute ethic, and oppose debating both sides, contend, in the words of Richard Murphy, that debate

. . . is a form of public speaking. A public statement is a public commitment. Before one takes the platform, he should study the question, he should discuss it until he knows where he stands. Then he should take that stand. If, in the course of the long-term debate, one finds that he has changed his conviction, he is free to cross the floor, to change his party, to do what seems consistent with his honest conviction.2

Murphy continues in this vein with a Beveridge quotation. "Never under any circumstances or for any reward tell an audience what you, yourself, do not believe or are even indifferent about. To do so is immoral and worse--it is to be a public liar."3 So speak the absolutists.

Those who favor the relative ethic, and consequently support shift-sides debating, challenge the absolutists as they argue that tournament debates

. . . are educational in nature. Here the people debating are merely using the resolution as a means of developing and displaying their talents in the effective use of argumentation. The audience is interested in the debate primarily as a debate and is not necessarily concerned with the topic itself at all.4

The debaters speak not on the public platform but usually before audiences of experts whose task it is to listen as observers "of the relative skill with which the contending debaters marshall evidence and reasoning in support of their respective positions."5 So speak the relativists.

In brief, the absolutists consider shift-sides debate unethical because it is public speaking and as such the debater should support only that which he believes is right. The relativists feel that both-sides debate is ethical because it is not public speaking but rather is a training activity designed to prepare students to be public speakers. This controversy, perhaps, is similar to killing in war. The absolutists would argue that taking life in war is a violation of the Commandment "thou shalt not kill" and thus is unethical. The relativists would contend that killing under the circumstances of war does not violate this Commandment and thus is ethical.

Ethics, as defined by Dewey and Tufts, "is the science that deals with conduct, insofar as this is considered as right or wrong, good or bad."6 The key word here, we believe, is considered. And for the debating both sides problem, considered by whom? To us, considered by those closet to the problem, those who face the reality of the problem, the nation's debate coaches.

To determine how the coaches feel about debate ethics, we conducted a survey during the spring of 1963. The procedure and complete results were reported at the SAA convention in Denver and have been submitted for publication elsewhere.7 Pertinent here are the results recorded on item number 34 of the questionnaire.

The questionnaire was sent to 363 American Forensic Association members who were college teachers and coaches of debate, and to the sponsors of the 195 largest National Forensic League chapters. These educators were asked to decide whether item 34 was (1) ethical and good debate procedure, (2) ethical but bad procedure, (3) questionable, or (4) unethical. Item number 34 reads: "Debaters being required to debate both sides of a proposition." The 393 respondents replied as follows:

1. Ethical and Good Debate 90% 95%
2. Ethical But Poor Debate 3 1
3. Questionable 3 1
4. Unethical 4 3

Only 3.5% of the total group believe debating both sides is unethical. While the study did not cover all of the nation's debate instructors, the overwhelming collective opinion of a sample of this size leads us to contend that the controversy is truly pau!

One of the writers went a step further. During the 1962-63 academic year he surveyed the directors of the nation's intercollegiate speech tournaments to discover what practices were being followed in their tournaments. He found that only 18% of the 210 tournaments for which he received responses exclusively employed unit debate (i.e., four debaters, two of whom debate affirmative, two of whom debate negative).8 This figure is evidence to us that most tournament directors favor switch-sides debate.

These studies reveal that the relative ethic has been accepted by a large number of those involved directly with academic debate. Their opinions and their actions indicate that they believe switch-sides debating is ethical.

We would hold with the absolutists for public speaking and public debates. We suspect that most of the coaches we surveyed would also. But we agree with the relativists that tournament debate is not public speaking. It is, as Windes puts it, "gamesmanship applied to argumentation, not the trivial and amusing gamesmanship often thought of, but sober, realistic, important gamesmanship . . . "9 This game has special rules which require the debater to develop the best possible case for his side regardless of his personal opinion. He will in fact usually be criticized if he includes his personal opinion. The presence of this gamesmanship and these rules removes academic debating from the classification of public speaking, and its absolute ethic.

This debating game can be likened to the war game conducted by the armed forces. The war game is training for war, but it is conducted under certain rules in an atmosphere unlike that found in a real war. It is a training exercise in which the soldier is evaluated by trained observers, like the debater. In actual war, the soldier is evaluated by the enemy under fire; in public debate the debater is evaluated by the real audience.

During their respective training exercises the soldier and the debater are evaluated primarily on the basis of their ability to use the approved and appropriate techniques to overcome their opponents. These techniques are the ones that later may save the soldier's life or may assist the debater to convince his audience.

In brief, the game is not real life, it is training for real life. In academic debate neither the speaker nor the audience can be likened to their counterparts in a regular public speaking situation. For both speaker and audience, the purpose is different, the technique is different.

The Directors of Forensics of the Western Conference Universities attempt to explain the nature of academic debate. They state that the audience for a tournament debate is usually one "expert" judge who

. . . will seek to apply rigorous standards for the use of evidence and reasoning to the argument which he criticizes . . . By placing such specific emphasis upon the use of skills of reasoned discourse, tournament debating may contribute uniquely to the development of these skills.10

This pedagogical device is clearly outside the realm of public address. They indicate

the skills developed in tournament debating do not comprise the whole of the rhetorical skills needed by a student for effective participation in the public address of American Society . . . The fact that students have achieved proficiency in competitive advocacy of tournament debating does not, in itself, qualify these students for appearance in public debates before general audiences . . . . The skills developed in tournament debate are partial skills.11

We would suggest that to apply the absolute ethic of public speaking to academic debating would be to require total public speaking skills to be taught in tournament debate, or before tournament debate. This is both impractical and unreasonable.

Whether academic debate is pedagogically sound is another question. Some vigorously contend that is not.12 They could be correct in their opinion. Appropriate experimental study could provide insight into this question. One such study tends to indicate that the switch-sides aspect of the game has desirable effects on the students involved.13 However, much more study will be needed before an accurate pedagogical evaluation of present day debating can be achieved.

Whatever one's opinion of the pedagogical value of present academic debating procedure may be, the fact remains that present academic debate is a game with special rules which remove it from the area of public speaking. Possibly it should not be so. Nevertheless, it is. The absolute ethic is made inapplicable by these circumstances.

The relative ethic has been accepted by a large majority of those involved directly with academic debate. Both by their opinions and their actions they believe switch-sides debating is ethical. So do we.

The controversy over the ethics of debating both sides is pau! The controversy over the pedagogical value of debating both sides hardly has begun.


1. The principle arguments are thoroughly covered in the two Murphy articles, "The Ethics of Debating Both Sides," Speech Teacher, VI (January 1957), 1-9, and "The Ethics of Debating Both Sides II," Speech Teacher, XII (September 1963), 241-47.

2. "The Ethics of Debating Both Sides." Speech Teacher, VI (January 1957), 2.

3. Ibid.

4. James C. McCroskey, "Still More Debate Over Debate," The Forensic of Pi Kappa Delta, XLVIII (October 1962), 7. See also Robert B. Capel and George Cariker, "A Debate Code of Ethics," The Forensic of Pi Kappa Delta, XLVIII (October 1962), item 25, p. 7, and Robert P. Newman, The Pittsburgh Code for Academic Debate (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), item 2, p. 7.

5. Donald K. Smith, "Debating Both Sides," Speech Teacher, VI (November 1957), 336.

6. John Dewey and James A. Tufts, Ethics (New York 1910), 1. (Italics ours).

7. The NFL responses will be published in the NFL Rostrum. The AFA responses have been submitted for publication to the Journal of the American Forensic Association.

8. The details may be obtained from the writers.

9. Russel R. Windes, Jr., "Competitive Debating: The Speech Program, the Individual, and Society," Speech Teacher, IX (March 1960), 100.

10. "A Statement on the Place of Tournament Debating in Speech Education," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XL (December 1954), 435-439.

11. Ibid.

12. See Douglas Ehninger, "The Debate About Debating," Quarterly Journal of Speech, XLIV (April 1958), 128-136.

13. Donald Sikkink, "Evidence on the Both Sides Debate Controversy," Speech Teacher, XI (January 1962), 51-54.

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