Three Ways to Test a Value

A good value meets three standards:

1. External

The value is supposed to measure the resolution. You can’t define “sheep” with the word “sheep,” you can’t describe the length of a truck as “one truck long,” and you can’t measure a resolution with itself. For the value to work, it has to be something against which the resolution can be compared. The value could be related, but it can’t be part of the resolution.

This will usually be obvious.

   Resolution: National security is more important than privacy.
   Value: National Safety
   Translation: "How do we choose between national security and privacy? I know! National safety!"

Most debaters who see this jump to the response: "Circular Reasoning!" They're right, but there's an easier explanation to give your judge: 

"The value tells us how to choose a side. My opponent just asked you to use his side to pick between the two of us, and that makes no sense. It's like saying we can pick between Mexican and Italian restaurants by seeing which ones have more Mexican cuisine. Any value needs to be external, and that's why I've given you mine: Life."

2. Measurable

A value must not be so abstract, inane, or universal that it cannot be used as a philosophical measuring stick. Values like Truth, Destiny, or Humanity are unsuitable for most debates. They’re just too abstract – or too broad – to be useful for the judge.

Measurability can also tell us why running certain values, like justice, is so difficult. When a value lends itself to a variety of meanings, (think justice) we say that the value is ambiguous. Here's an example:

   Resolution: Rehabilitating criminals is moral.

   Value: Justice
   C-1 Rehab is Just (it lowers crime!)

   Here's a valid negative case:

   Value: Justice
   C-1 Rehab is Unjust (the bad guys get off easy!)

In this scenario, the judge is going to have a hard time measuring the value. Does it mean lowering crime or following rule of law? Both debaters will say "my side is just!", but that's meaningless: the judge has no of knowing when justice is being violated or protected.

A hyper-precise definition can fix that, but in general, it's better to start with a value that is measurable on its face. Let's edit the aff case:

   Value: Crime Reduction
   C-1 Rehab Lowers Crime

   And for neg:

   Value: Rule of Law
   C-1 Rehab Ignores the Law

Boom. Measurable values. Now we can tell when they're being upheld or ignored. Let's look at one more attribute:

3. Specific

Every resolution is different. Why should they be measured the same way? Perhaps one of the most insidious misconceptions about values is that they must be the highest concept (or "highest good") in the round. If that were true, the only appropriate value would be Will of God. Nothing could be higher than that! 

But the Will of God doesn’t speak directly to many issues. We need something lower and more specific, like Peace. Values should mirror the moral charges of the resolution. With an immoral resolution like “Being blind is worse than being deaf,” you need a value to measure how bad sensory loss can be, like Missed Experiences. That’s not a very high value, but it is external, measurable, and specific.

That having been said, it can be appropriate for a debater to defend his value on the grounds that it is higher, more important, more foundational to society, etc – as long as the resolution is moral (as opposed to amoral or immoral), and the value is sufficiently specific. Values should be carefully defined as soon as they are presented, even if the meaning seems obvious. Debaters have a way of getting into the tiny little details of their opponent’s value. Be prepared.