Value Theory: Creating Order from Chaos

There's one word that sums up the stigma of high-school value debate.


Many competitors (and even judges) find value debate unapproachable. For years, theory wars have stayed in policy (counter-plans are cool! counter-plans should die!) while value theory has become an abandoned wasteland.

Anything Says Goes

"A value is the highest good in the round!"
"Vote for me because my case is foundational to the resolution!"

People fail to understand value theory not because it's confusing, but because the explanations they were given were never good enough.

That's I'm starting this textbook discourse on values. Whether you're a competitor, parent, or coach, a strong grasp of value theory is deeply satisfying.

Here's What Values Are

The most important argument class in the round is the value. A value is an external measure for the resolution. It gives us a way to know whether or not the resolution is true.

Values aren't strange inventions made by debate league founders.
Within every decision people make, values are present. We unknowingly assume them all the time!

   "I'm gonna take the interstate instead of the backroads." 
   (You used efficiency to decide, not scenery.)

   "I'm gonna order take-out instead of cooking a meal at home."
   (You used convenience to choose, instead of cost.)

Values answer the question: "How do we decide?"

   Resolved: Nationalism is better than globalism. How do we choose between them?
   Resolved: Preemptive warfare is morally justified. How do we know what's morally justified?

Without Values, Debate is Chaos: 

Affirmative: “Freedom is great! Safety isn’t as great!”
Negative: “No, safety is the greatest! Freedom is secondary!”

At the end of the round, the judge might as well flip a coin. They don't have any way to make a decision. 

Let's give them one. For this resolution, a value of “Life” might be useful.

We’ll see which best protects human life. If freedom saves the most lives, vote for freedom. If safety saves the most, vote for safety.” With this standard, the debate becomes less arbitrary. It allows us to build a syllogism.

The principles in question should be measured according to Life.
Freedom does not uphold Life.
Safety upholds Life.

Therefore, safety is more important than freedom.

An Ideological Yardstick

Picture the classic doorpost on which the growth of a child is marked. You can see how tall he was on each birthday when he lost his first tooth, his first day at school, etc. One day, the boy gets into an argument with his buddy. The buddy says he’s lost 5 inches since his birthday.


This is debate without a value. But when one of the kids says: “I know how to settle this. Let’s look at the doorpost.” The child in question stands next to the doorpost, and now it’s a simple matter of comparing his current height to the mark made on his birthday.

If we use Individual Rights as the value, we create an objective yardstick. Then we stand freedom and security next to it and see where they stand. Freedom is an individual right, so it gets a ten of ten. Security can help preserve rights, but it may also threaten them if taken too far. Security gets a three. 

Thanks to the value, we have a logical reason to say that freedom is more important than safety.