Essay:Forfeiture of debate

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Forfeiture of a debate occurs when one side refuses to abide by the customary rules of debate. For example, since debates use logic and evidence to determine which argument is the most reasonable and has the most truth on its side, stating that one does not need evidence (i.e. that the person asserting a position has no burden of proof) or that logic is unimportant constitutes forfeiting the debate.

There are many other ways in which people can be said to have forfeited debates. The reductio ad Hitlerum is an oft-cited example; one site notes, "It is generally accepted that whoever is the first to play the 'Hitler card' has lost the argument as well as any trace of respect, as having to resort to comparing your adversary to the most infamous mass-murdering dictator in history generally means you've run out of better arguments. Thus, once such a comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress."[1] A similar example is ZackMartin's Law, which states, "In any debate, the first person to call someone a 'troll' automatically loses the argument." Such ad hominem arguments and appeals to motive are such blatant fallacies that they can be reasonably construed to indicate that the person has lost interest in serious discussion, perhaps because he has realized that he cannot win by the strength of the logic and evidence on his side.


A debate is considered forfeited by an arguer when he declines to refute an opponent's arguments when he has the opportunity, and then prevents that opponent from making any further arguments. Wikipedia notes, "An argument is normally considered dropped if it is not answered in the speech in which the opposing team has the first opportunity to answer it. Generally, in the first affirmative rebuttal, the speaker is required to answer all arguments made so far by the negative team. This is because if the affirmative chooses to respond to the arguments in the second affirmative rebuttal, it is abusive to the negative because the affirmative gets the last speech, leaving the neg with no way to refute any argument made."[2]

People can be considered to forfeit any debates in which they resort to censorship of dissident views. Thus, Stalin could, according to the normal rules of debate, be said to have lost all arguments in which anti-socialists made statements against his regime and were sent to the gulag for it. He did not win those debates by argumentum ad baculum; the use of a fallacious argument, e.g. "agree with me or go to the gulag," cannot be chalked up as a victory, except to the extent that might makes right. It is one thing to decline to debate because of a lack of time to engage in the debate, or a lack of interest in the debate, or so on. It is quite another matter to suppress others' expression of dissident opinions; this is such an unnecessary impingement on free, full and open discussion as to make it accurate and just to conclude that the censors have lost the argument.

Significance of forfeiting a debate

Of course, neither a dictator nor a democratic majority need pay any attention to the customary rules of debate. They are free to make whatever policies they wish, regardless of whether the reasoning behind those policies has been refuted, or whether economic law suggests that the outcomes of their policies will be contrary to purpose. The only consolation that the dissidents have, when the other side has forfeited the debate by cheating, is that they are in the right, and have won the debate according to the rules by which discussions are to be conducted if they are to be productive. It may seem like a hollow victory, but sometimes it is all there is. It is up to future generations to realize the mistake that has been made and that the dissident was correct. This, of course, assumes that any record of the dissident's protest remains; since the winners write the history books, it is quite possible that in many cases all trace that a dissent ever occurred will be destroyed.

One is reminded of the statement by Charles E. Hughes that "a dissent in a court of last resort is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed."[3] Ayn Rand writes, "Consciously or not, in the mind of any rebel in Soviet Russia, particularly of the young, there is only one court of final appeal against the injustice, the brutality, the sadistic horror of the inhuman social system in which they are trapped: abroad. . . . It is not that one hopes for material help or liberation to come from 'abroad'; it is that such a place exists. The mere knowledge that a nobler way of life is possible somewhere, redeems the human race in one's mind. And when, in moments of despair or final extremity, one cries out in protest, that cry is not consciously addressed to anyone, only to whatever justice might exist in the universe at large; but, subconsciously, the universe at large is 'abroad.'"[4]


  1. TV Tropes. "Godwin's Law". 
  2. wikipedia:Drop (policy debate)
  3. Hughes, Charles Evans (1928). The Supreme Court of the United States. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co.. pp. 68. 
  4. Rand, Ayn. "The "Inexplicable Personal Alchemy"". The New Left.