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Thursday, November 1, 2018

How to debate #1 - defining the motion


Whoever speaks first in a debate (first proposition) gets to define the motion. Your opponents have no choice but to accept your definition, even if they don’t like it / don’t agree with it. So being given first proposition is a bit like winning the toss in cricket or tennis, or getting white in chess. You get to set the terms; you decide what it is you will be debating about.

How can you make the most of this advantage?

Fencers stand sideways on, to minimise the area in which their opponents can attack them. In the same way, the best motion definitions will be tight, focused, and precise, to minimise the areas in which your opponents can attack you. A tight and focused definition also allows you to develop your proposition much more fully and thoroughly.

However, before you can define the motion, you first need to analyse it.

You need to understand what kind of motion it is.

Is it a policy motion, i.e. one concerned with changing what happens in the world? 

Policy motions usually begin: ‘This house would …’ 

They call for either 

  • something to be done that isn’t being done

  • something that is being done to be done differently

Examples of policy motions are:

  • This house would give every citizen a universal basic income

  • This house would impose a 20 mph speed limit in all built up areas


Policy motions are usually concerned with the status quo. This is a Latin term meaning ‘the situation at the moment’. They want to either:

A Introduce a new situation which does not currently exist in the status quo: ’This house would give every citizen a universal basic income’ is an example of this. No country in the world has a universal basic income at the moment, so this would be an innovation, something which does not exist in the status quo.

or:

B Adapt the status quo: ‘This house would introduce a 20 mph speed limit in all built up areas’ is an example of this. Speed limits already exist, and are part of the status quo; the proposal is to change the status quo by making them stricter

In other words, policy motions are about either innovating or changing


If you’re proposing an innovation, you need in your definition to answer these questions:

  1. What form would your innovation take?

  1. How would it be brought into being?

  1. What would its scope be?

So, if the motion is ‘This house would give every citizen a universal basic income’,  you need to explain:

  1. How much would the universal basic income be? (The minimum wage at 40 hours a week? The living wage at 40 hours a week? Current Universal Credit?)

  1. How would it be funded? (Taxes? National Insurance? Abolishing all benefit payments and replacing them with universal basic income?)

  1. Who would count as a citizen? (Everyone with citizenship rights over the age of 18? Or over 25? Or over 30? Or people who have already paid a certain amount of tax?)



If you’re proposing changing the status quo, you need in your definition to answer these questions:

  1. What will be changed?

  1. What will be the scope of the change?

  1. How will this change be implemented?


So, if the motion is ‘This house would reduce speed limits to 20 mph in built up areas’, you need to explain:

  1. What counts as a built up area? (All cities? Where are the boundaries? Residential areas? What do you mean by residential?)

  1. Who will it apply to? (Cars? Motorbikes? Superfit cyclists? Will emergency services be exempt?)

  1. How will the new law be enforced? (Speed cameras? Will offenders be fined? How much? Will they have endorsements on their licence?)

In both cases, the more questions (and answers) you (and your debating partner) can think of in the preparation stage, the more precisely defined your motion will be, the easier it will be to propose, and the easier it will be to defend against attack.


Alternatively, it might be an ideas motion, i.e. one concerned with changing what people think.

Ideas motions usually begin with: ‘This house believes …’

Examples of ideas motions are:

  • This house believes that money does not bring happiness

  • This house believes that society is still sexist

For motions of ideas, you do not need to explain what action you would take.

Instead, you need to define how you understand the meaning of the words.

So, for ‘This house believes that money does not bring happiness’, you need to explain:

  • What do you mean by ‘happiness’? (Emotional well-being? A sense of purpose? Feeling loved? Having a good relationship with God?)

  • What do you mean by ‘money’? (Everyone needs some money to survive - do you mean having more than this does not bring happiness? Do you mean having too much gets in the way of happiness? How much is too much?)

In the case of ‘This house believes society is still sexist’, you need to explain:
  • What do you mean by ‘society’? (Formal institutions such as the media, the justice system and education? The world of work? Or the way that people interact with each other in everyday life?)

  • What do you mean by ‘sexist’? (Discrimination with a practical impact, e.g. unequal pay. women being denied promotion etc.? Attitudes expressed in speech, writing and the media which demean women? Or institutional structures, e.g. laws about parental leave?)

Again, the more questions (and answers) you (and your debating partner) can think of in the preparation stage, the more precisely defined your motion will be, the easier it will be to propose, and the easier it will be to defend against attack.

So, when you’re defining:

  • Be specific and precise
  • Pay attention to detail; anticipate problems
  • Be clear about what you think words mean

And one last thing … once you’ve defined your motion, make sure you and your partner stick consistently to that definition all through the debate.

Now you’ve defined the motion, you have to argue for it. But that’s another post for another week.





















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