Debate Topics

You can either pick a partner and choose your topic together, or pick a topic and post it on the sign-up sheet (to be announced on Sakai) in the hopes that someone else picks the same (or similar) topic. In the latter case, it might be safer to pick two topics. Your choices are not final until someone else also signs up for the same topic. That's one advantage of finding a debate partner ahead of time.

On the designated day, I'll flip a coin and each person will have up to five minutes to present either the For or Against position. This means, of course, that you have to prepare both sides beforehand. You don't have to say a lot; you just need to be able to outline the arguments for your assigned position. It might only take you one or two minutes.

You must have your position chosen by the coin flip.

After both people have spoken, I'll give you a chance to state what you really believe, if you feel you were stuck defending a position you did not agree with. This is entirely optional, however.

If your debate partner doesn't show up, you can still go ahead with your side.

Numbers in the [bracket] represent an estimate of the class week in the course (1-12) by which we'll have covered the relevant material. If you go earlier, you'll need to explain a bit of background too (or perhaps I will).

Sample topic: Cultural Ethical Relativism is a workable ethical theory.

For: We can only judge the ethical rules of other cultures by placing them in the context of those cultures. Cultural mores and values depend on cultural experience. To understand justice and freedom in other cultures -- for example, China -- we must first understand those cultures, and how they work socially. Europe places a higher value on privacy than on freedom of speech, as compared to the United States. Europe also has many more rules forbidding "hate speech". This difference is due, in part, to the European experience in the World Wars, when demagoguery and governmental intrusions of privacy were the norm. At least some Chinese intellectuals have argued that freedom of expression is a negative in the light of the goal of broad social cohesion and egalitarianism.

If you ask people to rank a variety of customs, they will almost always rank the customs of their own culture first. In particular, people's views on ethical mores and values cannot be separated from their cultural background.

Against: First, basic human freedoms are universal. Freedom of political expression in China today is quite limited (as it is in many countries). Cultures may negotiate the details of freedom of speech, with respect, say, to privacy or defamation or calls to violence, but throughout Europe and the United States citizens are free to criticize their governments and social institutions. Such feedback is important for governmental legitimacy.

For the larger moral issues there is a great deal of unanimity across cultures: it is wrong to harm innocent people, or to deprive them of their property.

Finally, the claim in the first sentence of the For argument is not the slightest bit relative. It is a blanket rule: we should not judge people in other cultures. As such, it contradicts the principle of relativism!


Co1: [3] File sharers are really stealing from those who purchase content legally, not from the artists themselves.

Co2: [4] Consumer ISPs should be legally required to assist the RIAA and MPAA in their anti-piracy investigations and prosecutions.

Co3: [5] The government should make significant personal copyright infringement (eg movie file-sharing) a criminal offense, in order to preserve the viability of the copyright incentive to creativity.

Co5: [5] The DMCA takedown process represents a fair compromise between the needs of content owners and the needs of websites hosting user-contributed content. (Note that the "disagree" position can argue that the process is unfair to owners, or to websites, or even to both.)


Pr1: [6] Blanket government surveillance is worth it because it makes us all safer, by allowing the government a chance to detect terrorist plots ahead of time.

Pr2: [6] The information-collecting practices of Facebook and Google should be closely regulated by the government.

Pr3: [6] The European notion of a "right to be forgotten", and to have your name removed from Google's search results, is an important aspect of personal freedom.

Pr5: [6] Messaging apps that implement unbreakable end-to-end encryption should be disallowed; operators of messaging systems must always be able to turn over user conversations when served with an appropriate warrant.


S1: [8] Section 230 protection should not extend to "gossip" sites like that encourage salacious contributions.

S2: [9] It should be illegal to publish source code for computer viruses, or related documentation.

S4: [9] EU courts should be able to demand that objectionable content be taken down worldwide, even when hosted by US providers.

S5: [9] It should be unquestionably legal to publish information about how to defeat DRM and other copy-protection mechanisms.

S6: [8] People should have the right to have false information about them removed from websites, or corrected.

S7: [8] Sites such as Facebook and Google are biased against certain viewpoints (such as conservative viewpoints), and this should be addressed through legislation.


Pt1: [10] We can fix the patent system by creating consistent standards for the Patent Office to follow when reviewing technology patents, and requiring a reasonable threshold of innovation. (The disagree side sort of has to assume something is broken with the patent system.)

Pt2: [10] Thomas Campana came up with a really innovative idea and the patent system should reward him. (Look him up in the notes.)

Pt3: [10] Protections for intellectual property are essential for encouraging technological innovation and thus the tech industry's contributions to society.


Cr1: [11] Terry Childs' conviction for refusing to turn over his password was completely appropriate.

Cr2: [11] David Carruthers, CEO of, was a danger to society.

Miscellaneous / Other

M1: [1] Facebook's Free Basics Internet in India and other countries is an important first step in bringing the Internet to everyone.

M2: Amazon is anticompetitive and should be broken up.