What is debate?

Debate is a method of education, focusing on intellectual contest with specific rules for a stronger argument. We consider debating to be one of the most effective tools for disseminating and teaching democratic values as the central issues are comprehensive argument, tolerance towards different worldviews, and skilful self-expression. Combining all three in a good debate provides us the opportunity to analyze the controversial topics of our society, without using manipulation to attract attention. Debates do not look for “the one true answer” to controversial issues, but rather seek to find all sorts of arguments and views on different sides.

Nowadays debate is generally seen as a pithy argument that emphasises argumentative reasoning opposed to demagogy. However Estonian Debating Society acts in a narrower field which can be defined through three elements:

  • Debate is a formal contest of argumentation according to specific rules.

  • Motion that is debated has been provided and the sides are drawn.

  • Debate ends with a decision made by an impartial judge.

Debate is a formal contest which follows specific rules

General rules determine how many teams participate in a debate, how many members are in a team, in which order do the debaters speak and how long are the speeches, also whether questions can be asked and other relevant procedures that have to be followed during a debate.

There are a lot of different debate formats in the world, all of them have a different set of rules, however the main goal behind them is to grant an equal opportunity for both teams, to present their case.

Motion (statement) that is debated has been pre-determined and the sides are drawn.

There are a lot more potential debate topics then debate rules. The content of a debate can also vary between different topics. For example a policy debate might include a case with a hypothetical draft bill (Estonia should implement a professional military system). In the case of a value debate, whether something in its core is good or bad can be argued (Death penalty should be justified). A similarity among debate motions is the fact, that good arguments can be presented by both sides and that gives all the participating teams equal opportunities to win.

Because the sides of a debate are drawn, the debaters might not be able to support their own personal viewpoint. Second of all, teams do not have a chance to compromise; they are obligated to stand by their side till the end of a debate. It is crucial to understand that all of this is done for educational purposes. Presenting opposed viewpoints, teaches critical thinking and analytical skills. The fact that the sides are decided through a draw, reduces the emotional side of a debate and enables to defend a case with less personal input.

Argumentation means defending one’s statements, through a certain system. An argument is divided into four parts: statement, explanation, evidence and conclusion. When an idea is presented in this form it no longer is just a claim, but an argument.

Debate concludes with a decision made by an impartial judge

A debate usually has a winner. The decision is made based on the materials presented in a debate not on the personal beliefs or knowledge of the judge. The decision and the rationale behind it are important in order to provide feedback for the debaters. It shows how the audience understood their ideas, what was good and what could be improved in a debate. Without the judge’s decision the educational process would not be carried out.. It is similar to essays and tests in school without any feedback or correction of mistakes. However it has to be emphasised, that winning is not the main goal. 

The decision made at the end of a debate is not the absolute truth, another judge might evaluate that debate in a different way. The debater’s role is to persuade the judges listening to them at that moment.