What We Owe to Each Other


Laws, policies, and programs are morally justifiable only insofar as they can be judged reasonably acceptable from the perspective of every member of society regardless of their individual circumstances and broader social distinctions such as gender, race, and class.

Topic Statement

In his book “What We Owe to Each Other,” the philosopher T. M. Scanlon famously framed the moral requirements of social life in terms of the justifiability of one’s actions in relation to general rules of conduct that “no one reasonably could reject.” In doing so, Scanlon eschewed Rawls’ famous concept of the “veil of ignorance” and the affirmative criterion of judgment it imposed.  Rather than asking, as Rawls had, what any abstract, hypothetical rational agent would choose, in relation to the rules and structures to be put into place, tabula rasa, as it were, for the creation of a new society; Scanlon asks, what rules and structures of social interaction could be identified and adopted under present conditions without any reasonable objection by all of the actually existing, concretely situated moral agents making up the real world, with all of the differentiations of circumstance and perspective entailed thereby.

In terms of both individual moral agents’ respective judgments regarding the acceptability of potential regulations for their conduct and society’s adjudication among those individual judgments, by which moral consensus and regulative justification are to be sought according to Scanlon’s view, everything hinges on the question of what counts as reasonable. Only genuinely reasonable objections count against the justifiability of moral, social, or political regulations.  And this further implies that moral agency – which, for Scanlon, is the foundational basis for the values of moral respect and moral dessert – necessarily involves the capacity for reasonability as specified within the terms of the theory.  Unreasonable objections may be discounted.  Unreasonable voices may be ignored.

Here, the question of legitimacy as theorized by Scanlon is reframed in relation to particular political societies, rather than to human society in general.  That is to say, Scanlon’s framework has been adapted into a politically and culturally specific form as a conceptual means for exploring the conditions of legitimacy, justice, and, perhaps, peace. Given this reframing, debaters are tasked with alternately defending and/or contesting the correctness of Scanlon’s contractualist conception of political legitimacy as a means of establishing the moral justifiability of particular laws, policies, and programs.


Debaters will register as individuals and will be paired with a Colombian/American counterpart for the duration of the series. Registration for U.S. participants is limited to US university students (including both undergraduate and graduate students). Registration for Colombian participants is limited to Colombian citizens who are university students or recent university graduates (last 5 years). 

To register click here. Registration closes September 20.  Spaces are limited and will be assigned on a first come, first serve basis.

Key Program Details

Participating debaters must be able to debate in both Spanish and English.

Registration closes September 20, 2019. Debaters register as individuals (rather than as teams) and as either U.S. or Colombian citizens.

On September 21st, registered debaters will be assigned either a U.S. or Colombian partner to form international partnerships and will receive materials orienting them to the topic. In late September and early October, four online debates will be organized as preparation for the in-person championships on October 18-19.

For our championship in Bogota, we are making plans to host eight two-person U.S./Colombian teams. Tournament meals and trophies will be provided. There are no fees for participating Colombian students and universities. Fees for US universities will be set based on program costs excluding the cost of the study tour prize funded by the GWU Peace Studies Program.

Key Program Dates 

September 20: Registration deadline 

September 21: U.S./ Colombian partnerships announced 

October 1: 1-on-1 debates with partners due 

October 8: 2-on-2 debates due

October 18-19:  What We Owe Each Other Championships in Bogota, Colombia

February 28-March 1: The two Colombian debaters advancing to the championship round will win study tours to Washington D.C. where they will continue their exploration of our topic and U.S. debate culture.

Online Debates: Rules & Format

Specific instructions for the online debates will be emailed to participating debaters. The general format is outlined below.

There will be two stages of online debates.  First, there will be two 1-on-1 debates between partners each lasting 20 minutes.  Second there will be two 2-on-2 online debates each lasting 36 minutes.

Two 1-on-1 online debates between partners occurring anytime between Sept 21st and Oct 1st. To promote individual preparation by both debaters, as well as to introduce partners to each other and to each other’s language skills in both Spanish and English, the first round of online debates will be 1-on-1 between partners. Each team will submit a link to the recordings of their 1-on-1 debates to this website by October 1. Teams will receive feedback from debate professionals on their speeches.The format for these 1-on-1 debates will be as follows: 

  • Affirmative (in favor of the topic statement) 5 minute speech
  • Negative (opposed to the topic statement) 5 minute speech
  • Affirmative 5 minute speech
  • Negative 5 minute speech 

Two 2-on-2 online debates between teams occurring anytime between Oct 1st and Oct 8th. To ensure teams have prepared for the in-person tournament in Bogota, on October 1 each team will be assigned one affirmative and one negative online debate, one in English and one in Spanish, against one of the other competing teams. The negative team in each debate will submit a link to the recording of their 2-on-2 debates to this website by October 8. Teams will receive feedback from debate professionals on their speeches. Each team has one concluding rebuttal on the affirmative and one on the negative.  Teams should divide these speeches between teammates rather than one debater delivering both final speeches. The format for these 2-on-2 debates will be as follows: 

  • Affirmative Speaker 1, 6 minute speech
  • Negative Speaker 1, 6 minute speech
  • Affirmative Speaker 2, 6 minute speech
  • Negative Speaker 2, 6 minute speech
  • Affirmative Speaker 1, 6 minute speech
  • Negative Speaker 1, 6 minute speech

Bogota Championships

Friday-Saturday, Oct 18-19


Friday October 18

Breakfast & Check-In @ 9 am

Round 1

Round 2


Round 3

Round 4

Tournament reception

Saturday October 19

Breakfast & Check-In @ 9 am




Debaters are expected to time their own speeches and attend to the order of the speeches. As a general rule the debate will proceed in two stages: (1) Constructives & Cross Examinations and (2) Rebuttal Speeches.

1st Affirmative Speaker: 6 minutes

Cross examination by 2nd Negative Speaker: 4 minutes

1st Negative Speaker: 6 minutes

Cross examination by 1st Affirmative Speaker: 4 minutes

2nd Affirmative Speaker: 6 minutes

Cross examination by 1st Negative Speaker: 4 minutes

2nd Negative Speaker: 6 minutes

Cross examination by 2nd Affirmative speaker: 4 minutes

Preparation time: 2 minutes

Affirmative Rebuttal: 6 minutes

Preparation time: 2 minutes

Negative Rebuttal: 6 minutes

Click here to watch an example of a debate employing this format between George Washington University and Yale University at the NASA Debates Western Championship.

IMPORTANT: Both debaters are expected to give two of the four final rebuttals their team will present over the course of the four preliminary rounds; i.e., one debater on a team should not give all four of the final rebuttals teams will present over the course of the four preliminary rounds.


The round will conclude with two six minute speeches. (There are no cross examinations after these last two speeches.) During these last two speeches debaters are encouraged to explain to judges why the primary arguments they have presented in their earlier speeches are collectively more persuasive than those of their opponents as regards the core question raised by the topic.


The first two rounds of the tournament will be in Spanish. The second two rounds and elimination rounds will be in English.

Discount new arguments presented in the final two speeches: Because the opposing team does not have an opportunity to respond it is particularly important that you discount new facts, evidence and explanations presented in the very last speech of the debate that could have been presented earlier in the debate. Debaters should not present new primary arguments for or against the topic in either of the last two speeches. Although they may respond to arguments presented by their opponents, debaters are asked in these last two speeches to assess the arguments that have been presented in the earlier speeches rather than presenting new facts, evidence and explanations that could have been presented earlier in the debate.

Interpreting the topic: You should interpret the burden the topic places on the Affirmative and Negative teams in a manner consistent with the topic statement. Debaters will sometimes attempt to interpret topics in a manner that “tilts” the playing field to their advantage. This approach should be disfavored. If a question of topic interpretation is not resolved by reference to the topic statement, you should adopt a “centrist” interpretation of the topic that allows both teams to engage the core, predictable question you believe raised by the topic and topic statement’s plain language.

Cross Examination: Cross examination is an essential element of the debate format chosen for this weekend’s competition. It is also an element that requires debaters to cooperate in good faith with their opponents to some extent, which may be a complicated proposition in a competitive debate.

Cross examination can be an invaluable tool for moving debates “forward” by establishing undisputed facts,  clarifying areas of agreement, isolating areas of dispute, and allowing rigorous examination of opposing arguments. Cross examinations may be far less productive, however, if debaters waste cross examination time so as to avoid having their arguments clarified and scrutinized by answering questions that haven’t been asked, filibustering, and otherwise failing to directly and succinctly answer questions to the extent possible. In such cases, debates may even become hostile as cross examiners may be forced to talk over their opponent to prevent their opponent from dominating the cross examination period.

For these reasons, when determining the winning team and assigning speaker points judges should favor debaters who respond to questions directly and succinctly to the extent possible and disfavor debaters who consistently fail to do so. “To the extent possible” is an essential qualifier to this requirement. Debaters should be allowed reasonable time to answer “open” questions or any other questions that cannot be answered in succinct fashion.

Use of Evidence: When necessary to resolve an important point of contention, debaters are encouraged to introduce evidence. The introduction of evidence is not required and not all arguments require evidence to resolve. But judges should consider whether the introduction of evidence would have strengthened debaters' key arguments and/or materially assisted in resolving disputed key points when determining which team did the better debating. 

If debaters choose to introduce evidence, they should be prepared to provide a hardcopy to their opponents that includes a complete citation (author, source, date, at minimum) and quotes supporting portions of the source (full paragraphs) such that their opponents might confirm whether the source supports the claim(s) for which it is being offered. Debaters introducing evidence are expected to be able to share this evidence with their opponents quickly and efficiently without materially delaying the debate round; i.e., debaters introducing evidence should take up hardcopies with them while speaking and be ready to hand this evidence to the other team upon request within seconds of finishing their speech.

Providing an electronic copy is disfavored absent advance consent of the opposing team. If a team wishes to provide an electronic copy for this purpose, they should be prepared to loan their opponents a device upon which to review the source for as long as their opponents require.

Judges should penalize the speaker points of debaters who fail to make their evidence available in a quick and efficient manner such that material opponent cross examination time is wasted and should consider voting against teams in particularly close rounds in which one team's failure to produce their evidence promptly results in material loss of the other's cross examination time to collect evidence and/or egregious instances of delaying rounds to organize evidence.

Responsible Advocacy: All debaters are expected to engage in responsible advocacy. This includes taking responsibility for researching and confirming the claims made in debates. Students that introduce false information--even if by accident and in limited fashion--should be marked down as individual speakers depending on the nature and frequency with which false information has been introduced and this should play a role in assessing which team did the better debating. Any student fabricating evidence or presenting evidence in a manner that distorts its meaning to their advantage should be assigned a loss for the round. Complaints should be lodged after the round with the tournament director and penalties may be assigned retroactively in cases of clear fabrication and/or distortion of evidence.

Equity Statement: While a judge may not consciously privilege the arguments or positions of particular groups of people over others, studies have shown that decisions nevertheless may be influenced by societal biases or prejudices in regards to, inter alia, race and gender. Daniel Kelley and Erica Roedder (2008) have found implicit bias in a number of settings analogous to debate including job hiring practices, grading, and sports officiating. Deborah Tannen (1998) has shown that in the field of competitive argument men are sometimes presumed to be more reasonable and less emotional and that these presumptions may lead a judge to implicitly give more weight to a man’s argument than a woman’s. We therefore ask each judge to consider their implicit biases in evaluating participants’ arguments and performance before making their decision.

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