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yes-no-maybe

Thus began the first public debate of the year at the Central London Debating Society. The motion: This House Believes it is morally wrong to sleep with someone who is under the influence. The teams: a good old fashioned girls vs boys debate made up of young professionals in their 20s who were in no way shape or form basing their arguments on their own experiences (of course not).

The preliminary vote, taken before the debate to see where the audience personally stands on the issue before hearing the speeches, put the young strapping lads opposing the motion in a decisive lead. The pressure was on the girls to come out fighting and that they did with their opening line:

“we’re not opposed to beer and we’re definitely not opposed to sex”

Hurrah!

But…they were opposed to somebody who was completely sober sleeping with someone who was severely intoxicated through alcohol or drugs, irrespective of whether that person had granted consent in their drunken state, because their capacity to give informed consent had been seriously compromised. This, they argued was an immoral action. Instead, the moral thing to do would be to wait until the next day when both people were in a fit and proper state to consent to sex.

The opposition fought valiantly against what they described as the imposition of an overly risk-averse society, but slipped up by defending people who preferred to approach highly inebriated prospective partners (guys and girls hitting on other really wasted guys and girls) on the grounds that such people may be too insecure about their looks or their confidence to approach someone more sober.

The final vote was decisive. 16 in favour vs 8 opposed – a significant reversal.

The question is: what else could the opposition have done to win the debate considering how reasonable a definition the proposition had advanced in the first place?

  1. Address the definition
  2. Address the motion
  3. Address the implications of the motion

Addressing the definition:

A good rule of thumb for an opposing speaker is to begin by clarifying the dividing lines between the two sides. They do this by first highlighting what both teams can agree on and then move on to the issues on which they actively disagree, using the definition provided by the proposer as a starting point.

The opposition in this debate would have benefited immensely from declaring right from the off that they too, naturally, would discourage a sober person from taking advantage of someone who was totally paralytic and waiting a day to secure their full consent. The next question to ask on the back of this is: would stigmatising this particular action deter that person from sleeping with someone who was intoxicated under any circumstances and if so, would this be a good idea? This would lead them neatly on to….

Addressing the motion:

Motions can be broadly divided into policy motions and analysis motions. A policy motion normally starts off with the words This House Would…in which the speaker proposing the motion will normally call on their audience to endorse a specific type of action (e.g. This House Would reinstate the death penalty). An analysis motion normally starts off with the words This House Believes…and instead requires the speaker proposing the motion to prove that a certain statement is true (e.g: This House Believes religion is a force for good in the world).

The motion debated on Thursday was clearly an analysis motion. Our guys on the opposition had to prove the statement was false; and how do you prove anything right or wrong? You test it. If you’re speaking at the Central London Debating Society, you have just five minutes to test it and prove it wrong, so how do you do it?

First of all, pick three examples. You pick three as this will ensure you have enough material to keep you going for five minutes but not so much that you’ll run ridiculously over time. Three is also the magic number in public speaking, often referred to as the rule of three, the number of points you need to make to get your audience to remember anything you’ve said without overloading them with information.

The definition can be your first example, which you’ve already addressed. Great. So now you just need two more. In the case of this particular debate, example number #2 can be what happens if you’re on way to becoming drunk and you see your prospective partner is already pretty far gone. Would the definition offered by the girls proposing the motion suffice to prevent you from drinking any more so that you could retain a sober enough state of mind to NOT sleep with the other person? Most likely, yes. It’s not too far a departure from the original definition, which we’ve already agrees is a good idea.

However, what about example #3 where your prospective partner is totally sober, but tells you in advance that they enjoy sex most when they are drunk or high? Provided they still offered their consent whilst under the influence, would the girls’ definition deter you from sleeping with that person and should it?

Addressing the implications of the motion:

So far, their definition tells us it’s wrong to sleep with someone who is too intoxicated to give consent. It doesn’t say anything about what happens if we ask for consent before they get drunk or high and then ask for it again when they are intoxicated – just to be sure. What does this mean? It means that the sober person in this scenario might well be deterred from sleeping with someone without informed consent, but there is no evidence they would be equally deterred, upon receiving that informed consent, just because the other person is intoxicated. So, how can the statement in the motion be true? Surely, it should now read This House Believes it is morally wrong to sleep with someone without first gaining informed consent – no argument there.

Nevertheless, let’s say we answer yes to the last question. What would that mean? Well, the opposition could argue, it would mean that it doesn’t matter what the other person said when they were sober. If they are intoxicated, they are not capable of making that choice. In other words, the act of getting drunk or high invalidates any prior decision made when sober. That individual, therefore, cannot and should not be held accountable for a decision they freely made when sober if the action taken as a result of that decision is executed when they are intoxicated. 

What if we applied this same logic to driving instead of sex? Somebody drives down to the pub whilst sober and voluntarily imbibes to the point that they exceed the drink-drive limit. They then get in their car and drive home, but on the way they hit and kill a pedestrian. If the actions we take when intoxicated invalidate the choices we freely make when sober, how do we hold that driver accountable for the death of the pedestrian?

The outcome of example #3, it could therefore be argued, would be to create a society which places far stricter limits on both personal choice and personal responsibility than we are presently willing to accept. That would make the question with which the opposition actually did end their speech much more powerful: “is this the type of society you want to live in?”

You can follow the Central London Debating Society’s public debates live via our Twitter feed. The next one takes place at 7.30 pm on Thursday 24th February at the Old Cock Tavern, 22 Fleet Street, EC4Y 1AA. We will announce the motion on our blog next weekend.

Tony Koutsoumbos is the President of the Central London Debating Society and CEO of CLDS Debate Training 

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