Intermediate — Counterplan Theory

As noted earlier, counterplans introduce many theoretical controversies. There is no space in this volume to entertain each of them since the debates could occupy an entire volume unto themselves.  I do, however, want to briefly introduce you to each of the key questions so that you are aware of them and are encouraged to learn more about them.

Can the negative run a counterplan?  Although the ability of the negative to counterplan is generally accepted, there are some arguments as to why the negative may not even be able to counterplan in the first place.  One, there is no “should not,” in the negative. The argument is that the affirmative derives its fiat power from the word should in the resolution and that there is no “should not” resolution for the negative. Two, affirmative should not have to be prepared to defend against every theoretical alternative to their plan – there are simply too many.

Although these arguments are interesting, three more powerful arguments have generally carried the day. One, the status quo is often wrong – hard to defend.  To take a contemporary example, the current war in Iraq simply is not working. Almost no one agrees that it is working and, consequently, the negative shouldn’t have to defend something that is (almost) impossible to defend. Second, if the affirmative gets to change the world, so should the negative. A counterplan is a reciprocal opportunity for the negative to get to do what the affirmative gets to do. Three, competitive counterplans are really disadvantages – they are the opportunity cost of voting for the affirmative.  If you vote affirmative, you can’t do the counterplan, and the counterplan is good. That essentially makes the counterplan a disadvantage.

Does the counterplan have to be (non) topical?  In the past, many believed that counterplans had to be non-topical.  In some parts of the country, some people still continue to hold this belief.

The reason that some believe that counterplans have to be non-topical stems from the idea that the negative has to negate the resolution.  A topical counterplan arguably supports the resolution because it would be an example of the resolution being true.

The reason that this view is no longer strongly held is because most now hold that the focus of the debate is the affirmative’s plan, not the resolution.  If the negative’s job is to refute the plan, not the resolution, it doesn’t matter if the counterplan is topical.

A small minority of individuals have argued that counterplans have to be topical.  The argument in favor of this is that it restricts the potential number of counterplan options that the negative has.  Though this does impose a limit, it is a rather artificial limit, and since counterplans are really opportunity costs of not doing the affirmative plan, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to argue that they have to be topical.  Disadvantages certainly do not have to be topical.

Are the different types of counterplans fair?  There is a debate about the merits of each of the individual types of counterplans discussed above? Is it legitimate (fair and/or educational) to simply switch the affirmative’s agent, counterplan with most of their plan (a PIC), change the process through which their plan is implemented, or solves affirmative’s non-uniqueness arguments?  All of this is a matter of intense debate, although at least on the “national circuit,” most individuals believe that these type of counterplans are acceptable.

Does the negative have advocate the counterplan in the 2NR if they advance it in the 1NC?  Negatives can “kick” out of disadvantages, kritiks, or topicality arguments that they advance in the debate.  Their ability to do that is unquestioned. They do not need to advance every argument in the 2NR  that they originally initiate in the debate.  They only need to advance a combination of arguments that proves that the status quo, the counterplan, or the kritik alternatives are better than the affirmative.  But, some argue, the negative should have to extend the counterplan in the 2NR if they advance it in the 1NC.

Unlike the legitimacy of negative counterplans in general, there is no consensus at all in the debate community as to whether or not the negative should be allowed to abandon a counterplan they originally advanced in the 1NC.  There is some tendency in favor of it in the contemporary college community, but there is a tendency against it in the high school community.

The debate over whether or not the negative can kick the counterplan has advanced to the circumstances under which they can kick it and whether kicking it under those specific circumstances are desirable.

If the negative argues that they can kick the counterplan whenever they want (any condition), then the counterplan is said to be “conditional.”  Conditionality can also be defined to include that the judge determines after the debate if the counterplan is in play.  This would occur when the 2NR goes for a conditional counterplan and instructs the judge to first evaluate the debate with the counterplan in mind, but if the judge were to conclude that the negative would lose the debate, the judge would then evaluate the debate without the counterplan to determine if  negative could then win the debate.  This latter definition is rarely utilized, but you should be aware of this use of the conditional counterplan.

A more “limited” form of counterplan conditionality is called “dispositionality.”  Dispositionality is generally defined to mean that the negative can dispose of the counterplan unless the affirmative only argues that it is bad if the affirmative “straight turns” it – to borrow the language of disadvantages.  Many judges find “dispositionality good” (also called “dispo good”) arguments to be persuasive.

Committing to the Status of the Counterplan

Many people will ask in the cross-examination what the “status” of the counterplan is.  In other words, is it conditional, dispositional, or will the 2NR be going for it.  Judges will expect you to answer this question.  Some things to consider when answering:

If you are, if you know you have no other choice, it makes sense to just say you are going for it. You will eliminate an important theory argument from the negative’s arsenal.  You will, of course, show your hand (make it obvious you are going for the counterplan in the 2NR), but depending on what other arguments you have in the debate.

If you are certain you are going to kick the counterplan, I strongly suggest reconsidering whether or not you really ought to run it.  There is generally little merit to advancing an argument in a debate that is a certain loser.  Advancing a counterplan that is theoretically questionable that you know is a lose makes even less sense.


Counterplans dominate modern policy debate practice. They are important strategic weapons for the negative, and being able to defeat many different types of counterplans is essential if you want to be a good debater.

Learning about counterplans is also important because counterplan theory has informed the development of modern day critique theory.  The subject of critique is what will be explored in the next chapter.