The students of Debate-Ed learnt this week how important definitions are.


During formal debates, the students are presented with a topic to debate, such as this house would torture criminals suspected of terrorism for information. It is up to the first team, known as first proposition to define any unclear or ambiguous terms and to make it clear what exactly is being proposed. It is vital in debates that this is done well so that everybody understands what they are debating. The definition will also often impact the possible arguments that can be raised. For instance, the definition of terrorist is often fiercely debated as to whether it includes a lack of justification for their actions (meaning it would exclude ‘freedom fighters’); whether they must specifically target civilians and whether they must be working as part of an organised group or can be working on their own. Equally the definition of torture can also be subject to interpretation. Must torture involve physical harm or can psychological torture or sensory deprivation also be considered torture? If the first team defines torture as sensory deprivation (eg being left in a dark room) then this may make it easier for them to justify than if they define torture as including severe physical harm. Finally, the definition of suspect can also be important as the level of evidence that the suspect is in fact guilty of terrorism will often impact how reasonable it is to consider them a terrorist meriting torture. In addition, it will affect how likely it is that the suspect may have information that could be revealed.

Why are definition important?

Thinking about definitions encourages the students to clearly analyse the topic they are given. They need to consider what they would want included and excluded in their definition and the differences those inclusions and exclusions make. Whether a definition is adequate is an issue which often comes up for lawyers. For instance, a property might be defined in a will as ‘Bungalow at 1 Apple Orchard’. Does this mean that it includes the garden shed that is next to the bungalow? Does it mean that it includes the apple tree which grows at the bottom of the garden and a right to park on the driveway, or does it only include the bricks and mortar of the bungalow? Where the answer to these questions is unclear, it can lead to a great deal of confusion and potential for arguments.

Another good illustration of why definitions are important came up during the recent debate on banning legal highs. This is because one of the principal issues was whether the definition of a legal high was sufficiently specific that it only covered the drugs which the ban is intended to apply to. If the definition is too vague, it could accidentally end up including things that it was never intended to cover. This would mean that people selling and taking a substance may not be aware they are taking a banned substance and introduces an element of uncertainty that makes the law difficult to effectively implement. On the other hand, if the definition is too specific, this could mean that it would be easy for new legal highs to be invented by varying the ingredients slightly.


It can be very difficult to come up with a definition, particularly as whatever definition you choose will often have some flaws. In order to assess how a topic should be defined, the students are encouraged to consider the implications of that definition and the principles behind their proposal. These principles will often provide a good guide on what your definition should be For instance if the topic is about preventing obese people from being treated on the NHS, the principle behind the proposal might be that NHS resources should not be used to treat people who have self-inflicted their injuries or illnesses. The opposition team are likely to point out that this is unfair on obese people who suffer from accidents or injuries that are not caused by their obesity. E.g. if they are hit by a car. Consequently, it would be a good idea to define NHS treatment as only covering treatment for obesity related illness/injuries. This is consistent with the proposition’s principle that money should not go to people who have suffered self-inflicted injuries and helps counter the Opposition’s argument.