The 136th Annual Richard T. Merrick Debate

Weekly Debates

The Tradition

On Saturday, April 18th, 2011, the Phildomic Society gathered to celebrate the 136th Richard T. Merrick Debate. Inaugurated in 1874, the Merrick Debate is the Society’s most prestigious event of the year. The resolution is itself debated by the Society at length months beforehand. Both topical and timeless, this year’s Merrick topic was, “Resolved: Pluralism is a virtue.” 

Unlike keynoters for our weekly debates, which are decided based on seniority, the four Merrick keynoters are selected by the Society during a competitive spring season of debates. Being selected to keynote the Merrick Debate is an impressive achievement in and of itself, and the Society could not have been more pleased with this year’s keynoters:

  • Mr. Matthew Cantirino (COL ’11) of New York
  • Mr. William Downes (COL ’11) of Massachusetts
  • Mr. Alexander Henderson (COL ’12) of North Carolina
  • Mr. Dustin Walker (SFS ’11) of Idaho

Another special part of the debate is the judges who preside over it and are charged with awarding the prestigious Merrick Medal. This year we were incredibly honored to have five esteemed judges from a diversity of backgrounds:

  • Mr. E.J. Dionne, acclaimed columnist for The Washington Post, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
  • Reverend Charles Gonzalez, S.J. (COL ’56), professor within the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.
  • Ms. Susan Herman, President of the American Civil Liberties Union.
  • U.S. Representative Dan Lungren (L ’71), Republican of California’s 3rd Congressional District.
  • U.S. Representative Mick Mulvaney (SFS ’89), Republican of South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District.

The Society was incredibly lucky to have such renowned guests with us, and we thank them for generously offering their time.

The Debate

Recognizing my prose can never do justice to the eloquence of the aforementioned keynoters, I will nonetheless try to recapture the essence of the debate for those not in attendance and for posterity.

The debate began with an affirmation speech delivered by Mr. Henderson. Though he will humbly tell you about his fears of public speaking, Mr. Henderson possesses an undeniable charm and ease at the front of the room. In his conception of the term, “virtue” answers the question: What is the best life for a human being? He stressed that it is not an abstract question but one on which we base our everyday decisions. In life, man’s tragic moral choice is not between good and evil but between two equal—but mutually exclusive—goods. Pluralism “allows the widest variety of human excellence.” At the same time, he advocated a general philosophy of pluralism with important exceptions when intervention is justified to preserve human dignity.

On the negation, Mr. Walker, whose skillful use of nuance is unmatched, delivered a pointed response. He defined pluralism as having two parts. First, it claims that no value system takes precedence over another. Second, it claims that all communities should be free from coercion. Citing Aristotle, Mr. Walker claimed that every city and indeed every political community asserts the primacy of its values. To defend pluralism is to reject the founding principles of the United States, to reject Res Publica, and to reject civic virtue. The Civil War provides a cautionary tale. To protect the institution of slavery, he argued, the South defended the pluralist notion of non-intervention and freedom from hegemonic value systems.

Mr. Cantirino possesses an unparalleled ability to distill philosophy, history, and logic into powerful observations, and his performance on Saturday was no exception. In something as basic as travel, he said, we implicitly recognize the virtue of pluralism, that differences and the unknown are something to be valued. Whereas moral relativism asserts there is no Truth, pluralism recognizes the “many-sidedness of Truth.” We can still preserve our own institutional values so long as we reject universalism. At the same time, he recognized that not everything is equally as moral. In his words, “some seeds of humanity may turn into weeds,” but no one individual should have the power to abort them. In closing, he urged the Society to “lay down arms and take up argument!”

Up next was Mr. Downes whose commitment to and passion for the Philodemic Society is truly remarkable. He is a leader and sincere friend to all. In his opening keynote, he introduced the concept of the “darkness” of humanity. There are some corners of human life too dark to explore. If nothing can ever be declared wrong, pluralism has the inevitable effect of stifling human flourishing. It glorifies the Pluribus but forsakes the Unum. Drawing on the philosophy of Hannah Arendt, he argued that coercion is sometimes necessary to set justice on the right path. Ultimately, justice requires action, not just debate.

Those lucky enough to speak during the floor portion of the debate raised some of their own questions. Mr. Desnick responded to the negation by emphasizing that pluralism does not value all differences equally—it only approaches all differences as possibly valuable. President Iacono said that this was precisely the problem. The outcome of every pluralist conversation is a stale “maybe.” Moreover, Chancellor Wagner argued that there are some things such as the oppression of women and torture that we simply cannot accept. If you believe in human rights, she said, you must reject pluralism. Responding to Mr. Meyer’s argument that individuals need community and what has come before, Mr. Medina argued that pluralism, in fact, embraces this historical and cultural vision of truth. “Our truths are ours, and their truths are theirs.”

In closing the debate, keynoters drew on the floor debate and crystallized their positions. On the negation, Mr. Downes and Mr. Walker focused on the “darkness” originally introduced in the opening keynotes and alluded to by speakers on the floor. Even in the Paradise of Eden, Mr. Downes said, there was one place Adam and Even could not go. Mr. Walker chose a modern example. Some Christian Scientists have refused their children medical treatment for easily treatable illnesses, leading to their premature death. How can neutrality in the face of such injustice be virtuous?

On the affirmation, Mr. Cantirino and Mr. Henderson sought to reframe the debate in terms of human fallability. Mr. Cantirino accused the core of the negation’s argument of resting on the assumption, “We are right.” We live in an imperfect world and our application of justice is just as imperfect. Using the image of the glittering white rose in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he insisted that pluralism does not mean that our differences will disappear but that they will become harmonized. Mr. Henderson returned to the concept of the tragic moral choice and urged the Society to affirm human autonomy. Pluralism is itself a part of justice and we must have faith in the ability of the individual to decide how justice should be distributed.

After the final speech, members of the Society rose and divided the room to vote on the resolution. By a count of 31-22-4, the Society affirmed, “Resolved: Pluralism is a virtue.” In addition, the keynoters awarded Mr. Stephano Medina with the Father Ryder Award, which recognizes the best floor speech of the debate.

The Merrick Medal Recipient

At the end of the debate, the judges were given the extremely difficult task of selecting a recipient of the Merrick Medal—the only medal of its kind that can be worn at graduation. After lengthy deliberation, Ms. Herman presented the award to the very gracious Mr. Matthew Cantirino. Congratulations!

Thank you to all of our keynoters, judges, members, and guests for making the 136th Merrick Debate such a memorable day.



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