Formulating #liespy

Note: This post is dedicated to addressing the final project for our #liespy course and, at times, is an amalgam of my previous posts from other classes (primarily my #VCUagora posts).

We are almost done with our summer session!? Time is a crazy thing.

In preparation for our final project, here are some elements to think about when polishing it up for submission:

1.) You should have a strong thesis (i.e. main claim) up front that appropriately responds to one of the prompts.  When thinking about the strength of a thesis, I invoke a list of criteria my friend and colleague Dr. Jason Coats uses: it should be debatable, supportable, precise, significant, and interesting.  This is what I mean by these:

  • Debatable: It needs to be something some will find false (i.e. someone will disagree with you).  If a thesis is not debatable, then you are not really doing any work–it’s already understood as true and/or trivial.  This is where ambition comes into play: the more ambitious a claim, the more you can (possibly) satisfy this criterion.
  • Supportable: You can’t just pull a thesis out of the air without evidence to justify why you think you are right, no matter how ambitious a claim may be.  Your thesis needs to be grounded in hard evidence you can point to and you can clearly explain to your audience how such evidence should be understood to help show why your thesis is true.
  • Precise: Theses should not be broad; an audience needs to clearly understand what you’re claiming and the parameters with which it exists.  It’s a common misconception with undergraduate argument formulation that the broader the claim, the easier it will be to support it.  What happens instead is the broader the claim, the less people will care (and the more work you would have to do to make it significant). You want to have your thesis be as concise and precise as possible to establish something that people will actually care about.
  • Significant: It needs to be clear why this thesis is significant to your audience.  What are the stakes here?  Why should others care about the relevant issue the way you see it?
  • Interesting: Your thesis should be something you care about and think is worthwhile of academic pursuit.  Also, it should be interesting to others who care about the same topic/field you are addressing.

In short, think about what you really wish to accomplish with your project and then check your thesis to see whether it encapsulates the same ambition.  A more ambitious thesis will require more legwork to support, though it will also amount to a more sophisticated and robust project.

2.) Make sure you clearly explain the issue at hand (i.e. what people typically think about your topic) and why you think this understanding is wrong. The idea here is that you’re developing an argument that is novel and interesting to others: something they perhaps haven’t thought about in the same way as you, but want to know more given what you are starting to establish.  Building the significance of your view–and why people need to embrace it–will go a long way with support.

3.) Lean on the sources from class you will use for support It’s often the case that sources aren’t being used enough for support.  The idea is to think of the sources you will use (2-3) going beyond direct examples of ideas to include moments where the author’s arguments can be applied for support.  The arguments we have discussed have limits, though you can stretch them and apply the arguments loosely to many other ideas and evidence for analysis. You need to demonstrate to your reader that you know what you’re talking about, and that you can utilize and explain the source material in a way that bolsters your own work. Your sources are your friends, and think of them that way.

4.) Check the suppressed points in your argument.  It’s often the case that we leave out full explanations of the principles we use to guide our reasoning: principles we don’t always share with others.  Look to see where these points may be unpronounced and explain them in enough detail so that someone who may not share your same values can fully understand your view.  (This is also how to consider moments of counterarguments to your on view, as we have done in mini projects past.  It’s always important to consider what others may say to you and rebut them accordingly, providing what others may say about your point(s) and responding to the alternative view you raise.)

5.) Give your conclusion some weight.  Don’t just think of the conclusion as the final ten or so seconds of your project.  Take some time to reiterate the significance of your thesis and explain what the audience needs to know when moving forward in life after your awesome argument.  There are various models for concluding, and I encourage you wholeheartedly to look to Dr. Coats’s post for his students on concluding essays. (Despite this not being a written project, these models are still useful.) Though no matter what, note that all conclusions should restate the purpose of the argument in unique language and drive home the stakes of what you have established.





Reasoning with Games #liespy

Our second mini project is much like the first, though this assignment calls on you to posit your own argument with a tenable objection to your own view and why you ultimately win out.  My previous post will still be helpful when making this project; however, here are some additional thoughts on how one can go about making an argument of such nature.

When making objections, it’s often helpful to think about what it would mean for a premise if it were true and then work your way back to see if something absurd follows (this form of argument is called reductio ad absurdum).  If we assume something is true and then the result is something we would never maintain, then we know the premise cannot be true.  Consider the following game:

A very special island is inhabited only by knights and knaves. Knights always tell the truth, and knaves always lie. You meet three inhabitants: Tom, Sue and Bill. Tom tells you that Bill is a knave. Sue tells you, `Only a knave would say that Bill is a knave.’ Bill claims that Tom and Sue are the same.  

Who is a knight and who is a knave?

Here is how to go about solving the game using this specific form of argument:

Round 1

Let’s assume that Tom is a knave.  This would mean that Bill is a knight, considering that Tom is lying.  If Bill is a knight, it would mean that Sue is also a knave (because Bill is telling the truth).  However, if Sue is a knave, it would mean that she would be telling the truth we she says that only a knave would say that Bill is a knave (because Tom is a knave), which can’t be the case because knaves always lie.  So, Tom must be a knight.

Round 2

Let’s assume that Tom is a knight.  If Tom is a knight, then we know that Bill is a knave (because knights always tell the truth).  If Bill is a knave, this means that he is lying when he says that Tom and Sue are the same, so we know they are different.  Since we assume Tom is a knight, it would mean that Sue is lying when she says that only a knave would say that Bill is a knave.  So, since we assume that Tom is a knight and we know that he and Sue are not the same (because Bill is lying), Sue is a knave.

We get these results:  Tom is a knight, Sue is a knave, and Bill is a knave.

Even though this is just a game, it nevertheless is a valuable model for considering how to reason and show that a view is false.  Consider the Twain example from my previous post with the first premise of his argument:

Premise 1: All necessities of our circumstances are virtues

Let’s assume this is true.  If it is, it would mean that everything that is a necessity is virtuous.  As I wrote before, this would mean things like eating and sleeping are virtues because they are necessary components of life. This would also seem particularly complicated in various contexts of “necessary”: killing and stealing for survival seems necessary at times, though again, not virtuous.  So, unless we are willing to accept all of this, it would seem like Premise 1 is false.

When testing your own arguments, think about what they would necessarily entail if they were sound and whether this is a problem (it can also be done with the objections you consider to your own view).

Critiquing Arguments #liespy

Our Mini Project #1 assignment is a departure from the application work we have been completing with the micro projects; rather than just summarizing a text and explaining how we can extend the author’s work to our course content for possible new considerations, the mini project asks you to pinpoint a particular criticism of an argument and explain why it’s valuable and successful.  As stated in the assignment, you need to do all of these three things:

(1) accurately and concisely summarize the author’s argument, (2) provide a tenable and novel objection (i.e. something that has not been said before, or a new approach of criticism), and (3) explain what the author may say in response to you and why your objection ultimately works.

Here are some ways to think about these three steps

Step 1: Accurately and concisely summarize the author’s argument

The two articles you can select for this project (Harris or Bok) have clear arguments that can be broken down into parts (or “reasons” or “premises”) for criticism.  Simply put, an argument is a set of reasons (we can also call them premises) working together to show why a thesis (or a conclusion) is true.   People discuss “argument” differently given particular disciplines. Philosophers, for instance, typically break arguments down formally into premises and conclusions. Consider the following example:

Premise 1: If the building is burning down, then we should run like hell.
Premise 2: The building is burning down!
Conclusion: Therefore, we should run like hell!!!!!!!!!!!

Here is an example of a formal argument where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises—meaning, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Though we can break arguments down this way, we typically don’t make formal arguments in common conversation and writing. Rather, we typically use informal ways of discussing arguments like enthymemes (or brief arguments). Here is the same argument as an enthymeme:

We should run like hell (claim) because the building is burning down! (reason)

Neither Harris nor Bok write out their arguments in formal ways in their work.  However, this does not mean that you can’t break them down in such a way.  Consider this passage from Twain, “On the Decay of the Art of Lying”:

No fact is more firmly established than that lying is a necessity of our
circumstances–the deduction that it is then a Virtue goes without saying.
No virtue can reach its highest usefulness without careful and diligent
cultivation–therefore, it goes without saying that this one ought to be
taught in the public schools–even in the newspapers.

We can break this down as follows:

Premise 1: All necessities of our circumstances are virtues
Premise 2: Lying is a necessity of our circumstances
Therefore, Lying is a virtue (this necessarily follows from the first two premises)
Premise 3: Virtues should be cultivated through teachings in public schools and in newspapers
Therefore,  Lying should be cultivated through teachings in public schools and in newspapers

Here is the more informal way of writing this argument:

Lying is a virtue because it is a necessity of our circumstances.  Because it is a virtue, lying should be cultivated and taught in public schools and in newspapers

Of course, when summarizing someone’s argument, you need to do more than just list out reasons and their claim (or premises and their conclusion): textual support for all of these must be explicitly stated for your audience because we need to know why Twain believes each component here..  For instance, this does not say anything about the kinds of lying Twain thinks should be cultivated (judicious lying)–that would need further explanation.  However, this form provides a way to clear identify the major components of an argument so you can assess its strength.

Step 2: Provide a tenable and novel objection

Now that we have Twain’s argument broken down, we can see whether we reject any of the premises.  If we do, we need to justify what we think is false.  Here’s just one (very short) possible objection someone may have:

It is false that all necessities of our circumstances are virtues.  Even if lying is necessary, it does not mean that all necessary components of life are virtues.  Eating and sleeping are necessary components of life, but one would seem hard pressed to call eating and sleeping virtuous acts.  This would also seem particularly complicated in various contexts of “necessary”: killing and stealing for survival seems necessary at times, though again, not virtuous.  Perhaps some necessities of life are virtues, though certainly not all of them.  I need more to buy that lying is a virtue.

This is just one way of going about establishing why Twain’s argument doesn’t work.  It also won’t work on its own (see step 3 below!).

Step 3: Explain what the author may say in response to you and why your objection ultimately works

Here is what Twain may say to the person raising the objection in Step 2:

Oh, dear fool.  Perhaps not all necessities of our circumstances are virtues; however, this does not mean that lying isn’t a virtue.  Did you not read the rest of my essay?  I explain that judicious lying is virtuous–even more virtuous that telling an injurious truth!  Do you not believe that, if lying judiciously is a virtue, then it should be taught to the public?  How could you support such a view?

It could still be the case that lying is a virtue, which could still work for Twain’s argument. Here is the response the person could make to Twain:

Fair.  I will accept that if lying judiciously, as you say, is a virtue then it should be taught to the public.  However, now that we agree that not all necessities of our circumstances are virtues, I do not see how lying judiciously is a virtue.  You make a case that it’s better to lie to people at times because we are doing for their benefit with the best intentions.  Though, why should we what we think is best for others to believe actually is best for others to believe?  Isn’t honesty also a virtue?  Why should we believe we are doing the wrong thing when telling the truth, even if the truth may be injurious?

Though the response would need to be more than this, it is how the conversation could go. The key point: when considering why you think a view is wrong, you need to address precisely what is wrong with it, what the person may  reasonably say back in response to you, and why you think your view is still better.  (See my post on acknowledgement & response if you’d like to consider other ways of discussing this element of critique).