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).



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