What's the Point? Making a Claim
1. Before you can make an argument, you first need to thoroughly investigate your topic and find the facts. Remember, truth has to be actively constructed by critical thinkers through meticulous and rigorous scientific methods. However, many very smart people forget that truth alone doesn't do anything. The truth must be used to solve real-world problems. But in order to use the truth, you first have to convince other people that your facts are actually true. Then you have to convince these same people that you know how the truth should be used to solve the problem. You will have to argue for the truth in open debate in order to convince a skeptical public. Debating with others about truth means both arguing for the truth and demonstrating it with valid logic and evidence. It also means arguing against false opinions, manipulations, and lies. 21st century literacy entails not only being able to construct knowledge with scientific methods, but also openly arguing with diverse groups of people to explain and prove the truth.
2. Writers and speakers have many ways to make an argument, but to simplify the process, I will explain one basic way that most academics use. This process has three main parts: the literature review, the formal argument, and the proposal for action. The first part reviews what has already been said about a topic. The purpose of the literature review is to organize relevant information into connected categories, preferably focused on a single explanatory theory, which provides the logical connections. Second, by outlining what has already been said, the literature review allows an arguer to come up with a new, original argument, hopefully one based on new evidence.
3. Once this evidence is collected and organized, a new argument can be written. At the end of most formal arguments is a proposal for some type of action. In the academic world, the proposal is often focused on new lines of research to explore unexplained areas or to re-test problematic theories or experiments. In the professional world, the proposal usually seeks to address some practical problem and present a solution. In the political world, the proposal asks the audience to think about the argument presented, agree with it, and then engage in some sort of political action, like voting or donating money. It is important to remember that all arguments are practical tools to move audiences into action, but the proposed actions will vary depending upon the genre of argument, which itself depends upon the composition and context of the audience.
12.1 The Literature Review
4. Before you speak in public, it is important to know what has already been said about a topic so as to add something new to the existing conversation. In a scientific setting, it is important to understand what is known and what is not known, so you can test new theories and find new evidence. The literature review is a tool to organize and communicate the existing conversation on a topic. Previous information or debates need to be categorized, and these categories need to be logically connected in some way. In order to come up with categories and logically connect them, you need an explanatory theory, which provides a basic framework for how all the parts fit together and towards what end. The theory also provides key concepts and a technical language to explain those ideas.
5. Depending on the setting and how serious your formal argument is, a literature review can be very short, say a few pages in an undergraduate research essay, or it can be very long, like 50 pages in the PhD dissertation. But regardless of the length, every formal argument must first explain the context of the argument in the introduction. This context includes who has said what about a topic and why, organized into clear positions on the topic. Your audience cannot fully understand your own claims and evidence unless you first provide this larger context.
6. The first part of a literature review is a clear explanation of the broad topic. You need to define the large topic and break it down into parts. You want to explain what people already know about the topic, what people don't know, and the points of controversy or disagreement. You also want to cite the major researchers who have helped produce the most important knowledge on the topic. Depending on the audience, you may also want to introduce these academics and their research history as well. Remember, explaining a topic includes both the information and the specific people who have produced that information, which also includes introducing specific published work, like the titles of articles and books. You may also want to explain the influence of specific authors or works on the field of study.
7. Next, you want to move from the broad topic and multiple positions of the conversation down to a specific focus. You will join members of an existing position and narrow down to focus on a specific issue or problem that has been discussed. You will usually agree and disagree with the existing arguments to uniquely position your own point. This narrow domain will be the specific topic of your paper.
8. Once you have established your topic and positioned it within the existing literature, then you need to articulate your point to argue. This is your thesis, an argumentative point that you will prove with evidence. Your thesis should address this specific issue or problem you identified in the literature review. Your thesis should seek to either fully explain what is already known, or add some new knowledge. However, adding new knowledge is incredibly difficult. This step is usually expected only for graduate students and working professionals.
Entering Academic Debates 10 Strategies
- Kiss Ass
- Pick a Fight
- Take on Establishment
- Drop Out
- Discover New Evidence
- Create New Theory
9. There are several ways to construct a thesis point in relation to the existing scholarly conversation. Mark Gaipa (2004) explained eight specific strategies for entering into an academic debate. I will be organizing these strategies into three groups and I’ll add two additional strategies Gaipa overlooked. Some strategies are focused on agreement with other scholars. First, you can Kiss Ass. You can agree with an established scholar and explain how his or her theory and evidence are correct. Often this strategy is used against a critic who has attacked the established scholar with whom you agree. Second, you can Piggyback an established scholar, standing on the shoulders of intellectual giant. You agree with a scholar but then expand on his or her work by adding a new idea or new piece of evidence, or by applying the existing theory or evidence in a new way. Third, you can Leapfrog a scholar, which is also known as biting the hand that feeds you. Here you agree with an established scholar, but then point out a problem, missing evidence, a contradiction, an inconsistency, or an error in the existing research.
10. Other strategies are more antagonistic. The fourth strategy is playing the Peacemaker. If there is an academic fight then you can enter into the middle of the fray and try to resolve the debate between two or more scholars. This strategy can entail both praising the strengths of each scholar while also criticizing their errors. A fifth strategy is Picking a Fight. You can critically analyze a scholar's argument and prove how it contains errors or how it is completely wrong. The sixth strategy is very similar, except you are criticizing a group of scholars, or perhaps a whole discipline. This strategy is called Taking on the Establishment. You attack a serious error of fact or theory, which a group of scholars have uncritically accepted as true. You should be very careful with such a strategy, as you will most likely anger a lot of people by attacking their work.
11. The final strategies focus on originality. The seventh strategy involves Dropping Out of an existing debate to focus on an issue, theory, or piece of evidence that everyone else seems to have overlooked. Sometimes this involves bringing back the work of an older scholar who has been ignored due to falling out of fashion. The eighth strategy is Crossbreeding. If you have knowledge of multiple disciplines then you can take the theories or evidence from one field and use it to solve a problem or revise a theory in another field. This technique is often the source of exciting intellectual developments. The ninth strategy grows out of Kissing Ass or Dropping Out. You can use the theories of established scholars to Discover New Evidence, which helps to redefine a field or solve existing problems. The final and most difficult strategy, as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1996/1962) has pointed out, entails Creating a New Theory, or making a paradigm shift. It is rare, but sometimes a brilliant scholar will see the world in a new way and propose a completely new theory for understanding objective reality. Examples include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein.
12.2 The Formal Argument
12. A formal argument seeks to prove a central claim, or thesis, true or false. An informal argument might just explore a topic or claims without any definite conclusions, but a formal argument seeks to clearly articulate and fully prove a point. Thus, a formal argument requires many supporting claims (the grounds) and much valid evidence to prove these claims. A formal argument also requires a logical sequence to connect these supporting claims together in an organized way so as to better prove the thesis. Finally, a formal argument also seeks to propose some course of action in the conclusion. Proposals could include further research, a re-test of existing experiments, a solution to a problem, or an appeal to the audience for some type of action.
13. In order to compose a formal argument, you need to know all of the major parts and how these parts logically fit together. The most important part of a formal argument is the main claim or thesis, which is a statement that can be proven true or false. The purpose of your whole argument is to explain and prove the thesis. In order to do that, you need to make a series of supporting claims, which are often called the grounds of an argument. A ground consists of a supporting claim, evidence to prove that claim true or false, and sound reasoning to explain the evidence and connect it logically to the supporting claim. Each of the grounds can be considered a mini-argument that is a self-contained unit. These grounds need to be logically connected in some organized sequence so as to fully support and prove the thesis of the whole argument. Finally, the whole formal argument rests on a warrant, which is a principle, value, ideology, or scientific theory.
14. Everyone is biased in some way, which is to say we all have principles, world views, and values that inform who we are, what we think about, and what kind of world we want to inhabit. It is important to be open and honest about the foundational principles of your argument so that you can explain and justify these principles to your audience. Not every audience will accept your principles or theories, but in being honest and upfront about your world view and why it is justified, you give your audience a choice to listen to your argument or not. As a developing academic arguer, you are being trained in a professional form of argumentation that is predicated on certain foundational values, like truth, honesty, respect, and freedom. Because you are bound by these values, they affect not only what you talk about, but also how you think and talk.
15. As you know from our earlier discussion, the scientific method for inductive argumentation is based on evidence. Evidence is the key ingredient to a formal argument, and every claim should be fully grounded in sufficient data. It’s the quality of the data that proves each supporting claim (the grounds) to be true or false, and these grounds, in turn, support the truth or falsity of the thesis. When you critically analyze the claims of others, and you can show that your data falsifies their claim, then you can say that you have refuted their argument, which means you have conclusively proven their claim false by means of valid evidence.
16. Usually, you will find that your opponent also has data to support his or her claims. Sometimes an opponent has made a point which you cannot refute because of solid evidence. Rather than engaging in trickery, you should concede your opponent’s point. A concession means that you acknowledge the validity of your opponent’s claim because it was proven with sufficient evidence. If one of your main values is finding truth about the objective world, then you should welcome a concession because it has brought you closer to your goal. Remember, discovering truth is a team effort. Science is predicated upon both the discovery of truth and the refutation of error. For the academic arguer, both events should be considered a form of success.
17. If evidence cannot completely prove the claims you make, then you need to qualify your claims to explain how certain you are based on the evidence you've found. A qualification might sound something like this, “Based on the evidence I found, it is reasonable to conclude X, however, I am not completely certain of X, so more evidence is needed to conclusively prove it.” Each of the italicized words is a qualifying remark. A qualified claim explains the limitations of the data, which lead to a provisional conclusion, pending more data. Never overstate your certainty. Overstatements easily lead to hasty generalizations or lies, which can be attacked by your opponent and could be used to discredit your whole argument. It is acceptable to make provisional claims if the evidence is insufficient. Such a claim is honest and open, albeit weak because there is not yet enough evidence to prove it.
18. Remember, your goal is to seek truth, not win arguments, although the two can sometimes be connected. And you should always be looking for points of agreement with others, especially supposed opponents, because consensus over facts is the surest way to reach truth about the objective world. A formal argument seeks to lay bare all of the evidence and reasoning used to make conclusions so that your peers can review your thinking to make sure that you made a strong and valid argument. Peer review is one of the most important parts of the scientific method. Constructing an open, formal argument helps the peer review process work more quickly and effectively.
12.3 The Proposal
19. Once you have completed your formal argument, the last step is to construct a proposal, which will ask the members of your audience to do something. We argue not just for the sake of arguing, but because we want to affect our world and change it in some way. Thus, the proposal is an argument for the specific change that we seek. The proposal needs to be connected to the thesis of your argument, and it needs to recommend a specific action or set of actions. If the proposal is too vague, then your audience will not fully understand what you are asking and will end up doing nothing.
20. The proposal is another mini-argument based on a principle, similar to the argument for your warrant. And like the warrant, it is outside the framework of your thesis, but still related to it. Your proposal must have a main claim, which like your thesis needs to be proved with supporting arguments. However, if it is a simple proposal claim, then it doesn't necessarily have to be this complicated. Your proposal claim is a claim just like any other, so you have to use evidence and reasoning to prove your claim true, or at least reasonable. Rarely can you prove a proposal claim true. Proposals address the future because they predict the consequences of particular actions. You have to try to foresee the consequences of your proposed action and argue those consequences are good based on some principle and also worth the costs associated with accomplishing them. And remember, not all audiences have the same skills or are willing to expend the same amount of effort, so you may have to alter your proposal when speaking to different audiences.
12.4 Different Types of Claims
21. We previously discussed three main types of claims: claims of fact, claims of meaning, and claims of value. Now we need to explore these types of claims in more detail to further break down these categories into more specific types of claims. When constructing a formal argument, you need to know which kind of claim to make because each type of claim requires a particular form of evidence and reasoning. Some types of claims are easier to make than others. And some types of claims lead to stronger conclusions because they are based on stronger forms of evidence. It is important to understand what kind of claim you are making so that you can fully and logically prove that claim, and so you can organize your supporting claims into a logical sequence to prove your thesis.
A. Factual Claims
22. The first type of argument is the factual argument. It is the simplest and strongest argument to make. A Factual Claim is a statement that seeks to prove that a fact is a fact. This type of claim needs to be specific and each part of the factual claims needs to be proven with sufficient empirical evidence. Sometimes a factual claim discusses a general phenomenon or activity that actually occurs differently in different places but still retains the same basic characteristics of the common category or ideal form. A simple example of a factual claim would be, "All cats have four legs." Now I made the mistake of saying all so I have to literally investigate every species of cat all over the world and take many pictures to prove they all have four legs. That would be quite a chore, and it would take a long time and cost a lot of money. And what about the random three or two legged cat? To remedy this mistake, I would have to qualify my argument to say the natural body form of all cats has four legs, but some cats can be born malformed and some cats can be injured, thus some cats may have fewer than four legs. Now, because I don't have enough time and money, I would probably want to pick just a few species of cat, and given the expense of travel, I might want to pick those species which are close to where I live.
23. For a more complex factual argument, I could make a set of Compare and Contrast Claims. Whenever you compare and/or contrast, you should include at least two claims to make a logical argument. For example, I could claim, "Law enforcement officers in the U.S. still use racial profiling; therefore, the U.S. justice system is still racist." This argument has two claims, and I might want to start with the last one first because it is historical and, therefore, sequentially prior to the first claim. Because the U.S. has three loosely connected political levels (local, state, federal), I would need to settle on a narrow period of time to investigate particular locations in specific states. I would then use this data to make a larger claim about racism in the United States, but qualified by the specific data because specific locales or specific states might have practiced racism differently.
24. I would also have to make a Definition Claim to define what the concepts of race and racism mean in order decide if these historical examples are or are not proof of racism, and further, why there is or is not any variation in the practice of racism. A definition claim needs to combine both logical concepts and concrete historical practices or phenomena to ground the definition in the objective world of fact. Then I would need to do the same type of research on contemporary law enforcement and use the same definition of race and racism to determine if the current practices also indicate racism. Then I would need to compare the historical forms of racism with the contemporary forms of racism to see if they are similar. Depending on my historical time frames, this study would take a HUGE amount of work, taking years or even decades of research. For practical considerations, therefore, I would want to restrict my research to one locale, or if I were really ambitious, one state, but doing any more than that could take over a year at least.
25. Another complex factual argument could be based on Causal Claims (or Cause & Effect Claims), claims that will prove that phenomenon A causes X. For example, I could claim, "Smoking leads to heart disease and early death." In order to prove this claim, I would first need to argue for definitions of my key concepts smoking, heart disease, and early death. Then I would need to find large scale statistical data (preferably a random study with over 1,000 participants) proving a correlation between smoking and heart disease. Then I would have to find the same kind of studies to link heart disease to early death. But remember, these studies only prove a connection and not a cause, so I would have to find further evidence from controlled laboratory research on mice (or some other animal) that proves smoking causes heart disease. Now, why do I say a study with mice and not humans? Well, it would be cruel and illegal to pay people to potentially kill themselves in a laboratory experiment, which is why scientists use animals for dangerous studies. Of course, the ethics of using animals for laboratory research is currently a subject of debate; however, most scientists think the medical benefits of using animals outweigh the harm done to these creatures, and there are now specific procedures to guard against abuse.
26. Categorical Evaluation Claims could be the basis for a different form of factual argument. This type of argument brings together definition claims with compare and contrast claims. A categorical evaluation seeks to use an established category, or set of categories, that represent a special kind of phenomenon in order to evaluate other types of phenomena to see if they match. Doctors use categorical evaluations to decide what disease or ailment you might have based on your list of symptoms. Bosses and teachers use categorical evaluations to judge performance as satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Machine mechanics use categorical evaluation checklists to inspect a car or factory robot to make sure these machines are operating properly.
27. In order to make this type of argument, first you need to argue for the validity of your categories, which should be based on observable, objective characteristics that usually have specific values. A doctor might ask, "Is your breathing restricted?" This is a specific characteristic of many health problems, and its value is high because restricted breathing is a serious problem. An auto mechanic might ask, "Is your ventilation system obstructed." This system is a specific part of a car, but this part has a low value because it is not important to overall car performance, so it would be a low priority fix.
28. Once you have your phenomena broken down into specific categories with clear definitions, then you go looking at another phenomenon to see if it matches so you can make an "evaluation" ranging from good to bad. For example, a university professor will have a set of criteria to evaluate the quality of a student's essay or research project. The phenomenon being observed and tested might be described as a "professional essay" or a "professional research project." The professor will examine your work and check off each criteria to decide how good or bad it is; the evaluation is usually represented with A-F letter grades or percentages (100% to 0%). This grade is correlated to how "professional" your work is, and if it is highly professional (A or B level grade), then you are most likely ready to perform professional level work in a real job.
29. Finally, the last type of factual claim is the Proposal for Action. The proposal is a special type of fact. A proposal is basically a claim foretelling the future, which is always a risky business. You might ask, how is foretelling the future a "factual" type of claim? Well, because it involves trying to predict the factual state of the objective world. Short-term predictions are always easier than long-term projections because the world usually doesn't change all that much over the course of days or months – although in times of crisis, the speed and severity of change intensifies. The primary job of many business and government analysts is to predict the future. Take, for example, an analyst who recommends stocks. Stock analysts must predict not only how a company will do in the near future (usually a projected time frame of one year), but also how the larger national and global economy will also be doing; this is a very complex and difficult prediction to make. That's why most analysts’ stock predictions are rarely accurate.
30. A proposal for action often combines all of the types of claims mentioned above. There will be definition claims for the phenomenon being studied and the type of change being predicted. There will be casual claims examining if we do X, then we should expect Y to occur. Predicting cause and effect will usually also entail compare and contrast claims because usually you have to predict a couple of reasonable scenarios, compare these scenarios, and then argue why scenario 1 is better than scenario 2. In order to make this evaluation logical, you would also need to make a categorical evaluation based on the end result you would like to see happen and then compare each scenario to this end result to see which one gets closest. While proposal for action claims are quite complicated and difficult to make, they are essential to the well-being of human life and our societies. Thus, most professionals routinely have to make proposals for action, hence the "proposal" part of every formal argument.
B. Meaning Claims
31. The second category of argument consists of meaning claims. In arguments of meaning, the facts are usually agreed upon, but not always, so the disagreement is over what the facts mean. How do we define the concept of meaning? This is actually a tricky type of phenomenon that lies between the subjective and objective worlds. Meaning is the significance, relevance, or importance we place on facts so as to use the facts to make our lives better (or worse). For example, some might say, “A rock is a rock.” But a rock can become a paperweight, a musical instrument, a weapon, a canvas for art, a geological artifact, or an economically valuable mineral. Each of these are "meanings" placed on the rock. All the meanings are possible and plausible, and different people could all be looking at the same rock at the same time and have all of these meanings (and more) in their heads as they stare at the rock.
32. Now, here comes the hard part. Which meaning is the true or right meaning? These are two distinct questions with two different answers. The answer to the first question is that they are all objectively true. How can subjective meaning become objectively true. Well, once I state my subjective belief in words, especially in print, it becomes part of the objective world. It becomes a fact. I said that statement. It is true that I said and believe that statement. Now comes the harder part. Is my meaning right? This question is what a claim of meaning is all about.
33. Remember that right refers to the practical use of values (chapter 8.4). As humans, we use our value systems (ideologies or world views) to assign meaning to the objective world, and this subjective and cultural meaning makes our lives better in some way. So the right meaning depends on the right value, and the right value depends on the situation at hand along with the cultural common sense of the audience. For example, if my audience is a group of businessmen, the right meaning of the rock would most likely be an economically valuable mineral. If it is a group of artists or geologists, then the right meaning would be different. Here is where things get especially tricky. What happens when you have a diverse audience filled with businessmen, artists, and geologists who all want to use the same rock for different purposes? Whose meaning will win? There are two options. Historically, the quickest way to resolve this conflict is to just threaten and then kill your competitors. Problem solved. Might makes right! But if you value peace and cooperation, then you have only one other option: Argue over whose meaning is the more useful, appropriate, or valuable given the particular time and place of the argument. How do you do this?
34. The main type of argument of meaning involves the Critical Analysis Claim of Significance. How does this claim work? First, you have to critically analyze the phenomenon that is being argued over, in this case, the rock. Critical analysis means to engage system 2 rational thinking to break down the issue or problem into parts so as to understand the characteristics of the phenomenon and how it works. Then you have to analyze the possible significance or meaning of the phenomenon.
35. You will have to use many of the factual claims outlined above to analyze each one of these options in order to compare and contrast them and establish the strengths and weaknesses of each possible meaning. The guiding framework of your analysis will be based on some principle or value you think is the most important or relevant to the situation. Some values will be seen as more neutral or contentious, depending on the audience. A neutral value would apply to all or most of the audience, while a more contentious value would apply only to some.
36. For example, a neutral value could be the value of utility. A utilitarian analysis might ask: How could this rock be used by different groups? How many people compose each group? What meaning would benefit the most people? A more contentious value would be artistry because how many people in your audience would even value the use of the rock as an artistic canvas? This meaning would be acceptable and benefit only a few. However, an artist might argue that the value of artistry is more important than the value of utility. This argument would then move the grounds of the argument down into the foundational claims of value, which would have to be solved before the argument over meaning could be decided.
37. There are two other important forms of meaning claims. They are basically the same type of claim, but one of them applies to a general range of situations and the other is specific to courts of law using "common law" legal reasoning, a form of law practiced in the U.S. and England. A Resemblance Claim is the more general type. Basically, this claim is like a factual compare and contrast claim, except it is doing much more than simply comparing the facts; it is also comparing the meaning of the facts. Hence, this is a highly complex form of comparison and contrast. You not only have to show how the facts in different cases are similar, but you also have to compare different meanings that have been attached to these facts to show how meanings for the two cases are similar.
38. Often a resemblance claim is the first part of a larger argument. Once a resemblance claim is made, an arguer often moves into a cause and effect argument and a proposal argument. Because the previous case resulted in X, then this new case will also result in X. For example, I could argue, "The war in Iraq is much like the war in Vietnam; therefore, the same unfortunate consequences will result." A similar type of claim can also be made in a court of law where a lawyer argues a Legal Precedence Claim. In common law, a legal precedence tells a judge how to rule based on the ruling of previous judges. The law must be interpreted the same way with the same or similar results. The only judges who can rule in a new way with a new meaning are the Supreme Court judges; they can throw out old laws or modify existing laws based on the warranted principles found in the national Constitution. If I were a lawyer, I might claim, "The 1st Amendment states X, and previous courts have upheld X; therefore, I claim that X must be upheld again today as my current case is clearly an example of X." Such an argument rests on my ability to prove that the present case is similar to past cases, based on specific criteria to prove the comparison.
C. Value Claims
39. We have already discussed the nature of values, so our discussion here will be brief. Values come in two basic types. First, there is the Claim for the Good, a universal principle of goodness (which also entails its opposite, a universal principle of badness). But principles are meant to be useful. Humans create principles as rules to guide our actions. This need for action leads to a second type of value, the Claim for the Right thing to do. A value argument for right action seeks to apply a claim for goodness to a particular situation in order to argue that a particular act should or should not be done. There are specific values that individuals and groups hold sacred. These are sometimes called ideals or principles. There are also larger systems of values, which define a whole culture or group within a culture. Anthropologists and Political Scientists usually call these systems of values ideologies or world views.
40. While values are among the most important aspects of human nature, they cause us many problems, especially in a globalized world filled with diverse cultures, each of which has different beliefs about what is good and right. Further, different cultures with different values often misunderstand each other, which leads to negative judgments and disrespect. This misunderstanding, in turn, often leads to a "collision of values" (Berlin, 2000a, p. 11), resulting in disagreements, conflicts, and violence. Often values cannot be reconciled; therefore, competing groups scream at each other, or worse, kill each other.
41. When constructing an argument over values, there is no best way to argue. In fact, it is almost impossible to win such an argument. You can't even fall back on the facts because, as Walter Lippmann (1922/1997) once pointed out, we see only "those facts which fit our philosophy...we adjust the facts we see to [our] code [of values]" (pp. 78-79). More recently political scientist Larry M. Bartels (2008) reiterated Lippmann’s basic point: “Careful logical arguments running from factual premises to policy conclusions are unlikely to persuade people who are ideologically motivated to distort or deny the facts” (p. 160). Facts aren’t even facts when ideology is involved. People see through their ideology, rather than their eyes, and one person’s fact becomes another person’s fiction.
42. As Lippmann (1922/1997) pointed out almost a century ago, our values "determine what group of facts we shall see, and in what light we shall see them" (p. 82). Values define not only who we are as humans, but who we want to be and our ideal vision of the perfect life. When our values are criticized, we personally feel under attack and we want to defend not only our lives, but also our culture and way of life. For centuries, humans have fought wars over rival values, almost always described in terms of the “civilized” (us) vs. the “barbarians” (them). Many people consider values worth dying for.
43. People who compose a value argument usually claim that their values are normal and good, while their opponent's values are abnormal and bad. People instinctively believe that "he who denies either my moral judgments or my version of the facts, is to me perverse, alien, dangerous...We believe in the absolutism of our own vision, and consequently in the treacherous character of all opposition" (Lippmann, 1922/1997, p. 82). When it comes to values, most people basically claim that my values are right because they're mine, and your values are obviously wrong, so just accept my values (Fish, 1994, p. 35). Thus, to win such an argument, your opponent must reject his or her own values and assumptions, which rarely, if ever, happens. Often there can't even be an argument in the first place because the different world views underlying the different sets of values are expressed in different languages that appear nonsensical to outsiders (Berlin, 2000b, p. 345). It’s as if a German tried to argue with a Persian, neither one of them speaking each others' language. It would be impossible to even start such an argument, let alone win it.
44. Because of the propensity for diverse cultures to produce a "collision of values," the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin focused on the importance of pluralism as the only hope for humanity. Berlin (2000a) explained, "What is clear is that values can clash....We can discuss each other's point of view, we can try to reach common ground, but in the end what you pursue may not be reconcilable with the ends to which I find that I have dedicated my life" (p. 10). Berlin went on to argue that "values may easily clash within the breast of a single individual" (p. 10). Thus, every individual, every group, every sub-culture, every culture, and every nation must continually set provisional "priorities" (p. 14) where one value or set of values is privileged for a particular reason due to particular historical circumstances.
45. But setting priorities entails making "trade-offs" (Berlin, 2000a, p. 15), and no one likes to sacrifice his or her own values or interests in favor of another, which is why politics is so messy, corrupt, torn by conflict, and potentially violent. The political realm is the site where these values clash. It is where political and cultural leaders battle for supremacy and sometimes strike bargains. Often political leaders have to ask, What is the best that we can do for these people under these circumstances at this time? But there are no permanent solutions in the political realm. All bargains and trade-offs are tentative, and many simply raise new problems which provoke more arguments and another clash of values. Berlin (1994/2014) explained, and here I wish to quote his wise words at length: "The central values by which most men have lived in a great many lands at a great many times - these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality - if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep...Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth - the noblest of aims - cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire...I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance...if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made...some values clash...so we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals" (p. 37).
46. What can be accomplished in such an imperfect and incompatible political environment? Amidst such conflict, how do we begin to articulate and argue for the truth, let alone make a proposal for a better world? There are no easy answers. There are no guarantees that we can know or understand the truth, and if we can, there are no guarantees that we will convince others through our arguments that we are right. The truth is but one among many values, and it is not often supported by all. The philosopher John Gray (1989) argued that the truth is just "a preference which few are likely in the end to share" (p. 248). So even academics and scientists who value the truth above all else must make an argument for the good of truth and why it is the best tool to solve problems. But because the truth is ever illusive, we can’t always find it or understand it. Thus, we are often reduced to making an imperfect judgment based on limited evidence. There are no perfect arguments, self-evident values, completely valid conclusions, or easy solutions. All must be argued and debated. In most cases, imperfect and provisional decisions will be reached under difficult circumstances.
47. The best we can hope, as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (2000a) explained, is for the humility of sound judgment. We must strive for a full investigation of the important problems we face and make the best judgment we can under imperfect circumstances: "There is no escape: we must decide as we decide; moral risk cannot, at times, be avoided. All we can ask for is that none of the relevant factors be ignored, that the purposes we seek to realize should be seen as elements in a total form of life, which can be enhanced or damaged by decisions" (p. 15).
48. Making a reasonable judgment and an effective argument is very hard. First, you have to critically investigate your topic, evaluate the reliability of many different sources of information, and find the facts. Truth has to be actively constructed by critical thinkers through meticulous and rigorous scientific methods. The next step is to argue for the truth in open debate in order to convince a skeptical public. In order to use the truth to solve real-world problems, you first have to convince other people that your facts are actually true. Then you have to convince these same people that you know how the truth should be used to solve the problem. Debating with others about truth means both arguing for the truth and demonstrating it with valid logic and evidence. It also means arguing against false opinions, manipulations, and lies. You will never be able to convince ideological extremists who view their system of values as the only and best way to see the world. But there is some evidence that rational arguments can have an effect on the undecided or ignorant when it comes to political decision making (Bartels, 2008, p. 129).
49. 21st century literacy entails not only being able to construct knowledge with scientific methods, but also openly arguing with diverse groups of people to explain and prove the truth. You will need the tools explained in this book to explore yourself, your society, and your world. You cannot rely on what other people have said. You will need to find the truth for yourself. However, be warned. Few truths are certain. No argument is perfect. No audience is completely receptive. No decisions are final. You need to take responsibility for your knowledge and your arguments. And, to the best of your ability, you need to convince others that you are correct. You need to demonstrate that you have the most reliable information. This is a hard thing to do.
50. But arguing is just the start. There is a lot more work involved in order to actually fix a real-world problem or begin a new endeavor. There is more important, and perhaps more difficult work. In order to actually change the world, you have to mobilize and organize people into action. Only by cooperating with large groups of people can we build schools, start businesses, engineer bridges, clean up pollution, care for the poor, or keep the peace. The work is endless. Competent professionals are needed.
Bartels, L. M. (2008). Unequal democracy: The political economy of the new gilded age. New York: Russell Sage Foundation & Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.
Berlin, I. (2000a). The pursuit of the ideal, In The proper study of mankind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Berlin, I. (2000b). The sciences and the humanities, In The proper study of mankind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Berlin, I. (2014, Oct 23). A message to the 21st century. The New York Review of Books. Originally published 1994.
Fish, S. (1994). There's no such thing as free speech...and it's a good thing, too. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Gaipa, M. (2004). Breaking into the conversation: How students can acquire authority in their writing. Pedagogy,
Gray, J. (1989). Essays in political philosophy. London: Routledge.
Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1962).
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