3. WHAT IS AN ARGUMENT?
Curiosity seems to be an essential part of human nature. We are curious about the world around us, we are curious about ourselves and our place in this world. A basic drive in most human endeavours is a quest for finding the truth, for clarifying, discovering, understanding, and the activities that go along with a conviction that we have uncovered the truth, e.g. sharing, developing, defending our ideas and convincing others of their validity. An argument is the statement, the account and the defence of what we think we know.
Arguments have a conclusion, this is a statement of the proposition the speaker is asserting and defending. Arguments also have premises, these are the reasons for believing the conclusion. There are myriads of ways in which our arguments can go wrong and philosophers are skilled in uncovering them, something which makes philosophers from Socrates onwards less than popular with those who ignorance they uncover. Simon Blackburn writes “To process thoughts well is a matter of being able to avoid confusion, detect ambiguities, keep things in mind one at a time, make reliable arguments, become aware of alternatives, and so on.” (Blackburn S., Think, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.5) However, these are difficult skills to acquire. Our thinking is often confused, we can become easily distracted by irrelevant ideas or overwhelmed by strong emotions, sometimes we hold onto conclusions for all the wrong reasons and we may even hold contradictory beliefs without our being aware of it. Skilled philosophy teachers are excellent at pointing out these inconsistencies in the reasoning of their students and there is always a ‘eurika’ moment when the student’s eyes light up because she has seen the reasoning error her teacher is trying to get her to see (recognising our errors is always the first step in addressing them).
Consider the following exchange:
Teacher: “What are your thoughts on doctors performing mercy killings on terminally ill patients?”
Student: “It’s morally wrong.”
T: “Why is that?”
S: “Hmm because it’s wrong to take a life.”
T: “Why is it wrong to take a life?”
S: “Because lives are special.”
T: “Why are lives special?”
S: “Isn’t it obvious?!”
T: “Not to me. Let’s try another approach. Are you a vegetarian?”
S: “Oh no I quite like my meat!”
T: “Aren’t lives special?”
S: “Erh not animal lives, human lives only!”
T: “OK now we have a more narrow claim ‘Human lives are special’. What makes human lives special such that it is morally wrong to take a human life but permissible to take an animal life?”
The point of this discussion is not to force the student to abandon her beliefs about euthanasia or to lead her to become a vegetarian. In fact the conclusions she holds after the discussion are irrelevant as they are her responsibility to reason to and defend as part of her beliefs. The process by which she arrives at these conclusions is the important bit. By pointing out generalities that need to be made specific, by seeking clarification for what might superficially appear obvious but may turn out to be very difficult to substantiate, by raising inconsistencies within the student’s own reasoning process, etc. the teacher is teaching the student to think. Not what to think, but rather how to think.
The most important word for philosophical inquiry is ‘why?’. There are no limits or restrictions to asking a ‘why’ question and no answer is ever ‘obvious’, ‘evident’ or not in need of clarification, support and argumentation. This includes the teacher’s claims and ideas, which should be as open to scrutiny as the students’ ideas. Intellectual rigour in pursuit of the truth within rational discourse is the essence of philosophy as a discipline and no idea should escape scrutiny. However, this process of questioning and challenging ideas should never be allowed to become personally demeaning or degrading. It is the role of the teacher to guide the discussion by encouraging criticism and exploration, while ensuring that everyone remains respectful of others in the group as people while challenging their ideas.
All of this is much easier to do achieve on a one to one basis, which allows the teacher to fully explore the student’s ideas, follow a train of thought to its conclusion, pursue confusions, correct unclarities, point out inconsistencies and help the student develop his own, original arguments. Group discussions on the other hand may derail this thinking process. The challenge for seminar group teachers is to guide the whole group through the process even though they start from different starting points and go through different routes to arrive at different conclusions.
This website provides resources for structuring teaching sessions so that they get the best out of all the students participating in them, so that seminar group teachers can preserve some of the insights that are achieved in one to one teaching. Case studies are a very popular tool for ethics discussions. They have many merits, in that they identify particular issues of relevance to the course content, they stimulate discussion by provoking the students to express their own ideas, they often reflect real life problems that are both interesting and pertinent, and so on. However, the quality of the discussion that ensues from presenting a case study depends on the skills of the teacher and it easy for a small group’s ideas to become derailed. A number of different but interrelated points may be raised by different students at the same time with no opportunity to consider them one at a time, some students may make interesting but slightly off topic contributions that lead the whole group onto side-issues before the main questions have been explored, students may become overly concerned with some points, e.g. seeking clarification on the minutiae of empirical facts, while entirely missing the importance of other points, e.g. the normative implications of these facts regardless of their particular details and so on. The teaching strategies on this website provide targets for discussions and structured plans for reaching these targets. The targets for discussion are never specific conclusions either for or against a particular argument, but rather reasoning targets, e.g. being able to identify the relevant questions, being able to create a map of the various responses to these questions, being able to see the specific weaknesses and strengths of each line of argument, etc. Again the main aim is to teach students how to think rather than what to think.