Critical Thinking & Information Literacy
Across the Curriculum
Understanding and Developing Objections to Arguments
Philosophy 115 Assignment 5:
The goals of this exercise are a) to help students understand what an objection to an
argument is, b) to help students to identify different effective strategies for
criticizing an argument, and c) to help them be able to identify ways of trying
to criticize an argument that are ineffective. This exercise attempts to accomplish
this within the context of reviewing skills already covered in the course: trying
to identify an argument within an article or piece of literature and critically
evaluating it. This activity can also be used to get students used to doing peer
review. By giving constructive feedback to each other, students a) begin to have
a clearer idea of the ways in which they can go wrong in their own writing and
reasoning, b) start to have a sense for the sort of things that the instructor
is looking for in evaluating their work, and c) can improve their own writing by
responding to the feedback they get from other students.
The Instructor gives students an article to read. I will use Garret Hardinís
ďLifeboat EthicsĒ as an example. The students are required to write a one page
response to the article. Each student must i) briefly summarize Hardinís main
argument, and ii) articulate a criticism of this argument. This assignment
should be typed, double-spaced.
At the beginning of class, the instructor can go through several made up sample
answers to this exercise. Ideally, the example answers should make a lot of the
typical mistakes that students often make in trying to criticize an argument.
For example, a sample criticism might beg the question, or might miss the point
of the original argument. The instructor might include answers that contain
very unclear writing, or points that are made too quickly and are underdeveloped.
The instructor should also include at least one example of a fairly good answer,
so that students can see what a excellent answer might look like, and be able to
compare it to the others.
The following are a few statements that might be used as example criticisms to
Hardinís article. The instructor can go over the example criticisms in class.
The class as a whole can then read through the answer, and identify the strengths
and weaknesses of the answer. The class can also discussed what the hypothetical
author might be able to do to improve her answer.
Part 3: Peer Review
After the entire class discusses the example answers. The instructor will collect
everyoneís assignment, and then redistribute them such that no one receives their
own paper. Students will then critically evaluate each otherís criticism, just
like the class did for the example answers. Students should be encouraged to
point out the strengths as well as the weaknesses of each otherís work. However,
students should be required to identify at least a few things that could be
improved upon. When students have written comments on each otherís papers,
the instructor can collect everything. The instructor can then evaluate and
add comments to each authorís paper. The instructor can also evaluate each
Hardin claims that if we help poor countries, we will run out of resources. He thinks we
should let poor people die. But Hardin fails to recognize that would basically be murder,
and murder is wrong. So, Hardin's conclusion is false.
Hardin pretty much says that it is poor people's own fault for being poor. He says that
people in poor countries are having more kids than they can afford. But who is he to
say that they are having to many kids? Does he know why they have kids? What if
they need to have kids to help work on the farm? How would Hardin like it if he
were in their shoes? Would he like to be poor?
Hardin claims that people in the lifeboat have a right to life. But, he also claims that
we should let the poor people drown. But the poor people outside the lifeboat are also
persons, and so they also have a right to life. So, Hardin is being inconsistent.
Hardin argues for the claim that rich countries ought not provide resources for poor countries.
Several premises he uses to argue for this claim are false or implausible. First, rich
countries are not analogous to lifeboats. Second, it is not necessarily true that poor
countries will never learn to manage their own resources if we provide them with
assistance. Third, he assumes that people in rich countries have a right to the
resources of that country. But, this is not obviously true. Despite what he says,
Hardin's view fails to establish any moral distinction between Non-Native Americans
and other immigrants.
Hardin, for some reason, seems to assume that we cannot help feed starving people
while encouraging them to adopt population control policies, by, for example,
providing them with birth control.
Hardin claims that if rich countries give resources to poor countries, then poor
countries will never learn how to manage their own resources. But, this is not
true. The Red Cross has helped millions of people every year. In fact,
several agencies have successfully helped to save millions of children from
hunger and disease.
Hardin argues that rich countries ought not provide resources for poor countries.
One argument he gives for this claim assumes that rich countries are analogous to
lifeboats. People on a lifeboat have no moral obligation to help those in the
water because if they did try, then everyone would drown. Rich countries,
however, are not analogous to lifeboats with a limited amount of resources
and where everyone's life is seriously threatened. People living in rich
countries are in no danger of facing serious peril by helping those in poor
countries. Rich countries, such as the U.S., have an enormous abundance of
resources. Farmers often produce so much grain that it ends up rotting in
silos before anyone can use it.