Writing a critique of another person's argument

    
2003 Theodore Gracyk  

 

 

What is an argument critique? 

How do I get started? 

Challenging their premises/assumptions 

Identifying a hole in the argument 

Challenging the conclusion 

Final advice 

 A brief example 

Click here for a sample essay    Click here for another 


A critique is an evaluation. A critique or critical essay evaluates what someone has said. 

Some critiques are analyses of writing, as when one critiques a novel or poem for an English course. 

This outline covers a different kind of critique, a critique of the person's thinking. Thinking cannot be strictly divorced from matters of language use, but here we are going to focus on evaluation of the rationality of a person's position, not on evaluation of the person's facility in communicating it. To put it crudely, this sort of critique focuses on content and not presentation.

The simplest type of argumentative essay is one that simply criticizes the position of an opponent. There are only a limited number of strategies to adopt with this sort of essay.

Your thesis will be very straightforward. It will take one of these forms: 

Person so-and-so is wrong to conclude __________. 
Person so-and-so is hasty in concluding __________.
Person so-and-so fails to prove that ____________.

(Fill in the blank with their position, and put their name where it says "Person so-and-so") The rest of your essay consists of your reasons supporting this thesis.


Getting Started  

Before you start writing, study and take apart their argument for their position. You are looking for the parts of their argument. 

An argument consists of three things:

  • Assumptions 
  • Premises 
  • Conclusions

(Premises are reasons they give to prove that they're correct. Conclusions are anything they give reasons to believe. Some of these conclusions are likely to be used as premises for later conclusions. Assumptions are undefended beliefs they hold in order for the argument to make sense.)  

There are three basic strategies for criticizing the argument once you have identified it.

  1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions (take away their support).
  2. Show that there's a hole in the argument (show that they didn't provide support).
  3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable (direct assault on thesis).

Let's review these one by one.

1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions

The simplest critique will focus exclusively on the assumptions and premises, arguing that one or more is false. To be effective, therefore, the essay will start by identifying the central premises and assumptions. (So the first stage of the evaluation is to summarize your opponent's argument) The essay will then focus on the ones that you think are weakest, discussing them one at a time and giving reason not to agree with them. Don't just say that you agree or disagree! That simply identifies your position as different  (resulting in a "compare and contrast" essay), but it does not provide evaluation of the other person's position. 

There are three basic strategies for showing that we should not agree to a premise or assumption.

  • We can give good reasons to regard it as false.
  • We can show that it directly contradicts something we know is true.
  • We can show that there are no good reasons to believe it.

The first two of these three strategies are simpler than the third. The third involves reviewing all of the reasons that someone might give for the claim and then showing that all of those reasons are weak. Obviously, this is very time-consuming. It's much simpler to argue that the claim is false or contradicts something we know is true.

So how do you show that a claim is false?

These are best strategies for arguing that a premise or assumption is false:

  • Describe a personal experience you've had that shows it is false.
  • Cite a reliable authority who says it is false.
  • Assume that it is true and then show that this assumption leads to something else that is false or highly questionable. (Technically, this is to construct a reductio ad absurdum.) 

2. Show that there's a hole in the argument 
  (show that the conclusion simply does not follow from what has been said)

Sometimes we cannot find good objections to the premises and assumptions, but we can show that the conclusion does not really follow from the ones offered by the arguer. This happens when the evidence might be true, but the arguer does not offer enough of it or the right kind. Perhaps their evidence only supports a different but weaker thesis.

For example, the arguer might want to argue that there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Their premise in defense of this thesis is that it is traditional to eat meat in our culture. We can respond that the truth of the premise does not demonstrate the conclusion. Human slavery is also a traditional practice, but hardly demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with human slavery. Since tradition does not justify slavery, it doesn't justify eating meat, either.

Here is another example, from philosophy: Some philosophers contend that innate ideas do not exist. As evidence they point to mathematics as a candidate for innate ideas and then point out that nobody has ever seen a newborn baby doing mathematical calculations. We might respond that the evidence is true, but point out that we don't see evidence of it because newborns can't talk and can't manipulate objects that allow them to draw diagrams and write out math problems. Their inability to do these things might still allow them have innate mathematical ideas in advance of being able to communicate them in the usual ways.

The more you know about argument fallacies and what it takes to put together a strong argument, the easier it is to critique arguments.

3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable

This approach ignores the premises and assumptions in favor of focusing attention on the conclusion. The problem with this strategy is that you will have to have a very good reason to deny the conclusion is true when you cannot point to flaws in the reasoning that supports it! It suggests that you are just being stubborn and refusing to look at the evidence! About the only thing that you can do in this case is to construct a powerful reductio ad absurdum.  Other strategies (offering evidence that it is false, or showing that reliable authorities reject it) are weak here because they still leave the opponent's evidence right where it was, supporting the conclusion, leaving the impression that there are good arguments both ways. We might conclude that the matter is undecided and not that the opponent's thesis is false.

So while a direct assault on the conclusion is a questionable strategy, it is powerful when paired with one or both of the other two.  


Final advice

  • Be fair! Be accurate in summarizing the arguments you critique.
  • Be thorough. Deal with all of the arguments!
    Obviously, most arguers will give several different reasons in support of their conclusion. A critique usually begins with the strongest of them, and proceeds to examine each of them, one at a time. It is wrong to focus only on the weaker arguments when several are given, for this is to misrepresent the strength of the opponent's position by committing the fallacy of straw man. If there are a lot of arguments to deal with, the best strategy is to focus directly on the conclusion you want to dispute, and concentrate on showing it is false or questionable.
  • Stay on task. Do not get personal! Do not shift attention to the person who wrote the argument. The person who gives the argument is not the issue.

Pulling it all together

 

A Simple Example

Here is a short argument : "Frank is jerk. Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk." 

Suppose that's all that's said to prove that Frank is a jerk (which is the conclusion). So the only premise is "Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk." But there are at least two assumptions. One is that Frank has a daughter. The other is that Frank isn't paying child support for that daughter. This offers three places to begin criticizing the argument.

We might start by disputing the premise, by pointing to several good counterexamples (men who fail to pay child support but who are not jerks). In this case, that's not hard to do. Some men don't pay child support because they are unemployed and have no income, in which case they might fail to pay through no fault of their own.  We can also attack the assumptions. We might say that Frank can't be held responsible for the child support until there's clear evidence that he's the child's father, but the argument has assumed that without offering evidence of it. Or we might produce evidence that Frank does pay the child support.

After examining the premises and assumptions, we try to find a hole in the argument.  In this case, that won't work, because the argument is valid (i.e., deductively successful).

Finally, we could just attack the conclusion directly by pointing out all of Frank's good qualities. (If Frank were a jerk, he wouldn't have all these good qualities. But he has them. So he's not a jerk.) We might admit that Frank should pay the money, but that it's too strong a conclusion to accuse him of being a jerk.

 


Reductio ad absurdum 

Latin for "reduction to the absurd." 

This argument strategy takes an opponent's claim (either a premise or assumption or conclusion) and argues that its truth would lead us to accept something completely absurd, ridiculous, or impossible.

Example: Someone defends vegetarianism by saying that it is unethical to live by killing. A reductio ad absurdum reply might go like this: 

You say that it is wrong to live by killing. But there are 6 billion people in the world today. If it is wrong for anyone to live by killing, then these 6 billion will have to find food sources that don't kill anything, including plants. We will only be able to eat parts of plants that we can get without killing the plant (some fruits and vegetables), plus plants and animals that die naturally (we could eat "road kill" and harvest potatoes and carrots after the plant dies). But people could not harvest wheat and similar grains in sufficient quantity to make up for the meat and other food that they currently eat, since that involves killing the plant to get the grain. So your recommendation would withhold food from most of the world's six billion people, because there will not be enough "ethical" food to go around. But a course of action that will result in most people starving themselves to death is not ethical, so it does not make sense to claim that t is wrong for anyone to live by killing.

 

2003 Theodore Gracyk

            Last updated August 24, 2012