Critical Thinking & Information Literacy
Across the Curriculum
Raising Objections to an Argument
For your research paper, you will need to consider an objection to your view. This is
a difficult thing to do. Generally, we hold the views we do because we think there
are no good objections against them. So, this part of the paper will force you to try
to think about the issue from a different perspective. The issue you will be considering
will be controversial, so hopefully you have some idea of the sorts of arguments people on
both sides of the issue have made. Thinking about the counter-arguments you have heard
will help you to think of possible objections to your view. After presenting a
counter-argument to your view, you will need to defend your original position.
You do this by giving an objection to the counter-argument, or by showing how the
counter-argument is flawed in some way. Below are some strategies that may help you
think about how to effectively object to a view, or defend your view against a
Strategies for criticizing an argument
First of all, it is very important to keep in mind that there is no single formula that
always works in criticizing an argument. Every argument is different, and so different
strategies will be effective for different arguments. Some strategies lend themselves
better to certain arguments. For example, some arguments have controversial premises.
In this case, it is probably best to argue against one of the premises. Other
arguments however, will have premises that seem very plausible. In this case,
it may be better to think about whether the conclusion really follows from the
premises (even if they are true), or perhaps you might try to refute the argument
indirectly. Below are some things to keep in mind for each objection strategy.
1. Provide an argument that one or more of the premises is false.
This is the most common way to criticize an argument. We saw a good example of this
already. Remember one of Hardin’s arguments:
Rich countries are analogous to lifeboats.
Poor countries are analogous to people drowning in the water.
People in life boats do not have an obligation to help those drowning in the water,
because if they did, everyone would die.
Therefore, Rich countries have no obligation to help poor countries.
Objection: Hardin assumes that rich countries are analogous to poor countries, but this
seems dubious. The people on lifeboats have scarce resources such that if they give
any of their resources to the people drowning in the water, there is a very good chance
everyone will die. But rich countries have an overabundance of resources. Rich
countries such as the U.S., however, produce more food than people can eat.
Farmers often produce so much grain that it ends up rotting in grain silos before
anyone can consume it. So, no U.S. lives would be seriously threatened if we gave
away some of our resources to poor countries. In this way, rich countries are not
analogous to lifeboats. Therefore, Hardin’s first premise is false.
Tips: When you argue that a premise is false, make sure you make explicit:
a) what premise of the argument you are objecting to, and b) why the author
(or position) needs that premise to be true in order for their argument to succeed.
Make sure that the premise you are attributing to the author is one they in fact rely
on in the argument. Also, be sure that when you use this strategy, you provide an
argument that the premise is false. Don’t just stamp your foot and declare it to
be false – you have to give reasons for why reasonable people should find the premise
dubious. If you just say it is false without saying why, you risk begging the question
against the author.
2. Show that the argument is not valid or not strong.
This is a difficult strategy to use if the argument is a very complicated one. That is,
if you are examining a complicated argument, it may be more difficult to tell whether
the conclusion follows from the premises. But, if the premises of the argument do not
seem to lend support for the conclusion, then this sort of strategy can be extremely
effective, because you do not have to debate the plausibility of the premises.
Here’s an example of an argument and an objection that employs this strategy:
1. Human beings, in virtue of their biology, have a natural tendency to survive.
2. Euthanasia acts contrary to this natural tendency.
3. Therefore, euthanasia is morally wrong.
Objection: Let us suppose that the premises of this argument are true. Nonetheless,
the conclusion does not follow. We have several natural tendencies that are the
result of our biology, but that doesn’t make acting against these tendencies
morally wrong. For example, we might have, in virtue of our biology, a natural
tendency to be selfish. Of course, we do not think that performing self-less
actions for the good of others is morally wrong. So, just because we have a
natural tendency against something, it does not follow that it is wrong.
Therefore, the above argument is weak.
Tips: You can show that an argument is invalid or weak by offering a counter-example
to the argument. In the above objection, the author attempts to give a counter example
to the argument that because something is unnatural, it is wrong. That is, the author
attempts to show that the argument is weak by giving another instance when something
is unnatural, but we do not think it is wrong. This helps to show that something’s
being unnatural is not good evidence for its being morally wrong. What is good
about the author’s counter-example here is that it consists of a plausible premise:
“We have a natural tendency to be selfish”, and a conclusion that is clearly false:
“Acting for the good of others is morally wrong.” This makes it clear that the
premises, even if true, doesn’t provide good evidence for the conclusion.
One way that it is easy to go wrong with this strategy is by misrepresenting the argument
you are objecting to. If you think an argument is invalid, make sure that you are using
the Principle of Rational Discussion in interpreting the argument. Remember - some
arguments will need to be repaired. It is only after you have judged the argument
to be unrepairable that you should use this strategy.
3. Show that the conclusion is false.
This is perhaps the most difficult strategy to use effectively. The reason is that you
do not want to beg the question against your opponent. Imagine a debate between a
Pro-Life and a Pro-Choice advocate:
Pro-Lifer: We all agree that it is wrong to inflict pain on living creatures. That
is why we think animal cruelty is wrong. Well, fetuses develop pain receptors by
the 10th week of pregnancy. Abortions after the 9th week, then, will inflict pain
on a living creature. Therefore, abortion is wrong.
How can the Pro-Choice advocate respond? She cannot effectively respond by
Pro-Choicer: Yeah, but it is false that abortion is wrong, so your argument is mistaken.
She cannot effectively respond this way, because this response begs the very questions
at stake. That is, it just asserts that abortion is wrong, which was the proposition
we were arguing about!
If you are going to show that the conclusion of an argument is false, you have to give
some independent argument for why we should think it is false. This can be a good
strategy to use for either a) arguments that seem valid and the premises are
difficult to verify, or b) strong arguments with plausible premises. For example:
1. The pilot on the plane reported having trouble with the jet’s tail.
2. Therefore, it is likely that a malfunction in the tail caused the crash.
Objection: This argument may initially seem plausible, but scientists working on the
wreckage for months have found no problem with the tail. They now believe that the
tail would have been working properly at the time of the crash. This suggests that
something else caused the jet to crash.
In this case, the objection works, because it shows that there is reason, despite the
argument, for thinking that the conclusion is false. Notice that this objection does
not just ignore the original argument, rather, the objection tries to show that there
are better reasons for thinking that the conclusion is false.
4. Indirectly Refuting an Argument: Reducing to the Absurd.
This strategy involves objecting to an argument by showing that the conclusion, or the
premises of the argument lead to either a) a contradiction, or b) absurd, or highly
counter-intuitive consequences. We basically saw this sort of strategy in the article
about John Rocker that we read. The Seattle Times had argued:
1. John Rocker said racist things about New Yorkers.
2. It is wrong to say things that upset people.
3. Therefore, he ought to be punished.
The Objection: The Times is claiming that it is wrong to say things that upset people.
But, we have the right to free speech in this country. So, the Times must be claiming
that speech that upsets people ought not be protected by the First Amendment. But,
if this were the case, then the Times itself would not be protected by the First
Amendment, as it often prints things that upset people. Of course, it is absurd
to think that the Times ought not be protected by the First Amendment. Thus, the
Times was wrong to argue that Rocker ought to be punished for saying things
that upset people.
Tips: When using this strategy, be careful not to commit the slippery slope
fallacy by accident. (See Epstein, p. 156-7 for more on this). Again, be sure that
you are correct in the claims you attribute to an author.
5. Showing that an argument has committed an informal fallacy.
This is really just a variation on strategy #2. We will me learning more informal
fallacies up through Chapter 11. The more familiar you are with informal fallacies,
the easier it will be to spot those fallacies in arguments. In general, when you
claim that an argument commits an informal fallacy, the same tips that applied to
strategy 2 will also apply here. Also remember that in giving an objection to an
argument, it is just as important for you to avoid committing a fallacy, such as
Strawman, Slippery Slope, or Begging the Question.