(1) The “opposing arguments” approach
A common approach to paper assignments in philosophy courses at the undergraduate and general education levels is to have students (1) identify or choose a problem or issue, and then, (2) write an argument paper in response. Assignment instructions tend to go something like this:
“Identify (or choose) an issue. Outline and analyze strong arguments on both sides of the issue. Identify which argument is best, and justify your position.”
“Identify (or choose) an issue. State your position in response to the issue, support it, and then outline and analyze a counterargument. Identify which argument is best, justify your position; discuss whether your view of the issue has changed in light of your analysis.”I don’t think either “opposing arguments ” technique highlighted above is very effective when it comes to investigating particular problems or issues—especially if thinking critically about the issue, and reaching an objective conclusion, is the goal. The “opposing arguments” approach tends to focus students on positions in response to the problem or issue, rather than dimensions of the problem or issue.
(2) Problems with the “opposing arguments” approach in this context
The problems I outline below are based mostly on my own experiences with teaching philosophy at the undergraduate and general education level, for a variety of institutions (non-profit and for-profit; university, state college, community college; online, hybrid, face-to-face).To keep the length of this post somewhat manageable, I've tried to keep my explanations somewhat basic.
*** The "opposing" approach makes it easier to polarize people, positions, and values.
After students identify opposing sides, they seem to automatically label each side (“pro-choice” versus “pro-life” for example) too, and then hone in on the more controversial aspects of each position. This frequently leads to, or maintains, “us versus them” thinking.
This same approach is illustrated in many of today’s for-profit, for-entertainment news and talk shows; students take their cues from those shows, and then demonstrate many of the same tactics and fallacies they observe there, in their papers (ad hominem, straw man, and red herring especially!)
*** The “opposing” approach makes it easier to overlook dimensions that can (and should) be shared.
While everyone has a right to their own opinion, no one has a right to their own facts. The facts of the matter depend on the issue, not on particular positions in response to the issue. Facts and definitions must be established first, before positions are outlined, so students (or anyone involved in a discussion) don’t simply “cherry pick” arguments that contain facts and definitions that support preconceived positions.
In other words, when students begin with, and focus on, opposing positions, they often overlook dimensions that can (and should) be shared. Those dimensions are outlined below.
(3) An alternative to the “opposing arguments” approach
An alternative approach that I’ve developed over the last two years or so was inspired by content encountered in several sources. Students in my ethics courses know the resulting approach as the “framework”.
- After ditching the “opposing arguments” approach, I had students use the Markkula decision-making framework (2009) pretty much as is for several semesters.
- In Weston's text (2007) I encountered the idea that an issue becomes an ethical issue when “basic needs” and/or “legitimate expectations” are at stake. Students understand and relate to this explanation better than any other basic explanation I've used thus far.
- In Weston's text (2007) I encountered an idea that he calls “shareable terms” (in other words, common ground terms).
- In C. E. Harris Jr. (2002), I encountered the idea of investigating ethical issues through “three dimensions”. Maybe a similar conception is elsewhere, but that was the first time I’d encountered it; this has proved to be a very effective framework in many aspects of my courses.
(4) The Framework
Okay, so you’re probably ready to see that framework already, yes? I’ll offer a simplified version it, here.
1. The issue. What is the issue? Phrase it as an arguable issue. What are the alternatives for acting?
2. Stakeholders: Who is affected by the decision either way? Which individuals, and institutions?
3. Basic needs and legitimate expectations: Which ones are at stake?
4. Conceptual dimension: Objective definitions, standards, and conceptual clarification from scholarly sources …
5. Factual dimensions: Outline evidence-based facts, use scholarly sources
6. Moral dimensions: (This is included when the issue is a moral issue.) What values are at stake here? Not whose values, but the values. Good sources for determining these are codes of conduct, and also the “basic needs and legitimate expectations” section.
7. Final conclusion / judgment: In light of all the relevant information above, what is your response to the issue, as it was stated in the beginning? Defend your position.
This framework has proved to be highly successful in many of my courses, in that it seems to keep students focused on the one issue they introduced in the beginning of the framework (no red herrings!), and help them stay objective and impartial throughout; they have tended to do a good job of keeping their personal opinions out of the process, until they reach the final judgment section. This particular framework has generated the most, by far, "Oh my gosh, I totally changed my mind on this issue after I did this paper" responses. More than any other framework or approach I've assigned.
Bonus: this framework seems more difficult to plagiarize. I think. I hope.
- Have you used the "opposing arguments" technique in your courses?
- If yes, was it used to investigate particular philosophical problems or issues?
- In yes, what were the results?
- Have you ever felt frustrated by the "opposing arguments" approach?
- If yes, why?
- What was your solution?
- Have you ever tried using something like the framework illustrated in section 4 above, instead?
- If yes, what were the results?
- If no, would you consider using something like this for problem or issue-based assignments?
- Why / not?
- What suggestions do you have for improving the framework highlighted in section 4?
And so on...
Oh: if any of you want to try this in your courses, be my guest.
A Framework for Thinking Ethically. (2009). Santa Clara University - Welcome. Retrieved February 19, 2011, from http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html
Harris, C. E. (2002). Applying moral theories (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Weston, A. (2008). A 21st century ethical toolbox (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.