Saturday, February 19, 2011

Alternatives to Investigating Issues through Argument Papers

In this post I will (1) highlight the "opposing arguments" approach to issue-based papers, (2) identify some problems I see with that approach, (3) explain how I developed an alternative approach that I’ve been using in my courses, (4) offer a basic outline of the approach, and (5) close with some questions I have for readers.

 (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.

(5) Questions

  • 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

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.


  1. I really like the system you've developed here. I was taught using the "opposing arguments" approach you outlined, and that's how I've been teaching -- I think your method captures the intent of the OA approach but does a much better job of unpacking that intent and making it accessible.

    I'm definitely trying this out in the fall, thanks for sharing it!

  2. Thanks Asur,

    Let me know how it works. And if some component of it does not go so well, don't be afraid to say so, and offer advice, critique. I know in a certain sense this is similar to some of the decision / procedural frameworks out there (

    I've always liked those in the sense that they push the writer to be more technical, organized, concrete; those are the features of the framework that I developed that I like to push, when I assign it in my classes. Many students new to philosophy come to it thinking that philosophy is about expressing their "personal thoughts", they tend to take this same approach to constructing an analysis of an issue, too. In other words, they take this to be a chance to go buck wild with creativity, and their own flair. Perhaps that is okay to some degree, when they get to higher level courses.

    I always tell students (and this is the way I trained people when I worked in hospitality too): let me show you one way of doing it. I want you to practice it, until you have it down, and then...make it your own, later on down the line.

    There's room for creative thinking when it comes to thinking outside the box about who and what is at stake. There's also room for creative thinking when it comes to the Reflection section that comes after the Final Judgment section (I didn't include that in this post).

    If you'd like to check out the "template" I assign for this framework, see below. Beware, it's scary on first viewing. That's what students tell me. I spend a whole session walking them through it, though, since I take one of my tasks as a teacher of gen ed philosophy courses to be helping them learn how to write a credible, objective, critical analysis of a debatable issue.

    Feel free to use it, adapt it to your needs, etc.


  3. Karla, I really like the spirit of this approach. It definitely helps to counteract an impression students often get from philosophy, namely, that it's contentious down to the core and takes nothing for granted. This framework can help them to see that not everything is contentious: that certain facts or definitions are not in dispute, nor is the validity of certain inferences, etc. Students might then see that even though philosophical disagreements have broad consequences, they often turn on narrower issues or questions. In other words, my guess is that this approach helps students make progress in understanding the epistemology of philosophy. A big step forward!

    And yes, the simple dichotomous OA approach tends to suppress rather than stimulate critical thinking. And there's a lot of that dichotomous thinking in philosophy course materials (witness the whole 'Taking Sides' series of textbooks). I think instructors take the OA approach to encourage students to focus on core philosophical issues, but that presupposes students know how to identify those issues. Your approach is likely to help students learn how to identify these issues in the first place. In other words, we try to build their understanding of the issues rather than assuming it.

  4. The OA approach is useful, but I think it is overused.

    I think Michael is right that it leads to philosophy getting a bad name -- that it is destructive at the core, essentially seeking to take things apart with no end in sight. It certainly teaches people to "takes sides and fight" and to mostly exploit technical points in argument (AKA nitpick).

    Surely there's a place for all of that, but I think philosophers tend to overuse it, particularly in the classroom.

    In fact, it could be a reason (I suspect anyway) why women (generally) shy away from philosophy after the intro level. It's agonistic when used this way.

    One thing I've tried in ethics courses is a common value approach using virtue-neutral language (at least at the class level). So, in a discussion of abortion, I ask people who have already "sided up" how folks on the other side might be seen as embodying various virtues. Seeing this actually leads to a bit of critical thinking about the other side's positions. It also leads to better discussions, since each side stops demonizing the other side and instead tries to think through how good people can disagree about matters of substance but yet still be motivated by ethical concerns.

  5. @ Chris:

    "One thing I've tried in ethics courses is a common value approach..."

    That's what Weston does throughout his text, it was a breath of fresh air when I first discovered it. Sometimes it feels a little preachy, in places, but that's easy to overlook, given how much he highlights the "shareable terms", common ground approach. I'm still in the process of tweaking other assignments to go more in that direction, too.

    "So, in a discussion of abortion, I ask people who have already "sided up" how folks on the other side might be seen as embodying various virtues."

    Do you prompt them on particular virtues, to get them "warmed up", started, or as examples?

  6. Kayla -

    I've prompted them on courage, and then seen where they go from there. The thing is, most students (in my experience) actually don't believe in the unity of the virtues. So they think you can be courageous but yet misguided (not wise). Which is fine. The object is not for each side to think the other is the epitome of virtue, but rather to occupy a shared moral ground to have a conversation.

    To be honest, the courage prompt requires some steps. It's hard for a pro-lifer to see a pro-choicer, or someone in an abortion situation, making a courageous decision. Likewise, it is hard for the pro-choicer to say the same about the pro-lifer. However, I think virtue language is simply easier for them to agree to on questions like this because it is a step removed from the action itself (the permissibility of the abortion), which is I think where they are all keyed up.

    From courage I think it's easy to proceed into the other virtues.

  7. @ Chris,

    No problem about the "y"!

    I do something similar, I walk them through this sort of simple little framework early on, to get them to "uncover" values (another handy way of putting things that I think I got from Weston, too!):

    "So and so might think abortion is morally impermissible because s/he values ___."

    "So and so might think abortion is morally permissible because s/he values ___."

    I do this to stoke their imagination, their ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes, and also to get them further away from the dreaded "sides" perspective, and close towards a "positions" perspective. I forbid them from using "pro-choice" or "pro-life" because those are just labels; it's probably the case that individuals on both "sides" of the debate value both things, but they prioritize one or the other, for a variety of reasons.

    I also prompt them to:

    - Use the principle of charity
    - Focus on values present, or potentially underlying, not on values "violated".

    Do you use a text in your undergrad / gen ed ethics classes? If yes, which one, if you don't mind sharing?


  8. Karla: I have always found it difficult to know precisely how to assign papers. I have, in the past, successfully utilized a critical approach where students are asked to develop an argument in support of a specific conclusion and then defend the premises all within a 1000 word maximum requirement. But, I find your approach very interesting and helpful in understanding how to have students write longer, more developed and reasoned papers. Reading your 'framework,' I was reminded of a work by Marvin T. Brown called The Ethical Process that he developed to encourage a group,team based approach to moral problem solving that favors a dialogical approach over a 'debate' style approach to problem solving. I suspect that your approach would dove-tail nicely with his approach so that the entire course experience, the spoken as well as the written components, could be formalized into a unified approach. The Ethical Process is actually a workbook and I have utilized it successfully in my ethics courses.


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