Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Argument Outline Format

The goal of an argument outline is to present a thesis (a claim) in a crystal clear format, to show why someone would support that claim, and then to defend it against an attack. Debating ideas in real life is more complex than this, often including fallacies such as changing the subject or failing to be clear. The more we can practice a simplified and formalized method of presenting and defending claims, the better we will become at expressing and supporting our beliefs in the less-than-ideal circumstances of real life—and the better we will become at spotting others’ failures to support their claims.

Each argument outline should be between 5 and 10 sentences long. It should fit on a single page. Use complete sentences. Your points should be perfectly clear and devoid of ambiguity. Use examples if necessary.

For each of the assignments, I will provide you with a specific topic or choice of topics, a source of background information (you may also do your own research), and some constraints on the ethical position you may choose.

1. Issue Statement (1 to 3 sentences)
State what the problem is and why we should be concerned with finding a solution. This is the place to provide factual, historical, or political background. Do not take a stand at this point or offer a solution. You may wish to define the options. Keep the issue, as you set it up, narrow and concise. Cite your sources. Do not copy this from the assignment sheet! Formulate the problem in your own words, making it more specific if necessary.

2. Position Statement (only 1 sentence)
State your claim. You will use a word like “should” or “ought.” Be very clear! If you use the word “we,” make sure it is clear who falls into the category of “we.” Is it everyone alive? Everyone in the U.S.? College students? Utilitarians? Keep the claim focused and specific. Usually you will be referring to a specific policy action that a government should pursue or a specific behavior which individuals should engage in.

3. Support (1 or 2 sentences)
Provide one reason in support of your position. This is ethical support, not factual support, and it answers the question “Why?” not the question “How?” If you have referred to an ethical framework, then the support must be congruent with that framework.

4. Objection (1 or 2 sentences)
Consider a reasonably good objection to your position. This is difficult to do, admittedly. A rule of thumb is to pick the strongest objection you can think of. If it is so strong that you cannot find a way of responding to it, that may be a sign that your position is overstated or that you are not really committed to it. If you pick an objection that is too weak, you will miss an opportunity to strongly support your position. The objection should be one that someone might actually try to use to undermine your position.

5. Response to the objection (1 or 2 sentences)
This should respond specifically to the objection and should not be merely a restatement of #2 or #3.

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