Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format

Step Three: The First Strike: The Possible Criticism

            Once you have established your target and the background context that makes sense of it, you need to show how someone might criticize it. In an argumentative essay, you do this no matter if you intend to defend or criticize the sentence. In your introductory paragraph you indicated the controversial issue which your thesis is meant to resolve. In this section you need to present, in detail, the arguments that make up one side of the controversy – the side that opposes the target claim. If the side opposing the target claim has a good argument that cannot be refuted, then that shows that the target claim is weak. If the side of the argument against the claim is weak, they presenting it will show that the claim can be defended from criticism. Defending the target claim or criticizing it requires the presentation of objections and criticisms that might be raised. Your decision at the end, on whether to defend the claim or not, should depend on whether or not you find the possible criticism strong.

            In order for this sort of dialectical analysis of a target claim to be credible, the possible criticism needs to be strong. (Just like in a law case, the lawyers for both sides must do their best). In doing analysis like this, the writer has a great deal of latitude in setting up the controversy, but not every possible criticism will work equally well. A silly criticism will be easy to refute. Such a refutation will show that the possible criticism was weak. While it will show that the target claim can be defended from a silly criticism, it will not show that the target claim is truly defensible. Logicians refer to this sort of defence of a claim as “knocking down a straw man.” It doesn’t take much effort to knock down a straw man, and anyone can do it. As such, refuting an easy or silly argument does not warrant any merit. A good possible criticism must have a good chance of being successful. The more of a chance it has, the better it is as a possible criticism.

            The possible criticism should be aimed at your target claim. Construct the strongest possible argument you can for the falsehood of that claim. For a short essay, the argument should fill a paragraph. For longer essays, which are between 5-7 pages, the criticism should have a fuller development. Criticisms are arguments, and arguments are made up of premises and conclusions. In the example given above, the first two statements are premises (or reasons) for thinking the conclusion is true. They are called deductive reasons. If the premises are true, the conclusion follows – and so must be true.

            Even though not every good argument is deductive, the critical method of formulating reasons either for or against a claim (in the form of deductive arguments) can help clarify the issues under examination. For example, one might argue against the target claim, “Citizens who criticize the customs of their country should be killed” by pointing out that following such a principle would have had us kill Martin Luther King. One can also add, “Martin Luther King was an important moral reformer. So the principle is false.” For ordinary purposes this reason is okay, but it is not deductive. In a philosophical argument, it is best to present the unstated principle that, when added, does make the argument deductive. It might be that “innocent people ought not to be killed and Martin Luther King was an innocent person. It might also be that moral reformers ought not to be killed and Martin Luther King is a moral reformer.”

            One serious pitfall in this section is that possible criticisms will not have a clear conclusion, or will not have the right conclusion. In order for this part of your essay fit with previous sections, it must have as its conclusion the negation of your possible claim. In other words, you must disprove any possible objections. If the target claim is “Alcibiades would make a better lover than Socrates,” then you need to present reasons for thinking that this claim is false. No other conclusion of this step/paragraph will do, as this will not mesh with previous (and future) portions of your essay.

An example of Step Three follows. In reading the example, see if you can answer these questions:

How do you know that the paragraph introduces a possible criticism?

How is the target of the criticism made clear?

What is the reasoning for the claim that the target is false?

            A critic might challenge the claim that NATO was justified in attacking Yugoslavia since Yugoslavia was about to engage in ethnic cleansing. Consider the analogous case of a person who in the past has been a suspected, or proven, bank robber. Suppose the police notice the suspected bank robber in the vicinity of a bank for several days in a row. They believe, based on past behaviour, that he is about to rob the bank. Suppose that they interview him and discover he is carrying a registered weapon. Would they be justified in arresting, or even shooting him, just because of their suspicions? The answer is clearly no. He has broken no laws yet. The police might want to engage him in additional conversation in order to persuade him not to rob the bank. But prior to breaking the law, arresting him (or using force) is not justified. The same moral principle holds true in international law. Prior to an invasion of Kosovo by Yugoslavia, the use of force against Yugoslavia is not justified.

            This paragraph contains a possible criticism, indicated by the words, “a critic might challenge.” The target of the possible criticism is made clear by repeating the target claim in the first sentence of the paragraph. The argument presented in response to this criticism is that the principle NATO uses to justify its aggression would be unacceptable when applied to individuals.

            In this section, and also in the next two, avoid using rhetorical questions like, “Is it not obvious that genuine lovers must value the soul of the person they claim to love?” Instead, present reasons about the claim – what it is to be a genuine lover. Questions are not arguments, even thought they often suggest one. In an argumentative essay, develop the arguments behind your rhetorical questions. Who wants to read a paper full of silly rhetorical questions anyway?

            Make sure that you are consistent in your writing. In other words, do not contradict yourself, whether explicitly or explicitly. Consider the following argument about NATO’s policy.

            NATO is morally wrong to attack a nation that has not itself been an aggressor against another nation. Moreover, all of these policy issues are matters of personal opinion. Therefore, NATO cannot claim any strong moral basis for its policy.

            You can’t have it both ways. Either there is a right or wrong for policy issues, or there isn’t. The writer first claims that NATO is wrong, and then says there is no real right or wrong. Mistakes like this are more common that you might think and should be avoided at all cost.

            Also, make sure to refute any asserted arguments, not just reject them. To assert what is at issue in the context of your argument is to ‘beg the question’. Consider the following argument about NATO’s policy.

            Potential ethnic cleansing never justifies an act of aggression against a nation. So NATO’s policy founders on this point alone.

            The first sentence does not constitute an argument, but rather just asserts a claim. To argue against a claim simply by asserting its negation is to ‘beg the question,’ or, in other words, merely assume your position is correct rather than argue for it.

Summary of Step Three

- In your topic sentence, make it clear that you are presenting a possible criticism and make it clear which sentence from Step Two you are targeting.

- Present a strong and convincing argument as your possible criticism.

- In order to clarify your argument, put it in deductive form by fully spelling out any unstated assumptions or premises.

- Avoid self-contradiction, begging the question, and rhetorical questions.

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