Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format

Step Four: Hitting Back: A Response to a Specific Premise in the Possible Criticism

            These essays are designed to measure the strengths of reasons for/against a position. The next step in the essay is to determine how strong the possible criticism is. Find its weakest premise and try to refute it. For this step in the argument, your target statement will just be the weak premise from the possible criticism.  Quote the target and the weak premise, and then argue that it is false. If you can do that, then the possible criticism is weak and your target claim (from step one and two) has been vindicated. If you cannot refute a premise in the possible criticism, then the criticism is strong and your target claim has been unsupported. Of course, none of these steps need to produce absolute certainty. There are two different target claims under discussion here: the one your essay is about, and the one you are challenging. They are not the same claims.

            How do you determine which statement (from Step Three) to challenge? First, determine which statements serve as support for the possible criticism. Then determine which of the support statements is most controversial and construct an argument against it. Step Three is reproduced below with the support statements, or premises, underlined.

            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.

            B and C support A. A and D together support E. So to challenge this reasoning presents a criticism of B, C, or D.

            In addition, one can challenge inferences from premises to a conclusion. If B and C are put forth as supporting A, then a response might challenge the claims that B and C do in fact support A. In what follows, we present a response that challenges statement D. See if you can determine how the reader should know that, and what the reasoning is against statement D.

            One might, in response, argue against the claim that the same moral principle holds in international law: prior to an invasion by Yugoslavia, the use of force against Yugoslavia is not justified. Morality governing relations between nations differs significantly from morality between individuals. Individuals, unlike nations, are particularly vulnerable. We protect individuals from unjust force being used against them by maintaining a high standard of proof of wrongdoing. That protection is important to us because we are aware of past abuses of power by police. So we constrain police action in order to protect potentially innocent individuals against unjust uses of force.

            The writer makes it clear in the first sentence that he/she is presenting a possible challenge to statement D. This is known by the use of the phrase, “one might in response argue,” and because statement D is repeated. The reasoning against statement D is that there is a difference between individuals and nations. Individuals are, in a unique way, vulnerable to abuses of power.

            In constructing the argument for Step Four, follow the guidelines for avoiding weak arguments already announced in Step Three.

            Summary of Step Four

- In your topic sentence, make it clear that you are presenting a response to Step Three. Make it clear with sentence from Step Three you are targeting.

- Present a strong and convincing argument as your response.

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

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

- The structure for your response indicator in Five-Step Web-checked practice essays: the first statement of the paragraph should contain the phrase, “One might, in response, argue against the claim that,” followed by the premise from Step Three to which you are responding.


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