Audio Version (September 2021):
Decide what’s important
It can be empowering to learn to identify problems in arguments; we may start to see flaws everywhere in the arguments we encounter in everyday life, as well as in college or in professional settings. Finding a problem, however, does not necessarily mean the argument is completely invalid. In the process of summarizing and then questioning all the aspects of an argument, we will probably identify many strengths and/or flaws. These form the starting point for an overall assessment.
Think of the parallel to a Yelp or Amazon review of a product. We might appreciate some aspects of the product and have frustrations with others, but we need to decide how many stars to give it and we need to have a short caption for our whole review. Then in the text of the review, we can explain why we rated the product the way we did in more detail, exploring the particular strengths and weaknesses.
Even though we don’t give stars when we write a paper assessing the strength of an argument, readers will still want an overall sense of how strong or weak we find the argument to be. How serious are any flaws? To write an essay assessing the argument, we have to decide what to emphasize in our thesis statement or topic sentence. Neither of these needs to mention everything we found when assessing the argument; it can focus on one or two highlights.
Sometimes we come away from an argument with a very clear sense of what the most important strengths or weaknesses are. Other times, as we are practicing slow thinking and doing a thorough job of considering the argument from many angles, we will need some strategies to figure out what to emphasize.
Sort the strengths and weaknesses into categories
One place to start is to make a list of the strengths and weaknesses of the argument that emerged as we checked the argument for clarity, evidence, assumptions, exceptions, and counterarguments. Let’s take the example of an assessment of Swigart’s border argument, “The Weight of the World” which we summarized in Section 3.9: Comparing and Contrasting Arguments. Let’s say that we have applied all the assessment strategies described earlier in this chapter and come up with the following list of strengths and weaknesses.
Sample list of strengths and weaknesses
Swigart relies on the idea that all Americans consider themselves American first, human second; however, many Americans believe the opposite and maintain that alleviating human suffering is their first moral duty.
Swigart writes, “An influx of immigration… strains a nation's resources.” This ignores the fact that immigrants bring in at least as much as they take in the form of labor. Entire sectors of industry rely on the labor of immigrants.
Swigart asserts that illegal immigration endangers national security, but she fails to support the claim, while ignoring evidence that illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than American citizens.
Swigart gives a distorted version of the argument for supporting refugees when she writes, “It is unjust, impractical, and unrealistic for one nation to solve the problems of so many non-citizens.” No one is arguing that we have to solve all the problems of people who immigrate. Also, the focus in this sentence on the problems of non-citizens distracts us from the fact that immigrants actually solve some problems for American citizens.
Swigart sees only two extreme options for managing the border, an open border or a closed one, when in fact there are other strategies for maintaining security.
Swigart assumes that breaking the law is by definition unethical, but she has not considered Martin Luther King Jr.’s contention that, in fact, we are obligated to disobey ordinances that are morally wrong.
Strategies for organizing the list
As we read the list of strengths and weaknesses, we can try these techniques to help us come up with a much shorter overview:
Try putting the strengths and weaknesses in order from most important to least important. This may help us decide what to highlight in our thesis.
Look for something that one or more of the strengths and/or weaknesses have in common. Can we group some of them together? Is there a larger category they fall into? If we can combine two or more under one category, then we only need to mention that category in the thesis rather than listing the individual points.
In the case of the assessment of Swigart’s “The Weight of the World,” we may notice that the first and last points are about ethics and morality. The rest of them critique the evidence Swigart offers about practical considerations of cost and benefit for American citizens.
If the moral critique seems most important to us, we could focus on it in our thesis thus:
Thesis: Swigart’s argument on immigration policy is fatally flawed because it does not consider any moral basis for our behavior toward people who are trying to enter the United States. It offers only national self-interest as a motivating factor.
On the other hand, if the practical issue of costs and benefits seems more important, we might come up with a thesis statement like this:
Thesis: Ultimately, Swigart’s argument fails to convince because it is based on faulty evidence that immigration is bad for American citizens. She ignores the ways immigration benefits American citizens economically and results in lower crime rates.
Phrases for overall assessments
In our overall assessment, we want to make it clear to what extent we agree, disagree, or partially agree with an argument. Here are a few phrases we can use:
- X offers an important contribution to our understanding of ____________ by showing that ____________.
- With sound reasoning and evidence, X presents a convincing case for ____________.
- All in all, X makes a compelling argument that ____________.
Mixed positive and negative assessments
- While X makes an important point about ____________, they fail to explain ____________.
- Although the argument ____________ has some merit, we should question____________.
- X makes a plausible case for ____________, but they don’t give enough evidence to convince us fully that ____________.
- X makes some valid observations on ____________, but their conclusion that ____________ is wrong because ____________.
- X completely fails to convince us of ____________, largely because ____________.
- The fatal flaw in X’s argument is that ____________.
- The problem with X’s whole approach is that it ignores something crucial: ____________.
Organizing the assessment essay
Once we have the overview or thesis of our assessment, we will need to decide how and in what order to explain the details. In most cases, an assessment starts with a summary of the argument. We don’t assume our readers have also read the argument we are talking about.
If our overall assessment has more than one part, we might consider dedicating a paragraph or more to each part with explanation and support. Strengths and weaknesses from our original list might each be explored in a whole paragraph of an assessment essay. In a shorter assessment, we might spend a sentence or two explaining each point before moving on to the next. For an example of a paragraph-long assessment, see the final paragraph of the Sample Assessment: “Typography and Identity.”
Sample assessment essay outline
Let’s take one of the sample theses assessing Swigart’s “The Weight of the World” and look at one way to organize an essay based on it.
Thesis: Ultimately, Swigart’s argument fails to convince because it is based on faulty evidence that immigration is bad for America. She ignores the ways in which immigration benefits American citizens and results in lower crime rates.
- Paragraph 1: Summarize and critique Swigart’s evidence that undocumented immigrants pose a security risk.
- Paragraph 2: Summarize and critique Swigart’s evidence that needy immigrants would disproportionately use expensive social services.
- Paragraph 3: Point out the need to factor in the labor and tax contributions of immigrants when assessing the financial picture.
The next step: making our own recommendation
Given the strengths and weaknesses we’ve uncovered, we probably have our own ideas to add about how to build on the writer’s points, fix the argument, or offer a different way to look at the issue. There are many ways to follow up on your critique, as we will see in the next chapter on making recommendations in response to an argument.
Imagine that you have made the following list of strengths and weaknesses of the argument “Wouldn’t We All Cross the Border?” that we looked at in Chapters 2 and 3. Come up with at least two groups of points that have something in common. For each group, write a possible thesis statement that combines the points and emphasizes their importance.
Mills assumes that we should base our moral standards on our feelings, but she does not justify or defend this idea.
Mills does not explain how it could be possible to ensure security without stopping people who don’t have permission from crossing the border.
Mills’ argument depends on finding a way to distinguish between people who genuinely have no other option but to escape their countries of origin and those who simply prefer to live in the U.S.
Mills does not consider that our personal concern for our families can lead to unethical actions. For example, some people use their influence in unfair ways to do favors for family members.
Mills mentions a counterargument about security but does not go into any detail about how serious the threats are.
Mills assumes that an impoverished family would be making a good decision by immigrating to the U.S., when in fact such a decision would involve many dangers and costs.
Mills assumes that the only way the U.S. could help desperate people in other countries would be by allowing them to immigrate.
Mills provides no researched, real-life examples of desperate undocumented immigrants and their reasons for immigrating.
Mills reminds us of something fundamental: our immigration policy should follow the Golden Rule: we must treat others as we would want to be treated.
Written by Saramanda Swigart and adapted by Anna Mills, licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.