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Find the generalizations and question them
We can check an argument by looking for possible exceptions to any generalization it makes. Sometimes the main claim may be a generalization, and sometimes a generalization may serve as a reason. Arguments that start with a generalization and then apply it to specific cases are known as deductive arguments. Those that use specific examples to arrive at a general conclusion are known as inductive arguments. Either way, if we see a general statement, we should ask ourselves whether it is true in all cases or whether we can identify any case that doesn’t fit the pattern.
If there is an exception that the argument hasn’t accounted for, that may point us to a weak spot that we should mention in our assessment. Often, a particular claim or reason may sound plausible, but we need to slow down and ask if it is true in all cases. For example, take the following argument:
The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech to all Americans. Therefore, teachers have the right to express themselves freely in the classroom.
This is a deductive argument that starts with a general statement about a right of all Americans and applies it to a specific group (teachers) in a specific setting (the classroom). But is the general statement always true? Does the First Amendment really guarantee absolute freedom to say whatever we want in any situation? U.S. courts have recognized many exceptions to this freedom. For example, doctors are not allowed to discuss confidential patient information without permission. No one is allowed to call for immediate acts of violence. Teachers may not tell students to go out and shoot the president. "Hate speech" is also prohibited: a teacher does not have the right to spout racial slurs. Another exception that applies to this case is not so widely known: the First Amendment does not apply when a person is working for an employer. Unless there is a local law protecting employee speech, an employer can tell workers what they are and are not allowed to say on the job.
The original argument does not mention any of these exceptions. By pointing this out, we can show that the argument as expressed is invalid. If it isn’t always true that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, then we cannot necessarily conclude that teachers in classrooms are guaranteed freedom of speech. Deductive arguments depend on a generalization to reason about specifics. If we disprove the generalization, we won’t be able to use it to make the claim.
Exceptions are not always so damaging to an argument. Let’s look at an inductive argument that uses examples to make a general claim. If we uncover an exception to this general claim, it may not invalidate the whole argument. For example, let’s take the following argument:
Across the country, we have seen so many cases of teachers openly expressing their political beliefs in the classroom. This country’s teachers behave as if their First Amendment rights extend to the workplace, but indoctrinating students is an abuse of power.
We can surely think of teachers who do not express political beliefs in the classroom. An assessment could critique this argument for not acknowledging that. Clearly, though, the entire argument is not invalidated by these exceptions. The claim would need to be limited, perhaps by placing the word “some” or “many” in front of “teachers.”
Phrases for pointing out exceptions
Here are some sample ways to critique an argument for ignoring a plausible exception:
The argument is based on the idea that _____________, but this is not entirely true because _____________.
The reason given is that _____________, but the author has not considered the possibility that, in fact, _____________.
The author does not acknowledge that _____________ might be the case.
Common types of arguments that leave out exceptions
We can look for exceptions with any argument, but there are two particular patterns worth learning about so we can spot them quickly. These patterns are known as the false dilemma fallacy and the loaded question fallacy.
Sometimes an argument asserts that there are only two or three options, when in fact there may be others. This is often called a false dilemma or false choice fallacy. If the writer is arguing for something that obviously has downsides, they may present it as the lesser of two evils. However, we should always ask whether those two are really the only options. For example, consider the following argument:
Americans are faced with a choice: either we open our borders or we turn our backs on the needs of desperate people. Clearly, the only ethical course is to open our borders.
There are other ways to try to help desperate people. As a country, we give billions in direct aid and security assistance to struggling countries every year and could conceivably give more to the countries migrants are escaping. Other possible options would be to establish refugee camps at the border, or to allow people to enter the U.S. temporarily but not permanently. These options may or may not be good ones, but the point is that the way this argument has presented the choice as an either/or is misleading.
Here is a sample way to point out a false dilemma:
The argument presents only two possibilities,_____________ and _____________, when in fact it could be the case that _____________
Sometimes a false dilemma is implied when an argument asks a question with an obvious answer, a question phrased in such a way that it pushes us to agree with the author without examining the real range of possibilities. This loaded question implies that there are only two options, one of them very bad. As an example, we can reframe the statement from the false dilemma example as a question and answer:
Can we justify turning our backs on the needs of desperate people? There is no justification for such selfishness. The time has come to open our borders.
The argument would be more transparent and less manipulative if it tried to prove that other ways of helping desperate people, such as direct aid in people’s countries of origin, would not do enough.
We can critique a loaded question with a sentence like this:
The question _____________ assumes that _____________, when, in fact, it could be that_____________.
Consider the following argument: “Technology is so much a part of all aspects of our lives now that we cannot do without it.”
What exceptions could you point out to either the claim, “We cannot do without it,” or the reason, “Technology is so much a part of all aspects of our lives now”?
Use one of the phrases from this section or a phrase of your own to critique the argument.
Would the argument be valid if it just narrowed its focus? Or does the exception reveal a fundamental problem with the argument?