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7.4: Evaluation Arguments

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    What is an evaluation argument?

    In college, professional life, politics, and everyday life, we constantly must assess how things measure up. We are faced with questions like the following:

    • Does our employer treat us fairly?
    • Does our local cafe deserve five stars or four?
    • Is the “Free City” program that makes City College of San Francisco tuition free for residents a success?
    • Is a particular hillside a good location for a wind farm? 
    • Does the president deserve their current approval rating?

    To answer each of these questions and convince others that our answer is valid, we would need to make an evaluation argument. Most commonly, evaluation arguments rate their subject on a scale from positive to negative. Evaluation arguments make a claim about the quality of something. We can think of them as answering the question "How good or bad is it?" 

    Woman pondering at a laptop, looking undecided.
    A convincing evaluation depends on careful thought about the criteria.
    Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels under the Pexels License.


    Evaluation arguments usually need to define and justify the criteria they use to make the evaluation. These criteria may consist of moral standards, aesthetic standards, or tests of successful functioning. Depending on how controversial the criteria are, the argument may need to defend and explain why they have been chosen. How can we support our choice of criteria? We may cite precedent or the authoritative sources in the field, or we may discuss the merit of the criteria in themselves by arguing for the good results they lead to and aligning them with values we believe our audience will share.


    Once we have convinced readers that the criteria for quality are valid, we will need to articulate our judgment about the extent to which the subject meets or doesn't meet those criteria.


    Finally, the argument will need to provide evidence of the way in which the subject meets or does not meet the criteria. See 4.4: Decide How Strong the Evidence Is and 12.5: Developing Paragraphs. for ideas on the types of evidence to choose from.

    Ranking criteria

    In cases where there are multiple valid criteria, the writer may need to rank them in order of importance and justify this ranking. For example, an editorial supporting Alyesha Jenkins for mayor would need to explain what the city should be looking for in a mayor at the moment. The editorial might argue that the top priority should be finding someone who has a workable plan to address the homelessness crisis. It might then go on to identify as secondary priority finding someone who has been an effective leader of a large organization. Finally, it might argue that finding a candidate who will focus on ending police brutality in the city should be the third priority.  Given these criteria, the argument might praise describe Alyesha Jenkins' concrete, popular plan on homelessness and background as a successful city supervisor and head of a law firm. It might note that her record on police brutality is limited, but we still judge her to be a strong candidate.

    Types of criteria 

    We can classify evaluative arguments by the kind of criteria they use. They may focus on aesthetics, that is the appearance or appeal of something (a movie, a work of art, or a building), or practical concerns about how something functions, or moral judgements based on values.

    Aesthetic Criteria

    What makes a great film can be an academic question or an everyday debate among friends going to the movies. Film critics and Film Studies classes try to identify clear aesthetic criteria for award-worthy movies.  Film blogger Tyler Schirado, who writes for the San Diego Film festival, details criteria including acting quality, dialogue, pacing, plot coherence, cinematography, production design, and special effects. Each of those criteria could in turn include sub-criteria.  For example, the criteria for the quality of the special effects might include both how innovative and how spectacular they are.

    Operational Criteria

    Sometimes the criteria that matter are very practical.  We use operational criteria when we are looking for certain concrete results.  What does the subject we are evaluating do?  If we want to evaluate a new car’s safety features, we will ended to see how it performs under challenging conditions. When the FDA evaluates and tests a new vaccine, they follow an set of procedures to test how the vaccine affects first cells, then animal bodies, and finally human bodies. The FDA considers the results of all these procedures to help it decide whether to approve the vaccine or not.  And if the consumer has confidence in the FDA’s standards for data collection, they can use the criteria about the vaccine’s past record of immune protection and side effects to help them decide whether or not to get vaccinated.

    Moral Criteria

    An evaluation argument based on moral criteria will claim that something is right or wrong.  It will need to appeal to shared values or make a case for a particular value that serves as criteria. Some values are nearly universal, such as honesty, reasonableness, and fairness, as we will discuss in 9.6: Moral Character. However, even values that seem universal may be defined differently by different groups. We each grow up in an environment that instills a particular set of family or cultural or religious values. These help to shape our own sense of morality, or personal values and codes that we chose to live by. 

    Many values may be unconsciously held, but a moral argument will need to articulate them explicitly in order to make its case. Remembering our discussion of assumptions in 4.5: Check the Argument’s Assumptions, we recall that each argument is based upon spoken or unspoken beliefs (warrants), such as “free speech is worthy of protection,” or “democracy is desirable,” or “cheating is wrong.” As we saw in 7.2: Tailoring an Argument to an Audience, it can be helpful to recognize our particular audience’s values and see where they align with our own. Convincing readers that we share values can enhance the sense of trust between reader and writer, as we will see in Chapter 9: How Arguments Appeal to Trust and Connection (Ethos).

    As an example, the Motion Pictures Academy includes some moral criteria as well as aesthetic criteria when it selects winners for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actors. Responding to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy of Motion Pictures decided to incorporate the value of inclusiveness into their criteria. In order to emphasize “the inclusion of people in underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and those with cognitive or physical disabilities,” they developed a new set of criteria for nominations for Best Picture. The criteria state that starting in 2024, “To be eligible for best picture, a film must meet at least two standards across four categories: ‘Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,’ ‘Creative Leadership and Project Team,’ ‘Industry Access and Opportunities’ and ‘Audience Development,’ (Rottenberg).  Each of these new criteria responds to the demands for inclusivity and equity, and is evidence that criteria can and should evolve as social morals evolve.

    Comparative Evaluation

    Many times we will need to evaluate the worth of one subject in relation to another in order to judge which is better. Of course, we will need to decide on the basis for comparison, or the criteria to be used, and make that basis clear. Then we will need to evaluate each subject according to the criteria. In comparisons, ranking the criteria will often be important because one subject may do better on one criterion and worse on another.  We'll need to know which criterion is more important in order to decide which comes out ahead overall.

    The point-by-point organizational technique described in 3.9: Comparing and Contrasting Arguments can be helpful in structuring such an essay because it allows us to write about one criterion at a time and see how both subjects compare on that one point before moving on to the next criterion. For example, we might compare the job of being a nanny with the job of being a preschool teacher.  In one section, we would compare earnings for each job, and in another section, we would discuss potential for professional growth. If nannies come out ahead on earnings and teachers come out ahead on professional growth opportunities, then we will need to rank these criteria in order of importance to decide which job to recommend.

    Sample evaluation arguments

    To get a sense of what research-based evaluation arguments look like in college classes, see this sample evaluation argument essay prompt and the sample outline to match it. For a full sample evaluation essay, see "Universal Health Care Coverage for the United States." Annotations on that essay point out how the author uses evaluation argument strategies.  We offer it in two formats:

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Reflect on the following questions to construct your own evaluation argument. 

    • What makes a person a good role model?  Choose your top three criteria.  
    • How would you rank those criteria in order of importance?
    • Choose two prominent public figures from history, pop culture or politics, dead or alive, who would be interesting to compare as role models. 
    • Evaluate each person according to the three criteria you identified. 
    • Which figure comes out as the better role model?  
    • If you ranked the criteria differently, would the other one come out ahead?
    • What is most controversial in your evaluation?  Is it the choice of criteria, the ranking of the criteria, or the idea that your figure fits certain criteria?  

    This page titled 7.4: Evaluation Arguments is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .

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