Philosophy 164
Medical Ethics

Handout 2 - Presenting, Explaining, and Evaluating Arguments

On exams, I will often ask you to Present, Explain, and Evaluate some argument.

To Present an argument is simply to indicate what the argument is. You don't need to explain any of the terms in the argument or what you think of the argument. You are just giving the argument. The best and most clear way to Present an argument is to write down the line-by-line formulation of the argument, as it appeared on the chalkboard or on a shineup in class. You are not required to do it this way -- you can instead just write a paragraph wherein you give the argument. But be careful if you choose to do it that way -- it is easy to skip a step or leave something crucial out.

To Explain an argument is to see to it that your reader fully understands the argument you have just presented. The best and most clear way to explain an argument is to do two things for each premise of the argument: (i) define any technical terms that appear in the premise; and (ii) give the rationale for the premise.  The rationale for a premise is the reason why someone would think the premise is true. You are not yet saying whether you think the premise is actually true. Rather, you are putting yourself in the shoes of someone who would accept the argument. You are giving the reason they would give for believing the premise.  In Explaining an argument, you don't need to say anything about the conclusion.

In Explaining an argument to me, assume I don't know anything at all about the argument. So if you use some technical term (like, say, 'moral standing' or 'playing God') you need to explain what it means or what you mean by it.

To Evaluate an argument is to say whether it is valid and, most importantly, whether you think it is sound. This is where you get to express your opinion about the argument -- do you think it's a good argument?  If you say that you think the argument is unsound, you must say which premise you think is false and why you think it is false.  (In some cases, I might ask you to explain which premise a critic of the argument would deny, even if you happen to think all the premises are true.) If you are attacking an argument, keep your criticism focused. Don't bring in unrelated issues. You don't even need to say whether you think the conclusion of the argument is true or false; when you attack an argument, you are picking one premise and attacking just that claim. (Indeed, it is possible to think an argument no good even when you accept its conclusion.)