But while working through such toy examples is a helpful first step towards being a more critical thinker, we also need to be able to extract arguments from what we read in our day-to-day lives: blog posts, essays, op-eds, and social media comments, for example.
Towards that end, I’m starting a series I call “Arguments in the Wild”. I will take a piece of argument and explicitly work through the process of figuring out what the argument is. The focus won’t be on academic work but more popular fare.
We can make an analogy with learning a new language. While it is important to read and listen to very simple bits of the new language and understand what they mean, this isn’t enough to become fluent. We must also learn to understand and respond to the language as it is used by real people in real contexts. Becoming more critical thinkers is no different.
The subject this week is Ted Cruz’s op-ed “A Pressure Point for North Korea” published by the New York Times on Oct. 22, 2017.
What’s the Conclusion?
The first goal when trying to reconstruct the argument of a written work is figure out what the conclusion is. How do we do this?
A good rule of thumb is to look at both the introduction and the conclusion of the piece. That heuristic pays off for Cruz’s op-ed. Here is the first paragraph and the last paragraph:
On Oct. 31, the State Department faces a critical decision in our relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Iran-Russia-North Korea sanctions bill enacted in August included legislation I introduced that requires the secretary of state to decide whether to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism within 90 days.
We must tell the truth about the dangerous ambitions of North Korea and once again list it as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that only strengthens our hand and weakens that of Kim Jong-un. I strongly urge the State Department to relist North Korea, and to meet this challenge with the resolve it has long demanded.
Both paragraphs focus on one main claim: that the State Department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cruz urges this course of action in his conclusion and says he introduced legislation to require the Secretary of State to do so in the introduction, so we have good reason to believe that this is what Cruz believes.
Let us make this explicit as possible and write:
C) Therefore, the state department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
With the conclusion in our grasp, we can read through the piece and figure out the reasons Cruz puts forth to justify this conclusion.
Hunting For Reasons
Let’s look at Cruz’s second paragraph:
Look at the accusations against Pyongyang: the unspeakable treatment of Otto Warmbier; the assassination of a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil; collusion with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; cyberattacks on American film companies; support for Syria’s chemical weapons program; arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas; and attempts to assassinate dissidents in exile. Given this, the decision should be easy. In fact, Americans could be forgiven for wondering why North Korea is not already designated as a sponsor of terrorism.
Cruz isn’t so explicit as to say, “My conclusion follows for the following reasons . . . “, but we can still look at clues in the paragraph to see that that is what he is doing implicitly. He lists a series of claims about North Korea, and follows this list with, “Given all this, the decision should be easy.” This tells us that he sees the list of claims as reason for the conclusion. The decision should be easy because the correct decision follows from these claims.
So let us make the argument explicit:
P1) North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier was unspeakable.
P2) The North Korean government assassinated a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil.
P3) North Korea colluded with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
P4) The North Korean government has launched cyberattacks on American film companies.
P5) North Korea supports Syria’s chemical weapons program.
P6) North Korea sells arms to Hezbollah and Hamas.
P7) North Korea has attempted to assassinate dissidents in exile.
C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted by the Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism.
There are a lot of premises in just one paragraph! Let us try to take stock where we are.
One approach is to ask why these premises are reasons to believe the conclusion. Even if we accept P1-P7, why should we believe the conclusion?
One obvious reason might be that a country should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism if it is in fact a state sponsor of terrorism. The premises would be reasons for the conclusion, then, if they are acts of terrorism. We can make this bit explicit in the following way (for the sake of not needlessly repeating myself, I’m going to just refer to the premises above as P1-P7):
P8) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, then it ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
P9) P1-P7 are examples of state sponsor of terrorism by North Korea.
C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.
We’ve done a lot with only three paragraphs! We have managed to:
- Identify the conclusion.
- Identify (some) premises.
- Reconstruct why those premises are arguments.
Next we need to look at the argument and figure out what we need to know in order to be persuaded by it.
From Reconstruction to Analysis
Besides being valid, an argument also needs to be sound, which requires all the premises to be true. By looking at the argument above we can see that different kinds of claims require different approaches to determining whether or not they are true.
P1-P7 are all descriptive claims about matters of fact and our approach to them is more or less straight forward. We need to consult the historical record to determine if North Korea performed these actions as Cruz claims. This will involve research of newspapers, history books, and experts on North Korea.
In the future, I will tackle just how to research these kinds of claims. Today, however, I want to focus on P8 and P9, which are not as straight forward. Towards that end, I will simply assume that P1-P7 are true to bring P8 and P9 into sharper relief.
Working With Conditionals
P8 makes a claim about what we ought to do given some set of circumstances. How should we approach such a claim?
One way is to try to more fully develop conditionals like P8 into necessary and sufficient conditions for some normative claim (a claim with words like ‘ought’ in them). P8 lists one sufficient condition for listing a country as a state sponsor of terrorism; can we think of others?
In fact, Cruz offers more sufficient conditions that we can consider when thinking about potential necessary and sufficient conditions:
Given this, the United States must approach North Korea with sobriety and urgency. The Trump administration has the opportunity to join both houses of Congress in acknowledging the truth about North Korea and using it to open new opportunities to maximize pressure.
Among North Korea’s many significant forms of illicit financing are foreign slave labor and money laundering. From Africa to Europe, North Korean diplomats exploit their consular posts to launder money at the expense of international comity. If North Korea is relisted, these nations would face a significant decision: Is continuing diplomatic and economic relations with a state that uses diplomacy and finance to export and foment terrorism in their interest?
It would pose an even deeper question to the United States: Will we continue our diplomatic overtures to the Kim regime on the flawed assumption that it is interested in a future without nuclear weapons? It is because of America’s bipartisan belief in North Korea’s potential amenity in a political settlement, captured in the 2008 delisting, that North Korea can now marry a miniaturized warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Relisting Pyongyang is the first step toward a strategic vision based on facts rather than aspirations.
Each paragraph offers a further sufficient condition for it being appropriate to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism: when it will maximize pressure towards some positive end; when it will persuade countries aiding a state sponsor of terrorism to stop doing so; and when it will promote a “strategic vision” for dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism.
With more sufficient conditions in tow, we can modify P8:
P8+) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, listing that country as such will maximize pressure towards that country for some positive end, listing that country will persuade it’s allies to rethink their alliance, and when it will promote a strategic vision for dealing with that country, then that country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
That is quite the mouthful! But putting all that detail in their helps us think more clearly about when a country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Thinking about P8+ includes two steps. First, we will need to clarify some of the words and phrases it invokes to properly evaluate whether the claim is true. What is a “strategic vision”? What kinds of positive ends do we have in mind? What kind of help from allies do we seek to stop with the listing?
Once we clarify these phrases, the next step is to try and come up with counter examples: are there situations in which the antecedent is true and the conclusion is false? If there are, then P8+ is false and Cruz’s argument fails. If we have trouble finding such a counterexample, this is reason to believe that P8+ is true.
Working With Conceptual Claims
P9 is neither a straightforward matter of fact nor a conditional claim like P8. Instead, P9 is something of a conceptual claim: it states that some concept applies to a given scenario. We can’t simply read a newspaper to determine if P9 is true; instead, we need to think about our concept of terrorism.
A common method for doing so is similar to how we approached P8+: we should try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be an act of terrorism. With a list in hand, we can see if there are any counter examples to our conditional claim.
As you can see, a lot goes into critical reading! Let’s end with a brief recap. Critical reading involves:
- Identifying the conclusion
- Identifying some premises
- Figuring out why those premises are reasons for the conclusion
- Asking whether or not the premises are true and the kind of method needed to figure out if they are true.
So, what do you think? Using this post as a guide, I recommend commenting with your analysis of Cruz’s argument. Are P1-P7 backed up by the historical record? Does P8+ have counterexamples? Is P9 supported by our concept of terrorism? I’m excited to hear your thoughts!