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    What is the Issue and Conclusion of an Argument?

    Before we evaluate someone's reasoning, we must first find it. It sounds simple, but it can be rather challenging at times. Whenever we read or write a post here at ODN, an attempt is being made to persuade another to a particular point of view. They want us to believe something. But what is that something and why are we supposed to believe it? That's the purpose of this essay.

    I. Kinds of Issues
    II. Searching for the Issue
    III. Searching for the Author's Conclusion
    IV. Clues for Discovery: How to find the conclusion.
    V. An example: Gay Marriage

    I. Kinds of Issues

    A persuasive argument is one in which seeks to change our perception or belief about something. For us to form a reasonable reaction to another's persuasive effort, we must first identify the controversy or issue as well as the thesis or conclusion being pushed onto us. Someone's conclusion is is their intended message to us. Its purpose is to shape our beliefs and/or behavior. Fail to identify the author's conclusion, and we will be reacting to a distorted version of the attempted communication.

    issue -
    a question or controversy responsible for the conversation or discussion. It is the stimulus for what is being said.

    There are 2 kinds of issues you will typically encounter. The following questions illustrate one of these:

    Do families who own pets have fewer arguments with one another?

    What causes high blood pressure?

    Who made the decision to increase taxes?

    How much will college cost in 2014?

    All of these questions have 1 thing in common. They require answers attempting to describe the way the world was, is, or is going to be. For example, answers to the first 2 questions might be, "In general, families with pets have fewer arguments with one another," and "Poor dietary habits cause high blood pressure."

    These issues (the questions above) are descriptive issues. They reflect our curiosity about patterns or order in the world.

    descriptive issues -
    those that raise questions about the accuracy of descriptions of the past, present, or future

    Now let's look at examples of the 2nd kind of question (or issue):

    capital punishment be abolished?

    What ought to be done about social security?

    Must we outlaw SUVs or face increasing rates of asthma?

    All of these questions require answers suggesting the way the world out to be. Answers to the first 2 questions might be, "Capital punishment should be abolished" and "We ought to increase social security benefits." These issues are ethical, or moral, issues; they raise questions about what is right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, good or bad. They demand prescriptive answers. Thus, they are referred to as prescriptive issues. Social controversies are often prescriptive issues.

    prescriptive issues - those that raise questions about what we should do or what is right or wrong, good or bad

    A trick for remembering the difference between prescriptive and descriptive issues:

    Descriptive means that something is being described – a descriptive issue is one in which we ask for a description of the past, present, or future world. A description is factual, it is intended to be a true statement about the way the world actually is, and it can be true or false.

    Prescriptive means that something is being prescribed – just like when you go to a doctor and she prescribes a medication for you to take. For instance, if you visit the doctor with a bacterial infection, she will prescribe antibiotics. In prescribing your antibiotics she is essentially saying, “You should take these as directed.”

    On the other hand, whether or not you do take the antibiotics is a question of fact, either you will or you will not. We say, “The doctor prescribed you the antibiotics, so you should take them.” If we later find an unopened bottle of antibiotics we would say, “I see you did not follow the doctor’s suggestion, you did not take your antibiotics.” In saying so, we would be making a factual claim – we are giving a description of some fact about the world. More specifically, we are describing a part of the world…you.

    So again:

    Prescriptive…Prescription…As in, “You should take these as prescribed.” (Recommended.)
    DescriptiveDescription…As in, “He is taking/did take/will take his medicine as directed until done.” (Factual – how the world is, was, or will be.)

    II. Searching for the Issue

    Each argument has a basic question or issue, no exception. Sometimes finding its issue is simple, especially if the author tells us what it is. Alternatively, the issue may be identified in the body of the text, usually right at the beginning, or it may even be found in the title. When the issue is explicitly stated, it will be indicated by phrases such as the following:

    The question I am raising is:
    Why must we have laws requiring seat belts in cars?

    Lower the legal drinking age: Is it the right thing to do?

    Should sex education be taught in public schools?

    Unfortunately, the question (issue) is not always explicitly stated and instead, must be inferred from other clues in the communication. For example, many authors (of an argument) are reacting to some current event that concerns them, such as a series of violent acts in schools. Asking "What is the author reacting to?" will often suggest the central issue of a communication.

    When you are identifying the issue, try to resist the idea that there is one and only one correct way to state the issue. Once uyou have found a question that the entire essay, speech, post, or argument is addressing, and you can show the link between that question and the essay or speech or post, you have found the issue. Just make sure that what you are calling an issue meets the definitional criteria that define an "issue."

    The surest way to identify an issue when it is not explicitly stated, however, is to locate the conclusion. In many cases, the conclusion must be found before you can identify the issue. Thus, in such cases, the first step in critical evaluation is to find the conclusion - a frequently difficult step.

    To be clear, we cannot critically evaluate until we find the conclusion!

    conclusion - the message that the author of the argument wishes you to accept

    III. Searching for the Author's Conclusion

    To identify the conclusion, we must ask "What is the author trying to prove?" or "What is the communicator's main point?" The answer to either of these questions will be the conclusion. Any answer to the question (issue) provided by the author will be the conclusion.

    In searching for a conclusion, we will be looking for a statement or set of statements that the author wants us to believe. The author wants us to believe the conclusion based on their other statements (reasons). In short, the basic structure of persuasive communication or argument is: This because of that. This refers to the conclusion whereas that refers to the support for the conclusion. This structure represents the process of inference.

    Conclusions are inferred; they are derived from reasoning. Conclusions are ideas that require other ideas to support them. Thus, whenever someone claims something is right or ought to be done and provides no statements to support their claim, that claim is not a conclusion because no one has offered any basis for belief. In contrast, unsupported claims are what we refer to as mere opinions. {essay on Opinions as they relate to the study and practice of critical thinking is forthcoming}

    The above is extremely important to understand. Understanding the nature of a conclusion is an essential step toward critical reading and listening. Let's look more closely at the conclusion and the inference process. Here's a brief argument:

    Factory farming should not be legal. There are other more natural ways to produce needed food supply.

    "Factory farming should not be legal" is the author's answer to the question: "Should factory farming be legalized?" It is the conclusion. the author supports this belief with another: "There are other more natural ways to produced needed food supply."

    Here's the breakdown:

    Issue: "Should factory farming be legalized?"
    Conclusion: "Factory farming should not be legal."
    Supporting Reason:"There are other more natural ways to produced needed food supply."

    The statement "There are other more natural ways to produce needed food supply" is not the conclusion because it is used to prove something else. Remember, to believe one statement (the conclusion) because you think it is well supported by other beliefs is to make an inference. When people engage in this process they are reasoning; the conclusion is the outcome of this reasoning.

    Sometimes communicators will not make their conclusions explicit (as we often seen in arguments here at ODN). In such cases you will have to infer the conclusion from what you believe the author is trying to prove by the set of ideas they have presented.

    The Key Question to Ask

    Once you have found the conclusion, use it as the focus of your evaluation. It is the destination that the writer or speaker wants you to choose. Your ongoing concern is: Should I accept that conclusion on the basis of what is supporting the claim?

    IV. Clues to Discovery: How to Find the Conclusion

    There are a number of clues to help you identify the conclusion.

    Clue #1: Ask what the issue is. Because a conclusion is always a response to an issue, it will help you find the conclusion if you know the issue. I explained earlier how to identify the issue. First, look at the title. Next, look at the opening paragraphs. If this technique does not help, skimming through the argument may be necessary.

    Clue #2: Look for indicator words. The conclusion will frequently be preceded by indicator words that announce a conclusion is coming. When you see these indicator words, take not of them. They tell you that a conclusion may follow. A list of such words follows:

    • consequently
    • therefore
    • it follows that
    • shows that
    • indicates that
    • suggests that
    • thus
    • the point I'm trying to make is
    • proves that
    • the truth of the matter is

    Here's a brief exercise paragraph, try to identify indicator words. By doing so, you will have identified the statements containing the conclusion.

    Because of the wording of the Constitution, it follows that prayer should not be allowed in public schools. When the schools favor any particular religion, they are hampering the freedom of those who embrace a different religion. The idea of freedom of religion is what the country was founded on.

    You should have found the phrase "it follows that." The conclusion follows these words.

    Unfortunately, many written and spoken communications do not introduce the conclusion with indicator words. However, when you communicate with the goal of making your conclusion clear to your audience, you should draw attention to your thesis with indicator words. Those words act as a neon sign drawing attention to the point you want the reader to accept.

    Clue #3: Look in likely locations: Conclusion tend to occupy certain locations. The first two places to look are at the beginning and at the end. Many authors begin with a statement of purpose containing what they are trying to prove Others summarize their conclusion at the end. If you are reading a long, complex passage and are having difficulty seeing where it is going, skip ahead to the end.

    Clue #4: Remember what a conclusion is not. Conclusions will not be any of the following:

    • examples
    • statistics
    • definitions
    • background information
    • evidence

    Clue #5: Ask the question, "and therefore?" Because conclusions are often implied, ask for the identity of the "and therefore" element. Ask, "Does the author want us to draw an implied conclusion from the information communicated?" Conclusions like "candidate X will be soft on crime" are often left for the reader or view to infer from the limited information presented in a political ad.

    V. An Example: Gay Marriage

    Consider the example passage:

    Marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. Since marriage exists for the purpose of providing a stable environment for one’s biological children, and since only a heterosexual couple can have biological children together, marriage simply cannot be between two who are of the same sex. We should not, therefore, allow same-sex couples the right to marry.

    The issue is not “gay marriage." If you were in school taking a crit thinking exam and you wrote “gay marriage” as the issue you would get 0 points. This is because “gay marriage” is not specific enough. There are, after all, a number of questions we can ask about “gay marriage,” including the specific question that is being answered in the passage above. For example, we could ask:

    • Is marriage between same-sex couples good for the economy?
    • Would allowing marriage for same-sex couples pose a threat to heterosexual marriages?
    • What kind of threat? How severe? Is it bad enough to justify restricting civil rights?
    • Would it destabilize families? In what way?
    • Is it harmful to children to be raised by same-sex couples? Will denying same-sex couples the right to legally marry prevent them from raising children? Or, alternatively, will extending the right to marry increase the number of children being raised by same-sex couples?
    • Is it moral?
    • Is it natural?

    None of these is the issue of the sample argument however. Instead, the particular issue being addressed by the argument above is, “Should we allow same-sex couples to marry?” The conclusion is, “No, we should not allow same-sex couples to marry.” The rest of the argument consists of the author’s reasons.

    Sources for the above are:
    Browne/Keely, Asking the Right Sources, 9th ed
    Prof Empey, PCC
    Prof Kerckhove, CSSM
    Created Material for Crit Thinking Univ course
    Last edited by Apokalupsis; October 7th, 2013 at 08:02 AM. Reason: typo
    Senior Administrator

    I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend. - Thomas Jefferson

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