In Episode 8 Nick and Dave discuss arguments in terms of three main issues: descriptive, normative and prescriptive. How can understanding the difference between the three make us better critical thinkers? Learn about that in this episode.
Nick: Welcome back again to Critically Minded (Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners). The podcast for second language learners of English who want to improve their critical thinking skills.
Dave: Or critical thinkers who want to improve their English. We’re your hosts David–
Nick: And Nick. We left you with a quiz last week and if you’ll remember, we made it a little more challenging by not giving you multiple-choice answers, but simply asked you to analyze the argument and be ready to identify six or seven of its components. To refresh your memory, it read thus: Fukuoka is a city in Japan for the following reasons: First, Japan has three major islands: Kyuushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido. And second, Fukuoka is a city on the island of Kyuushu. The first thing we notice is that we have three sentences. Which are the premises and which is the conclusion? The phrase, the following reasons, tells us that the reasons, or premises, are coming next.
Nick: We can rephrase the premises and conclusion in terms of group A being a member of group B; and B being a member of group C. Therefore, A is a member of group C.
Dave: Just as Fukuoka is a member of the group of cities on the island of Kyuushu; and Kyuushu is a member of the islands that make up Japan. We’ve already identified this as a conclusion-first argument. Now, let’s look at the validity and soundness of the argument. I think the argument makes sense. It is valid. But sound? I don’t think so.
Nick: Our listener will remember that for an argument to be sound it must be valid and have true premises.
Dave: I’m sure our Japanese listeners can easily tell which premise was false.
Nick: Oh without a doubt. Because Japan is made up four major islands, not three. We omitted the biggest of the four, Honshu, which contains Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki, Nagoya and Hiroshima.
Dave: So the first premise is false. Still the conclusion was true.
Nick: And it’s not so unusual for a true conclusion to be based on a false premise, if the false part of the premise has little relation to the conclusion.
Dave: We could say that Japan has a hundred or a thousand major islands and still that wouldn’t change the fact that Fukuoka is on the island of Kyuushu. So, even though the conclusion is true, the argument is unsound.
Nick: Right, but it wouldn’t take much work to correct that first premise. We’d simply add Honshu to the list and change the word “three” to “four.” Then the argument would be sound.
Dave: So working now with the corrected argument, which of the premises is major and which is minor? The major premise is the more general of the two. Japan has four major islands: Kyuushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido and Honshu. The minor premise is the more specific: Fukuoka is a city on the island of Kyuushu.
Nick: Group A is member of group B and therefore group A is a member of group C. The minor premise is a component of the more general major premise. Also, we’ve covered this argument conclusion-first; truth value, validity and soundness.
Dave: Well I’m glad we got that straightened out. Nick, shall we move on then into the main part of today’s discussion?
Nick: I think what would make our listeners most happy would be if we started talking like normal humans again. Well now that we have learned about premises and conclusions, next we’ll be discussing how to understand an argument in terms of issues. Issues are what people are really disagreeing about when they argue for their point of view.
Dave: Yes, and this is where we start to come back down from the mountain with our new critical thinking tools and start to put them to use in real and practical situations. Premises and conclusions will help you to evaluate a person’s argument but it’s also very important to simply understand what the person is really trying to say. Often when we are having a disagreement with another person, we find halfway through our conversation that we weren’t really disagreeing at all. Although we were discussing the same topic we were discussing different issues. If we are careful at the beginning of our conversations; if we state our opinion more clearly; if we listen to the other person more closely, we will have fewer misunderstandings and then if we must disagree, we’ll be able to disagree more clearly.
Nick: The subject or topic of an argument is the content, but the issue is the heart of the argument. We might discuss topics such as the international diamond trade, fast food, government healthcare or study habits. Within each topic there are many ways of discussing or of having an opinion.
Dave: Just as conclusions usually have conclusion-indicators and premises have premise-indicators, each kind of issue is usually signaled by specific issue-indicators. If we know what these words are we can identify what issue another person is discussing; and by using those words we can also help other people understand what issues we are discussing.
Nick: The issue is the basic question being asked. Sometimes it is easy to find, for example at the beginning of the text or even in the title:
Dave: Lowering the voting age: Is it the right thing to do? by Harold A. Phillips.
Nick: Or: After the tsunami disaster several years ago, many people began to ask how can we improve our tsunami detection and warning systems. It has been suggested that . . .
Dave: And sometimes the issue is embedded in the conclusion in the very last sentence of a text: (female voice reads) . . . and so based on the evidence presented above we can determine that second-hand smoke can cause various lung diseases.
Nick: Issues generally come in three categories: descriptive, normative and prescriptive.
Dave: Descriptive issues, as you might guess, try to describe situation. There is no value judgment, no interest in whether something is good, bad; beautiful, ugly; desirable or undesirable. Normative issues and prescriptive issues, however, do make value judgments.
Nick: Normative issues deal with what is good, desirable or bad, undesirable, beautiful or ugly. Prescriptive issues deal with what we feel should or must be done to reach that good or desirable situation, or what should not be done in order to avoid a bad or undesirable situation.
Dave: Descriptive issues concern facts about the past, present or future. People usually want know how the world works and why things are the way they are. They want to know historical, scientific and legal facts. Descriptive questions often come after issue indicators like is and are. They also often begin with auxillary verbs like: Do and Will; and interrogative verbs like: What, When, Who, How and Why.
Nick: Here are some examples of descriptive issues.
Dave: Why did Napoleon invade Egypt? Did Abraham Lincoln really believe in equality between Blacks and Whites? Does aspirin prevent heart disease?
Nick: What causes Alzheimer’s disease? Do people with sports cars drive faster than others? Is speeding the cause of most traffic accidents? If we buy a house, will we be able to take a trip to Italy next year?
Dave: How risky is downloading music? How much will consumption tax rise in the future? What are the chances that there will be a major earthquake in Tokyo in the next fifteen years? How long will this economic recession last?
Nick: Notice that descriptive issues are not concerned with questioning or stating that something is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, desirable or undesirable. Those kinds of questions or statements belong to the two other categories of issues called normative issues and prescriptive issues.
Dave: Normative issues, as we said a moment ago, are indicated by words like “good” and “bad” or “acceptable” and “unacceptable”; or “better” and “worse.”
Nick: Some examples might be: Which is better, studying at a co-ed school or an all girls’ school? Have Hollywood movies become too immoral? Is carrying a legal handgun acceptable? Is abortion a sin? Is the death penalty a good way to punish violent criminals for their crimes?
Dave: We could express each of these as a descriptive issue. For example, instead of asking “Which is better co-ed schools or all girls’ school?” we could ask, Which schools produce higher SAT scores, co-ed schools or all girls’ schools. Instead of asking is carrying a legal handgun acceptable, we could ask, is carrying a handgun legal in Texas? Instead of asking is abortion a sin, we could ask, are abortions legal in Alabama? Instead of asking is the death penalty a good way to punish violent criminals for their crimes, we could ask which deters crime more in violent criminals, fear of life in prison or fear of the death penalty?
Nick: That’s right. Nearly any topic can be discussed in terms of descriptive, normative or prescriptive issues.
Dave: You know the other day in class, in one of my textbooks, the question of gay marriage came up. I asked my students if they thought gay marriage was a good or bad thing and why they thought so. One girl said that she thought it was a bad thing and when I asked her why she said, “Because it’s against the law.”
Nick: That’s a pretty good example of confusion between a descriptive issue: Is gay marriage legal; and a normative issue: Is the law against gay marriage a good or bad law? This is a good place to go onto the third kind of issue, prescriptive issues. Prescriptive issues are a lot like normative issues.
And that difference is that prescriptive issues, like normative ones include value judgments about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, ethical or unethical, but they also include one extra element. They make claims or ask questions about what should be done.
Dave: Using the example gay marriage, as a prescriptive issue we would ask Should gay marriage be legal? Think of prescriptive this way: When we go to the doctor the doctor will first tell us what is wrong with us. He gives us a description of our condition. Then he usually gives us a piece of paper. That piece of paper tells the kind of medicine that we should take if we want get better. That paper is called a prescription. Prescriptive issues are similar in that they concern what we feel should be done if we want a situation to improve; or what should not be done if we want to avoid trouble.
Nick: So, with prescriptive arguments we will see the issue indicator words should, ought, need and must. For example:
Dave: Should capital punishment be abolished? What ought to be done about unemployment? We must ban diesel vehicles if we want to decrease rates of asthma.
Nick: We need to pass a law making smoking tobacco in firework factories illegal. What level of risk should we be willing to accept? The President should not have signed that bill.
Dave: Should I have kept the money I found or given it to the police? Should bus and train drivers be given periodic drug tests?
Nick: Should we increase consumption tax? Should the voting age be lowered to 18?
Dave: Notice that whereas descriptive issues concern past, present and future equally, prescriptive issues are usually about the effects of our actions now on the future. I think that we should point out two more fine points. One is that some sentences contain no verb such as is or are. Nor does the sentence contain any of the other words listed like does, should, or must. But such words often contain elements in the action verbs –s ending, –ing ending or –ed ending. They’re included in the tense. So a sentence like say: The new policy provided condoms for high school students includes the description issue indicator within the –ed ending of the word “provided.”
Nick: That’s a good point, David. The sentence could be written as The new policy did provide condoms to high school students. And as we just said, did is a descriptive issue indicator.
Dave: It doesn’t say whether the law was good or bad. It just says that it did something. And listeners right now what Nick and I are going to provide for you is a quick conclusion to this unusually long episode. In our next episode we will begin with a quiz over descriptive, normative and prescriptive issues. So until next time–
Dave: You have been listening to–
Nick: Critically Minded (Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners).