Senin, 05 September 2011

Chapter 4: Making Arguments from First Principles.

Before we get to first principles theory, you need to know the difference between an argument and an assertion. In simple terms an assertion is something that is stated as true, without enough analysis to demonstrate that it is reasonable to believe that the statement is likely to be true. It’s a statement of fact, without proof of its validity.

To avoid using assertions, you need to understand the anatomy of an argument[1].

The ‘Anatomy of an Argument’

Whereas an assertion is simply a statement of fact (or in slightly more sophisticated terms, an assertion can include simplistic/superficial analysis – see ‘Casual Causation’ below) a proper ‘argument’ (in the sense of “one argument for X is…” not “we had an argument the other day…”) has the following structure:



          ANALYSIS                    equals one argument


Different people will use different labels for the various sections of an argument, but this basic format is necessary to have a properly formed argument.

IDEA refers to the concept or proposition that you seek to prove – it might be a principle, such as “the government has an obligation to provide free education” or it might just be something that would be helpful to your side of the debate, such as “the death penalty is an effective deterrent for criminals”. Either way, its nothing on its own – it may be true, or it might not. The point is that you and your team want people to believe that it’s true.

So how do you make them believe it? Well you start with some ANALYSIS of why it is likely to be true – why it is logical and reasonable to believe that it’s true. This involves saying (out loud or in your head) “why?” and “because” a lot! But I’ll give you an example in a moment.

Finally there is the EVIDENCE. I put it last for two reasons – first because it’s the least important, and second because it should be the last thing you worry about – focus first on having the right IDEAS about what your side needs to argue, and then spend your time coming up with smart analysis to make it sound reasonable. If after that you have time for thinking up evidence and examples, then that’s great.

EVIDENCE can be statistics (boring, but can be helpful – like the unemployment rate before and after a policy, or the percentage of people affected by a particular problem, or the costs of a proposal) or quotes (not direct quotes, but knowing what important people have said about an issue). But at university level evidence is more commonly presented by case study or analogy. So having an example of a similar situation or policy can be very handy if you can clearly draw the link back to the issue at hand.
NOTE: It really should go without saying, but it’s important to note that you should never invent evidence – firstly its just poor form. You should have enough respect for your opponents not to try and cheat or cheapen the debate. Also it’s stupid. The more experienced debaters/adjudicators get, the better equipped they become at spotting lies. It’s pretty humiliating to have someone show that you were lying because they know the real details of a given situation. Don’t take the risk of it happening to you!

Let’s bring all that together by using a common motion as an example. On the affirmative of “That we should stop protecting our local film industry”, it would be handy to be able to show that small-budget, local productions can compete with big budget imports – since fear of competition is the rationale behind government protection (so that’s the IDEA – local media can compete with foreign imports).

How would you go about demonstrating an IDEA that is a little counter-intuitive? Well you’d need some logical analysis mixed with relevant examples. For instance:

“The fear of unrestricted foreign media – particularly American – stems from the belief that bigger budget productions are inherently more attractive to viewers. Although it’s true that people do enjoy special effects laden films and TV, there is plenty of reason to believe that even without government protection, local media can survive and even prosper. Why? Because beyond the superficial desire to see things blow up, what really attracts viewers is media that is relevant to their interests and culture. For instance one of the most popular shows on the ABC is Gardening Australia – it consistently out-rates the news, and every other competitor that rival networks have run against it. It might seem like an odd choice for a hit show, but it has very loyal viewers because it’s relevant to their interests.

Similarly the ABC had a major hit with the drama series Seachange – which was not only well written, but it so actually tapped into the mood of the times that it has sparked the real-life “seachange” and “treechange” phenomenon’s, in which city-based people move to beachside or rural towns to enjoy the same lifestyle they saw on the show. At the other end of the scale there is Neighbours – although it’s routinely the subject of ridicule, it has been one of the most consistently popular shows in Australian television history and has launched the careers of many Australian actors and artists – you might think its lame, but to 15 year olds, it’s relevant.

None of this should be surprising, since although American culture is almost universally popular, people from all over the globe respond to stories about their own country, and their own culture. Australian media doesn’t need government protection to be competitive, it just need good writers and talented actors – which the evidence shows that we have in abundance”.

Note that the argument doesn’t have to rigidly follow the structure outlined above – but you should be able to clearly identify the key elements of the ‘anatomy of an argument’ within that example.

Making Arguments from First Principles

Text Box: First Principles has two key elements:

(1)A good understanding of the principles of logic (i.e knowing how to show that an argument is logically flawed without knowing any facts/matter about the issue). 

(2) A good understanding of the key concepts that form the fundamental ‘clash’ in the debate - (see Appendix One for a basic list). As a novice or even intermediate debater you will constantly feel like you don’t know enough to debate most topics to their full potential – and unfortunately that’s true. But how to you fix that lack of knowledge? You focus on first principles.

Simply put, you can't prep a good case without having good and consistent IDEAS about a topic, and short of being an expert on every issue; these two elements are the best way to generate those ideas in prep.

NOTE: The language isn’t that important. Don’t worry about learning the labels/jargon used in Appendix One, it’s the IDEAS contained in those theories that are important.

None of this is meant to suggest that you shouldn’t try to keep up with the news, and even go further than that and specifically go and research issues that you think might be useful – of course you should do that. But that’s a process that will be on-going throughout your debating career. At the start you want to give yourself the best possible chance of building good cases on a wide range of issues – and first principles is the best way to do that.

The case prepping method outlined in Appendix Two is designed to show you how to build up a case by approaching it from first principles – incorporating both logical progression of ideas, as well as being able to identify and understand the philosophical clash that lies at the heart of any debate.

There are few short cuts to learning first principles. The best ways are to read and to pay attention during debates/adjudications. All debates are built on a foundation of conflicting ideas and theories about how to solve problems – like how to best run the economy (e.g. Keynesian or Neo-liberal?) or the best principles for a political system (e.g. communitarian or liberal?), etc. These ideas might sound complicated, but for the purposes of debating you just need to understand the key concepts in each theory[2].

So what is an example of first principles theories in action? Well many of the 1st P theories relate to disputes over the ‘true’ role of the government – and you can learn the fundamentals of dozens of debates, but just mastering a few simple concepts.

First Principles – The Role of Government

At some point everyone learns about liberalism (“small ‘l’ liberalism, not the Liberal Party). Obviously because Australia is a ‘liberal-democracy’, the concept of liberalism must have a lot to do with how we conceive of the proper role and responsibilities of government. But what does it mean? Well, liberalism means “small government” –giving individuals as much freedom as possible (as long as that freedom wouldn’t be used to hurt other people). So true “small ‘l’ liberals” believe that when given the choice between banning something or merely regulating its use, governments should choose to regulate it, because banning something implies that the government is telling you what sort of behaviour is acceptable or beneficial for you – and liberals think that wrong.

So while it might save lives and money if we banned smoking and drinking, true liberals would argue that these things should be regulated (e.g. preventing children from using them) but otherwise if people want to choose to do something that will do them harm, that’s their choice. The key is “informed choice” – so long as adults fully understand the choice they are making, then they should be free to make it. For example, everybody knows that smoking is incredibly dangerous. If they still want to smoke, then the government shouldn’t stop them, because its an ‘informed choice’.

Conversely there are people who are sometimes called “communitarians” or more broadly, “socialists”, who take the opposite view. They favour “big government”, a government that actively involves itself in shaping the choices that people can make, in an effort to create a society that promotes the “social good”.

So it was ‘big government’ socialists who decided that wearing a seatbelt should be compulsory and that getting immunised for diseases should be compulsory. That’s the government telling you what’s best for you – it’s the government saying “We’re not going to take the chance that you’re stupid enough to ignore the obvious benefits of wearing a seatbelt, so we’re going to make it a law and then punish you if you don’t do it.

This clash between “big government” and “small government” is a constant theme of Australian politics. In practice people don’t always support one philosophy consistently, but both sides are always represented in public debate.

Think about it. Regards of whether the topic was about gun control, gambling, pornography, drugs, smoking, (etc), the core of the debate is the same – big government versus small government. On top of that core clash you would include any specific knowledge you might have the harms or benefits of the thing in question, but each debate would be a clash of the same two principles.

Once you learn a few 1st P ideas, you’ll start to see them underpinning every debate you do. Even if no one ever mentions the names of the theories involved, you’ll see how the logic of those ideas permeates every argument made. It would be great if you any expert on drugs, guns, gambling (etc) but in the meantime, learning these two 1st P ideas will allow you to build a strong case in any of the innumerable ‘role of government’ debates.  It will also help you devise rebuttal.

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