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Counterbalancing Argument Essay

Ethics Paper

Directions: This is a paper on applied ethics (i.e. on questions concerning the moral rightness or wrongness of certain sorts of action, e.g. euthanasia, war, capital punishment, etc.).  You need to either1) pick an article that deals with a question in applied ethics and critique the argument it contains or 2) come up with your own argument for a particular answer to a question in applied ethics and critique it.

When writing a critique of an argument (whether yours or another's) it is necessary to raise possible objections to the argument, and then to consider possible responses to those objections. The goal, then, is to determine whether or not the objections or their responses are stronger. If the objections are stronger, the argument should be deemed to be unsound; if the responses are stronger, it should be deemed to be sound. (Note: Showing an argument is unsound is not the same thing as showing the conclusion of it is false. All one shows by showing an argument to be unsound is that the argument in question does not provide a good reason to believe its conclusion is true.)

Structure [Note: I want the paper to exhibit these parts, but I don’t want you to label them as such]

I: Introduction

II: Formal Layout of the Argument Being Critiqued

III: Objections

IV: Possible Responses to Objections

V: Determination of the Soundness of the Argument

VI: Conclusion

When coming up with objections to an argument you should take into account at least some of the following:

I: Are the terms used in the argument clearly defined and consistently used? (Note: In some cases clearly defining a particular concept can be of great help.  For instance, some of the debates concerning euthanasia center around whether or not murder is the intentional killing of an innocent person, no matter what the motive is, or is the intentional killing of an innocent person in order to benefit some person other than the person being killed.) 

II: Does the argument make any unwarranted assumptions? (For example, some persons just assume a retributive theory of punishment according to which a person's doing certain sorts of wrong actions makes them deserve to suffer, even if their suffering is not beneficial to anyone.  But there are many objections to this, and many intelligent people do not find it self evident; therefore, baldly employing such a premise in an argument for capital punishment is a form of question begging.)

III: Do any of the assumptions made in the argument conflict with any known facts, accepted theories, or commonly held beliefs? (For example, supposing that anything that is potentially a person has the right to develop into a person might entail the rather absurd conclusion that sperm and egg cells have the right to develop into persons!!)

IV: Do any of the premises of the argument fail to consider other alternatives? (For example, some persons seem to think that abortions are either always morally permissible or always morally impermissible, but this assumption overlooks the possibility that in some kinds of cases abortions may be morally permissible [e.g. in cases of rape, or incest, etc.] while in other cases they may be morally impermissible [e.g. as a form of birth control used to avoid the consequences of having unprotected sexual intercourse].

Form: Papers should be 5 pages long and double spaced. They should be written in complete sentences which are arranged into paragraphs and as free as possible from grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities. All direct quotes or summaries of passages in a text should be properly cited in end notes. Papers critiquing an article by another writer should give three quotes from the writer.Please use the Chicago style in your citations.


November 28: Hand in a formalization of an argument for a position in applied ethics you will critique from an article you have read, or a formalization of an argument for a position in applied ethics you will defend.  All arguments you intend to critique must be from Landau or from an article in JSTOR.  Full bibliographical information must be given for articles appearing in JSTOR, including author, title, journal title, year, volume number, and page numbers. Information for articles in Landau need only include the author’s name and the title of the article.

A formalized argument is put forward in numbered propositions.


1. All intentional killing of innocent human beings is wrong.

2. Euthanasia is an instance of the intentional killing of human beings.

3. Therefore, Euthanasia is wrong.

Include a statement of the objections you will raise against the argument you will critique or defend (note, to critique is not necessarily to reject—it is just to submit to rational scrutiny), as well as possible responses to each. You must have more than one objection but not more than three.  At least one must be a direct attack on a premise of the argument being scrutinized--none need be a counterbalancing argument, unless you intend to show the conclusion of the argument you are critiquing is false.

 Papers are due December 14

Grading Rubric

Requirements: Papers that do not meet the minimum requirements will not be graded.

1.       Papers must have a pre-approved prospectus attached.

2.       Papers must follow the assigned structure

A)      Introduction

B)      Formal Presentation of the Argument to be Critiqued

C)      The raising of two to three objections not more than one of which may be a counterbalancing argument

D)      The consideration of possible responses to each of the objections raised

E)      Assessment of the Soundness of the argument

F)       Conclusion

G)     Proper Citation

Weighing Scale: The following is a breakdown of the weight I give to each of the following good making aspects of a paper.

1.       Lack of any formal or Informal Fallacies, particularly the fallacy of begging the question and the straw man fallacy, 35%

2.       Evidence of Independent thinking, 35% Note: I don’t expect you to have wholly original ideas in the sense of ideas no one has had before, but I want to see evidence that you have thought hard yourself about the paper.

3.       Lack of grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities, 20%

4.       Other, 10%[Note: I have this category because I cannot foresee all possible strengths and weakness in papers, and I want to have room to, e.g., assign points to papers that are not only free of grammatical errors or stylistic infelicities, but are particularly well written, or are very cleverly written, etc. ]

Question/Answer format: To make your topic idea into a thesis you need to turn the topic idea into a question first. Examples:

  • Does divorce cause serious problems for the children? (fact)
  • What is "domestic violence?" (definition)
  • What are the causes of divorce? (cause)
  • How important is it for couples to avoid divorce? (value)
  • What can you do to make your marriage divorce-proof? (proposal)

Answer: Your question often can be the title of your paper, or it can be the last line of the introduction. Your answer to this question is your thesis.

Example: The most important way to make your marriage divorce-proof is to make sure you have carefully prepared for that commitment.

Refute Objections: You might want to put an introductory phrase in the first part of your thesis to show that you are refuting other ideas about the answer.

Example: While some people think there is no way to divorce-proof your marriage, studies have shown that there are fewer divorces when people carefully prepare for that commitment.

Roadmap: An additional way to make a strong thesis is to do a "Roadmap" which tells in just a few words the three or more main points you will cover.

Example: While some people think there is no way to divorce-proof your marriage, studies have shown that there are fewer divorces when people carefully prepare for that commitment by taking time to get to know the other person before becoming engaged, spending time with one another's family and friends, talking about hot-button issues like finances, and getting extensive premarital counseling.

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