Radiant Thinking For A Single Person

of decriminalisation can use it in support of their cause; their opponents can use it to back up their anti-decriminalisation stance (the latter might say, 'Only some members of parliament support. . .').

3 Often people simply omit quantifiers. For instance, someone might protest:

Lecturers don't give students a chance to complain.

At face value this might appear to convey the proposition that

No lecturer (ever) gives a student a chance to complain.

Yet it is likely that what the speaker really wants to say is something like

Most of the lecturers I've encountered haven't given students enough chance to complain.

Notice that once the appropriate quantifier is made explicit, the claim applies to a much smaller group of lecturers than one might have supposed when the quantifier remained implicit. Consider another example:

Today's students are dedicated to their studies.

If we interpret this as expressing this proposition:

All of today's students are dedicated to their studies.

we are likely to want to challenge the claim as we will be able to cite exceptions to the generalisation. If, however, we interpret the claim as it is more likely to be intended, then the quantifier that we make explicit should be 'most' or 'almost all', thereby exposing the proposition really intended as

Most of today's students are dedicated to their studies.

and this proposition has a greater likelihood of being true. Cases that we use to challenge the truth of a generalising claim are known as counterexamples. (The process discussed here should not be confused with that of refuting a complete argument by counter-example, which is dealt with in Chapter 6.)

4 Quantifiers are used to express generalisations, and even where at least one quantifier is used explicitly, it can be unclear exactly what generalisation is intended. Consider the claim

Everyone has tried drugs at some time in their lives.

Taken literally, the claim is a generalisation stating that every single person in the world has tried some drug or other at least once.4 Even if we give 'drugs' the widest possible interpretation, the claim will be falsified by those cases of people who, for instance, have never even taken an aspirin for a headache. Of course, when challenged with such cases, the speaker or writer will most probably qualify their claim by saying that they didn't really mean literally everyone, but most of the people they know. So in order accurately to convey their meaning, the claim needs to be rewritten to make explicit to whom it applies. We do this by changing the quantifier to one that denotes fewer people than 'everyone' and by being more specific about to whom the claim is intended to apply. (This latter move is called 'restricting the scope of the generalisation'; we deal with it in more detail in Chapter 6.) The claim thus becomes,

Most of the people I know have tried drugs at some time in their lives.

Notwithstanding the vagueness of 'drugs' (noted earlier), the claim now stands a better chance of being true than it did when it was expressed using an inappropriate quantifier.

Quantifiers: further issues

It is a commonplace for people to say that you can never really generalise. However, this is certainly not true just as it stands. When someone says this they might be understood as claiming, 'all generalisations are false'. But this is itself a generalisation; so if the claim is true, the claim is false! So that can't be what it means. It is in any case obvious that some generalisations are true (even if they are not very interesting ones). That is, there are counter-examples to the claim that all generalisations are false. For example, 'All cities in the UK have a bus service' is true and no case could really be raised to undermine its truth.

4 As you may have noticed, the word 'drugs' is used vaguely in this claim. Although in the context of most arguments about legislation and criminality it means illegal drugs, it could also include alcohol, prescription medicines, pain-killers, nicotine, and so on. Deliberately vague use of words in such a way constitutes either the rhetorical ploy of trading on an equivocation; see pp. 108-109 or the fallacy of equivocation; see pp. 140-141.

To get a better grasp of which types of generalisations may cause problems during the analysis and assessment of arguments, we need to distinguish between hard and soft generalisations. Consider the following generalisations (note that few of them have explicit quantifiers):

► Private schools attain better examination results than state schools.

► Traffic congestion is bad in Glasgow.

► Regular exercise benefits your health.

► Labour voters support a ban on hunting with hounds.

► People play less sport when they get older.

No doubt the counter-example fanatic will be able to provide us with plenty of exceptions - congestion-free short cuts across Glasgow; labour voters who are keen fox-hunters; the person who had a heart attack while doing their regular work-out at the gym. And they can cite this as a reason to accept the claim that all generalisations are false because one can always find an exception to them. However, to do so would be to misinterpret what people usually intend to convey when they say or write such things. It's rare for someone to mean that these sorts of generalisations are true without exception. The quantifier they intend to imply is probably one that is not synonymous with 'all' or 'every', but one such as 'in most cases', 'usually', or 'almost all'. These generalisations are soft generalisations. We use soft generalisations when we want to express the idea that such and such is true of certain things normally, typically, generally, usually, on average, for the most part. In the examples above, the speaker/writer could make her intended meaning much clearer by adding one of these words or phrases; for example,

Private schools generally attain better examination results than state schools.

On the other hand, someone using a hard generalisation does intend it to apply without exception. Such a generalisation is rightly conveyed by a quantifier such as 'all', 'every', 'no', 'always', 'never'. For example

► Every passenger must hold a valid passport.

► No doctor who helps a patient to die should consider themselves to be above the law.

If someone makes a claim that is intended as a hard generalisation and we can find a counter-example to it, then we have refuted their claim. But quantifier-free generalisations are not typically intended as hard generalisations. If the fanatical anti-generaliser does have a point, we believe, it is a point about rhetoric, not truth. What the anti-generaliser is justifiably worried about are generalisations about groups defined by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, class and sexuality. Suppose that there are two social classes amongst Martians: the Zormons and the Ringons. And suppose the generalisation 'Ringons are more violent than Zormons' is true when taken as a soft generalisation, but false when taken as a hard generalisation. A Ringon anti-generaliser might object to someone's saying this. But we've seen that the point cannot be that the generalisation is not true, in spite of the fact that not every Ringon is more violent than every Zormon. This generalisation is, it must be admitted, true when taken as a soft generalisation.

However, it might be argued, it is rhetorically dangerous. There are two reasons: The first reason is that many people are not very clear about the possible ambiguities of such a statement. It might wrongly be taken as a hard generalisation, and furthermore it might wrongly be taken as asserting something about the innate or genetic qualities of Ringons. (For a similar case, refer back to the discussion of 'ability' in the section on ambiguity, earlier in this chapter.) In itself, it does not do this. So unless these possible misinterpretations are deflected by making the exact intended meaning perfectly explicit, this generalisation will remain very provocative and a likely cause of ill-feeling. The second reason is the brute fact that, even if these ambiguities are resolved, generalisations (even soft ones) about groups of people do often cause people to take offence. There are times when people take offence at a generalisation about a group and are simply irrational in doing so; no amount of explaining the difference between a soft generalisation and a hard one, or the difference between a generalisation about actual facts and one about alleged genetic qualities will change this. Like many kinds of irrationality, this is a natural kind of irrationality that cannot easily be overcome. No matter how factually true a generalisation may be, it is natural to feel that there is something dehumanising about it. So we cannot reasonably expect that people will always be able to overcome that feeling. Morality requires us to consider the consequences of our actions, and since speech and writing are types of action, natural (though irrational) responses to what we say and write must sometimes be taken into account in deciding what we ought to say. We should not say what is false, but that a proposition is true is not always enough to justify expressing it. This, we believe, is the grain of truth in the anti-generaliser's position.

Critical thinking enables us to ensure that we have good reasons CHAPTER to believe or do that which people attempt to persuade us to do SUMMARY or to believe. Attempts to persuade may be argumentative or non-argumentative. Most of the latter count as rhetoric, which is any attempt to persuade that does not attempt to give good reasons for the belief, desire or action in question, but attempts to motivate that belief, desire or action solely through the power of the words used. The former, on the other hand, persuade us by giving reasons for us to accept a claim or take the action suggested. Not all arguments are good arguments. Good arguments are those that provide us with good reasons to act or to accept a claim.

An argument consists of a set of propositions, one of which is its conclusion - the proposition argued for - the rest of which are its premises - the reasons given to accept the conclusion. Once we have determined that a text or a speech contains an argument, we must work out which sentence is intended to express the argument's conclusion and which are intended to express its premises. Words that serve as conclusion indicators and premise indicators offer a helpful (but not foolproof) guide to doing so successfully. We should also pay close attention to the context of the text or speech. Setting out arguments in standard form is a five-stage process that enables us to see the form of arguments better and hence, to compare, analyse and assess them more easily.

There are various linguistic phenomena that can make the task of identifying and interpreting arguments more difficult. In the case of ambiguity, vagueness, metaphor, rhetorical questions and irony, these can be problematic because they obscure speakers' and writers' intended meanings. In the case of implicitly relative sentences and sentences which use quantifiers inappropriately, they can be problematic because they fail to convey speakers' and writers' intended meanings in their entirety. Quantifying sentences can also cause problems for the interpretation of arguments when they are used inaccurately to express generalisations. There are two types of generalisation: hard and soft. Hard generalisations are true only if they are true without exception. To avoid misinterpretation they should be expressed in sentences that use quantifiers such as all, every, no, none, always, never. Soft generalisations are only true of the majority of the class that is the subject of the generalisation. They should be expressed in sentences that use quantifiers such as most, almost all, in most cases, generally, typically, usually.

In all cases where linguistic phenomena prevent the intended meaning from being explicit, we should pay careful attention to context in order to render the most plausible interpretation of the attempt to persuade. Where appropriate we should rewrite sentences to make their meaning explicit.

EXERCISES 1 Decide whether each of the following cases contains an argument.

If it does not, write 'N/A'. If it does, identify its premises and conclusion by underlining the appropriate propositions and writing 'C under the conclusion and 'P' and the appropriate number under the premises.


Bob is a dog and all dogs are black. So Bob is black. P1 P2 C

Notice that we have not underlined the words that connect or introduce the propositions, only the propositions themselves.

a It follows from the fact that all cats are pests that this cat is a pest.

b I'll never get to work if this traffic keeps up.

c Whenever a person drinks instant coffee they end up with stomach ache and Jack is going to have stomach ache since he just drank a cup of instant coffee.

d There is going to be a frost in the morning because the temperature has fallen below zero.

e The biscuit tin is empty because the children ate all the biscuits.

f We should not go to war against the Ringons because it would be unjust.

g Since this animal is a fish, it can't be a mammal.

h People really shouldn't drive so fast, I don't see what all the hurry is.

i Leeds is north of Birmingham and Birmingham is north of Brighton. So Leeds is north of Brighton.

j My ex-partner was always telling me to change my appearance, so I changed my partner.

k If those chemicals are released into the river, thousands of fish will die.

I Since inflation is increasing, the price of mortgages is sure to go up.

m Everyone at the lecture is bored. No one who is bored is listening. Therefore no one at the lecture is listening.

n He's been on crutches since he was injured in the accident.

o On the basis of the fact that it includes scenes depicting drug abuse, the film should not be shown on prime-time television.

p If we don't do something to control the level of car traffic now, air pollution will become so bad that our grandchildren will not be able to walk the streets for fear of asphyxiation.

q The government proposes to reform the benefits system. Whenever such reforms occur someone loses out, so the government's proposals are unfair.

r Something must be done to regulate the cultivation of genetically manipulated foodstuffs. Uncontrolled production of these crops will lead to a collapse of the ecosystem.

s If we hit our children, they will learn that violence is acceptable, so we shouldn't physically discipline our children.

t It is, therefore, an impractical solution to the problem of homelessness.

2 Write out the following arguments in standard form. You need not supply missing premises or change the words used unless it is absolutely necessary to retain the sense of a sentence.


The government should ban hunting. Hunting causes suffering to animals and anything that causes suffering to animals should be banned.

Why should we become critical thinkers?

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