Writing a Philosophy Paper II: The Defense of Your Thesis
In the previous essay, I discussed the nature of a philosophical thesis. But it is not enough to have a thesis for a philosophical paper. You need to defend it. When you go to vote for president, no one requires that you prove that you have thought over and can defend your choice. Your vote counts as much as that of any one else no matter how uninformed and thoughtless it is. Idiots can not only run for president, they can help select the president. In philosophy, however, your vote counts for nothing at all. All that is really interesting is whether you can defend or argue for your thesis well. By defending your view, you take a bit of totally boring personal biography (that you do or do not believe abortion is permissible is no more interesting than the date you first learned to use the toilet) and turn it into something worth thinking about.
To defend or argue for a view is to say things that will make a reasonable person who did not initially agree with the view at least feel some inclination to agree. Another word for “argument” or “defense” is “evidence.” To defend a view is to give evidence for it.
A defense of a view does not necessarily involve conclusive proof of the sort we seek in mathematics. If just involves raising considerations that, bit by bit, make your view seem more reasonable to other folk who do not initially agree with it.
It is not only convincing others that is important. Often argument is used to make up our own minds. When considering what to believe on a matter, we should take the various possible views and consider the defenses that can be made for each one. Your own view should then follow what you take to be the weight of the evidence. Of course, in some sense this is an “ideal.” In the real world, valuable work is done by people who are already persuaded that a view is true before they are able to defend it adequately. But at the least, such people should be open to changing their minds should the evidence go too far against their assumed views. Again, that is a bit of an ideal as well. In the real world we often continue to believe even when we see that there is little or no evidence for our views. Sometimes conclusive proof that we are wrong paradoxically strengthens our belief that we are right. Such is the lot of the not so sapient hominid. But we might occasionally try for better things.
Defending a philosophical position is difficult. Many of you will feel despair and will be angry that you are required to defend your views. You will want to write that these are your “personal” opinions, as if to say that they are beyond argument and that no one should dare ask you for argument. I sympathize – well, not really, but I can pretend to sympathize with the best of politicians. But nevertheless, the job of a philosophy paper is to try to find reasonable defenses for controversial views on difficult issues. To give up the effort is to give up philosophy. Of course, you are free to give up doing philosophy: I will happily sign any drop forms for people in my classes, and I suspect your other professors would be happy to do so as well!
To defend your own view, you must understand your opponent’s view fully. If you do not, you are not qualified to reject it. Spend as much time studying your opponents as in studying those you agree with. In fact, it is often wise to spend more time with opponents.
In any controversial issue, reasonable people can take either side. That is why there is controversy. Which ever side of the issue you take, you can be sure that there is something important to say on the other side that convinces people who are at least as smart and have at least as much integrity as you have. So, to fully understand your opponent’s view, you must be able to understand what it is that convinces her. And this means you must feel the attraction of her view. If you do not feel the attraction, you do not understand the view well enough to reject it.
This means that philosophical reflection is risky. In order to refute an opponent, you must understand her view well enough to feel its pull. That means you must risk becoming convinced by your opponent’s view. Of course, your goal is to understand her view well enough to reject it, but there is always the possibility that you will come to embrace it. If you are unwilling to take that risk, you probably cannot write a good essay on that topic and should look for another one.
The job of a philosophy paper is to convince. But convince who? It is easy to convince those who already agree with you. Your job is to convince those who do not. This means that once you have understood your opponent’s concerns, you must address them and show why they are not fully persuasive. For example, if you believe we ought to allow voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill, you must figure out why someone else would reject such a policy. One possibility is that people might fear a “slippery slope” effect where, once we start using euthanasia for a few cases, we could end up using it for more and more cases until things are out of control. When you address your opponent’s concerns, one thing you must do is to show why this is not to be feared.
It is common to write papers in which we call our opponent’s idiots or (when the issue is moral) perverted. It is common to say that we have no idea how anyone would believe that sort of nonsense and that our opponent’s must be biased in some way. Given what I have written above, you can see my response to this sort of paper. If that is the best you can do, you are violating the basic function of these papers – to convince opponents – and you are not yet qualified to write on your topic. You must treat your opponents, no matter how wrong you think they are, with respect. If you cannot write on a topic without assuming anyone who disagrees with you is dumb or perverted, then you are probably to dumb and perverted to write on that topic. Choose another one. If you cannot find any topic to write about without assuming your opponent is dumb or perverted, I will gladly sign a drop slip for you. If you are a philosophy major and find this problem in a lot of philosophy classes, you might consider an alternative major.
You do not get credit for agreeing with me on any matter, and you do not loose credit for disagreeing with me. I would much rather see a lively and interesting defense of something I disagree with than a poor defense of something I agree with.
The Three Components of a Defense: The defense of a philosophical thesis is a complex matter. In a short paper, you might only be able to do part of the job. But in a longer paper, you might do a lot more. In defending a controversial thesis, there are a lot of “sub-projects,” that is, steps along the way.
First, Refutation of Alternative Views: one of the things you can do to defend your own position on a controversial issue is to show the inadequacies of other positions. Sometimes this is the most important thing you can do.
Second, Positive Defense of Your Own Position: having knocked out the competition, you have already done a lot to make your own view look plausible. Sometimes , the “last one standing” wins. But you can do more, particularly since your refutations of your opponent’s views are unlikely to be conclusive. So it is time to start developing a positive case for your position.
Third, Respond to Critics: just as you are trying to show the inadequacies of other views, so are other folk trying to show the inadequacies of your view. So long as criticisms of your view are on the table, you have not finished your work. You must respond. And if they then counter-respond, you must counter-counter-respond. Do not be offended by these philosophical attacks. View them as favors designed to help you improve your own view. Of course, your opponent might be a jerk and his attacks vicious. But it is often valuable to take them seriously anyway.
A final comment: some of you will ask whether (b), the good positive defense, is enough on its own. Sometimes it is. If you have a conclusive proof of your view, you do not need to do much more. However, in the real world, the positive defense of a philosophical position is not likely to be conclusive. A reasonably good positive defense of your view is strengthened by a reasonably good critique of other views and it is all strengthened by reasonably good responses to critics. The entire package, not just one component, makes your case. On the other hand, keep in mind that you do not, in a short paper have time to do all these things even though they are all required in a full treatment of your topic. From a practical point of view, it is often best to write short papers in which you critique other views or develop very specific arguments for your own view or respond to a handful of very specific criticisms of your view.
13. Admittedly, all this is rather abstract. The best way to fill it in with content is to jump into philosophical debates, see how people actually defend their views, attack others, and defend themselves against critics. And the best way to develop your own skills is to start writing.