Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 2: Argument Analysis

This is the 2nd in a series of postings on the role of critical thinking in business ethics.

(Coincidentally, a story has been in the news recently about how poorly most US college students do at acquiring critical thinking skills during their post-secondary years. See: Study: Students slog through college, but don’t gain much critical thinking.)

One of the absolutely fundamental skills of critical thinking is argument analysis, or the interpretation of argument structure. And the fundamental elements of argument structure are argument premises and conclusions.

In everyday language, the word “argument” means a heated debate. When 2 people are “having an argument,” they’re disagreeing with each other. But the other meaning of the word “argument,” the one with which critical thinking is especially concerned, is this: an “argument” is a series of statements, in which some of those statements (called “premises”) are offereds as support for or reasons to believe another of the statements (called the “conclusion.”) It takes 2 to tango, but it takes just 1 to put forward an argument.

Understanding the structure of an argument is a very good step towards understanding its strengths and weaknesses. Knowing, for example, that a given argument has 3 distinct premises rather than just 1, is clearly pretty fundamental to looking for its weaknesses: the more premises it has, for example, the more possible points of critique. But more fundamental than that, even, is the idea that we simply gain a better appreciation of someone’s point if we can picture — even in a simplified graphical way — the shape of their argument.

Look, for example, at this argument:

The definition of “sustainability” is unclear. Also, sustainability is just one of many important ethical values. So, we should not judge a business entirely by its sustainability ranking.

We can represent this argument graphically, by means of a diagram, as follows:

The arrows in this diagram represent the author’s intended logical “flow” — they can be read as representing the word “therefore.” This argument has 2 premises, each of which lends at least some support to the conclusion. (The fact that there are 2 arrows indicates that there are 2 separate chains of logic here; each premise gives some reason to believe the conclusion.) At this stage all we are doing is sketching the shape of the argument; we are not yet engaging in a critique. But from a critical perspective, this means that if you find fault with one of the premises, the conclusion is still supported — at least to some extent — by the other.

Next, compare that one to this argument:

A tax on dividends means that corporate profits are taxed twice. And taxing the same money twice is unfair. So, a tax on corporate dividends is unfair.

That argument can be diagrammed as follows:

This argument also has 2 premises. But notice that (as implied by the line joining them, and the single arrow flowing from that line to the argument’s conclusion) these 2 premises are working together. They need each other in order to lend support to the argument’s conclusion. This means that a convincing criticism of either one of those premises robs the argument of all of its force. That’s not to say that the conclusion is false; it’s just to say that this argument can’t support the conclusion, if even one of its premises is in doubt.

Now, those are very very simple arguments, and the style of analysis suggested here is not exactly profound. But the simple act of sketching out the shape of an argument — your own or someone else’s — is useful in making clear just how much support the argument does or doesn’t have, and where its critical weak points may be. And agreeing on that is a crucial part of getting debates over business ethics beyond the foot-stomping stage.

The diagramming method used here is adapted from Lewis Vaughn and Chris MacDonald, The Power of Critical Thinking, 2nd Canadian Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

10 comments so far

  1. franklin olson on

    The most important courses I took in high school and college were logic and debate. I not only learned to express myself verbally, but I also learned to analyze both sides of an issue. I wish everyone were required to do the same.

  2. fibocycle on

    I fully agree with Franklin in that the most important courses I took in university were concerned with critical analysis and argument.They should be taught at the high school level–along with other branches of philosophy.
    I never ceases to amaze me that the meltdown of 2007-2008–which emanated from the housing bubble– demonstrated how many ‘players’, from all segments of society, allowed vice to trump reason in their pursuit of profits. I find it even more amazing that mathematicians on Wall Street, who should be VERY aware of logic, abandoned many tenets of reason in the pursuit of power and profit.
    Our education system should stress the importance of critical analysis since reason is so often held hostage by the passions and vices.

  3. Brian Bridson on

    Pete…this is a timely discussion. With all the propaganda circulating these days, on issues from education to war to “medicine” and everything in between, people must sift through the rubbish on their on…at the end of the day having to base their beliefs about the world on what they themselves consider to most likely be the case.

    And we get to this point by employing thought processes that are to varying degrees critical. Those who more often employ critical thinking are best able to make sense of the world around them, and thus increase the likelihood of navigating through the world with more success.

    We know philosophy is an amazing vehicle for allowing others to open themselves up to different ways of thinking, and to see the practical advantages of employing critical thinking. While I am not at all suggesting everyone run out to their local university and enroll for a philosophy degree (though that would be incredibly cool), I think it would be to the advantage of each individual to be required to take a philosophy course during high school – it will help to improve their critical thinking capacities as well as prepare them for writing quality papers at the college or university level…a task for which I never felt any other high school course, including English, did.

  4. John on

    Great comments!

  5. Carol Sanford on

    As a first year student at UC Berkely we were required to take what was called “study skills” which including how to read, write and think. It was the best part of my freshman year and let me to valuing of the role of critical thinking, as well as personal state management, in learning.

    I also think there is an Business responsibility issue here. When “Critical thinking skills are missing, we as a society suffer”. Without them we cannot have a viable democracy. If businesses are run in a way that people are not asked to think, capability to do so is not developed (it is not developed in school as you point out Chris) then people are dependent on borrowing ideas from others (I think it is one reason the term best practices has become so popular, in spite of the fact that is not a good idea). Or citizens are left using only emotional response to interpret events. I consider the development of people as thinkers and managers of personal reflection to be one of the foundational aspects of a system of business responsibility. I just did a blog on how this is one of the reasons we have poor quality leadership in the crisis in Egypt—the quality of thinking is too low. And greatly appreciate this additional thinking on the subject.

  6. […] really need are the best answers, not the easiest ones. ——– See also Part 1 and Part 2 in this series. « Regulating Wall Street Bonuses LikeBe the first to like this […]

  7. Momma on

    I entered a Community College as a non-traditional student. I completed the majority of my gen-eds without ever taking a course in critical thinking or how to study. Only after attending GCU was I given the course for critical thinking and I honestly believe that this course should be taught starting in elementary school. I learned so much that will benefit me in my personal and professional life during this course. I wish I had been given this course a long long time, ago! TEXAS GOP wish to exclude critical thinking from education. I pray with all my heart the world goes against the move. We must teach our young and old, alike, how to think.

  8. ann muasa on

    I believe our society needs more than degrees and masters but rather critical thinker who can work beyond confusion and dilemma since critical thinking in addition to the knowledge we have will take our community from their levels to greater heights .my desire remains if critical thinking can be taught as from lower levels to capture the understanding of the young folks for better would sound rather appeasing hence helping in the societal development.

  9. Paula Manzy on

    We need critical thinking in grade school. It can be done at the level of academic study.

    • Carol Sanford on

      We need a Living Systems Critical Thinking. Most is based on machine theory (AI) and this is not evident. So examine what you learrn. I spend decades in business buiildiiing the Mind that can thinkg as Living Systems work, not machines like computers. I write many articles on Medium about this really important subject. Chris, I really appreciate this conversation and writing. Happy to share more

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