Sidebar: Make a Claim that is Reasonable and Ethical

Even the most interesting claim may be unusable if your readers object to your solution. Once you think you have your claim or solution, it can be useful to ask:

  • Is my solution reasonable?
  • Is it ethical?

Reasonable solutions<

In order to be reasonable, a solution must be both prudent and feasible. In order for readers to accept it as prudent, they have to believe that the solution’s benefits outweigh its costs. In order for readers to see your solution as feasible, they have to believe that you, or at the very least someone, could make the solution happen.

For example, take a look at the following claim from a student’s paper on alcohol use on college campuses:

Excessive drinking is a widespread—and expensive—problem on most college campuses. In addition to the harm drinking to excess causes for students, including hospitalizations, lost productivity, and poor class attendance, alcohol use is also a blight to society. Alcohol-related crimes, such as drunk driving, show that excessive drinking is a problem for communities as well as for individuals. In order to curb such behavior on college campuses, administrations across the nation should institute a one-strike policy in which students found using alcohol on campus are automatically expelled.<

No matter what their position on drinking might be, almost all readers will think that this is an ineffective solution. The writer proposes that expelling students who drink will automatically make college campuses better, but reasonable readers will question whether the writer has thought through the solution he is proposing: what about people who drink in moderation? Has he thought about what this would mean for prospective students or their families? How much would it cost to institute these new systems? This writer’s solution probably won’t strike most readers as prudent.

Readers might also question whether this solution is feasible. The writer is claiming that college administrations should do something, but most readers would question whether these administrations would actually feel compelled to take this step. Most readers who are interested in debates about college drinking in the US would assume that other solutions, such as alcohol education classes or greater penalties for underage drinking, are more reasonable. As a result, they would dismiss this argument as unfeasible.

While most readers would not accept the claim that we should expel all students caught drinking on college campuses, they would be more likely to accept a qualified version of that claim. You can qualify a claim by suggesting a less drastic solution that will cost less and be more acceptable to your reader. For more on how to qualify your claim, see the “Make Sure Your Claim is Appropriately Qualified”< sidebar.

In the example below, we show how qualifying your solution can make your claim more acceptable. The section in blue< modifies the original solution in a way that will make it more acceptable to some readers. The changes in red< add context for the new solution.

Excessive drinking is a widespread--and expensive--problem on most college campuses. In addition to the harm drinking to excess causes for students, including hospitalizations, lost productivity, and poor class attendance, alcohol use is also a blight to society. Alcohol-related crimes, such as drunk driving, show that excessive drinking is a problem for communities as well as for individuals. Many colleges already have procedures in place to deal with these kinds of infractions, though they have not necessarily all been effective. In order to curb such behavior on college campuses, administrations should invest in research on the causes of alcohol abuse to better understand the problem. Once they have completed this additional research, they could institute a more rigorous policy that would effectively target repeat offenders while providing support for those who want help controlling their drinking. <

This claim is now more prudent than the original claim. Instead of demanding expulsion for all students who drink, this claim calls for more research and better-informed policies. This is more feasible, since college administrators are far more likely to think that their students deserve a second chance and help, rather than a no-tolerance approach. As this second draft shows, readers will be more likely to take your argument seriously if they are persuaded that your claim is prudent and feasible.

Ethical Solutions<

Even if readers accept that a solution is feasible and prudent, they are likely to reject it if they find it unethical—if it violates or conflicts with their core values or beliefs.

In the example below, a writer makes a claim that most people would find unethical.

War frequently requires resorting to extreme measures that would not be taken at other moments. During the French and Indian Wars, William Trent, a British trader, intentionally traded blankets that he knew to be infected with smallpox (a deadly virus) to members of a local Native American tribe in the hope that they would contract the disease. Though extreme, this was an effective method of warfare, and should be recognized for its ingenuity. Without Trent’s bold move, America would not be the same as it is today.<

The writer points out that William Trent’s tactics successfully secured land for the British, and that his actions influenced the course of American history. No one would dispute that Trent’s methods had their intended effect, or that he influenced history. Most readers, who are interested in the history of warfare and the violent expansion of the United States, however, would question the ethics of this writer’s claim, and of Trent’s actions, which many people believe violated the rules of warfare and fundamental human rights. Remember that even when writing an academic argument, you should keep in mind the material consequences of your claim.