Warrants Help Students Think Critically about Claims and Evidence
by Ted Kinnaman
In academic studies of critical thinking, much attention is given to the notion of a warrant. It is important that students understand the use of warrants in writing, no matter what the field. This helps them assess the evidence for the claims they make, and the claims made by others that they study. When someone makes a claim or assertion, we can ask them, ‘how did you get there?’ or ‘why do you believe this?’ To cite a warrant is to answer this sort of question. It is to offer some justification for the claim just made. But there are many different sorts of claims and many sorts of warrant as well. Here are some of the most important examples:
Empirical claims are claims about how things are in the world (for example, that it is raining in Tennessee) and the warrant for such a claim must be evidence about the world. This might be an observation (I was just in Tennessee and saw it raining), a report of an observation (I talked to my parents in Nashville who said that it is raining), or a reference to a regular connection among phenomena (There is a low pressure area over the Southeast and that always causes rain in Tennessee).
Strictly speaking, scientific claims are empirical claims, but they are distinguished from ordinary empirical claims by the method by which they are supported. The warrant for a scientific claim is grounded in the scientific method: Why do you believe that smoking causes cancer? Because this hypothesis has been carefully tested, the results formulated to stay strictly within what the experiment supports, the conclusions confirmed through testing by other researchers, and so on.
Claims about what is right or wrong are generally supported by appealing to broader moral principles that have the particular claim as consequences. For example, why do you think that the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was immoral? Because the bombing killed innocent people for no good overriding purpose, and killing innocent people needlessly is always wrong. Note that in addition to the moral principle, moral claims are often based in part on empirical claims with which one can take issue as outlined above.
Claims about historical events require special sorts of warrants, citing evidence from historical sources. Specifically, historical knowledge usually depends heavily on testimonial evidence, such as contemporary accounts of events and official records or archives, as well as reasoned interpretation of such testimony by other historians. Why do you think that the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Hitler? Because examination of German responses to Versailles show their direct linkage to the rise of virulent nationalism in Germany in the 1920’s.
The warrant for a claim about how to accomplish a goal depends on knowing how things work in the world. You should take the Metro to your interview in DC instead of driving, because all the highways into the city are crowded at that hour, and furthermore the stress of driving will cause you to have difficulty focusing on the interview.
Sometimes claims about beauty or artistic merit can be support by appealing to feelings (‘I love it!’) but more often they are supported by appealing to criteria for success in a particular area (Matisse’s The Dance is a great painting because of the perfect balance in the composition) or to a general principle about art or beauty (Citizen Kane is a great film because it makes the viewer care deeply about the fate of Charles Foster Kane).
Of course, there are other possible categories, and the lines between the categories are not as neat as presented here. But this is a valuable exercise for students writing in all disciplines. When students understand the concept of a warrant they are better able to make reasoned judgments about whatever material they study, and express these judgments in their written work.
Worksheet on Free Speech Analysis Warrants:
Please fill out this worksheet in regards to what you are writing for essay #1.
- Which free speech essay are you focusing on? (“Student Sues School District” (582-), etc., “The Debate Over Placing Limits on Racist Speech” (374-), etc.
- What would you say is the main point of the essay you are analyzing? Go back and review the essay and ask me or classmates questions if you have any. Make sure you clearly convey your understanding of the essay in your paper.
- What are some of the warrants (assumptions) underlying the essay and underlying your argument? Are these reasonable assumptions? Would it work or be accepted by our society and our courts? If there is a distinction, make sure to distinguish your opinion from the complexity of free speech as it has been treated in our society and in the courts. Some assumptions might be: free speech is more important than protecting people from being offended, protecting people from racist speech is more important than free speech, protecting the troops is more important than free speech, etc. For more information on warrants, see your textbook:“Warrants” (FCTA 295-297, 305)
- What could you improve in terms of making your case clearer to your reader? List below any opposing arguments you might need to take into account.Briefly summarize below your paper point by point. How does this flow as a logically connected argument? If there is any point where it’s not obvious how you got from one idea to another, work on adding transition sentences or words to your paper, such as furthermore, how
Worksheet on Support for Free Speech Analysis:
Please fill out this worksheet with regards to what you are writing for essay #1.
For one of the readings in your reading handouts (on free speech), take notes on how the author supports his or her claims. Then, further reflect on how you can better support your claims in your Free Speech essay. Compile more quotations to serve as support.
The “Golden Thread”
You thesis should make an assertion about a particular aspect of free speech, focusing on one of our readings. Topic sentences, often located at the beginning of body paragraphs, should also make assertions and not merely summarize. Topic sentences should connect back to your thesis argument. The first sentence of each paragraph should also transition from the previous paragraph, letting the reader know how she got from there to hear. Here is a sample thesis and topic sentences for a free speech analysis.
Thesis: In times of war, we need to be especially vigilant in guarding the right to express dissenting opinions, especially since those ideas can help us to improve our policies.
Topic sentence 1: Foner demonstrates that throughout American history, people have been persecuted for objecting to wars.
Topic 2: While today, dissenters are not being jailed or deported, the media has created an atmosphere in which dissent is equated with treason, producing a chilling effect on free speech.
Topic 3: Political speech has historically received special protection, even if it is deemed offensive by some (“Bethel” 585).
BELOW, WRITE IN REVISIONS BASED ON YOUR OWN FREE SPEECH ESSAY DRAFT (NOT THE EXAMPLE GIVEN ABOVE).
Fill out this worksheet (at the end) with respect to your essay 1.
Another textbook, Structure of Argument, discusses three kinds of claims for an argument: claims of fact, value, and policy.
A claim of fact states a fact, like “Half of this class is women.”
Claim of fact needs to be supported by
- sufficient and appropriate data
- reliable authorities
- facts or inferences: interpretation
The writer should make clear when she is offering an inference (interpretation) rather than a fact.
claim of value: a claim that asserts that some things are more or less desirable than others
Claims of value may sometimes be difficult to distinguish from claims of fact, and its not absolutely necessary. What are the values that underly our beliefs?
A claim of value, like “free speech is more important than protecting everyone’s feelings from being hurt,” involves conceptions or ideas that act as standards for judging what is right or wrong, worthwhile or worthless, beautiful or ugly, good or bad.
Claims of value involve the values of audience, but “a majority preference is not enough to confer moral value” (169). Just because most people supported slavery in the times of Ancient Greece doesn’t mean it was right.
claim of policy: a claim that specific courses of action should be instituted to solve problems
Claims of policy: presuppose a problem and that something should or should not be done. However, avoid offering a solution to a huge problem. “Youtubeshould convene a board of experts to help make decisions about what content to ban.”
Although seeking peace is a right and morally just act, their governments punish those who speak against war for their “unpatriotic” acts. ______
Taking all of this into account, it becomes evident that the FCC is a hindrance to America, and, on top of that, is a flagrant violation of American people’s inalienable rights of free speech and must be abolished immediately. ____
There has been a big question mark, from the racist and sexist speech to the words or symbols printed on a T-shirt; the boundaries for speech to be defined as hate speech are still to be determined. _______
In both “Student Sues” and “Bethel School District,” we see two public schools punishing students for using their free speech. _______
The Supreme Court stated “that forcing a group to accept certain members may impair its ability to ‘express those views, and only those views, that it intends to express’” (Johnson 596). ________
Write claims of fact, value, and policy that you are making in your own essay 1 on free speech: