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Elements of the Argument Puzzle

posted: 9.30.11 by Donna Winchell

2975322282_4137534801_mThe protestors’ signs were indirect claims of policy. The claim, simply put: Troy Davis should not be executed. In spite of last-ditch efforts that went as far as the Supreme Court, Davis died by lethal injection recently for shooting an off-duty police officer in Georgia in 1989. The possibility that he could have been innocent led to worldwide protests as his execution date approached and to the renewed claim that capital punishment should not be legal.

Capital punishment is one of those topics that most writing teachers put at the top of their list of topics to avoid. A discussion of why, though, can be fruitful. What support, for instance, would you offer to prove that there should be no death penalty? For some, it is as simple as the belief that all killing is wrong. A convincing argument? Not for all audiences. Does capital punishment seem justified in the case of  Lawrence Brewer, which was playing out in Texas at almost exactly the same time that Davis’s was in Georgia? Brewer was convicted of the dragging death of James Byrd, an African American, and the day before his death by lethal injection he made this statement: “As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” In contrast, among Davis’s last words was the statement “I am innocent.”

Consider the capital punishment debate in light of these elements of argument:

Definition. Edward DuBose, a leader of the Georgia branch of the NAACP, reports a conversation he had with Davis the night before he died in which Davis said he wanted his death to be an example “that the death penalty in this country needs to end. They call it execution; we call it murder.” Supporters of Davis called his death “the planned judicial killing of an innocent man.”

Support. To make use of either the Davis case or the Brewer case would be the use of evidence, in the vocabulary of Toulmin argument. Evidence could also include cases of individuals on death row who were later found to be innocent. Perhaps the best evidence would be examples of individuals who were put to death and later found to have been innocent, if such examples exist. The justification that all killing is wrong is the use of appeal to needs and values. So is the claim that all killing by the state is wrong. Note the fallacy in the following statement, however: “We will not stop fighting until we live in a world where no state thinks it can kill innocent people.”

Warrant. If the claim is that the death penalty should be illegal and one reason offered is that there is the chance of executing an innocent person, what is the warrant? What if the reason offered is that killing by the state is morally wrong?

Taking an argument apart and looking at its elements is instructive, even if the definitive argument for or against the death penalty has yet to be written.

Other controversies recently in the news that could be used as topics for a writing assignment include Palestine’s bid for recognition as a state and Ahmadinejad’s UN speeches.

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Categories: Argument
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