Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What are the Value Conflicts and Assumptions for Critical Reading?

Anyone trying to convince you to believe a particular position will make an attempt to present reasons consistent with that position. Hence, at first glance almost every argument appears to "make sense." The visible structure looks good. But the visible, stated reasons are not the only ideas that serve to prove or support the conclusion. Hidden or unstated beliefs may be at least as significant in understanding the argument. Let's examine the importance of these unstated ideas by considering the following brief argument.

Local law enforcement needs to do more to impose consequences for littering. Obviously, people are not taking enough initiative on their own to follow the laws; therefore, city police have to do something. How can we expect change without enforcement?

The reason—at first glance—supports the conclusion. If the city expects change in the behavior of its citizens, it follows that the city's law enforcement should have to enforce that change. But it is also possible that the reason given can be true and yet not necessarily support the conclusion. What if you believe that it is the individual's responsibility—not the collective responsibility of government—to take responsibility for the extent of littering? If so, from your perspective, the reason no longer supports the conclusion. This reasoning is convincing to you only if you agree with certain unstated ideas that the writer has taken for granted. In this case, one idea taken for granted is that collective responsibility is more desirable than individual responsibility.

In all arguments, there will be certain ideas taken for granted by the writer. Typically, these ideas will not be stated. You will have to find them by reading between the lines. These ideas are important invisible links in the reasoning structure, the glue that holds the entire argument together. Until you supply these links, you cannot truly understand the argument. If you miss the hidden links, you will often find yourself believing something that had you been more reflective, you would never have accepted.

Remember: the visible surface of an argument will almost always be dressed in its best clothes because the person presenting the argument wishes to encourage you to make the argument your own. This chapter can be particularly useful to you as a critical thinker because it prepares you to look at the full argument, not just its more attractive features.

As another illustration, consider why you should work hard to master the skills and attitudes contained in this book. There are all kinds of reasons why you should not learn critical thinking. Careful thought is much more demanding of our energies than would be another decision-making approach like flipping a coin or asking the nearest self-confident expert what you should think and do. But this text is encouraging you to learn critical thinking. We are telling you that critical thinking is advantageous for you.

But our advice is based on some invisible beliefs, and if you do not share those beliefs, our advice should not be followed. Critical thinkers believe that autonomy, curiosity, and reasonableness are among the most important of human objectives. (Later in this chapter, we learn to refer to ideas like autonomy, curiosity, and reasonableness as values.) The end-product of critical thinking is someone who is open to multiple points of view, assesses those perspectives with reason, and then uses that assessment to make decisions about what to believe and what actions to take. We trust that you like that portrayal of life and, consequently, that you will want to be a critical thinker.

Your task is similar in many ways to having to reproduce a magic trick without having seen how the magician did the trick. You see the handkerchief go into the hat and the rabbit come out, but you are not aware of the magician's hidden maneuvers. To understand the trick, you must discover these maneuvers. Likewise, in arguments, you must discover the hidden maneuvers, which, in actuality, are unstated ideas. We shall refer to these unstated ideas as assumptions. To fullyunderstand an argument, you must identify the assumptions.
Assumptions are:
1. hidden or unstated (in most cases);
2. taken for granted;
3. influential in determining the conclusion; and
4. potentially deceptive.
 This chapter and the next one will show you how to discover assumptions. We will focus on one kind of assumption in this chapter—value assumptions. But identifying assumptions is more valuable than just the positive impact it has on your own reasoning. Critical thinking necessarily involves other people who are concerned about the same issues as you. When you identify assumptions and make them explicit in your interactions with others, you make a tremendous contribution to the quality of the reasoning in our community as well.

For instance, the Associated Press recently ran an account of a study from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank. The study concluded that good looking people tend to make more money and get promoted more often than those who are just average looking. As a critical thinker, you can question the assumptions behind such a report and, in so doing, prevent us from quickly embracing arguments that use such data to support their conclusions. Democracy badly needs just this kind of cautious reflection.
Critical Question: What are the value conflicts and assumptions?
General Guide for Identifying Assumptions

When you seek assumptions, where and how should you look? Numerous assumptions exist in any book, discussion, or article, but you need to be concerned about relatively few. As you remember, the visible structure of an argument consists of reasons and conclusions. Thus, you are interested only in assumptions that affect the quality of this structure. You can restrict your search for assumptions, therefore, to the structure you have already learned how to identify.

In particular, there are two places to look for assumptions. Look for assumptions needed for the reason (s) to support the conclusions (linkage assumptions) and look for ones necessary for a reason to be true. We first introduce you to assumptions that are extremely influential in prescriptive arguments—value assumptions. Look for value assumptions in the movement from reasons to conclusion!

Note that the reasons and conclusion are also the place where we search for significant ambiguity. Once again, we are showing great respect for the importance in a speech or an essay of the reasons and the conclusion.
Attention: An assumption is an unstated belief that supports the explicit reasoning.

Value Conflicts and Assumptions

Why is it that some very reasonable people shout that abortion is murder, while other equally reasonable observers see abortion as humane? Have you ever wondered why every U.S. president, regardless of his political beliefs, eventually gets involved in a dispute with the press over publication of government information that he would prefer not to share? How can some highly intelligent observers attack the publication of sexually explicit magazines and others defend their publication as the ultimate test of our Bill of Rights?

One extremely important reason for these different conclusions is the existence of value conflicts, or the differing values that stem from different frames of reference. For ethical or prescriptive arguments, an individual's values influence the reasons he provides and, consequently, his conclusion. In fact, the reasons will logically support the conclusion only if the value assumption is added to the reasoning. The small argument below illustrates the role of a value assumption in a prescriptive argument.

We should not legalize recreational drugs. Illegal drugs cause too much street violence and other crimes.

Value assumptions are very important assumptions for such arguments because they are directing the reasoning from behind a screen. The person trying to communicate with you may or may not be aware of these assumptions. You should make it a habit to identify the value assumptions on which the reasons are based.

By value assumption, we mean a taken-for-granted belief about the relative desirability of certain competing values. When authors take a position on a social controversy, they typically prefer one value over another value—they have value priorities or preferences. The rest of this chapter is devoted to increasing your awareness of the role played by value conflicts and value priorities in determining a person's opinions or conclusions. This awareness will help you locate and evaluate this important type of assumption.

Discovering Values

Before you can discover the importance of values in shaping conclusions, you must have some understanding of what a value is. Values, as we will use the term, are ideas that someone thinks are worthwhile. You will find that it is the importance one assigns to abstract ideas that has the major influence on one's choices and behavior.

Usually objects, experiences, and actions are desired because of some idea we value. For example, we may choose to do things that provide us with contacts with important people. We value "important people" (concrete idea) because we value "status" (abstract idea). When we use the word value in this chapter, we will be referring to an (abstract) idea representing what someone thinks is important and good.
Attention: Values are the unstated ideas that people see as worthwhile. They provide standards of conduct by which we measure the quality of human behavior.
To better familiarize yourself with values, write down some of your own values. Try to avoid writing down the names of people, tangible objects, or actions. Pizza and playing tennis may be important to you, but it is the importance you assign to abstract ideas that most influences your choices and behavior concerning controversial public issues. Your willingness to argue for or against capital punishment, for instance, is strongly related to the importance you assign to the sanctity of human life—an abstract idea. The sanctity of human life is a value that affects our opinions about war, abortion, drug usage, and mercy killing. As you create your list of values, focus on those that are so significant that they affect your opinions and behavior in many ways.

Did you have problems making your list? We can suggest two further aids that may help. First, another definition! Values are standards of conduct that we endorse and expect people to meet. When we expect our political representatives to "tell the truth," we are indicating to them and to ourselves that honesty is one of our most cherished values. Ask yourself what you expect your friends to be like. What standards of conduct would you want your children to develop?

Answers to these questions should help you enlarge your understanding of values.

Now let us give you an aid for identifying values—a list of some commonly held values. Every value on our list may be an attractive candidate for your list. Thus, after you look at our list, pause for a moment and choose those values that are most important to you. They will be those values that most often play a role in shaping your opinions and behavior.

From Values to Value Assumptions

To identify value assumptions, we must go beyond a simple listing of values. Others share many of your values. Wouldn't almost anyone claim that flexibility, cooperation, and honesty are desirable?

Look again at the definition, and you will immediately see that, by definition, most values will be on everyone's list. Because many values are shared, values by themselves are not a powerful guide to understanding. What leads you to answer a prescriptive question differently from someone else is the relative intensity with which you hold specific values.

That we attach different levels of intensity to specific values can be appreciated by thinking about responses to controversies when pairs of values collide or conflict. While it is not very enlightening to discover that most people value both competition and cooperation, we do gain a more complete understanding of prescriptive choices as we discover who prefers competition to cooperation when the two values conflict.

A writer's preference for particular values is often unstated, but that value preference, nevertheless, will have a major impact on her conclusion and on how she chooses to defend it. These unstated assertions about value priorities function as value assumptions. Some refer to these assumptions as value judgments. Recognition of relative support for conflicting values or sets of values provides you with both an improved understanding of what you are reading and a basis for eventual evaluation of prescriptive arguments.

When a writer takes a stand on controversial prescriptive issues, she is usually depreciating one commonly shared value while upholding another.

For example, when someone advocates the required licensing of prospective parents, collective responsibility is being treated as more important than individual responsibility. So when you look for value assumptions, look for an indication of value priorities. Ask yourself what values are being upheld by this position and what values are being relatively downgraded in importance.
Attention: A value assumption is an implicit preference for one value over another in a particular context. We use value preferences and value priorities as synonyms.

When you have found a person's value preference in a particular argument, you should not expect that same person to necessarily have the same value priority when discussing a different controversy. A person does not have the same value priorities without regard to the issue being discussed. The context and factual issues associated with a controversy also greatly influence how far we're willing to go with a particular value preference.

We hold our value preferences only up to a point. Thus, for example, those who prefer freedom of choice over the welfare of the community in most situations (such as wearing clothing that displays an image of the flag) may shift that value preference when they see the possibility of too much damage to the welfare of the community (such as in the case of the right of a person to give a racist speech).

In other words, value assumptions are very contextual; they apply in one setting, but we may make quite a different value priority when the specifics of the prescriptive issue change. Critical thinking plays a major role in thinking deeply about whether we want to assign priority to particular values in a given instance. Because our minds tend to like to put things in neat compartments, you have to work hard to tolerate the complexity of a person's value preferences.

While we can say that particular people tend to make particular value assumptions, we never can be certain about that presumption. Instead, we have to listen and observe closely before we can get a solid understanding of the value preferences that a person is using in a particular instance.

Typical Value Conflicts

If you are aware of typical conflicts, you can more quickly recognize the assumptions being made by a writer when she reaches a particular conclusion.

We have listed some of the more common value conflicts that occur in ethical issues and have provided you with examples of controversies in which these value conflicts are likely to be evident. We anticipate that you can use this list as a starting point when you are trying to identify important value assumptions.

As you identify value conflicts, you will often find that there are several value conflicts that seem important in shaping conclusions with respect to particular controversies. When evaluating a controversy, try to find several value conflicts, as a check on yourself. Some controversies will have one primary value conflict; others may have several.
Take another look at number 7 in the preceding list. It is quite possible that other value conflicts besides that between generosity and material success affect your decision about whether to give financial help to a beggar. For instance, all the following value conflicts may affect a person's willingness to help a beggar:
1. individual responsibility-collective responsibility
2. competition-cooperation
3. efficiency-social stability
By identifying as many of the relevant value assumptions as possible, you have a better chance of not missing any of the important dimensions of the argument.

However, you may have no way of knowing which value assumptions most influence the author's reasoning.

The Communicator's Background as a Clue to <some txt missing, to added!!!>

Value Assumptions

We suggested earlier that a good starting point in finding value assumptions is to check the background of the author. Find out as much as you can about the value preferences usually held by a person like the writer. Is she a corporate executive, a union leader, a Republican Party official, a doctor, or an apartment tenant? What interests does such a person naturally wish to protect? There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with pursuing self-interest, but such pursuits often limit the value assumptions a particular writer will tolerate.

For example, it is highly unlikely that the president of a major automobile firm would place a high value on efficiency when a preference for efficiency rather than stability would lead to his losing his job. Consequently, you as a critical reader or listener can often quickly discover value preferences by thinking about the probable assumptions made by a person like the writer.

One caution is important. It isn't necessarily true that, because a person is a member of a group, she shares the particular value assumptions of the group. It would be a mistake to presume that every individual who belongs to a given group thinks identically. We all know that business people, farmers, and firefighters sometimes disagree among themselves when discussing particular controversies. Investigating the writer's background as a clue to her value assumptions is only a clue, and, like other clues, it can be misleading unless it is used with care.

Consequences as Clues to Value Assumptions

In prescriptive arguments, each position with respect to an issue leads to different consequences or outcomes. Each of the potential consequences will have a certain likelihood of occurring, and each will also have some level of desirability or undesirability.

How desirable a consequence is will depend on a writer's or reader's personal value preferences. The desirability of the conclusions in such cases will be dictated by the probability of the potential consequences and the importance attached to them. Thus, an important means of determining an individual's value assumptions is to examine the reasons given in support of a conclusion and then to determine what value priorities would lead to these reasons being judged as more desirable than reasons that might have been offered on the other side of the issue. Let's take a look at a concrete example.

Nuclear power plants should not be built because they will pollute our environment.

The reason provided here is a rather specific potential consequence of building nuclear plants. This writer clearly sees environmental pollution as very undesirable. Why does this consequence carry so much weight in this person's thinking? What more general value does preventing pollution help achieve? We are only guessing, but probably health or conservation are being weighted especially heavily by this person. Someone else might stress a different consequence in this argument, such as the effect on the supply of electricity to consumers. Why? Probably because he values efficiency very highly! Thus, this reason supports the conclusion if a value assumption is made that conservation is more important than efficiency.

Note that the magnitude of a consequence may have a major impact on value preferences. One may value conservation over efficiency only when efficiency may cause "significant" damage to the environment. And, one may value economic freedom over economic security only as long as unemployment stays below a given level. It is possible for people to have different conclusions, while having identical value assumptions, because they disagree about the likelihood or magnitude of consequences. One important means of determining value assumptions, then, is to ask the question, "Why do the particular consequences or outcomes presented as reasons seem so desirable to the writer or speaker?" Remember: When you identify value assumptions, you should always try to state value priorities. With controversial topics, stating value assumptions in this way will be a continual reminder both of what the writer is giving up and of what she is gaining. Try to resist the temptation to stop your analysis prematurely by just identifying the values of the speaker or writer. Identifying those values is a step on the way to finding the value assumptions, but by itself it provides very little assistance in understanding an argument. Values, by their nature, are possessed by us all.

More Hints for Finding Value Assumptions

Another useful technique for generating value conflicts is to reverse role-play. Ask the question, "What do those people who would take a different position from the writer's care about?" When someone argues that we should not use monkeys in experimental research, you should ask yourself, "If I wanted to defend the use of monkeys, what would I be concerned about?" Remember, when someone takes a position on a controversial topic, she will be revealing a value priority—a preference for one value over another. Your knowledge of that preference will help you to decide whether to agree with her conclusion.

Finally, you can always check to see whether the disagreement results from a value conflict concerning the rights of an individual to behave in a particular fashion and the welfare of the group affected by the behavior in question. Many arguments rest implicitly on a stance with respect to this enduring value conflict. Like other common value conflicts, we can all recall numerous instances when our thinking required us to weigh these two important values and their effects.

For example, when we wonder about the use of metal detectors in the public schools, we often begin to construct our arguments in terms of thinking about the privacy rights of the individual students and the threats to the student body if a student were to bring a weapon to school. Then, we try to balance those values against other values: Does the individual's right to privacy deserve greater protection than the welfare of the other students in the school in this instance? What other issues involve this value conflict? What about the request of "skinheads" to parade through ethnic neighborhoods?

Avoiding a Typical Difficulty When Identifying

Value Assumptions

Try to keep your eye on the goal of identifying value assumptions; if you stop your analysis after you have identified the primary values of the person who created the argument, you will have cut yourself off from the downside associated with the argument. Let us explain with an illustration:

Drug research is a long, complicated, and expensive process. There are innumerable factors that researchers and medical professionals have to consider when looking for new discoveries in drugs. It is unfair for outsiders to criticize something they do not understand.

 Yes, prescription prices are high. But that high price actually has little to do with the cost of research. The price of prescription drugs is the responsibility of someone other than the researchers, mainly drug companies (companies that solely exist to market and sell prescription drugs). Do not punish the research companies when they ask for donations just because your prescription costs are high—the two are not related.

Suppose you read the argument and then say: I believe the person values prescription drug research. At one level, you have identified what the person who made the argument sees as important. She does indicate a desire to encourage society to fund this research. But that response is too concrete to serve as an avenue toward deeper thinking about this prescriptive issue.

To move in a more productive way toward a better understanding of the issue, take another look at the definition of values. That definition suggests a need to place drug research into a more abstract framework. Once that need is recognized, a common response is to say: She values health. That recognition is a step in the right direction. This value is at work in this argument, propelling the reasoning. The same value is relevant to any number of issues surrounding health care and the medical profession. But were we to stop at this point, we would miss much of the understanding that would emerge were we to pursue the value assumptions in the argument.

In that values are in tension with one another, we are missing a lot when we just call out the values a person has. The relative ranking of the values that affect this argument is what assists in determining the person's conclusions. That someone values the health of others over the values associated with alternative uses of public funds is what pushes them in the direction of the conclusion.

So push yourself all the way to finding value assumptions. Don't stop your search at levels of analysis that are less revealing.

Finding Value Assumptions on Your Own

Let's work on an example together to help you become more comfortable with finding value assumptions.
Different workplaces have different working environments. Some offer competitive wages, where performance is evaluated and compared with that of others and they may or may not get a pay raise accordingly. Some places like to encourage an environment where everyone works together as a group. Pay raises in this environment are usually done by amount of education or experience. This type of workplace allows for workers to form good relationships and work together as a team. Which work environment would really have the best productivity? One where everyone was pitted against everyone else and productivity was the only basis for pay raises, or one where the environment fosters a team that works together to up the productivity?
The structure of the two positions is outlined here for you:

CONCLUSION: The workplace should offer competitive wages.
REASON: The only basis for salary increases is productivity—therefore, this type of workplace creates optimal incentives for hard work.

CONCLUSION: The workplace should offer a team environment.
REASON: If the staff respects each other, they create an environment that can be healthy and effectively productive.

Notice that the work environment where wages are based on individual productivity values competition. Those who organize that kind of environment believe that competition would create more productivity because it motivates the individual. Thus, they contend that a team environment would get in the way of the productivity of the competitive environment.

VALUE ASSUMPTION: In this context, competition is valued over cooperation. On the other hand, those who think the team environment would be the most productive value cooperation. They believe that working together helps the group become motivated to be more productive, not just for themselves, but for the company (the team). They think that the group work would create a better working environment than one that offered competitive wages.

VALUE ASSUMPTION: In this situation, cooperation is valued over competition.

Therefore, the major value conflict is cooperation versus competition.

A supporter of the competitive wage environment believes the value assumption that competition, rather than cooperation, among co-workers over pay will create the most productive environment. Her stance on this issue does not mean that she does not value cooperation; both values are probably very important to her. In the instance of the work place, however, competition has taken over.
Remember that complete reasoning with respect to prescriptive issues requires reasons and value assumptions.

Let's complete one more example together.

Public libraries should not ban certain books. Some books are not considered to be politically correct or are considered offensive and therefore not supported by the public library system here. But their policy is hampering people's access to certain types of literature from a significant public source.

Let's first outline the structure of the argument.

CONCLUSION: Libraries should not ban certain books.
  • People should have easy access to books of their choice at public libraries. 
  • What value assumption do you think would result in someone's opposition to book bans? 
  • Look back at the table on page 60. 
  • Would any of the sample value conflicts affect one's reaction to the consoling of certain books and the use of the above reasoning? 
  • Try to explain how a preference for freedom of speech over order might affect your reaction to this controversy.


Once you have found a value assumption, what do you do with it? First, recall the purpose of every critical question—to move you toward the evaluation of reasoning! Because you know that thoughtful people have different value assumptions, you have the right to wonder why any single value assumption is being made. Thus, as a critical thinker, you would want to point out the need for anyone who is making an argument to offer some explanation for why you should accept the particular value assumption that is implicit in that argument.

Values and Relativism

We do not want to give the impression in this chapter that value preferences are like ice cream, such that when I choose blueberry cheesecake as my flavor, you have no basis for trying to persuade me that the lemon chiffon is a better choice. Ice cream is just a matter of personal preference—end of story! However, the choice of value preferences requires reasoning. That reasoning, like any other, can be informed, thoughtful, and caring. But it can also be sloppy and self-absorbed. Hence, value preferences require some justification that critical thinkers can consider. A value preference requires supporting reasons just as does any other conclusion. Then each of us can study the reasoning to form our own reaction.


Assumptions are unstated ideas, taken for granted in the reasoning. Within the context of social controversies, they consist of a preference for one value over another in a particular context. The author's background, reaction to projected consequences of acting on a particular value assumption, analogous controversies, and reverse role-playing all provide possible clues for finding a person's value assumptions in a particular controversy.

Practice Exercises
 Critical Question: What are the value conflicts and assumptions?
Identify the value conflicts that could lead to agreement or disagreement with the following points of view; then identify the value priorities assumed by the writer.
Passage 1

Sometimes it is not always best to be completely honest. Some conclusions are better left unsaid. For instance, if you are talking to a friend and he asks for your opinion about something, the truth should be avoided if there is no way to deliver it without harming the relationship.

The truth is not always necessary. If you were a doctor and you had to give your patient bad health news, then it is important to maintain honesty. However sometimes, in the case of friendship, the honesty may need some buffering.

Passage 2

Graffiti should be considered art. It seems that a lot of people associate graffiti with gang related activities, but that linkage is not always true. Graffiti is an expression of art, just as any other work by recognized artists: the canvas is just different. When graffiti damages property there is a problem, but if there were designated places for this art, then the people who are creating it would be less likely to deface the
property of others.

Passage 3

Eating healthy is important. Doctors and physical fitness advisors tell you about all the advantages of health foods. Then why are these foods so expensive? Companies selling these foods are raising prices for simple things such as fruits and vegetables. Six dollars for a bag of salad should be an indicator that the prices are too high. People want to be healthy, but it seems as if corporate America really does not want to make that prospect cheap. You should avoid wasting money just to eat healthy; go buy those cheap frozen vegetables at the grocery store!

Sample Responses

Passage 1

CONCLUSION: Lying to spare someone's feelings is appropriate in certain situations.
REASON: Telling the truth could harm a friendship. One value conflict that relates to this argument is that between honesty and harmony. Of course, others would argue that honesty is the best foundation for the kind of friendship they seek. A value preference for harmony over honesty links the reason to the conclusion.
As with most prescriptive controversies, more than one value conflict is involved in this dilemma. For example, this controversy also requires us to think about comfort over courage.

Passage 2

CONCLUSION: Graffiti should be treated as an art form.
  1.  Graffiti is not always gang related; there are other motivators.
  2. Graffiti is an artist's expression, just not on a traditional canvas.
A value assumption is that of freedom of expression over order. The author believes that graffiti does not unduly harm the public. If one valued order over freedom of expression, one might well reject the reasoning suggested in this passage.

What Are the Value Conflicts and Assumptions?
While an author usually offers explicit reasons why she comes to a certain conclusion, she also makes certain assumptions that lead her to a certain conclusion. By identifying value conflicts, you determine whether the author's value preferences match your value preferences. Consequently, you have a tool for determining
whether you will accept or reject an author's conclusion.