What is the Issue?October 15, 2018
We argue in order to settle issues. Issues arise when there is uncertainty about whether to accept or reject a claim, or about what to do or not do. For example, someone argues for the claim that you ought to quit eating strawberry yogurt because it causes cancer, and you wonder whether it really does cause cancer. You are wondering about the following issue:
whether eating strawberry yogurt causes cancer.
It’s common to express an issue by using the word “whether” to indicate the uncertainty involved. You don’t want to express the issue by taking just one side of the issue.
When two people are “in an argument,” they are divided on the issue. The metaphor is that they are on opposite sides of the fence.
A second, common way of expressing an issue is to present it as a question:
Will eating strawberry yogurt cause cancer?
The question also brings out the uncertainty and doesn’t take a side. It would be a mistake to say the issue is that eating strawberry yogurt causes cancer. That way of present the issue destroys the uncertainty and presents only one side of the issue.
The issue is not the same as the topic. The topic is food and health. Topics are more general than issues; issues are more specific than topics. When you find an argument, the issue is whether the argument’s conclusion is correct.
The following sentence shows that the writer is confused about the difference between an issue and a claim:
The issue of whether an oppressive government is better than no government is a claim open to refutation.
What is the best way to rewrite the sentence in order to remove the confusion?
- The claim of whether an oppressive government is better than no government is an issue open to refutation.
- The issue of whether an oppressive government is better than no government is a refuted claim.
- The claim that an oppressive government is better than no government is controversial and open to refutation.
- The issue of whether an oppressive government is better than no government is a position open to refutation.
Our example above used the slippery term “refutation.” If you claim what somebody just said is false, then you aren’t refuting their claim; you are simply disagreeing with it. In order to refute it, you’d have to make a successful case that what they said is false. You can’t refute someone’s claim merely by contradicting it.
What is the issue in this argument?
You politicos keep arguing that institutions can’t be changed when, in fact, they change all the time. Haven’t they ever heard of the institution of slavery? It’s gone from this continent, isn’t it?
- Can institutions be changed?
- Whether the institution of slavery changed.
- That institutions can be changed.
- That institutions can’t be changed.
The notion of an issue is explored more deeply in a later chapter.