• Episode 11: Issues 1: Descriptive and Prescriptive Issues

    In Episode 11 Nick and Dave discuss the issue of . . .issues.How many kinds of issues are there?

    Nick: Welcome back to Critically Minded, Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners.
    Dave: We’re your hosts, Dave–
    Nick: And Nick. Well now that we have learned about premises and conclusions, next we’ll be discussing how to understand an argument in terms of issues. Issues are what people are really disagreeing about when they argue for their point of view, or when they are trying to persuade you to agree with them.

    Dave: Yes, and this is where we start put our news skills to use in real and practical situations. Often when we are having a disagreement with another person, we find halfway through our conversation that, although we are discussing the same topic, we are discussing different issues.
    Nick: But, if we are careful at the beginning of our conversations. If we state our opinion clearly. And if we listen to the other person more closely, we will have fewer misunderstandings.


    Dave: And then if we must disagree, we’ll be able to disagree in a way that we work towards an understanding of each other’s position. That will never happen if we are discussing different issues. So, we need to understand the difference between topics and issues.
    Nick: The subject or topic of an argument is the content, but the issue is the heart of the argument. In short, there are thousands of topics we could disagree on. However, there are only two kinds of issues for any of those topics. And we can identify each kind of issue by knowing the indicator words. Issues generally come in two categories: descriptive and prescriptive.
    Dave: Descriptive issues, as you might guess, describe situations. Descriptive indicators include the Wh-question words: what, where, when, who, why, how, how much, how many, how often; to-be verbs: is, isn’t, was, and wasn’t; and auxiliary verbs: do, don’t, will, and won’t. Descriptive issues concern facts about the past, present or future. People discussing descriptive issues often want to know historical, scientific, legal, or statistical facts. For example, Who invented the telephone? Do people with sports cars drive faster than people driving family cars? If we buy a house, will we be able to take a trip to Italy next year? How many homeless people are there in Detroit, Michigan? How is climate change going to affect weather patterns? Those are descriptive, issues, and are for checking facts. How about prescriptive issues?


    Nick: Prescriptive statements make claims about what is good or bad; or how the world should be; or how we should accomplish goals. Prescriptive issues deal with matters of taste, or judgment: what the group or society we belong to believes is ethical or unethical; or what we personally believe is moral or immoral. Prescriptive issues are concerned with what is desirable or undesirable. These are indicated by words like good and bad or acceptable and unacceptable; right and wrong; beautiful and ugly; and of course, “okay.” For example, Is cheating on a test always immoral? Which are better house pets, dogs or cats? and Should we support climate change treaties?


    Dave: The important thing about prescriptive issues is that they are often about social controversies. They indicate what someone believes should or should not be done, in order to reach a desirable situation; or to avoid an undesirable situation; or simply to accomplish a goal. And that goal could be loaded with moral or ethical values.
    Nick: And perhaps less controversially, timeless problems such as what we should do to help homeless people; or goals that have no moral or ethical value—like what must be done in order to perform a mathematical function, or what’s the best way to get from your home to the airport before your flight leaves.


    Dave: These kinds of prescriptive issue indicators include words and phrases such as: should, shouldn’t, must, mustn’t, need to, have to, ought to, in order to, and so on. Both the first kind of prescriptive statements, that use words like good, bad, moral, ethical, delicious, beautiful and ugly; and statements that use indicators like should, would, and have to are basically saying the same thing. Often, the difference is a matter of emphasis. In the first case, statements like Driving over the speed limit is risky, are making general comments about human behavior. But when you hear some tell you, “You had better slow down,” or that “You ought to slow down,” you know that you are being told something about what you, personally, should do.
    Nick: And you know what. I think we ought to end here. In our next episode, we are going to discuss how issues can be inferred. So be sure not to miss that.
    Dave: So until next time. You have been listening to Critically Minded: Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners.

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