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Peer Evaluators’ Responsibilities

Peer evaluators should do the following:

(1) Using markup functions (e.g. Track Changes in Microsoft Word or Commenting in Adobe), annotate the presenter’s draft.

(2) Write a 1-2 page note addressed to the presenter. In it, do the following:

(a) Summarize the core ideas of the paper in your own words.

(b) Discuss the strengths of the paper.

(c) Discuss the areas in need of improvement.

(d) Think of the main issue at stake in the paper. Play the role of friendly critic to the presenter. How would you challenge the presenter’s arguments?

Come prepared to discuss all of these issues in class.

Discussants’ Responsibilities

As a discussant, you should read the article and the presenter’s argument reconstructions carefully. In 1-2 double-spaced pages, write a bullet pointed list, in complete sentences, that cover the following:

(1) Generate a list of questions and comments about the reading that will foster discussion. Wherever possible, provide page numbers. Possible questions that you might address include, but are not limited to:

(a) Which claims in the article were unclear?

(b) Which claims in the article seemed implausible?

(c) What kinds of examples helped you to think through these issues?

(2) Suggest improvements to the presenter’s argument reconstructions. Possible questions that you might address include, but are not limited to:

(a) Where could the presenter be more faithful or charitable?

(b) Where could the argument reconstructions arguments be tightened up?

(c) What important things did these reconstructions leave out?

Scheduling for Weeks 5-12

With the exception of our first presentation, here is the general flow of things:

 For Monday PresentationsFor Wednesday Presentations
Presenter reconstructs main arguments in article using class email Sunday by noonTuesday by noon
Presenter shares draft with class using class email Saturday by noonMonday by noon
Discussants submit questions to Presenter via email and on canvas.Beginning of classBeginning of class
Peer evaluators submit peer review via canvas.Beginning of classBeginning of class
Everybody else has at least one question for the reading and another for the draftBeginning of classBeginning of class

Begging the Question

As I’ve been reviewing your drafts, I’ve noticed that quite a few of you are coming up with arguments or rebuttals that “beg the question.” (This is also known as “circular reasoning.”) The following is a nice discussion of why and how this is to be avoided. (Note: I copied this from this website, which has a much broader discussion of reasoning errors to avoid. You may find it useful to read the whole thing.)

Begging the question

Definition: A complicated fallacy; it comes in several forms and can be [difficult] to detect… Basically, an argument that begs the question asks the reader to simply accept the conclusion without providing real evidence; the argument either relies on a premise that says the same thing as the conclusion (which you might hear referred to as “being circular” or “circular reasoning”), or simply ignores an important (but questionable) assumption that the argument rests on. Sometimes people use the phrase “beg the question” as a sort of general criticism of arguments, to mean that an arguer hasn’t given very good reasons for a conclusion, but that’s not the meaning we’re going to discuss here.

Examples: “Active euthanasia is morally acceptable. It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death.” Let’s lay this out in premise-conclusion form:

Premise: It is a decent, ethical thing to help another human being escape suffering through death.

Conclusion: Active euthanasia is morally acceptable.

If we “translate” the premise, we’ll see that the arguer has really just said the same thing twice: “decent, ethical” means pretty much the same thing as “morally acceptable,” and “help another human being escape suffering through death” means something pretty similar to “active euthanasia.” So the premise basically says, “active euthanasia is morally acceptable,” just like the conclusion does. The arguer hasn’t yet given us any real reasons why euthanasia is acceptable; instead, she has left us asking “well, really, why do you think active euthanasia is acceptable?” Her argument “begs” (that is, evades) the real question.

Here’s a second example of begging the question, in which a dubious premise which is needed to make the argument valid is completely ignored: “Murder is morally wrong. So active euthanasia is morally wrong.” The premise that gets left out is “active euthanasia is murder.” And that is a debatable premise—again, the argument “begs” or evades the question of whether active euthanasia is murder by simply not stating the premise. The arguer is hoping we’ll just focus on the uncontroversial premise, “Murder is morally wrong,” and not notice what is being assumed.

Tip: One way to try to avoid begging the question is to write out your premises and conclusion in a short, outline-like form. See if you notice any gaps, any steps that are required to move from one premise to the next or from the premises to the conclusion. Write down the statements that would fill those gaps. If the statements are controversial and you’ve just glossed over them, you might be begging the question. Next, check to see whether any of your premises basically says the same thing as the conclusion (but in different words). If so, you’re probably begging the question. The moral of the story: you can’t just assume or use as uncontroversial evidence the very thing you’re trying to prove.

First Day of Class: Case Studies

Dear First Year Seminar Students,

Welcome to Middlebury! I’m excited to meet you, discuss exciting philosophical issues with you, and to see you transition into some of Middlbury’s best and brightest. You and I will post blog entries here about relevant course topics.

In preparation for our first day of class, you should read and think about the following:

Wedding Traditions

Here are some wedding traditions from around the world:

QUESTION: Under what circumstances are these wedding rituals appropriate? When are they not? What does it mean for a wedding ritual to be “appropriate”?

Flat Earth

QUESTION: Which of the following statements do you agree with? Explain.

  1. The Earth used to be flat, but now it’s round.
  2. It used to be true that the Earth was flat, but now it’s true that it’s round.
  3. Most people used to believe that the Earth was flat, but now most people believe that it’s round.
  4. Most people used to know that the Earth was flat, but now most people know that it’s round.
  5. It used to be reasonable for educated people to believe that the Earth was flat, but now it’s unreasonable for them to believe this.


Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in several countries. You can read more about it here:

QUESTION: Is it wrong for the cultures that currently practice FGM to do so?


A famous anthropological case study involves the Zande people. According to the ethnographic report, Zande believe the following claims:

  • Every line of same-sex descent has one proven witch.
  • If every line of same-sex descent has one proven witch, then all Zande are witches.
  • Not all Zande are witches.

QUESTION: Do you see the contradiction in these three claims? Are the Zande being irrational in believing all three claims? Or is avoiding contradictions merely something that is specific to a particular culture’s form of rationality, e.g. logicians, mathematicians, scientists, people at fancy liberal arts colleges in the US, etc.?