(Logic) English 2 – Critical Thinking and Writing (Spring 2007)
Critique of Bethany A. Marshall’s “The Simple Truth about Happiness”
[Students and professors, please read.]
Imagine for a little bit that you are strolling in the shoes of a student of critical thinking, that your assignment is to critique an argumentative essay, and that you are reading an essay pregnant with material for your critical analysis. This essay, on the surface, seems to make sense, but upon further inspection, you uncover many errors that make you feel like a veritable Sherlock Holmes. You think, “My instructor is a genius! He’s making this elementary so that I won’t think critical thinking is too difficult!” And you’re right. He’s handed you an essay lacking neutralization of rebuttals, completely lacking a defining issue, and utterly lacking arguments supporting the original thesis, an essay jam-packed with not only contradictory premises, but contradictory theses, as well as poor word choice and stream-of-consciousness ramblings! Well, you are taking a stroll in my shoes. I found all of those weaknesses and more, and a few strengths, in therapist Bethany A. Marshall’s “The Simple Truth about Happiness.”
One strength of Miss Marshall’s introduction is that she begins by telling a story in which the reader is the main character, to catch the reader’s interest, and then asks the reader to select from two possible interpretations of the narrative, to get the reader thinking about their real position on the issue. This is good as far as writing skills are concerned, but it doesn’t really do anything to strengthen her argument. The problem is that there are more possible interpretations than the two she provides. For example, if I were in Miss Marshall’s narrative, watching a film of my happy future life, I would conclude both that God is going to deal me a pretty good hand, and that part of that hand is going to be that I know how to make good choices born of the happiness resulting from being at peace with God. In fact, something very much like that led to my conversion to Christianity. The presence of my interpretation points to a rebuttal that Miss Marshall failed to anticipate or neglected to diffuse. At least she starts out well.
Another strength of Miss Marshall’s essay is that she states her thesis right up front, though it looks more like a subtitle: “Axiom No. 1: Happiness is possessing the strength of character to make good choices.” However, she ends on a completely different thesis: “happiness is the by-product of good choices made daily, rather than a quick fix.” From the original thesis, the reader must only assume that the issue is “What is happiness?” From the final thesis, the reader must only assume the issue is “Is happiness a quick fix, or is it the by-product of good choices made daily?” –but the issue is much harder to define than that, upon further inspection of the rest of the stream-of-consciousness style essay. There seem to be many possible contradictory ways of stating the issue, possibly due to losing the thesis under bewildering attempts at addressing rebuttals: 1) What is happiness? 2) Does life deal me happiness, or is happiness a result of my making good choices? 3) How can I find happiness? 4) Will happiness be magically bestowed upon me by outside circumstances? (She initially argues against this, but then provides many possible outside circumstances when she asks the reader about their possible “ultimate destinations,” to which she has just encouraged they set a course, by which to base their good choices.) 5) Can happiness be possessed, or is it a by-product? (She initially says it is a by-product, but then says it may be “obtained” – perhaps just poor word-choice.) 6) Is happiness a choice, or is it the strength of character to make good choices? (She initially says it is the strength of character, but then says it is the simple act of making good choices, one at a time, and explains how life-affecting are the results of even the smallest choices, and suggests learning to “value the impact of smaller choices”) and, finally, 7) “Is happiness a quick fix, or is it the by-product of good choices made daily?” Now compare issues 1, 2, 6 and 7. Her position in response to issue 6 is that happiness is not a choice, whereas her position in response to issues 1, 2 and 7 is that happiness is a choice. It seems all that can really be pinned down is a topic of conversation – happiness. But, come along, Watson, there are more weaknesses to be found…
If we stick with Miss Marshall’s original thesis, and the issue it implies, she leaves unanswered the question philosophers are asking when they ask “What is happiness?” In stating “Happiness is possessing the strength of character to make good choices,” which is “the by-product of good choices made daily, rather than a quick fix,” (being generous here) miss Marshall does not define what constitutes a good choice, nor does she define happiness. If she were to answer that a good choice is one that, when combined with other daily choices of a similar nature, produces a person characterized by happiness, the question “What is happiness?” reemerges, and elicits more questions: “How does one develop or attain happy character?” and “What sort of choices are made by a person with happy character?” Those questions leave out the word “strength” and the implication that if you don’t support her thesis, you are of weak character.
Still on the subject of being devoid of supportive arguments, another weakness of Miss Marshall’s essay is that she uses ‘definition by example’ to define what happiness is not, but does not use that or any other method of definition to define what happiness is. Miss Marshall provides a lot of examples of guesses at how to become happy, but she does not support why those guesses do or do not work. She provides no examples of people who are happy and who are happy because they adhered to her axiom (perhaps there aren’t any examples available?). She does claim that her psychotherapy patients eventually learn that “happiness is a by-product of good choices made daily, rather than a quick fix,” but should we take her word for it? Do they learn that happiness is “possessing the strength of character to make good choices”? She doesn’t say.
So now you see that my critical thinking instructor did very well hand me the perfect essay to critique. “The Simple Truth about Happiness” by Bethany A. Marshall, while it did begin with an interesting narrative, and while it did come out swingin’ with a thesis, suffers from a lack of neutralized rebuttals, a complete lack of a defined issue, an utter lack of arguments supporting the original thesis, as well suffering from being jam-packed with not only contradictory premises, but contradictory theses, poor word choice and stream-of-consciousness ramblings. If you don’t already know that happiness is the inner well-being resulting from being at peace with God, and that it is a free gift that motivates, rather than being produced by, good choices, you might start feeling a little depressed, scratching your head and posing the question, “Hmm… what is happiness?” and in that event I would gladly elaborate, preceded by “Elementary, my dear Watson!”