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What' s in a good argument about evaluative claims? Argumentation in accountability practices

Authors:

Abstract

What counts as a good defence of the conduct of a political agent? I formulate an answer combining insights from argumentation scholarship on the different types of standpoints and the schemes suitable to defend them with insights from philosophical literature (fact vs. value, theoretical vs. practical reasoning … etc). The goal is to make a proposal that is best suitable for examining the type of evaluative claims that is typically discussed in accountability practices.
University of Windsor
Scholarship at UWindsor
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What's in a good argument about evaluative
claims? Argumentation in accountability practices
Dima Mohammed
Universidade Nova de Lisboa
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Bondy, P., & Benacquista, L. (Eds.). Argumentation, Objectivity, and Bias: Proceedings of the 11th International
Conference of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA), 18-21 May 2016. Windsor, ON: OSSA,
pp. 1-14.
What's in a Good Argument about Evaluative Claims? Argumentation in
Accountability Practices
DIMA MOHAMMED
ArgLab
Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Avenida de Berna 26, 1069-061 Lisboa
Portugal
d.mohammed@fcsh.unl.pt
Abstract: What counts as a good defence of the conduct of a political agent? I formulate an answer combining insights
from argumentation scholarship on the different types of standpoints and the schemes suitable to defend them with
insights from philosophical literature (fact vs. value, theoretical vs. practical reasoning … etc). The goal is to make a
proposal that is best suitable for examining the type of evaluative claims that is typically discussed in accountability
practices.
Keywords: accountability, argument from sign, conductive argument, evaluative claim, evaluative adjectives, fact-
value distinction, symptomatic argument, type of standpoint
1. Introduction
Accountability is a key indicator of democratic governance in our world today (Mulgan 2004). In
order to hold political agents accountable, democratic systems put them under the obligation to
explain and justify their conduct, publically as well as in closed doors in front of specialised bodies.
An agent who is accountable to a certain body is obliged to inform the body about her actions and
decisions, justify them and expect to face consequences and suffer punishment in the case of
eventual misconduct (Bovens et al. 2010; Schedler 1999). Thus understood, in its complete form,
accountability involves three aspects: (i) monitoring, (ii) justification and (iii) enforcement.
Argumentation is obviously central for the second aspect, i.e. justification. Through it,
accountability practices control power by subjecting it to the rule of public reason (Schedler 1999).
Engaging in good argumentative exchanges about the conduct of those in power is central for a
healthy political culture where the conduct of political agents is subject not only to the rule of law,
but also to the logic of public reason.
The exercise of accountability is not restricted to institutions whose primary function is to
call public officials to account, such as audit offices, ombudsmen and administrative tribunals
(Mulgan 2000). Accountability practices take place also in other institutions which adopt an
accountability role, though accountability is far from being their primary purpose. For example,
modern legislatures have a variety of functions among which is to hold the executive publicly
accountable. Furthermore, accountability is not restricted to those procedures designed particularly
in order to hold the power accountable. Accountability may occur at any point, in legislative
debate or financial authorization, where members of the government are required to explain their
actions and take the consequences(Mulgan 2000, p. 565).
From the argumentative perspective, accountability practices involve discussing a claim
about the conduct of the agent who is being held accountable. Underlying the practice is a
difference of opinion about such an evaluative claim: the agent can be expected to defend a positive
assessment of her conduct against the doubt, or often opposition, of the body to which it is
accountable. Accountability is exercised through subjecting the evaluative claim to critical testing.
DIMA MOHAMMED
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In this paper, I address the question of what counts as a good defence of an evaluative
claim, in particular claims about the conduct of a political agent. My goal is to make a proposal
that is best suitable for analysing and evaluating the type of evaluative claims that is typically
discussed in accountability practices. Finding out what counts as a good defence of an evaluative
claim about the conduct of a political agent helps us better understand, assess and improve
accountability practices. Posing the question as I do assumes that there can be, in general, a link
between the type of claim defended and what counts as a good defence of it. The link is certainly
not uncommon. It has been made, in different ways, by argumentation scholars, by debate
practitioners as well as by philosophers. Yet, not much work has been done on what counts as a
good defence of an evaluative claim as such compare to the immense bulk of work devoted to
practical reasoning and argumentation!
In order to answer the question, I start by discussing what it is like to argue about an
evaluative claim in general (section 2). In addressing the question, I draw insights from
argumentation theory and debate as well as from philosophy. Turning to political literature, I then
move to discuss the question of what makes (the assessment of) the conduct of a political agent
satisfactory (section 3). This is important in order to further specify the content of the argument
supporting the particular evaluative claim discussed in accountability practices. On the basis of
that, I formulate a proposal for the “ideal” argument in defence of an evaluative standpoint about
the conduct of a political agent (section 4). I conclude by discussing the proposal in view of its
strengths and limitations (section 5).
2. What it is like to argue about an evaluative claim
The assumption that there is a link between the type of claim defended and what counts as a good
defence of it is not uncommon in argumentation literature. For example, argumentation scholars,
distinguish between different types of standpoints and the argumentation schemes that are suitable
to defend them. Debate practitioners distinguish between fact, value and policy debate propositions
and offer guidelines tailored to the type of proposition debated. Philosophers distinguish facts from
values and theoretical from practical reasoning. In this section, I synthesise the existing insights
aiming at sketching a model for good argumentation in defence of an evaluative claim.
2.1. The type of standpoint defended in accountability arguments
Since Hume made his claim that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, the distinction between
facts and values has been a central theme of philosophical. The distinction is a good starting point
when we think of the type of proposition expressed in evaluative standpoints. Obviously, a claim
that assesses the conduct of a political agent is on the value side of the divide. Nevertheless, the
distinction is not adequate for capturing the type of accountability claim I am interested in.
1
The
accountability claim is not a typical “ought” claim. A typical “ought” claim, where a certain action
1
Despite its appeal, the fact-value dualism has long been subject of challenge (e.g. Dewey 1978; Quine 1951; Searle
1964; Putnam 2002). Particularly relevant for the purposes of this paper is the criticism articulated by Putnam against
the distinction as a dichotomy: fact and value are entangled; there are large ranges of statements that cannot be simply
classified as either analytic truths or statements of observable fact (2002). The accountability argument may be seen
as an example of the entanglement of fact and value. In this argument, the claim defended is neither a purely descriptive
fact nor a value as such but a combination of the two: a sort of an evaluative description. Furthermore, in accountability
arguments, we can clearly see the type of facts that Searle (1995) coined as institutional facts and which allow deriving
“ought” from “is”: a special type of “ought”, one about what ought to have been done.
DIMA MOHAMMED
3
is recommended, is one that is standard in deliberation discussions. The accountability claim is
rather a value-based judgment of a certain state of affairs. The two variants, evaluating a certain
state of affairs and evaluating a certain course of action, need to be distinguished especially
because the argumentation adequate for defending one is not necessarily adequate for defending
the other. Not surprisingly, the two have indeed been distinguished by argumentation scholars such
as van Eemeren and his colleagues at the pragma-dialectical school.
Following Hans Albert (1975), van Eemeren et al. distinguish between standpoints that
express “factual judgements as well as value judgements and normative standpoints” (van
Eemeren et al. 2007, p. 9 n5):
The types of standpoints supported by argumentation vary from descriptive standpoints
(“The King of the Netherlands is inaugurated in Amsterdam”) to evaluative standpoints
(“The Mahler concert in the Concertgebouw was excellent”) and prescriptive
standpoints (“You should come with me to church this Sunday”). (van Eemeren et al.
2014, p. 7)
This classification incorporates the fact-value distinction: purely descriptive standpoints are
distinguished from standpoints which are value-based. Furthermore, it distinguishes between two
variants of value-based standpoints: evaluative standpoints in which a value-judgment about a
certain state of affairs is expressed vs. prescriptive standpoints in which a certain future action is
recommended for its value.
The three-fold classification is also adopted within the debate tradition. Take for example,
the American Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA). In their intercollegiate debate
tournaments in the United States, debate propositions are classified into three types: fact, value
and policy propositions:
A proposition of fact is a type of descriptive claim. In a debate on a proposition of
fact, the affirmative maintains that a certain thing is true, while the negative
maintains that it is false. […] A proposition of value is a type of evaluative claim.
Values are our beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad. So a proposition of
value essentially makes a statement that something is good or bad. In a debate on a
proposition of value, the affirmative maintains that a certain belief, value, or fact is
justified, that it conforms to the definition or criteria appropriate to evaluate the
issue. […] A policy proposition is a type of advocate claim. CEDA defines policy
resolutions as those “phrased so as to affirm the value of future and specific
governmental change, and suggesting a broad but predictable array of potential
affirmative plans.” (Freeley & Steinberg 2009, pp. 55-58)
Examples of a typical fact proposition is “Resolved: That the stock market will decline next year,”
of a typical value proposition “Resolved: That abortion is immoral” and of a typical policy
proposition is “Resolved: That the Senate should advise and consent to the nomination of Joseph
Doakes as ambassador to France.” (ibid).
2
2
The argumentative practice of accountability involves arguing in defence of a standpoint similar to value debate
proposition. But not completely. The value debate proposition can take one of three forms: (1) endorsing a value, for
example, “Resolved: That compulsory national service for all qualified U.S. citizens is desirable” or (2) choosing one
value over another, for example, “Resolved: That inflation is a greater threat to American society than is
DIMA MOHAMMED
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Argumentation and debate scholars connect different aspects of the argument to the type
of standpoint that is being defended. For example, van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1992) tell us
that reasonable arguers defend their standpoints by means of appropriate argument schemes that
are applied correctly. As they put it, “in some cases, it has to do with the type and the scope of the
proposition expressed in the standpoint which argumentation scheme is appropriate and how
it is to be used (p. 159). Van Eemeren and Grootendorst assert that “there are no hard and fast
rules for the appropriateness of argumentation schemes to propositions of a certain type
and scope, some combinations seem to fit better than others” (p. 162). As examples, they cite the
argument from analogy as a scheme which fits different types of standpoints, as opposed to the
argument from consequences which cannot be used to defend descriptive standpoints (otherwise,
we have a case of the ad consequentiam fallacy).
3
More on the link between the type of proposition and the argument scheme fit to defend it
can be found in other studies devoted to argument schemes (e.g. Macagno 2015). As the discussion
below shows, in such studies, we get helpful clues to which schemes are better fit for defending
evaluative judgments in particular.
2.2. The argument scheme used in accountability arguments
In a recent attempt to systematise the classification of argument schemes, Macagno (2015) argues
that two things are necessary when considering argument schemes: 1) the pragmatic purpose of
the argument, i.e. the end and 2) the ontological structure of the conclusion and premises, i.e. the
means. Considering the pragmatic purpose, he distinguishes argument schemes that establishes
“the desirability of a course of action” from schemes that establish “the acceptability of a judgment
on a state of affairs. In doing so, Macagno parallels the long standing philosophical distinction
between practical and theoretical reasoning.
Practical reasoning, understood as reasoning about action, has been long contrasted with
theoretical reasoning, understood as reasoning about state of affairs (Wallac 2014). While practical
reason addresses the question of what “ought to be done”?, theoretical reason is usually concerned
with question of what “is” in fact the case:
Theoretical reason […] addresses the considerations that recommend accepting
particular claims as to what is or is not the case. That is, it involves reflection with
unemployment” or (3) rejecting a value, for example, “Resolved: That the emphasis on competitive athletics is
deleterious to American society” (Freeley & Steinberg 2009). The main difference between debate value propositions
and the accountability standpoint is that while the former has values as its subject, the latter has an evaluative judgment
instead. Another important difference relates to the format of interaction. CEDA debate format are highly
conventionalised, and take a shape different from the format of accountability practices. Furthermore, in CEDA
debates, debating value propositions is usually seen as a step preparing for debating policy propositions. This is
obviously not necessarily the case in the argumentative practice of accountability. Debate literature may be the source
of interesting insights for examining accountability practices. After all, debate scholars also start from the assumption
that there is a link between the type of standpoint and the way to defend it, and discuss what counts as good defence
(Freeley & Steinberg 2009, Ch.11-13) as well as good refutation (Freeley & Steinberg 2009, Ch. 14) of each of the
types. Nevertheless, the debate literature requires some considerable translation, in order to accommodate the
significant differences.
3
Moreover, van Eemeren, Houtlosser and Snoeck-Henkemans (2007) identify indicators that express the arguer’s
strength of commitment to each of the three types of standpoints (pp. 34-50) and they analyse the eligible requests for
clarifications after each type of standpoint (pp. 50-52 and pp. 74-6). Also, van Eemeren (2010) tells us that the type
of standpoint centre of controversy is one of the elements defining the different argumentative activity types (p. 151).
DIMA MOHAMMED
5
an eye to the truth of propositions, and the reasons for belief in which it deals are
considerations that speak in favor of such propositions' being true, or worthy of
acceptance. Practical reason, by contrast, is concerned not with the truth of
propositions but with the desirability or value of actions. (Wallace 2014, p. 3)
This is yet another manifestation of the “ought” vs. “is” divide. However, from the perspective of
this manifestation, standpoints in which an assessment of a state of affairs is expressed are on the
“is”-side. Accountability standpoints, the ones in which the conduct of the agent is assessed, are
concerned with what is or is not the case and are discussed using theoretical rather than practical
reasoning. Here, we may think of two variants of theoretical reasoning: theoretical reasoning about
descriptive state of affairs and theoretical reasoning about evaluative state of affairs.
4
This seems
to be what Macagno does in his typology.
5
Within the class of argument schemes that establish “the acceptability of a judgment on a
state of affairs, Macagno distinguishes between a sub-class of schemes that attribute factual
properties and another where value judgments are expressed.
6
He lists argument from sign and
from classification as the schemes fit for the defence of claims that attribute a value-judgment to
a certain state of affairs (p. 197):
Value judgments are classifications that are […] based on […] values, or rather
hierarchies of values. Such judgments proceed from criteria for classifying what is
commonly considered to be “good” or “bad.” Also the reasoning underlying the
attribution of evaluative predicates, such as “to be a criminal,” can be considered
as belonging (also) to this group of arguments. These latter patterns are grounded
on signs of an internal disposition of character, which in its turn is evaluated. (p.
196)
4
Insights from the philosophical scholarship on reasoning is undoubtedly important for the study of argumentation.
Reasoning and argumentation are often used to refer to the same thing, namely the act of reason-giving. Sometimes
as an internal mental act and other times as an external verbal one. Despite the obvious link between the two, it is
necessary to distinguish between the mental and verbal manifestation of reason-giving. The two differ significantly
when it comes to the role that public commitments play in the quality of the act. As John Searle nicely put it, “The
belief and the intention have nothing like the commitments of the statement or the promise” (2010, p. 81). As a result,
something that counts as a good piece of internal mental reason-giving may not necessarily count as equally good
external verbal reason-giving. Following Searle, again, I take it to be an important difference that
If the privately held belief turns out to be false I need only revise it. But in the case of the statement,
I am committed not only to revision in the case of falsehood, but I am committed to being able to
provide reasons for the original statement, I am committed to sincerity in making it, and I can be
held publicly responsible if it turns out to be false. (2010, p. 84)
In order to avoid the confusion, I will be using reasoning to refer to solely to the internal mental act and argumentation
to refer to the external verbal one.
5
Macagno provides an enlightening survey of the literature and a critical reading of the existing classifications. His
main point is that the existing classifications confuse semantic analysis of the link between premises and conclusions
with the types of reasoning that connect the two.
6
Macagno draws a few other distinctions within the class of schemes that establish the acceptability of a judgment on
a state of affairs. He distinguishes schemes according to the evidence for the judgment: externally as in authority
arguments vs. internally when based on the properties of the subject matter; within the internal schemes according to
the time in the judgment: present and past as in descriptions vs. future as in predictions; and finally within the past
and present judgments according to the type of the judgment: value vs. factual judgments.
DIMA MOHAMMED
6
The schemes of argument from classification (Walton, Reeds & Macagno 2008: p. 66) and
argument from sign (Walton, Reeds & Macagno 2008: p. 329) are represented in Figure 1 and
Figure 2 below.
All F’s can be classified as G’s.
a is an F.
Therefore, a is a G.
Figure 1. Argument from classification
Specific premise: A (a finding) is true in this situation.
General Premise: B is generally indicated as true when its sign, A, is true.
Conclusion: B is true in this situation.
Figure 2. Argument from sign
Considering the nature of accountability practices, namely the lack of clear cut classifications for
what counts as good or bad conduct, we may opt for the scheme of the argument from sign (Figure
2), rather than the scheme of the argument from classification, to model the good accountability
argument. The scheme is very similar to what the pragma-dialecticians call symptomatic
argumentation represented by Figure 3 below.
7
y is true of x,
because z is true of x
and z is an indicator of y
Figure 3. Symptomatic argumentation
Supposing that the scheme of argument from sign is fit for defending evaluative
standpoints, the question to address now should relate to the structure of the argumentation
required for an adequate defence of the standpoint (in accountability practices). Scholarship on the
semantics of evaluative adjectives can be of help here.
2.3. The argumentation structure of accountability arguments
In the survey provided by Stojanovic (2015), evaluativity is one of four main criteria according to
which adjectives can be classified. The other criteria are (ii) gradability, (iii) dimensionality and
(iv) the presence or absence of an experiencer. Adjectives are evaluative when they carry with
their use an implication of a positive or negative attitude. They are gradable, when the property in
question is held to a degree that passes a certain context-dependent threshold. They may be
dimensional or not depending on whether or not the adjectives may “be felicitously used with
constructions such as in every/some/most respect(s) or except for” (p. 2), and they may depend on
the presence of an experiencer, that is, “a sentient individual who perceives the property in
7
In previous work, I have used the symptomatic scheme to reconstruct accountability discussions in the parliamentary
session of Prime Minister’s Question Time in the British House of Commons (See e.g. Mohammed 2009).
DIMA MOHAMMED
7
question”, as in “shocking, disgusting, astonishing, enjoyable, or boring” (p. 3).
What about the (evaluative) adjective used to describe the conduct of the agent in
accountability practices? Generally speaking, we can think of an adjective expressing a positive
attitude. I suggest we use an adjective that is also gradable and dimensional. After all, the conduct
of agents is a multi-dimensional thing and the assessment of it is a gradable matter. I suggest to
use the adjective “satisfactory” to discuss the conduct of someone who is being held accountable.
The argumentative aspect of the accountability practice is then seen as a discussion about
whether or not the conduct of the agent is satisfactory. Such an adjective is clearly evaluative: it
carries a positive attitude. It is also gradable: we can think of a threshold, albeit not usually
specified. Finally, it is multi-dimensional: there are different aspects of what makes a conduct
satisfactory. Each of these three characteristics can help us investigate what counts as an adequate
defence of a claim about a satisfactory political conduct.
The evaluability characteristic requires that the symptomatic argument includes evaluative
premises and conclusions. The evaluative symptomatic argument scheme would be as in Figure 4
below:
*Evaluative adjective v* is true of x,
because z is true of x
and z is an indicator of *evaluative adjective v*
Figure 4. Symptomatic argumentation about an evaluative standpoint
Furthermore, in view of the dimensionality characteristic, we may expect an adequate
defense to have a complex (rather than a single) structure. For each dimension a line of arguments.
In view of the gradability characteristic, we may expect that the different lines are cumulative and
that there is a threshold after which the accumulated arguments become adequate. It is important
that the structure that connects the different lines of argument reflects the cumulative nature of the
different indicators of satisfactory.
Argumentation scholars have identified several types of argumentation structures that may
be suitable for this purpose. An example is the cumulative coordinative argumentation structure
identified by Snoeck Henkemans (2000, p. 464). Another example is the structure of an appeal to
considerations where “the considerations cited are features of a subject of interest, and the
conclusion drawn from them is the attribution of some supervenient status to that subject, such as
a classification, an evaluation, a prescription or an interpretation” (Hitchcock 2013, p. 226).
However, the structure most suitable for the purpose of accountability argument may be the
structure of conductive arguments (Govier & Allen 2011):
arguments in which premises are put forward as separately and non-conclusively
relevant to support a conclusion, against which negatively relevant considerations
may also be acknowledged (p. 262)
Govier and Allen’s conductive argument expresses the accumulation of indicators and allows for
taking into account both the signs in favour of and those against the claimed evaluative attribute.
Thus far, we can say that in general an adequate defence of an evaluative claim takes place
by means of complex symptomatic lines of argument presented together in a conductive structure.
In the next section, this sketch will be fleshed out using insights from political literature about
DIMA MOHAMMED
8
accountability and good governance.
3. What makes the conduct of a political agent satisfactory
The further specification, hereafter, is obviously informed by context-dependent political insights.
Specifications are dependent on the empirical context which is characterised by who the agent
being held accountable and the account holders are, as well as on the theoretical political context
from which we derive the understanding of accountability and what counts as good conduct.
The empirical context of my interest is that of the accountability of agents who are in
government (compared to accountability within companies or other types of non-governing
institutions). Typical examples of those who govern are national governments, represented by
ministers and prime ministers. Different political systems develop different accountability
relationships and arrangements to hold the ‘government’ accountable. Parliamentary question
sessions are an example. Less typical examples can be found in contexts where government takes
place also at an international level. The European Union (EU) is an interesting example. In the
young EU institutional setting, arrangements are developing by the day in order to hold the
European Commission (EC) accountable (The EC is considered the main executive arm of the
union).
3.1. Types of accountability
In the scholarship on accountability, the practice is characterised according to several sets of
questions. Here, I give a survey of the ones that are most relevant for my investigation.
Firstly, accountability can be characterised as (1) accountability for something or (2)
accountability to someone (Tsai 2011). In examining the accountability for something,
“government accountability is conceptualized as the responsibility of government officials for
representing majority preferences and implementing the government’s policies effectively” (p. 6).
In examining the accountability to someone, “government accountability is conceptualized as the
responsibility of government officials to answer for its behavior to citizens” (ibid).
Secondly, from the perspective of the accountability for something, we may distinguish
between (a) performance accountability and (b) policy-making accountability. Performance
accountability refers to the ability of citizens, first, to observe whether the government is
implementing its policies effectively and efficiently, and, second, to hold them to account for their
behavior (ibid). Policy-making accountability refers to the ability of citizens to ensure that
government policies are representative and reflect the preferences of the population” (ibid).
Finally, from the perspective of the accountability to someone, we can distinguish between
(i) vertical and (ii) horizontal accountability:
In vertical accountability, citizens and societal actors such as civic groups,
voluntary associations, and mass media seek to hold the government officials above
them accountable.
In horizontal accountability, agencies and offices within the state, such as auditing
agencies, oversight commissions, or the legislative branch, oversee other branches
or offices within government. (ibid)
In other words, while in vertical accountability, account holders are under the agents held to
DIMA MOHAMMED
9
account, in horizontal accountability, the agents and account holders are at the same level of
institutional hierarchy.
In general, I am interested in accountability practices that take place in parliaments, where
the political agent held accountable is an executive and the account holders are the members of
parliaments, those who are elected to represent the general public. Such practices are cases of
vertical accountability, in which the agent in government is accountable to the general public
through its elected representatives, for both its (a) performance and (b) policy-making.
8
Thinking
of the accountability argument, we may assume that a good defence of the evaluative standpoint
needs to include premises that relate to these two aspects. In the next section, I will further detail
the relevant premises on the basis of scholarship on good governance.
3.2. (Good) governance
When theorising about good governance, two aspects are usually crucial: representation and
effectiveness (Colomer 2011).
A representative government, if it is not effective at decision making, may generate
frustration and conflict among different groups. In turn, administrative
effectiveness, if it is not based on fair representation of the society, can be
counterproductive, since it may produce arbitrary governmental decisions
against the citizens’ majority preferences. (Colomer 2011, p. 687)
These two aspects have become generally associated with a set of institutional rules,
coordination, and decision-making processes aimed at attaining effectiveness in defining
collective goals, making priorities, and producing outcomes(ibid).
For the accountability practice of my interest, this means that a satisfactory conduct of the
executive agent is one which involves policy making and implementation, i.e. plans, policies
and/or actions, that are both representative and effective. Representative can be understood as
being in line with collective goals, with the institutional rules and processes which are in force,
with the promises made and with the commitments undertaken. Effective can be understood in
relations to the way priorities are addressed and to the outcomes achieved.
Considering the evaluative accountability argument, we may think of each of the elements
identified as a premise in a symptomatic scheme. For example:
Satisfactory conduct is true of the executive agent A
because having policies/plans/actions which are in line with the collective goals is true of A
and having policies/plans/actions which are in line with the collective goals is an indicator
of satisfactory conduct
Figure 5. A symptomatic argument defending the conduct of a political executive agent A
Other premises would include the assertions that A’s policies, plans and actions are in line with
institutional rules and processes which are in force, are in line with the commitments undertaken
8
The specific subject of my interest is those accountability practices which occur simultaneously with other practices,
in particular simultaneously with the deliberation of future courses of action. The debates on statements in the EP are
an interesting example.
DIMA MOHAMMED
10
by A, are effective in addressing priorities, and finally, are effective in bringing about good
outcomes and/or preventing bad outcomes. If taken together, these would indicate governance that
is both representative and effective.
A successful defence of an evaluative claim about the conduct of an executive agent A
would have several lines of symptomatic arguments such as the above, linked in a conductive
argumentation structure. The complete argument will be put together in the next section.
4. The proposal
Before the overall argument is laid out let me make an important remark. The assessment of a
political executive’s conduct is multi-dimensional in different ways. Two are relevant here: (i) the
assessment of the conduct can be made in relation to the multiple areas of the agent’s responsibility
and (ii) in each of the areas, several factors determine what a satisfactory conduct is. As a result,
we may need an intermediate level of argumentation where the assessment of the agent’s conduct
is divided into the multiple areas of the responsibility of the executive agent.
1 The conduct of the agent A is satisfactory
1.1a A’s conduct in area x is satisfactory
1.1b A’s conduct in area y is satisfactory
1.1c A’s conduct in area z is satisfactory
(1.1’) Satisfactory conduct in areas x, y and z is an indicator of a satisfactory
conduct
The premises are linked as a conductive symptomatic argument, which makes a satisfactory
conduct the outcome of the accumulation of both positive and negative assessments.
An agent may acknowledge that in a certain area, let us say in area z, her conduct is not
satisfactory (1.1c), and still maintain that overall, her conduct is satisfactory (1). In such a case,
the linking premise (1.1’) would have to express such a balance of considerations, which may also
be defended by further premises. For example, as follows:
1 The conduct of the Prime Minister is satisfactory
1.1a The Prime Minister’s conduct in the area of security is satisfactory
1.1b The Prime Minister’s conduct in the area of health is satisfactory
1.1c The Prime Minister’s conduct in the area of education is not satisfactory
(1.1’) Satisfactory conduct in the area of security and health is an indicator of
a satisfactory conduct, even if the conduct in the area of education is not
1.1’.1a The country is facing such difficult security threats that it is most
important that the conduct in security is satisfactory
1.1’.1b The unsatisfactory conduct in education is largely the result of external
unforeseeable circumstances
The threshold that makes the conduct satisfactory is usually itself a matter of disagreement, hence
the need to defend it by advancing arguments in support of the linking premise (1.1’.1a and 1.1’.1b
in defence of 1.1’).
DIMA MOHAMMED
11
In defending the conduct of the agent in a certain area, say area x, the symptomatic
argument sketched in Figure 5 above is used as follows:
1.1a A’s conduct in area x is satisfactory
1.1a.1a A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with the collective goals
(1.1a.1a’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with the collective goals is an
indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1b A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with institutional rules and processes
which are in force
(1.1a.1b’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with institutional rules and
processes which are in force is an indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1c A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with A’s commitments
(1.1a.1c’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with the commitments undertaken
by A is an indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1d A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is effective in addressing priorities
(1.1a.1d’) (A policy/plan/action which is effective in addressing priorities is an
indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1e A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is effective in bringing about good outcomes
/ preventing bad outcomes
(1.1a.1e’) (A policy/plan/action which is effective in bringing about good outcomes
/ preventing bad outcomes is an indicator of satisfactory conduct)
(1.1a.1’) Considering collective goals, institutional rules and processes which are
in force, A’s commitments, the priorities and the outcomes achieved by
policy-i/plan-i/action-i, A’s conduct in area x can be considered
satisfactory
The five premises (1.1a.1a, 1.1a.1b, 1.1a.1c, 1.1a.1d, 1.1a.1e) represent the different aspects that
are necessary for a certain policy, plan or action to indicate satisfactory conduct. They are
symptomatic arguments, which is expressed in the linking premises (1.1a.1a’, 1.1a.1b’, 1.1a.1c’,
1.1a.1d’, 1.1a.1e’).
9
The premises can be repeated for other policies, plans or actions undertaken
by the agent.
The premises are linked in a conductive structure, expressed by the overall linking premise
(1.1a.1’). Similar to premises 1.1a, 1.1b and 1.1c, their strength accumulates into a balance of
considerations. This means that there may be cases where one of the premises cannot be asserted,
and yet, overall, the conduct may still be considered satisfactory. For example, it may be the case
that premise 1.1a.1b cannot be asserted because A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is not in line with A’s
commitments (and a policy/plan/action which is not in line with the commitments undertaken by A
is an indicator of unsatisfactory conduct). In case one would still like to defend that the conduct
9
The positive attitudes assigned as part of the adjective satisfactory can be justified by means of further support for
the individual linking premises.
DIMA MOHAMMED
12
of the agent in area x is satisfactory, one needs to have a linking premise that asserts that, and to
justify it. For example, one may argue that:
1.1a.1’ Considering collective goals, institutional rules and processes which are
in force, the priorities and the outcomes achieved by the government
immigration policy, the Prime Minister’s conduct in relation to borders
and security can be considered satisfactory, even though the government
policy is not in line with the commitments undertaken by the Prime
Minister in his election manifesto.
1.1a.1’.1 The commitments undertaken by the Prime Minister to reduce the
number of accepted migrants had to be scarified in view of the emerging
humanitarian crisis, unforeseeable at the time election commitments had
been undertaken.
Here, again, an agent needs to set the threshold and justify that.
Overall, the complete argument would look as in Figure 6 below:
1 The conduct of the political agent A is satisfactory
1.1a A’s conduct in area x is satisfactory
1.1b A’s conduct in area y is satisfactory
1.1c A’s conduct in area z is satisfactory
(1.1’) Satisfactory conduct in areas x, y and z is an indicator of a satisfactory conduct
1.1a.1a A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with the collective goals
(1.1a.1a’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with the collective goals is an indicator of
satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1b A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with institutional rules and processes which are in
force
(1.1a.1b’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with institutional rules and processes which are
in force is an indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1c A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is in line with A’s commitments
(1.1a.1c’) (A policy/plan/action which is in line with the commitments undertaken by A is an
indicator of satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1d A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is effective in addressing priorities
(1.1a.1d’) (A policy/plan/action which is effective in addressing priorities is an indicator of
satisfactory conduct)
1.1a.1e A’s policy-i/plan-i/action-i is effective in bringing about good outcomes / preventing
bad outcomes
(1.1a.1e’) (A policy/plan/action which is effective in bringing about good outcomes / preventing
bad outcomes is an indicator of satisfactory conduct)
(1.1a.1’) Considering collective goals, institutional rules and processes which are in force, A’s
commitments, the priorities and the outcomes achieved by policy-i/plan-i/action-i, A’s
conduct in area x can be considered satisfactory
Figure 6. The complete argument defending the conduct of a political executive agent A
DIMA MOHAMMED
13
5. Concluding remarks
In this paper, I addressed the question of what counts as a good defence of an evaluative claim,
in particular claims about the conduct of a political agent who is in government. Following earlier
work by argumentation scholars, I assumed that there is a link between the type of standpoint
defended and what counts as a good defence of it. I synthesised insights from argumentation and
philosophical scholarship and sketched a general proposal for how to defend an evaluative claim.
Then I made my proposal more specific by incorporating insights from political scholarship on
accountability and good governance. My goal was to make a proposal that is best suitable for
analysing and evaluating the type of evaluative claims that is typically discussed in parliamentary
accountability practices where an agent in government is accountable, vertically, to the general
public through its elected representatives.
The general proposal I made can be a good starting point for reconstructing, analysing and
assessing evaluative standpoints in general. More investigation needs to be done in order to take
into account possible differences between various types of evaluative standpoints. The proposal
specific to accountability arguments can help us better understand, and assess the argumentative
aspect of accountability practices. A disclaimer is due here. The proposal I am making here is
meant to be fit for examining accountability practices which are not triggered by accusations of
misconduct. These are the day-to-day accountability practices where the agent held to account is
expected to inform the account holder about her plans, policies and actions and to justify them,
without any specific allegation of misconduct advanced by the account holder. From the
argumentative perspective, accountability practices which are triggered by accusations of
misconduct are significantly different. While in both types of practices, the agent has the burden
of proof to defend the claim that her performance is satisfactory. Only in those practices triggered
by accusations does the account holder have a burden of proof to defend the claim that the conduct
of the agent is not satisfactory. In these practices, the agent also has the obligation to respond to
the particular accusations against her, which makes the defence of her conduct significantly
different.
The proposal made here is preliminary. It can certainly do well with some refinement,
including some simplification. There is definitely a need to apply it to the examination of actual
cases, to test it and hopefully also refine it and simplify it.
Acknowledgements: I acknowledge the financial support of the Nova Institute of Philosophy,
FCSH, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, as well as the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a
Tecnologia (FCT) through grant no. SFRH / BPD / 76149 / 2011.
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... These usually express a positive assessment of the Commission's policies, plans or actions. Excerpts (7) and (8) Central to understanding passages such as the above as accountability practices is the reconstruction of argument from sign (Mohammed 2016c). This argument scheme is particularly suitable for the defence of evaluative standpoints such as the one at the centre of the discussion in accountability discussions. ...
... The negative scheme can have three variants: Critical account holders may argue that a certain policy, plan or action is not representative, or that a certain policy, plan or action is not effective, or that the agent has not taken any policy, plan or action that is representative or 6 This is a simplified version of the scheme. See Mohammed (2016c) for an elaborate version and for the discussion of it. effective. ...
... SeeMohammed (2016c) for a discussion of the rationale underlying such a reconstruction of the disputed position in accountability practices. 11 Exercising Accountability in European Parliamentary Debates … ...
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In this chapter, I examine the argumentative discursive process through which accountability is exercised in debates that follow statements by Commissioners in the European Parliament (EP). The accountability practice is characterised as an activity type (van Eemeren in Strategic maneuvering in argumentative discourse: Extending the pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2010), based on a careful examination of the institutional setting and combined with the analysis of actual debates. The characterisation highlights the conventionalised elements of the practice, offering us some indications on what to look for when examining the argumentative pursuit of accountability in these debates. In the characterisation, I pay special attention to the linguistic indicators associated with different argumentative aspects of the process. Following van Eemeren et al. (Argumentative indicators in discourse: a pragma-dialectical study, Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2007), I take it that identifying argumentative indicators is in principle fruitful as it refines the analytic tools used to examine argumentative practices. However, as the examination in this chapter shows, as a result of the highly institutional nature of the practice, the multiple purposes it has and the consequent indirectness and implicitness, argumentative indicators are less straightforward than they are in other practices. The examination of EP debates on statements suggests we may need to think of different types of indicators to help us navigate more complex institutionalised argumentative practices.
... Prescriptive standpoints are similar to evaluative standpoints in the sense that they can be based on personal opinion, factual proof or both. This likeness between evaluative and prescriptive standpoints is captured by Mohammed's (2016) remark that they are both value-based. Put differently, they concern two variants of value-based standpoints e "evaluative standpoints [are standpoints] in which a value-judgment about a certain state of affairs is expressed [and] prescriptive standpoints [are standpoints] in which a certain future action is recommended for its value" (Mohammed, 2016, p.3). 6 They differ, however, as to the argumentation that is typically provided in support of these two types of claims. ...
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