and Arguments, Section Two
[This text, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged—released May 2000; last revised March 2008]
Arguments: Some Simple First Principles
2.1 Initial Comments
Put most simply, an argument is an
attempt to persuade someone of something. It is prompted usually by a
disagreement, confusion, or ignorance about something which the arguers wish to
resolve or illuminate in a convincing way. In the most general sense, arguments
go on all the time; they are a staple ingredient of many conversations, as well
as the heart of any enquiry into the truth or probability of something (as in,
for example, the judicial process, a scientific research project, a policy
analysis, a business plan, and so forth).
Arguments can also, of course, be
internal, as, for example, when we are faced with making a difficult choice
(Should I marry this man? Is it right for me to oppose capital punishment? Why
do I need to purchase a new home? Which candidate should I vote for? And so on).
The final goal of an argument is usually
to reach a conclusion which is sufficiently persuasive to convince someone of
something (a course of action, the reasons for an event, the responsibility for
certain acts, the probable truth of an analysis, or the validity of an
interpretation). Arguments can also often have an important negative purpose: to
convince someone that something is not the case.
2.2 Trivial Arguments over Matters of
Some arguments are relatively trivial
and easy to resolve. For example, if I claim that I am taller than you and if
you disagree, then we may argue about the fact. However, this argument
immediately suggests a quick resolution: we stand back to back and let one or
more third parties observe the difference. Similarly, if I assert that Berlin is
the capital of Germany and you insist that I am wrong, because Bonn is the
capital, then we can resolve that argument quickly by referring to an acceptable
authority on the subject.
Arguments like the ones above are easy
to deal with so long as two conditions hold: first, that there is a quick
authoritative way of resolving the difference (e.g., by standing back to back or
by consulting a book) and, second, that all the disputants agree to acknowledge
the authority referred to. In the above cases, if I do not trust the testimony
of the third parties who are observing our height difference or if I do not
trust the book we consult, then the argument is not resolved (because I refuse
to be persuaded)—and
it will continue to be unresolved until the disputants agree or are forced to
agree to a suitable authority.
Such arguments are, as mentioned,
usually relatively trivial. Their resolution is easy and quick because there is
an immediate authority to establish the facts (i.e., what is true), and there is
general agreement about that authority (like a dictionary or encyclopedia).
Thus, once that authority rules on the question, then the argument is over. This
example seems like an obvious point (and it is), but, as we shall see, it is
really important that, if you are seeking to set up an argument (especially
about literature), you should not base it on a trivial claim about which it is
impossible to construct a significant argument because your claim can be
resolved by a quick appeal to the agreed authorities.
Many student essays, for example, in
which an argument is called for set the essay up as asserting something very
obvious (a matter of fact). When that occurs, the essay ceases to be an argument
of any consequence (and therefore the essay is a poor one) because the writer is
defending the obvious. An essay with a central claim like one of the following,
for example, is asserting something trivial or obvious (or both):
Hamlet is the prince
of Denmark, and he dies at the end of the play.
The French Revolution
which started in 1789 brought about many changes.
in the Apology does not persuade a sufficient number of jurors to bring
about an acquittal.
Child abuse is very
frequent in modern industrial society.
There is much
discussion in Canada today about aboriginal rights.
These are statements of established
fact. We could dispute them (I suppose), but a prolonged argument would be very
fruitless, since we simply have to check an authority (like the text of Hamlet
or the Apology or the pages of the newspaper) to resolve the debate.
An important initial warning in your
essay writing classes is going to urge you to avoid thesis statements like those
above (more about this later).
2.3 More Complex and Interesting
Arguments become more complex when we
are not immediately certain about how to resolve them. For example, if I claim
that I am a faster runner than you and if you disagree, we have an argument. It
might seem that this difference of opinion could be easily resolved by having a
race. But we will first have to agree on what form the race should take. In
other words, we will have to reach agreement on what the phrase faster runner
means (are we talking about a sprint, a middle distance, a long distance, or
some combination of races?). Until we find some agreement on what constitutes a
proper measurement of the key term in the argument, we will not be able to
resolve the issue. And obviously if I make a claim that I am a better athlete or
more intelligent than you, the definition of the key term (better athlete
or more intelligent) is going to be considerably more difficult to
This form of argument is extremely
common in science and in social science, where the issue is often the adequacy
of a particular research model or method which has come up with certain
conclusions (for example, any argument about poverty in Canada will have
to find a persuasive way to define that term). The central issue then is often
whether or not the test or definition which has been devised to resolve an
argument is adequate (just as I might argue that a sprint is not an adequate
test of running ability).
This point is even more obvious if we
move to a really complex argument like the guilt or innocence of an accused
person. Here we cannot simply stand the disputants back to back; nor can we
devise a series of physical tests or consult a special book to resolve the
question. To obtain a conclusion, we have to set up an agreed-upon process in
which the different possibilities are presented, explored, challenged, in short,
argued, and then finally adjudicated by a disinterested third party (a judge or
a jury), all within the context of some acknowledged rules of what counts as
evidence or acceptable presentation of a case and what does not. The entire
complex process requires from the participants a shared agreement about the
appropriateness of the means undertaken to resolve it and a long process of
This example brings out once again the
essential point that arguments cannot proceed to any sort of satisfactory
conclusion unless the parties to the disagreement have a common understanding of
the rule-governed process by which the argument can proceed to a resolution. At
different times and in different cultures, the processes by which disagreements
have been dealt with have varied enormously, from trials by combat (to judge the
guilt or innocence of someone accused of treason), to inspections of animal
entrails (to decide on the right course of military action), to casting the
stones and bones or various sacred objects, to consulting scripture, oracles,
designated holy persons, or the astrological signs, to flipping coins, and so
Any of these above methods will
effectively resolve the argument provided all parties to it concur that the
process (whose rules they understand and agree to) is the appropriate way to
proceed. One of the major problems when different cultures collide is often that
the different peoples do not understand each other’s methods for dealing with
arguments. That is the reason, too,
why, for example, introducing democracy into countries which have no experience
with that form of resolving political arguments is so difficult: people can
often be extremely reluctant to agree to the rule that the winner of an election
is now president of all the people and replaces the old president.
It is, of course, essential for any
continuing peaceful order in society and in one’s personal life that
agreed-upon methods for resolving arguments be in place. Without them, certain
decisions might be impossible to make with any hope of securing agreement, and
at times the argument may degenerate into active hostility and physical violence
(resolving the dispute by brute force, without any rules). The latter is
generally a sign that whatever is supposed to be working to resolve
disagreements is no longer effective. And when such violence takes over an
entire society, its culture has broken down in the most serious way possible
(i.e., in civil war).
For that reason, we insist that judicial
arguments, legislative debates, industrial disputes, divorce mediation, and so
on take place in specially designated places and according to agreed upon
processes and rules, rather than in the back streets. And for the same reason we
agree to abide by the processes we have set up to resolve the argument, even if
the result is not always what we had hoped for.
Thus, for example, in Canada we agree
that the verdict of the jury will decide the matter once and for all in a murder
trial, even if we have strong objections to the result. In any situation where
we begin to abandon our agreement that such decisions will resolve the issue
(for example, by taking the law into our own hands if the result does not
satisfy us), the fabric of society starts to experience important and dangerous
2.4 The Importance of Reason
In our society, for causes too complex
to discuss here, we long ago determined that the appropriate way in which
arguments must be conducted and adjudicated is through proper reasoning. We will
be looking more closely at what this means in later sections, but for the moment
it is important to note that in making this decision we, in effect, rejected
various other traditional ways in which arguments had been dealt with (e.g., by
appeals to scriptural authority or to traditional rituals based on hereditary
power and privilege or to variously irrational methods, like astrology, augury,
the I Ching, spiritual revelation, dunking, and so on).
Thus, to construct effective arguments
in the modern western world, one must, first and foremost, have an understanding
of the rules of reasoning. The major aim of an undergraduate education in all
disciplines is to develop such an understanding in students.
Of course, we are a liberal society, and
we still allow people in their private lives to resolve their arguments or make
their private decisions (which often amounts to much the same thing) in any
manner they wish, short of inflicting physical harm on others. So it is quite
permissible in one’s private affairs to consult scripture, toss coins, use
numerology, consult spirit mediums, or sit around a Ouija board in order to
resolve private arguments (once again, however, all participants have to agree
if the resolution is to be persuasive and thus secure agreement among a group of
In the public world of work, politics,
education, and the media, however, the primary requirement of an effective
argument in our modern pluralistic society is that it must be rational
(that is, follow the rules of reason). Of course, in this public world there is
often a great deal of irrationality (e.g., in political speeches and in
advertising). An important part of being an educated citizen is possessing the
skill to recognize this irrationality, especially when it is posing as a
reasonable argument, since manipulating citizens through misleading arguments is
a major feature of modern life.
What are these rules of reason? Well,
that is what this handbook is largely concerned with, at least on a fairly basic
level. The sections which follow offer some specific guidelines about the nature
of a reasonable argument, about how to produce one in an essay form, and about a
number of the ways your written argument can go astray. There is no attempt here
to offer a comprehensive treatment of what can be a very complex subject; at the
same time the different sections do cover much of what an undergraduate needs to
know in order to analyze and construct arguments.
2.5 An Overview of The Major Tools
Almost all reasonable arguments, even
the simplest, require the use of three basic tools. We will be discussing each
of these in more detail later, but for the time being you should make sure you
have a firm grasp of the general meaning of each of these.
The first essential tool is clear
definition of the basis of the argument (e.g., what is under dispute) and of
all terms central to the argument. Obviously, if the parties to the dispute have
different notions of what they are arguing about or of what key terms mean, then
they will end up arguing about different things (what is called arguing at
cross purposes). So an essential part of most arguments is clarifying
exactly what you mean. For instance, in the second example above, a key term
requiring definition is better runner. Until we define that term much
more precisely, we cannot proceed intelligently to deal with the argument.
Clear definition is usually
straightforward enough, but, as we shall see, it can present particular
problems, especially if a key term has competing definitions (e.g., rival
definitions of a foetus are central to debates on abortion, just as rival
definitions of death and right are central to debates about the
right to die). And a major source of confusion in student essays is often the
fact that the writer does not initially define what the argument is claiming.
Such a mistake is often lethal to the rest of the essay (more about that later).
The second essential tool is something
called deductive reasoning or deduction. This is a logical process
by which we move from something we already all agree to be true to the
application of this general truth to a particular case (e.g., Killing people is
always wrong; capital punishment involves killing people; therefore, capital
punishment is always wrong). We use deduction every time we begin the argument
with something about which there is general agreement and then interpret a
particular example in the light of that general truth (as in geometric proofs,
for instance, which always start with an appeal to what already has been proven
or agreed to as true). For example, any rational argument which begins
with an appeal to established human rights or to the law, will be a deductive
The general truth we begin with in
deductive reasoning must be something we all agree on (its validity must be
established prior to the argument). If it is not, then the deductive argument
cannot proceed effectively. In some deductive arguments, especially in science,
the general truth we agree on may be hypothetical; in other words, we
provisionally agree upon something in order to make predictions on the basis of
it and then to test the predictions.
Making correct deductions is not always
easy, for there are a number of pitfalls (we will be looking at some of them
later). However, you need at this point to recognize that any argument which
starts from a shared assumption about the truth of a general principle is a
deductive argument and that the persuasiveness of the argument is going to
depend, in large part, on the shared truth of that general principle.
Finally, the third tool of reasoning is
called inductive reasoning or induction. This is the logical
process in which we proceed from particular evidence to a conclusion which, on
the basis of that evidence, we agree to be true or probably true. Such thinking
is also often called empirical reasoning or empiricism. It
requires evidence (facts, data, measurement, observations, and so on).
Induction is the basis of a great deal
of scientific and technical arguments, those involving the collection of
information and the creation of conclusions based upon that information. And it
is the basis for most literary interpretation, historical analysis and argument,
and so on. Any argument which relies for the persuasiveness of its conclusion on
collections of data, on measurement, on information collected somehow (rather
than on a general principle) is an inductive argument.
Most of your undergraduate courses spend
a good deal of time dealing with induction, instructing you what counts as
evidence in a particular discipline, how one sets about collecting and
classifying it (laboratory or field procedures, methods of reading literature),
and what conclusions one is entitled to derive from it.
In practice, as we shall see, many
arguments make use of all three of these tools—definition,
deduction, and induction—in various
2.6 Exercise 1: Recognizing the Form of
Here are some short arguments in which
the writer presents a conclusion (which is in bold) and provides some reasons
for that conclusion. Indicate beside
each argument whether it is an example of deductive or inductive reasoning (you
can use the letters D and I). If you are not sure, use a question mark.
Note that this exercise is not asking
you whether you agree with the argument or not or whether the argument is a good
one or not. It is asking you only to indicate the form of reasoning used,
inductive or deductive. Remember the key test here: Does the argument rely upon
an appeal to a general principle or upon assembled data?
Things equal to the
same thing are equal to each other. Therefore if A equals B and if B equals C, then
A must equal C.
The doctrine of free
speech is the most important element of our liberal democracy. Therefore this
student newspaper must be free to print opinions offensive to many people.
Six out of ten test
samples of the water in that lake, collected and analyzed by university
researchers last week, revealed unsatisfactorily high levels of serious
contamination. We must investigate this problem further and post warning
signs on the beach immediately.
All human beings have
the right to die with dignity when they wish. Therefore this terminally ill
patient has the right to an assisted suicide.
In this essay the
writer frequently uses words like "perhaps," "maybe," and
"alternatively." This feature of the style creates doubts in the
mind of the reader about the writer’s confidence in his analysis.
groups the right to political self-determination is fundamental to liberty.
Therefore, if a majority of Quebec people vote for independence from Canada, they
must be allowed to separate.
All people in a free
society must be treated equally under the law. Homosexual citizens in our
society must therefore be granted full legal spousal benefits, equivalent to
those of heterosexual Canadians.
Model X gets better
mileage, costs less to purchase and to maintain, and has a better all-round
rating in the Consumer Reports than Model Y. Therefore, it makes more sense
for me to purchase Model X rather than Model Y.
wondering about why he is not carrying out the murder. He frequently gets upset
with himself for delaying, and yet he still seems unable to carry it out. Clearly,
there is something internal preventing him from murdering his uncle.
2.7 Some Brain Teasers
Here are three problems to experiment
with. The important point here is not to get the correct answer but to think
about the forms of reasoning you are using to resolve the difficulty.
You are a police
officer on a highway patrol. You come across an accident in which two cars have
collided in an off-highway rest area. Each driver claims that he has been at the
rest area for over two hours eating lunch and sleeping and that the other driver
drove in from the highway and ran into his car a few minutes ago. You cannot
tell from the position of the vehicles which one is telling the truth. There are
no witnesses. Can you think of how you might sort out the claims on the spot?
What form of reasoning have you used?
Two friends of yours
are having a bitter argument over the question of whether or not two women could
have exactly the same number of hairs on their heads. They want you to determine
the question. Can you think of some deductive way to resolve their problem? What
would an inductive resolution of the issue require?
A man is walking to
the town of Ipswich. He comes to a fork in the road, with the two branches
leading in two different directions. He knows that one of them goes to Ipswich,
but he doesn’t know which one. He also knows that in the house right beside
the fork in the road there are two brothers, identical twins, both of whom know
the road to Ipswich. He knows that one brother always lies and the other always
tells the truth, but he cannot tell them apart. What single question can
he ask to whoever answers his knock on the door which will indicate to him the
correct road to Ipswich?
Three men are placed
directly in line facing a wall. The man at the back can see the two in front of
him, the man in the middle can see the man immediately in front, and the man at
the front can see only the wall. Each man has a hat on his head, taken from a
supply of three black hats and two white hats (the men know this). They are told
to remain in line silently until one of them can guess the colour of the hat on
his head. That man gets a large cash prize. After five minutes of standing in
line, the man facing the wall (at the front of the line) correctly identifies
the colour of the hat on his head. What colour must it be? How did he arrive at
the correct conclusion? Note that he did not guess.
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