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Essays 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 acknowledgedreleased May 2000; last revised March 2008]


2.0 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 Established Fact

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):

1.      Hamlet is the prince of Denmark, and he dies at the end of the play.

2.      The French Revolution which started in 1789 brought about many changes.

3.      Socrates’s argument in the Apology does not persuade a sufficient number of jurors to bring about an acquittal.

4.      Child abuse is very frequent in modern industrial society.

5.      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

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 define.

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 argument.

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 on.

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 tensions.

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 people).

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 argument.

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 toolsdefinition, deduction, and induction—in various ways.

2.6 Exercise 1: Recognizing the Form of Simple Arguments

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?

1.      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.

2.      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.

3.      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.

4.      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.

5.      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.

6.      Giving minority 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.

7.      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.

8.      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.

9.      Hamlet keeps 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.

1.      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?

2.      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?

3.      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?

4.      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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