Rational Argument ~~
argument has four key components:
- the writer's
- the writer's
use of logical reasoning and evidence in support of the claim
- the writer's
calculated anticipation of disagreement, involvling the acknowledgment and
perhaps accommodation of counterpositions
- the writer's
refutation of counterpositions
Each of these components
is discussed below.
TYPES OF CLAIMS.
Several types of claims are possible -- claims of judgment, policy, value,
cause/effect, or interpretation.
Claims of Judgment
In a claim of judgment, the writer establishes criteria and carefully analyzes
the facts at hand in light of these criteria.
- Marijuana, although
unavailable legally even by prescription, is beneficial to people suffering
with AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma.
- Hand counts
should have been allowed to continue in Florida because precedent has established
them as fair, accurate, and favored by law.
- The United States
was justified in using nuclear force against Japan during WWII.
Claims of Policy
In a claim of policy, the writer argues that a particular problem requires
a particular solution.
- We've badly
wasted billions of dollars fighting a "war on drugs"; legalizing
certain drugs would allow us to spend these dollars more wisely.
- Manual hand
counts of ballots designed to be counted by machines are unreliable and should
- The general
education goals for students at West Chester University need to be more sharply
Claims of Value
claim of value, the writer decides the relative value of the subject at hand
-- good or bad, desirable or undesirable, effective or ineffective, etc.
is one of the most remarkable playwrights the English language has ever known;
he's our greatest dramatist, our best poet, and our most insightful philosopher,
political observer, and psychologist, telling us more about the human condition
than any writer before or since.
- Katherine Harris
is too partisan in her role as Secretary of State; her bias for the Bush campaign
has led her to take several unfair actions.
Claims of Cause/Effect
claim of cause/effect, the writer argues for a certain set of reasons or circumstances
- The drug war
is unsuccessful because the government agencies running operations are hopelessly
- The controversy
surrounding the 2000 Presidential Election and the corporate scandals of 2002
equally undermine Americans' faith in our democracy.
Claims of Interpretation
In a claim of interpretation, the writer argues that a "text" (postmodern
intellectuals go beyond the traditional understanding of what constitutes a
text) can be assigned a certain particular meaning, and that this meaning is
preferable to other "readings."
- Death of
is an indictment of the American Dream.
- Pro wrestling
may seem like the kind of spectacle analogous to the one provided by gladiators
in ancient Rome, but the differences outweigh the similarities.
- The "right
to bear arms" is provided by the Constitution; gun control laws would
violate our constitutional rights.
AN EFFECTIVE CLAIM. A
successful claim has a few key qualities:
- It is arguable.
- It is precisely
- It is appropriately
qualified, when necessary.
A successful claim
is arguable. Unless there's disagreement, there's no opportunity to be persuasive.
Make sure someone really does disagree with your position.
- Do reasonable
- Is the disagreement
based on personal feeling or an objective consideration of the facts at
Are these examples
good or bad?
- The government
should establish a minimum wage so that working Americans can reasonably
- Minimum wage
is really a poverty wage.
- Cats are better
pets than dogs.
A successful claim
is precisely worded. Don't allow yourself any "wiggle room"-no evasiveness,
no weaseling, so trickery, no manipulation. Although misunderstandings can always
be cleared up in the course of the essay, it's still true that the more precise
you are in your claim, the more precise you're likely to be in your argument.
- Is there any
ambiguity in my word choice?
- Can my language
be misinterpreted, or interpreted in varying ways?
Are these examples
good or bad?
- A teacher
who is mad really can't teach effectively. [What, precisely, do we mean
by mad -- angry or insane?]
- Insanity interferes
with teaching effectiveness. [Would anyone disagree with this?]
- Anger can
keep a teacher from handling difficult situations effectively. [Does this
fix the problem?]
the environment is wrong. [Is there too much wiggle room? What kind of polluting?
What's standard can we agree on for determining right and wrong? An argument
against polluting in general may wind up weak because no one may really
disagree with it.]
- Ocean dumping
may be cost effective in the short term but its long term environmental
consequences make it the wrong choice. [Is this as good as it sounds?]
A successful claim
is appropriately qualified, if necessary. Qualification involves "softening"
your claim so that it doesn't attempt to prove or defend absolutes. Remember
that verbal arguments rarely are able to achieve the absolute certainty of mathematical
statements; instead they aspire to prove or defend positions "beyond reasonable
doubt" (the legal standard) or they arrive at "reasonable certainty."
- Can I prove
my claim "beyond a reasonable doubt"?
- Am I stating
my claim more forcefully than I can actually prove with the reasoning and
evidence I plan to present?
Are these examples
good or bad?
- Stricter gun
laws may save lives.
- The death
penalty may serve as a deterrent to criminals in Texas.
REASONING AND EVIDENCE
IN SUPPORT OF THE CLAIM
of any argument is the reasoning you use in support of your claim. Reasons can
be thought of as the main points supporting a claim. They answer the question:
"Why do you make that claim?" For example, a movie critic might argue
that a particular film has merit. In support of this claim he presents the following
reasons: the themes are provocative and reverberate long after the film is over;
excellent direction gives the audience an intimate view of the characters through
innovative camera work and unforgettable acting. Another example: A candidate
for student government might oppose restrictions on free speech because (1)
restrictions would make students reluctant to enter into frank debates on important
issues, (2) offensive speech is hard to define, and (3) restrictions violate
the free-speech clause of the First Amendment.
Once you've generated
your reasons in support of your claim, it's a good idea to see if they bear
examination. Will they hold up to readers' objections? Are your reasons logical?
As we'll see, there are two kinds of logical argument: inductive and deductive.
For both kinds
of argument, it should be noted, that we are talking about proof not beyond
all conceivable doubt, but proof beyond all reasonable doubt; recognizing that
the complexity of life and the ambiguities of language prevent us from achieving
the kinds of absolute proof in verbal arguments that we may desire in mathematical
An inductive line of reasoning makes inferences based on observations or specific
evidence. From this evidence writers attempts to draw conclusions, or statements
of truth, that they hope readers will accept. There are two ways of representing
an inductive argument. One model is suggested by Stephen Toulmin, the other
The feeling that logical theory was becoming too far removed from actual verbal
arguments as they really took place among ordinary people caused British philosopher
Stephen Toulmin to propose a new system of logic. Toulmin aimed, not at the
absolute truth of mathematical operations, but at the kind of truth produced
within the legal system of English-speaking countries. In such legal argument
a preponderance of evidence suggests a conclusion to a jury, and guilt needs
to be proved, not beyond all conceivable doubt, but beyond a reasonable doubt.
Legal argument, therefore, is close to the kind of argument used elsewhere in
life. It depends for its persuasiveness on convincing an audience of the general
strength of a case rather than on the rigorous but narrow standards of absolute
proof used in mathematics or other formally constructed logic systems.
Toulmin names the
different parts of a logical argument as follows:
you believe your whole argument proves
Data: what prompts you to make that claim; that is, the facts that lead
you to believe your claim is true
Qualifier: the part of the argument that measures the strength or force
of the claim. Is the claim always true? True in the United States? True in modern
Warrant: an assumption that you expect your audience will share. The
warrant supports the claim by connecting it to the data.
Backing: any facts that give substance to the warrant. Not all arguments
make use of explicit backing.
Rebuttal: the part of an argument that allows for exceptions without
having to give up the claim as generally true. The rebuttal does not so much
refute your point as anticipate and answer attempts by someone else to refute
it. For example, you could claim that most geese fly south for the winter, while
admitting that a few are still found in the north. The very fact that few are
found helps to prove your general point that most migrate.
Here's an example
using the Toulmin Model of inductive reasoning:
have access to guns.
CLAIM: Stricter gun laws would reduce children's access to guns.
WARRANT: Stricter gun laws reduce access to guns.
QUALIFIER: Laws may reduce access in some cases but not in all cases.
BACKING: In the town of X, reported accidents involving handguns decreased
by 1% after X enacted laws to restrict certain types of handguns. A few other
towns in the U.S. report similar decreases.
To test the relative
strength or weakness of this line of reasoning, we look at any underlying assumptions
we can identify. In the Toulmin model, these assumptions are always found in
the warrant, which may or may not be stated by the writer arguing this claim.
Writers who have backing for their warrants are more likely to state them; but
if a writer wants you to accept the warrant without proving it, he/she may just
neglect to state it entirely, and leave the reader to figure it out. In the
example above, the warrant can be challenged; however, if the writer produces
the backing, it may become more convincing. Without the backing, readers may
be tempted to argue that stricter laws will not necessarily reduce access, citing
the prevalence of black markets (mafia), as well as our strict drug laws and
their failure to reduce drug abuse.
makes use of major and minor premises to help the reader reach a conclusion.
These statements, when considered together, comprise a "syllogism."
The premises present specific evidence in the major premise, an assumption in
the minor premise (about which readers must once again determine truth or falsity).
Children have access to guns.
MINOR PREMISE: Stricter gun laws would reduce access to guns.
CONCLUSION: Therefore, stricter gun laws will reduce childrens' access to
Once again, major and minor premises lead to a conclusion. However, deductive
reasoning begins with an assumption of truth-a statement that writers hope readers
will accept as true-and then fits specific observations (the data) to this assumption.
Here's a famous example:
All humans are mortal. (Assumption of truth.)
MINOR PREMISE: Socrates is human. (Specific observation.)
CONCLUSION: Socrates is mortal. (Conclusion.)
All ADHD cases present difficult problems for teachers. (Assumption of truth.)
MINOR PREMISE: William has ADHD. (Specific observation.)
CONCLUSION: William presents difficult problems for his teachers. (Conclusion.)
Although this is
probably considered sound reasoning by most people, it does present a potential
problem. Its assumption that kids with ADHD will pose problems may unfairly
prejudice teachers against kids with ADHD! Maybe most children with ADHD do
pose problems for classroom teachers, but maybe William isn't one of them. Is
it fair to agree, then, with the major premise? If we don't agree, then the
line of reasoning is invalid.
evidence to support them are usually weak or unconvincing. Evidence is what
your readers will look for when they decide whether or not you have a substantial
case or not.
Evidence is often
classified as "hard" or "soft." Both types can be persuasive.
It's helpful to be aware of their differences so that you can use them effectively
This is the type of evidence considered most "weighty" or convincing;
this evidence will be disputed only with great difficulty-it may even be impossible
- Facts you're
aware of or have researched (cite your source, formally or informally)
- Expert opinion/authority
you're aware of or have researched (cite your source, formally or informally)
- Statistics (cite
your source, formally or informally)
This type of evidence is persuasive but doesn't carry as much weight as hard
evidence. Readers may object that, although compelling, it is subjective or
limited in that broad generalizations can't be defended by examining individual
cases. Yet this type of evidence is effective if the writer maintains a high
degree of personal credibility and is able to make a case that individual cases
are sufficient to support broader assertions. It is especially effective at
personalizing abstract issues or concepts. Readers can relate to the human face
this type of evidence supplies.
- Case studies
you're aware of or have researched (cite your source, formally or informally)
- Personal observation
and experience, or your awareness of the experience of people you know
- Scenarios you
create based on your understanding of appropriate data
you present based on your reading of a text or understanding of a situation
DISAGREEMENT and NEGOTIATING DIFFERENCES
The fact that you've
made an arguable claim presupposes that there will be disagreement, that some
readers will oppose you. In the spirit of truth-seeking, however, you shouldn't
feel threatened by this disagreement. You should be ready and willing to examine
those opposing views to see if they have any merit. If they do you should be
willing to accommodate them. However, if you want to "win" the argument,
you'll have to be prepared to refute them.
It's in this anticipation-the
acknowledgment, accommodation, and refutation-of opposing views that persuasive
writing distinguishes itself from expository (or objective) writing.
Let readers know you're aware of their differing views, their alternative perspectives,
their objections, their challenges, their questions. Discuss them directly at
whatever length you feel is appropriate to communicate your understanding-a
sentence, a paragraph, or several paragraphs or sentences sprinkled strategically
throughout the essay.
Be willing to recognize your opponent's strong points and concede points you
think your opponent has "won." Sometimes only a partial concession
is in order. This shows that you are more eager to seek truth than you are eager
to "be right." You prove yourself to be credible and rational when
you demonstrate that it's more appropriate to find the truth in the matter than
it is to be right. Your willingness to concede will disarm your opponent, who
may be more willing to entertain whether there's more agreement in store.
Winning an argument involves explicitly opposing your opponent's objections
by proving them weak or wrong. You do this by uncovering false premises (faulty
assumptions), pointing out logical fallacies in your opponent's reasoning, or
by presenting evidence contrary to what your opponent has presented.
and views cannot always be accommodated. Sometimes they must be refuted. When
you refute objections, you assert that they are wrong and you argue against
them. Refutation doesn't have to be delivered arrogantly or dismissively, however.
You can refute your readers' objections in a spirit of shared inquiry and problem-solving.
To be convincing, refutations must be supported with the same kinds of reasoning
and evidence you've been using all along. Two ways to refute opponents' arguments
are to disprove their lines of reasoning or to point out the logical fallacies
inherent in their statements.
REASONING TO DISPROVE YOUR OPPONENT'S CASE
As we've already seen when we discussed logical reasoning, any argument, if
it is going to be convincing, must be grounded in logic. A logical line of reasoning
in support of a claim is more convincing to a reader than mere opinion. Just
as you use logical reasoning to support your own claim, your opponents have
reasoned their own positions. One of the best ways to refute an opponent's position
is to show that the reasoning used to arrive at that position is faulty or flawed.
There are a couple of ways to achieve this. You can:
- challenge the
premises that lead to a conclusion; prove one or more of these premises wrong
by demonstrating its falseness
- challenge the
underlying assumptions (warrants) that allow writers to move from data to
claim; prove the assumption unfounded by demonstrating its falseness, unfairness,
- point out when
your opponent has used a logical fallacy
Fallacies are errors
or flaws in reasoning. Although essentially unsound, fallacious arguments usually
seem superficially plausible and often have great persuasive power.
Fallacies are not
necessarily deliberate efforts to deceive readers. They may be accidental, resulting
from a failure to:
- examine underlying
- establish a
solid ground to support a claim
- choose words
that are clear and unambiguous.
Whatever the cause,
they contribute to a weak argument. Your ability to spot logical fallacies in
your opponents' positions will help you refute those positions effectively.
Here are some common logical fallacies.
For further reference,
Guide to the Logical Fallacies.
QUESTION. Arguing that a claim is true by repeating the claim in different
words. Sometimes called "circular reasoning." Users of the fallacy
of begging the question try to take for granted the issues that are to be proved.
They often use overly compensatory words and phrases like "obviously,"
"of course," and "simply" or "certainly" to mask
the fact that they are making unproved assertions.
Examples: (1) Arguing that the bible is the divine word of God because
it says so in the bible is circular reasoning. If people want to believe in
the divinity of the Bible, they will have to base their belief on faith, not
logical reasoning. (2) If you want to argue, for instance, that women are capable
of combat, then it won't prove anything to assert that women should be allowed
in combat because they are capable. That is "begging the question"
or using circular reasoning. You are taking for granted that women are capable
rather than offering proof, and your reasoning goes in a circle-women are capable
of serving in combat because they are capable.
POST HOC ERGO
PROPTER HOW: CONFUSING CHRONOLOGY WITH CAUSALITY. Assuming that because
one thing preceded another, the former cause the latter. The Latin phrase post
hoc ergo propter hoc means roughly "after this, therefore because of this."
This fallacy is a mainstay of superstitious reasoning. It claims causal connection
between events that merely succeed one another in time.
Example: (1) Reasoning that your misfortune is the direct result of having
crossed paths with a black cat creates a logical fallacy. (2) Teens who liked
Nirvana committed suicide following news of Cobain's suicide. Concluding that
Cobain's suicide caused those teens' suicide is an example of this logical fallacy.
Assuming that there are only two sides to a complex issue, and representing
yours as the only correct one.
Examples: (1) Addressing the issue of drug legalization, you may hear someone
may attempt to argue that we can either legalize all drugs or no drugs, and
since legalizing all drugs would be completely disastrous, the only thing to
do is to keep all drugs illegal. (2) Here's a textbook (Allyn and Bacon) example:
"Assume someone is trying to persuade you that the United States ought
to intervene militarily in a certain conflict many thousands of miles from U.S.
territory. At one point in the argument you hear this-'Either we demonstrate
through force that the United States continues to be a world power or we take
a backseat, passive role in world affairs. The choice is clear.' Actually the
choice is not at all clear. The person arguing has presented two options and
has argued for one. But many possibilities for conducting U.S. foreign policy
exist besides going to war or becoming passive. An argument will be flawed when
its author pre-selects two possibilities from among many and then attempts to
force a choice.
Misleading or hedging with intentionally ambiguous or vague word choices. To
equivocate is to misuse language in an attempt to deceive. Usually you find
that the person making the argument is using the same term to mean two different
Examples: (1) An abortion protester argues that *)It is wrong to kill
innocent human beings. *)Fetuses are innocent human beings. Therefore it is
wrong to kill fetuses. In this example, "innocent human beings" means
something different in each premise, invalidating the conclusion. In the first
premise, "innocence" refers to an individual who, aware of moral choice,
has been judged not guilty of committing or choosing an immoral act; whereas
in the second premise, "innocence" refers to a being who is innocent
because incapable of moral intentions or choice.
FAILING TO ACCEPT
THE BURDEN OF PROOF. Making a direct assertion without presenting a reasoned
argument to support it.
Examples: (1) In an argument against capital punishment, a writer asserts
that capital punishment should remain legal because it is a deterrent against
murder. However, no logical line of reasoning or evidence-no proof-of this punishment's
actual effectiveness as a deterrent is offered. (In fact, there is none.)
Assuming that because one thing resembles another, conclusions drawn from one
can be applied to the other. Analogies are helpful in arguments, but some writers
take them too far, drawing unwarranted conclusions.
Examples: (1) You may assert that the drug war today is analogous to
Prohibition in the 1930s, but it doesn't necessarily follow that if we decided
to legalize marijuana or cocaine today that the black market for these drugs
would disappear, as the black market for alcohol disappeared after Prohibition
ON AUTHORITY. Assuming that something is true simply because an expert says
so and ignoring evidence to the contrary.
Examples: (1) Suppose, for instance, you just finished reading an article
by Dr. Jones who asserts that TV violence causes toddlers to become violent
in their play. In the day care where you work, however, you've discovered evidence
to the contrary. You notice that after movie-time (the children were treated
to The Lion King, perhaps) two children immediately start play fighting, but
a third goes off quietly and draws a picture of lions with some crayons, while
a fourth comes over to you and asks you to read her a story. Ignoring this evidence
to the contrary, you assume that TV violence always produces actual violence
in toddlers, instead of qualifying the assertion: TV violence may cause actual
HASTY OR FAULTY
GENERALIZATION. Offering only weak or limited evidence to support a conclusion.
The error of faulty generalization comes from treating all members of a class
or category as if they were defined by criteria that apply only to some members.
Examples: (1) In an editorial about the problem of homelessness, you
may come across a writer who argues against using the taxpayer's money for extended
services for the homeless. During the course of his argument you notice that
his he tends to overgeneralize, lumping together homeless families and homeless
individuals and failing to note the very important distinctions between these
two subgroups. Do homeless families tend to be "mentally ill"? Did
children who are homeless choose their lifestyle? Are they empowered to change
Giving easy, smug, or pat answers to complicated questions, sometimes by appealing
to emotion rather than logic.
Examples: "Guns don't kill-people do" is an overly simple but popular
argument against gun control. It sounds good but it doesn't address the complex
problem that the availability of guns poses in our society.
AD HOMINEM ATTACK. The person presenting an argument is attacked instead
of the argument itself. This takes many forms. For example, the person's character,
nationality or religion may be attacked. Alternatively, it may be pointed out
that a person stands to gain from a favorable outcome. Or, finally, a person
may be attacked by association, or by the company he keeps. In fact, a person's
character or circumstance has nothing to do with the proposition being argued.
Examples: (1) We should discount what Senator John says about taxation
because he won't be hurt by the increase. (2) We should disregard Share B.C.'s
argument because they are being funded by the logging industry. (3) You say
I shouldn't drink, but you haven't been sober for more than a year.
RED HERRING. Attempting to misdirect the discussion by raising an essentially
unrelated point. The figure of speech that describes this fallacy comes from
the fact that a red herring has a strong odor and can be dragged across the
scent trail left by humans or animals to confuse pursuing dogs.
Examples: (1) In an essay about hate speech, a writer implies that the
issue of free speech has been used as a red herring in the debates at Brown
over a disciplinary case that centered on drunkenness and loutish behavior rather
than on political dissent or free speech. The writer argues that to get drunk
and yell off-color epithets out your window in the name of "free speech"
is to throw a rather smelly red herring across your trail, hoping the thinking
person's will lose your scent.
Selecting or emphasizing the evidence that supports your claim and suppressing
or playing down other evidence.
Examples: You may decide, for instance, that you are against the legalization
of marijuana for any use, but as you make your case you fail to acknowledge
medical evidence that proves marijuana beneficial to treating glaucoma.
Pretending that one thing inevitably leads to another. Sometimes called
the "domino effect" or the "domino theory."
Examples: (1) Someone might try to argue that if we legalize marijuana
by prescription, then pretty soon it'll be available recreationally, and then
what's to stop us from legalizing cocaine, or speed, or heroin; pretty soon
all drugs will be legalized and everyone in the nation will be high on drugs.
Manipulating readers' emotions in order to lead them to draw unjustified conclusions.
The reader is told to agree to the proposition because of the pitiful state
of the author, but the pitiful state of the author has nothing to do with the
truth or falsity of the proposition.
Examples: (1)Senator Bob wants you to accept his proposal for cutting
taxes because he and his staff spent seven years working hard at it.
Directing the argument against a claim that nobody actually holds, that everyone
agrees is very weak, or is one of your opponent's weaker points.
Examples: (1) We should bring back the draft. People don't want to enter
the military because they find it an inconvenience. But they should realize
that there are more important things than convenience.