~~ NOTES ON RATIONAL ARGUMENT ~~
A persuasive paper uses argumentation as its primary mode of
development. An "argument" has four key components:
the writer's claim
· logical reasoning and evidence in support
· anticipation of disagreement: acknowledgment and perhaps
accommodation of counterpositions
· refutation of counterpositions
these components is discussed below.
types of claims are possible-claims of judgment, policy, value,
cause/effect, or interpretation.
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 be allowed to continue in Florida because
they are fair, accurate, and favored by law.
claim of policy, the writer argues that a particular problem
requires a particular solution.
· The billions of dollars we've spent fighting a "war on drugs"
have so far been badly wasted; 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 be abolished.
claim of value, the writer decides the relative value of the
subject at had-good or bad, desirable or undesirable, effective or
· Shakespeare 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
claim of cause/effect, the writer argues for a certain set of
reasons or circumstances surrounding events.
· The drug war is unsuccessful because the government agencies
running operations are hopelessly corrupt.
· The controversy surrounding the 2000 Presidential Election
will undermine Americans' faith in our "democracy."
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 a Salesman is an indictment of the American Dream.
OF AN EFFECTIVE CLAIM
successful claim has a few key qualities:
· It is arguable.
· It is precisely worded.
· It is appropriately qualified, when necessary.
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 people disagree?
· Is the disagreement based on personal feeling or an objective
consideration of the facts at hand?
these examples good or bad?
· The government should establish a minimum wage so that working
Americans can reasonably subsist.
· 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
these examples good or bad?
· A teacher who is mad really can't teach effectively.
· Insanity interferes with teaching effectiveness.
· Anger from handling difficult situations effectively.
· Polluting the environment is wrong. [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.
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
· 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?
these examples good or bad?
· Stricter gun laws may save lives.
· The death penalty may serve as a deterrent to criminals in
REASONING AND EVIDENCE
IN SUPPORT OF THE CLAIM
foundation 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
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.
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 arguments.
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 by Aristotle.
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.
names the different parts of a logical argument as follows:
what 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 times?
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.
an example using the Toulmin Model of inductive reasoning:
Children 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.
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
model 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).
PREMISE: Children have access to guns.
MINOR PREMISE: Stricter gun laws would reduce access to guns.
CONCLUSION: Therefore, stricter gun laws will reduce childrens' access
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:
PREMISE: All humans are mortal. (Assumption of truth.)
MINOR PREMISE: Socrates is human. (Specific observation.)
CONCLUSION: Socrates is mortal. (Conclusion.)
PREMISE: 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.
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
without 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.
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 in combination.
EVIDENCE: 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 to dispute.
· 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)
EVIDENCE: 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
· Interpretations you present based on your reading of a text or
understanding of a situation
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.
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
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.
REFUTING READERS' OBJECTIONS
objections 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.
LOGICAL 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, or ambiguity.
· You can point out when your opponent has used a logical
are errors or flaws in reasoning. Although essentially unsound,
fallacious arguments usually seem superficially plausible and often
have great persuasive power.
are not necessarily deliberate efforts to deceive readers. They may be
accidental, resulting from a failure to
· examine underlying assumptions critically
· establish a solid ground to support a claim
· choose words that are clear and unambiguous.
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.
further reference, visit Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies on
the World Wide Web: http://www.intrepidsoftware.com/fallacy/welcome.htm
THE 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.
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.
REASONING. 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 things.
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.
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.)
ANALOGY. 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
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 was repealed.
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 violence.
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 their lot?
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.
OR 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
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.
SLOPE. 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.
STORY. 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
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.
MAN. Directing the argument against a claim that nobody actually
holds, that everyone agrees is very weak, or is one of your opponent's
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.