Argumentation: A brief introduction to reasoning well

Photo by Kyle Glenn

Scientists attempt to answer empirical questions by using the scientific method. They formulate a hypothesis and attempt to falsify or confirm it by running an experiment. Since philosophical issues are largely abstract and conceptual, this method of investigation is not open to philosophers. For example, no amount of empirical observation or experimentation is going to reveal the meaning of human existence. Instead, philosophers use argumentation to support or critique ideas. There are a lot of sophisticated argumentative moves that are part of the philosopher’s tool-box, but let’s start with a simple understanding of what argumentation is.

What Argumentation is

It’s helpful to introduce argumentation by contrasting it with rhetoric. The difference hinges on the aim of each. The aim of rhetoric is to persuade. This means that rhetoric doesn’t have to be entirely honest. In fact, the best way to persuade often involves forms of subtle manipulation, like appealing to emotions, engaging biases, and taking advantage of other cognitive vulnerabilities. If you don’t believe me, just watch a politician win over a crowd. Politicians, like good salespeople, are masters at rhetoric. Good philosophers avoid rhetoric.

The aim of argumentation is to discover the truth. This requires a rigorous, honest use of reasoning. Argumentation often involves putting your own views under scrutiny. Since we identify with many of our views, doing philosophy can sometimes shake the very foundation of our identity. This can be unsettling and sometimes a little scary. This is why doing philosophy requires intellectual courage.

In a democracy where public deliberation can often shape policy, it behooves us to brush up on reasoning clearly.

When many people hear the word ‘argument,’ they tend to think of a verbal fight, where each person tries to defeat the other. This is not what philosophers mean by argument. An argument is simply a set of reasons — what philosophers call premises — that attempts to support a conclusion. Here’s a simple example: All lizards have scales. My pet Iggy is a lizard. So, Iggy must have scales. Philosophers will often put arguments like this in step-by-step form to make them easier to understand and critique. I’ll call this the step-by-step method of argument extraction.

1. All lizards have scales.

2. My pet Iggy is a lizard.

3. So, Iggy must have scales.

1 and 2 are premises. 3 is the conclusion. Easy enough!

Numbering points like this can be helpful in working out an argument. This is because arguments can get messy fast. Before we learn how to identify arguments it’s helpful to know the different kinds of argumentation.

There are many kinds of arguments. We’ll look at two: deductive arguments and inductive arguments. Recall that an argument is a set of premises that attempt to support a conclusion. The difference between deductive and inductive arguments hinges on how the premises try to support the conclusion. With inductive arguments, the conclusion is supposed to follow from the premises out of probability. Here’s an example: You’re sitting in a classroom without windows, so you can’t see outside. You look out the door into the hall and notice that students are carrying umbrellas. You infer that it’s raining outside. Here’s the step-by-step version:

1. Students in the hall are carrying umbrellas.

2. It’s probably raining outside.

The conclusion (2) follows from the premise (1) out of probability. It’s not necessarily the case that it’s raining outside. Maybe someone is handing out free umbrellas outside the building.

Inductive arguments are used in the sciences. This is why scientists rarely say that they prove their results. Proofs show that conclusions follow necessarily, which is not what inductive arguments are trying to do.

Deductive arguments try to demonstrate that the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. If a deductive argument is perfect, then we can be certain that the conclusion is true. An inductive argument, on the other hand, can’t give us absolute certainty. Here’s an example of a deductive argument:

1. All bachelors are males.

2. Nietzsche was a bachelor.

3. Therefore, Nietzsche was male.

If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true, and we can be certain that Nietzsche was a male. In case you’re curious, this argument is sound. We’ll see what that means soon.

photo by Victor Garcia

Identifying Lines of Reasoning

Arguments are everywhere and often, sad to say, they’re bad. You can find arguments in speeches, conversations, editorials, essays, Facebook comments, twitter comments, pundits on cable news, blogs, podcasts, and so on. When people present arguments they’re usually trying to convince us of something (of course, sometimes they’re just blowing steam), so it’s a good idea to learn how to critique them. Otherwise, we make ourselves vulnerable to believing things that are not true or for the wrong reasons.

It’s human nature to engage in faulty thinking. We often do this by falling victim to myriad cognitive biases to avoid mental discomfort or cognitive dissonance.

Before critiquing and argument, we must first extract it. Learning how to extract an argument is important because arguments in everyday speech and text are usually messy. Sometimes people intentionally make their argument obtuse to trick us into believing its conclusion. This can make it difficult to even see what the argument is.

Here are some simple, ordered steps for identifying an argument:

1. Identify the conclusion.

2. Cut out the fluff.

3. Identify the stated premises.

4. Identify the unstated/assumed premises.

Let’s start with the first step. A good argument will state the conclusion right away, but all too often this doesn’t happen. In fact, it’s not always easy to figure out what the conclusion is. Here’s a mini argument we can work with:

Bobert Jones argues that small towns in America aren’t efficient to invest in. This country has been struggling with the widening gap between the well-off and the poor. Concern for our fellows is just as important for addressing inequality. We need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to prosper. Paying no attention to the millions living in rural towns only furthers economic disparities. So, the right thing to do is to invest in everyone, no matter who they are or where they live. The most efficient solution isn’t always the most just solution.

What is the conclusion here? What’s the main claim the author is attempting to support? It helps to identify the main issue. The main issue in the passage is why we should or should not invest in rural towns. It should be clear that the author thinks we should invest in small towns. We can also gather that the author thinks we should do this even if it’s not efficient. We’ve identified the conclusion:

The right thing to do is to invest in everyone, no matter who they are or where they live.

Given the context, we can simplify and clarify this sentence as follows:

We ought to invest in small towns even if it’s not efficient.

In the second step we cut out what I call ‘fluff’: passages that are not needed to support the conclusion, but, are presented for the sake of eloquence. They help the passage sound nice but aren’t really necessary. Paying less attention to fluff in longer arguments helps you focus on what’s important. If we cut out the fluff and condense the argument, it will look something like this:

Concern for our fellows is just as important as efficiency for addressing inequality. We need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to prosper. Paying no attention to the millions living in rural towns only furthers economic disparities. So, we ought to invest in small towns even if it’s not efficient.

In the third step, we identify the stated premises that support the conclusion. The stated premises are the four sentences that aren’t underlined. Let’s put this into step-by-step form.

1. Concern for our fellows is just as important as efficiency for addressing inequality.

2. We need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to prosper.

3. Paying no attention to the millions living in rural towns only furthers economic disparities.

4. So, we ought to invest in small towns even if it’s not efficient

We are still on the third step. At this point, it will help to rewrite the premises to make them clearer and flow better.

1. Concern for others is just as important as economic efficiency for ensuring equal opportunity to prosper.

2. Not being concerned with people living in rural downs undermines equality of opportunity to prosper.

3. So, we ought to invest in small towns even if it’s not efficient.

We’ve now extracted the argument and made it as clear as we can. This will make it easier to critique. In the last step, we see if there are any missing premises that need to be stated for the argument to work. Right now, the argument looks pretty good, but if you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a jump from 1 and 2 to the conclusion. As stated, the conclusion doesn’t quite follow. If we add an additional premise we can make it work better.

1. Concern for others is just as important as economic efficiency for ensuring equal opportunity to prosper.

2. Not being concerned with people living in rural downs undermines equality of opportunity to prosper.

3. An appropriate way to show our concern in this context is to invest.

4. So, we ought to invest in small towns even if it’s not efficient.

Now the argument is much clearer and is ready to be evaluated.

As you probably noticed, argument extraction can be tedious work. Imagine extracting arguments in long court cases! This is why philosophy majors dominate the LSAT.

Let’s move on to how to critique deductive arguments.

Critiquing Deductive Arguments

The argument that we extracted above is inductive. Recall that an inductive argument cannot give us absolute certainty. This is not to say that deductive argumentation is superior. There are some claims that cannot be supported with deductive arguments. So inductive arguments have their place. And it’s an important place. That said, analytic philosophers often use deductive arguments. So that’s what we’ll focus on. Here’s a deductive argument we’ll work with:

1. George Washington was either the first or seventh US president.

2. George Washington was not the seventh US president.

3. Therefore, George Washington was the first US president.

Notice that if premise 1 and 2 are true, then the conclusion must be true. The conclusion follows out of necessity from the premises. This makes the argument valid. An argument is valid when, assuming the premises are true, it’s impossible for the conclusion to be false. To test if an argument is valid you first assume the premises are true. My first logic teacher called this “stepping into logic land”. In logic land everything is true. Then, you figure out if it’s possible for the conclusion to be false. If it is possible, then the argument is invalid. Here are the steps for testing if an argument is valid.

1. Assume the premises are true; step into logic land.

2. Ask: is it possible for the conclusion to be false?

3. If yes, then the argument is invalid. If no, then it’s valid.

Is the following argument valid?

1. George Washington was either the third or seventh US president.

2. George Washington was not the seventh US president.

3. Therefore, George Washington was the third US president.

Remember, we’re assuming the premises are true. For testing this argument’s validity it’s true that George Washington was either the third or seventh US president. Don’t forget, we’re working in logic land!

The argument is valid.

A good argument is not only valid, it’s also sound. An argument is sound when it’s valid and the premises are actually true. So, when we test for soundness, we step back into the real world and see if the premises are true. The above argument, while valid, is clearly not sound.

When evaluating an argument, it’s usually best to see if it’s valid first. This is because testing for validity does not require any research. You can dismiss an invalid argument without wasting energy looking up any empirical facts!

Critiquing Arguments by Identifying Fallacies

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old; that she had seen many seas and climes and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to see for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. [1]

What happened with the shipowner’s thinking? Most of us would say that something went wrong, perhaps even morally wrong. At the very end, the fable reveals that the shipowner knew all along that the ship would probably sink. He deluded himself to have a feigned belief that everything would be okay. And he did it for selfish reasons. He was engaging in mental gymnastics and dishonest thinking. It’s human nature to engage in faulty thinking. We often do this by falling victim to myriad cognitive biases to avoid mental discomfort or cognitive dissonance. Usually, we aren’t even aware of it.

This is well documented in the psychology literature. For example, we tend to seek out information that confirms our strongly held beliefs and dismiss information that goes against them. This is called confirmation bias and it motivates committing the fallacy of reasoning called cherry-picking. A fallacy is an erroneous way of reasoning. Since we usually commit fallacies unwittingly and often, it’s a good idea to familiarize ourselves with them. They can also be used as rhetorical devices that pull us to believe something. Knowing the fallacies of reasoning helps us avoid making bad arguments. Let’s examine some of the most common fallacies.

We’re all familiar with this kind of scenario: You’re taking a road trip. You’re driving through some state, say, Maryland, that you’ve never been through. A driver cuts you off and you exclaim, “These Maryland drivers are idiots!”. You’ve just committed the fallacy of Hasty Generalization. This occurs when we erroneously infer something about a group from an insufficiently small sample size. In the example above, you infer something about Maryland drivers — that they are idiots — based on a tiny sample size of one driver.

Imagine that you’re at a party with your best friend. Bobert is also at the party. You think he’s an alright guy, but your friend dislikes him because he voted for Ralph Nadar. You run into Bobert and, being the affable person you are, converse with him. Your friend sees this and later says to you, “I saw you being friendly with Bobert. It’s either me or him!” Your friend is committing the False Dilemma fallacy: they present you with only two alternatives while denying you any others, even though others are available. In this case, surely a third alternative is to maintain your friendship while still being cool with Bobert.

It’s well documented that when ice cream sales go up, so does the homicide rate. One could infer from this that eating ice cream causes people to kill. This, of course, would be absurd. However, it’s not uncommon to confuse correlation with causation in other cases. When we do this, we commit the Questionable Cause fallacy: presenting a causal relationship between two things without supporting it with sufficient evidence.

Back in the ’70s, former Miss Oklahoma, Anita Bryant, led a campaign to repeal a gay rights law in Florida. What was her reasoning? She stated, “If gays are granted rights, next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with St. Bernards and to nail-biters.” Bryant committed the Slippery Slope fallacy. Here, someone claims that some action or policy is bad because it will inevitably lead to a very bad outcome when there isn’t good evidence this will occur. Giving gay people rights didn’t and won’t lead to sanctioning sleeping with dogs.

Appeal to Authority occurs when one argues that we should agree with something because someone in a position of authority endorses it. Examples of this fallacy often occur in commercials where the company tries to get us to believe the product is great by having a famous person endorse the product. Why should you eat your Wheaties? Because Michael Jordan says they’re great. I should note that it can be okay to appeal to authority when the person cited has expertise in that area. If I claim that gravitons explain gravitational force and cite several renowned physicists who specialize in that area, then my appeal to their authority on the matter is legitimate.

Appeal to tradition is a fallacy that occurs when someone claims we ought to do or believe something because it’s part of tradition. Just because people have always believed something, doesn’t make it true. Appeal to Bandwagon is a similar fallacy in which someone claims something is correct because most other people believe it’s correct.

When you were a kid, your parents probably got you to eat your Brussels sprouts by saying that there are starving kids in Africa who would love to have those veggies. If this tactic worked, it made you feel bad enough to eat them. This tactic is called Appeal to Emotion. This is a common fallacy that’s effective in moving people. It occurs when someone uses emotion to urge others to agree with their position.

When a certain candidate was running in the 2016 presidential primary, he gave each of his opponents a disparaging nickname when debating them. For example, he called Marco Rubio ‘Little Rubio,’ Hillary Clinton ‘Crooked Hillary,’ Ted Cruz ‘Lyin’ Ted’. These (not so) subtle attacks on their characters were irrelevant to policy debate. This is called an ad hominem or personal attack. It happens when a person attacks someone’s view by attacking his or her character.

There is a great scene in the show Family Guy, where Mayor West is taking questions for the public during his campaign. Mort asks him a question about sanitation. West replies by talking about how great it is to live in a country where citizens can ask questions like Mort’s. He didn’t really answer the question. This scene is funny because this move is made all the time in politics. It happens often in everyday life too. This move is called the red herring fallacy. It happens when someone introduces an irrelevant topic to divert your attention away from the main issue.

The origin of the name can help you remember it. Back in the day when people hunted foxes, there were occasions when it was too easy for the hounds to catch the fox. This bored the hunters. So, they would make it more challenging for the hound to get the fox by running a stinking fish — a herring to be precise — across the trail of the fox to throw the hounds off its scent. Just as the herring diverts the hounds from the fox, the red herring fallacy diverts your attention from the issue at hand.

A common argument students make for the existence of free-will goes like this: “A lot of my actions are completely up to me. Even if it’s difficult, I always have a choice in the matter. Therefore, I have free-will.” This may seem like a decent argument at first, but if you look carefully, you’ll see the student engaged in circular reasoning. Having free-will means having a choice that’s up to you. So this argument boils down to saying, “I have free-will, therefore I have free-will.” The argument begs the question. Begging the question occurs when the reasoning that is supposed to support the conclusion contains the conclusion. In other words, supporting the conclusion requires assuming the conclusion is already true. Here’s another example: “I know God exists. The reason is that every time I pray, he answers.” The conclusion is “God exists”. The reason is that God answers prayers. The reason assumes the conclusion is already true.

Imagine the following conversation. Bobert, “I think marijuana should be legalized; there’s no harm in it.” Bryant replies, “That’s a horrible idea. You think everyone should just sit around being lazy and eating gummy bears!” Bryant makes Bobert’s position seem much weaker than it really is. This is called strawmaning. The strawman fallacy happens when a person renders his opponent’s argument or view into a ‘strawman’ — a seemingly week view. This makes it easier to knock down or refute.

I was watching Ancient Aliens with a friend. He was adamant that aliens must have built the pyramids. When I expressed my skepticism he said, “Well we don’t know that they didn’t build the pyramids.” This is an example of the appeal to ignorance fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone claims something is true because it hasn’t been proven false, or something is false because we haven’t proven it true. This fallacy is often committed when attempting to prove the existence of God: “God exists, because no one has proven he doesn’t exist.” Conspiracy theorists also commonly commit this fallacy.

One common argument against same-sex marriage claims it’s wrong because it’s unnatural. Regardless of whether it’s ‘natural’ or not this reasoning is fallacious. It commits the appeal to nature fallacy in which something is claimed to be bad because it’s unnatural or good because it’s natural. It’s easy to see why this is bad reasoning by coming up with a counterexample. There are many things that are unnatural that are good and many things that are natural that are bad.

I once heard someone say that we should drink three glasses of whole milk a day if we want to live a long life. What was the reason behind this claim? It was because his grandmother drank three glasses of whole milk a day for forty years and lived to be 90. This is known at the anecdotal fallacy, where one uses a single example from personal experience as evidence to support a claim.

This list of fallacies is not exhaustive. I chose these fallacies because they seem to be the most common that come up in casual conversation, political debate, and media. Indeed, bad argumentation is prevalent and all too often persuasive because they prey on our cognitive biases. In a democracy where public deliberation can often shape policy, it behooves us to brush up on reasoning clearly.

[1] W. K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays (London: Watts & Co.,1947), 70.

A philosophy professor who works in practical ethics. @ryankhubbard

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