Daniel T. Richards

Daniel T. Richards

Digital Strategist. Rhetorician. All Around Swell Guy.

An Introduction to Argument

Valid but not sound!No Candy Crush coating: Arguing is hard.

I don’t mean shouting down your opponent until he relents. I don’t mean repeating the same discredited point over and over again. I don’t mean name-calling or bringing up irrelevant facts. That’s what we accept as argument these days (especially on the Internet), but it’s all #ArgumentJunk.

Let’s define our terms.

Holding a gun to someone’s head and commanding them to empty their wallet is not an argument. Blackmailing someone is not an argument. Hypnotizing someone is not an argument. The use of force is never an argument.

A picture by itself is not an argument. Stats by themselves are not arguments. Emotions and feelings are not arguments. Disintegrated data are not arguments.

Telling your child to sit down is not an argument. A Biblical commandment is not an argument. An order from a drill sergeant is not an argument. Unsupported assertions are not arguments.

So what the heck is an argument?

An argument is an attempt to prove a conclusion by providing reasons to accept the point in question.

Words, rhetoric, reason. These are the elements of argument. Appealing to someone’s rational faculties—via logic, emotion, and character—with integrated evidence that supports your point(s).

Genuine arguments consist of two basic parts: premises and conclusions.

Premises

A premise is a fact, claim, or statement that you, the rhetor, put forth as evidence for your eventual conclusion. Your argument must have at least one premises to support a conclusion—though two+ is likely more convincing  But that doesn’t mean 100 is the most convincing! Carpet-bombing your audience with premises may lead to cognitive overload. Instead, use only the most convincing premises for a given audience. Precision strike.

Conclusions

A conclusion is the logical result of your premises. It’s best demonstrated in the form of a syllogism:

P: All ducks have feathers.
P: No humans have feathers.
C: Therefore no humans are ducks.

Here it’s easy to see that the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. But it’s not always so clear! Be vigilant in examining your own arguments and making sure that the premises you present lead to the conclusion you’re advocating.

Enthymemes

An enthymeme (EN-thuh-meem) is a form of argument with a suppressed premise—usually a premise that most people agree is true. The above syllogism, expressed as an enthymeme, might look like:

Humans aren’t ducks because humans don’t have feathers.

The suppressed premise is that “all ducks have feathers.” An enthymeme can be particularly persuasive because it allows your audience to insert the missing premise. This is a matter of ethos. When rhetors use enthymemes they treat their audience with intellectual respect. Audiences dig that.

Deduction

There are two types of arguments: deduction and induction. The duck syllogism is a deductive example. (Deducktive.) Deduction uses general concepts to draw conclusions about particular instances and is logically self-contained. That is, if the premises are true and the rules of logic are followed, then the conclusions are necessarily true.

Evaluating deductive arguments can be difficult because even ridiculous claims can sound rational if put in the proper form:

P: All men are purple.
P: Justin Bieber is a man.
C: Therefore Justin Bieber is purple.

Sounds rational to me! It may sound that way but it’s not logically sound. It is valid, however. Confused? Let’s break it down a little.

Validity

People use the word “valid” a lot and often incorrectly. It has a specific meaning in regards to argument and it doesn’t mean “true.” In fact, an argument’s validity has nothing to do with its truth. The “all men are purple” syllogism is valid but definitely not true. (Not from my experience, at least.)

Validity deals with the form of the argument. If the form is correct, then the argument is valid. If the form is incorrect, it’s not. Study of argument forms is a bit more advanced than I want to discuss here, but you can learn more in any introduction to logic text or on Wikipedia.

Basically, if the argument cannot logically flow, either the premises don’t lead to the conclusion or the conclusions doesn’t follow from the premises, then the form can’t be valid. Here’s an invalid form of the purple syllogism:

P: All men are purple.
P: Justin Bieber is purple.
C: Therefore Justin Bieber is a man.

Notice that the seemingly subtle difference changes the validity of the argument. It does not follow that Justin Bieber is a man from the premises presented. I never proposed that the only things that are purple are men. Justin Bieber could be an eggplant.

My friend, KGF, a genuine philosopher, offers this advice: “To test for validity, just imagine that the premises are all true. Can you imagine the conclusion to be false in such a case? If so, the argument is invalid.”

Soundness

A Duck: Your Argument Is ... SoundSoundness, however, relies on both the truth of the conclusion and the premises. Soundness is validity + true premises + true conclusion. The valid purple syllogism is not a sound argument because it is not true that all men are purple. The duck syllogism, though, is both valid and sound. The premises are true, the conclusion is true, and it follows a proper logical form. It doesn’t run afowl of the laws of argument. Quack.

Induction

Let’s get back to the second kind of argument: Induction. Think of inductive argument as a counterpart to deduction. Induction starts with particular instances and uses them to draw general conclusions. This is how all knowledge begins, really—by observing things in the world and drawing conclusions about them. Take, for instance, this example about the nature of men:

P: Every guy I meet is a jerk.
P: Alec Baldwin is a guy.
C: Therefore Alec Baldwin is a jerk.

In this example, you can see that inductive reasoning depends on a constant process of observation and integration. If you meet a guy that isn’t a jerk, for instance, then you have to reformulate your argument. Induction is scientific in its approach and can add a great deal of logos to your argument—especially if you can provide a wide range of premises to back your conclusion.

Strong v. Weak

An inductive argument is not sound or valid. Instead, it’s either strong or weak based on the strength of the premises and the weight of the conclusion. The weightier the conclusion the larger the burden of proof. That is, there is less a burden of proof for someone to argue that all beer tastes better served in a pint glass than for the same person to argue that we should make beer illegal because it’s killing us slowly.

A strong inductive argument has premises that so clearly suggest the conclusion that no other explanation seems possible. A weak inductive argument leaves a lot of room for contradicting points and suggests there may be other explanations than the conclusion in question.

A few people, skeptical philosophers in particular, argue that inductive reasoning cannot lead to certainty since there is always a possibility that a contrary example might be found. This is the so-called “problem of induction.” How do we know, for instance, that all future guys you encounter will be jerks? (We don’t.)

Rhetorically speaking the “problem” of induction isn’t much of a problem (unless your audience is a room full of skeptical philosophers). Most audiences implicitly accept inductive arguments, at least until they’re presented with genuine counter examples to your premises.

Fallacies

To wrap up, I want to briefly turn to most people’s favorite aspect of argumentation: fallacies. (They’re just so much fun to discuss…and commit!) A fallacy is an error in reasoning that can invalidate an argument or discredit you as a rhetor or your content. Here are a few common fallacies:

Ad hominem – Attacking your opponent instead of addressing the argument. (See: TV pundits) For example, “Oh, you think public schools should be abolished? Well, you’re an idiot!”

Argument from authority – It’s true simply because an expert said it’s true! For example, “Dr. Phil says that ketchup gives you cancer.”

Begging the question- This phrase is often misused to mean “raise the question.” The real meaning is that an argument assumes the conclusion is true in the premises. For example: “I don’t find Michelle attractive because she’s ugly.”

False dichotomy – Providing two options as if they’re the only two choices. For example, “You can either let the government listen to all of your phone calls, or  let the terrorists win.”

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – B happened before C. Therefore, B caused C. For example, “I got warts after Beatrix put a curse on me. She’s a witch! Burn her!”

Straw man – Formulating a simplistic and easy-to-destroy version of your opponent’s argument. For example, “You want people to have freedom? So you want them to have the freedom to kill their wives? To have the freedom to steal from school kids? To have the freedom to do whatever they want? Society needs certain controls.”

There are MANY more fallacies. These are just a few of the common offenses.

* * *

This is just the tip of the iceberg for the study of logic and argumentation, but it’s more than enough to keep you cool in a heated debate. As with any skill, persuasion takes practice and persistence. Hone your arguments carefully and before long you’ll be a better rhetor.

Happy persuading!

P.S. – Thanks to KGF for his thoughts on this post. They were incredibly helpful.