Recognizing A Good Argument Help (page 2)
Introduction to Recognizing A Good Argument
"When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say."
—Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States (1809–1865)
There are many components of a good argument—one that is convincing for good reason. This lesson will show you how to recognize and make a strong deductive argument.
You got laid off from your job two months ago. You've been looking for another job but haven't had much luck. But the company you interviewed with yesterday just made you an offer. The pay isn't that good, but you're thinking about taking the job anyway; you need the money. Your friend, however, tells you not to take it: "The pay is lousy, the hours are terrible, and there are no benefits," he says. "Don't do it." Should you listen to your friend? Has he made a good argument? How can you tell?
You already know what a deductive argument is. You know how to separate the conclusion from the evidence. And you know how to evaluate the evidence. These are essential steps in analyzing a deductive argument. But in order to determine the overall strength of an argument, there are several other criteria to take into consideration. Specifically, in a good deductive argument:
- The conclusion and premises are clear and complete.
- The conclusion and premises are free of excessive subtle persuasion.
- The premises are credible and reasonable.
- The premises are sufficient and substantive.
- The argument considers the other side.
You should already be familiar with the first three criteria, so we'll just take a moment to review them before we address the last two.
Recognizing Hidden Agendas and Biases
Clear and Complete
The lesson for Partial Claims and Half-Truths Help explains how to recognize hidden agendas. In order for a deductive argument to carry weight, its conclusion must be clear and complete; there should be no doubt about the claim being made. The same goes for the premises; if a comparison isn't fair or if what is being compared isn't clear, that claim cannot be valid. Evidence can't be reasonable if it is incomplete.
Free of Excessive Subtle Persuasion
The lesson for Euphemism and Dysphemism Help explains about euphemisms, dysphemisms, and biased questions. These subtle persuasion techniques are indeed manipulative, but they're not the ultimate sin when it comes to arguments. It's natural for people to choose words that will have a certain impact on their listeners. It's natural, for example, for the government to use the phrase "military campaign" if they don't want to raise protests about going to war. In other words, the occasional euphemism, dysphemism, or mildly biased question can be forgiven. But if an argument is loaded with these persuasive techniques, you should analyze it carefully. Generally, arguments that are laden with euphemisms, dysphemisms, and biased questions are this way because they lack reasonable and credible evidence. In other words, the arguer may be trying to persuade you with language rather than reason because he or she lacks evidence. Excessive use of subtle persuasion can also indicate that the arguer is biased about the issue.
Have you ever tried to convince your parents or friends of something? Chances are, you have. Think about what words you used when you talked. Did you slip in a few biased statements or euphemisms? If you did, why? What was your motivation? Did it work?
Recognizing Weak Premises
Credible and Reasonable Premises
As discussed in the previous lesson, the two criteria for good evidence are credibility and reasonableness. Evidence is credible when it is free of bias and when the sources have a respectable level of expertise. Evidence is reasonable when it is logical, drawn from evidence or common sense.
Sufficient and Substantive Premises
You ask a coworker about the restaurant that recently opened down the street. He tells you, "The Hot Tamale Café? Don't eat there. The service is lousy."
Has he given you a good argument? Well, the conclusion, "Don't eat there," is clear and complete. The premise that supports the conclusion, "The service is lousy," is also clear and complete. The premise and conclusion are free from subtle persuasion. The premise is reasonable, and we don't have any reason to doubt credibility—he's given good recommendations about places to eat before. But is this a good argument? Not really.
Though all of the other criteria check out, this argument has a very important weakness: It simply doesn't offer enough evidence. Not enough reasons are given to accept the conclusion. So, the service is lousy. But maybe the food, the ambiance, and the prices are excellent. When there are so many other reasons for going to a restaurant, just one premise to support that conclusion is not enough.
The following is a much better argument. What makes it better is the number of premises offered to support the conclusion. Some premises are separate support, and some are offered to support other premises (chains of support).
Don't eat at that restaurant. The service is lousy. We had to wait 15 minutes to be seated even though there were empty tables and they messed up our orders. The food is overpriced, too. A plain hamburger is $12.50! The place is dirty—we had to wipe our table down twice with napkins, and I saw a dead cockroach in the corner. And there is no décor to speak of—just bright blue walls and a poster of Hawaii in the corner, even though it's a Mexican restaurant.
Now this restaurant sounds like a place to avoid, doesn't it? What's good about this argument is not only that it offers several distinct premises that separately support the conclusion (major premises), but it also offers support (minor premises) for each of those premises. Each major premise is followed by a specific detail that supports that premise. Here's how this argument maps out:
|Conclusion:||Don't eat at that restaurant.|
|Major premise:||The service is lousy.|
|Minor premise:||They messed up our orders.|
|Minor premise:||We had to wait 15 minutes to be seated even though there were empty tables.|
|Major premise:||The food is overpriced.|
|Minor premise:||A plain hamburger is $12.50!|
|Major premise:||The place is dirty.|
|Minor premise:||We had to wipe our table down twice with napkins.|
|Minor premise:||I saw a dead cockroach in the corner.|
|Major premise:||There is no décor.|
|Minor premise:||Just bright blue walls and a poster of Hawaii in the corner, even though it's a Mexican restaurant.|
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