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3 Arguments

The following problem of living/action-reflection will surely come up for all students: What should you get on your pizza? As with many problems, there are many choices to consider, but some choices are better than others. Moreover, as humans we can reflect on the choice of action to take, and try to figure out which choices are better and which ones are worse. One important tool we use here is reasoning. For example:

I should not get pepperoni on my pizza, because the last time I got pepperoni on my pizza I got very sick.

More formally, we call this an argument. Please note that this is not the kind of argument that one has with one’s parents or boy/girlfriend. Rather, in this kind of argument we state one or more reasons why we should (or should not) take some action or believe something.

3.1 The Anatomy of Arguments - Premises and Conclusion

Arguments can be seen as involving a number of statements (or claims). All arguments have exactly one conclusion: this is the statement about what we should do or believe. In the example above, the conclusion is not to get pepperoni on my pizza. The reasons that one provides for the conclusion in the argument are called premises. Arguments can have any number of premises, but the argument above has just one: the last time I had pepperoni on my pizza I got very sick. When reading a passage containing an argument, one can often recognize the premises or conclusion by words such as ‘because’, ‘therefore, ‘since’, ‘for’, ‘so’, ‘it follows that’, etc. (Can you see which word indicates what kind of claim? Can you think of some other indicator words or phrases?)

3.2 Arguments and Persuasion

What makes an argument a good argument? One possible answer is to say that an argument is good if it is persuasive. However, good arguments and persuasive arguments are not always the same. Think for example of a smooth-talking salesperson who persuades you to buy something that you really don’t need. The salesperson probably listed several reasons why you should buy the product, and thus gave an argument that, apparently, was persuasive enough for you to agree with the conclusion: You should buy this product! However, the argument may not have been very good at all. Indeed, maybe you were taken more by the million-dollar smile or by wishful thinking than by any solid reasoning. A persuasive argument therefore is not necessarily a good argument.

It is also true that not all good arguments are persuasive. Think of a long and complicated argument regarding a topic you do not know very much about. In that case, the argument may be very good, but you are still not persuaded. In sum, good arguments and persuasive arguments are not the same thing.

The difference between good arguments and persuasive arguments is very much mirrored by the two kinds of ‘arguments’ as mentioned earlier. That is, we often see ‘arguments’ as some kind of ‘fight’ between two people or parties, with one side trying to ‘win’ the argument. This kind of argument is very much linked to persuasion: the goal is to convince the other side to do or believe something, whether or not this is the right thing to do or believe and, more importantly, whether or not this is based on good reasoning, or, for that matter, on any reasoning at all. On the other hand, ‘arguments’ that we, as critically wise persons, want to engage in are attempts to do the right thing or get at the truth. Indeed, a critically wise person is open to the possibility that his or her prior beliefs on the subject may be mistaken, which means that it is not important to defend those beliefs, but rather to update them if needed. Someone once said: “Arguments are to people as what lampposts are for drunks: they are used for support rather than illumination”. As critically wise persons, we should make sure that we are not like the drunk.

3.3 Arguments and Conclusions

At this point, one might be tempted to say that a good argument is one that gets one to do or believe the right or true thing. In short, an argument would be good if the conclusion is correct. But that isn’t right either, as it is possible that one could, as a result of a bad argument, come to the right conclusion nevertheless. For example, while “Because I said so” is really not a good (though notice: quite persuasive!) argument that parents hoist on their children in order for them to do something, the end result may well be what is in the child’s best interest.

Similarly, arguments with incorrect conclusions aren’t necessarily bad arguments either. For example, it is possible that all the evidence in some criminal investigation may point to someone as the culprit, even as this person was not the culprit at all. In sum, good arguments and arguments with true conclusions are not the same thing.

3.4 Criteria of Good Arguments

If not persuasion or truth of the conclusion, then what makes an argument a good argument? Well, let us play a bit with the pizza argument and see what could go wrong there. In fact, let us change the argument a little bit:

I should not get pepperoni on my pizza, because the last time I got mushrooms on my pizza I got very sick.

The problem with this argument is obvious: the premise is irrelevant to the conclusion or, more to the point, does not support the conclusion. Yes, I got sick when having mushrooms on my pizza, but that does not mean that pepperoni on my pizza is bad. Thus, the first criterion of a good argument is that the premises actually support the conclusion.

One may wonder if in this example one can even speak of premises and conclusion. Indeed, if there is no logical connection between the two statements, then why should one statement be considered the premise and the other the conclusion? However, as the example demonstrates, while there is no logical connection, there is still a clear suggestion of there being one, as indicated by the word ‘because’.
For the second criterion of good arguments, let us change the example yet again:

I should not get pepperoni on my pizza, because the last time I got pepperoni on my pizza the world exploded.

Notice that this argument passes the first criterion: if the world indeed exploded as a result of getting pepperoni on my pizza, then maybe I should be careful in getting pepperoni again. Thus, the premises does seem to lend support the conclusion. However, it is clear that the world did not explode: I’m still here, right? The problem with this argument is therefore that the premise is simply not true. Thus, a good argument starts with true, or at least plausible, premises.

These first two criteria of good arguments are the main criteria of arguments. Indeed, while there are many types of arguments, each having their own additional criteria specific to their type, these two criteria always need to be satisfied: they are universal to all arguments. However, many arguments also need to satisfy a third criterion. To see this, let us point out something about the pizza that the reader may have noted him or herself already: was it really because of the pepperoni that I became sick last time, or was that just a coincidence? Maybe I also had 6 glasses of coke, a dozen hot wings, and 2 pints of Ben and Jerry’s on that fateful day I ate the pepperoni pizza! Indeed, had we known that, then we may not have been as impressed with the original pizza argument. The third criterion of a good argument is therefore that all relevant information as it pertains to the conclusion is included in the argument, insofar one is aware of this information of course.

With a little stretching and squinting, one can see these three criteria captured by the well known phrase ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. In here, ‘the truth’ corresponds to the second criterion: we want to base our argument on what is true. ‘The whole truth’ corresponds to the third criterion: we should be as complete and inclusive as possible. And finally, ‘nothing but the truth’ could be seen (ok, some serious squinting here!) as the first criterion: we don’t want anything that is irrelevant.

3.5. Criticizing Arguments

Given that arguments are so central in coming to decisions, a critically wise person would do well to make sure that an argument satisfies the criteria of good arguments before accepting its conclusion. Indeed, the proper way to criticize or object to an argument is to point out that the argument has failed one or more of these criteria. This is important to remember, as many people will instead attack arguments by attacking its conclusion, and while this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense (it’s all about the conclusion, right?), we saw earlier that a good argument is not the same as an argument with a true conclusion. In fact, for a more dramatic illustration as to why you should not try to object to an argument by objecting to its conclusion, consider the following.

Suppose that you are a theist, and your atheist friend has just produced an argument against the existence of God. How should you attack your friend’s argument? Somewhat surprisingly, you can’t attack the argument by attacking its conclusion. That is, you may be convinced that God exists, and you may even produce your own argument for the existence of God, but that does nothing to refute your friend’s argument. To see this, notice that even if you come up with your own arguments for the existence of God, you are still left with your friend’s argument against the existence of God. In fact, now we have obtained the rather uncomfortable situation that there is an argument for the existence of God as well as an argument against the existence of God. And there is no reason to prefer the one argument over the other.

In fact, even if you are able to prove that God exists, then you may know that there should be something wrong with your friend’s argument, but you still haven’t shown what is wrong with the argument. And so you are still left with a problem, for if you can’t point out a problem with your friend’s argument, then you should accept its conclusion as well. Indeed, your friend may be equally convinced that his or her argument is proof as well. Again, a third party would not be able to prefer the one argument over the other.

The only way to refute an argument is therefore to show a flaw in the reasoning behind the conclusion. Thus, you should show that either the premises don’t support the conclusion, or that at least one of its premises is false, or that some crucial piece of information has been omitted. However, we should also point out that successfully attacking an argument does not mean that its conclusion is false. In sum, attacking an argument and attacking the conclusion of that argument are two completely different things!