Defining an Argument
Argument: vas is das? For most of us when we hear the word ‘argument’ we think of something we’d rather avoid. As it is commonly understood, an argument involves some sort of unpleasant confrontation (well, maybe not always unpleasant–it can feel pretty good when you win!). While this is one notion of ‘argument,’ it’s (generally) not what the term refers to in philosophy.
In philosophy, by argument we mean a set of reasons offered in support of a claim. An argument, in this narrower sense, also implies some sort of structure. For now we’ll ignore the structural aspects and focus on the two primary elements that make up an argument: premises and conclusions.
Let’s talk about conclusions first because their definition is pretty simple. A conclusion is the final claim that is supported with evidence and reasons. We can also think of it as the claim that the arguer is trying to get the audience to believe. The relationship between premises and conclusions is important. Premises are reasons and evidence that support the conclusion. In a good argument, we say that a conclusion follows from the premises.
Let’s consider a simple example:
Claim: Plato drinks beer.
Premise 1: All philosophers drink beer.
Premise 2: Plato is a philosopher.
Conclusion: Therefore, Plato drinks beer.
Notice that so long as we accept Premise 1 and Premise 2 as true, then we must also accept the conclusion. This is what we mean by “the conclusion ‘follows’ from the premises.”
Let’s examine premises a little more closely. A premise is any reason or evidence that supports the argument’s conclusion. In the context of arguments we can use ‘reasons’, ‘evidence’, and ‘premises’ interchangeably.
Let’s look at another example:
Claim: Dogs are better pets than cats.
(P1) Dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and
(P2) Dogs are more responsive to their owners’ commands than cats.
From my two premises, I infer my conclusion that
(C) Dogs are better pets than cats.
Let’s return to the definition of an argument. Notice that in the definition, I’ve said that arguments are a set of reasons. While this isn’t always true, generally a good argument will have more than one premise.
Heuristics for Identifying Premises and Conclusions
A heuristic is a rule of thumb. Rules of thumb don’t always work but when used in conjunction with others, they are more reliable than just guessing how to do something. In this section we’ll learn four heuristics to identify conclusions.
The easiest way to go about decomposing arguments is to first try to find the conclusion. This is a good strategy because there is usually only one conclusion so, if we can identify it, it means the rest of the passage is made up of premises. For this reason, most of the heuristics focus on finding the conclusion.
Heuristic 1: Look for the most controversial statement in the argument. The conclusion will generally be the most controversial statement in the argument. If you think about it, this makes sense. Typically arguments proceed by moving from assertions (i.e., premises) the audience agrees with then showing how these assertions imply something that the audience might not have previously agreed with.
Heuristic 2: The conclusion is usually a statement that takes a position on an issue. By implication, the premises will be reasons that support the position on the issue (i.e., the conclusion). A good way to apply this heuristic is to ask “what is the arguer trying to get me to believe?”. The answer to this question is generally going to be the conclusion.
Heuristic 3: The conclusion is usually (but not always) the first or last statement of the argument.
Heuristic 4: The “because” test. Use this method when you’re having trouble figuring which of 2 statements is the conclusion. The “because” test helps you figure out which statement is supporting which. Recall that the premise(s) always supports the conclusion. This method is best explained by using an example. Suppose you encounter an argument that goes something like this:
It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit. It tastes delicious. Also, lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer.
Suppose you’re having trouble deciding what the conclusion is. You’ve eliminated “it tastes delicious” as a candidate but you still have to choose between “it’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit” and “lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer”. To use the ‘because’ test, read one statement after the other but insert the word “because” between the two and see what makes more sense. Let’s try the two possibilities:
A: It’s a good idea to eat lots of amazonian jungle fruit because lots of facebook posts say that it cures cancer.
B: Lots of facebook posts say that amazonian jungle fruit cures cancer because it’s a good idea to eat lots of it.
Which makes more sense? Which is providing support for which?
The answer is A. Lots of facebook posts saying something is a reason (i.e. premise) to believe that it’s a good idea to eat amazonian jungle fruit–despite the fact that it’s not a very good reason…
Identifying the Premises
Identifying the premises once you’ve identified the conclusion is cake. Whatever isn’t contained in the conclusion is either a premise or “filler” (i.e., not relevant to the argument). We will explore the distinction between filler and relevant premises a bit later, so don’t worry about that distinction for now.
Gun availability should be regulated. Put simply, if your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access. Interestingly, this turned out to be true not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too.http://listverse.com/2013/04/21/10-arguments-for-gun-control/
Ok, lets try heuristic #1. What’s the most controversial statement? For most Americans, it is probably that “gun availability should be regulated.” This is probably the conclusion. Just for fun let’s try out the other heuristics.
Heuristic #2 says we should find a statement that takes a position on an issue. Hmmm… the issue seems to be gun control, and “gun availability should be regulated” is taking a position. Both heuristics converge on “gun availability should be regulated.”
Heuristic #3 says the conclusion will usually be the first or last statement. Guess what? Same result as the other heuristics.
A: Gun availability should be regulated because people with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you.
B: People with easy access to guns are more likely to kill you because gun availability should be regulated.
A is the winner.
The conclusion in this argument is well established. It follows that what’s left over are premises (support for the conclusion):
(P1) If your fellow citizens have easy access to guns, they’re more likely to kill you than if they don’t have access.
(P2) Studies show that P1 is true, not just for the twenty-six developed countries analyzed, but on a State-to-State level too.
(C) Gun availability should be regulated.
Let’s try another example:
If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns. This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage. Gun control is a bad idea.
Heuristic #1: What’s the most controversial statement? Probably “gun control is a bad idea.”
Heuristic #2: Which statement takes a position on an issue? “Gun control is a bad idea.”
Heuristic #3: “Gun control is a bad idea” is last and also passed heuristic 1 and 2. Probably a good bet as the conclusion.
A: If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns because gun control is a bad idea.
B: Gun control is a bad idea because if you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.
The winner is B, therefore, “gun control is a bad idea” is the conclusion.
All 4 heuristics point to “gun control is a bad idea” as being the conclusion therefore we can safely infer that the other statements are premises:
(P1) If you make gun ownership a crime, then only criminals will have guns.
(P2) This means only “bad” guys would have guns, while good people would by definition be at a disadvantage.
(C) Gun control is a bad idea.
Also, many arguments can also contain what are called ‘hidden’, ‘unstated,’ or ‘assumed’ premises.
To understand the notion of a hidden premise let’s return to the argument about dogs.
(P1) Dogs are generally more affectionate than cats and
(P2) Dogs are more responsive to their owners’ commands than cats.
(C) Dogs are better pets than cats.
Look at (P1). Can you find the hidden premise? Here it is: (HP1) If a pet is more affectionate then it is a better pet than a less affectionate one. This is an assumption that displays the values of the arguer. (Note: hidden premises might not always be about values.)
However, there may be people who don’t value affection as a marker of being a good pet. Maybe for some people what makes a good pet is that it is clean or self-reliant. So, a huge part of being a good critical thinker is to look beyond the stated premises and to try to find the assumed premises. When we do this, the task of assessing the relative strength and weaknesses of an argument’s premises (and, in turn, the argument itself) becomes much easier.
A cat lover could now counter the dog-as-better-pets argument by showing that the hidden assumption upon which the relevance of (P1) relies isn’t necessarily true, and therefore the conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow.
So, the cat lover can show that (C) (dogs are better than cats) doesn’t necessarily follow from (P1) (dogs are more affectionate than cats) because (P1) is only relevant to the conclusion if we also assume that affection-giving is a necessary determinant of being a good pet. In other words, the dog proponent’s argument only works if we also accept their hidden assumption/premise.
However, showing that (C) doesn’t follow from (P1) doesn’t mean (C) is false, nor does it show the contrary, that cats are better pets than dogs. It only shows that “dogs are better pets than cats” can’t be established through this particular argument or at least not without further argument.
In other words, it could very well be true that dogs are better pets than cats but this argument doesn’t show it. In order to prove that dogs are better than cats we’d need a different argument or support for the hidden premise.
This brings us to an interesting point which I’ll discuss in the next section: systems of belief, biases, and values. When (as often happens) arguments involve values, evaluating an argument as ‘true’ or ‘false’ becomes difficult because it is an open question whether a value (that is supporting a major premise or conclusion) can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
This is more a question for ethics, but as far as being good critical thinkers goes, it is extremely important to be able to recognize when and how a premise or conclusion is ultimately supported by a value judgement, bias, or system of belief.
The next post will give an overview of systems of belief, biases, and values, and their role in arguments and critical thinking.
An argument is a set of reasons or evidence offered in support of a claim.
A premise is an individual reason or piece of evidence offered in support of a conclusion.
A conclusion is the claim that follows from or is supported by the premise(s).
1) Just because a conclusion is true, it doesn’t mean that the argument in support of the conclusion is a good one (i.e. valid). Truth and justification are two different things!
2) Be on the alert for hidden premises!
A. Basic Practice
(1) Identify the conclusion and premises of each of the following arguments then rewrite the argument in standard premise-conclusion form. To save time you don’t need to write full sentences, just the first three words of each sentence. (2) Explain which heuristic(s) you used identify the conclusion.
Example: (a) If you want to be in good shape you should drink beer. (b) For example, Mary drinks beer and she’s in good shape. (c) Also, Mike drinks beer and he’s also fit.
- P1 For example, Mary…
- P2 Also, Mike drinks…
- C If you want…
- I think (a) is the conclusion because it’s controversial (heuristic 1), it’s the first statement (heuristic 3).
- (a) Slandering the spouse or family of a presidential candidate is bullshit. (b) Unless you want politics to devolve into pure playground name-calling, you need to cut it out. (c) Also, slander reduces the possibility for civil dialogue and political compromise.
- (a) I’m here to do just two things: think logically and chew bubblegum. (b) And I’m all out of bubblegum. (c) Therefore, I’m here to think logically.
- (a) Over the summer I got totally shredded because I took Hydroxy Cut. (b) Hydroxy Cut contains a proven energy-enhancing ingredient (caffeine anhydrous) that’s been shown in scientific studies to deliver energy after just one dose!!!111!!! (c) If you want to get shredded you should take it too.
- (a) Tupac is still alive. (b) I know this because I saw a video on youtube that showed proof!!!1111!!! (c) And there’s no way that picture was photoshopped. (d) Plus, I can just feel it.
- (a) First of all, if you’re just trying to get drunk taste shouldn’t matter. (b) And second, even if you don’t like the taste you wont notice it after just a few drinks. (c) If you’re just looking to get drunk you should buy the cheapest liquor possible.
- (a) Nick Diaz should have won the second fight against MacGregor. (b) For 3 of the 5 rounds Diaz controlled MacGregor against the fence. (c) He also probably landed more shots. (d) Besides, even if MacGregor won the 1st round, it wasn’t a 10-8 round.
- (a) We won’t take attendance tomorrow because it’s the first day. (b) Also, John won’t be there. (c) Besides it wouldn’t be fair to enforce a rule unless students know the rule first.
- (a) The whole thing [election] is rigged. (b) The DNC didn’t want Bernie to win regardless. (c) Look at every state that had voter suppression. (d) They don’t care about what the majority of the people want.
- (a) Tea has some health benefits that coffee doesn’t. (b) Therefore, generally you should drink tea instead of coffee. (c) Besides, coffee can give you coffee breath. (d) And I’ve never heard anyone complain about tea breath.
- (a) I’m mean, seriously, I didn’t come to university to just learn stuff. (b) I’m here for points. (c) And besides, how do I know if I’m winning or not if no one is keeping score? (d) Professors shouldn’t assign anything unless it’s for credit.
- (a) Zoolander 2 was a complete disappointment. (b) Almost all the good jokes were in the trailer. (c) Also, whatever jokes weren’t in the trailer weren’t very funny.
- (a) If you’re gonna eat pizza you should eat the best pizza. (b) First of all, pizza should be a treat not a regular meal. (c) Also, even though some people think there’s no such thing as bad pizza, they’re wrong. (d) I’ve tried bad pizza and I ended up feeling really disappointed.
- (a) When the new Iphone came out it came with a free download of a U2 album. (b) People started complaining. (c) WTF? Free music isn’t a reason to complain. (d) People are whiny little babies.
- (a) Economic theory supposes human beings are rational and will always act in their own self interest. (b) But this is false. (c) For example, it isn’t in your best interest to be checking your twitter/FB/instagram/snapchat while you’re doing your homework but you’re doing it anyway. (d) Policies fail because they assume economic theory is correct.
- (a) If you don’t eat your meat you can’t have any pudding. (b) You didn’t eat your meat. (c) So, no pudding for you.
B. Critical Thinking in the “Real” World
1. Find 2 short arguments (good, bad, or ugly) from any of the following sources: (a) Comments section in social media, (b) comments section of an article, (c) part of an article. Try find arguments with no more than 3 main premises.
2. (a) Copy-pasta the argument as it appeared “in the wild” then (b) rewrite it in standard premise-conclusion form.
C. Critical Thinking About Your Life
Answer only questions 1 and 2, and be prepared to discuss them in your recitation section.
Read the following article: https://aeon.co/essays/can-students-who-are-constantly-on-their-devices-actually-learn
1. (a) Why does the author think digital technology damages critical thinking?
(b) Suggest some ways to counter these effects.
From the article:
A California State University study monitored middle-, high-school and college students who had been instructed to research something important for 15 minutes. Two minutes in, students’ focus started to wane as they checked messages, texts and various websites. The average student lasted six minutes before caving to the temptation to engage in social media. Despite being watched, students spent only approximately 65 per cent of the allotted time studying. Given that most students spend far longer than 15 minutes trying to do coursework, it’s easy to see how little gets done, and how checking messages or opening up another browser tab would be increasingly difficult to resist, especially if we tell ourselves it’s related to work or study.
In respect to this problem, at least some students seem to have some self-awareness of the problem. One student wrote:
I constantly procrastinate, leaving huge chunks of writing until the last minute, or sometimes until a few minutes past the last minute… Even now, on the last, easiest assignment, I left it until the last minute, and am still procrastinating. It’s 3 in the morning, and instead of consistently working on my portfolio, I’m watching a video review of a hammock. I’ve never even used a hammock. I have a serious problem in making myself do work, and even I’m not entirely sure why. Even when the work interests me, as [this class] does, and the work is important, I am still bizarrely capable of feeling absolutely no compulsion to work.
Suppose you want to give advice to this student. What sort of strategies and tips would you offer them to avoid distraction while they do homework and study?
3. Some people might make the following argument: If students are distracted in class, it’s the teacher’s fault. Teachers need to make the class so interesting that students will want to pay attention instead of look at their connected devices.
(a) Regardless of your own position, consider at least one way someone could reply to this argument.
(b) Consider both the original argument and your hypothetical reply from (a). Which position do you think is better justified? Defend your position with reasons and arguments.
4. Some people might make the following argument: Students or students’s families are paying for the education. Since they are paying, there’s no obligation for the student to pay attention in class. It’s no different from if I pay to download a movie. If I want to text during the movie and miss out, that’s my choice.
(a) What two activities are being compared in the argument?
(b) In what relevant ways are the activities different from each other?
(c) Construct a counter-argument by appealing to the differences between the two activities being compared.
(d) Do you agree that paying tuition removes a student’s obligation to pay attention in class? Is there any obligation for students to pay attention? Support your answer.