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Building Strong Arguments

For essays, speeches, debates, meetings, or intense discussions, you may need to organize your thoughts and defend them against people who might not agree with you. To do your best in these situations, follow the process outlined in the next few pages. Remember that arguments stem from a claim or position supported by compelling evidence—evidence that persuades the reader or listener to accept a point of view.

The Seven C’s of Building an Argument

When you need to build an argument, use the seven C’s to develop and support a position about a specific topic:

  • Consider the situation. Think of all aspects of the communication situation What are the subject and purpose of your message? What medium will you use? Who is the receiver? What is the context? (See the next page .)
  • Clarify your thinking. Think about the pros and cons of each side of the issue, and do some preliminary research so that you understand the subject well. (See the next page. )
  • Construct a claim. Write a single statement that gives your position and the main reason that you hold that position. (See page 104. )
  • Collect evidence. Research the issue in depth, using primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Investigate to make sure your claim holds up, and change it if it doesn’t. Gather a variety of key evidence to support your claim. (See page 104 .)
  • Consider key objections. Think about other viewpoints related to the argument. What reasons could people cite to support opposing positions? What major problems could they see with your argument? Decide how you will answer those objections—by countering them (saying why they are unimportant) or by conceding them (saying they are important but can be overcome). (See page 105 .)
  • Craft your argument. Use your claim statement and the evidence you have gathered to argue persuasively for your position. Appeal to the needs of your reader, and answer any key objections. (See page 106 .)
  • Confirm your main point. Wrap up your argument by stating your claim in a new way, connecting it to real life and to the future.

Your Turn Which step in the process outlined above corresponds to the questioning phase of the inquiry process? Which steps correspond to planning? Which steps relate to research? In what ways does building an argument require the inquiry process?

1. Consider the situation.

Before you can build a strong argument, you need to analyze the communication situation . Ask yourself the following questions:

The Communication Situation (Sender, Message, Receiver, Medium, and Context)

  • As sender, what role do I have?
  • What subject is my message about?
  • What purpose do I have?
  • What medium am I using?
  • Who is the receiver? How can I convince that person?
  • What is the context? When and where will the message arrive?

Sender: I'm writing less as a high school student and more as a concerned American citizen.

Message Subject: I'm writing about the national debt.

Message Purpose: I'm calling for spending cuts and tax increases to address the debt.

Medium: This should be a letter to the editor, so it can reach a general audience.

Receiver: My audience is all Americans who are worried about federal fiscal responsibility.

Context: This message will appear in a newspaper locally, and it could be picked up by a wire service to appear in national papers.

Your Turn Think of the topics you are studying in your classes. Which topic do you feel most strongly about? What position would you most like to argue for? Analyze your communication situation by answering the questions above.

2. Clarify your thinking.

Before you can convince others, you must be clear in your own mind about your position. What are you trying to prove? Why do you feel the way you do? What kind of proof do you have? In addition, you should consider both sides of the issue. To do this, set up a pro-con chart like the one shown here:

Your Turn Create a pro-con chart, arguing for and against your position. Thoroughly explore both pros and cons. You will need to understand all perspectives to make a convincing case.

3. Constructing a Claim

After you have thoroughly investigated an issue, you are ready to construct a claim about it. Arguments develop three types of claims :

To formulate a claim, name your subject and express the truth, value, or policy you want to promote.

4. Collecting Evidence

After stating a claim, you must support it. Different types of details provide different types of support:

Your Turn (1) Use the formula above to construct a truth, a value, and a policy claim about a subject you feel strongly about. (2) Choose one of your claims and research it. Write down one of each of the four types of supporting details listed in the chart above.

5. Considering Key Objections

Any debatable issue has at least two, and often many, points of view. When you build an argument, you need to consider alternate positions. Just as you have gathered support for your position, those with other perspectives will have gathered objections. Start by identifying them.

Your Turn Reverse your thinking. Imagine that you strongly oppose the claim you made and researched on the previous pages. List at least three serious objections to your previous position.

Answering Objections

Ignoring the objections to your argument weakens rather than strengthens it. You need to face objections head-on . The following strategies have been applied to each of the example objections above.

Your Turn Answer each of the objections to your own claim that you listed in the previous “Your Turn” activity. Either rebut the objection, recognize part of it but overcome the rest, or concede and move on .

6. Crafting Your Argument

Argument Structure for Receptive, Skeptical, Resistant, and Opposed

Your Turn Think about the audience for the position (claim) you chose to work with on pages 103-104 . How receptive or resistant are they? Which of the structures above would you use to craft your argument? Or would you use a different structure? Explain your answer.

Using Persuasive Appeals

Classical rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, prescribes three ways to appeal to your audience:

  • Appeal to ethos —demonstrate that you are an ethical and trustworthy source.
  • Appeal to logos —use logic to argue for your position.
  • Appeal to pathos —move the person emotionally to connect with your position.

The most persuasive arguments may use all three types of appeals—but always responsibly. Each of these appeals can be abused, as you will see in the section on logical fallacies ( pages 108–112 ).

Your Turn You’ve learned about using logic (logos) to connect with the reader. Now consider what your audience wants or needs in order to make an emotional connection (pathos). How does your position help them get what they need, want, or expect?

7. Confirming Your Main Point

Complete your argument by stating your main point in a new way and connecting it to the future. Leave your audience with a strong final thought.

Using Socratic Questions to Examine Arguments

You’ve learned how to build a compelling argument. There’s also a technique for examining arguments and deepening thinking.

The Greek philosopher Socrates examined arguments through questions, pushing students to use logic to deduce answers. Socratic questions are especially useful for probing the thinking of opponents in a debate.

Socratic Questions

  • Could you please rephrase that statement?
  • How would you summarize your position?
  • Are you saying that ________________?
  • What are the assumptions underlying that statement?
  • Is that statement based on the belief that ________________?
  • Could you explain how/why ________________?
  • Can you demonstrate how this premise is true?
  • What evidence supports this claim?
  • Are you implying/concluding that ________________?
  • What analogy could you use to express that idea?
  • How would ________________ respond to that idea?
  • How do you answer the objection that ________________?
  • What will result from that position?
  • How can we apply that idea in a broader context?
  • What is the value of that idea, and why?
  • Why are we asking this question?
  • How does this question connect to the situation?
  • How can we reframe this question?

Your Turn With a partner, discuss a current issue that you are studying in class. Use Socratic questions occasionally to deepen the discussion. Which questions were most helpful? Which were least helpful? Why?

Additional Resources

Newsletter Article: Making Your Claim

Web Page: Counter-Argument

Web Page: What is a counter-argument?

Web Page: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Web Page: Socrates

Web Page: Socratic Questioning

© 2014 Thoughtful Learning

[A09] Good Arguments

Module: Argument analysis

  • A01. What is an argument?
  • A02. The standard format
  • A03. Validity
  • A04. Soundness
  • A05. Valid patterns
  • A06. Validity and relevance
  • A07. Hidden Assumptions
  • A08. Inductive Reasoning
  • A10. Argument mapping
  • A11. Analogical Arguments
  • A12. More valid patterns
  • A13. Arguing with other people

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§1. What is a good argument?

In this tutorial we shall discuss what a good argument is. The concept of a good argument is of course quite vague. So what we are trying to do here is to give it a somewhat more precise definition. To begin with, make sure that you know what a sound argument is.

Criterion #1 : A good argument must have true premises

This means that if we have an argument with one or more false premises, then it is not a good argument. The reason for this condition is that we want a good argument to be one that can convince us to accept the conclusion. Unless the premises of an argument are all true, we would have no reason to accept to accept its conclusion.

Criterion #2 : A good argument must be either valid or strong

Is validity a necessary condition for a good argument? Certainly many good arguments are valid. Example:

All whales are mammals. All mammals are warm-blooded. So all whales are warm-blooded.

But it is not true that good arguments must be valid. We often accept arguments as good, even though they are not valid. Example:

No baby in the past has ever been able to understand quantum physics. Kitty is going to have a baby soon. So Kitty's baby is not going to be able to understand quantum physics.

This is surely a good argument, but it is not valid. It is true that no baby in the past has ever been able to understand quantum physics. But it does not follow logically that Kitty's baby will not be able to do so. To see that the argument is not valid, note that it is not logically impossible for Kitty's baby to have exceptional brain development so that the baby can talk and learn and understand quantum physics while still being a baby. Extremely unlikely to be sure, but not logically impossible, and this is enough to show that the argument is not valid. But because such possibilities are rather unlikely, we still think that the true premises strongly support the conclusion and so we still think that the argument is a good one.

In other words, a good argument need not be valid. But presumably if it is not valid it must be inductively strong. If an argument is inductively weak, then it cannot be a good argument since the premises do not provide good reasons for accepting the conclusion.

For more information about inductive strength, see the previous tutorial .

Criterion #3 : The premises of a good argument must not beg the question

Notice that criteria #1 and #2 are not sufficient for a good argument. First of all, we certainly don't want to say that circular arguments are good arguments, even if they happen to be sound. Suppose someone offers the following argument:

It is going to rain tomorrow. Therefore, it is going to rain tomorrow.

So far we think that a good argument must (1) have true premises, and (2) be valid or inductively strong. Are these conditions sufficient? The answer is no. Consider this example:

Smoking is bad for your health. Therefore smoking is bad for your health.

This argument is actually sound. The premise is true, and the argument is valid, because the conclusion does follow from the premise! But as an argument surely it is a terrible argument. This is a circular argument where the conclusion also appears as a premise. It is of course not a good argument, because it does not provide independent reasons for supporting the conclusion. So we say that it begs the question .

Here is another example of an argument that begs the question :

Since Mary would not lie to her best friend, and Mary told me that I am indeed her best friend, I must really be Mary's best friend.

Whether this argument is circular depends on your definition of a "circular argument". Some people might not consider this a circular argument in that the conclusion does not appear explicitly as a premise. However, the argument still begs the question and so is not a good argument.

Criterion #4 : The premises of a good argument must be plausible and relevant to the conclusion

Here, plausibility is a matter of having good reasons for believing that the premises are true. As for relevance, this is the requirement that the the subject matter of the premises must be related to that of the conclusion. Why do we need this additional criterion? The reason is that claims and theories can happen to be true even though nobody has got any evidence that they are true. If the premises of an argument happen to be true but there is no evidence indicating that they are, the argument is not going to be pursuasive in convincing people that the conclusion is correct. A good argument, on the other hand, is an argument that a rational person should accept, so a good argument should satisfy the additional criterion mentioned.

§2. Summary

So, here is our final definition of a good argument :

A good argument is an argument that is either valid or strong, and with plausible premises that are true, do not beg the question, and are relevant to the conclusion.

Now that you know what a good argument is, you should be able to explain why these claims are mistaken. Many people who are not good at critical thinking often make these mistakes :

"The conclusion of this argument is true, so some or all the premises are true." "One or more premises of this argument are false, so the conclusion is false." "Since the conclusion of the argument is false, all its premises are false." "The conclusion of this argument does not follow from the premises. So it must be false."

Answer the following questions.

  • Does a good argument have to be sound? answer
  • Can a good argument be inductively weak? answer

These are some arguments (or just premises) that students have given to support the idea that there is nothing morally wrong with eating meat. Discuss and evaluate these arguments carefully. Think about whether the premises are true, and whether they support the conclusion that it is morally acceptable to eat meat.

  • Human beings are part of the food cycle of nature.
  • Human beings are able to digest meat.
  • It is ok to eat meat because meat is just a kind of food and we need food to survive.
  • It is ok to eat meat because lots of people eat meat; because everyone around me eat meat.
  • It is ok to eat meat because the government does not stop people from eating meat.
  • Many other people eat meat.
  • Meat contains protein, and we need protein to survive.
  • We are animals, and it is ok for animals to eat animals.
  • It is ok to eat meat because I started eating meat when I was a child.
  • Meat is more tasty than vegetables.
  • It is ok to eat meat because nobody told me that this is wrong.
  • I love eating meat.
  • It is ok to eat meat because set meals in restaurants have very little vegetables.
  • Animals kill each other.
  • Maintain the balance of nature - there will be too many animals otherwise.
  • We are more powerful than animals.
  • I was taught that I should eat meat.
  • Human beings are at the top of the food chain.
  • Eating meat can help me avoid certain diseases.
  • We have special teeth for eating meat.

§3. A technical discussion

This section is a more abstract and difficult. You can skip this if you want.

One interesting but somewhat difficult issue about the definition of a good argument concerns the first requirement that a good argument must have true premises. One might argue that this requirement is too stringent, because we seem to accept many arguments as good arguments, even if we are not completely certain that the premises are true. Or perhaps we had good reasons for the premises, even if it turns out later that we were wrong.

As an example, suppose your friend told you that she is going camping for the whole weekend. She is a trustworthy friend and you have no reason to doubt her. So you accept the following argument as a good argument:

Amie will be camping this weekend. So she will not be able to come to my party.

But suppose the camping trip got cancelled at the last minute, and so Amie came to the party after all. What then should we say about the argument here? Was it a good argument? Surely you were justified in believing the premise, and so someone might argue that it is wrong to require that a good argument must have true premises. It is enough if the premises are highly justified (of course the other conditions must be satisfied as well.)

If we take this position, this implies that when we discover that the camping trip has been cancelled, we are no longer justified in believing the premise, and so at that point the argument ceases to be a good argument.

Here we prefer a different way of describing the situation. We want to say that although in the beginning we had good reasons to think that the argument is a good one, later on we discover that it wasn't a good argument to begin with. In other words, the argument doesn't change from being a good argument to a bad argument. It is just that we change our mind about whether the argument is a good one in light of new information. We think there are are reasons for preferring this way of describing the situation, and it is quite a natural way of speaking.

So there are actually two ways to use the term "good argument". We have adopted one usage here and it is fine if you want to use it differently. We think the ordinary meaning of the term is not precise enough to dictate a particular usage. What is important is to know very clearly how you are using it and what the consequences are as a result.

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  • 9 Ways to Construct a Compelling Argument

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But especially in the circumstances that we’re deeply convinced of the rightness of our points, putting them across in a compelling way that will change other people’s mind is a challenge. If you feel that your opinion is obviously right, it’s hard work even to understand why other people might disagree. Some people reach this point and don’t bother to try, instead concluding that those who disagree with them must be stupid, misled or just plain immoral. And it’s almost impossible to construct an argument that will persuade someone if you’re starting from the perspective that they’re either dim or evil. In the opposite set of circumstances – when you only weakly believe your perspective to be right – it can also be tricky to construct a good argument. In the absence of conviction, arguments tend to lack coherence or force. In this article, we take a look at how you can put together an argument, whether for an essay, debate speech or social media post, that is forceful, cogent and – if you’re lucky – might just change someone’s mind.

1. Keep it simple

good argument needs

Almost all good essays focus on a single powerful idea, drawing in every point made back to that same idea so that even someone skim-reading will soon pick up the author’s thesis. But when you care passionately about something, it’s easy to let this go. If you can see twenty different reasons why you’re right, it’s tempting to put all of them into your argument, because it feels as if the sheer weight of twenty reasons will be much more persuasive than just focusing on one or two; after all, someone may be able rebut a couple of reasons, but can they rebut all twenty? Yet from the outside, an argument with endless different reasons is much less persuasive than one with focus and precision on a small number of reasons. The debate in the UK about whether or not to stay in the EU was a great example of this. The Remain campaign had dozens of different reasons. Car manufacturing! Overfishing! Cleaner beaches! Key workers for the NHS! Medical research links! Economic opportunities! The difficulty of overcoming trade barriers! The Northern Irish border! Meanwhile, the Leave campaign boiled their argument down to just one: membership of the EU means relinquishing control. Leaving it means taking back control. And despite most expectations and the advice of most experts, the simple, straightforward message won. Voters struggled to remember the many different messages put out by the Remain campaign, as compelling as each of those reasons might have been; but they remembered the message about taking back control.

2. Be fair on your opponent

good argument needs

One of the most commonly used rhetorical fallacies is the Strawman Fallacy. This involves constructing a version of your opponent’s argument that is much weaker than the arguments they might use themselves, in order than you can defeat it more easily. For instance, in the area of crime and punishment, you might be arguing in favour of harsher prison sentences, while your opponent argues in favour of early release where possible. A Strawman would be to say that your opponent is weak on crime, wanting violent criminals to be let out on to the streets without adequate punishment or deterrence, to commit the same crimes again. In reality, your opponent’s idea might exclude violent criminals, and focus on community-based restorative justice that could lead to lower rates of recidivism. To anyone who knows the topic well, if your argument includes a Strawman, then you will immediately have lost credibility by demonstrating that either you don’t really understand the opposing point of view, or that you simply don’t care about rebutting it properly. Neither is persuasive. Instead, you should be fair to your opponent and represent their argument honestly, and your readers will take you seriously as a result

3. Avoid other common fallacies

good argument needs

It’s worth taking the time to read about logical fallacies and making sure that you’re not making them, as argument that rest of fallacious foundations can be more easily demolished. (This may not apply on social media, but it does in formal debating and in writing essays). Some fallacies are straightforward to understand, such as the appeal to popularity (roughly “everyone agrees with me, so I must be right!”), but others are a little trickier. Take “begging the question”, which is often misunderstood. It gets used to mean “raises the question” (e.g. “this politician has defended terrorists, which raises the question – can we trust her?”), but the fallacy it refers to is a bit more complicated. It’s when an argument rests on the assumption that its conclusions are true. For example, someone might argue that fizzy drinks shouldn’t be banned in schools, on the grounds that they’re not bad for students’ health. How can we know that they’re not bad for students’ health? Why, if they were, they would be banned in schools! When put in a condensed form like this example, the flaw in this approach is obvious, but you can imagine how you might fall for it over the course of a whole essay – for instance, paragraphs arguing that teachers would have objected to hyperactive students, parents would have complained, and we can see that none of this has happened because they haven’t yet been banned. With more verbosity, a bad argument can be hidden, so check that you’re not falling prey to it in your own writing.

4. Make your assumptions clear

good argument needs

Every argument rests on assumptions. Some of these assumptions are so obvious that you’re not going to be aware that you’re making them – for instance, you might make an argument about different economic systems that rests on the assumption that reducing global poverty is a good thing. While very few people would disagree with you on that, in general, if your assumption can be proven false, then the entire basis of your argument is undermined. A more controversial example might be an argument that rests on the assumption that everyone can trust the police force – for instance, if you’re arguing for tougher enforcement of minor offences in order to prevent them from mounting into major ones. But in countries where the police are frequently bribed, or where policing has obvious biases, such enforcement could be counterproductive. If you’re aware of such assumptions underpinning your argument, tackle them head on by making them clear and explaining why they are valid; so you could argue that your law enforcement proposal is valid in the particular circumstances that you’re suggesting because the police force there can be relied on, even if it wouldn’t work everywhere.

5. Rest your argument on solid foundations

good argument needs

If you think that you’re right in your argument, you should also be able to assemble a good amount of evidence that you’re right. That means putting the effort in and finding something that genuinely backs up what you’re saying; don’t fall back on dubious statistics or fake news . Doing the research to ensure that your evidence is solid can be time-consuming, but it’s worthwhile, as then you’ve removed another basis on which your argument could be challenged. What happens if you can’t find any evidence for your argument? The first thing to consider is whether you might be wrong! If you find lots of evidence against your position, and minimal evidence for it, it would be logical to change your mind. But if you’re struggling to find evidence either way, it may simply be that the area is under-researched. Prove what you can, including your assumptions, and work from there.

6. Use evidence your readers will believe

good argument needs

So far we’ve focused on how to construct an argument that is solid and hard to challenge; from this point onward, we focus on what it takes to make an argument persuasive. One thing you can do is to choose your evidence with your audience in mind. For instance, if you’re writing about current affairs, a left-wing audience will find an article from the Guardian to be more persuasive (as they’re more likely to trust its reporting), while a right-wing audience might be more swayed by the Telegraph. This principle doesn’t just hold in terms of politics. It can also be useful in terms of sides in an academic debate, for instance. You can similarly bear in mind the demographics of your likely audience – it may be that an older audience is more skeptical of footnotes that consist solely of web addresses. And it isn’t just about statistics and references. The focus of your evidence as a whole can take your probable audience into account; for example, if you were arguing that a particular drug should be banned on health grounds and your main audience was teenagers, you might want to focus more on the immediate health risks, rather than ones that might only appear years or decades later.

7. Avoid platitudes and generalisations, and be specific

good argument needs

A platitude is a phrase used to the point of meaninglessness – and it may not have had that much meaning to begin with. If you find yourself writing something like “because family life is all-important” to support one of your claims, you’ve slipped into using platitudes. Platitudes are likely to annoy your readers without helping to persuade them. Because they’re meaningless and uncontroversial statements, using them doesn’t tell your reader anything new. If you say that working hours need to be restricted because family ought to come first, you haven’t really given your reader any new information. Instead, bring the importance of family to life for your reader, and then explain just how long hours are interrupting it. Similarly, being specific can demonstrate the grasp you have on your subject, and can bring it to life for your reader. Imagine that you were arguing in favour of nationalising the railways, and one of your points was that the service now was of low quality. Saying “many commuter trains are frequently delayed” is much less impactful than if you have the full facts to hand, e.g. “in Letchworth Garden City, one key commuter hub, half of all peak-time trains to London were delayed by ten minutes or more.”

8. Understand the opposing point of view

good argument needs

As we noted in the introduction, you can’t construct a compelling argument unless you understand why someone might think you were wrong, and you can come up with reasons other than them being mistaken or stupid. After all, we almost all target them same end goals, whether that’s wanting to increase our understanding of the world in academia, or increase people’s opportunities to flourish and seek happiness in politics. Yet we come to divergent conclusions. In his book The Righteous Mind , Jonathan Haidt explores the different perspectives of people who are politically right or left-wing. He summarises the different ideals people might value, namely justice, equality, authority, sanctity and loyalty, and concludes that while most people see that these things have some value, different political persuasions value them to different degrees. For instance, someone who opposes equal marriage might argue that they don’t oppose equality – but they do feel that on balance, sanctity is more important. An argument that focuses solely on equality won’t sway them, but an argument that addresses sanctity might.

9. Make it easy for your opponent to change their mind

good argument needs

It’s tricky to think of the last time you changed your mind about something really important. Perhaps to preserve our pride, we frequently forget that we ever believed something different. This survey of British voters’ attitudes to the Iraq war demonstrates the point beautifully. 54% of people supporting invading Iraq in 2003; but twelve years on, with the war a demonstrable failure, only 37% were still willing to admit that they had supported it at the time. The effect in the USA was even more dramatic. It would be tempting for anyone who genuinely did oppose the war at the time to be quite smug towards anyone who changed their mind, especially those who won’t admit it. But if changing your mind comes with additional consequences (e.g. the implication that you were daft ever to have believed something, even if you’ve since come to a different conclusion), then the incentive to do so is reduced. Your argument needs to avoid vilifying people who have only recently come around to your point of view; instead, to be truly persuasive, you should welcome them.

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Ethical Realism

February 24, 2010, four requirements for good arguments.

Formal logic can help us achieve clarity and help us make sure our arguments are relevant in various ways, but there are other requirements for a good argument. Most philosophers seem to get caught up discussing fallacies (errors in reasoning) rather than good reasoning. I will discuss the following four requirements for writing good arguments and the corresponding fallacies for failing to achieve the requirements:

  • Supporting Evidence
  • Relevant Evidence
  • Consider all Viable Options

1. Supporting Evidence

Arguments must have premises and a conclusion. Premises are statements that must be accepted before the conclusion is accepted. Premises could be considered evidence for the conclusion, but even controversial premises be supported by evidence. Sometimes we might accept a premise because it is taken for granted as true, but philosophers often try to support every somewhat controversial premise they can.

An argument can only have relevant supporting evidence if (a) the conclusion is appropriately modest, (b) the conclusion isn’t overly ambitious, (c) the premises are more likely true than the conclusion, and (d) the conclusion isn’t illegitimately absurd.

(a) Modest conclusions

The premises of an argument must lead us to the conclusion. If the argument is valid and the premises are true, then we have no choice but to accept the conclusion. Such a conclusion is appropriately modest. For example:

  • If Socrates is a man, then he is mortal.
  • He is a man.
  • Therefore, he is mortal.

The conclusion must be accepted because the premises are almost certainly true.

(b) Overly ambitious conclusions

A conclusion that is not sufficiently supported by the premises is an inappropriate type of conclusion. Such conclusions tend to be what I call overly ambitious. For example:

  • If Socrates is a philosopher, then he is relatively wise.
  • Socrates is a philosopher.
  • Therefore, Socrates knows that the Earth is the third planet from the sun.

It is common knowledge that the Earth is the third planet from the Sun and we would expect that relatively wise people would know such a thing, but that is only common knowledge in our day and age. Socrates was from a different period of time, so he might have not known. The conclusion is overly ambitious because we can only accept the conclusion given certain unstated assumptions.

(c) Premises that are likely true

The premises should be more likely true than the conclusion. Conclusions must not be more likely true than the premises or the premises aren’t really good evidence for the conclusion. Imagine that someone argues the following:

  • If people exist, then atoms exist.
  • People exist.
  • Therefore, atoms exist.

This argument is logically valid, but we are more certain that people exist than atoms exist. The fact that people exist shouldn’t be accepted as evidence that atoms exist. That isn’t to say that atoms don’t exist. We just know less about atoms existing than people.

To have a conclusion that is more likely true than the premises is a fallacy, but I don’t know the name of it. It might not have a name. I will call such a fallacy an argument with a trivial conclusion because the conclusion is already known to be likely true and the premises do not properly help assure us that the conclusion is true.

(d) Absurd conclusions

Even worse than having a trivial conclusion is having an illegitimately absurd conclusion. Absurd conclusions are extraordinary claims, and my point here is merely that extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. An absurd conclusion can be a conclusion that is almost certainly false even if the premises seem to be probably true. It is impossible to have an illegitimately absurd conclusion if the conclusion is appropriately modest, so the premises used must be questionable. But the fact that questionable premises can lead us to an absurd conclusion just makes us that much more certain that a premise has to be false. For example:

  • I have existed for over twenty years.
  • The past resembles the future.
  • Therefore, I will always exist.

Some people can’t imagine not being immortal and they believe they probably have an immortal soul. After all, we have existed all our lives. However, the conclusion is so incredible that one of the premises is almost certainly false. In this case the premise “the past resembles the future” seems to be taken the wrong way. If we are ever to accept the immortality of the soul, we will need a much better argument than this.

To have an absurd conclusion, such as the argument above, is to commit a fallacy, but I don’t know if it has a name. I will call it the “absurd conclusion” fallacy. In many cases this fallacy will be a type of suppressed evidence fallacy—there is usually information that will undermine the conclusion that isn’t mentioned. Such information can be more important than the supporting premises for the conclusion.

Some people call the absurd conclusion fallacy a ‘reductio ad absurdum’ or a ‘reductio’ for short. However, there are nonfallacious ways to reason using a reductio ad absurdum.

Moreover, the above argument has insufficient premises to prove the conclusion. Even if the premises are true, the conclusion might not be true.

Another example of an argument with an absurd conclusion is the following:

  • Many people have past life experiences that provide insightful information.
  • Either past life experiences are caused by past lives or dreams.
  • It is very unlikely that a dream would lead to such insightful information.
  • Therefore, some people probably have past lives.

Although all of the premises look very likely to be true, the conclusion is absurd. The problem is that we have good reason to suspect that at least one premise is false. Perhaps there are other explanations for past life experiences than the two mentioned, and perhaps dreams can lead to the insightful information given by past life experiences. The fact is that we are uncertain about the premises all being true, and extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. Such extraordinary evidence isn’t given.

2. Relevant Evidence

The evidence used in arguments must be relevant or we have no reason to trust them. The fact that bread has always been nutritious (rather than poisonous) makes it reasonable to think bread is still nutritious. However, people seem to be drawn to distractions (red herrings) rather than relevant considerations.

For example, the fact that the Soviet Union had universal health care doesn’t prove that universal health care is wrong. If everything the Soviets did was wrong, then we should never eat food or have sex. The temptation to dismiss some idea out of hand just because it was endorsed by an undesirable person or society is just a problem with human psychology.

The fallacy of using irrelevant evidence for a position is often called the red herring fallacy. Red herring fallacies are very common when people give objections to other arguments. Why? We often ignore the other person’s argument and just argue against their conclusion. It is often inappropriate to reject an argument just by rejecting the conclusion. For example, consider the following argument:

  • Abortion kills people.
  • Killing people should always be illegal.
  • Therefore, abortion should be illegal.

A common response is that abortion should not be illegal because that would violate women’s rights. However, women’s rights are somewhat irrelevant to the above argument. If we accept the premises, then the conclusion follows. If women’s rights prove that abortion isn’t forbidden, then we are stuck with contradictory arguments for and against the conclusion: Abortion should be legal and illegal.

A good objection to the abortion argument is likely going to oppose one of the premises. Is killing people always wrong? If so, war should be entirely illegal. Does abortion kill people? Why should we think fetuses are people?

If we find it important to argue against someone’s conclusion, then we can do so, but we should often also give objections against the arguments given in support of the conclusion we reject.

An obvious example of the red herring fallacy is the following:

  • Bob argues that “we shouldn’t throw people into prison who are found guilty of illegal drug possession because it makes everyone worse off.”
  • However, Bob probably takes marijuana and just doesn’t want to go to prison for it.
  • Therefore, we should reject Bob’s argument.

This argument gives us no good reason to reject Bob’s argument. It actually changes the subject, then says we should reject Bob’s argument. Fallacious arguments are generally not written in such an explicit way and the conclusion in particular would probably not be explicitly stated in real life.

3. Consider all Viable Options

Arguments require that we accept that something is true instead of something else. Every single premise could be challenged if it doesn’t describe reality perfectly. When we argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is true, we need to take a look at how much better it is than any alternative. The same goes for any other theory.

It is difficult for us to consider every viable option, so beliefs that fail to do so are common. Consider the following assertions:

  • Either communism is good or universal health care is bad.
  • Ether creationism is true or evolution is true.
  • Either God exists or morality is just a matter of taste.

We might wonder, Why can’t both be false? Maybe capitalism is mostly good, but universal health care can also be good. There are often more options than we see at first. To assume that there are less viable options than those that really exist is to suppress evidence and commit a popular fallacy known as the false dilemma.

An obvious example of the false dilemma fallacy is the following:

  • Either Socrates is a horse or a cow.
  • Socrates isn’t a horse.
  • Therefore, Socrates is a cow.

The problem is that the first premise is false because it does not lay out the most plausible options. In particular, it should say “Either Socrates is a human, a horse, or a cow.”

When we object to an argument or belief, we need to be able to describe it and fully understand it, or what we have to say against it will be irrelevant. To properly describe an argument or belief is to be charitable. To misrepresent another person’s view destroys our chances of saying anything relevant about it. Consider the following argument:

  • People who believe in God live a better life.
  • We have some reason to engage in actions that offer us benefits.
  • Therefore, we have some reason to believe in God.

Someone might then disagree with you and say the following: “You are saying that everyone has to believe in God because it offers us benefits, but we shouldn’t have to believe something just because it benefits us in various ways!” This objection has misrepresented the argument because having some reason to believe in God is much different from the belief that “everyone must believe in God.” Such an objection is irrelevant.

To misrepresent other people’s arguments by making their argument worse is a fallacy called the straw man. However, to misrepresent someone’s argument by improving it isn’t wrong. Rather than argue against a flawed argument, we should generally want to argue against the best argument we can.

Supporting evidence, relevant evidence, considering all viable options, and charity are essential for any good debate. People often fail to live up to these standards, and such standards are difficult to live up to without experience. People with no experience with logic have an even greater chance of providing us with inappropriate supporting evidence (trivial conclusions), overly ambitious conclusions, absurd conclusions, red herrings, false dilemmas, and straw men.

(Updated 11/24/2013)

For more information on fallacies, you might like this website:

  • The Fallacy Files

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Isn’t there a contradiction between whhat you say under “absurd conclusions” and what you say under “relevant evidence”? In the former, you say (about the argument for immortality) “the conclusion is so incredible that one of the premises is almost certainly false” and then make the comment: “To have an absurd conclusion, such as the argument above, is to commit a fallacy”.

So are you saying that the mere fact that a conclusion is “absurd” is enough to show that an argument fallacious?

If that’s the case, then why do you say: “If we find it very important to argue against someone’s conclusion, then we can do so, but we should first argue against one of the premises”? With the example: “A correct objection to the abortion argument is to challenge one of the premises”? This seems to go flat against what you said previously.

Comment by Brian Garvey — May 31, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

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Isn’t there a contradiction between whhat you say under “absurd conclusions” and what you say under “relevant evidence”? In the former, you say (about the argument for immortality) “the conclusion is so incredible that one of the premises is almost certainly false” and then make the comment: “To have an absurd conclusion, such as the argument above, is to commit a fallacy”.

So are you saying that the mere fact that a conclusion is “absurd” is enough to show that an argument fallacious?

Sometimes something that looks absurd will be proven by a valid argument. Being absurd is not necessarily good reason to reject the conclusion, but it is likely to show that the argument is inadequate. The absurd conclusions I discuss here are basically those that lack the extraordinary evidence required. (My point is that extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence.)

To be fallacious is not the same thing as to be false or invalid. If an argument is fallacious, it might still have a true conclusion. It is merely not good reasoning.

If that’s the case, then why do you say: “If we find it very important to argue against someone’s conclusion, then we can do so, but we should first argue against one of the premises”? With the example: “A correct objection to the abortion argument is to challenge one of the premises”? This seems to go flat against what you said previously.

Why is this a contradiction? Why can’t we do both?

Rejecting a premise is important, but sometimes we aren’t sure which premise to reject. Sometimes an argument has plausible conclusions and an implausible conclusion. We can be uncertain that the premises are true and almost certain that the conclusion is false. The argument of this kind can be valid, but should still be rejected for being overly ambitious in a similar sense different from the other “overly ambitious” arguments discussed.

In this case we should still cite evidence against premises, but we should make it clear that we don’t know which premises (if any) are false. For example:

1. Many people have “past life experiences” that provide insightful information. 2. Either past life memories are caused by past lives or dreams. 3. It is very unlikely that a dream lead to such insightful information. 4. Therefore, some people probably have past lives.

I agree that the premises are all plausible (they seem to be more likely true than false) and we don’t know which premise is false. There might be other explanations for past life experiences, or it might be false that dreams can’t give insightful information. I don’t want to have to reject either premise, but the premises are too uncertain to lead to the absurd conclusion that “some people probably have past lives.”

Comment by James Gray — May 31, 2010 @ 10:19 pm | Reply

Brian Garvey,

I actually think I see the problem here. I should say “illegitimately absurd” instead of “absurd.” I will try to clarify my point.

Comment by James Gray — May 31, 2010 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

[…] where I talk about “evidence” and “overly ambitious conclusions” found at for more […]

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Argument: Claims, Reasons, Evidence

Critical thinking means being able to make good arguments. Arguments are claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence. Argumentation is a social process of two or more people making arguments, responding to one another--not simply restating the same claims and reasons--and modifying or defending their positions accordingly.

Claims are statements about what is true or good or about what should be done or believed. Claims are potentially arguable. "A liberal arts education prepares students best" is a claim, while "I didn't like the book" is not. The rest of the world can't really dispute whether I liked the book or not, but they can argue about the benefits of liberal arts. "I thought the movie was cool" is not an arguable statement, but "the movie was Paul Newman's best" is, for people can disagree and offer support for their different opinions.

Reasons are statements of support for claims, making those claims something more than mere assertions. Reasons are statements in an argument that pass two tests:

Reasons are answers to the hypothetical challenge to your claim:

  • “Why do you say that?”
  • “What reason can you give me to believe that?” If a claim about liberal arts education is so challenged, a response with a reason could be: “It teaches students to think independently.”

Reasons can be linked to claims with the word because:

  • Liberal arts is best [claim] because it teaches students independent thinking [reason];
  • That was Newman's best [claim] because it presented the most difficult role [reason];
  • Global warming is real [claim] because the most reputable science points in that direction [reason].
  • Everyone should stop wearing seat belts [claim] because it would save lives [reason].

If reasons do not make sense in the hypothetical challenge or the 'because' tests, there is probably something wrong with the logic of the argument. Passing those tests, however, does not insure that arguments are sound and compelling.

Evidence serves as support for the reasons offered and helps compel audiences to accept claims. Evidence comes in different sorts, and it tends to vary from one academic field or subject of argument to another. Scientific arguments about global warming require different kinds of evidence than mealtime arguments about Paul Newman's movies. Evidence answers challenges to the reasons given, and it comes in four main types:

Specific instances include examples, case studies, and narratives. Each can be an effective mode of building support for a reason or claim. In a public speech, they offer audiences a way to see an idea illustrated in a particular case. To be effective, specific instances need to be representative of the broader trend or idea they are supporting. With an example as evidence, someone arguing against seat belt use might say "Last year my cousin crashed her car off a bridge and would have drowned if she were wearing her seatbelt" as evidence (the answer to "Why do you believe that?" question.) An opponent might challenge whether this example was a representative one: surely there are many more car crashes that do not end in water, so this one instance is not a fair gauge of the relative safety of not wearing seat belts.

Statistics include raw numbers (117 million visitors to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,), averages ('women's bowling teams drink on average two pitchers less then men's'), statistical probabilities ('crossing North Main during rush hour increases your chances of death 20%'), and statistical trends ('applications have risen 40% over the past three years'). In public speeches, statistics have the advantage of seeming objective, authoritative, and factual, but critical audiences will want to know about the sources and methods for determining your statistical evidence.

Testimony, or appeals to authority, come in two main types, eyewitness and expert. Eyewitness or first-hand testimonies are reports from people who directly experience some phenomenon. If a speaker is arguing about toxic waste dumps, a quotation from someone living next to a dump would fall into this category. First-hand testimony can help give the audience a sense of being there. Experts may also rely on direct experience, but their testimony is also backed by more formal knowledge, methods, and training. Supplementing the neighbor's account with testimony from an environmental scientist, who specializes in toxic waste sites, is an appeal to expertise. When using testimony in arguments, you should always make sure the authority you are appealing to is in fact qualified to speak on the topic being discussed.

The 5 Principles of Good Argument

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Constructing a good argument

Constructing a good argument

At its core, an argument consists of a conclusion and one or more premises, or claims.

  • The conclusion is what the communicator wants his or her audience to accept.
  • The premises are the reasons for believing the conclusion to be true.

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Structure of a well-formed argument

It does not use reasons that contradict each other, contradict the conclusion or explicitly or implicitly assumes the truth of the conclusion.  Checklist:

  • Does the communication include at least one reason to support the conclusion as being true? If not, it is not an argument, but an opinion.
  • Could any of the key premises be interpreted as making the same claim as the conclusion? If so, then it’s a “circular argument” without independent reason given to support the conclusion.
  • Do any of the premises contradict another premise, or does the conclusion contradict any of the premises?

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The relevance of a premise

A premise is relevant if it provides some bearing on the truth of the conclusion. Checklist:

  • If the premise were true, does it make you more likely to believe that the conclusion is true? If yes, the premise is probably relevant.
  • Even if the premise were true, should it be a consideration for accepting the truth of the conclusion? If no, then the premise is probably not relevant.

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A premise should be acceptable to a mature, rational adult.

The claim should meet the following standards:

  • It is a matter of undisputed common knowledge.
  • It's confirmed by one’s own personal experience or observation.
  • It's an uncontroverted claim from a relevant authority.
  • It's a relatively minor claim that seems to be a reasonable assumption.


This principle is a judgment call.  Checklist:

  • Are the reasons provided enough to drive to the arguer’s conclusion?
  • Is the premise based on insufficient evidence or faulty causal analysis? Some premises provide evidence that is based on too small a sample or unrepresentative data.
  • Is some key or crucial evidence missing that must be provided in order to accept the argument?

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A good argument includes an effective rebuttal to all anticipated serious criticisms of the argument. Arguers often use arguments that misrepresent the criticism, bring up trivial objections as a side issue, or resort to humor or ridicule are using devices that clearly fail to make effective responses.  Checklist:

  • Does the provided argument address the strongest counterarguments effectively?
  • Does the arguer anticipate and address serious weaknesses in the argument?
  • Does the argument show why alternative positions are flawed?

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Making your own argument stronger

  • Structure : Explicitly call out your conclusion and the supporting reasons.
  • Relevance : Ensure that all materials you’re presenting as part of your argument are relevant. 
  • Acceptability : Soften any absolute claims to make them more acceptable. (e.g. “most politicians” instead of “all politicians”) 
  • Sufficiency : Put yourself in your audience’s place, and see if the reasons are sufficient to accept your conclusion.
  • Rebuttal : Declare upfront what the weakest parts of your argument are and proactively address them.

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