If I tell you students are smoking and drinking less these days, I'm giving you neutral information — without comment. If I tell you students are smoking and drinking less because such habits have fallen out of favor or because newer generations are paying more attention to health warnings, I'm giving information with supporting analysis or explanation. But if I tell you that students, or anyone else, should avoid cigarettes and immoderate amounts of alcohol because they poison the body and can cause illness and death, I'm using explanation to support an argument — an attempt to convince you that you should change your opinions or actions. Essays with an argumentative aim always include information, analysis, or explanation, but they put these to service in the attempt to convince, they go beyond informing or explaining to advocacy, to supporting claims or assertions (the thesis of the argument) with sound reasoning and evidence.
With arguments we attempt to show the certainty or prove the validity of our claims. We can argue for the validity of our assertions, or we can argue against others' claims, but in either situation we take a position and try to defend it. We try to build a case that seems logically undeniable — as convincing as a mathematical proof or an attorney's summation in court.
People can find themselves in dispute about almost anything, of course, from the choice for president to belief in God to the pressing matter of who lost the car keys. Most arguments, however, address basic issues and form a few general categories: disputes over facts (such as attempts to prove whether a crime has been committed); disputes over ideas, beliefs, or values (the morality or immorality of capital punishment); and disputes over actions or policies (the proper course for dealing with terrorists).
Whatever the issue or dispute, authors of argumentative essays must be especially aware of their audience. All writers must consider their readers, as we'll continue to see, but in argument—and in any persuasive writing—the audience is a sort of target. We're aiming to move our readers in some way, and to do so requires that we know where they stand. In general, this aim means trying to gauge the distance the argument is meant to bridge, assessing the amount of common ground, or lack of it, between writer and reader. When you and your audience share values or opinions, basic assumptions about the nature of things, you stand on ample common ground, and you may want to use such points of agreement to bolster your case. When common ground is less, when your differences are more fundamental, you may need to first establish what is shared before mounting your cause. When you and your reader share little or no agreement, a successful argument will depend on how well you demonstrate the validity of your assumptions or evidence and the conclusions you draw from them.
Whether defending your own position or attacking another, however, remember that your goal is to convince your readers, not to turn them away. Your assertion must be limited or qualified, able to be reasonably supported—not sweeping, unlimited generalities that no one will take seriously.
We find written argument in all walks of life — government, law, business, journalism, academia—wherever people seek to influence others with reasoned discourse. As citizens, moreover, we're the target of argumentative writing and speaking, as politicians, editorial writers, activists, and our fellow citizens try to rally our support or opposition for seemingly endless decisions, attitudes, and policies. Becoming more adept at constructing sound arguments, and learning better to evaluate those of others, then, may be one of the most useful tasks in anyone's writing education.
Argument in a Paragraph
In this brief example, the author claims that women should not be exempt from a military draft. He supports his assertion with a deductive appeal to reason—that if women and men truly are to be viewed as equals, neither group can have grounds for exemption. Notice also that to make this unpopular position more acceptable, he qualifies or limits his claim at the end of this passage.
The question of women's service is the most emotionally troubling aspect of this generally emotional issue, but the progress of domestic politics over the last ten years suggests that the answer is clear. If any sexual distinctions that would deny a woman her place as a construction worker or a telephone pole climber have been forbidden by legislators and courts, what possible distinction can spare women the obligation to perform similar functions in military construction units or the Signal Corps? President Carter recognized this reality in deciding to include women in his initial draft registration order. If women are drafted, they have an ironclad case for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. If they are not, their claim for equal treatment elsewhere becomes less compelling. At the same time, it is troubling to think of women in combat, or of mothers being drafted, and a sensible draft law would have to recognize such exceptions.
-James Fallows, "The Draft: Why the Country Needs It"
We may think of arguments as strongly voiced opinions — that one argument is as good as another — but good arguments are much more than this. We have a right to our opinions, of course, but some may be illogical or even silly, unable to pass the test of rationality. Good arguments, by contrast, are attempts at proving our claims valid. We go about building such proofs with two basic ways of reasoning: induction and deduction. Although either induction or deduction may be used alone to support an argument, they complement each other and are usually combined in everyday writing and speaking.
Forms of reasoning aren't abstract contrivances, they come from ordinary experience. Inductive reasoning is the natural human tendency to generalize from such experience — to infer conclusions from a body of specific evidence or individual instances. If, when I go grocery shopping, the price of food is a little higher than last time, I'll tend to infer that inflation is in progress and that I can expect even higher prices later. The evidence of individual price hikes contributes to and supports my general conclusion. What happens, however, if when I continue shopping and several weeks later discover that most prices haven't changed or that some have actually declined? My evidence no longer supports the same conclusion, but leads me to a revised one the rate of inflation may be slowing, too.
Inductive reasoning indicates probabilities—sometimes extremely strong ones—but does not offer absolute or perfect proof. We can only conclude what is likely to be true, using the best evidence we can find. When we reason inductively, then, we must be careful not to overgeneralize or go beyond what the evidence can support. When we qualify or limit our inferences, we help to avoid such unwarranted generality. Sometimes our information can support a fairly broad statement. "It seems clear that the days of low-budget feature films are over, given audience tastes for expensive productions and special effects." It is more likely, however, that most inductive conclusions need at least some limits. "Although the days of low-budget feature films appear to be over, some new filmmakers are trying to resurrect the tradition."
It's not always easy to know when we have enough evidence to support an inductive conclusion. Most of the time, common sense must be our guide. If I poll people to see who's likely to win the coming election, my sample must be large enough to be representative. If I see one high-speed auto collision, however, I can probably infer without seeing dozens of them that they're lethal.
The quality of our evidence, as much as its quantity, will determine whether the argument is convincing. If our information is accurate, reliable, able to be checked, and if we have enough to support a carefully limited conclusion, chances are we'll have a convincing case, or a convincing general statement that we can apply to a deductive argument.
Here's how an essay based on inductive reasoning might be organized:
I.. Introduction (and thesis/claim)
II. Evidence in support of claim (Topic 1)
III. Evidence in support of claim (Topic 2)
IV. Evidence in support of claim (Topic 3)
V. Conclusion (or thesis/claim at the end)
When we reason deductively, instead of starting with data and generalizing from them, we start with general principles or assumptions and apply them to specific situations. Deductive reasoning relies on a logical form called the syllogism, which dictates the relationship among premises (the assumptions we start with), the specific case at hand, and conclusions. If the premises are true and in a valid relationship with one another, the conclusion we draw from them will be true and valid — impossible to refute. Unlike induction, deductive reasoning, with the syllogism, can give us complete certainty in our arguments.
What is the proper or valid relationship between the premises in a syllogism? The minor premise, the specific instance, must be contained within the general class or group of instances expressed by the major premise:
Major premise: All citizens have specific rights and responsibilities.
Minor premise: I am a citizen.
Conclusion: I have specific rights and responsibilities.
If I accept the two premises, and if the minor premise is an instance of the major, then the conclusion follows logically and convinces us because it's the only one possible. For deductive arguments to work, we must grant that the premises are true and in valid form. If we don't accept the premises, we won't accept the conclusion.
The major premise of a syllogism is a "given", we accept it without proof, as an assumption. In some cases, the assumption is a generality derived from observation or evidence, an inductive conclusion: "Wearing safety belts reduces the risk of injury in most auto accidents." In others, the assumption is a matter of belief or value, something we grant as true or self-evident: "We must always oppose injustice." In either type, we apply the generality to an individual situation in order to derive our conclusion.
Sometimes, however, we may join our major and minor premises incorrectly, or the premises themselves may be faulty. Then our arguments may be invalid, untrue, or both. What, for instance, is wrong with this syllogism?
Major premise: All rock stars are drug abusers.
Minor premise: My friend Nick is a rock star.
Conclusion: My friend Nick is a drug abuser.
Here, the major premise is obviously false, it's an unqualified generalization and can't be supported. (Drugs may be a problem in the rock world, but certainly not all rock stars abuse drugs.) My friend Nick may or may not use drugs, but I haven't proved anything with this argument, even though its form is valid, because I've started with an untrue premise.
What's wrong with this one?
Major premise: Distance runners are physically fit.
Minor premise: I am physically fit.
Conclusion: I am a distance runner.
Here, all the statements are true, but the argument is invalid because the premises aren't logically related—the minor premise isn't an instance of the major generality. The conclusion, therefore, has nothing to do with the premises.
Finally, what's wrong here?
Major premise: All businessmen are crooks.
Minor premise: I am a crook.
Conclusion: I am a businessman.
The argument is both untrue and invalid. Most businessmen aren't crooks, and even if they were, and I were one, too, that wouldn't make me a businessman (unrelated premises again).
When using deductive reasoning, then, remember to (1) word your major assumptions so that your reader can accept them as true, and (2) make sure that your specific instances are covered by the generality. If you can defend both the truth and validity of your arguments, your conclusions will be soundly reasoned and forcefully convincing.
Here's how an essay based on deductive reasoning might be organized:
I. Introduction (and thesis/claim)
II. Deductive support (general assumptions)
III. Deductive support (examples of the general case)
IV. Deductive support (refute counterarguments against II and III)
V. Conclusion (or thesis/claim at end)
Combining Induction and Deduction: Claims, Supports, Warrants
Induction and deduction are primary forms of reasoning, each an intellectual procedure based on human experience generalizing from particulars, applying generalities to particulars. Each supports the other. When we compose arguments in everyday life, moreover, we're likely to use both reasoning processes, as we use both our hands.
We've already seen that inductive conclusions can become the major premises of deductive arguments. Just as easily, induction can provide us with minor premises. One of the best-known examples of inductive support for a minor premise is in the Declaration of Independence. In this classic argument, Thomas Jefferson builds the case for American autonomy from a major-premise assumption and a minor premise supported by extensive evidence:
Major premise: People have the right to abolish tyrannical governments.
Minor premise: The government of King George III is tyrannical.
Conclusion: The people of the Colonies have a right to abolish the government of George III.
Having asserted his assumptions about basic human rights, Jefferson goes on to cite the "history of repeated injuries and usurpations" of which the Crown is guilty. The conclusion—if we grant the premises and the accompanying support—is, and was, inescapable
We find inductive and deductive logic combined in almost every form of knowledge, as we support our conclusions with both evidence and general assumptions. Scholar Stephen Toulmin describes the everyday occurrence of such reasoning in his claim-support-warrant system of argument:
• The arguer presents a claim or proposition
• He or she supports the claim with data (such as facts and the opinions of experts—inductive evidence) or other reasons.
• The advocate ties the claim and support together with an underlying warrant or general principle that relates them (like the major premise of a syllogism). This form of argument includes qualifiers, limits to keep claims from going beyond what the data can reasonably support.
Most arguments, then, will include these elements
• The claim or main proposition
• Evidence: specific data, either fact or opinion, gathered to back the claim. Such evidence may be in the form of testimony: statements by witnesses and experts, or as documented information facts that can be verified by other sources.
• Reasons or motivational appeals: appeals to the audience's needs, values, beliefs, or common sense, including explanations and analyses.
• Assumptions or warrants: general principles taken for granted, believed to be true without additional proof. They may be stated explicitly or left unstated.
• Qualifiers: limits on the claim.
Here's an example of a claim-support-warrant argument:
Claim: Regular exercise contributes to cardiovascular fitness.
Data: Published findings in medical journals, testimony by physicians.
Other support: Testimony from heart patients who've added exercise to their daily routines.
Warrant: Most scientific studies and medical opinions are reliable
Qualifier: "Contributes to" implies that other factors are also necessary for cardiovascular fitness.
The claim-support-warrant method acknowledges that, in everyday life, people don't always construct arguments according to strict formulas. Rather, they make assertions (claims) and attempt to support them with any evidence and reasons that seem appropriate or convincing. We support our claims with information and explanation. We try to justify our positions by showing that they're based on solid facts and meaningful interpretations of those facts.
Even when we take pains to write logical, well-supported arguments, however, we can run into trouble. Sometimes we fall into patterns of thought that don't really make sense. If we include such errors of logic in our arguments, our readers are sure to spot them, and sure to be unconvinced by them. Some pitfalls to watch for.