Book Notes: A Rulebook for Arguments

A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston

[Disclaimer:  This is not meant to be a book summary or book review. This is just stuff in the book that I found personally valuable or interesting at the time of reading. Most of these “notes” are actually highlights, i.e. directly copied lines from the book, but some notes are personal adaptations or added personal insights.]

1: Identify premises and conclusion: The very first step in making an argument is to ask yourself what you are trying to prove. What is your conclusion? Remember that the conclusion is the statement for which you are giving reasons. The statements that give your reasons are your premises.

2: Develop your ideas in a natural order. Short arguments are usually developed in one or two paragraphs. Put the conclusion first, followed by your reasons, or set out your premises first and draw the conclusion at the end. In any case, set out your ideas in an order that unfolds your line of thought most clearly for the reader.

Each sentence of a passage prepares the way for the next one, and the next one steps smoothly up to bat.

3: Start from reliable premises.  No matter how well you argue from premises to conclusion, your conclusion will be weak if your premises are weak.

4: Be concrete and concise.  Avoid abstract, vague, and general terms. “We hiked for hours in the sun” is a hundred times better than “It was an extended period of laborious exertion.” Be concise too. Airy elaboration just loses everyone in a fog of words.

Use the least amount of words necessary to convey a point.

5:  Build on substance, not overtone.  Offer actual reasons; don’t just play on the overtones of words.  Don’t use emotionally loaded words, especially not often.

– In general, if you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you probably just don’t understand it yet. Seek out people’s perceptions based on the reasons within their premises, understand them, and argue those reasons.  Do not argue the conclusion without identifying and understanding their reasons.

6:  Use consistent terms.  Logic depends on clear connections between premises and between premises and conclusion. It remains essential to use a consistent term for each idea.

– Accuracy is imperative.  If none of the premises can be supported, then there is no argument at all.  Use the most accurate words, and simplify as much as possible.

7:  Use more than one example.  For large generalizations, you will need multiple references.

8:  Use representative examples. Even a large number of examples may still misrepresent the set being generalized about.  Choose the examples that are the most representative of the generalization, which may require a little extended thought.

9: Background rates may be crucial.  To persuade you that I am a first-rate archer, it is not enough to show you a bull’s-eye I have made. You should ask (politely, to be sure), “Yes, but how many times did you miss?” Getting a bull’s-eye in one shot tells quite a different story than getting a bull’s-eye in, say, a thousand.

When there aren’t many representative examples, a ratio of hits to misses is good to note.  Bermuda Triangle example:  how many planes actually made it across?

10:  Statistics need a critical eye. Some people see numbers— any numbers— in an argument and conclude from that fact alone that it must be a good argument.

Numbers take as much critical thinking as any other kind of evidence.

11: Consider counterexamples. Counter-examples are examples that contradict your generalization. No fun— maybe. But counterexamples actually can be a generalizer’s best friends, if you use them early and use them well. Look for them on purpose and systematically. It is the best way to sharpen your own generalizations and to probe more deeply into your theme.

– Be conscious of appropriate quantitative wording for fair depiction or characterization: ALL – MOST – MUCH OF/A LOT – SOME/A LITTLE BIT – NONE

It’s important to be conscious of these quantitative descriptors for both your arguments and others’ arguments. For your own arguments: the more accurate you can be with your selection of these words, the less people can legitimately refute you and the more confident you will be in defending your statements. Most importantly, you will be consistently projecting a greater sense of accuracy and thus you will convey validity to others, especially over time. As for noticing these words in others’ arguments, they are a good way to assess the accuracy of claims and thus the general validity of their arguments.

Analogies require relevantly similar examples. Arguments by analogy do not require that the example used as an analogy be exactly like the example in the conclusion. Our bodies are not just like cars, after all. We are flesh and bone, not metal; we don’t have wheels or seats or windshield wipers. Analogies require relevant similarities. 

Take note of the main point of an analogy and consider the details.  In the car example, the point was not to compare the physical makeup of cars and humans; the point was regarding the upkeep of complex systems, and thus was valid.  In invalid example would be “the universe is created just like a house” because the main point implies an obvious cause or creator, which is only the case for the house but not for the universe – the universe as a whole may contain its cause within itself, or perhaps has some kind of cause unique to universes, so its cause/creator is indeterminable and thus it is not analogous to a house in this context.

– No one can be an expert through direct experience on everything there is to know.  Instead, we must rely on others – more informed people, organizations, surveys, or reference works which tell us much of what we need to know about the world, or at least provide a basis for our intuitive perceptions and beliefs, thus we must backtrack the sources for our claims as necessary.

This is especially good to keep in mind for authoritarian arguments.

Seek informed sources.  Where a source’s qualifications are not immediately clear, an argument must explain them briefly.  Don’t hesitate to ask others to explain the quality of their sources.  Also, be willing to explain the quality of your own sources.

– Note that authorities on one subject are not necessarily informed about every subject on which they offer opinions.  Just because a doctor carries and MD after his or her name, doesn’t mean he or she is qualified to deliver opinions on any subject whatsoever.  Yes, doctors likely have better judgment relative to the general population, but it is a fallacy to assume that simply because they are medical experts they also must be experts on other subjects.

– Sometimes we must rely on sources whose knowledge is better than ours but still limited in various ways.  If you must rely on a source that may have limited knowledge in this way, acknowledge the problem. Let your readers or hearers decide whether imperfect authority is better than none at all.

Most good sources will offer at least some reasons or evidence— examples, facts, analogies, other kinds of arguments— to help explain and defend their conclusions.

Seek impartial sources. People who have the most at stake in a dispute are usually not the best sources of information about the issues involved.

Cross-check sources.  Consult and compare a variety of sources to see if other, equally good authorities agree.  Where even the experts disagree, though, it’s best to reserve judgment yourself too. Don’t jump in with two feet where truly informed people tread with care.

Causal arguments start with correlations.  The evidence for a claim about causes is usually a correlation— a regular association— between two events or kinds of events.

– Review alternative explanations for correlations (and determine any confounding variables).

Work toward the most likely explanation.  Since a variety of explanations for a correlation are usually possible, the challenge for a good correlation-based argument is to find the most likely explanation.

– Note that the most likely explanation is very seldom some sort of conspiracy or supernatural intervention. It is possible, of course, that the Bermuda Triangle really is spooked and that is why ships and planes disappear there. But that explanation is far less likely than another simple and natural explanation: that the Bermuda Triangle is one of the world’s heaviest-traveled shipping and sailing areas, with tropical weather that is unpredictable and sometimes severe.

If an explanation is obviously less likely than another, the burden of proof lies with its claimant.  The simpler and more logical physical explanation should generally be accepted until otherwise proven.

Expect complexity, and examine it.  Plenty of happy people are not married, of course, and plenty of married people are unhappy. It does not follow that marriage has no effect on happiness on average. It’s just that happiness and unhappiness (and, for that matter, being married or unmarried) have a myriad of other causes too. One correlation is not the whole story. The question in such cases is about the relative weight of different causes.

Causes and effects may interpenetrate as well. Reading, for instance, surely does lead to open-mindedness. But open-mindedness also leads to reading … which creates more open-mindedness in turn.

– Consider this argument:  If there are no chance factors in chess, then chess is a game of pure skill. There are no chance factors in chess. Therefore, chess is a game of pure skill.  There is no way to admit the truth of these premises but deny the conclusion. Arguments of this type are called deductive arguments.

A properly formed deductive argument is an argument of such a form that if its premises are true, the conclusion must be true too. Properly formed deductive arguments are called valid arguments.

– In real life, of course, we can’t always be sure of our premises either, so the conclusions of real-life deductive arguments still have to be taken with a few grains of salt. Still, when strong premises can be found, deductive forms are very useful. And even when the premises are uncertain, deductive forms offer an effective way to organize arguments.

Modus ponens.  Using the letters p and q to stand for declarative sentences, the simplest valid deductive form is:  If [sentence p] then [sentence q]. [Sentence p]. Therefore, [sentence q].      Or, more briefly:  If p then q. p. Therefore, q.

– If drivers on cell phones have more accidents, then drivers should be prohibited from using them. Drivers on cell phones do have more accidents. Therefore, drivers should be prohibited from using cell phones. To develop this argument, you must explain and defend both of its premises, and they require quite different arguments.

– Rhetorically, a dilemma is a choice between two options both of which have unappealing consequences.

The pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, formulated what is sometimes called the “Hedgehog’s dilemma,” which we could paraphrase like this:  The closer two hedgehogs get, the more likely they are to poke each other with their spikes; but if they remain apart, they will be lonely. So it is with people: being close to someone inevitably creates conflicts and provocations and opens us to a lot of pain; but on the other hand, we’re lonely when we stand apart. In outline this argument might be put: Either we become close to others or we stand apart. If we become close to others, we suffer conflict and pain.

Since this is such a jolly little conclusion, maybe I should add that hedgehogs are actually quite able to get close without poking each other. They can be together and comfortable too. Schopenhauer’s second premise turns out to be false— at least for hedgehogs.

– Extended disjunctive syllogism of deductive arguments:  “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” (Going from general, relevant facts to form (deduce) a specific conclusion.

– Unexpected facts or perspectives may well turn up as you research and develop your argument. Be ready to be surprised. Be ready to hear evidence and arguments for positions you may not like. Be ready, even, to let yourself be swayed. True thinking is an open-ended process. The whole point of good, non-biased research is that upon starting you don’t know where you’ll find yourself in the end.

Spell out basic ideas of arguments.  You may have to try several different conclusions— even quite varied conclusions— before you find your best basic argument on a topic. Even after you have settled on the conclusion you want to defend, you may have to try several forms of argument before you find a form that really works well.

Defend basic premises with arguments of their own.  Once you have spelled out your basic idea as an argument, it will need defense and development. For anyone who disagrees— in fact, for anyone who doesn’t know much about the question in the first place— most of the basic premises will need supporting arguments of their own. Each premise therefore becomes the conclusion of a further argument that you need to work out.

Consider objections.  Too often, when we make arguments, we concern ourselves only with the pro side: what can be said in support. Objections tend to come as a shock. We realize, maybe a little late, that we didn’t think enough about possible problems. It’s better to do so yourself and to hone your argument— maybe even make fundamental changes— in advance. In this way, you also make it clear to your eventual audience that you have done your homework, that you have explored the issue thoroughly and (hopefully!) with a somewhat open mind. So always ask: “What are the best arguments against the conclusion I am working on?”

This is especially important when making controversial assertions.

– Sift through the concerns and objections that come up, pick the strongest and most common ones, and try to answer them.

Re-evaluate your own argument. Do your premises or conclusion need to be changed or re-developed to take account of the objections?

Consider alternatives.  If you are defending a proposal, it is not enough to show that your proposal will solve a problem. You must also show that it is better than other plausible ways of solving that same problem.

Considering alternatives is not just a formality. The point is not just to quickly survey a few boringly obvious, easily countered alternatives and then re-embrace your original proposal. Look for serious alternatives, and get creative. You might even come up with something quite new and potentially better.

Almost all initial proposals have alternatives – always consider them.

Jump right in.  Launch straight into the real work. No windy windups or rhetorical padding. NO: For centuries, philosophers have debated the best way to be happy.… We knew that already. Get to your point.  YES: In this essay I will try to show that the best things in life really are free.

Make a definite claim or proposal.  If you are making a proposal, be specific. “Something should be done” is not a real proposal. Specify and simplify basic claims; only elaborate on more complex claims.

Similarly, if you are making a philosophical claim or defending your interpretation of a text or event, begin by stating your claim or interpretation simply.

– An argumentative essay (or persuasive email) should advance each of the premises of the basic argument in turn, each with a paragraph that begins with a restatement of the premise and continues by developing and defending it.

Detailing objections enriches your argument.  Take the time to sketch the whole counter-argument, not just to mention its conclusion as you rush by to defend your argument.

Get feedback and use it!  Maybe you know exactly what you mean. Everything seems clear to you. However, it may be far from clear to anyone else. Points that seem connected to you may seem completely unrelated to someone reading your words.

Writers and speakers, at all levels, need feedback.  It is through others’ eyes that you can see best where you are unclear or hasty or just plain implausible.

Feedback improves your logic too. Objections may come up that you hadn’t expected. Premises you thought were secure may turn out to need defending, while other premises may turn out to be more secure than they seemed. You may even pick up a few new facts or examples. Feedback is a “reality check” all the way around— welcome it.

– Encourage your readers to be critical, and commit yourself to being a critical reader for them in turn.  Welcome all constructive criticism, especially from those whom you deem important, and thoroughly consider it.

– The truth is that every single piece of writing you read is put together by someone who starts from scratch and makes thousands of choices and multiple revisions along the way.  Thus, in general, our writing and others’ writing has a high potential to be flawed, if not in substance then in form.  If writing is obviously flawed in both form and substance, it can be largely discredited.

Modesty, please! Don’t claim more than you’ve shown.  NO: In sum, every reason favors sending more students abroad, and none of the objections stands up at all. What are we waiting for?  YES: In sum, there is an appealing case for sending more students abroad. Although uncertainties may remain, on the whole it seems to be a promising step. It’s worth a try. Maybe the second version overdoes it in the opposite direction, but you see the point.

Very seldom will you put all the objections to rest, and anyway the world is an uncertain place.  We’re not experts, most of us, and even the experts can be wrong.  Thus, it’s best to curb your passions in arguments.

Patience is immensely helpful in verbal arguments – make sure to exhibit it.  If your aim is to persuade your audience of a view they currently do not accept, do not act as though they should immediately change their minds and rise to agree with you. People typically don’t work that way. Instead, just ask for their open-minded consideration.

– You’re not there to rescue a listener from their ignorance, but rather to share some new information or ideas that you hope they’ll find as intriguing and suggestive as you do.  Approach your listeners from informed, kind enthusiasm, not some sort of superiority.

– All arguments – especially verbal arguments – should try to offer something positive.

– Fallacies are misleading types of arguments.  To call something a fallacy is usually just another way of saying that it violates one of the rules for “good” arguments, good meaning valid and worth consideration.

The following is a list of common fallacies:

ad hominem (literally, “to the man”):  attacking the person of a source rather than his or her qualifications or reliability, or the actual argument he or she makes.

ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance): arguing that a claim is true just because it has not been shown to be false.

ad populum: appealing to the emotions of a crowd; also, appealing to a person to go along with the crowd

circular argument:  same as begging the question:  arguments that eventually end up starting in the same place they want to end – the conclusion is implicitly used as a central premise (the premise already assumes what the argument is trying to prove)

complex question:  posing a question in such a way that people cannot agree or disagree with you without committing themselves to some other claim you wish to promote. “Are you as self-centered as you used to be?” Answering either “yes” or “no” commits you to agreeing that you used to be self-centered.

denying the antecedent:  a deductive mistake of the form.  A true conclusion is not guaranteed even if the premises are true. For example:  ‘When the roads are icy, the mail is late.  The roads are not icy. Therefore, the mail is not late.’  Although the mail would be late if the roads were icy, it may be late for other reasons too.  This argument overlooks alternatives.

equivocation:  sliding from one meaning of a term to another in the middle of an argument (the argument changes modifies its initial definition, i.e. an ambiguous word like “fit” or “equal”

false dilemma:  reducing the options you consider to just two, often diametrically opposed to each other and unfair to the people against whom the dilemma is posed. For example, “America: Love It or Leave It.”  This argument overlooks alternatives.

Ethical arguments seem especially prone to false dilemmas. Either the fetus is a human being with all the rights you and I have, we say, or else it is a lump of tissue with no moral significance at all. Either every use of animal products is wrong, or all of the current uses are acceptable. In fact, other possibilities usually exist. Try to increase the number of options you consider, not narrow them!

loaded language: language that primarily plays on the emotions. It does not make an argument at all, in truth, but is only a form of manipulation.  It’s often distracting from an otherwise good point and can make the argument seem dramatic or desperate.

non sequitur: drawing a conclusion that “does not follow”.  That is, a conclusion which is not a reasonable inference from, or even related to, the evidence. This is a very general term for a bad (invalid) argument.

overgeneralizing: generalizing from too few examples. Just because your student friends are all athletes or business majors or vegetarians, it doesn’t follow that ALL of your fellow students are business majors or vegetarians.

You can’t always justify a generalization, even from a large sample, unless it’s demonstrably representative.  Be aware of this!

overlooking alternatives: forgetting that things may happen for a variety of reasons, not just one or two.  Think outside the initially assumed options.

persuasive definition:  defining a term in a way that may seem to be straightforward but in fact is loaded.  For example, someone might define “Evolution” as “the atheistic view that species develop as a result of mere chance events over a supposed period of billions of years.”

post hoc (sometimes just called the post hoc fallacy):  assuming causation too readily on the basis of mere succession in time.

red herring:  introducing an irrelevant or secondary subject and thereby diverting attention from the main subject.

straw man: a caricature representation of an opposing view, exaggerated from what anyone is likely to hold, so that it is easy to refute; A “straw man argument” is inaccurately representing an argument and attacking that distorted version of the actual position (i.e. saying a tax increase may be necessary, refuted by saying “You’re a thief – you just want to take peoples’ money”

Typical evidence of a straw man argument includes a clear misrepresentation of the actual claim, an obvious misjudgment of the argument’s intention, and an exaggerated or oversimplified version of the argument’s potential outcome.