Golden Rule 5
Excel at responding to arguments
As I’ve said several times already, being a good arguer means
not only making the points that you want to make, but also
responding to the points that other people have made. The best
form of argument involves putting forward your best arguments
and seeking to counter the other person’s.
There are three ways of responding to an argument:
Challenging the facts upon which the other person is relying.
Challenging the conclusions they are reaching.
Accepting the point they have made, but arguing that there
are other points that outweigh what has been said.
This will be clearer if we look at some examples.
All English people dress badly. The Queen is English. Therefore
the Queen dresses badly.
Here there are two premises: that all English people dress badly
and that the Queen is English. From this there is the conclusion
that the Queen dresses badly. The logic here is flawless, but if
you wanted to challenge the argument you can challenge the
first premise – is it correct that all English people dress badly?
Can you think of an English person who dresses well? (Probably
not!) You might challenge the other premise – the Queen is
English – but that seems harder to challenge. As this example
shows, sometimes you cannot fault the logic of the argument,
but you can challenge the accuracy of the statements (premises)
used as the basis of the argument.
The Pope is Catholic. The Pope opposes abortion. All Catholics
HOW TO ARGUE
For this argument there are two premises: that the Pope is
Catholic and that the Pope opposes abortion will be readily
agreed by most people. But here the conclusion does not follow
from the premises. Just because one person who belongs to a
group has a view does not mean everyone has that view.
This is another bad argument:
A banana is a fruit. A banana is yellow. All fruit is yellow.
In both these arguments, dodgy conclusions are reached from
indisputable facts. So conclusions do not always flow from the
facts. Challenging a conclusion someone has made is the second
excellent way of responding to an argument.
The third form of challenging an argument accepts the premise and
conclusion, but asserts that the argument ignores other factors.
Walking to school is healthy. We want to be healthy. We should
walk to school.
Assuming for the moment the premises and logic of this argu-
ment are correct, as they probably are, it’s not the end of the
argument. We might want to be healthy, but there are other
things that we want (e.g. getting to school on time, arriving in a
cheerful mood) that need to be weighed against this argument.
Also, there are different ways of being healthier that might fit
into the day more easily. So while walking to school is laudable,
the conclusion reached could be challenged by raising other fac-
tors that might pertain to this particular situation.
Let’s look at these different ways of responding to arguments in