27 December 2013

A Brief Guide to Making a Better Argument

The ability to muster up a decent argument is an important life skill; it's why we live in a democratic civil society governed by the rule of law rather than an anarchic Thunderdome where might makes right. It's not just first-year university students who benefit from the ability to make a good argument. It's what you need when you want to pitch an idea to your boss, ask for a raise, write an editorial, sell a product, argue an application in court, or comment on a blog post.

The fundamental purpose of an argument is to persuade the listener to reach a particular conclusion by giving reasons why the conclusion is correct. The giving reasons part of this is really important; saying "just 'cause" won't cut it. Giving reasons is the hard part of making an argument because you really need to think about exactly why your conclusion is correct.

Here, for example, is a simple but valid argument:
All cats are mammals. All mammals die. Therefore all cats die.
If the reasons for the argument are true (that cats are mammals and that mammals die), then the conclusion must be true. This is very basic example of a valid argument; you might make other, more complicated valid arguments about:
  • why you should buy this car as opposed to that car,
  • why you cast your vote a particular way during an election, or why you might decide not to vote at all,
  • why you and your spouse should separate,
  • why a certain parenting schedule should prevail after separation, or
  • why someone's argument in a blog post is incorrect.
However, not all arguments are good arguments. Some are contradictory or nonsensical, and others contain errors of reasoning. For example, here's an argument that sounds like a good argument:
Some people are mechanics. Some mechanics fix cars. Therefore some people fix cars.
But it's not a good argument. Here's a counter-example that shows the error in reasoning:
Some machines are capable of flight. Some things capable of flight are birds. Therefore some machines are birds.
Formal logic errors can be difficult to detect, but they're fun to find when you do. Of course, in legal matters, finding a logic error can depend on not just the structure of an argument, but on having a deeper understanding of the legal principles that apply, and equally deep understanding of the facts. For example, an argument like
I am entitled to see the children and I am required to pay child support. She doesn't let me see the children. Therefore I don't have to pay child support.
won't fly, even though it may sound reasonable at first glance. The reason why it won't fly is that there is no legal connection between a parent's obligation to pay child support and a parent's entitlement to spend time with the children support is being paid for. They are entirely separate issues.

As well as formal logic errors and errors of law, there are the informal logic errors called fallacies. These are errors in how we think about things and analyze a problem, and frequently appear in letters to the editor, arguments in court and comments to blog posts. The following are a few of my favourite fallacies.

The circular argument

In this sort of argument, also called the circulus in demonstrando, the correctness of the conclusion is assumed and becomes the reason why the conclusion is correct. For example:
A equal parenting schedule is fair because it is an equal parenting schedule.
Arguments like this aren't very helpful because the reason for the conclusion is the conclusion itself.

Argument from ignorance

This argument, the argumentum ad ignorantiam, says that something is true because it hasn't been proven not to be true, or that something is false because it hasn't been proven to be true. For example:
This bill simply makes it the applicant's job to prove that it is NOT in the best interests of the child to have that sort of arrangement. So you will have to explain better why this isn't beneficial. Children have a right to an equal relationship with their parents.
This argument says that because the original speaker has not explained why a proposed legal presumption is inappropriate to the satisfaction of the speaker that it must be appropriate. The argument isn't very helpful because it doesn't add any information to the discussion in support of the speaker's views apart from his disagreement with the position of the original speaker.

The argument against the person

Also known as an ad hominem argument, this argument argues for its conclusion by avoiding the actual subject at issue and attacking the other person. Here are a number of examples:
Looks like ol' JP and his cohorts here stand to lose a significant amount of income if equal parenting amendments pass.

What it this? I read this in its entirety and its a blatent
[sic] attack piece. Misrepresentation at its worst. By who else but a Family Law Lawyer. By the way this is the group who stand to lost the most if such an ammendment [sic] were to be made into law. Compensation cowboys, the scum of the earth.

Surprise, surprise! A lawyer doesn't like this bill and has misrepresented it. How would you hold custody over opposing counsels head if this went through? It certainly will be hard to draw out, expensive and desperate fights if both parties are on equal footing, won't it?
Perhaps being a Family Law lawyer you are just used to presenting baseless assertions.
The problem with arguments like these is that they say nothing about the subject at issue. They merely attack the person who is disagreed with. They also come across as rather juvenile and undermine the speaker's credibility.

Argument by appeal to authority

This argument, also called the argumentum ab auctoritate, tries to support its conclusion because of the authority or standing of the person making the argument, or of another person who has made the argument. For example:
We strongly disagree with your opinions. Leading Women For Shared Parenting is an international child advocacy group with but one cause: a rebuttable presumption of shared parenting in family law. We have a strong group of practicing family lawyers, domestic violence advocates, shared parenting researchers, elected officials and others who all support shared parenting.
This is yet another kind of argument which explains nothing about the reasons supporting the conclusion, and the context in which the argument is made, including in reply to the argument of someone else, is irrelevant. It says "this conclusion is correct because it is I who hold it." Unless you are prepared to uncritically subscribe to the speaker's authority, this argument is pointless.

Here's another example, in which the speaker merely quotes someone in a position of authority and high social regard:
"If there is a divorce in the family, I urge a presumption of joint custody of the children. Whereas it is impossible to change thousands of years of sex-role stereotyping through legislation, we can hope, in an existential fashion, that attitudes can be changed through education and the passage of laws." 
- Karen DeCrow, American feminist attorney, President of the National Organization for Women
The fact that Ms DeCrow has said this doesn't mean that she is right, and, as a result, it doesn't mean that the speaker is right either. Here's a counter-example to prove my point.
"Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If there's oxygen, that means we can breathe." 
- Dan Quayle, American business person, former Vice-President of the United States of America.
See what I mean?

However, it is not an appeal to authority to refer the listener to a source of information, such as website, book, journal or academic paper. For example:
The work of Professor John Wade is a good starting point on the subject.
The difference here is that speaker is providing a resource for further reading on the part of the listener rather than relying on the resource as authority for the speaker's proposition.

Argument by taking out of context

This sort of argument, also called the fallacy by quoting out of context, is particularly popular in American politics and attacks a position by taking the speaker's original words out of context and dumping them into a new context. for example:
And of course all the child murders in Australia is a good reason to oppose it too, right JP?
This selective reference distorts the speaker's meaning by presenting them without explaining the circumstances surrounding the original speech.

The red herring argument

This argument presents a side- or non-issue to distract from the issue being discussed. For example, a statement like
The argument that I don't buy into is that if one parent was previously a bread winner they are presumed to be a less capable parent.
which purports to reply to an argument or reason that has not been stated by the original speaker. This sort of argument says nothing about the main subject under discussion. Here's another:
One also wonders why the rights of the father mean nothing and their financial futures are destroyed without any regard to their rights or feelings. First their children are forcefully taken away from them, then they are forced to pay crippling amounts of money to "support" children they rarely get to see. Sounds suspiciously like financial slavery to me.
In the context of a discussion about the merits of a presumption in favour of shared parenting, the payment of child support and histrionic claims of "financial slavery" are irrelevant and don't add anything to the central issue of shared parenting. They merely distract from the subject of the discussion.

Argument by Shifting the Burden of Proof

In this argument, the speaker argues that it is the listener's job to disprove the speaker's conclusion rather than providing reasons to prove the speaker's conclusion. For example:
There's no justifiable reason for not giving equal access from day one of most separations.
This sort of non-argument provides no support for the speaker's conclusion.

The argument through false dichotomy

Also called the black-or-white fallacy, this argument sets up two positions as polar opposites, implying that the subject of the argument is either all one thing or all the other. For example:
You know what the presumption is in high conflict separations currently. It is specifically 2 weekends a month for the "visitor" parent, with 1 movie night in between.
In the context of a discussion about shared parenting, this misleading statement suggests that either there is shared parenting or one parent has the children for two weekends a month, as if there were no other potential arrangements for the children's time. Here's another example:
To clarify, when a mother wins custody, a father must lose it. He must give up has children to the mother or go to jail.
In fact, joint custody — where both parents have custody — is a very common post-separation arrangement in Canada and people don't go to jail about it. The point of arguments like these is that they try to strengthen the speaker's point by establishing the greatest possible contrast between the two positions and eliminating the possibility of a middle ground. And another example:
One wonders why the system must be adversarial, arbitrarily picking winners and losers. One also wonders why the winners are almost always women and the losers are almost always men. One also wonders why the rights of the father mean nothing and their financial futures are destroyed without any regard to their rights or feelings.
The appeal to hypocrisy argument

This argument, also called the tu quoque fallacy, attempts to counter an argument by asserting that the original speaker has personally behaved in a manner inconsistent with his or her argument. It attacks the speaker rather than the argument. For example:
"A equal parenting schedule is fair because it is an equal parenting schedule." Those were YOUR words JP! No one in your comment section wrote that. Again, nice straw man you knocked down there.
This argument attacks the speaker rather than the substance of the argument, and in this example is especially egregious as the premise itself is false. Here's another example:
Did you get my challenge to ACTUALLY post evidence in support of your claim that "the Australian experiment was disastrous"? You must be busy over the holiday season. Or perhaps being a Family Law lawyer you are just used to presenting baseless assertions.
The problem with the appeal to hypocrisy is that, like the ad hominem argument, it attacks the speaker while avoiding addressing the issue on its merits.

I will close by repeating my remarks from the beginning of this post. The fundamental purpose of an argument is to persuade the listener to reach a particular conclusion by giving reasons why the conclusion is correct. The giving reasons part of this is really important; saying "just 'cause" won't cut it. Giving reasons is the hard part of making an argument because you really need to think about exactly why your conclusion is correct. 

Properly reasoned arguments, advanced without formal logical errors or fallacies, are, in general, compelling and encourage respect for the speaker and the point he or she is making. Good arguments can also move the listener toward accepting the speaker's conclusion, and this accomplishment can be tremendously important, whether the listener is a judge, a client or a potential client, a police officer or border guard, an employer, a landlord, a politician or the author of a blog. What I have presented here is only a small fraction of the formal and informal logic errors that can sink an argument. If you are interested in working on your ability to argue, you should consider joining a debating club, such as the UBC Debate Society, picking up a book on logic, or taking a course in logic from your local university's Department of Philosophy.