Relationship between Premises and Conclusions may be easier to see when arguments are put into what’s called standard form:
- First premise.
- Second premise.
- Therefore, the conclusion, thus:
- College is not mandatory. You don’t really want to be here. Therefore, you should quit.
- He’s armed. Therefore, he’s dangerous.
When you put an argument into standard form, always state the premises and the conclusion in complete sentences (and extraneous words can be omitted, such as “just” in the first example).
Practice using Standard Form
Write each of the arguments from the preceding exercise in standard form.
Most of the time, what seems to be an argument is just a bunch of claims more or less on the same topic; there is no relationship between the claims, let alone the specific “this supports that” relationship.
The statement “Defend life” alone is not an argument. Why should we defend life? On what grounds should we defend life? There is no support given for the claim.
So, claims by them, without substantiation, are not arguments, nor command.
Consider “Just do it!” and “Just say no.” Well, should we do it or not? Should we say yes or no? We’re given no reason, so how can we decide?
Questions, likewise, aren’t arguments. Nor are expressions of emotion.
Practice distinguishing Arguments from Non-Arguments
Some of the following are arguments and some are not. For those that are arguments, identify the premises and conclusions, and present them in standard form.
- Men expect to tell women things, not to be told things by them, or even to explore a subject together. (March Fasteau, The Male Machine, 1975)
- But why wouldn’t you apply for a job even if it’s beneath you? What does that mean, anyway?
To review, a claim, just a statement that this is so (or was so, or will be so, or should be so), is not an argument. You have to say why this is so, what makes you think this is so, what your reasons are for thinking this is so.
So an argument is an appeal to reason; by definition, it requires rational thought. If the person making the argument wants you to agree, he or she wants you to do so because you find the reasoning convincing. Thus, the following ways of making a case are not arguments; they all lack an appeal to reason.
An appeal to emotion: “Do as I say NOW!” “But I need an A to get into law school!” Such utterances may, like an argument, be intended to persuade you to do something or to believe something.
The first one is an attempt to intimidate; the second one is an attempt to elicit pity. But unlike argument, they are appeals to emotion, not to reason. People often use emotion instead of reason in order to persuade others: threats use anger; please make use of pity or sympathy; flattery and ridicule make use of pride and self-doubt; bribes make use of greed; reverence makes use of fear and insecurity; and so on.
A request to intuition: “I just intuitively know that this is right!” Okay, that’s all very nice for you.
But if you hope to convince someone else that this is right, you’ll have to do better than that—you’ll have to provide reasons. That is unless you expect others to simply trust your intuition.
An argument is also not, by the way, a quarrel; at least that’s not the kind of argument we’re talking about.
Consequently, argument, the kind we are talking about, is not a competition, and arguing is not a matter of winning or losing.
In fact, the best argument is a cooperative effort to discover the truth or the opinions most worth holding not an adversarial engagement at all.
Lastly, it might be valuable at this point to make a few comments about arguments and explanations. Sometimes an explanation is an argument, and sometimes it is not.
When you’re explaining how or why something occurred, and the facts of the matter are not in dispute, you’re just giving an explanation— more specifically, a causal explanation.
You might, for example, explain how you came to have a broken leg (you tripped on a banana peel; it was raining; you were running, backward).
However, when you’re proposing an explanation for something about which the contributing factors are in dispute, then you’re making an argument.
You might argue for an economic explanation for your unhappiness (you just got fired, so you have no income, so you’re unhappy)
Identifying implied conclusions and unstated premises (assumptions)
Most people do not articulate their arguments very well. Sometimes they don’t actually get around to saying what their conclusion is.
- Sometimes they don’t actually state all their premises.
- And sometimes they just don’t connect the two.
- Conclusions are sometimes implied instead of being articulated outright.
Perhaps the person making the argument thinks the conclusion is obvious. Perhaps she or he is just lazy. In any case, before you can assess the argument, you have to figure out where the given premises lead—you have to figure out what conclusion follows from the given premises.
- If schools are to teach kids values, just who will be the one to decide which values?
- (A question isn’t an argument)
- “Schools have no business teaching values.” That would be the implied conclusion.
On the other hand, though, perhaps the speaker meant that schools should hire people who are qualified to teach values. So you see, it’s always best to come right out and state your conclusion; otherwise, you risk being misunderstood.