English 101: Constructing Reasonable Arguments
An argument requires a stance on which reasonable people can disagree.
A stance = a decision, a side, an evaluation, a judgment on
a topic that has two reasonable sides, but you believe that your side is the
better of the two.
Reasonable people = those who are willing to listen to the argument you present, and perhaps change their minds if they are convinced or persuaded by your argument.
A reasonable argument= not to win, or have the last word, but to explain YOUR understanding of the truth about a subject, trying to convince readers to reconsider their opinions by offering new reasons to question an old viewpoint.
Are any of these next arguments reasonable?
A) Of course schools should encourage prayers. Only foolish people would disagree that prayer is better for kids and the problems they face today.
B) We need governmental health care in the USA today because good health is a right!
C) Bush lied, people died! Peace today; out of Iraq now!
D) Cell phones can clearly distract drivers and help cause accidents, but it is not a serious enough problem that we need laws prohibiting their use in cars.
E) We need to vote for this health care bill before we can find out what is in it.
To begin thinking about an argument, examine the issue's social and intellectual contexts
Every argument has a context, or what the argument means to
a particular audience. (The "why should I care?" and "who cares?"
Is your stance on the issue a social one or an intellectual one? This will tell you what kinds of evidence, language, and tone to use.
Social stance= less intellectual, common sense and reasoning, emotions play a role
Intellectual stance= heavily intellectual, hard evidence and solid reasoning, less emotion
Here are some issues--what stances might a person hold on them, and how does that affect the argument?
1) Vote by mail fraud in Washington State.
2) Offering primary school kids free (or reduced price) breakfast, lunch AND dinner.
3) Removing state control of liquor sales.
4) The effects of toy guns on young boys who play with them.
5) Bullying in our high schools.
View your audience as a panel of jurors
Assume that your audience is interested, but skeptical, and that they will make up their minds after hearing all sides of the argument. Your stance is one side, or a part of one side.
Try to think of who might be in that "jury"--
We need free medical care in the USA--what variety of opinions and people are involved?
We need to reduce carbon by forcing Americans to drive less.
Foreign immigrants into our state, who are not citizens, should be given driver's licenses.
In your introduction, establish credibility and state your position
How do you show credibility? Show that you are knowledgeable and fair-minded. (Show this how?)
How do you show knowledge? Establish that you are familiar with the main ideas of your topic, and that you have read widely.
How do you show fair-mindedness? Show that you are familiar with BOTH sides of an argument and that you can see the merit of the other side. (Remember the Gay Marriage arguments? Did either of the writers do this?)
Always try to include, or anticipate, counter-arguments, and then show why you disagree with them.
Back up your thesis with persuasive lines of argument. These are generalized reasons that support your argument.
Think of it like a simple outline:
Then support your claims with specific evidence.
Evidence is specific data that supports the generalized reasons:
What exactly is evidence?
Facts and statistics-"hard" evidence
Fact=something known with certainty because it is objectively verified:
The earth revolves around the sun. (fact or non-fact?)
People who break with the Clintons end up dead or in prison.
Elvis is not dead.
Elvis is dead.
Climate change is natural, and not caused by humans.
Polar bear death is natural, but humans are accelerating it at an alarming rate.
Global climate change is cyclical-it goes up, and goes down, and has done so for millennia-and is clearly linked to sunspot activity.
Statistics= interpretations of numerical facts.
Be VERY careful with statistics, both reading and using them. If you don't understand how data is collected, what margin of error means, or other terms, then don't rely on them, and be wary of citing them if you can't verify that they are true
Examples and illustrations-"soft, artistic" evidence.
Use examples and illustrations to add specific, concrete details
to your writing.
Why are these "soft, artistic" pieces of evidence, rather than hard facts?
Cite expert opinion
Use expert opinion to contribute to, or support your arguments.
Do not use them to replace or substitute for your arguments-why not?
Do not just quote the expert...YOU reach a conclusion, show how you reached that conclusion, and then cite experts who confirm YOUR conclusion. Also, be careful--how do you know who the experts are, and how do you know they are right?
How much of what you "know" about Climate Change or global warming is based on 'expert' opinion?
Who says we should ban tag in the school?
We know that small children are sexual beings, since Kinsey's mid-century research tells us. Thus, we should begin discussing sexuality and birth control even before they are teens. (But do you *really* know about Kinsey and his sources?)
Anticipate objections, counter opposing arguments.
Consider the following:
Could a reasonable person draw a different conclusion from your facts or examples?
Might a reader question any of your assumptions?
Could a reader offer an alternate explanation of this issue?
To respond to a potential objection, consider these questions:
Can you concede the point, but challenge the point=s usefulness or importance?
Can you explain why a reader should consider a new viewpoint or a different piece of evidence?
Should you qualify your position in light of contradictory evidence?
Can you suggest a different interpretation of the evidence?
Build common ground
Try to find places where you and the opposition agree, so that they will be more willing to consider your side of the argument.
Is there any common ground about global warming? US health care system? gun control?