What is an argument?
An argument consists of a set of reasons that are given with the intention of persuading someone else that a particular action or idea is right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, etc. It is a method of trying to convince another person (or persons) that your position on an issue is correct, by using relevant support and evidence.
Consider the following examples:
Premise 1 (P1). Having the shared responsibility of a class pet would help cultivate more responsible, caring students.
Premise 2 (P2). Responsibility is a character trait that teachers and parents think is important, and is something they would like to see more of.
Premise 3 (P3). Having a class pet would give students a living being to care for, thereby teaching students the true meaning of responsibility.
Conclusion: Therefore, our class should be allowed to get a class pet.
Arguments are combinations of statements that are put forth in a particular structure, that are intended to change or convince the minds of a particular audience. Notice in this argument that the conclusion—our class should be allowed to get a class pet—is supported by specific and relevant reasons (premises) and is a culminating statement meant to convince an audience.
There are three basic elements of an argument: premises, inference, and conclusion.
Stage One: Premises
The basis of persuasive communication are made up of premises, or statements that are necessary for the argument. Premises are the evidence, or reasons that are put forth in a particular structure, aimed at convincing another to accept the conclusion. You will see in the above example that premises are listed as P1, P2, P3, and so on.
Stage Two: Inference
The premises of the argument can be used to obtain further ideas. This process is known as inference. In inference, we start with one or more accepted premises. We then derive a new premise from those preceding it. For instance, in the example above, P3 is an inference based upon the information presented in P1 and P2. It takes the information that has been accepted in P1 and P2, and formulates a new idea that plays a central part in leading us to the conclusion.
Stage Three: Conclusion
The conclusion is the claim that you want the other person or party to agree with. It is drawn from and supported by the premises of the argument. The conclusion is often the final stage of inference. Conclusions are often, but not always, indicated by phrases such as “therefore,” “it follows that,” “we conclude,” “thus,” “hence,” and so on. In the following exercise, the conclusion will be something that you want to persuade either your teacher or principal of.
Step 1: Formulate a conclusion
Although the conclusion is the final stage of an argument, it is often helpful to work backwards when formulating an argument. First think about something that you think would really benefit you and your classmates. Make it something reasonable, and something for which you can provide strong support.
Think of one thing that you really want to convince your teacher or principal to grant you and your classmates, something that is both reasonable and defensible. Possible ideas might include: longer recess, longer lunch, an extra break, a class pet, a new elective that isn’t offered, new playground equipment, etc.
Formulate whatever it is that you want to convince your teacher or principal of as a conclusion. For example:
- In light of these reasons, our class should adopt a pet iguana.
- Therefore, we should have an hour-long recess every other day.
- In conclusion, lunch period should last an hour instead of a mere half-hour.
- In sum, our school should offer Philosophy as an elective.
- Hence, the extra-curricular budget should include funding for a climbing-wall in the school gym.
Share these conclusions with the class before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: Formulate the body of the argument
What supporting evidence would help convince your teacher or principal to accept your conclusion? Begin by listing all the relevant evidence. Next, arrange the premises so that they flow in a “natural order” from one to the next. That is, the premises should support and lead the audience to the conclusion. Inferences should follow from the premises preceding it, as in the example above.
P1. Numerous studies show that students that get more exercise perform better academically and are better behaved in class.
P2. At present, students are not getting adequate exercise during the school day, because recess is only 15 minutes long.
P3. Having a longer recess period would provide students the opportunity they need to get enough exercise.
P4. By increasing exercise, students will likely perform better both academically and behaviorally.
Conclusion: Therefore, our class should be allowed to have an hour-long recess.
Step 3: Objections/response to objections
After you have formed your argument, consider possible objections. You might think that acknowledging the objections that the principal or teacher could make will weaken your argument. This is not necessarily the case. In anticipating possible objections, you are able to preemptively respond to these objections, thereby strengthening your argument. Also, in considering objections to your argument, you might realize that you need to revise your argument by rewording one or more premises (or your conclusion). Some arguments are not defensible, or are less defensible than others. If the objections cause you to realize that there are significant weaknesses in your argument, you have two options:
Option (1) Rewrite your argument and form a different, stronger argument.
Option (2) Realize that your argument is not defensible and will rightly be dismissed based upon strong and compelling objections.
One way to formulate objections to a given argument is by challenging the truth of the premises or the plausibility of particular inferences being drawn. The more complex the premise, the more opportunity there is to challenge it, so you might want to go back to your original argument and reframe your premises so that they are more defensible. Keep your premises short, non-controversial, and based in fact.
Here are some examples of possible objections, and responses to objections that could be made from the above example.
Objection 1: A pet is too much of a burden to care for—it will be too much of a responsibility.
Response to objection: A guinea pig, for example, wouldn’t be too much work because we can take turns cleaning the cage and feeding it. They don’t need walks like a dog
Objection 2: Pets are distracting and will make it difficult for students to focus during class.
Response to objection: A guinea pig can be kept in a cage and can be taken out to hold and play with only during recess and certain agreed-upon times.
Objection 3: Pets can be dangerous.
Response to objection: Although snakes and hermit crabs can be dangerous, guinea pigs don’t bite or scratch. They are friendly, meek creatures.
Objection 4: There isn’t enough support to prove that having a pet will cultivate a sense of responsibility.
Response to objection: I know of several cases where students became more responsible by caring for a pet. For example, consider the transformation we see in many of the students in Mrs. Bloom, Ms. Wright, and Mr. Chase’s classes.
Step 4: Role play
Have students form pairs. Each student will present his or her argument to the other student who will pretend to be the teacher/principal. The student playing the teacher/principal will then formulate an objection to the student’s argument. Allow the student to respond to the objection, and go back and forth until all relevant objections have been discussed. At this point, the student presenting his/her argument should take a moment to revise his/her work, if additional objections have been raised. Switch roles, and repeat the role play exercise.
After students have had the opportunity to revise their drafts in light of newly raised objections, they may submit their final draft to the teacher/principal.
Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Arguments (4th ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett
Hurley, Patrick. A Concise Introduction to Logic. Belmont, California: Wadsworth
This lesson plan, created by Ayesha Bhavsar, is part of a series of lesson plans in Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).