4 Reason

This brings us to the subject of argument. If we are reasonable, we will, presumably, have reasons for our positions.  If we want to convince others of our own position, then we will want to put these reasons into a logical order so that they form a strong argument. Logic is a subdiscipline of philosophy that is as old as ethics and, like ethics, it has a global history woven into parallel histories of rhetoric and theories about language. Although formal logic has dominated discussions of logic in the European traditions for the last two centuries, it tends to have a limited application in applied ethics discussions. So, we will take a rather broader approach that includes, but is not restricted to, some of the inference patterns of formal logic.

At this point, we’re inclined to direct you to a rather ancient, albeit classic, skit by the British comedy troupe, Monty Python. (So here it is!)

In their “Argument Sketch,” they discuss and exemplify both what philosophical argument is and what it isn’t. Part of what comes out in this skit is the fact that we use the word “argument” in a number of different ways. We can see three different senses of the term in the skit, only two of which are philosophical. The first sense is when people who disagree about something (or think they disagree) yell at each other. This is not the philosophical sense of argument. It is correlated with it, however, as sometimes people who are engaged in such yelling matches at least started out with each taking up a contrary position and trying to convince the other.

This second sense of argument is basically a synonym for debate. Two or more parties take up contrary positions on a point and try to convince the other(s). This is “an intellectual process,” as one of the characters points out, and a practice that is crucial to philosophy. It is not mere contradiction because reasons are given by the different sides in an effort to change the other’s mind.

Even when there is no other person around, philosophers will often think of and defend their own positions with a type of internal debate. They themselves take up a contrary position to their own view, make as good a case as possible for it, only to defeat it later. This is one of the reasons that you need to pay careful attention when reading philosophy. It is all too easy to mistake a passage where an author is explaining an objection to their position as an account of their own view. If you are not used to reading philosophy this can seem bizarre. Why would someone argue against their own view just to show that the argument they have given does not work? Of course, the point of debate is to convince other people. If you can correctly articulate your opponent’s reasons for disagreeing with you and then show that either there is a flaw in this reasoning or that it is insufficient to dislodge your claim, then you effectively undermine their position and support your own. So, considering objections—thinking about why others might disagree with you and what you can say in response—is crucial for the practice of philosophy.

This brings us to our third sense of argument. These are the parts of the argument in the debate sense. Here, Monty Python offers a definition that you might find in any introductory logic book: “An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.” Often philosophers will call the “connected series of statements” “premises,” though this is really just a fancy word for reasons, and the “definite proposition”, or “conclusion”, is established by the premises. (This use of the term “conclusion” can sometimes be a bit confusing as the same word is used to refer to the final section of an essay.) Philosophers often use this language of premises and conclusion, but it is important not to let these technical terms intimidate you. A conclusion is just a controversial statement that you are trying to convince others to believe, and the premises are the reasons that you give for holding it. Sometimes it can be tricky to determine what the conclusion is, but often authors will use verbal signs, predicating their conclusion with “thus,” “therefore,” “hence,” or a phrase like “it follows that.” (You can find a list of these kinds of verbal signs on the Tips for Reading Philosophy Actively sheet.) It is important to note that some authors will have multiple conclusions and sub-arguments in their paper. Sometimes these nested arguments are needed to establish an even larger conclusion!

Summary of the 3 Senses of “Argument” from Monty Python’s Skit

  1. Yelling match—mere contradiction
  2. Effective debate—two or more parties arguing for opposing positions
  3. Philosophical argument—a connected series of premises given to establish a conclusion

Another useful point we can find in Monty Python’s argument sketch is the distinction between an argument and a good argument. Of course, in the sketch, when one of the characters says, “I came here for a good argument,” he means something like he was expecting a debate that was interesting and fun. Because we are more interested in the third type of argument, we are going to think about good arguments as ones that are successful. That is, a good argument is one that would convince any rational person of the truth of the conclusion—the premises of a good argument really do establish the conclusion.

4.1. How to Evaluate Philosophical Arguments

Now, it is all very well to say this, but we still need more guidance as to how to assess arguments. Again, there is a huge and diverse global literature on this very topic. Nonetheless, most of it can be summarized (albeit superficially) in a neat heuristic offered by Canadian philosopher, Trudy Govier. She suggests that we evaluate arguments by posing three different questions about the premises and their relation to the conclusion, which she calls the ARG conditions: A, are the premises true or at least acceptable? R, are the premises relevant to the conclusion? G, do the premises provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion?[1]

The first condition—A, the truth or acceptability of the premises—is pretty easy to understand. If the reasons that someone gives for believing a particular conclusion are false, then you don’t have any reason for accepting that conclusion. Ideally, we would be certain that each premise is true, but this ends up being a difficult standard to maintain. After all, even very well verified and widely accepted claims in the sciences—for instance, that cigarette smoking causes cancer—might just be false. (This is not a flaw of science; it is a side effect of the inductive method that is characteristic of scientific research.) It is possible, albeit extraordinarily unlikely, that every study of the issue had some unrecognized fatal flaw and that the well-evidenced correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer is the result of some other factor(s), that are correlated with cigarette smoking that actually cause cancer. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to accept the claim that cigarette smoking causes cancer even if we don’t have absolute certainty. Indeed, if we are not willing to accept claims like this, we will find it difficult to make any ethical decisions at all (or, indeed, any other kind of decision).

At the same time, we do want to avoid uncritically accepting everything that someone says to defend their position. Thus, it is important to reflect on why a premise is acceptable and to sincerely question whether, in fact, more information is needed before a rational evaluation of the premises can be made.

The second condition—R, the relevance of the premises—is a bit trickier. It may seem obvious that for a premise to establish a conclusion it must be relevant, but in fact, people quite often will use irrelevant facts to try to convince others to think or do something. There are many different ways of distracting people from carefully thinking through the matter at hand and irrelevant premises tend to do this. One of our favorite examples is a false equivalency that is used in an antacid commercial from the 1990s.

 

We can reconstruct the argument offered by the commercial as something like this:

Premise 1. If we dip a rose in acid the acid will eat away the rose.

Premise 2. But if we coat the rose in Pepto Bismol before dipping it in acid the acid will not eat away the rose.

Conclusion. Therefore, if you have acid indigestion you should ‘coat’ your stomach with Pepto Bismol.

Of course, a rose is nothing like the human stomach. On the face of it, the fact that the rose is protected by Pepto Bismol is just not relevant to whether it will help with acid indigestion. Minimally, we need some additional reason to think that it is acceptable to “think of this rose as your stomach,” as the commercial suggests. That means that for this argument to work you would need to add some reason (or reasons) for thinking that roses and human stomachs are relevantly similar.

The third condition—G, whether the premises provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion—is the most general as it includes the other two conditions. After all, premises that aren’t true and premises that aren’t relevant cannot provide good grounds for accepting a conclusion. Indeed, you may think that if all the premises are true (or at least acceptable) and relevant then they must provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion. This, however, is not the case.

Consider a friend who urges you to try taking a herbal remedy the next time you get a cold. The reason they give is that they have started taking it when they get a cold and it works for them. It may well be true that it works for them and it’s certainly relevant to the broader question of whether one should try the remedy oneself, but is it good enough grounds for doing so?

You might ask your friend how they came across this remedy. In effect, what you would be doing here is seeing if there are better reasons for taking the remedy. Suppose they say some dude at the farmer’s market was selling it and swore by it as the best cold remedy he had ever tried. Do you have better grounds for thinking it will work? On one hand, you now know that there are at least two people who say it works, but on the other hand, you know that one of them has a vested interest as he is selling it. Suppose, instead, that your friend cites a meta-analysis of 20 randomized control trials showing the efficacy of the remedy for various cold viruses and across various population groups. Now, clearly, that’s much better grounds for thinking that the remedy will work for you than simply the testimony of either your friend or the dude at the farmer’s market.

When it comes to some applied ethics contexts, we will find that what constitutes good enough grounds depends on the seriousness of a situation and the risks involved should we make a bad choice. With the question of whether you should take the herbal remedy at your friend’s urging, the stakes are pretty low. After all, they’re still alive, so you can infer that it’s likely not poisonous. The worst thing that is likely to happen is that it just won’t make any difference to your cold symptoms, and you’ll be out a few dollars. But suppose instead that you are a health officer in charge of coordinating a response to a global pandemic in your local area and the president of the United States claims that a particular drug (in which they have a financial interest) has worked for them and can significantly reduce the mortality of those infected with the illness. Does this constitute good grounds for spending a considerable portion of your region’s budget on this remedy? Here the stakes are higher. The illness is considerably more dangerous; the decision affects many more people than just you; you are in a position of public trust; it’s your job to make these kinds of decisions well; millions of dollars will be diverted from other priorities and treatments for the pandemic should you buy the drug; and so on.  When the stakes are high it is reasonable to expect people to have very good grounds for their conclusions and their decisions.


  1. Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument, Enhanced Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, 2014), 87-103.

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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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