The fate of our republic depends on our ability to make a good argument, a dying art it would seem.
Some time ago, I wrote an article on political unity in which I described the reasons that consensus is built into and vital to our republic. Rereading that article, a short time ago it occurred to me that I gave multiple examples that do not promote unity and few that do.
I was recently introduced to YouTube content creator Ryan Chapman. He has a video “What Makes an Argument ‘Good’” in which he defines an argument as “a conclusion supported by reasoning.”
That definition is rather profound. A conclusion based on reasoning. At the risk of going down the same rabbit hole that I did in my “unity” article, here is what a conclusion based on reasoning is NOT:
A conclusion based on what your church or religious following tells you.
A conclusion based on what your political party tells you.
A conclusion based on what your favored political candidate tells you.
A conclusion based on what your friends and family say.
A conclusion based on what you think people want to hear – or that you think will make you more popular.
A conclusion based on a fabricated narrative.
A conclusion based on what the media says.
A conclusion based on what an “authority” says.
The above are not examples of reasoning, they are examples of accepting what you are being told.
We are awash in all of the above – and worse. The state legislature in Tennessee voted to oust a couple of legislators. They were ousted because they violated the rules of the body. Enemies of truth decided to create an offense and then backfill the “reasoning”. They wanted to find a way to attach the label “fascist” so they claim these people were ousted for “standing up for gun safety”. And they wanted to find a way to attach the label “racist” so they claim these people were ousted based on the color of their skin. This is at base a “straw man” fallacy – creating a fictitious narrative (or entity) to attack based solely on that fictitious narrative. This isn’t swaying anyone – particularly in this case because the false narrative is so transparent.
All of the above can also be categorized as some form of fallacy. Most fall into the “argument from authority” fallacy. Some fall into the “Argumentum ad populum” – if everyone believes it, it must be true. Neither of those is based on reasoning.
“Argument from authority” is a bit slippery. Sometimes those of us inquiring seek out exactly that. If I have a question on infantry tactics, I may well ask someone that has been trained in infantry tactics. If I have a question about mental health or psychology, I may well ask someone with expertise in that field. And if I have a question about theology, I may well ask someone with expertise in that field. “Argument from authority” does not become a fallacy unless or until the demand is made to accept the argument solely based on the source – the “authority”. If the source has reasoned arguments to support the claim, that falls back into the camp of a valid argument. If on the other hand, the source insists on being believed (or accepted) based solely on their authority, that falls into the camp of fallacy.
None of this is to say that conclusions that are not based on reasoning are inherently wrong or bad. It is simply to say that an argument supported by reasoning is more compelling than “I’m right and you are wrong.”
The reason “I’m right and you are wrong” isn’t compelling should be clear, but I question whether it is. It’s a conversation-ender and it sends a strong signal to that end.
In my opinion, another area where arguments fail is the careless framing of the premise. If I say “All chickens are red” and anyone, anywhere in the world finds a single chicken that is not red, my position has been proven completely wrong. If I said “most” rather than “all” finding a single exception would not completely defeat the argument, it would simply mean that more research is needed to verify whether or not “most” is accurate.
Data and facts are not strictly necessary for a good argument (although they almost always help). If for example, we are discussing the future consequences of a piece of legislation, verifiable data may be hard to come by (none of us has a crystal ball). But in this example, being able to articulate the reasoning behind what you think would happen is vital.
The “facts” I refer to here are falsifiable and available for all to objectively examine and question. An assertion that is non-falsifiable is another conversation-ender. Most examples that I can think of that are non-falsifiable assertions would probably be more accurately described as values.
The “data” I refer to here should also be available for all to objectively examine and question. This is proving difficult in our current age. It now seems to me that even the most mundane assertions from the media must be cross-checked and verified using multiple sources.
We all have biases, our sense of morality and right and wrong, our personal beliefs, and our values. These are all real and they are all important for a multitude of reasons. Some (arguably most) can be supported with reasoned arguments. But not all, not in every case. I would wager that most of us, with sufficient reflection, could point to a closely held personal value, and not be able to explain where it came from – I think somehow, some are just built in. If I find myself in a debate, making an assertion that I can not support with reasoning, I think the best course is to simply admit that what I’m asserting is an opinion or a personal value. In a word, be transparent.
It isn’t always possible to make good, reasoned arguments based on data and facts. Sometimes we don’t have many facts, sometimes we don’t have good data. Sometimes an emergency exists that doesn’t allow us the luxury to debate the topic at length. But where we can, the goal should always be a conclusion supported by reasoning.
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