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In this first substantive post I shall sketch out what I am after in general terms: the use of good arguments to further our understanding. Bad arguments dominate public debate. Most media commentators and politicians indulge regularly in them. How could they not? If there is a better understanding of what good and bad arguments are, then they might not, of their own volition, and the public might also compel them to lift their game.

Critical thinking1 is just as regularly endorsed as a central theme of education. Our students should leave school, or university, with the ability to think for themselves, with tools for critically analysing and assessing complicated arguments, and the ability to avoid being seduced by the many dread Fallacies. They are thought to be aided in this by being able to spot and identify examples of the many species of Fallacies. The result is the widespread abuse of people and their arguments for being “fallacious” itself often a kind of argument ad baculum! (i.e., a form of bullying.) I shall have more to say about the fallacies on other occasions; indeed, since fallacies are frequently and abusively identified in perfectly good arguments, for the purpose of bad-mouthing them, I shall endeavour to unpick and expose many of them as perfectly good arguments in the future. But first we shall have to decide what good and bad arguments are.

Good Arguments

As Monty Python famously pronounced, “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” There’s not much dispute about that definition, but it tells us little about how to distinguish good from bad arguments. The traditional account of the goodness of arguments (the “alethic”, or truth-oriented, account) , taught for many years in philosophy departments, has been that good arguments are those with true premises and valid inferences (a “sound” argument). Validity refers to arguments that are so strong that their premises necessitate their conclusion: if their premises are true, it is impossible for their conclusions to be false. On this definition, a good argument is at least a pretty good thing it guarantees that you arrive at the truth!2 It is not, however, good enough.

As Charles Hamblin, and others, pointed out there are pragmatic and rhetorical aspects to a good argument (Hamblin, 1970). An argument is not as good as possible if it fails to persuade its intended audience. While persuasive power is clearly insufficient as a mark of a good argument at least so long as we refuse to acknowledge the arguments of Hitler and Mussolini as good it is also necessary that they have some persuasive effect. Arguers need to attend to their audiences. Indeed, it is incumbent upon them to understand the cultural background and presuppositions of their audiences so as to frame their arguments. Amongst other things, arguments need to be grounded in premises that will be accepted by both parties. Good argument, therefore, necessarily engages one in considerations of practical psychology, sociology, culture and pragmatics, at least to some basic level. I will discuss some of these issues, including audience analysis, in future posts.

Another failing of the “true premises” test is that it is possible simply to luck into true premises, but intuitively good arguments are not lucked into. Instead we naturally expect good premises to be responsibly sourced. That is, either we obtain them from a recognized authority, or a reliable witness, or we have determined their truth for ourselves and can testify to them ourselves. This speaks to the normative side of judging arguments: they must be both persuasive in fact and rationally persuasive. The final ingredient is one already proposed in the alethic account, that of validity.

I suggest then that a good argument is: (1) one that persuades its target audience; (2) draws only upon acceptable premises — those that are themselves drawn from a reliable source; and (3) whose premises validly imply its conclusion.

I shall be demonstrating just how far short of this standard many of our political and public policy debates fall.

1 For more on critical thinking I strongly recommend the web pages of Tim van Gelder:

  • His critical thinking blog provides a great many useful explanations and provides links to a host of related resources around the web.
  • TvG’s argument mapping page describes the use of “maps” to understand arguments and leads to his computer program Rationale. (I’ve just noticed an argument mapping freeware alternative, Argumentative, at Sourceforge; I’ll have a look at it sometime.)

For reasons not entirely clear to me TvG has had more success than anyone else at teaching critical thinking. His advice on teaching it is worth a look, since it necessarily also provides good advice on how to do it.

2 A simple adaptation for inductive arguments replaces necessitation with probabilification, i.e., rendering the conclusions probable.