ARGUMENT LECTURE Introduction: There are lots of things you need to understand before writing an argument essay this term:
What is an argument?
Who is the audience for an argument?
How should argument papers be organized for that audience?
As an arguer, how should I sound to that audience?
**NOTE THAT THESE KEY QUESTIONS ARE NOT ABOUT YOU KNOWING YOUR SUBJECT MATTER (THAT’S BECAUSE THAT PART IS TAKEN FOR GRANTED)
These are some of the key questions you’ll have to shape answers to with my help in order to craft a good Formal Argument Essay, but here’s one very important thing to keep in mind: I want to distinguish an argument essay from a position paper. In high school, most of the time you wrote position papers. Basically you were asked to give your opinion on a topic and have more or less support for why you have that opinion. When you write an argument this semester, it will certainly contain your opinion, your position. But I am not so interested in the content of your opinion as I am in your reasoning for holding it—and this is where true argument comes into play. Expressing your opinion is one thing, making it persuasive to another is difficult. What is an Argument?
You know that loud yelling match you heard from the neighbors’ house last night, the one that woke you at 3am? Well, that’s not an argument. That’s a quarrel; that’s people letting off steam. They are trying to argue, but what they’re most likely doing is having a disagreement, and when people disagree, they usually aren’t arguing at all. That’s because an argument is a REASONED RESPONSE to a disagreement, to a controversy, to a problem. In a little more detail: an argument is a set of statements about the world that fit together in such a way as to be both logically and practically compelling.
Here’s an argument that’s logically compelling:
All men are mortal;
Socrates is a man.
(Therefore) Socrates is mortal. This should be logically compelling because it follows a form of logic that cannot be challenged in our existence. The form is a kind of syllogism (you don’t have to remember the technicalities) that works like this: All things of one sort [men] have a particular quality [mortality]; An individual [Socrates] is an example of this type [man]; therefore, the individual [Socrates] shares that general quality [mortality]. Or, more mathematically: All (x) are (y); S is an (x); therefore, S is (y). Any terms thrown into this syllogistic form will lead to a compelling logical conclusion so long as the statements are held to be true. (If you said ‘All men are Chinese’ for your first statement, there’d be problems because not all people are Chinese).
But some arguments, while still relying on the accuracy of their statements, aren’t quite so compelling. For example, it’s one thing to say all men are mortal; it’s another to say all men are educated. The fact is, educatedness is a more difficult term to define and measure than is the term mortal. You won’t get people to agree with you until they agree that your definition of educatedness is sound.
Anyway, the point is this: part of an argument paper—we can call it the logical part—is all a matter of putting together a set of statements about the world that are reasonably true and will cause people to change their beliefs and/or make them move to action. You might call this the WHAT of an argument.
But an argument also has a HOW. You might have the best, most persuasive insight into solving a problem, but if you do not know HOW to say WHAT you are saying, chances are the argument will fail before it gets off the ground. Here’s the point: it matters how you sound when you argue; it matters how you arrange the logic of your position. High school let you down in this regard. They let you write position papers. These were opinion papers based on the expository (information-giving) model of writing. In a position paper, it just seemed you were still giving information—information about something you believed in or thought should or shouldn’t be done. But the trouble is, the solve-the-controversy-with-an-argument situation is not, primarily, an information-giving situation.
Who is the audience for an argument?
The argument situation is a persuasive situation, and, by definition, the people whom you address with your point of view are those people who disagree with you. We can call them the Adversarial Audience. When you address people who disagree with you, you cannot expect mere transmission of information to change their minds. They must be led to the good sense of your (foreign) point of view.
The biggest problem with most student argument essays is that students write them to themselves; that is, they present the argument as if people already agree with them (preaching to the choir), as if people already see the good sense of their position. Don’t do this. Always keep in mind that you are addressing reasonable people who have drawn different conclusions about the world than you have. They will be willing to listen, but they’re not going to get down and lick your boots and change their beliefs just because you’ve got an opinion.
How should argument papers be organized for that audience?
When we write expository (information, friendly audience) essays, we are coached to put our thesis statements at the beginning. This is not a bad strategy for information type papers because it helps the reader aim her attention properly; it also works because readers-as-info-receivers are not going to challenge or disbelieve what you say until you make a major mistake like, Well, we all know the Earth is flat. Again, expository readers are a friendly audience, non-adversarial.
So what do you do with a thesis for an argument? The fact is, your thesis is the very claim about the world that your readers will find most repugnant; it’s the statement of greatest DIS-agreement from their perspective. Do you walk into a room of people in need of persuasion and begin with the most offensive, most hilarious, craziest, most disagreeable claim you can? Hell no! You must carefully lead the skeptical adversary toward your belief, toward your thesis.
In a good argument, the thesis comes at the end of the paper; in a great argument, it is never explicitly stated. Then what comes at the beginning of the argument? Points of Agreement.
It is assumed that no matter how adversarial an audience might be, you can find some things you agree upon—comfy places from which to begin your argument knowing that you want to lead them to a position they won’t like. Example: Lots of people are vehemently against capital punishment, many enthusiastic supporters of it. There’s a lot of heated disagreement surrounding the controversy. But I do know this: Except for a couple of radically weird Libertarian freaks in Idaho, everybody—C.P supporters and detractors alike—believe that the state has a right to punish criminals. This is a good place to begin an argument (and note it doesn’t even mention capital punishment per se).
So, broadly speaking, argument papers have the following shape:
AGREEMENT --> DISAGREEMENT Note 1: I’ve said nothing about intro-body-conclusion, and this is because argument organization doesn’t fit the 5-paragraph mold. So, don’t think packaging; think function.
Note 2: Here’s how I grade a paper: The sooner you are inappropriately or carelessly DIS-Agreeable to your audience, the lower your grade. So, hypothetically, if you hand me a five-page argument, I will give it an A if I read as Devil’s advocate and you are still respectfully reasonable from my point of view on page five. But if you are disagreeable or offensive on page one, you’ll get an F. You see, I can’t give you a grade based on whether or not you ACTUALLY PERSUADE anyone because it’s too hard to say what makes people finally change their minds. But if I read ten different arguments on Capital Punishment, I CAN make good judgments about which of those will have the greatest chances of changing the minds of an adversarial audience. Get it?
As an arguer, how should I sound to my Adversarial Audience?
Just as you shouldn’t offend the adversary by spewing offensive claims about the world, so, too, you cannot sound offensive. Again, high school failed many of you here by leaving you with the idea that an argument paper is just an information paper about an opinion you really believe in and that's why you’re screaming your point of view from the top of a soap box. This is so wrong. If anything, the arguer’s voice must be quieter, calmer, more cautious than that of an informer. You may actually be right about Capital Punishment, but if you yell at people who disagree with you, or imply that they are silly somehow, well, that will just be a waste of a good logical argument. You will never be heard.
Other Fun Stuff to Think About
* Don’t ask me if you can argue about a particular subject. I will blink like a cat and say, “Sure, what’s the controversy in that subject area that you want to address?” That is, we do not argue about topics, we argue about controversies. ‘Bob, can I argue about abortion?’ I don’t know; can you? What you have to argue about is one of the controversies (and there might be many) within the abortion topic.
* There are only Four Kinds of Controversy:
PHILOSOPHICAL: We disagree about what our words mean. (Ex: What
is an educated person?)
JUDICIAL: We agree about the meaning (1st degree murder), but
we disagree about whether an event is an example of
that idea or not (can't convict him--not enough
SCIENTIFIC: We disagree about what’s going to happen (or
not). (Ex: Those look like rain clouds to
me. Naw! They are not; let’s have that picnic anyway!)
ETHICAL: We agree on what’s going to happen (or not), but we
which are not. (Ex: If I don’t go to class today, I’ll
lose a few points, but I’ll get a great tan—and it’s the
tan that’s important. No way! A grade’s much more
important than a tan! Let me tell you why...)
* There are Three Kinds of Language: VALUE: Capital Punishment sucks.
POLICY: Capital Punishment should be abolished.
CAUSE/EFFECT: Capital Punishment leads to a devaluation of human
What many do when they argue is shuttle back and forth between value language and policy language. Someone walks up to me and says, C.P. should be abolished. I ask, Why? She says, Because it sucks. This tells me only that she disapproves of it. I know that already when she says she wants it abolished. When a person asks why something should or shouldn’t be done, ideally they will get a cause/effect answer rather than a value response. C.P. should be abolished because the practice of it dehumanizes individuals even more than the crimes that were committed to earn the punishment. It’s a claim that still needs proof (what is meant by ‘dehumanizes’ and can we show that C.P. does that), but it gets its strength from something that will or could actually happen. Because of this it goes beyond personal taste.
So… I would like to see as little value language as possible in your papers—and if you’re going to use value language, make it come as late in the essay as possible; policy language is better than value language, but it gives away the writer’s point of view too soon (it might get in the way of early points of agreement with an adversarial audience), so the same warning applies: avoid it, but if you can’t, put it later rather than earlier; and, as you might have guessed: use as much cause/effect language as you possibly can when designing the logic and the presentation of your essay.
*Real Argument Thesis Statements:
I’ve warned you not to put a thesis at the beginning of your papers because you need to establish points of agreement with your adversarial audience. But this does not mean that argument essays don’t have thesis statements. They do; they’re just a slightly different animal from what you’re used to.
An Argument Thesis Statement (ATS) has the following form:
Policy Statement -->Effect Statement
For example: Capital punishment should be abolished (policy) because it leads to dehumanization (effect).
Now, what’s interesting about this is that that it actually hints at a point of agreement that you might start the argument with: Anything that dehumanizes should be abolished. Note, you could get lots of agreement about this claim—and it doesn’t even mention C.P.!(Good points of agreement do not usually mention the exact thing you want to argue about).
So, now the overall logic of your paper is clear:
Establish Point of Agreement: Dehumanizing things should be abolished.
Show that C.P. dehumanizes: C.P. dehumanizes.
Conclude: C.P. should be abolished.
* Some Final Notes
-Often an argument paper begins before the logical argument in it begins. Frequently a controversy has a history or it is very complex (Capital Punishment; Abortion; Euthanasia). In these cases writers will start with background information to help the reader get a feel for a complicated issue and to have a better sense of which controversy or controversies the writer actually wants to tackle.
-You do not have to choose a controversy with a long history or one that rocks the world. There are advantages to finding new controversies. The newer the controversy, the more valuable any writer’s reasonable insights are into resolving that controversy. Whereas, if you tackle something like abortion—and God knows thousands have—you’re eventually going to run into the core issue that has everyone baffled. So, yeah, I know exactly when life begins; I mean that’s perfectly clear. Conception, yeah. That’s right. Many believe this claim in America. But if that’s so, why don’t we start counting a person’s age at conception like they do in Korea??
-Argument is not debate. You do not have to present both sides of the argument as the old cliché goes. As a matter of fact, the old cliché is misleading because controversies often have more than two sides.
-If this is true, don’t be afraid of making an argument that comes down in the middle. In high school they wanted clear pro or con, anything else was a sign of wishy-washy behavior. But in the real world of adults, where people know the world isn’t black and white, there are strong argumentative positions which are mixtures of pro and con (if you will).
* Postscript: Two Exercises
Consider the following proposals and design AgreementDisagreement Ladders of 3 to 8 steps for the adversarial audiences I ask you to address:
Issue I: The Athletic GPA Controversy – You are in favor of the following proposal:
Any university athlete who wants to compete on the football
team will have to maintain a minimum 3.0 GPA (the current
minimum is 2.0).
Adversarial Audience: College Football Players
Issue II: The Spanking Controversy – You are in favor of the following proposal:
Spanking should be a conditionally acceptable form of
punishment when necessary.
Adversarial Audience: People who believe that physical
reprimand is at least unnecessary to discipline and possibly