How to Reason

Arguments are made everywhere and everyday. One can find them in the editorial section of the newspaper, on a cable TV news show, or among family and friends. However, what exactly is an argument? And how does one go about evaluating it?

To begin, an argument can be defined as a series of statements or claims that are trying to prove another claim is true. For example, if I make the claim that an individual should vote for a particular political party, I would need to supply reasons for that claim. If I am a Democrat I would say social programs and environmental issues are moral issues that every society should deal with in a constructive way. If I were a Republican, I would say people should be able to keep the money they have earned and that aborting a fetus is rarely the way to solve the problem of an unwanted pregnancy.

Now that an argument has been defined, the next step is to evaluate an argument. There are three main ways to do this. Firstly, try to imagine if all of the reasons given in support of the claim can be true, and the conclusion false. For example, can social programs be desirable and environmental issues important, and a person still not support a Democratic candidate? Or vice versa with the hypothetical Republican candidate. If you cannot imagine a situation where all the reasons are true, and the conclusion could still be false, then the argument is called valid. If you can imagine a situation such as this, then the argument is invalid.

Secondly, check for any fallacies. These can be found easily with a simple Google search, and they are so numerous it would take up an entire article just to list them all. However, one of the most commonly used is known as the ad hominem fallacy. This is when a person, instead of responding to the argument, attacks the person instead. For example, if Uncle Bob makes the claim that marijuana should be legalized, and Aunt Sue says Uncle Bob is just a free loader that wants to get high all day, she has not even come close to evaluating the claim, and instead attacked Uncle Bob personally.

And finally, check for vague or ambiguous terms. Vague simply means a word has such a wide variety of definitions it’s hard to know what the person using it means, and ambiguous means there are two distinct definitions of a word, but it’s unclear which is meant by the term or phrase. So an example of vague would be calling someone a liberal or a conservative, and not explaining anything about what they mean by those terms. An example of ambiguity would be the statement “I ate lunch by the bank.” Does this mean a river bank, or a commercial one? From the statement alone, it is unclear. Often ambiguity can be cleared up with context. So if the person works at a bank, and there are no river banks nearby, it is probably safe to assume they ate lunch just outside of the bank, at say a restaurant or a park.

To quickly sum up, an argument is a series of claims that attempts to prove another claim is true. And arguments must be evaluated on logical (valid or fallacious questions) and semantic grounds.

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