A rational argument is the exchange of evidence-based reasons that are designed to influence an audience. Rational argumentation is the capacity to give reasons; to connect the claims that one makes to the justification for making them. The reasons offered within an argument are called “premises”, and the proposition that the premises are offered for is called the “conclusion”.1 Within arguments, people construct statements that can be used to support a conclusion or position on a matter this is uncertain or yet to be decided, hoping to influence others to adhere to their position. When people speak to each other or to a crowd they make certain claims, they make statements and construct a case that they believe in and that they would like for others to believe also.2 A rational argument is a combination of logic, dialectic, and rhetoric. Arguments involve elements of logic in that they require the use of logic in the connection of evidence to the claims being made through inference; thus arguments have a structure which is studied within logic. Rational arguments are a dialectic exchange in that arguments are conducted between people with different opinions who exchange ideas in a process of discovering and testing knowledge through questions and answers. Arguments contain elements of rhetoric, in the classical sense, where it means the study of how messages influence people, as it focuses on the development and communication of knowledge between speakers and listeners.3
Grounds for Arguments
Rational arguments can be seen as a subset of all types of arguments, in which case they can be contrasted with non-rational arguments which are not based upon objective reasons given, but instead upon the subjective motives and instincts of the individuals involved. Non-rational arguments may be seen as the product of motivated reasoning on the behalf of one or more of the individuals engage in the argument.
Motivated reasoning is reasoning based upon subjective motives that condition the cognitive processes of the individual towards generating conclusions that endorse the maintenance or attainment of the subjective motives of the individual. In such a case the individual’s argument is not constructed on objective reasoning and can not be influenced or changed solely through reason, the conclusion to the argument is not a product of reason and thus not a rational argument. Motivated arguments are particularly common in situations we there are deep vested cultural, social or economic interests held by individuals, such as in matters of religion, sport or politics.4 Insofar as the believer refuses or is unable to review or change their opinion in the light of new relevant information or more coherent logic the argument is dogmatic and can not be resolved through reasoned argument; thus non-rational. In such a case, the argument may resort to various forms of affective exchange, or a resolution may well be unattainable. Thus Rational arguments require a set of preconditions before the process can be engaged in. The cases presented by the individuals have to be derived from their objective reasons given, instead of being rationalizations for their instinctive beliefs. In a rational argument, members have to be willing to change their argument when new information or a better argument is presented.
Reasoned argument can not be conducted in the face of dogma – where dogma is a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by a member or group without being open to question or doubted through reason – as a precondition to rational argument is that questions are open to and decided by reason alone. Members engaged in a rational argument hold defeasible cases, where defeasible means they are open in principle to revision.5 Reasoned argument provides an objective process for resolving disputes without resort to force or manipulation in that it simply defines a set of standards that all members must follow in order to try and derive a combined outcome.
Dialectic, in the general sense, refers to the development of knowledge through questions and answers.6 The classical example of this would be the Dialogues of Plato where Socrates encounters an interlocutor and the person states a view, Socrates then asks a series of questions and through the exchange of questions and answers the individual’s view is tested, elaborated or clarified. Another good example of a dialectic process would be a law court where cross-examination is conducted with a series of questions asked and answers given to try and figure out what is true of the case.
A rational argument is a form of dialectic process in that the participants in an argument hold mutually exclusive views; they believe that the claims they make can not both be true in some way and they seek to find a combined resolution through a collective process of reasoning; which is the argument. Members are not prepared to simply remain with the differences in their perspectives but wish to resolve the issue at hand; they want to come to a common understanding of some kind. In this process, members give their own reasons but are also, importantly, open to being influenced by others in trying to reach some consensus.
A dialectic, although an argument in this case, is essentially a cooperative endeavor in that members are actively committed to seeking the most reasonable outcome. The purpose of an argument for a critical thinker is not to win, although that is often the default mode of how we behave. In a rational argument, members do not try to influence other people against their will. In the argument they seek their free assent to the case given, on the grounds that they have come to this based primarily upon the logical connections made in the argument and not through other means of persuasion or manipulation.7
We can not avoid trying to influence other people but there are many ways to do this. Rational argumentation respects the audience’s autonomous capacity to draw their own conclusions, and thus respects their freedom, by seeking their free assent, not demanding it. If they do not want to give it once the case is presented then there is nothing one can do. Rational augmentation respects the listener and that they may have different ways of thinking. The aim then is not simply, in all events to imbue them with the opinion of the individual making the case, as this would violate their capacity to draw their own conclusions and thus violate their agency.
In reasoned argument a precondition is that the members respect the opposition’s opinion; the audience has to come to their own conclusion, one can not alter that. With reasoned argument, there is only opportunity to change the other person’s opinion through the presentation of alternative evidence or logic.
In its most cooperative form, a rational argument is a process to find which argument is most sound, best supported by logic, and relevant evidence. Thus it is not just a way of defending one’s beliefs but also a way of improving them, in this sense a rational argument may be seen as a constructive endeavor in contrast to non-rational arguments which are often counterproductive in nature.
Arguments derived from reason are defeasible; the holder is prepared to change their conclusion in light of new evidence supporting a counter argument.8 Arguments that are rational in nature are only supported by evidence and logic, thus if the logic or evidence changes then the conclusion must change in some way. The point of this type of argument is to derive a conclusion that is defeasible irrespective of whoever may present it.
Rational arguments should be focused on the process, not any particular outcome, so that when new inputs are received it is possible for the members to incorporate those into the argument; though this is often not what happens. When we receive new information that contradicts one of our assumptions or beliefs our tendency is to rationalize that away. This is why conducting a truly rational argument requires intellectual standards on the behalf of the participants that is typically not achieved in most common arguments. As long as the process is valid it is OK to change the conclusion when new inputs become available, in fact, this is the essence of good science, that it is a process without a fixed conclusion. We do not take scientific theories as dogma, but they are always open to revision and possible improvement. Due to this the members partaking in the argument take the risk of being wrong, of having to change their conceptual system; the members assume the risk of their beliefs being proven wrong and having to ratify them.9
The degree of effectiveness to an argument is often a function of the degree of understanding to the principles and structure that underlie the process. A rational argument is a set of statements to support a conclusion, it starts with a set of premises and then derives a set of conclusions based upon those. As such arguments have a basic structure to them, in that they consist of evidence given, a process of inference used to reach a claim that seeks the adherence of an ordinance. Reasons are the justifications that we give for our claims, our justifications are not absolute proofs because all of the matters that are being debated are in some way uncertain; things may depend on some value judgment or they may relate to the unknown future. Thus we try to justify our claims by giving reasons for them.
In an argument we are making a leap from the known to the unknown and the audience is being asked to accept the justification for this, i.e. the reasons given.10 We have to reach some conclusion and the audience will give their adherence to whoever has the best case to make. A claim is justified if it would be accepted by a critical listener. For example, the process of generating new scientific knowledge often operates in this way, where someone comes up with a hypothesis and the other scientists try to disprove it. Scientist in the lab work as critical questioners of the ideas presented by the theoretical scientist. Scientists remained skeptical about Einstein’s special theory of relativity until experiments had been conducted to verify that light did, in fact, bend around a large body of matter.
If the premise of an argument or the logic used to draw the inference are inaccurate then the conclusion will be incorrect. Arguments are only as good as the premise that they are founded on and the logic used to draw the conclusion. Often confusion lies in the fact that people are not clear about the premises or logical process in the argument. A hidden premise is a fact, or assumption that supports the argument that is not manifest to us. In everyday life, the arguments we normally encounter are often arguments where important assumptions are not made explicit. Identifying hidden assumptions is an important part of critical thinking.11 Likewise, some premises are assumptions – i.e. not known to be an established fact – and it is important to make explicit when that is the case.
The conclusion of an argument can be true or false, meaning it is in some way in line with objective reality. Arguments are not true or false, they are simply valid or invalid depending on the logic used. The term sound refers to the entire argument, an argument is sound when all of the premises are true and its logic is valid.
Arguments are expressed to an ordinance and when all is said and done the success of an argument depends on the assent of the audience. Assent means adhering to a claim based upon the reasons given for it.12 This means the audience accepts the grounds that are given, the justification that is presented and the connection that is made between these justifications and the claim. Argumentation is then one of the ways that we seek to persuade others and reach common consensus without resorting to force, emotional manipulation or other means.
A focus on this aspect to arguments is called rhetoric. The classical understanding of rhetoric is as the study of how messages influence people; it focuses on the development and communication of knowledge between speakers and listeners.13 Rhetoric in its basic form is about the effective presentation of an argument to a particular audience where one holds in mind the audience and crafts one’s words and message to make them most relevant to that particular audience. In its highest form rhetoric is about the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively, especially as a way to persuade or influence people.14 Today the term rhetoric has been significantly denigrated in status – in no small part due to media politics and mass marketing – coming to mean more like, “language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable.”15 However a focus on audience and presentation is always a consideration within any argument and should not be inherently given negative connotations.