When we argue in English composition classes, or in civic debate, we are not necessarily screaming and yelling as the common definition of the word might imply. An argument is a set of statements meant to prove or persuade through the use of logic. An argument contains one or more premises and a conclusion. The standard form of an argument is demonstrated by the classic example shown below:
Premise: Bill is a cat.
Premise: All cats are animals.
Conclusion: Bill is an animal.
This simple argument is known as a deductive syllogism. Some models of the standard form of an argument make use of a major and minor premise; the logical process, however, is exactly the same. How could the argument above be attacked? One, you could demonstrate that Bill is actually a dog, invalidating the first premise and undermining the argument. Or you could prove that cats are really an alien species and invalidate the second premise. These are both examples of challenging the premises. Alternately, if the argument read “Bill is a cat. All fish are animals. Bill is an animal,” you could highlight the flaw in the argument’s logic. So, the two ways to attack and argument are 1) to refute one of its premises and 2) to demonstrate that its logical structure is faulty.
Some arguments have unstated premises, known as assumptions. Look at the argument below. What is its unstated premise?
Premise: Juan is 6 feet tall and in 10th grade.
Conclusion: Juan would make a good basketball player.
The unstated premise or assumption here is that tall children necessarily make good basketball players. But being tall isn’t enough to guarantee that someone will be good at basketball. Juan might not be very coordinated or he might not have any interest in sports. In either case, Juan would then not make a very good basketball player even though he is tall.
Fallacious arguments may sound convincing, but after closer scrutiny, turn out to be unsound. A fallacious argument may be built upon a questionable premise or use twisted logic. Fallacious arguments appear quite often in advertising, public debate, and even interpersonal communication. Detailed below are some well known types of fallacious arguments.
Appeal to Emotion – An argument that depends on fear, pity, or other feelings is an appeal to emotion. Example: “If voters don’t approve this proposition, we will have an economic catastrophe!”
Circular Reasoning – This type or argument merely restates its premise. Example: “Rock and roll is the best music because it rocks and it rolls!”
Hasty Generalization – An argument that attributes a particular varying characteristic to all members of a class is called a hasty generalization. Racial, religious, and gender prejudices are particularly harmful forms of hasty generalizations. Example: “I don’t want Stella to have a part in the play. She’s a Leo and they grab all the attention.”
False Authority – An argument that claims unwarranted expertise or that transfers expertise in one field to another. Celebrity appeal can be considered to be a form of false authority. Example: “Peter Brick, who played a doctor for years on Suburban Clinic, recommends Stopicet for all serious cuts and bruises.”
False Causality (Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc) – The Latin name for this fallacious argument, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, means “after this therefore because of this.” Example: “In the week after I left ABC, Inc., its stock dropped dramatically. I must have been really important to the company.”
False Dilemma (Either/Or Argument) – An argument that presents only two options when there are a number of viable solutions. Example: “America. Love it or leave it!”
Personal Attack (Ad Hominem) – This fallacious argument’s Latin name, ad hominem, means “against the man,” and that’s what it does–it attacks the speaker’s personal qualities rather than the argument he or she is putting forth. Example: “We should definitely not approve the mayor’s budget. He’s often quite late returning his rented movies.”
Slippery Slope – This type of argument takes a minor action or event and escalates it to catastrophic proportions. Example: “If we prohibit assault rifles, then pretty soon the government will take away every gun, knife, and blunt object in our houses.”