Our decisions are shaped by arguments. This video describes a simplified Toulmin model, which depicts the parts of an argument. By knowing the parts of an argument, we are in a better position to judge their strengths, and in turn whether they should influence our choices.
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This video was produced in January 2013 for my research methods seminar (SOC 334) at Queens College in the City University of New York. If you are enrolled in this class, you must also complete the assigned readings and exercises. Instructions will be posted on my web site and on Blackboard.
This video is part of an experiment in teaching with technology. In the coming semester, I plan on releasing other videos and an overview of this experiment. If you are interested, please visit my web site (www.josephncohen.org) and share your questions, corrections, thoughts or criticisms. I appreciate any feedback or advice on the video’s content (admittedly poor) production, or the format of moving my lectures to sets of short (5-10 minute) streaming videos.
When we have an important decision to make, we often have a discussion about it. We talk about it with other people, or we have discussions about it in our own heads. Those discussions are filled with arguments. By arguments, I don’t mean verbal fights or quarrels. Instead, I mean arguments as pleas for us to see the world in a particular way, to believe that something is real or something is true.
Knowing the parts of an argument puts you in a better position to judge their strengths and weaknesses. Our beliefs about an argument’s strengths or weaknesses will influence how much weight we give it when we’re making a decision.
Meet Ben and Rachel. Ben’s a smoker, and Rachel wants him to quit. To convince Ben to quit, Rachel’s going to make some arguments about why he should do it. I’d like you to consider five different arguments. For each argument, ask yourself whether or not you find it convincing and why.
In the first argument, Rachel says to Ben, “You should stop smoking.” That’s it, nothing else. For the second argument, Rachel says, “You should stop smoking, it’s gross.” In the third argument, she says, “You should stop smoking. The Surgeon General says you should.” Next, she says, “You should stop smoking; you’ll get cancer.” In the last one, she says, “You should stop smoking; smokers are evil.”
Think about each of these decisions for a moment. Which one did you find convincing? Which ones didn’t you find convincing? Why?
One way to figure out why we like some arguments and didn’t like others is to break them into parts and see what they’re made of. According to the Toulmin model, an argument has several distinct parts. I’m going to focus on the three most important parts: the claim, the grounds, and the warrants.
Claims are the conclusions of an argument, what the person who’s making the argument wants you to believe. The grounds of an argument are the reasons why we should believe the claim. Warrants are the implicit assumptions that make the grounds justify the claims, the tacit link between the conclusions and the reasons given for believing those conclusions.
Here’s a visual depiction of Toulmin’s model of arguments. There are three parts: the claim, the grounds, and the warrant. The claim is the idea or belief that the argument is trying to get you to accept as true or real. You can think of it as the argument’s main point, what the arguer is trying to convince you is right or correct. The grounds are the reasons given for you to accept the claim. The warrants are the unspoken assumptions that link the claim and the grounds. They’re the assumptions that you have to accept as true if the grounds are to provide adequate justification for the main claim.
Judging warrants is difficult because they’re unspoken, unlike grounds, which are given explicitly. Even though they’re challenging to tease out, they’re still an important part of judging its quality.
Approaching an argument with an open mind requires that we examine the logic underlying an argument. This involves looking at the grounds and the warrants of an argument. When examining an argument, ask yourself if it’s true and if it makes sense.
Going back to Ben and Rachel, Rachel was trying to convince Ben that he should quit smoking. The first type of argument was just a claim without grounds or warrant. The second argument was based on personal opinion. The next argument appealed to authority.
Arguments from authority are logical fallacies, a rhetorical trick that often fools us into thinking an unproven argument has been proven. Even if an authority figure says something is true, it doesn’t mean it has to be true.