What makes an argument good?

Often my students ask me questions like, "Could I say this as an argument? " or "What do you think about "x" as an argument?" Of course these students are engaged in competitive academic debate and what they're really asking is: "Will this argument win a debate round?" My answer is always the same: "It depends on whether you can support it in a way the audience will accept."

What does it mean to support an argument? In the international academic debate community the traditional way of speaking about arguments since the turn of the century has been the model of "point, argument, evidence." I've come to view this as a layperson's approach to describing to what Toulmin described as "claim, warrant, and grounding." Toulmin goes further describing how evidence becomes substantiated as credible and how evidence can bolster reasoning when it is questioned. In short, the Toulmin model of argumentation is more robust than the model traditionally used in the international debate community, however, it strikes me that descriptive models of argument have limited utility when it comes to making someone persuasive. 

Perhaps Aristotle's artistic proofs (ethos, logos, and pathos) are more comprehensive. The arguer that is passionate, reasonable, and credible certainly is much more compelling than the arguer who is not. When it comes to reasonability, there's no one way to accomplish this. Different people in different fields and social positions are bound to find different reasons more compelling or less so. You have to know what constitutes acceptable reasons and evidence in the mind of the person you're trying to persuade.

We know from Fisher's work that people are more willing to accept analysis that is internally consistent and not contradicted by their own experiences. We know from Sinek's work that people are persuaded by shared values and visions. And we know from Haidt's work that there are certain universal values that tend to move people to action. 

This brings us back to the question my students pose: "can I make this argument?" An answer that begins to be satisfying might be, "What will your audience need you to do to make that argument acceptable to them?" Do they want statistics or narratives or polemics or reasoned and subdued discourse? At some point all the logic and evidence in the world doesn't matter if we don't trade in a shared sense of what's logical and factual. 

John PatrickComment