Meaningful arguments must go beyond persuasive emotional responses

Ever known an uncooperative grump? Ever made the mistake of engaging a cantankerous person on Aisle 5 in a department store with a simple friendly “hello”? Ever worked with an ornery and cynical colleague, who always objected to whatever suggestions were made? It seems some people are always looking for an argument.

Sometimes, however, we should look for an argument. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting we be pessimistic or contentious or behave curmudgeonly. I’m making a case for listening to how people argue.

Logic has been considered the sole key to making a good argument. If a student can make sound syllogisms and recognize logical fallacies, then he or she will argue soundly and persuasively. These syllogisms, however, are often separate from content — in essence, they can be formulaic. The rhetorician must know the material or the topic at hand.

An argument — at least a persuasive argument — “must say something intelligible about the actual world.”* Readers, listeners or viewers must be able to relate to the argument. Another common advice, especially nowadays, is to tell stories that tug at the heartstrings. Argumentation, though, is more than creating a persuasive emotional response.

In the early 1950s, four English professors at the University of Chicago believed college education was incomplete regarding the art of argumentation. They offered a more comprehensive solution. (One of the authors was native North Carolinian Richard Weaver, one of the founders of post-World War II and modern-day conservatism.)

The professors offered four “sources of arguments”: genus, consequence, similarity and authority. Let’s examine these four sources more carefully with the following example offered by the authors.

If you are out for a walk one night and a thief approaches you and demands your money, there are some arguments — if he is willing to listen — that can be made. These go beyond a syllogism.

Genus: You can remind him that his action will be a crime. Genus often implies a universal understanding that needs no explanation. Labeling a behavior a “crime” should be a sufficient “proof.” In other circumstances, the public needs a definition. For instance, terms of “liberty” and “democracy” need to be defined before being used in an argument at least before it is considered a commonly accepted definition.

Consequence: The robbery will cost the thief years in prison. (You may remember the crime prevention phrase: “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time!”)

Similarity: If the roles were reversed, if you were demanding his money, he would dislike being a victim.

Authority: You could argue that his behavior is morally wrong. The Bible forbids it. The authority is always something external from the immediate matter. For political matters, people often claim something is not “truly American.”

After being able to identify these four sources of arguments, one can engage in a systematic approach to argumentation. The hope was that topic knowledge and familiarity combined with the sound logic and rhetoric of argumentation would produce better arguments. Skilled students, the authors believed, are “not so likely to either to freeze or to foam.” They will be skilled enough to actually “have something to say about controversial subjects.” And, they would do so in an informed and well-thought-out fashion.

In today’s political climate, I’m looking for good arguments. And I am not happy until I find one.

Yeah, that’s right! You heard me.

*Much of this column is based on Manuel Bilsky, McCrea Hazlett, Robert E. Streeter, and Richard M. Weaver, “Looking for an Argument,” College English (Jan. 1953), 210-53.