Lecture 1: Reason and Argument

    Like most disciplines, philosophy has its own methodology, its own approach to inquiry.  A central goal of this course is to learn and apply that methodology, which will most likely diverge in important respects from the approach taken by sociologists, anthropologists, poets or creative writers.  Although creativity and originality is a crucial component of the best philosophic discourse, the discipline of philosophy is squarely grounded in a rather objective methodology, where that objectivity is grounded on reason and argument.  Whether or not you come to accept or to reject the legitimacy and/or authority of this methodology, you will be asked to employ it throughout the course.
     The word ‘argument’ has come to have a colloquial meaning that is quite different from its original, more philosophic roots.  In everyday conversation if you say you are having an argument with your significant other, you probably mean that you are having a disagreement – a disagreement that may have even collapsed into a yelling contest.  The difference between the colloquial and the philosophic sense of ‘argument’ is brilliantly illustrated in the Monty Python Clip we viewed in class.  In that clip the character portrayed by Michael Palin defines an argument as “a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.”  In contrast to a series of contradictions or automatic gainsaying of one’s interlocutor, an argument is “an intellectual process.”  This is precisely what the philosopher has in mind when she talks of an argument.
     Not only does the philosophic notion of an argument stand in contrast to a mere series of contradictions, but it also contrasts with what Socrates called “sophistry,” or what I shall rhetoric.  In other courses, you may hear the term ‘rhetoric’ used in a positive way, but not here.  A person who engages in mere rhetoric wants only to persuade.  That is, the goal of rhetoric is to get others to agree with your point of view.  The goal of argument, on the other hand, is to arrive at the truth; or short of the truth, at least to arrive at a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.  The rhetorician will only consider a debate successful if he succeeds in convincing the other of his point of view.  A philosopher, on the other hand, will consider a debate successful provides she ends up with a better understanding of the relative merits of each side of a given issue.  Philosophy, if done properly, requires an ego-less distancing of oneself from the issues under discussion.  A philosopher cannot enter a debate already assuming that he has the Truth, but must always allow for the possibility that he is mistaken.  Likewise one cannot identify oneself so strongly with one’s beliefs that one is unable to reflect critically on those beliefs without feeling that one’s personhood is “under attack.”  It is neither philosophically acceptable to end a debate by asserting “Well, there just are some Truths, and this is one of them,” nor to say “Well, that’s just how I feel about it.”

The Structure of a Philosophic Argument

A philosophic argument is composed of two basic parts: premises and a conclusion.  The conclusion is the claim the argument purports to establish.  The premises are the reasons offered in support of the conclusion.  Often an argument is developed discursively over the course of an essay.  But sometimes we want to be able to examine the most basic structure of an argument.  In this case, we can make a numbered list of the premises, and place the conclusion underneath that list, typically separated by a line.  For example:
P1.  All dogs are mammals.
P2.  All mammals are warm-blooded.
C.  Therefore, all dogs are warm-blooded.
This specific form of representing an argument is called a syllogism.  In Phil 001, one typically deals with syllogisms.  Looking at syllogisms is the best way to grasp the concept of an argument and to get into the habit of thinking in terms of an argument.  In today’s lectures, we shall focus exclusively on syllogisms.

This basic idea is very simple.  However, learning to think in terms of premises and conclusions is something that takes a great deal of effort and practice for a great many people.  For some, it comes quite naturally.  But for many people, this is utterly foreign to how one normally thinks, especially about ethics.  Many people think of ethics either as simply a matter of following an authority – the state, one’s pastor, common opinion – or as something more like poetry, something that one simply feels.  This is not to say that philosophers are emotionless, or that feeling has no role in moral inquiry.  But the key to moral discourse, for the philosopher, is reasoned argument.

Before we end today, I want to look at a couple examples of arguments.  I then have a homework assignment for you to complete for Thursday’s lecture.

Critically Evaluating Arguments

The first step in evaluating an argument is reconstructing the argument.  Consider Homer’s argument in the clip we watched in class. Putting that argument in syllogistic form, we have:
P1.  There are no bears around.
C.  Therefore, the Bear Patrol is working.
Is this a good argument? In assessing whether an argument is good or bad, we look at two things:  (1) Are the premises reasonable? (2) Do the premises provide sufficiently compelling grounds for accepting the conclusion?  If you happen to have seen this episode of The Simpsons, you will know that the premise is indeed true.  But it does not provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion.  Lisa demonstrates this by way of counter-example.
P1.  There are no tigers around.
C.  Therefore, this rock must be an effective tiger-deterrent.
In Lisa’s argument, the premise is true, yet the conclusion absurd.  Thus, it is a clearly a fallacious argument.  Yet it has the very same structure as Homer’s argument.  Thus, there must be something wrong with Homer’s argument.

It’s the Structure that Counts

This is another crucial aspect of philosophic argument.  It is the structure that matters.  The word we use in philosophy to refer to a good argument is cogent.  A cogent argument is one whose structure is such that the premises provide good reasons for accepting the conclusion.

Be careful.  For an argument to be cogent, it is not sufficient that the conclusion be true.  The argument must be such that the premises provide sufficient reasons or grounds for accepting the conclusion.  Consider the following argument:

P1.  Almost all mammals are warm-blooded.
P2.  Warm-blooded animals tend birth their young life (as opposed to laying eggs).
C.  Therefore, almost all mammals have fur or hair.

Even though the premises and conclusion are all true, the argument is not cogent, as the premises do not provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion.  Rather, we all accept the conclusion because that is what we learned in biology class (and we believed our teachers).  Now the above example is rather silly, and one not likely to be confused with a good argument.  But it is important to keep this in mind when analyzing moral arguments, as we are likely to accept an argument simply because we agree with the conclusion (and so are typically willing to accept the premises as well).  Consider the following:

P1.  We cannot be soft on violent criminal behaviour.
P2.  We must do all we can to protect society from violent criminals.
C.  Therefore, we must institute minimum sentences for certain violent crimes.
This is not a good argument, because there is nothing that connects the premises to the conclusion.  One who already accepts the conclusion will be tempted to view this as a good argument.  And it may even psychologically resonate with how one thinks about the issue.  But, based on the objective logical structure, the argument is not cogent.  In contrast the following is much better:
P1.  Instituting minimum sentences for violent crimes will have a deterrent effect on future commissions of those crimes.
P2.  We must do what we can to deter potential criminals from committing violent crimes.
C.  Therefore, we must institute minimum sentences for certain violent crimes.
This is at least a prima facie cogent argument.  While there may be good grounds for rejecting it, it at least connects the premises to the conclusion in a plausible manner.


Because it is the structure of an argument that determines its cogency, one common way of defeating an argument is by counter-example.  This is what Lisa does.  A good argument by counter-example: (i) has the same structure as the argument under attach, (ii) is such that the premises are all accepted as true or warranted, and (iii) is such that the conclusion is universally accepted as false/absurd/unwarranted.  If one can come up with an example that has all three of these characteristics, then one has refuted the argument in question.

Conditions (ii) and (iii) are important here.  The strength of the counter-example depends on how widely it would be accepted that the premises are warranted and the conclusion unwarranted.  Lisa’s counter-example, for instance, is very strong, as everyone (except Homer) would accept the premise but reject the conclusion.  But when we get into moral debates, one must be more careful.  For example, consider the following counter-example to the above argument about minimum sentences:

P1’.  Suspending students from university for cheating will have a deterrent effect on future instances of cheating.
P2’.  We must try to reduce the occurrence of cheating in university.
C’.  Therefore, we should suspend students from university for cheating.
While many would accept the premises, many would also accept the conclusion.  So this is probably not the strongest counter-example that could be made to the above argument.
P1’’.  Instituting the death penalty for excessive speeding will have a deterrent effect on future instances of excessive speeding.
P2’’.  We must do what we can to protect society from dangerous drivers such as those who drive at excessive speeds.
C’’.  Therefore, we should institute the death penalty for excessive speeding.
Most people would probably accept P1’’.  If one is not inclined to accept this premise, then one is probably also not inclined to accept the first premise of the original argument.  Remember this is supposed to be a counter-argument to the original argument about minimum sentences.  So the intended target here is someone who already accepts that argument.  It is likely that anyone who accepts P1 would also accept P1’’.  It is also likely that most would reject the conclusion as absurd.  What this means is that the proponent of the original argument must revise one of the premises so as to block the counter-argument.  And the cycle continues.

But the last important point to note about this is the importance of common ground.  In a philosophic argument, progress is best made if one looks for common ground (e.g. shared beliefs or values) and follows out the logical implications of those common presuppositions.