An argument map shows us that an argument starts with a reason, over there on the far left. The first reason given has to stand on its own: nothing supports it. The writer expects readers to accept this reason and uses it as a jumping-off point to get to one or more claims. However, we should ask ourselves if the reason is as solid as the writer wants us to believe. Similarly, any statement made without support, such as a counterargument or rebuttal, should be examined.
We could visualize questioning foundational statements in the border argument map thus:
Below we go through questions to ask about reasons and common problem patterns to watch for.
Is the reason given actually false?
Testing a reason
A reason is supposed to support a claim, but the reason itself is a statement that may or may not be true. Sometimes just by reflecting on a reason given we can discover exceptions to it. If the reason makes a generalization, has it overlooked cases that don't fit? For example, in the case of the border argument, the first reason is, “We would feel it was right to cross the border without permission if we were in desperate circumstances.” Could there be a reader who would not feel justified in crossing the border illegally, even if they were desperate to improve living conditions for their children? We can imagine that to some people, any violation of the law would feel wrong, no matter what.
Similarly, the border argument presents the counterargument as if everyone will agree that "completely open borders would put our security at risk." Can we imagine any person disagreeing with that? For what reason? Maybe there are countries where open borders don’t pose a security risk. Or maybe we can imagine a way to provide security that doesn’t involve border regulation, as we do with state borders in the United States.
For another example, take the following argument:
The First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech to all Americans. Therefore, schools cannot restrict what teachers say in the classroom.
Americans probably have a sense that the First Amendment has something to do with freedom of speech. But does it really guarantee it in all cases? U.S. courts have recognized many exceptions to this freedom. For example, most people know that doctors are not allowed to discuss confidential patient information without permission. Many also know that no one is allowed to call for immediate acts of violence. Teachers may not tell students to go out and shoot the president. "Hate speech" is also prohibited: a teacher does not have the right to spout racial slurs. Another exception that applies to this case is not so widely known: the First Amendment does not apply when a person is working for an employer. Unless there is a local law protecting employee's speech, an employer can tell employees what they are and are not allowed to say on the job. So the claim above is in fact false.
If we are critiquing an argument because we think one of its reasons is not true or is not necessarily true, we could use sentences such as the following:
The argument is based on the idea that _____________, but this is not entirely true because _____________.
The reason given is that _____________, but the author has not considered the possibility that, in fact, _____________.
There are three particular patterns of faulty reasons that are worth learning about because they are used so often. In each of these, a faulty reason is presented in a dramatic and compelling way that may appeal to readers.
Sometimes a reason asserts that there are only two or three options, when in fact there may be others. This is often called a false dilemma or false choice fallacy. If the writer is arguing for something that obviously has downsides, they may present it as the lesser of two evils. However, we should always ask whether those two are really the only options. For example, consider the following argument:
Americans are faced with a choice: either we open our borders or we turn our backs on the needs of desperate people. Clearly, the only ethical course is to open our borders.
There are other ways to try to help desperate people. As a country, we give billions in direct aid and security assistance to struggling countries every year and could conceivably give more to the countries migrants are escaping. Other possible options would be to establish refugee camps at the border, or to allow people to enter the U.S. temporarily but not permanently. These options may or may not be good ones, but the point is that the way this argument has presented the choice as an either/or is misleading.
Here is a sample way to point out a false dilemma:
The argument presents only two possibilities,_____________ and _____________, when in fact it could be the case that _____________.
Sometimes a false dilemma is implied when an argument asks a question with an obvious answer, a question phrased in such a way that it pushes us to agree with the author without examining the real range of possibilities. This loaded question implies that there are only two options, one of them very bad. As an example, we can reframe the statement from the false dilemma example as a question and answer:
Can we justify turning our backs on the needs of desperate people? There is no justification for such selfishness. The time has come to open our borders.
The argument would be more transparent and less manipulative if it tried to prove that other ways of helping desperate people, such as direct aid in people’s countries of origin, would not do enough.
We might critique a loaded question thus:
The question _____________ assumes that _____________, when, in fact, it could be that_____________.
Many arguments use the threat of bad outcomes as a reason not to do something. It is always wise to ask ourselves if those bad outcomes are really inevitable or even likely. A slippery slope argument claims a disastrous cascade effect will take place if we take certain action. It presents a chain of events leading to disaster as if it is unstoppable or highly probable. But how slippery is the slope really? How likely is the disaster? Are there factors that could stop the chain reaction?
For example, take the following argument:
If we allow people to self-identify their gender regardless of their biology, they will expect to be able to self-identify their race and then their age and species. Next thing we know, the law will demand we pretend a person is a gorilla!
There is a certain appealing momentum to these arguments: we imagine a boulder rolling down a hill. But will one thing really lead to another? Just because the chain of events is vaguely plausible does not mean that we can be sure it is bound to happen. Many transgender people already legally claim a gender identity different from the one they were assigned at birth. However, very few people believe themselves to be a different age than their chronological age or a species other than human. There is no movement to push for legal recognition of self-identified age or species.
Fallacious slippery slope arguments have long been deployed to resist social change. Those opposed to the abolition of slavery warned of economic collapse and social chaos. Those who opposed women’s suffrage asserted that it would lead to the dissolution of the family, rampant sexual promiscuity, and social anarchy. Of course, none of these dire predictions came true; the slopes weren’t slippery.
We might point out a slippery slope argument with phrases like the following:
The argument claims that _____________ will inevitably lead to _____________, but this is far from certain.
They assume that _____________ will set off a chain reaction leading to _____________; however this is unlikely because _____________.
Does a reason need additional support?
Even if a reason is plausible and has no obvious exceptions, we should ask whether we can be sure it is true. The reason is the foundation of the argument: is the foundation secure? It may sound plausible and readers may be likely to accept it, but should they accept it? In some cases we may suspect that the reason is not true, and in others we may simply want to note that little or no evidence has been offered.
For example, the border argument map we have examined makes two claims that lack evidence: “Completely open borders would put our security at risk” and “There are ways to regulate the border without criminalizing people."
If we have thought of exceptions, then maybe the reason needs more support to show that the exceptions are not common. For example, we might consider that the writer should present some statistical evidence, like a survey, to show that a majority of people say they would feel justified in crossing a border illegally under desperate circumstances.
We can point out a need for support with phrases like the following:
The writer asserts that _____________ but does not offer any evidence.
The argument builds on the premise that _____________, but fails to support that premise.
Is the reason actually different from the claim?
Sometimes a reason given is not really a reason at all, just a repetition of the claim itself in different words. In effect, the writer asks us to believe an idea because of that very same idea. This is called circular reasoning or "begging the question."
For example, consider the following argument:
Anyone born in the United States has a right to citizenship because citizenship rights here depend on birth, not ethnicity or family history of immigration.
The idea that “anyone born in the United States has a right to citizenship” and the idea that “citizenship rights here depend on birth” are really one and the same. We still need a reason to accept this focus on birth as the determining factor.
It's worth noting that circular reasoning is often not deliberate. In reaching to explain the reason for a deeply held belief, a writer may end up summarizing that belief again in a way that feels intuitively appealing. They may not realize that anything is missing. Other times the writer may knowingly perform this sleight of hand, hoping the reader will not notice. In either case, the argument lacks foundation.
We can critique circular reasoning with phrases like the following:
The argument presents _____________ as a reason to believe _____________, but this supposed reason is just a rewording of the claim.
The writer provides no real justification for the idea that _____________; to convince us they just repeat that idea with different phrasing.
Review the reasons in the claim and reason pairs below. Why might a reader question the reasons given? How could the writer support the reasons further?
a. When a business doesn’t have to pay high taxes, it hires more employees. Therefore, giving tax breaks to big businesses will reduce unemployment.
b. The Irish were once considered nonwhite. Therefore, racial categories are defined by society, not biology.
c. Why should the government be allowed to label people against their will? People should be allowed to self-identify their gender.
In a few sentences, write down your opinion on a current issue that interests you. Give at least one reason for your opinion, so you have a claim and reason pair. Then exchange with a classmate. As you read your classmate’s opinion and reason, ask yourself if all readers would accept the reason as a true statement in itself. If some readers might question the reason, consider how the author could strengthen the argument. Could the writer add support to defend the reason? Can you describe what kind of support would be most convincing?