As we have seen, arguments often have complex structures including subarguments (recall that a subargument is an argument for one of the premises of the main argument). But in practice people do not always give further reasons or argument in support of every statement they make. Sometimes they use certain rhetorical devices to cut the argument short, or to hint at a further argument without actually stating it. There are three common strategies for doing this:
Assuring: informing someone that there are further reasons although one is not giving them now
Guarding: weakening one’s claims so that it is harder to show that the claims are false
Discounting: anticipating objections that might be raised to one’s claim or argument as a way of dismissing those objections.3
We will discuss these in order, starting with assuring. Why would we want to assure our audience? Presumably when we make a claim that isn’t obvious and that the audience may not be inclined to believe. For example, if I am trying to convince you that the United States is one of the leading producers of CO2 emissions, then I might cite certain authorities such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as saying so. This is one way of assuring our audience: by citing authorities. There are many ways to cite authorities, some examples of which are these:
Dentists agree that...
Recent studies have shown...
It has been established that...
Another way of assuring is to comment on the strength of one’s own convictions. The rhetorical effect is that by commenting on how sure you are that something is true, you imply, without saying, that there must be very strong reasons for what you believe—assuming that the audience believes you are a reasonable person, of course. Here are some ways of commenting on the strength of one’s beliefs:
I’m certain that...
I’m sure that...
I can assure you that...
Over the years, I have become convinced that...
I would bet a million dollars that...
Yet another way of assuring one’s audience is to make an audience member feel that it would be stupid, odd, or strange to deny the claim one is making. One common way to do this is by implying that every sensible person would agree with the claim. Here are some examples:
Everyone with any sense agrees that...
Of course, no one will deny that...
There is no question that...
No one with any sense would deny that...
Another common way of doing this is by implying that no sensible person would agree with a claim that we are trying to establish as false:
It is no longer held that...
No intelligent person would ever maintain that...
You would have to live under a rock to think that...
Assurances are not necessarily illegitimate, since the person may be right and may in fact have good arguments to back up the claims, but the assurances are not themselves arguments and a critical thinker will always regard them as somewhat suspect. This is especially so when the claim isn’t obviously true.
Next, we will turn to guarding. Guarding involves weakening a claim so that it is easier to make that claim true. Here is a simple contrast that will make the point. Consider the following claims:
A. All U.S. Presidents were monogamous
B. Almost all U.S. Presidents were monogamous
C. Most U.S. Presidents were monogamous
D. Many U.S. Presidents were monogamous
E. Some U.S. Presidents were monogamous
The weakest of these claims is E, whereas the strongest is A and each claims descending from A-E is increasingly weaker. It doesn’t take very much for E to be true: there just has to be at least one U.S. President who was monogamous. In contrast, A is much less likely than E to be true because it require every U.S. President to have been monogamous. One way of thinking about this is that any time A is true, it is also true that B-E is true, but B-E could be true without A being true. That is what it means for a claim to be stronger or weaker. A weak claim is more likely to be true whereas a strong claim is less likely to be true. E is much more likely to be true than A. Likewise, D is somewhat more likely to be true than C, and so on.
So, guarding involves taking a stronger claim and making it weaker so there is less room to object to the claim. We can also guard a claim by introducing a probability clause such as, “it is possible that...” and “it is arguable that...” or by reducing our level of commitment to the claim, such as moving from “I know that x” to “I believe that x.” One common use of guarding is in reconstructing arguments with missing premises using the principle of charity (section 1.9). For example, if an argument is that “Tom works for Merrill Lynch, so Tom has a college degree,” the most charitable reconstruction of this argument would fill in the missing premise with “most people who work for Merrill Lynch have college degrees” rather than “everyone who works for Merrill Lynch has a college degree.” Here we have created a more charitable (plausible) premise by weakening the claim from “all” to “most,” which as we have seen is a kind of guarding.
Finally, we will consider discounting. Discounting involves acknowledging an objection to the claim or argument that one is making, while dismissing that same objection. The rhetorical force of discounting is to make it seem as though the argument has taken account of the objections—especially the ones that might be salient in a person’s mind. The simplest and most common way of discounting is by using the “A but B” locution. Contrast the following two claims:
A. The worker was inefficient, but honest.
B. The worker was honest, but inefficient.
Although each statement asserts the same facts, A seems to be recommending the worker, whereas B doesn’t. We can imagine A continuing: “And so the manager decided to keep her on the team.” We can imagine B continuing:
“Which is why the manager decided to let her go.” This is what we can call the “A but B” locution. The “A but B” locution is a form of discounting that introduces what will be dismissed or overridden first and then follows it by what is supposed to be the more important consideration. By introducing the claim to be dismissed, we are discounting that claim. There are many other words that can be used as discounting words instead of using “but.” Table 2 below gives a partial list of words and phrases that commonly function as discounting terms.
Which rhetorical techniques (assuring, guarding, discounting) are being using in the following passages?
1. Although drilling for oil in Alaska will disrupt some wildlife, it is better than having to depend on foreign oil, which has the tendency to draw us into foreign conflicts that we would otherwise not be involved in.
2. Let there be no doubt: the entity that carried out this attack is a known terrorist organization, whose attacks have a characteristic style—a style that is seen in this attack today.
3. Privatizing the water utilities in Detroit was an unprecedented move that has garnered a lot of criticism. Nonetheless, it is helping Detroit to recover from bankruptcy.
4. Most pediatricians agree that the single most important factor in childhood obesity is eating sugary, processed foods, which have become all too common in our day and age.
5. Although not every case of AIDS is caused by HIV, it is arguable that most are.
6. Abraham Lincoln was probably our greatest president since he helped keep together a nation on the brink of splintering into two.
7. No one with any sense would support Obamacare.
8. Even if universal healthcare is expensive, it is still the just thing to do.
9. While our country has made significant strides in overcoming explicit racist policies, the wide disparity of wealth, prestige and influence that characterize white and black Americans shows that we are still implicitly a racist country.
10. Recent studies have show that there is no direct link between vaccines and autism.
3 This characterization and discussion draws heavily on chapter 3, pp. 48-53 of Sinnott- Armstrong and Fogelin’s Understanding Arguments, 9th edition (Cengage Learning).