You can think of arguments as ways to gather information and to acquire new beliefs. But information is not always given in the form of arguments. It might be that you’re reading some opinion piece in the newspapers, or maybe you’re listening to talk-back radio, or you’re talking with your friends on some hot topic, and they’re not really trying to make a point by using an argument. Sometimes people assert their beliefs without giving reasons; all they do is tell you what they believe. But stating beliefs is not giving arguments!
Things that may look like arguments but are not, and are thus misconstrued as arguments, are explanations, reports, instructions, and so on. Let’s look at some of those.
- An explanation is a statement or collection of statements asserting why or how something is the case.
Like arguments, explanations are typically presented as collections of statements. In explanations, however, statements are not presented as reasons to believe other statements; they are not presented as premises. Statements in explanations are trying to make you understand something, not trying to convince you that you should believe it.
Here’s an example:
In 2014, we introduced a new textbook in the Critical Thinking course taught at The University of Auckland, and we negotiated with the publishers to have a discount for Auckland University students. It was agreed with the publisher that the textbook would cost $95, but the book was listed at $130. When students complained about the price, we called the publisher. Eventually, we understood what happened: the textbook was more expensive than we expected because the person with whom we had made an agreement on a reduced price for the University of Auckland had left the company, and the new employee wasn’t aware of the agreement. At some point, the agreement was lost, and that’s why we didn’t get the discount.
We gave an explanation to our students to make them understand why the textbook was sold at $130 instead of $95. We weren’t arguing that the book should be sold at $130. We instead gave an argument to the publisher that they should reduce the price to $95 as negotiated and reimburse students. And they did.
Like explanations, advice is not an argument, even when expressed as a collection of statements.
Suppose Carol says:
- A good way to stop your dog from getting fleas is to spray them with cider vinegar.
With this advice, Carol isn’t arguing that we should spray our dogs with cider vinegar. (Don’t try it, it doesn’t work!) She was just giving us a way of trying to get rid of the fleas. The advice, however, could be used as part of an argument, since it is a statement. The argument could have as a conclusion that “you should spray your dog with cider vinegar”, as in:
Your dog has fleas, and a good way to get rid of fleas is to spray your dog with cider vinegar. Therefore, you should spray your dog with cider vinegar.
But on its own, advice is not an argument.
Instructions are not arguments either. Think about instructions to make a cake. You take flour, and then you put in an egg, and then you put in some milk, and you throw the thing in the oven, and eventually you get a cake. The instructions are not providing reasons for anything. Generally, instructions are not trying to make a point, they don’t have conclusions, and therefore, are not arguments.
Argument or not?
It’s not always easy to spot arguments, and it’s not always clear whether or not we have arguments. Here’s an example, taken from Bobby McFerrin’s song Don’t Worry, Be Happy:
Listen to what I say. In your life, expect some trouble. When you worry, you make it double. Don’t worry. Be happy.
Does this passage from the song contain an argument? If it did, we would have a conclusion, maybe something like:
- You shouldn’t worry.
- You should be happy.
Notice that “don’t worry, be happy” is not a statement, so we need to rephrase it as a proper statement, i.e., as something that is either true or false.
However, it’s not clear that this passage in the song really is trying to establish a point, though there’s this other part:
When you worry, your face will frown, and that will bring everybody down. So don’t worry. Be happy. Don’t worry. Be happy now.
Maybe there’s an argument here. An indication that we may be facing an argument is the indicator word so, a conclusion indicator. And it seems formulated as reasons that you shouldn’t worry and that you should be happy. So maybe there’s an argument:
If you worry, then your face frowns. If your face frowns, that brings everybody down. So if you’re worried, that brings everybody down. So you shouldn’t worry, and you should be happy.
The lesson to learn from this is that it is not always easy to identify arguments. Sometimes it looks as though some information is presented as an argument when it is not. Sometimes when people try to express themselves, they are trying to convince you of something, but they may not succeed in presenting their view as an argument. They may express their views without providing reasons for believing their views.
© Patrick Girard, University of Auckland