What constitutes good argument?

by The Editor

ARTICLE: What are the structural characteristics of a good argument? Many of the key ingredients are well known: evidence, reason, logic, language, but how do they all relate? Also, what combination results in a powerful argument and what combination results in a weak argument? I have tried to answer some of these questions in the short piece that follows below.

What constitues good argument?

By Gareth van Onselen

15 March 2010

Any cogent and convincing argument is founded on sound reasoning and reliant on its articulate expression. If either of these two requirements is not met, the resultant argument will be flawed and, in turn, unpersuasive: if an argument’s reasoning is illogical, it can be dismantled and, if its language is clumsy, then its purpose can be misunderstood or misrepresented.

Sound reasoning is the product of intelligent thought. It is informed by precedent, built on logic and bolstered by evidence. If an argument is original, this too counts in its favour; not only because it adds to public knowledge and enlivens discussion, but because any debate is fundamentally shaped and informed by the initial premise around which it unfolds.

In each case, the degree to which one is able to comply with these criteria determines the strength of their argument.

No less important is an ability to properly articulate one’s reasoning. And an ability effectively to use language and writing is inextricably linked to the strength of an argument’s resultant logic and its persuasiveness. Indeed, it is hard to say which comes first, the logic that defines an argument or the words that define one’s logic. Either way, the intelligent use of both is essential.

Words and language also serve another purpose – to give life to an argument. And here I do not refer to its concrete expression, but to its nature: whether it is bold and decisive, captivating and powerful; or whether it is ambiguous and bland, indifferent and mundane. Words not only serve a functional purpose, they are the lifeblood of any piece of writing and, when chosen with care and consideration, the difference between a dull distraction and the magnetic pull of a well thought out and tightly written opinion.

Contemporary public discourse is too often defined by poor argument. It is marked by an absence of considered thought and the misuse, even abuse, of language. ‘Arguments’ are reduced to rhetoric (a once virtuous skill, which now suffers a battered reputation). Logic and reason have been usurped by political correctness and language butchered by a systematic lowering of standards.

As a result, you can be sure that many arguments are not arguments at all; rather, empty shells – sometimes invective, sometimes nonsense, always superficial. They are words without ideas and ideas without words, an ambiguous emotional impulse detached from its intellectually moorings.

Words too have lost their meaning or, at least, their meaning has been stripped away from them. Clichés have become common cause, for they offer the double benefit of self-righteous indignation, as well as hazy meaning – a cozy refuge for moralisers.

And it is not just the quality of language that suffers but the quantity. By which I mean the number of words in circulation is reduced, down to a core set of ideas or phrases, even single words, which come to dominate debate, limiting the parameters of public thought, ostracizing originality and forcing every ambiguity to choose a side.

Dismantling shoddy reasoning and sifting through rhetoric in search of substance is a sizeable task, for even the most basic error often requires a response disproportionally bigger and more complex than the simple damage it affects. But it is a noble and necessary undertaking nonetheless, because history is a filter, through which the meaningless and mundane effortlessly pass, and so it is all the more important we ensure that what remains is reasonable, for it is against those more considered opinions that our actions will be judged.