Bryan Caplan  

I Would Argue

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After reading a draft of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Tyler Cowen bemusedly told me, "You have more enthusiasm for your own arguments than you do for the children themselves."  A slight exaggeration, but I take it as a compliment.  I do indeed love a good argument - and every time I father a hearty new argument, I swell with pride.

What makes a good argument?

First, a good argument begins with premises that many people find plausible even if they disagree with your conclusion.  The less controversial and complex your premises, the better.  This doesn't mean, of course, that a good argument has to convince everyone.  No argument does.  But every good argument reaches out to minds not-yet-convinced.

Second, a good argument carefully reasons from these initial premises to your conclusion.  The conclusion need not be certain; if your premises are merely probable, you can hardly expect to reach a conclusion free of doubt.  But a probable conclusion is still a conclusion.

Third, a good argument must have a conclusion more obvious than the denial of your initial premises.  You can't argue that 1+1=3.  After all, any argument of the form "A, therefore B" is also an argument that "Not B, therefore not A."  Corollary: If your conclusion is totally obvious, you shouldn't argue on its behalf.  To do so wastes everyone's time. 

Does anyone seriously dispute these principles?  Yes.  The staunchest opponents of argument, strangely, tend to be intellectuals.  Their main argument against argument is that "Argument doesn't work."  Since people are stubborn and dogmatic, even the best arguments fail to change people's minds.

My reply is just, "Compared to what?"  Arguments clearly change some people's minds.  The people most susceptible to argument are usually those we independently perceive as reasonable and fair-minded.  Why aren't these facts sufficient to vindicate the practice of argument? 

The worst enemies of argument, though, are free-riders rather than critics - the people who invoke argument without applying it.  How often have you heard someone use the phrase, "I would argue," then state their conclusion, then never actually argue for it?  For me, the answer is several times per week.

We all have time constraints.  Sometimes you just want to fast forward to your conclusion before you leave a party.  But if you habitually fail to argue for the claims you "would argue for," you give the art of argument a bad name. 

Tomorrow, October 30, I'm debating "Let Anyone Take a Job Anywhere" for Intelligence Squared in New York City.  I will present the best arguments I know how, subject to a rather brutal time constraint.  The audience will judge how well I meet my own standards.  Hope to see you there.

Update: I initially wrote, "Third, a good argument must have a conclusion less obvious than the denial of your initial premises."  I misspoke.  If your premises are only moderately likely to be true (say 80%), and your conclusion is extremely unlikely (say 1-in-a-billion), it makes more sense to deny the premises (20% chance of truth) than embrace the conclusion (1-in-a-billion chance of truth).  Thanks to David Gordon for pointing out my misstatement.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tracy W writes:

There's a contradiction in believing arguments don't work: if the people who argue that believe their own premise then it's quite plausible that they've reached that view for reasons other than careful consideration of the arguments for and against, and thus why should anyone believe them?

dave smith writes:

Your third point reminded me a Abe Simpson: "Everything everyone just said is either obvious or wrong."

Eli writes:

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Aaron Zierman writes:

I would argue that saying "I would argue" and then proceeding directly to your conclusion is more often the opening salvo of a possible discussion (see what I did there?). The other member of the discussion may or may not disagree or question the conclusion, and therefore there might not be a need to actually argue the point. It's more about being a launching point than a conclusion.

Hazel Meade writes:

Another good point is that while there are other ways to change people's minds, those other ways can be used on behalf of any idea whether it is rational or not.

The only way to reach rational conclusions is to argue rationally. You may be completely convinced that you are right and other people are just stubborn and dogmatic, but once you leave the path of reason, they don't have any reason to stay on it either.

And then what do we have? FOX News and MSNBC in a propaganda war. Dueling images of crying babies, spin and optics.

Framing your terms is great and all, but if you can do it, so can anyone.

Mike H writes:

@Tracy W

"if the people who argue that believe their own premise then it's quite plausible that they've reached that view for reasons other than careful consideration of the arguments"

Not to mention, they are arguing for arguing not working. Their position contradicts itself.

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