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: Why Study Argument?

“Kiddie” Arguments

One of the authors was enjoying a cheeseburger at a local fast food chain when two toddlers, accompanied by their parents, took a seat in a nearby booth. It wasn’t long before an argument broke out:

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did too.”

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

And so it went.

Listening to little tykes argue is both fascinating and frustrating. Their arguing skills are underdeveloped, yet they understand that arguing is supposed to be a back and forth process. They try to emulate the give and take format they see adults using. Although they may imitate the form of adult arguments, children’s arguments are typically lacking in substance. They know they are supposed to refute their opponent’s arguments, but they don’t quite know how. They may add snappy comebacks to their argumentative repertoire, such as “I know you are but what am I?” but their arguments remain superficial. Unfortunately, not all people outgrow this. Indeed, in the fast food restaurant, it wasn’t the toddlers who were arguing. It was their parents. The two children, along with the author, sat quietly soaking it all in.

Arguing as a Developmental Process

Child prodigies are fascinating. Pablo Picasso learned to draw before he learned to speak. He was admitted to Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts when he was 13. Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, began playing at the age of five and was the USSR chess champion at 13. And then there’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his first symphony when he was only eight.

Feeling old? If so, you can take solace in the fact that, when it conies to arguing, there are no childhood geniuses.1 You won’t, for instance, find any eight-year-old “whizz kids”

presenting cases before the Supreme Court. This is because the ability to think, reason, and argue well is a developmental process. As Mercier and Sperber observed, “there is no evidence that [reasoning] occurs in preverbal children” (2011, p. 57). As their cognitive functioning and language abilities improve, children improve their argumentation skills (Amsterlaw, 2006; Jasna, 1992; Kuhn & Udell, 2003; Ricco, 2015). Young-uns soon learn to make more substantive arguments. For example, most kids quickly learn to invoke the “fairness principle” as an effective strategy. If a parent says, “Lulu, it’s your bedtime,” the child might respond, “That’s not fair! Henry gets to stay up late.”

Children also learn social norms that govern arguing, such as not engaging in name-calling, taunting, or hazing (okay, some kids learn these norms), and they develop what has been called a theory of mind (Wellman, 1992). That is, they begin to see things from another person’s point of view, a crucial skill that helps them tailor their arguments to a particular audience. As a result, after asking her mom, “Can I stay up an hour later to watch this show?” Lulu might add, “It’s educational!” Lulu’s argument demonstrates perspective-taking.

Argumentation skills continue to develop during the teen years. One study (Weinstock, Neuman & Glassner, 2006) found that students’ ability to identify informal fallacies improved with grade level. Another study demonstrated that adolescents (7th and 8th graders) were proficient in advancing arguments for their own side, but were not as adept as young college students (freshman and sophomores) at refuting the arguments of the opposing side (Felton & Kuhn, 2001).

The Importance of Context and Culture

While the ability to argue is learned, it is important to keep in mind that this ability is learned somewhat differently across cultures and over time. Arguing is contextual and is situated in a particular culture, time, and place. By way of example, what might have been perceived as a cogent argument for the use of torture in the 1500s, during the Spanish Inquisition, would not be perceived as a reasonable argument today. Moreover, while arguments for a number of questionable medical practices—e.g., bloodletting or lobotomies—might have held water at one time or another, they’d certainly be considered unreasonable today.

What’s more, culture and context not only influence perceptions about the content of arguments, but also perceptions about whether, when, and how to disagree. Likewise, orientations toward arguing, such as whether to be direct and assertive or avoid confrontation, vary between Asian and Western cultures (Xie, Hampie & Wang, 2015). We address these differences in more detail in Chapter 4.

Adult Arguers

Research suggests that arguing ability continues to develop into adulthood (Grossman, Na, Varnum, Park, Kitayama & Nisbett, 2010; Kuhn & Udell, 2003; Moshman, 1998). By the time most people finish high school or enter college they have acquired basic argumentation skills. You may be asking yourself, then, “If I’ve got the basics down, why do I need this book?” The answer is that it is one thing to develop basic argumentation skills, and another thing altogether to become a skillful arguer. Parents, for instance, frequently resort to a fallacy called appealing to the crowd when they utter remarks such as “I don’t care if your friends ride their skateboards in the street. If they jumped off a cliff would you do it too?” Other examples

I. I Sometimes people act first, and think second. © Peter Mueller/The New Yorker Collection/

Figure I. I Sometimes people act first, and think second. © Peter Mueller/The New Yorker Collection/

of adult arguers making rather childish arguments are just a couple of clicks away on your remote control. The Judge Judy show, for example, relies on plaintiffs’ and defendants’ feeble arguments as a form of entertainment. Other low-brow TV fare also appeals to people’s baser argumentative urges. Hey, we love to watch these shows too, but we don’t expect to hear exemplar}' reasoning when doing so.

Faux Reasoning

Unfortunately, in everyday life the situation isn’t much better. Consider the sham conversation below.

Naomi: “Why?”

Bernie: “Because.”

Naomi: “Because why?”

Bernie: “Just because.”

“Punny reason giving.”

Figure 1.2 “Punny reason giving.”

J.C. Duffy. Fusco Brothers, 10/23/2008 Cartoonist Group, image 27509. ©J.C. Duffy/Fusco Brothers/

Although Bernie offers the semblance of an argument, it is not an actual argument. Perhaps he can’t come up with a good reason or maybe he is being cognitively lazy. The slang phrase “I want this because of reasons,” which was also a popular meme, embodies this same empty reasoning. The phrase, which is sometimes shortened to “because of reasons,” is used ironically to acknowledge that a person should have reasons, but cannot be bothered to come up with any.

Another faux argument involves making a questionable claim, and then adding “I’m just sayin’” as a means of shirking any obligation to provide proof. Imagine, for example, two office gossips discussing their boss’s attire:

Ralph: “Is Lester on the prowl? He’s sporting a new wardrobe.”

Amos: “I don’t think so. He and his wife just celebrated their 20th anniversary.”

Ralph: “Still . . . that’s an awfully nice suit he has on. I’m just sayin’.”

Think about Ralph’s claim for a moment. By adding “I’m just sayin’,” he isn’t strengthening his argument. The phrase is tacked on to avoid offering additional reasons or proof.

The proverbial response, “Whatever. . .” (accent on the ever) also entails a pretext of reasoning. “Whatever. . .” is a way of conveying annoyance or disdain without conceding or refuting the point. If you’ve ever used this response, you should know that people find it irritating. In fact, in one series of polls, “whatever” was voted the “most annoying” word for seven years in a row (Marist Poll, 2015)! Other tired tropes, such as “It is what it is,” can be aggravating as well. Although offered as an excuse for doing nothing, it relies on circular reasoning, a topic we will cover later in this book.

Angry Argument

Worse still, some adult arguers don’t simply offer empty arguments, they get mad too. They resort to verbal aggression, such as threats or name calling. Participants on reality shows, such as Big Brother or Real Housewives, often rely on such tactics. The dialogue below illustrates a hypothetical encounter characterized by aggressiveness.

Vic: “Oh yeah?”

Rex: “Yeah!”

Vic: “Sez who?”

Rex: “Sez me. Wanna make somethin’ of it?”

Vic: “I’d like to see you try.”

Rex: “Keep yappin’ and I’ll slap the ugly right off your face.”

Vic: “Bring it on, fool.”

Rex: “So you’re admittin’ you’re ugly?” Vic: “Not as ugly as you’re gonna be.”

The form of the above argument involves point—counterpoint, but there is little or no substance to the “arguments.” Blustering and threats have replaced reasoning and rationality. Argumentation scholars (Infante, 1987; Infante & Rancer, 1982; Infante & Wigley, 1986) view verbal aggression as a skill deficiency. When arguers lack appropriate argumentation skills, they resort to name calling and put downs. We will have more to say about verbal aggression in the following chapter.

Aims and Goals of This Book

Improving Your Knowledge and Skills in Argumentation

The good news is that it is quite possible to improve your arguing, reasoning, and thinking skills. Hence this book. One of our primary reasons for writing this text is to help increase your knowledge and understanding of basic principles and processes of argumentation which, in turn, will improve your argumentation skills. Whatever your current level or ability, you can improve. In this respect, arguing is analogous to dancing. You might already have a decent “Moonwalk” or “Tango,” but there is always room for improvement. First, you’ll need a better understanding of how argumentation works. Then you’ll need practice. And lots of it. Just as one can’t learn to scuba dive solely by reading about it, you can’t become a more competent arguer without practicing your skills. As van Gelder (2005) emphasized, “for students to improve they must engage in critical thinking itself. It is not enough to learn about critical thinking” (p. 43). At best then, we can point you in the right direction. But, ultimately, you’ll need to complete the journey yourself. We promise it’ll be worth your while!

Improving Your Thinking and Reasoning Ability

Our second goal is to improve your critical thinking ability. Critical thinking and argumentation go hand in hand. Before you can develop a cogent argument, you need to understand the issues surrounding a controversy. That requires researching the issues and analyzing them in depth and detail. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this. Indeed, according to a survey of 400 companies, fewer than 1 in 3 employers rated college graduates as excellent in critical thinking skills (Schoeff, 2007). Another survey revealed that 93 percent of employers agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their major” (Hart Research Associates, 2013, p. 1).

What’s more, some people are convinced that they are “right” and that conviction alone is enough to prevail in any argument.2 Not so. When pondering an important issue, it is worth taking differing perspectives into account. Strong convictions aren’t sufficient for winning an argument. In fact, they may even blind people from recognizing weaknesses in their own positions.

Improving Your Ability to Argue Appropriately

Arguing well isn’t just about winning either. Our third goal in writing this book is to help you improve your ability to argue in socially appropriate ways. Arguing well isn’t about winning at all costs. To be a competent arguer you must argue effectively and appropriately, which means that in addition to advancing a well-reasoned case, you should make arguments that are suitable for your audience, the context, and existing social norms. People who are rude, boorish, or verbally aggressive may win the battle but lose the war. They may prevail in a particular argument, but damage their relationships, identities, or reputations in the long run. A competent arguer, then, demonstrates respect for others, without resorting to name calling, threats, or ultimatums. All three of the above goals—improving your argumentation skills, cultivating your critical thinking skills, and learning to argue in appropriate ways—are major themes of this text. More about the positive side of arguing is explained in Box 1.1.

Box 1.1 Arguing Is a Prosocial Endeavor

The Common Sense View of Argument

Arguing is not a dirty word, although many people seem to think so. In everyday life the word “argument” often carries a negative connotation. Some people equate having an argument with having a fight. Rather than using the word “argument” to refer to an interaction, people often opt for euphemisms such as, “We were merely having a discussion.” Words such as “discussion,” “quarrel,” “tiff,” or “spat” sound less pejorative. In everyday parlance, being labeled “argumentative” also has a negative connotation. “Floyd is an argumentative person” someone might say, meaning that Floyd is hard to get along with.

Emotional Excess

These negative connotations are understandable. Sometimes arguing is associated with an excess of emotion. When some people argue, they become angry, scornful, and vehement. These are the parents you see, for example, hurling expletives at the referee during their eight year old’s soccer match. However, such behavior is actually the result of a lack of argumentation skills. Screamers lack argumentative competence. Their hostility is a sign of a skill deficiency.


Sometimes arguing is associated with an absence of emotion. When some people argue, they become cold and calculating. They lack compassion. Imagine an inflexible professor who says to a student, “Your paper is five minutes late. That’ll cost you a letter grade.” When the student begins to explain, the professor states matter-of-factly, “It’s in the syllabus. I suggest you read it.” Other examples include a lawyer who enjoys humiliating witnesses, a boss who turns every minor request by an employee into a performance review, or a parent who translates every mistake a child makes into an “I told you so” lecture.

Being cold and calculating, however, is not an intrinsic feature of arguing. An absence of emotion also may reflect a skill deficiency. To argue appropriately, we must demonstrate respect for the other person and tolerance for his or her point of view. Arguing competently and appropriately requires using our heads and our hearts.

An Enlightened View of Argument

Our view is that arguing is actually a prosocial form of human interaction. First and foremost, arguing is a peaceful means of managing conflicts. Arguing is democratic; all the participants get to have their say. That doesn’t guarantee that they will leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Still, arguing is one of the best ways of handling disagreements. People can disagree, but in constructive ways.

Arguing also clears the air. When we argue with other people, we get issues out into the open. As Makau and Marty' (2001) emphasized, “Whether within families, organizations, or nation-states, efforts to suppress or otherwise avoid addressing disagreements almost inevitably lead to even greater conflict” (p. 8). Arguing lets people know where they stand in the relationship. This doesn’t mean that every argument produces a happy ending. People may disagree so fundamentally' over an issue that it ends their relationship. But that is better than perpetuating a relationship that is fundamentally' flawed for the sake of avoiding conflict.

Arguing also signifies respect and tolerance. When one person has all the power in a relationship, there is no need to argue. The person who holds all the cards can simply order the other person to do his or her bidding. In a relationship characterized by equality, each party wants to convince the other person, not compel him or her (Ehninger, 1970).

Arguing with another person is a sign of respect for her or his intelligence. Arguing requires rational actors. To argue with another person is to acknowledge that she or he is capable of understanding good reasons when they are put forth. The boss who yells, “I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to do what you’re told” is not displaying respect. Giving orders is efficient, arguing is not. Saying “Because I’m the boss,” implies that the recipient of the message doesn’t deserve an explanation.

The enlightened view of argument offered here does not suggest that arguing is always enjoyable, although it often can be. Arguing can be unpleasant, even when all the parties to an argument are arguing effectively' and appropriately. We can all recall arguments that we dreaded having. We can all recall arguments that ended badly, with one or both parties feeling wounded. We become emotionally involved in arguments. Our egos are at stake, not just our arguments.

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