Offer Good Reasons

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The most important kind of defense for an argument is direct evidence — facts from the real world that show how your argument makes sense in reality. If you have enough direct evidence, you don’t need to worry about reasons. You just lay down those facts like a lawyer laying down glossy photographs from the scene of the crime. The only problem is that you almost never have enough direct evidence to defend your main idea. In fact, that’s often what makes a question debatable — there’s not enough direct evidence, so people disagree about the answer.The Humble Essay by Roy K. Humble, front cover

That’s where reasons come in.

Reasons are not facts. Like your main idea, reasons are opinions of yours. The difference is that instead of answering questions directly, reasons explain why your main idea is a good answer. They’re like an entourage of defenders for your main idea. If your main idea has enough direct evidence, it doesn’t need an entourage. But without sufficient direct evidence, your answer needs reasons to defend itself.

Suppose you tell your former girlfriend that you might kind of miss her. Think of that as the main idea of an argument. She responds by telling you to prove it. You realize you should have thought this through a little more because you don’t really have any direct evidence to offer. Nonetheless, you offer a reason — an idea of your own — to defend your main idea. Well, you say, I miss you because you’re friendlier than the cat. That’s not a very good reason, but it’s a reason. Her level of friendliness relative to the cat is an opinion of yours, not a fact, and it does help to explain why you miss her.

Suppose she has doubts about the validity of this reason. You can then defend your reason with real-world evidence — and regarding the unfriendliness of the cat, you have plenty of evidence. So now the evidence defends the reason, and the reason, bolstered by that evidence, defends your main idea. The defense of the main idea still depends on real-world evidence. It either supports the main idea directly or, as in this case, it supports the main idea indirectly by supporting a reason.

In this chapter, you’ll look first at arguments that don’t need reasons — those are the kind of arguments you’ve been studying so far. Then you’ll look at how reasons work and how to use them sensibly. You’ll see that reasons are useful throughout the writing process. When you gather evidence, for example, you can look for facts that are directly relevant to your question and possible answers but also indirectly relevant to possible reasons for an answer. When you decide the best answer to your question, you can base that decision on direct evidence and on reasons that are supported by indirect evidence. As you present your answer to others, you can offer reasons now, too.

When You Don’t Need Reasons

For some essays, you don’t need reasons because you have sufficient evidence that’s directly related to your question. Usually, if there’s enough real-world evidence to answer a question convincingly, people already agree on an answer and don’t need to argue. In some cases, however, the direct evidence is out there, but people disagree about the patterns or meanings of that evidence. In those cases, you can build an argument about what you think the evidence means and then defend that answer with the evidence itself.

This kind of argument is called an inductive argument. It looks at a collection of detailed evidence and from that evidence draws a general conclusion about what it means or how it works. This inductive type of thinking is the process you’ve used to teach yourself almost everything you know. You were hungry, so you cried, and people fed you. You observed that pattern a few thousand times and arrived at the conclusion that crying is magic. The evidence told you that if you cry, people feed you. And so they did until you turned two. This is also how you learned the meaning of words. It’s how you learned to ride a bike. It’s how you’ve figured out almost everything that you’ve ever figured out.

Induction is great for navigating the world, but you can sometimes defend a main idea with it, too. In the world of politics, for example, you have arguments based on polling. Polling is the process by which researchers gather direct evidence from people. Researchers might ask whether people are likely to vote for a candidate or to what degree they approve or disapprove of a person or policy. The principles of successful polling are quite complex, and there’s math involved, so we won’t try to explain it in any detail. In short, though, good polls are able to extract credible evidence from the minds of a small number of would-be voters and from that evidence draw direct conclusions about broader public attitudes and political outcomes. Those conclusions are opinions — interpretations of the data. The polling data is evidence. There’s a direct connection between the two, so no reasons are required to defend those assertions and predictions.

Similarly, in the world of law, physical evidence can be used to directly defend an opinion. In a legal argument, the main idea is often whether a person’s behavior does or does not fit the definition of a crime. The definition of “burglary,” for example, usually requires three elements: 1) breaking into a structure, 2) entering the structure, and 3) intending to commit a crime. To convict someone of burglary, then, a prosecutor must provide direct evidence of all three ingredients.

When I was in high school, a friend and I broke into the high school gym so we could play basketball. When the cops showed up, guns drawn, they quickly gathered direct evidence for two out of the three parts of the burglary definition. We had used my student body card to jimmy open the door, and we had walked inside. That was direct evidence of breaking and entering. However, our intent was to shoot baskets, which is not a crime, so we did not meet that part of the burglary definition. We still had to sit in the back of a cop car for two hours, and we were suspended from school for trespassing, but at least we could tell our parents that we weren’t burglars. They were sure glad to hear that.

In academic writing, questions about literary texts or world events or some scientific issues might offer enough direct evidence for you to draw a conclusion about what it all means. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for example, you can ask whether Willy Loman is a true tragic hero. To answer that question, you define “true tragic hero” and then look at the evidence from Miller’s play to see whether the patterns in Willy Loman’s actions fit that definition. Or, you might ask if major league baseball players have more serious injuries than major league soccer players. Define what you mean by “serious injuries” and then start looking for evidence about these athletes. If you can find patterns of injuries in a large enough pool of athletes, you can answer the question with direct evidence rather than reasons.

You won’t often use induction as the main defense in an essay, however. Most of your debates are over questions where the direct evidence is lacking — questions about the future, questions about why things happened, questions about what should be done, questions about the meaning of insufficient evidence. For those questions, you need reasons.

How Reasons Work

Reasons are ideas that explain why your main idea is a good one. They might be widely accepted observations or wild opinions, but for your reasons to be effective, they must be relevant to your main idea, they must be credible, and they must be logical.

Suppose, for example, that your sister calls you an idiot. That is her main idea, and I’ll assume that it’s an opinion rather than a fact. You ask her why she says so. She gives you her reason — because you let Denise, your former girlfriend, “get away.” Let’s check this defense for relevance first.

Main Idea: You are an idiot.

Reason: You let Denise get away.

A reason is relevant when it’s an idea about the same topic as your main idea. In this case, both the main idea and the reason are opinions about you, so this is a relevant reason.

Is this reason credible? Let’s suppose it’s true that you let your girlfriend get away, possibly by being unappreciative of the value she added to your otherwise drab life, so much so that she eventually grew tired of your whining and moved out of your apartment and into your mother’s house — which you know is very weird, but you’re not going to get into that. So yes, then, the reason is also credible.

Is the reason logical?

“Logical” is a broad term that can mean many things in many different situations. In this situation, the term refers to a type of thinking called deduction.  Deduction is not the opposite of induction, but it works very differently. With induction, you start by looking at lots of particular pieces of evidence and then, from these particulars, you draw a general conclusion about what that evidence means — the power of crying, the meaning of “dog,” and so on. With deduction, you take a general idea and apply that general idea to a particular situation with your reason. Induction taught you the general idea that crying gets you fed. With deduction, you apply that general idea to a particular situation: Mom will give me a cookie because I am crying (and people feed me when I cry).

When it comes to your reasons, then, “logical” means that the general idea behind that reason is also appropriate for this situation and a credible idea on its own. Here’s what that looks like with the Denise argument:

Main Idea: You are an idiot.

Reason: You let Denise get away.

Underlying General Idea: Only an idiot would let someone like Denise get away.

So is the reason logical? To test that, we have to test the underlying general idea. It’s a general idea about what an idiot would do regarding Denise. So yes, it passes the first test of logic. It’s appropriate for the situation. Is the underlying general idea credible? More and more, I’m starting to think so. So yes, it seems to pass the second test. Because the underlying general idea is appropriate to this situation and credible, the reason is logical. Oh well.

With deduction, by the way, the terms of the argument often go by different names, like this:

Claim: You are an idiot.

Reason: You let Denise get away.

Assumption: Only an idiot would let someone like Denise get away.

It makes sense to call your main idea a claim because you’re claiming that it is true, that this is the best available answer to the question. Changing “general underlying idea” to “assumption” also makes sense because the assumption is usually an idea that you assume your audience will accept as credible, an idea you won’t have to defend. If the assumption is an idea that your audience might disagree with, then it’s important to either defend the assumption as well or find another reason that comes with a more agreeable assumption.

How can someone transform this three-part set of ideas into an actual presentation? In a conversation with your big sister, the flow of ideas and evidence is hard to chart, especially if your sister offers a claim when it’s raining and you’re standing there holding a fairly heavy bag of kitty litter for the stupid cat that super-fantastic Denise left behind. However, if your sister goes home and writes her argument down in a lengthy and totally unnecessary email, her deductive argument might be structured like this:

Claim: I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re still an idiot.

Reason: You really did let Denise get away.

Evidence: You stopped taking her out, you stopped asking her questions about herself, you were petty about finances, you complained all the time about college administrators, you made her proofread all your poems, etc., until she didn’t think you cared about her at all.

Assumption: Only an idiot would let someone like Denise get away.

Evidence: Denise is awesome — hilarious, creative, generous, and too smart to be taken for granted. Only an idiot would not work hard to maintain a healthy relationship with someone so great.

Notice that none of the evidence is directly related to the question of your intelligence. There’s nothing here about IQ tests, for example, or how well you did on your SAT exams. Instead, the evidence is all directly connected to the reason — that you let an awesome girlfriend get away — and the assumption — that only an idiot would do something like that. The evidence defends the reason and its assumption. Those ideas then work together to defend the main idea that you are an idiot. That’s how deductive arguments work, both in real-life situations like the one above and, with some adjustments, in academic writing.

Test Your Reasons

In an academic paper, you might offer several reasons that defend your main idea. These should be good reasons, so that means testing the three qualities of a good reason to make sure that it is relevant, credible, and logical. In a deductive argument, the boldness of your claim — your main idea — should be equal to the strength of your reasons.

In Act 5 of Hamlet, for example, Hamlet jumps into his former girlfriend’s grave and tells her grieving brother that “forty thousand brothers” couldn’t have loved Ophelia as much as he did. Really, Hamlet? Forty thousand brothers? Hamlet’s assertion raises the question of just how strongly Hamlet actually loved Ophelia. It’s a question you can’t answer inductively because there’s zero direct evidence of anyone’s emotional state, much less the imagined emotions of a literary character. However, you can examine Hamlet’s actions and to see whether indirect evidence supports any reasons that might help you answer this question.

The reasoning for your main idea might look like this (with the reasons in chronological order):

Question: Does Hamlet truly love Ophelia?

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 1: Hamlet knowingly gives Ophelia painfully bad love poems.

Reason 2: Hamlet is deeply offended when Ophelia returns his love letters and poems.

Reason 3: Hamlet is deeply upset when Ophelia betrays him to her father and the King.

Reason 4: Hamlet swears that he will be as bold as Fortinbras.

Reason 5: Hamlet is emotionally overwhelmed when he learns of Ophelia’s death.

Will these reasons offer a sound defense of your main idea? They might. One good sign is that all five of them are relevant reasons. They, like the main idea, are all ideas about Hamlet. So far, so good.

But are they also credible reasons? And most importantly, are they logical? To determine these two qualities, you need to look more closely at the supporting evidence and underlying assumption for each reason. Here’s the first one:

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 1: Hamlet knowingly gives Ophelia painfully bad love poems.

Evidence: In 2.2, Polonius reads one of his poems to the King and Queen, showing us that 1) this is deeply felt love and 2) he’s a painfully bad poet and admits it openly.

Assumption 1: True love is the only motive to knowingly give someone painfully bad love poems.

Evidence: If you know you’re a bad poet and send a love poem anyway, then you are motivated by love, not by the need to impress anyone or any other motive.

The first reason is credible because you have direct evidence from the scene noted that Hamlet wrote Ophelia this love poem. You also have the actual lines from the poem, and Polonius is right about them, too — they are bad. Hamlet himself admits that in the cover letter, which I can tell you from experience is a bad strategy.

To test the logic of the reason, you have to look at the assumption. It’s appropriate for this situation because it’s a general idea about the significance of painfully bad love poems. The assumption is also credible, although that might not be as clear to non-poets, because there’s no reason for a poet to knowingly send someone a bad poem except as an uncontrollable expression of deep emotion. With a little extra explanation for non-poets, the assumption is also credible. So the first reason is both credible and logical.

Here’s the next reason:

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 2: Hamlet is deeply offended when Ophelia returns his love letters and poems.

Evidence: In Act 3, Scene 1, Ophelia returns Hamlet’s love letters and poems, and Hamlet is so shocked and offended that he tells her he never gave them to her.

Assumption 2: The return of love letters and poems is deeply offensive to someone who is truly in love.

This second reason looks less credible than the first one. You know that Hamlet says these words to Ophelia, but you don’t know how he delivers the line. Is he hurt? Is he angry? Is he cool and untouched? You can’t tell.

The underlying assumption is appropriate for this situation and appears to be credible. So you know that the reason is logical. However, without better evidence to defend this reason, the lack of credibility makes it a weak reason for the main idea.

Take a look at the third reason:

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 3: Hamlet is deeply upset when Ophelia betrays him to her father and the King.

Evidence: In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet figures out that Ophelia is being used against him by Polonius and the King. He then attacks Ophelia verbally and rants and raves about love and marriage.

Assumption 3: Betrayal by someone you truly love is deeply upsetting.

This reason is more credible than the second one because there’s more evidence to validate it. After Hamlet asks a pointed question — “Where’s your father?”— he goes off on Ophelia for the next several lines. He appears to be out of control with anger, and he broadens his attack on Ophelia to an attack on love and marriage in general. This is evidence of emotional distress, and it seems to be directly connected to his now-former girlfriend.

Is the assumption acceptable? It fits the situation, and if you’ve ever been betrayed by a loved one, you know how upsetting that can be. However, betrayal by anyone can be upsetting. It doesn’t have to come from a loved one. So even though the credibility of the reason is okay, the logic isn’t very solid, and that makes this a less effective reason in the argument.

Here’s the fourth reason:

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 4: Hamlet swears that he would be as bold as Fortinbras.

Evidence: In Act 4, Scene 4, Hamlet encounters Fortinbras marching to attack Polish forces out of honor only. This makes him feel puny, so he swears he will be bold and deadly from now on.

Assumption 4: Swearing that you will be bold and deadly is evidence of true love.

This is a credible reason because the direct evidence for it is plain and sufficient. He does meet Fortinbras’s army marching toward a pointless battle of honor. The sight makes him feel puny. He swears that henceforth his thoughts will “be bloody.” Very good.

However, a credible reason is only good if it’s also logical, and this reason is not logical because the underlying assumption is not a credible idea. Swearing to be bold and deadly is not evidence of true love. So no matter how well you can prove that Hamlet really swears this, the reason is useless because it’s not logical.

Here is the last of your reasons:

Claim: Hamlet truly loves Ophelia.

Reason 5: Hamlet is emotionally overwhelmed when he learns of Ophelia’s death.

Evidence: In Act 5, after Laertes jumps into Ophelia’s grave to mourn her loudly, Hamlet steps out of hiding and challenges him, claiming that he loved Ophelia more than Laertes did.

Assumption 5: The death of someone you truly love is emotionally overwhelming.

The assumption is appropriate to this situation, and it’s a credible idea, so you can conclude that this is a logical reason. There is also some direct evidence of Hamlet’s grief over the death of Ophelia. He does jump into her grave with Laertes, and he claims to have forty thousand times more grief than Laertes — among other claims of greater emotion, such as beating Laertes in a crocodile-eating contest. If what Hamlet says about his grief is true, then this is solid evidence that Hamlet is overwhelmed by the news of Ophelia’s death. That would make this a credible as well as logical reason.

However, this brings us back to the question itself. Is he telling the truth? Can you trust him? Is it just me, or does it seem strange that he’s so competitive about who misses Ophelia most? He also seems to be overdoing it. Maybe he is a little crazy. A week earlier he was tormenting Ophelia at a little dinner theatre he put on, and now he misses her this much? The overdone display of grief suggests that he’s more concerned with his rival Laertes than his dead former girlfriend. So while this reason is logical, it’s not very credible.

In the same way that you have to adjust your main idea to fit the evidence of an inductive argument — never claiming more than what direct evidence actually defends — you also need to adjust your main idea to fit the reasons of a deductive argument. With convincing reasons, you can be bold. With weaker reasons, honesty requires you to be more restrained with your main idea.

In this case, after dumping the weak Fortinbras reason, you’re left with four relevant, somewhat logical reasons to defend the claim that Hamlet loved Ophelia. I’ll adjust those reasons so they better fit the actual evidence you have:

Reason 1: Hamlet knowingly gives Ophelia painfully bad love poems.

Reason 2: Hamlet seems to be offended when Ophelia returns his love letters and poems.

Reason 3: Hamlet is deeply upset when Ophelia betrays him to her father and the King.

Reason 4: Hamlet claims to be emotionally overwhelmed when he learns of Ophelia’s death.

With reasons like these, what’s the most honest answer to your question about Hamlet’s alleged love for Ophelia? These reasons don’t allow you to be as bold as Fortinbras with your answer. They don’t prove that Hamlet loves Ophelia as much as he claims in Act 5. You have reason to believe he has true feelings for his former girlfriend because of the painfully bad love poems, but you have to take care in asserting just how much love is in Hamlet’s heart by the time he jumps into the grave with Laertes. Whatever you decide, your answer should be presented as a possibility, not a sure thing.

Avoid Bad Reasons

With a deductive argument, reasons are bad when they lack relevance, credibility, or logic. That should come as no surprise. Sometimes a bad reason is an honest enough mistake, a seemingly sensible reason that, upon closer examination, is based on a flawed assumption or inadequate evidence. Sometimes a reason is bad because the relationship of claim and reason is based on some kind of emotional or symbolic association that defies any clear logical relationship. Sometimes a writer purposely builds a dishonest argument because there’s no honest argument to be made. These are the ideas you really need to watch for. You don’t want them in your own brain, and you certainly don’t want to forward them along to others.

To wrap things up, here’s a brief look at some common types of bad reasons. Writing professors refer to these as “logical fallacies,” but you can also think of them as “screw-ups.”

Begging the Question

With this screw-up, you don’t offer any actual reasons for your claim. Instead, you defend your claim either by restating the claim with a rephrased version of the same idea or by offering no defense at all. Here’s an example:

Claim: Hamlet is a confusing play.

Reason: It doesn’t make any sense.

Because “confusing” and “doesn’t make any sense” are roughly the same thing, the claim hasn’t been defended by the reason. It’s been restated. If you restate any idea enough, it will look like you’re building a defense, but you’re only repeating yourself. You’re like one of those late-night radio commercials that repeat the phone number eighteen times in thirty seconds. The underlying assumption for this argument is “Confusing things don’t make any sense,” or “Confusing things are confusing.” That’s right, they are. Now offer me a reason why the play is confusing so that your essay will become less so.

A second way to beg the question — which is a strange phrase, isn’t it? — is to present the claim and then move on to other ideas, such as how to implement your claim. You assume that your readers agree with you already and don’t need to have the idea defended. Here’s an example:

This country needs to stop recycling and stop it now. It may be popular and even fashionable to recycle your glass and plastic and paper products, but that doesn’t make it a good practice. Likewise, there may be many reports in the media about overflowing landfills and polluted waters, but that too is not a good enough reason to recycle these products, and especially not now when so much is at stake.

One of the most important things you should stop recycling is your newspaper….

And so on, from newspapers to plastic to glass to motor oil. The writer seems to have some reasons in mind for this unusual idea, but they never make it onto the page. Instead of explaining why to stop recycling, which is the more important question, the writer jumps ahead to the follow-up question of how. This is an engaging opening, but the essay will only work if you follow this provocative idea with a logical defense.

Post Hoc

This term is short for “post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” which not only sounds cool but in Latin means “after this, therefore because of this.” With this screw-up, you assume that if two events happen consecutively, the first event is the cause of the second event. Suppose, for example, that your girlfriend dumps you and two weeks later you notice substantial hair loss. You might from this observation draw the following deduction:

Claim: My girlfriend’s departure caused substantial hair loss.

Reason: Her departure occurred shortly before my hair started falling out in clumps.

Assumption: Initial events are the cause of subsequent events. (After this, therefore because of this.)

It might be that — in this case, anyway — the first event did cause the second event. However, you’re old enough to know that chronological order doesn’t guarantee a causal relationship between two events. Sometimes things just happen in a certain order for no discernible reason. And if your social science electives teach you anything, it’s that causal relationships are extremely difficult to establish. Because there’s no evidence to support this underlying assumption, the assumption isn’t credible and the reason that depends on it is not logical.

Slippery Slope

This is the kind of screwed-up thinking that parents use to warn their children against misbehavior of any sort:

Claim: Don’t eat that piece of candy.

Reason: It will rot your teeth out.

That’s a pretty grim warning to give a four-year-old kid, but that’s how it works when you’re brought up on slippery-slope arguments. Don’t even think about smoking cigarettes or you’ll turn into a drug addict. Don’t you steal money out of my change jar or you’ll end up in prison. The only good thing about parental slippery-slope arguments is that they teach kids at an early age to stop listening to their parents.

The problem is the underlying assumption:

The first step in an undesirable direction will lead to extreme consequences in that same direction.

Yes, it sometimes happens that taking one step in a bad direction leads to extreme consequences in that same direction. However, there is no guarantee that one step in a bad direction will lead to dire consequences in that same direction. Life is not as simple as that. A lot of things can happen between A and Z.

As a human, you’re able to learn from your mistakes. Other events or people might intervene, too. You might grow bored with misbehavior. Like a post hoc argument, then, the logic of a slippery slope argument is screwed up because the assumption is not a credible idea.

Non sequitur

This is another cool Latin term that means “does not follow.” While it might apply to any logical argument where the conclusion doesn’t logically follow from its reasons or evidence, this term specifically applies to deductive arguments in which the claim and reason have zero logical connection. Post hoc and slippery-slope arguments have a slim but faulty connection. Non sequitur arguments are even more screwed up. Here’s an example:

Claim: The President mishandled the crisis in Central Asia.

Reason: The President’s approval ratings have dropped.

Assumption: Presidential approval ratings are an appropriate measure for foreign policy crisis management.

With post hoc and slippery-slope arguments, the assumption might sometimes be true, but argument becomes screwed up because the assumption isn’t always true. With non sequitur arguments, the assumption is never true. Because the assumption can never be credible, the reason will never be logical.

False dilemma

This is sometimes called the “either/or” fallacy (or screw-up) because it claims that only two possible solutions exist. Either you must love your country as it is or you must leave it. Either you must support the troops or you’re not a true patriot. Either you must call her tonight and apologize or you will regret it for the rest of your life.

The false dilemma is false because either the question is too simple — which is better, this or that? — or the underlying assumption is an idea that is almost never true — you have to pick one of these two choices. In both cases, the error is easy to see. First, you are almost never limited to just two options. Second, you don’t have to make any choice at all. You can always wait to decide. Love it or leave it? I don’t know. Let me think about that.

The practitioners of the false dilemma are often false as well — salespersons of ill repute and other knuckleheads who want to push you toward a particular conclusion by limiting the full range of actual options down to two. The first is a horrible option, such as self-exile. The second option isn’t great, either, but it doesn’t look so bad when compared to the horrible option.

You can fight off these false-dilemma knuckleheads by offering them alternatives to their two options. It will drive them crazy, and it will also protect you from this screwed-up kind of thinking.

But Wait, There’s More

You could keep going all day with examples of screwed-up thinking.

It’s true because it’s a popular belief?

It’s good because it’s traditional?

It’s not a problem because other people have problems?

It’s true because someone who isn’t really qualified says it’s true?

I don’t think so, says the careful student reader.

And the same goes for the careful student writer. As a writer, you can avoid screwed-up thinking by looking closely at your own reasons and making sure they are relevant, credible, and logical.

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