A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston: Summary

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a book worth reading. If you are looking to improve your arguing abilities then this book is one you should consider. Packed with examples, A Rulebook for Arguments prescribes different methods and tactics you can use to improve your arguing ability. Whether you’re a student, employee or CEO, if your success depends on how well you advocate cases, the insights in this book will no doubt teach you something you haven’t learnt before.

Get the book here: A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston

1. Introduction

What is arguing

It means offering a set of reasons in support of a conclusion. It is more than just a statement of certain views when having a dispute, it aims to support those views with good reasons. A good argument doesn’t aim to tell others what to think, but instead help others make up their own mind.

Why we should be arguing

Not all ideas are equal, some ideas may be better than others. Good ideas can be supported by good reasons, whereas, weaker arguments may have less support in terms of evidence. The process of arguing allows people to assess each argument and determine which one is strongest.

2. General arguments

Resolve your conclusions and premises

Before arguing any case, you need to ask yourself – “What am I looking to prove?” This is your conclusion, it’s the statement for which you are giving your reasons.

Your conclusion may be “We need to eat more beans”. At the moment it is still a personal opinion. To help build the argument you need to have a sound premise.

Possible answers to your premise may be that beans are healthy, high in fiber and, as a result of this, will allow you to live a longer life.

Once you have determined your conclusion and your premises, it’s important to be sure that you want to commit to that position. Remember, it’s perfectly okay to change your mind, don’t find yourself being bound to an argument because of your ego.

Unfold your ideas in a natural order

You want to make clear arguments. They are easier to listen to and they portray your points better. Starting with your conclusion is effective at letting people know what you are advocating. Each point should make way for the next one and each point should be robust and have a sound premise.

Be concrete and concise

Try to avoid vague, abstract and general terms. Make sure you get to the point; people are unlikely going to want to listen to or read lots of fluff to get to the key message.

Build on substance, not overtone

Avoid labeling the other side with emotionally charged language. Many people advocate a side for serious and sincere reasons. Try to understand their viewpoint and counter it with legitimate accurate evidence. If the other side is right – don’t fight a losing battle, admit it and move on!

3. Arguments by example

Arguments by example are ones that offer one or more examples to support a generalization. Examples can be pretty useful when needing to illustrate how an argument works, however, it’s important to provide accurate and honest examples which relate to the premise.

Multiple examples are more effective

When you are trying to illustrate how something works then one example may be effective, however, when trying to generalize, its not a reliable form of arguing. Multiple examples will be more effective than one.

Examples should be representative

Your examples need to be representative. Although you may believe that the examples you have are representative as a whole, they are probably not. Cast your net wide and speak to others outside of your social circle. Speak to people with opposing views and most importantly try to avoid self-selection bias – you want to hear every voice, not just the ones that want to be heard.

Look beyond first examples

Looking beyond first examples and ascertaining the fuller picture is important. If I told you I am a first rate archer and showed you a photo of me hitting a bullseye would you believe me? A prudent approach to determining whether I was actually a skilled archer would be to ask how many times I have missed the target. Look beyond what is shown to you and approach problems critically.

Numbers can be deceiving

Numbers and statistics can feel as if they have an authoritative aura around them, when somebody fires-off figures in a debate it can sound very convincing, they have the figures to back it up – it must be correct right? Wrong, be cautious when approaching statistics and make sure you analyse them critically.

Look for comparison rates. Imagine a college says their graduation rate has improved to 75%. On the face of it it may sound convincing – management must be doing the right things, the graduation rate is good and they say it is increasing – but you can’t definitively say the rate is improving without knowing the prior graduation rate.

Percentages can sometimes be misleading – they are relative. A strict authoritarian political group may sell their ideology that crime is increasing by touting that the car theft rate has doubled since last year. This message makes it seem everything is turning into anarchy, but again be careful – 2 cars stolen instead of 1 is a lot different to 2000 instead of 1000 being stolen.

Finally, over-precision is something to look out for. When people attempt to quantify a difficult to measure statistic you need to ask how did they calculate it? A University Green Campaign group may state that the campus threw away 255,235 plastic straws last year – that sounds like a terrible waste, similar to if people actually counted the straws. If it’s likely nobody counted it, ask how did they arrive at that figure and whether their methodology is fair.

4. Arguments from authority

We cannot be an expert on every single topic. Therefore, we must rely on other experts to provide us the correct answers. These sources may be: Organisations, Surveys, Books etc… When you rely on this type of data for an argument you’ll be making an argument from authority.

A typical argument from authority may look like:

          X is a source which says Y

          Therefore, Y must be true

An important disclaimer is that just because an expert has said something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is true, experts may be overconfident, misled or have undeclared biases. As a result of this, expert opinion is considered the lowest form of evidence. However, expert opinion is better than uninformed opinion and by using the following methods you can help ensure you and others are listening to the right voices.

Use citations

Some assertions may be so obvious that they do not need to be cited, for example: The United States has 50 states or Italy is a country. However, when dealing with more precise and contentious issues, citations are needed because there may be room for disagreement. Citations are simply stating where you got your information from.

A good example from the book is:

I once read that there are cultures in which makeup and clothes are mostly mens businesses not womens.

Carol Beckwith’s classic study of “Wodaabe” (National Geographic 164 no.4 [October 1983] pp483-509) reports that among the west African Fulani peoples, make-up and clothes are mostly mens business.

When making points, the second version is the one you want to be aiming for. You are stating that the conclusion and premises discussed are not just your opinions but that of somebody who has carried out research into the topic.

Seek informed sources

Sources need to be qualified to make the statements they make. Mechanics are qualified to discuss merits of certain engine types, teachers for the state of schools and doctors for type of healthcare administered. They are qualified because they have an appropriate background into the field. When it comes to understanding a topic, you are better off going to people who have experience in what you are looking to learn.

Seek impartial sources

People who have the most at stake may not be the best source of information, they have an incentive to bend knowledge to suit their agenda. Look for people who do not have any stake in the issue and have a proven track record of accuracy.

Cross-check sources

Consult and compare a variety of sources to see if other, equally good sources agree. Are the experts in agreement or sharply divided? If they are all in agreement – then it can be safe to assume that according to current knowledge it is the right answer. If the experts don’t agree, be careful not to rush to conclusions.

5. Arguments about causes

When looking at why something has happened, we tend to look for causes. We want simple explanations to define what happened; X caused Y. Therefore, we must end Y. However, it isn’t always that simple.

Correlation may not equal causation

Although things may look correlated, they may be coincidental. When there is a connection between two things, correlation by itself does not establish the direction of the connection.

If E1 is correlated with E2, E1 may cause E2 – or E2 may cause E1.

Or a more concrete example, generally people with can-do attitudes tend to be wealthier. It’s not entirely clear though whether the can-do attitude develops wealth or wealth creates a can-do attitude.

Work towards the most likely explanation

Try to find the most-likely explanations for correlations.

This example from the book illustrates it well:

It’s generally agreed that independent filmmakers make more creative films than big studios; as a result, their creativity makes them independent as big studios don’t like creativity…

Or…

Independent filmmakers generally make more creative films than the big studios. It makes sense that with less studio control, independent filmmakers are freer to try new things for  more  varied  audiences.  Independents  also  usually  have much less money at stake, and therefore can afford for a creative experiment to fall flat. Thus, their independence lead to their creativity…

Expect complexity

A good final point to end on is you should always expect complexity. Whilst simplifying issues may work sometimes, when dealing with something which isn’t clear, you should expect it to be complex…

Many different causes may contribute to an overall effect and cause and effects may “loop”. In reference to the previous example, filmmakers’ independence may lead to their creativity, but, then again, creative filmmakers may seek independence from the start, leading to more creativity, and so on…

What you’re missing

This book is so full of insights it’s pretty difficult to synthesize and summarize all of them into one short post. If you are interested in improving your arguing abilities and critical thinking skills then this is worth reading, you’ll learn a few other things like:

  1. What a deductive argument is and the different types
  2. How to argue by analogy
  3. How to make written arguments
  4. How to debate and present in-person

Thanks for reading and make sure you check out the book below!

Get the book here: A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston

Published by Tim Bennett

An avid reader who likes to read anything which could challenge my beliefs. I like to write summaries over on The Herston Project so make sure to check them out :).

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