Focusing on Reasons

In this section we are going to learn about some basic ideas in logic, including four key terms:

  • conclusion
  • premise
  • valid
  • sound.

After completing this section, check out this exercise for some practice.

Exercise-Focus on Reasons

The Problem: Arguing With Weak Claims

There’s much more to a good argument then logic, but logic is at the heart of a good argument.

It may sometimes seem like people have their pre-determined conclusions and it doesn’t matter what you say. This may make people feel like it’s impossible. It seems like, whatever you say, if it’s in support of an opposing claim, they’re going to shoot it down.

The Solution: Focus on the Reasons Not the Conclusions

There are two parts to every argument: the conclusion and the premises.

  • The conclusion: the conclusion is the point you’re trying to prove or the ultimate message you’re trying to get across.
  • The premises: These are the reasons you give in support of your conclusion.

So what makes a good argument?

For an argument to be as strong as possible you need two things:

  1. The argument is valid: This means that if the reasons are true the conclusion must be true.
  2. The argument is sound: This means that not only is the argument valid but all the premises are true, so the conclusion is guaranteed to be true.

It’s not enough for reasons and conclusions to be true: “I think the sky is blue because the grass is green and I once had a pet fish named Horacio.”

When an argument doesn’t need to be sound

Not all your arguments need to be sound. For example, you could make an argument where you don’t know the conclusion for sure, but you think it is very likely.

EXAMPLE: “No one has ever seen a purple elephant, so I’m probably not going to see a purple elephant today.”

The conclusion could be wrong, but it’s probably right.

The key thing is when you make an argument with a limitation, for example, it’s probably right or it depends on a reason that is only probably true, then you need to say that upfront. Being honest about the limits of your argument is not showing a weakness, it actually makes your points more precise.

Go to Section 6: Spotting Logical Mistakes.