Extraneous material

The first step in analysing and reconstructing an argument is to identify its conclusion, then its premises. But much of what people say or write, when advancing an argument, plays no argumentative role. Much is there for emphasis, or is rhetorical, or plays some other role than that of expressing the propositions that properly constitute the argument. When reconstructing arguments, then, we have to hive off this extraneous material. Here's an example; we've given each sentence a number in order to facilitate a detailed discussion of it:

(1) Once again the problem of young people drinking in city centres and generally creating chaos rears its ugly head.

(2) The recent trouble in York was some of the worst. (3) It happens over and over, so much that people just seem to shrug their shoulders, accepting it as a fact of life, or a law of nature. (4) So are we simply resigned to it? (5) Do we simply accept that our young people are going to waste the best years of their lives acting like hooligans? (or rather, being hooligans?). (6) Do we stand idly by? (7) I don't think so. (8) Not I, at any rate. (9) And there's a ready solution. (10) Let us turn to an old solution for a new problem: compulsory military service. (11) Because they would learn habits of discipline, and something about community spirit, it's pretty obvious that young people would be a lot less likely to cause trouble when finished.

The arguer's conclusion here seems to be that Britain should introduce compulsory military service for its youth. The most important premise is the conditional statement that if compulsory military service were introduced, then the problem of drunkenness and hooliganism amongst British youth would be curtailed. Sentence 11 seems to be provided as a premise in a sub-argument for that claim. But there is a lot of other material.

♦ The first two sentences function as stage-setting: they alert the reader to the problem being discussed, and perhaps serve to emphasise the immediacy and severity of the problem. Sentences 1-8, as a group, are intended to persuade the reader that the problem is serious enough that something ought to be done about it. That much is surely a premise of the main argument; but it should be evident that they do not provide an argument for that claim. They merely assert the claim in a rhetorically charged way.

♦ The function of sentence 9 is simply to announce that the author is now going to turn from stressing the gravity of the problem to suggesting a solution - in other words, that the author is now going to give the argument.

♦ Sentence 10 asserts the conclusion. But it does not do so in the most economical or straightforward way. The bit about the 'old solution for a new problem' is a rhetorical flourish that should be omitted from the reconstruction. Also, it seems clear that the arguer is saying that compulsory military service should be introduced, not just that it would solve the problem. The conclusion, then, should be rewritten as 'Compulsory military service should be introduced' (there will be more on this type of 'practical' conclusion later in the chapter).

♦ Sentence 11 includes the words 'it's pretty obvious that . . .'. Phrases of that kind - phrases that merely serve to emphasise the claim being made - should always be eliminated from reconstructed arguments.

♦ Sentence 11 exemplifies a use of the word 'because' that should always be eliminated from reconstructed arguments. Often we use 'because' when speaking of causes, as in 'The cake is dry because it was baked too long'. In sentence 11, however, the word does something else: it indicates a relation between premise and conclusion of a sub-argument to the main argument. In particular, the arguer is giving the following sub-argument:

P1) If British youth were to acquire habits of discipline and community spirit, then the problem of drunkenness and hooliganism among them would be reduced. P2) If made to perform military service, British youth would acquire habits of discipline and community service.

C1) If British youth were made to perform military service, the problem of drunkenness and hooliganism among them would be reduced.

CI serves as an intermediate conclusion in the arguer's overall argument. The word 'because', in this usage, is equivalent to the word 'since', which functions in the following way. If we say 'If there are no clouds, it isn't raining', then we have not asserted either that it isn't raining, nor that there aren't any clouds (review the section in Chapter 2 on conditionals if this is not clear). If we say, however, 'Since there are no clouds, it isn't raining', then we've asserted both. So what the word 'since' does is to transform a conditional statement into a statement that asserts both the conditional and the antecedent of that conditional, and thereby asserts its consequent. So what it really does is to provide a compact way of expressing simple arguments of the form: 'If P, then Q; P, therefore Q'. 'Because', in the usage we are discussing, does exactly the same thing. And since our aim in reconstructing arguments is to lay out the arguments explicitly and clearly, we should eliminate such uses of 'because' and 'since', and unpack the arguments they serve to indicate. (The causal use of 'because' is another matter, however; it will be discussed later in this chapter; see also the discussion of 'because' in Chapter 1, pp. 16-17).

Bearing in mind that the above argument laid out in standard form is a sub-argument for CI, a reconstruction of the main argument might go like this.

C1) If British youth were made to perform military service, the problem of drunkenness and hooliganism among them would be reduced.

P3) Something should be done to reduce the problem of drunkenness and hooliganism amongst British youth.

C2) Britain should introduce compulsory military service for its youth.

We will be in a better position later in the chapter to say whether or not such an argument is valid. The main lesson here is that the first step in reconstructing an argument is to make a list of the argument's premises and conclusion that leaves out extraneous material, and that expresses the premises and conclusion as concisely and clearly as possible. Note however, that making such a list is only the first step towards a complete reconstruction. A complete reconstruction also includes premises and conclusions that are only implicit in the original argument (and which therefore do not appear on the initial list). A complete reconstruction also displays the structure of an extended argument by displaying intermediate conclusions.

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