Part Two: Clarifying Arguments

Chapter Three: A Framework for Clarifying

Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Duchess: Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

Lord Darlington: I think I had better not; nowadays, to be intelligible is to be found out.

—Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

TOPICS

  • The Process of Clarifying
  • The Principle of Loyalty
  • The Principle of Charity
  • The Straw Man Fallacy

Clear arguments are arguments that can be evaluated. But arguments in everyday life are often lacking in clarity; so before you evaluate an argument, you will be asked to engage in the process of clarifying. This chapter is concerned with the clarifying process and with two principles that regulate it, the principle of loyalty and the principle of charity.

3.1 The Process of Clarifying

If you are preparing to evaluate an argument, the first order of business is . This means you should make sure the argument is expressed as clearly as possible, so that it is as easy as possible to tell whether the premises are true, whether the logic is good, and whether the argument is relevant to the conversation. Clarifying requires two procedures, performed at the same time: outlining the argument in standard format and paraphrasing the argument.

3.1.1 Standard Clarifying Format

As we saw in Chapter 2, when an argument is expressed in ordinary English it is not always obvious which statement is the conclusion and which statements are the premises. The standard clarifying format that we use in this text provides a simple way of making it obvious which is which. When an argument is outlined in this format, the premises (including any premises that may also serve as subconclusions) are numbered and listed immediately above their conclusion, while the main conclusion is indicated not by a number, but by C, for Conclusion. (This provides a simple way of referring to the elements of the argument in your evaluation.) All conclusions—including subconclusions if the argument is complex—are preceded by ∴ in the left margin.[1] Implicit statements are enclosed in square brackets, but otherwise treated like all other statements in the argument.

Standard Clarifying Format

  1. Premises numbered above their conclusion.
  2. Main conclusion identified as C.
  3. All conclusions (main conclusion and subconclusions) preceded by ∴ in the left margin.
  4. Implicit statements in brackets.

Consider this modest argument from the Miami Herald:

Dade County, which includes Miami, is the best place in America to be a criminal. It has the nation’s worst crime rate and does the laziest job of putting criminals behind bars.

Once we have identified the conclusion (the first sentence) and the premises (each half of the second sentence), it can be painlessly put into standard clarifying format, as follows:

    1. Dade County has the nation’s worst crime rate.
    2. Dade County does the laziest job of putting criminals behind bars.
    3. Dade County is the best place in America to be a criminal.

That’s all there is to it.

Let’s take a slightly more complicated example. Can subliminal messages in rock music have an effect on the listener? Anthony Pellicano, a forensic audio specialist, testified for CBS Records in the case against rock band Judas Priest. He gave this argument:

The volume at which alleged auditory subliminal sounds are produced is not loud enough to cause the eardrum to vibrate. If the eardrum does not vibrate then the message cannot be sent to the brain. “The subliminal argument has absolutely no basis in fact,” Pellicano concluded.

Here is the argument in standard clarifying format (with minimal paraphrasing).

  1. The volume at which alleged auditory subliminal sounds are produced is not loud enough to cause the eardrum to vibrate.
  2. If the eardrum does not vibrate then the message cannot be sent to the brain.
  3. The subliminal argument has absolutely no basis in fact.

This outline makes plain which statements are the premises—1 and 2—and which is the main conclusion—C.

Suppose Pellicano, the forensic audio specialist, had finished his remarks with the following additional assertion:

So Judas Priest is innocent.

We would then outline the entire passage as a complex argument, as follows:

  1. The volume at which alleged auditory subliminal sounds are produced is not loud enough to cause the eardrum to vibrate.
  2. If the eardrum does not vibrate, then the message cannot be sent to the brain.
  3. The subliminal argument has absolutely no basis in fact.
  4. Judas Priest is innocent.

The revisions are highlighted. Note that 3 is now a subconclusion; as such, it is not only the conclusion to 1 and 2, but it is also the premise for the new main conclusion, C.

This does not completely clarify the argument. Note that the arguer clearly is inferring from premises 1 and 2 that the message cannot be sent to the brain—and that this is the immediate reason for his assertion that the subliminal argument has no basis on fact. If we include that implicit statement—as a subconclusion—the outline takes the following form.

  1. The volume at which alleged auditory subliminal sounds are produced is not loud enough to cause the eardrum to vibrate.
  2. If the eardrum does not vibrate, then the message cannot be sent to the brain.
  3. [The message cannot be sent to the brain.]
  4. The subliminal argument has absolutely no basis in fact.
  5. Judas Priest is innocent.

Revisions are again highlighted. There are other implicit premises in the argument (you might think for yourself about what might be implicitly assumed between 3 and 4), but this is enough to illustrate the format. This format sets the stage for evaluation of the argument, which should follow.

Guideline.  Outline each argument in standard clarifying format.

EXERCISES Chapter 3, set (a)

Outline each of the following arguments in standard format. There is no need, at this point, to attempt to paraphrase or supply implicit statements. Don’t assume that every sentence in each passage is a premise or conclusion.

Sample exercise. “For a scrapbook of the Truman senatorial campaign, Fred Canfill kept clipping the local papers along the way. One item dated August 3, from an unidentified paper, acknowledged that Judge Truman was no orator, but then this was an argument in his favor since there was already too much oratory in the United States Senate.”—David McCullough, Truman

Sample answer.

    1. Judge Truman was no orator.
    2. There was already too much oratory in the United States Senate.
    3. Judge Truman was the better candidate in the senatorial campaign. (Paraphrased from the expression “in his favor”)
  1. “When, at the time of the moon landing, a woman in rural Texas was interviewed about the event, she very sensibly refused to believe that the television pictures she had seen had come all the way from the moon, on the grounds that with her antenna she couldn’t even get Dallas.” —Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books (Stick to clarifying here—resist the urge to evaluate this as a good or bad argument.)
  2. “‘The real object of sports writing’, says a friend of mine who does it, ‘is to keep readers away from the horrors in the rest of the paper.’ Thus sports continues its rounds as the Magnificent Evasion, since it also keeps us away from the bad news at home and in one’s own psyche.”—Wilfred Sheed, Harper’s (Look for more than one premise here—inference indicators are there to help you.)
  3. “Japanese still tend to think in terms of personal relationships and subjective circumstances in their business dealings. Thus an agreement between a Japanese and a foreign businessman should be reduced to its basic elements, and each point thoroughly discussed, to make sure each side understands and actually does agree to what the other side is saying.”—Boyne De Mente, The Japanese Way of Doing Business
  4. “Says Buntrock of Chem Waste, ‘We’re waste managers, so we have to help our customers manage their waste. So if the business moves from a quantity function to more services and processing, we’ll move with it.’”—Forbes

3.1.2 Paraphrasing the Argument

It is usually necessary for you to paraphrase the argument at the same time you are organizing it into standard clarifying format. This means that, to achieve clarity, you must reword the argument, highlighting what matters most in determining the merits of the argument—in determining whether the premises are true, the argument is logical, and the argument is conversationally relevant. Why is this usually required? There are at least two reasons. First, arguers often find it hard to make themselves understood, despite the best of intentions. And, second, their intentions are almost always to do more than merely to make it easy to evaluate their reasoning. They almost always have a rhetorical purpose as well; that is, they intend to persuade.

is aptly defined by W. V. Quine in Quiddities as “the literary technology of persuasion.” It can help or hurt the argument’s clarity. It helps when it is used to make good arguments easy to accept on their own merits. But it hurts when, as Quine puts it, those who use it place “the goal of persuasion above the goal of truth . . . , disregarding every discrepancy while regarding every crepancy.” In this chapter and the next three, you will find dozens of examples of the use (and misuse) of rhetoric. Your aim in paraphrasing should be to get rid of what is incomprehensible or misleading, whether intentional or not, so that the only thing that could be persuasive about the argument is the quality of the reasoning.

Guideline.  Paraphrase each argument for greater clarity as you are outlining it in standard clarifying format.

Procedures in the Clarifying Process

  1. Outline in standard clarifying format.
  2. Paraphrase for greater clarity.

3.2 The Principle of Loyalty

When clarifying an argument it is essential that you be guided by the , which says that your clarification should aim to remain true to the arguer’s intent. This principle does not say that you should feel fondness for the arguer or that you have any obligation to try to defend the argument. It applies before you decide how much you like the argument; its point is strictly to ensure that the clarified argument you go on to evaluate is the arguer’s argument.

Let’s look at a simple example in which a paraphrase achieves greater clarity, but at the same time violates the principle of loyalty. Forbes magazine describes a group of New York University economists who set out to find out how our spending patterns would be affected if we had absolutely no way of knowing what our income would be or what the interest rates on our credit cards would be. The economists argued for the following conclusion:

If the income and interest rate processes are sufficiently stochastic, then consumption eventually grows without bound.

For those of us who are not professional economists, this needs some clarification. Forbes lightheartedly chides the economists for their obscure writing and suggests that their conclusion really amounts to the simple truism,

The more you have the more you spend.

The Forbes paraphrase is definitely clearer. No doubt about it. But there is a new problem: it isn’t the authors’ conclusion any more. Stochastic, as used by the economists, means unpredictable. So, despite the obscurity of their prose, you can see that they are not talking about consumers who have more and more income, but consumers who don’t know what their income will be. A more loyal paraphrase, then, is this:

The more uncertain you are of how much you have, the more you spend.

This, too, is clearer than the original. But it has the additional virtue of capturing what the economists seem to have had in mind. It is their conclusion, and thus accords with the principle of loyalty. In sum: it is a good idea to paraphrase when it clarifies the point—but not in such a way that it changes the point.

Guideline.  In your clarification, remain true to the arguer’s intent.

3.2.1 The Arguer over Your Shoulder

A useful book on writing style by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge is titled The Reader over Your Shoulder. Its guiding principle is this: always write as though the reader were peering over your shoulder, insisting that everything you write be easily understood. We can adapt this advice for our purposes: when you clarify, always imagine the arguer over your shoulder. That is, clarify as though the arguer is always there, looking over your shoulder, insisting that you stick with the point, ready to say, “No, no, that’s not at all what I had in mind.”

When you fail to do this, the results can be uncomfortable. Note this retort from one of the great philosophers of our time, W. V. Quine, to a lengthy critique of some of his views by one of the great linguists of our time, Noam Chomsky:

Chomsky’s remarks leave me with feelings at once of reassurance and frustration. What I find reassuring is that he nowhere clearly disagrees with my position. What I find frustrating is that he expresses much disagreement with what he thinks to be my position.

Of course, when arguers are unclear they must bear some of the blame for a disloyal rendering of their views. Still, we must do our best to ensure that the argument we are evaluating is indeed the arguer’s. Imagining that you are under the watchful eye of the arguer can serve to keep you in line.

Guideline.  Imagine that the arguer is looking over your shoulder to ensure that your clarification is true to the arguer’s intent.

3.2.2 Consider Both What the Arguer Says and What the Arguer Does Not Say.

An obvious way to find out the arguer’s intent is to note carefully what the arguer says. This focuses your attention on , or what we sometimes informally call the literal meaning of the sentence. The logical implications of a statement are those things that absolutely must be true if the statement is true; if they were not true, there would be no imaginable way in which the statement could itself be true. Suppose you call me on the telephone and I almost immediately say to you, “I’m already very late for a meeting on another part of campus.” Some of the things logically implied by this remark are:

I’m already very late for a meeting on another part of campus.
I’m on campus.
The campus has more than one part.
The other meeting is scheduled to have already started.

These are simply part of what I mean by the words I have used.

There are, however, many related things that could be false even if the statement is true; thus, they are not logically implied. These include:

The meeting has actually already started. (Everyone could be late, for example, or the building could be locked.)
I plan to attend the meeting. (I could be late even if I intend to be absent.)
I am expected at the meeting. (It could be open to everyone on campus, and thus perhaps no one would miss me.)

Logical implication surely does not cover all that I intend to communicate to you by my remark. This leads to a less obvious piece of advice: note carefully what the arguer does not say. This focuses your attention on —what I want you to believe, over and above the literal meanings of my words, when I express a sentence. You draw these implications on the basis of broader customs that we all follow that govern the use of certain sorts of expressions under certain circumstances. Normally if I say to you when you call, “I’m already very late for a meeting on another part of campus,” what I’m most concerned about letting you know is,

I can’t talk to you right now.

This is no part of the literal meaning of the terms I have used—that is, it is not logically implied. Rather, it is conversationally implied. Based on your experience in a lifetime of conversations, you realize that I would normally have no reason to tell you that I was late for a meeting unless I wanted you to understand that I could not talk to you right now.

Suppose, to provide another example, I recommend that you write a friend of mine to ask her advice about a job. You ask for her address and I reply, “It’s somewhere in Dallas.” You immediately understand that I intend to communicate the following:

I do not know her exact address.

This is not a logical implication; it does not follow from the meanings of the terms I have used. But you instinctively understand that, under these conditions, I surely would have given you the exact address had I known it. My reason for not giving it to you must be that I did not know it.

Note that conversation is used here broadly to mean an interchange of ideas, whether spoken, written, or thought. Obviously, something I say to you in a face-to-face dialogue is part of a conversation. But in the larger sense of conversation, something I write in this book is also a part of a conversation, since it is aimed at a certain audience that I hope will understand it and react to it in certain ways.

To provide an example of written conversational implication, in the 1920s newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst was out to make the mayor of New York look bad. So Hearst planted a reporter for his New York newspaper, The New York American, to slyly ask this question at a mayoral press conference: “Mr. Mayor, Mr. Hearst wants to know if you have a corrupt motive in supporting the Remsen Gas Bill?” The angry mayor ejected the reporter, and was further enraged to see this headline in the next day’s New York American:

Mayor Does Not Deny That He Has A Corrupt Motive In Supporting The Remsen Gas Bill.

The headline is literally true and does not logically imply anything that is false. But the conversational implication is that the mayor admits that he has a corrupt motive in supporting the Remsen Gas bill. And this is indeed false. Note that since conversational implication is another means of communicating, it is another means of lying.

Figures of speech—rhetorical devices—are especially noteworthy in considering conversational implication. They include cases in which conversational and logical implications actually conflict with one another, and conversational implication wins. (It must always win, since what you are clarifying is always the use of a sentence in a particular conversational setting—and the broader conversational context is what I, as the speaker or writer, use to indicate my intentions in using that sentence.) If I say, “Her mind is a steel trap,” one of the logical implications is that her mind is a mechanism made out of steel that opens and closes and is designed for catching animals and not for thinking. In most conversational contexts (except for, perhaps, a bizarre piece of science fiction) this is so obviously false that you instinctively realize that I could not intend it, but that my real, unspoken, intent must be to draw attention to important similarities between her mind and a steel trap. So, in cases of metaphor such as this, it is only the conversational—and not the logical—implications that capture my intentions.

In Chapter 2 we covered sentences that are not in statement form—questions, commands, or even fragments, for example—but that nevertheless function as statements. Oh to be at the beach this afternoon! for example, though in the form of an exclamation, in many contexts also serves that same function as the declarative I want to go to the beach this afternoon. This is a further example of conversational implication. We understand that they are intended as statements, even if their form does not logically mark them as such. Likewise with implicit statements in arguments; sometimes they are logically implied, but usually the implication is conversational. When, for example, the daughter says to her father, “We’ve been waiting for a windy day to fly the kite, so we should go fly it now,” her implicit premise is “Today is a windy day.” This premise isn’t logically implied by anything she says; rather, it is part of what she intends to communicate over and above the literal meanings of the statements she expresses. It is conversationally implied.

Unfortunately, we are not infallible interpreters of conversational implications. During much of my career as a student I worked as a waiter. I learned quickly that when a customer asked for a steak raw, the customer really meant extremely rare—until the day came when I delivered a very rare steak to a customer who complained, “But this steak isn’t raw; it’s been on the grill.” And so it had. I now saw that I should, in this case, have been concerned only with the logical implications of his order. It did not take long to properly prepare his new steak.

Guideline.  Look for indications of the arguer’s intent both in what is said and in what is not said—that is, in both the logical implications and the conversational implications.

Types of Implications

  1. Logical implication—the literal meanings of the words.
  2. Conversational implication—what is intended above and beyond the literal meanings of the words.

3.2.3 Consider the Broader Context of the Argument

Almost every argument has a broader context, and the more you know about its broader context the more likely you are to correctly understand the intent of the arguer. Perhaps you can discover the circumstances under which the argument was offered, thereby better understanding its conversational implications. Perhaps you are able to examine a larger chunk of the passage in which it was written or listen to a larger portion of the conversation in which it was spoken. Perhaps you are able to learn more about the argument’s author. Sometimes, of course, little such information is available. But when it is, you should take full advantage of it.

Guideline.  Look for indications of the arguer’s intent in the broader context.

EXERCISES Chapter 3, set (b)

Identify the given implications in each of the exercises below as either logical or conversational. Come up with a reasonable example of the other kind of implication in each case.

Sample exercise. Shopper to a store clerk: “I can’t find your orange juice.” Implication: Shopper is interested in buying orange juice.

Sample answer. This is a conversational implication. One logical implication of the shopper’s statement is that the shopper can’t find any fresh orange juice (since that would be included in the broader category of orange juice).

  1. Instructor to student: “You cannot pass this class unless you turn in your final paper.” Implication: The final paper is a class requirement.
  2. Narrator on television documentary: “This series would not have been possible without the generous assistance of the Brady Corporation.” Implication: The corporation funded the documentary.
  3. Character in film, to his on-screen romantic interest: “I couldn’t live without you.” Implication: He loves her.
  4. Politician to journalist: “I have never done anything illegal while in office.” Implication: He could have done something illegal before he was in office.
  5. Customer to car salesman: “This car is great, but it’s overpriced by at least $2,000.” Implication: Customer would be willing to make a deal at a lower price.

EXERCISES Chapter 3, set (c)

State a conversational implication (not a logical implication) of each expression below. Assume that the circumstances in each case are not unusual. In some cases you might imagine more than one conversational implication.

Sample exercise. From a review of a musical performance:

Miss X produced a series of sounds which corresponded closely with the score of “Home Sweet Home.”—from a lecture by philosopher Paul Grice

Sample answer. Miss X did not sing well.

  1. In a letter of recommendation for a student who is looking for a job in philosophy, the only evaluative comment is this: “I’ve never had a student who made fewer mistakes in spelling or grammar.”
  2. Said to a waiter in a restaurant, hungrily pointing to another table that was just served: “Our party got here before they did.”
  3. After your rich friend refuses to lend you some money, you say: “You’re the sort of friend I can depend on.”
  4. In a textbook: The answers to the exercises are in the back of the book. (Hint: What does this conversationally imply about whether they are also at the end of each chapter?)
  5. In response to your request for a phone number, I say: “I’ve got her email address right here.”
  6. After the first mate went on a binge, he found the next day that the captain had written in the ship’s log, “The first mate was drunk tonight.” When challenged by the first mate, the captain said that he entered it in the log “because it was true.” The next day the captain saw that the first mate had made the following entry in the log: “The captain was not drunk tonight.”
  7. Q. Did you ever stay all night with this man in New York?
    A. I refuse to answer that question.
    Q. Did you ever stay all night with this man in Chicago?
    A. I refuse to answer that question.
    Q. Did you ever stay all night with this man in Miami?
    A. No.
    Humor in the Court, Mary Louise Gilman

3.3 The Principle of Charity

The other important principle guiding the clarifying process is the , which requires that you adopt the paraphrase that makes the arguer as reasonable as possible.

It is often easy to interpret an argument in a way that makes it an obviously bad argument. But it may be possible to interpret the same argument in another way that is much more reasonable. When the history professor mentions “Columbus’s voyage of 1942,” should you call it a gross error or forgive it as a slip of the tongue? When the newly elected senator claims she received 60 percent of the vote when the exact figure is 59.8 percent, should you charge her with distortion or interpret her as meaning roughly 60 percent? The principle of charity says to adopt in each case the second interpretation—the one that makes the speaker more reasonable.

This principle has a single purpose: to enable you to be loyal to the arguer’s intent. Most people are fairly reasonable most of the time. So you are more likely to get it right if you choose the more reasonable interpretation. There is a chance, of course, that you will get it wrong. If you do get it wrong because you were being too charitable, the result is not so bad. The arguer might wish to thank you for improving on the original argument. And you can benefit from evaluating a better argument.

Guideline.  Assume the interpretation that makes the arguer as reasonable as possible.

3.3.1 The Golden Rule of Clarifying

There is a fairly straightforward way of applying the principle of charity. Imagine yourself in the same circumstances as the arguer, and imagine that you have spoken or written the same unclear words. What are you likely to have intended by them? How would you want to be understood? We might term this the golden rule of clarifying: paraphrase others as you would have them paraphrase you.

Consider the simple instructions on the back of an ordinary bottle of shampoo:

Wet hair, lather, rinse, repeat.

At first glance this seems clear enough. But think about it for a moment. Are you really being told that after you wet your hair, lather, and rinse the first time you must then repeat all three steps? Suddenly the instructions aren’t so clear. But you know what they mean—after all, you might quite reasonably say exactly the same thing, and you know what you would mean if you said it. You would mean this:

Wet hair, lather, rinse, then lather again—your hair is already wet now—and then rinse again.

In addition, you know that you don’t repeat the repeat step and perform the procedure endlessly! (Much of this is a matter of conversational implication.) The words weren’t perfectly clear, but you were instinctively able to clarify by using the principle of charity.

Notice that usually (but not always) applying this principle results in selecting the interpretation that is most likely to make the argument sound. When you see that there are two plausible interpretations of an argument, one with good logic and one with faulty logic, charity will normally point toward the one with good logic. Likewise, when one of the premises could be understood in a way that makes it true or in a way that makes it false, charity will normally point toward the paraphrase that is true.

But this is not always the case. In many circumstances a perfectly reasonable person might offer an unsound argument. Consider, for example, the following excerpt adapted from the writings of William Emerson, an 18th century disciple of Sir Isaac Newton’s:

Unlike those who went before him, Newton admits nothing but what he gains from experiments and accurate observations. It is a mere joke to talk of Newton’s philosophy being overthrown. He will always, therefore, be regarded as the greatest scientist of all.

Look only at the highlighted sentence, which serves as a premise for the final sentence. Surely Emerson does not mean that it is literally a joke to talk of Newton’s philosophy being overthrown; this claim would make the premise obviously false. Let us, therefore, charitably allow that Emerson’s real point (which follows by conversational implication) is this:

Newton’s philosophy will never be overthrown.

But notice that this paraphrase is still false, for fundamental elements of Newton’s “philosophy” have indeed been overthrown—by Einstein’s. But it was not unreasonable for Emerson to hold to this view; if I had been in the same circumstances—two centuries before Einstein and amazed at Newton’s brilliant successes—this is what I would have meant had I written the same sentence. So it is a charitable paraphrase, even though clearly false.

You will not always be able to arrive at the arguer’s true intent by this technique. You may be stymied for any of several reasons. The arguer might simply express the argument too badly. The arguer might not know the arguer’s own true intent. Or it might be that there isn’t enough context available to be confident of the arguer’s intent. In addition, even when it is possible to arrive at the arguer’s true intent, there may be several equally good ways of clearly paraphrasing it. Newton will remain preeminent in the field of natural philosophy or No scientist will ever disprove Newton’s philosophy would also be acceptable paraphrases of Emerson’s statement above, for example.

Thus, there is seldom a single correct way of paraphrasing an argument, all others being wrong. It does not follow, however, that anything goes. It is usually possible to determine what is likely to be closer and what is likely to be farther from the arguer’s intent, and what is a clearer and what is a more obscure way of expressing it.

Guideline.  Ask what you probably would have meant had you expressed the same words under similar circumstances.

EXERCISES Chapter 3, set (d)

There is a problem in interpreting each of the following passages. Explain the problem and indicate the more charitable interpretation. The difficulty is highlighted.

Sample exercise. “Noziere was a self-confessed young murderess of the thirties whose case became notorious largely because, having killed her father, she then complained of incest. Since she was almost certainly not his daughter, this seems rather hard cheese.”—Derek Malcolm, Manchester Guardian

Sample answer. Appears to be contradictory—she is almost certainly not her father’s daughter. Presumably the reviewer means that she killed her purported father, but was almost certainly not his real daughter.

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  2. “An accomplished swimmer who has only one hand was disqualified from a local swimming event because he failed to touch the end of the pool with both hands. Greg Hammond, 16, placed second in a men’s 100-meter race at swimming championships last weekend in Narooma. . . . But officials reluctantly disqualified him after an appeal was lodged pointing out that international rules specify that swimmers must finish by touching the pool with both hands. Hammond was born with a right arm that ends just below his elbow.”—Los Angeles Times (This has to do with charity toward those who wrote the law, not toward the swimmer—though in the end each produces the same result.)
  3. “It was Feshbach who, two years ago, first disclosed an increase
    in Soviet infant morality.”—Daily Herald of Wausau-Merrill, Wisconsin
  4. “St. Luke tells of the shepherds going to the manager.”—from the program for a Christmas candlelight service at Connecticut College
  5. Advertisement: And now, the Superstore—unequaled in size, unmatched in variety, unrivaled inconvenience.
  6. In a Paris hotel elevator: Please leave your values at the front desk.
  7. “The logical man is always self-righteous and therefore inhuman and therefore wrong, while the reasonable man suspects that perhaps he is wrong and is therefore always right.”—Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

3.4 The Straw Man Fallacy

It can be very tempting to interpret an argument so as to make it an easy target. But, unless the bad argument is clearly what the arguer intends, this is contrary to the principles of loyalty and charity. Yielding to this temptation results in a well-known fallacy. will be mentioned often throughout this text; they are defined simply as the easiest-to-make types of intellectual mistakes. The easy-to-make mistake, in this case, is the This fallacy is so named because a straw man is a lightweight construction of one’s own devising, much easier to knock down than a real man.

In an article from Creation/Science titled “The Impossible Voyage of Noah’s Ark,” Robert Moore argues against creationists who defend the literal truth of the biblical account of Noah’s ark. His central point against them is this:

Nearly every defender of the Noah story argues that the interior of the ark could have held literally hundreds of standard-sized railroad stock cars and thus was quite roomy. But they ignore the federal law which requires a train on a long haul to stop every 28 hours, to unload the stock, to feed and water them, and to give them a five-hour rest period. This may be just a minor inconvenience to American ranchers, but it would have been quite impossible for Noah. The fact that every creationist has triumphantly trotted out his train statistics, yet overlooked this decisive flaw, demonstrates once again the sloppiness of creationists’ research.

At first glance, Moore seems to be saying that the creationist account must be mistaken because their account would put Noah in violation of federal law—surely an unacceptable infringement for such a godly man as Noah! In standard clarifying format, it might look like this.

  1. If the story of Noah’s ark were true, then Noah would’ve had to violate federal law.
  2. Noah would not have violated federal law.
  3. The story of Noah’s ark is not true.

We can defend this paraphrase—after all, doesn’t Moore say that the “decisive flaw” is that “they ignore the federal law”? And it would be fun to critique that premise by reminding Moore that, to the best of our knowledge, that particular federal law was not in place in the year 3000 b.c.—thus, premise 1 is obviously false.

But because it is so easy to knock it down, we should ask whether we might have missed the point. What else might Moore mean by his words, however clumsily he has put it? How would we want to be interpreted had we written those words? Probably as saying that the creationist account must be mistaken because the very factors that later gave rise to the federal law would have made Noah’s voyage impracticable and perhaps even cruel. This is a harder point to dispute, makes the argument more interesting, and is almost certainly what Moore has in mind. The improved—more charitable and thus more loyal—outline might look like this:

  1. If the story of Noah’s ark were true, then Noah would’ve had to treat the animals in a way that was cruel and probably fatal.
  2. Noah would not have treated the animals in a way that was cruel and probably fatal.
  3. The story of Noah’s ark is not true.

The straw man fallacy is a fallacy that has to do with conversational relevance. Suppose I adopted the “straw man” version of Moore’s argument. My own argument against his first premise would be sound: my premise (that no federal law was in place in 3000 b.c.) would be true and my conclusion (that Noah, thus, did not violate federal law) would logically follow. But my argument would nevertheless be defective for the simple reason that it would be conversationally irrelevant. It would miss the point. It would be offered in the context of evaluating Moore’s argument but would actually be an evaluation of another argument, not Moore’s.

Arguments that commit the straw man fallacy miss the point in a very specific way—they miss it by making the target easier than it really is. They form a species of a broader sort of , traditionally termed the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. This broader fallacy, which includes the straw man fallacy, consists in this: apparently addressing the question at issue while actually addressing some other question. (Elenchi is from a Greek term for cross-examination; so this might be said to be the fallacy of ignoring—ignoratio—the question that is being asked—the elenchi).

Many arguments occur in a context where there is a definite question being considered. Perhaps the arguer has set out an explicit agenda or—perhaps there is a dialogue between two arguers. When the argument you are evaluating occurs in such a context, you should be prepared to consider in your evaluation not only whether it is sound, but also whether it commits a fallacy of conversational relevance.

The procedure of clarifying and evaluating, as elaborated in this book, is usually part of a dialogue with the arguer and thus usually occurs in such a context. (Sometimes the dialogue is nothing more than an internal dialogue with yourself, as you reason alone about answers to your own questions.) Be especially careful that you do not commit this fallacy as you attempt to clarify the argument you intend to evaluate.

Guideline.  Ask whether your paraphrase makes the argument too easy to attack. If it does, then you are violating the principle of charity and committing the straw man fallacy (which is a version of the fallacy of missing the point).

EXERCISES Chapter 3, set (e)

Outline each of these arguments in standard clarifying format. Where appropriate, paraphrase in accordance with the principles of loyalty and charity.

  1. “Paleontologist R. Bakker presented evidence, based on the stride and leg length of some dinosaurs, that their walking speed averaged about 3 miles per hour—about four times as fast as that of present-day lizards and turtles, and comparable to the speeds of moose, deer, bull and other warm-blooded animals. Because the average cruising speed reflects an animal’s metabolism, Bakker argues that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded.”—Science News
  2. It is said that Socrates had his character read by one of the first professional physiognomists, Zopyrus. As the story goes, Zopyrus described Socrates, that wisest of men, as “stupid and thick-witted because he had not got hollows in the neck above the collarbone” and added that he was, among other vices, addicted to women.
  3. “Psychics can perform as readily across the Atlantic as they can over the dinner table. To a physicist like Einstein this was most surprising. Accordingly, he wrote to a correspondent in 1946, ‘but I find it suspicious . . . that the distance of the subject from the cards or from the “sender” has no influence on the result. This is, a priori, improbable to the highest degree, consequently the result is doubtful.’”—Derek Gjertsen, Science and Philosophy (Outline Einstein’s argument.)
  4. “Acheson and Senator Robert Taft were both members of the governing body of Yale University. An important difference of opinion arose over the question of whether all undergraduate students should be required to take a course in mathematics. When Senator Taft argued that he had never taken a course in mathematics and, therefore, saw no reason for others to do so, Acheson quietly said: ‘The defense rests.’”—Paul H. Nitze, Tension between Opposites (Outline the argument that Acheson seems to have in mind.)
  5. “Ocean temperature is now virtually the same as it was in the 1940s. Since two-thirds of the buildup of CO2 has taken place since 1940, the MIT data blow all of the global warming forecasts into a cocked hat.”—Forbes

3.5 Summary of Chapter Three

An argument must be clarified before it is evaluated. This process requires that you do two things concurrently: that you outline the argument in standard format, so that it is clear exactly which statements are premises and which are conclusions; and that you paraphrase it, so that any negative effects of rhetoric and other distracting language are minimized. The point is to express the argument as clearly as possible so it is as easy as possible to tell whether the premises are true and whether the logic is good.

Two general principles regulate clarifying. The principle of loyalty requires that your paraphrase remain true to the arguer’s intent; this can be aided by imagining the arguer watching over your shoulder. And the principle of charity, which is a way of getting at the arguer’s intent when the context is not helpful, requires that your paraphrase always assumes that the arguer is as reasonable as possible. One way of doing this is to consider how you would want to be paraphrased if you had said the same thing under similar circumstances.

“If you fail to be loyal and charitable, you may yourself be committing a specific sort of fallacy of relevance known as the fallacy of missing the point (more technically known as the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi). You commit this fallacy when the argument you evaluate is not the arguer’s argument. The straw man fallacy is a certain sort of missing the point—the fallacy of setting up a version of the argument that is easy to knock down.

3.6 Guidelines for Chapter Three

  • Outline each argument in standard clarifying format.
  • Paraphrase each argument for greater clarity as you are outlining it in standard clarifying format.
  • In your clarification, remain true to the arguer’s intent.
  • Imagine that the arguer is looking over your shoulder to ensure that your clarification is true to the arguer’s intent.
  • Look for indications of the arguer’s intent both in what is said and in what is not said—that is, in both the logical implications and the conversational implications.
  • Look for indications of the arguer’s intent in the broader context.
  • Assume the interpretation that makes the arguer as reasonable as possible.
  • Ask what you probably would have meant had you expressed the same words under similar circumstances.
  • Ask whether your paraphrase makes the argument too easy to attack. If it does, then you are violating the principle of charity and committing the straw man fallacy (which is a version of the fallacy of missing the point).

3.7 Glossary for Chapter Three

Clarifying—ensuring that the argument is expressed as clearly as possible so it is as easy as possible to tell whether the premises are true, whether the logic is good, and whether the argument is relevant to the conversation.

Conversational implication—what the speaker or writer wants the audience to believe, over and above the literal meanings of the words that are expressed. These implications are drawn on the basis of broader customs that we all follow that govern the use of certain sorts of expressions under certain circumstances.

Fallacy—an easy-to-make type of intellectual mistake.

Fallacy of missing the point—conversational fallacy that errs by answering the wrong question. Also known as the fallacy of ignoratio elenchi. Elenchi is from a Greek term for cross-examination; this might be said to be the
fallacy of ignoring (ignoratio) the question that is being asked (the elenchi).

Logical implication—those things that must be true if the statement is true; if they were not true, there would be no imaginable way in which the statement could be true. Logical implications have to do with the literal meaning of the statement.

Principle of charity—requires that you adopt the paraphrase that makes the arguer as reasonable as possible. This principle provides a way of aiming for the arguer’s intentions when the context is unhelpful and thus is subordinate to the principle of loyalty.

Principle of loyalty—requires that your clarification aim to remain true to the arguer’s intent. Imagine that the arguer is looking over your shoulder.

Rhetoric—the art of of persuasive writing or speaking. Rhetoric can help or hurt the argument’s clarity. It helps when it is used to make good arguments easy to accept on their own merits.

Straw man fallacy—uncharitably representing an argument or position in a way that makes it too easy to attack. This is a variety of the fallacy of missing the point. This fallacy is so named because a straw man is a lightweight construction of one’s own devising, much easier to knock down than a real man.


  1. Another common way of designating a conclusion is to draw a horizontal line between the last premise and the conclusion. This leaves no simple and clear way, however, of indicating subconclusions if the argument is complex.

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