Part 2: The Message
- To explain the value of practical reasoning for developing communication messages.
- To identify what types of claims are best suited to practical reasoning and why.
- To be able to formulate a good (i.e., impartial) argument.
Our values motivate our behavior. For many people, knowingly or unknowingly, their values are not entirely under their own control. Rather, they are influenced by a variety of physical, psychological, social, and political forces. In her book “Thinking Your Way to Freedom: A Guide to Owning Your Own Practical Reasoning, philosopher Dr. Susan T. Gardner explains why this is deeply problematic. If we can’t control our own values, or even recognize when external forces are manipulating our values, then we cannot truly be autonomous. The best way to take control over our own values is through practical reasoning. Practical reasoning is the use of reason to decide how you should act or what you should believe. It is more than simply supplying ourselves with reasons to defend a value we are attached to. Rather, it is a way to identify, evaluate, and compare reasons in a manner that reduces outside influence or bias. Ultimately, impartial practical reasoning means that we must follow the reasons to where they lead, no matter how surprising or uncomfortable the conclusion. By learning to follow the reasons, we learn to become the architects of our own decisions, which is the highest form of freedom to which one can aspire. But what does all this have to do with science and risk communication? Well, there are five keyways in which practical reasoning is essential for communication:
- To know how to reason is to know how to think for ourselves. If we do not know how to think then we have no business telling others what or how to think.
- Communication is a two-way street. As communicators we will be required to use practical reasoning to come up with our own arguments AND to engage with the arguments of others. Practical reasoning teaches us what good and poor argument looks like and thus helps us to better interpret and interact with the arguments that others are communicating.
- Many critical forms of communication require good practical reasoning, particularly briefing notes. This makes sense as a good decision-maker wants to make sure that their decisions are based on the best possible reasons.
- Once we have developed a good argument, we can use different portions of that argument for different communication products. For example, a well minted thesis statement can become the core message of a communication campaign. Our ability to recognize our strongest possible opposition and to develop a well-thought-out response to that opposition can prepare us for thorny questions during a media interview, etc.
- Finally, when you know how to reason you can recognize when you are no longer dealing with reason or with reasonable people. This will trigger you to re-evaluate the communication context and the tools that you will need to proceed (see next chapter).
When to use practical reasoning
Your message is essentially a claim that you are making (i.e., what you believe to be the ‘truth’ as you see it). Claims can be classified according to the method one would use to estimate their truth. Claims can be divided into two broad categories: those that are empirical, and those that are non-empirical. The word “empirical” comes from the word “experience”, and hence indicates the kind of support that empirical claims require. The claim that “seat belts save lives” is an empirical claim; it can only be supported by evidence gathered from experience. One has little justification for making such a claim unless, in reality, there is empirical evidence to support it. Empirical claims must be justified by evidence. Non-empirical claims must be justified by reasons. On the other hand, the claim that “Post-secondary education should be free” is a non–empirical claim. Nothing in experience could directly support its truth. It receives its justification from reasons alone. This is not to say that no reference to facts are ever needed for the justification of a non-empirical claim. In the above example, one might refer to the positive experience of countries in which post-secondary education is free. Nonetheless, unlike empirical claims, the truth of this non-empirical claim is not solely a “matter of fact”. I can agree with your facts, but still argue that, for other reasons, post-secondary education should not be free.
On the other hand, there are some non-empirical claims whose justification rests so heavily on facts that they appear to be neither strictly empirical, nor strictly non-empirical. “One ought not to smoke” is an example. Although, strictly speaking, this is a non-empirical claim, its justification is so tightly tied to the fact that smoking is harmful, that, if the facts turned out to be wrong, most people would retract the claim. Since the cardinal characteristic of an empirical claim is that its truth rests on matters of fact, it is in this sense that it resembles an empirical claim.
It is important for you to know the difference between empirical and non-empirical claims because you need to know what kind of justification each requires. Empirical claims require empirical evidence or facts. By contrast, the justification of non–empirical claims rests on reasons, rather than empirical facts. This is an important distinction because, as opposed to evidence, reasons are not objectively true or false. So, if you have a non-empirical claim or message (e.g., vaccination should be mandatory for all school-aged children), you must be able to create a good argument where you compare the reasons for versus against your claim. For this reason practical reasoning is best suited for non-empirical claims and messages. The next section will walk you through the steps involved in creating this argument.
What a good (i.e., impartial) argument looks like
One begins an argument by first postulating a claim that one believes sincerely, even if only intuitively, to be true. This claim is referred to as your thesis statement. In posing your thesis statement, you ought to assume that the persons whom you are addressing do not believe that your thesis statement is true. This is an important assumption because, not only would there be little point in attempting to convince the already converted, worse, you might be seduced into offering a weak argument precisely because, in the company of like-minded people, you are apt to get away with it.
By contrast, to convince a disbeliever, or skeptic, you will have to offer strong, convincing reasons why they ought to change their mind. This is referred to as support for the thesis statement. Unhappily, too many people assume that this is the chief, or worse, the only, important constituent of a good argument. This fallacious assumption is one of the leading causes of the intransigent, chronic disagreements that plague our society. For one thing, this one-sided approach is ineffective: everybody is arguing and nobody is listening. For another, it can create a good deal of ill will. To be satisfied with merely presenting your own case demonstrates a profound lack of respect for those whom disagree with you.The golden rule of truth seeking: view others as you view yourself, i.e., presume that those whose positions differ from your own are rational beings for whom truth is important. That you haven’t the patience or the time to seriously consider their concerns suggests that you view your opposition as badly misinformed, stupid, emotionally deranged, willfully argumentative, or any combination thereof. A more constructive attitude — one that might be appropriately labeled the “golden rule of truth-seeking” — is that you ought to view others as you view yourself, namely as rational beings for whom truth is important. The difficulty that your opposition is experiencing, despite your persuasive efforts, is that they have highly convincing reasons (not addressed by your support) for believing that your thesis statement is false, misleading, or even perhaps dangerous. If you do not address these concerns, they will inevitably subvert your attempts to convince your opposition of the truth of your claim. A crucial constituent in formulating an argument, therefore, is articulating the strongest possible opposition. In doing so, you genuinely and respectfully invite your opposition into the playing field of judicious reasoning, and you thereby acknowledge that their beliefs and opinions are worthy of the same consideration as yours. This approach opens up the way for objective (i.e., unbiased) judgment; something most rational beings can tolerate even if the judgment goes against them.
Now that you are both on the playing field, this is not the time for dirty tricks. It is imperative that, once surfaced, you handle the concerns of your opposition with respect and sensitivity. Your job is to demonstrate (if it is legitimately demonstrable) that your opposition’s concerns can be surmounted. Perhaps they are not as strong as they first appeared; or they are founded on misleading evidence; or perhaps they correctly capture an inevitable negative, but necessary, side effect of your position. Your responsibility, in other words, is to offer a convincing response to your opposition (specifically by showing that, relatively speaking, it is weaker than your support). If you cannot respond convincingly, then, in the name of truth, you ought to go back and change your thesis statement. The tracking of truth is serious business. None of us have the time or the spare energy to waste on empty rhetoric or sophisticated manipulation. Approximating truth is too important: our combined welfare depends on it. And it is this seriousness that ought to be reflected in your conclusion. This is the finale. This is your last chance to tie it all together — to demonstrate that the intricacies of your argument, in fact, establish the truth of your original claim. At its best, your conclusion should “wow” your audience with its elegance, its eloquence, its creativity, and its power to convince all in its wake.
A Detailed Analysis of the Five Essential Argument Constituents
1. A clear thesis statement in support of a highly contentious issue
a) Your thesis statement should be contestable.
It is a waste of time to develop a argument for a claim that has no reasonable opposition. If your opposition is not reasonable, you will need other perspectives, tools, and approaches.
b) Your thesis statement should be tentative.
You must be prepared to revise or reject your claim if your opposition ends up being stronger than your support.
c) Your thesis statement should be clear and precise with respect to definitions, detail, example, and quantification.
The cardinal rule for articulating a thesis statement is that it must be clear. Clarity is important for two reasons. First, your claim cannot be evaluated unless you, and others, know precisely what it is that you are claiming. Secondly, if what you believe to be true is not clear, it cannot guide actions. If you are arguing that pornography ought to be banned, for example, you will have to define what you mean by “pornography”. Does it include anything and everything sexual, or are you only referring to that which is violent and degrading?
Clarity is critical. If your beliefs, opinions and admonitions are vague or unclear, they will be inefficient in guiding action.Similar to the need for defining terms, you must also supply detail, where necessary, as to what would count as fulfillment of the state of affairs advocated by your thesis statement. If you claim that immigration rates ought to be reduced, you must indicate what sort of numbers would count as being sufficiently reduced. If you argue that we ought to have zero tolerance for child abuse, you need to be more specific as to what would count as zero tolerance — no spanking, immediate jail, what? If you argue that parents ought to be held responsible for the illegal acts of their young offspring, you must supply detail as to what would count as being held responsible — fining, going to jail, etc.
2. A convincing support for the thesis statement
What you are attempting to do in your support is to establish local sufficiency, i.e., to provide your reader/listener with a sufficient reason for believing your claim.
a) Know whether your thesis statement can be supported by reference to reasons alone, or whether it also requires reference to empirical evidence or data.
As mentioned above, if you are making a statement about what ought to be the case, e.g., “people ought not to engage in casual sex”, you are making a value/non-empirical claim and hence your argument will primarily rest on the strength of your reasons. If you are making a claim about a fact, e.g., “photo radar doesn’t work”, then your argument will primarily rest on the strength of the empirical data that you offer in support. Sometimes there is a mix. Thus, if you are arguing that forest companies ought to be allowed to continue clear-cutting because the termination of this practice will result in a “devastating loss of jobs”, you must be prepared to provide fact (~ how many jobs will be lost) and reason (why that would be “devastating”).
b) Be aware of the hidden premise.
A hidden premise is a reason that supports your thesis statement but that is not, itself, actually stated in your argument. Thus, if you argue that “We should not eat genetically modified foods because they are unnatural,” the hidden premise is that “We should not consume anything that is unnatural (including chewing gum, beer and wine, etc.).” If you do not accept that hidden premise, you cannot offer the former reasoning as support for your thesis. It is absolutely essential that you are aware of the hidden premise. This is so because a reason is only as strong as the weakest link in the entire argument. Thus, if your hidden premise is extremely weak (i.e., vulnerable to a strong counterexample) but you are unable to see it, you will remain unaware of how weak your support is.
The hidden premise
The following statements are examples of reasons with a hidden premise. The hidden premise is indicated in brackets after the statement.
Abortion is wrong because it takes a life. (All acts that take a life are acts that are wrong)
Nudity should be outlawed because seeing naked bodies is offensive to many. (All things that are offensive to many are things that should be outlawed)
Because we cannot guarantee that we will not execute an innocent man, capital punishment should be outlawed. (All acts that might result in the death of an innocent man are acts that should be outlawed)
c) Beware of begging the question.
You are begging the question if you provide a reason that your audience will only accept if they already accept the truth of your thesis statement or the values that underpin it. This is a problem because constructing a convincing argument can be described as a process of “cognitive fishing”; you are trying to hook onto a principle that your opposition holds dear, and then on the strength of that principle, reel in your claim. Thus, if you wanted to convince a skeptic that God exists, there is no point in doing so by referring to the fact that it says so in the Bible, and that the Bible is the word of God. Obviously if your opposition believed that the Bible was the word of God, your opposition would not have doubted the existence of God in the first place.
In situations in which you do not hook into a principle or claim that your opposition believes to be true, all you are doing is fishing around in your own mind rather than attempting to reach across into the mind of your opposition. You have hooked one of your own beliefs, not one of your opposition’s, so you have convinced nobody but yourself. In such instances, since you have given no reason acceptable to your opposition, you are reduced to begging your opposition to believe your original claim.
Begging the question
The following are examples of reasons that beg the question. This is because the reason (the statement after “because”) assumes that your audience already accepts your claim (the statement before “because”) or the values that underpin it.
Queer couples should receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples because all adults should be considered equal under the law.
Casual sex should not be socially acceptable or encouraged because sex is a serious step and should be undertaken only by people who really love each other.
There should be no Federal cutbacks in education because quality education is a right.
3. The articulation of a strong opposition
The strongest possible opposition is the strongest support for the thesis statement that contradicts your original, which usually means simply inserting a “not” into the original claim. Thus, if you are attempting to support the claim that “you are justified in not giving spare change to panhandlers”, then the opposing viewpoint would be that “you are not justified in not giving spare change to panhandlers”. Since your opposition is simply support for the negative of your thesis statement, all the suggestions provided above for articulating a strong support apply to articulating a strong opposition.
Keep in mind that your opposition is not opposing the reasoning that you have articulated in your support. If that were the case, you would be stuck in the process of local evaluation, which should be part of the task of developing your support. Your job here is to move on to global evaluation and thus to investigate a different set of reasons that support the opposing view.
Keep in mind too, that if you create a strawperson argument, i.e., an argument with a dishonestly weak opposition, you rob yourself of the opportunity to test your thesis against a worthy opponent, and in so doing, you forfeit the chance to evaluate the real strength of your position in terms of global sufficiency (i.e., would any reasonable person think your argument, as a whole, is enough to support your claim).
4. A convincing response to the opposition
This is the critical point of the argument. The response to your opposition is a response only to your opposition. The response is not an opportunity to reiterate support for the original claim. For this reason, it must speak directly to the reasons provided by your strongest opposition. Let’s use the following argument as an example:
THESIS: Violent and degrading pornography should be banned.
SUPPORT: Since we can assume that, like advertising, violent and degrading pornography influences some people to behave in the manner portrayed, for the sake of the physical protection and the preservation of the dignity of women, violent and degrading pornography should be banned.
(Hidden premise) All actions that are necessary to stop the positive powerful advertising of female brutalization and degradation, and hence are essential for the physical safety and dignity of women are actions that should be done.
OPPOSITION: A democracy can only flourish if its citizens are willing to tolerate different beliefs and stated opinions. Banning pornography is a form of censorship, which interferes with that vital freedom of speech that is the major defense against the possibility of one group tyrannizing another.
(Hidden premise) All actions that are a form of censorship that threaten democracy and its essential ingredient, namely an active commitment to freedom of speech that requires that we tolerate different beliefs and opinions and is thus a major defense against the possibility of one group tyrannizing another are actions that should not be done.
To respond to your opposition you might you might suggest that a vibrant democracy does not in fact require that we tolerate all stated opinions. We do not tolerate hate literature, for example, on the grounds that it may result in genuine harm. Libel is also against the law.
Ideally, you would also evaluate for potential flaws in your support. For example, you might realize that banning pornography probably won’t work because of the inability to “censor” the Internet. Remember that a good communicator must never attempt to prove their claim to be true. Rather, they examine as much evidence as possible, in a manner that is as precise and objective as possible, and only after they have failed to prove their theory false, are they justified in proclaiming its truth. That is what you are trying to do here: you are trying to eliminate one of the two contending arguments by demonstrating its weakness; you are not trying to re-emphasize the winning characteristics of the original thesis statement. The method of choice here is falsification, not verification.
5. A convincing resolution or conclusion to the proposed problem
Your conclusion should efficiently synthesize (vs. summarize or repeat) the details of your argument in a manner that shows that, after evaluating and comparing your strongest support and opposition, your claim is ultimately supported by reason. In other words, it is a succinct creative synopsis of both the learned truth and the journey that led to it. You may even want to expand your conclusion by offering an aphorism or “a pearl of wisdom” that re-phrases or expands upon your claim in a manner that is pithy a memorable, as statements of this nature translate well into communication products.
- Practical reasoning, and its components, can be used to evaluate and support non-empirical claims.
- Empirical claims are claims about facts and must be justified by evidence. Non-empirical claims are claims about values and must be justified by reasons or a combination of evidence and reasons.
- A good (i.e., impartial) argument has five key components: claim/thesis statement, support, opposition, response to opposition, conclusion.
- Your thesis statement (a.k.a., your claim) should be contestable, tentative, and clear.
- Your support should include the appropriate combination of reason and evidence and should avoid errors such as ignoring the hidden premise and begging the question.
- Your opposition should include the strongest reasons/evidence that can be found to support the opposite of your, claim and your response to the opposition should address those reasons directly.
- Your conclusion is more than a re-statement of your original claim or a summary of the arguments, it must synthesize the argument in a manner that allows your audience to understand why your claim stood the test of the preceding argumentative process.
Sample Student Practical Reasoning Arguments
Although I became a vegetarian because I do not support the mistreatment of animals that occurs in the meat industry, I am justified in feeling annoyed at other vegetarians who look down on people who eat meat. by Daniella Pozzobon
I used to believe I was justified in vocally opposing this family member’s position and views at the expense of creating conflict between myself and members of her family, but now I no longer do. by Armin Shahriari
One of my friends had completed a four-year biology degree before switching into an engineering program at the same school. After two years into her four-year engineering program, I learned from someone else that she had decided to switch into a new college to pursue a two-year veterinary technology program. I am justified in feeling annoyed that she did not tell us. by Anonymous
My aunts and uncles want the Canadian government to significantly cut down on immigration and turn away refugees, despite the fact that we are an entire family of immigrants. I am justified in disagreeing with their stance. by Julie Zhang
- Practical reasoning diagram