Philosophy is for Everyone

How to Make a Good Argument

Everyone can learn how to make a good argument. This post is about how to do that.

The Basics of a Good Argument

At a very basic level, you can know that an argument is good if it has a clear conclusion supported by strong premises. Your premises are the evidence you use to support your conclusion.

Sometimes people trick themselves into thinking they are making a strong argument, when they actually are not.

Just because an argument feels strong or convincing to you does not mean that it is, in fact, a strong argument. Sometimes when an argument feels especially convincing, it is because it is based on claims that appeal to our own individual psychology, rather than because it is a truly convincing argument.

You can read more about this here and here.

Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

What Types of Evidence Makes a Strong Premise?

If you want to have a strong argument, you need to have strong evidence supporting your conclusion.

Here are three of the most common types of evidence that help build strong arguments:

One: A wide range of examples

The more evidence you collect from a wide variety of sources that support your conclusion, the stronger your conclusion is. Someone can find one example to support any claim. One example does not prove a conclusion. After all, that one example could just be a fluke or an anomaly. (You can read more about this here.)

However, if you can rally a wide variety of examples from a wide variety of sources that support your claim, the stronger your argument. The examples indicate a consistent pattern rather than an anomaly.

Two:  A wide range of expert testimony

The more evidence you collect from a wide range of trustworthy experts that supports your conclusion, the stronger your evidence is.

Expert testimony is testimony by people who hold credentials or a significant amount of professional experience in a certain area.

For instance, if someone uses expert testimony to support a conclusion about medical issues, that expert testimony should be from people who hold medical degrees of some sort. Or it should be from someone who has significant professional experience in the medical field—a medical writer or journalist is an example of this sort of person.

Why Expert Testimony is Important

Expert testimony is important because people who hold a degree or have significant professional experience in the field have . . .

1) Received extensive training in the field and understand its foundational theories and rules;

2) Gone through some kind of testing or certification or degree process that required them to verify their competence in the field in some way.

Experts can also lose their credentials or jobs or be held up to public censure for spreading false or misleading information. Thus, there are accountability measures associated with their opinions.

Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

Experts Usually Have Accountability Mechanisms

Therefore, while experts are not perfect, can be biased, and sometimes spread misleading information, they are less likely to do so than someone who has not undergone rigorous training in their field; has not been required to prove their knowledge to other experts in it; and is not held accountable for spreading false or misleading information. (See next point about the testimony of everyday, average people.)

As is the case with examples, people can find one or two experts who will support almost any conclusion. However, the testimony of one expert does not prove a point [1].

The More the Better

So, the more experts, and the wider variety of experts, you find to support a conclusion, the stronger that conclusion becomes.  And, of course, it is important that you find testimony from experts whose expertise is related to the argument you are making.

For example, a medical doctor certainly has medical expertise, but her expertise should not be used to support religious conclusions. And vice versa. A religious professional should not be used to provide expert opinion for medical matters, unless the matter is a religious view on certain medical issues.

Three: A wide range of experience from every day, average people.

Expert opinion is extremely important, but so is the opinion of every day, average people.

Experts can testify to the underlying theories, research, facts, and foundational philosophies of their area of expertise. So, their opinion is extremely important.

But the experience of everyday average people is important as well in other areas.

For example, if people want to know how to create a college with excellent pedagogy, they should certainly consult education experts. They should also consult students.

The experts provide important information about key theories, research, etc. pertaining to sound pedagogy. But the experience of every day, average people like students provides another type of evidence—daily, concrete, practical experience that fleshes out various theories.

As with both examples and expert testimony, it is possible to find at least one person who will support any claim.

Therefore, the more people you find from a wide variety of backgrounds that support your claim, the stronger the claim becomes.

Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

The Power of Counter-Examples

Good argumentation is not just about rallying evidence to prove your point. It is also about examining, and purposefully searching out, evidence that could disprove your point. This practice helps you counteract bias.

All of us have biases. Here are three common sources of bias:

One–Self-confirming Bias:

We tend to believe evidence that supports the views we already believe or beliefs that makes us feel good. On the other hand, we often ignore evidence that requires us to change our belief or that might make us feel uncomfortable.

Two–Cultural Bias:

We tend to believe the views promoted by the race, religion, or socioeconomic group in which we were raised, and we tend to ignore evidence presented by people outside of the culture in which we  were raised (i.e. different races, religions, or socioeconomic groups).

Three—Self-Serving Bias:

We tend to believe views that profit us in some ways, such as financially, in terms of our reputation, or in terms of security. It is not wrong to believe a view that also brings us reward—like money or fame or security.

It is, however, important to realize that our need for these things often motivate us to hold onto beliefs that serve us and to deny evidence to the contrary, often because it threatens these basic needs.

Having biases is human, and no one is bad simply because they have an unrealized bias. However, biases can become dangerous. They can lead to racism and bigotry of various forms. Therefore, if you want to make a good argument, you must actively seek out evidence that could disprove your argument.

Dispositions of Good Argumentation

As you can imagine, it takes courage to seek out information that could potentially disprove conclusions you care about. It also takes thought, care, and self-control to carefully construct a good argument.

Thus, consistently making good arguments requires that we develop certain dispositions. Here are some of the most important ones:

A Disposition of Love:

We must love the truth more than anything, even if it requires us to change or give up previously held beliefs.

A Disposition of Courage:

We must be courageous enough to seek the truth, even if it reveals that we have faulty thinking or biases we must rid ourselves of. We must also be courageous enough to learn from people with whom we disagree.

Drawing and painting by Shelly P. Johnson.

A Disposition of Humility:

We must be willing to recognize that we could always be wrong—even about the things we believe we are most right about.

A Disposition of Playfulness:

We must adopt the spirit of a playful adventurer who explores the world with a sense of curiosity and wonder, rather than a dogged determination to defend the territory we have already staked out.

A Disposition of Compassion:

We must recognize that seeking the truth and becoming good arguers is a process. It is possible to make mistakes, even big ones, in this process. We need to have compassion for ourselves and others in the process.

A Disposition of Wisdom:

There are some people you can’t argue with and some you can. The people you can’t argue with are people who are determined to prove their own view no matter what and are not interested in love, courage, humility, playfulness, and compassion.

The people you can argue with are people who are committed to the dispositions I have mentioned above. It is wise to know the difference between these two types of people.

For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people think for themselves and practice humility, self-reflection, and courage.

My books are The Argument Builder, The Discovery of Deduction (co-author), and Everyday Debate.

You can find these books at Classical Academic Press here.

And you can also order them from Amazon:

Everyday Debate (I recommend starting with this one.)

The Argument Builder

The Discovery of Deduction


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[1] Experts are human beings, and (as we all know), human beings are fallible. Everyone, even experts, has the potential to make mistakes, engage in shoddy thinking, or promote misleading information for personal gain.


5 thoughts on “How to Make a Good Argument”

  1. Congratulations! I have nominated you for an Outstanding Blogger Award! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m not sure if you accept nominations these days, but I thought I’d share in case you do.

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