Argument Essays

Contrary to popular opinion, arguing is not fighting. Argument requires logic, evidence, and a persuasive appeal to a target audience; arguments are won through convincing persuasion, not through beating the opposition over the head with a chair.

Basic Theory

A systematic approach to argument/persuasion dates back to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, advice to orators written in about 350 B.C.E. Aristotle focused on three appeals or basic areas of concern which he labeled logos (logic, content, evidence), ethos (ethics, credibility, authority), and pathos (empathy, sympathy, understanding the audience). The most effective persuasion, he asserted, occurs when the orator has a clear understanding and effective control of all three appeals.

For Aristotle, the three appeals seem to be pretty well defined:

  • Logos is based on logic and reason. It appeals to the rational response of an audience. “Believe me because I have all the facts and evidence to prove that what I say is so.” A scientist trying to convince others of the validity of his theorem by presenting experimental observation and data appeals primarily to logos.
  • Ethos is based on the character and reputation of the speaker. It appeals to the trust the audience has for the speaker’s credibility and reliability. “Believe me because I am a good and trustworthy person and I know what I’m talking about.” A politician asking for votes based on the strength of his character appeals primarily to ethos.
  • Pathos is based on emotion, usually the emotions of the audience. It appeals to predictable and orchestratable emotional responses such as fear, sadness, contentment, desire, etc. “Believe me because you will be safe and secure (or strong and sexy or rich and powerful) if you heed what I say.” An advertiser selling toothpaste on the basis of giving users a sexy smile appeals primarily to pathos.

Aristotle’s advice was refined in 1958 in The Uses of Argument by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who focused on logical methods of constructing persuasive arguments. The Toulmin model emphasizes a clearly stated claim, convincing evidence, and adequate connections (warrants) between the two. In a pure sense, the Toulmin model should persuade based on the merits of the argument itself, pretty much regardless of the audience.

The Toulmin model is often explained as having six basic parts, adapted as needed to the argument at hand. The first three parts are considered primary, and the last three secondary. The six parts are:

  1. a clearly stated claim (What is your position on an issue?),
  2. evidence or data to support the claim (What details support your claim?),
  3. warrant or links to connect the evidence to the claim (Why does your evidence support your claim?),
  4. theoretical foundations or assumptions underlying the warrants (What beliefs or ideas do you think you share with your audience?),
  5. qualifiers as needed to temper the claim (How universal is, or what reservations do you have about, your claim?), and
  6. rebuttals to counterarguments (How do you respond to what the other side might say?).

For example, it might work something like this:

John should be making at least minimum wage (claim).
John has been hired to work at ABC Company (evidence).
Workers are by law paid at least minimum wage (warrant).
Employers follow the law regarding payment of wages (assumption).
If John is working full time (qualifier) and he is not part of an exempt group (rebuttal), then John should be paid at least minimum wage (re-statement of claim).

We like to think that our legal system operates according to the Toulmin model: a claim of guilt or innocence, supported by legally admissible evidence argued by opposing sides according to the letter of the law (warrants) and judged on the basis of social assumptions and qualifiers of reasonable doubt, with cross examination providing rebuttalof claims, leads to a verdict of guilt or innocence. Everything should fall into place in this model, and ideally the argument will stand on its own merits, without emotional arm-twisting.

Toulmin’s logical approach, however, was further refined by psychologist Carl Rogers. Rogers asserted that the key to effective persuasion is in bridging the gap between the arguer and the audience, usually by finding some sort of common ground. He emphasized the importance of knowing, and playing upon, the audience’s needs, beliefs, expectations, fears, desires, etc.—the emotional aspects of an individual or group which both influence and determine action and response on a psychological level. Theoretically, a skilled orator/writer could work an audience into a frenzy through appealing to emotional hot buttons to persuade that audience to assent to the orator/writer’s position. Advertising is very good at employing this kind of approach.

More often than not, no single model will work all the time for all situations. It is the job of the skilled arguer to analyze the situation, the audience, and the evidence to come up with the most appropriate strategy, or combination of strategies, to construct the most persuasive argument.

Practical Considerations

To help maximize the opportunity to construct a persuasive argument, there are several things you can do. They start with your own approach to and familiarity with the issue under argument, and extend through the evidence you can amass to your understanding of and approach to your audience.

1. What is your arguable claim? Your first step is to settle on an issue (either one assigned to you or of your own choosing) and take a stand on it. An arguable claim tells your readers what subject or issue you will address and what position you will support regarding that issue. Arguability implies that there are at least two sides to the issue, so keep in mind that you should be aware of an opposing point of view. Keep in mind also that how you phrase your claim has important implications regarding its arguability. For instance,

Poor claim: Many women suffer from breast cancer. (Not arguable; just a statement of fact)

Better claim: Employers should offer free mammograms for all employees. (Suggests a change in policy; controversy exists due to differing opinions)

Arguable claims can be claims of fact (argue that a condition has existed, exists, or will exist, or not), claims of value (argue that one point of view is better/worse or more/less valuable than another), or claims of policy (argue that certain conditions should or should not exist). Once you have an arguable claim, you know exactly what you will try to convince your readers of, and you can start gathering the evidence you will need to be convincing. (Note: For more information on types of claims, see the Claims page.)

2. What evidence supports your claim? To be convincing, you will need sufficient credible evidence to persuade readers to support your position. This means that you must collect convincing, reliable information that helps you prove to someone else that you are right. Do not expect your readers just to take your word for it or simply to trust you; prove your claim with credible evidence. It’s up to you to put together sufficient credible details that are likely to influence or sway your readers’ opinions about the issue.

Things that constitute credible evidence include, but are not limited to, the following:

Things that Constitute Credible Evidence
Facts Data Examples
Expert opinions Testimonials Experiments
Surveys Statistics Observations

You may be able to use your own experience for some or all of this, or you may need to do some research to gather evidence.

3. What would the other side say? You cannot be really sure about your own position until you understand where the other guy is coming from. Be sure you have a clear sense of the opposition: what would the other side say, what evidence would the other side use, what kind of logic would the other side apply to try to convince readers that you’re wrong? Remember that it is extremely difficult to defend yourself against attack from the unknown, so know your opposition and build your defense into your own argument.

4. What path are you taking to reach your conclusions? Take your readers along the lines of logic that you use to reach your position. Do not expect someone else to jump to your conclusions without your help. For instance,

Poor logic: Illegal aliens should be documented because they are a burden to taxpaying Americans. (Leap in logic; how does one lead to the other?)

Better logic: Illegal aliens are part of an undocumented economic system. They work at jobs that do not generate taxes. Even though they are not paying taxes, they may be sending their children to public schools, reaping the benefits of tax-supported police and fire protection, and using tax-supported roads and public services. Since they are taking advantage of these resources without paying taxes, they should be documented and tracked for tax purposes and should pay taxes like other workers do. (Clearer connections between ideas and reasons to support the claim)

Without the logical steps connecting evidence to claim, you leave yourself open to attack and are unlikely to persuade skeptical readers that your argument is reasonable. To be credible and convincing at this stage, you should also be careful to avoid the pitfalls of logical fallacies. (For more on these, see the pages on Logical Fallacies and on Basic Logic.)

5. For whom are you writing? Being persuasive often relies on “pushing the right buttons” for a target audience. Not all audiences are swayed by the same things, and even the same subject must sometimes be argued differently for different audiences. For instance, imagine arguing the drinking age issue for a group of high-school students, and then for their parents, and then for the city council, and then for the police, and then for the Congress…well, you get the idea. Each group has different interests and concerns, so each group should be approached in a way that meets those individual interests and concerns—this is what makes persuasion emotionally powerful and effective.

Try to look at your argument from your readers’ perspective—if you didn’t already have a stand on the issue, would your argument as it stands on the page convince you? If you can honestly say yes, then you are on your way to having a good argument.


Compiled by L. Schuller and S. Yaklin, August 3, 2006.