Logic: What is a NON Argument?

Differentiating Arguments from Hypotheticals, Commands, Warnings, Suggestions

Not Arguing
Not Arguing. Jamie Grill/Tetra images/Getty

Before going further, you should first read what an argument is and why. Once you understand that, it's time to move on to take a look at some things which are not arguments because it's far too easy to mistake non-argument for legitimate arguments. Premises, propositions, and conclusions — the pieces of arguments — may usually be easy to spot. But arguments themselves aren't always so easy to spot, and very often people will offer things which they claim are arguments but are not.

Too often, you will hear something like these:

  • 1. exists, and the Bible is true!
  • 2. Ronald Reagan was the best President we ever had!
  • 3. Global warming is a great danger to life and civilization.

None of these are arguments; instead, they are all just assertions. They could be transformed into arguments if the speaker were to offer evidence in support of their claims, but until then we don't have very much to go on. One sign that you just have a strong assertion is the use of the exclamation points.

If you see a lot of exclamation points, it's probably a very weak assertion.

Arguments vs. Hypotheticals

One common pseudo-argument or non-argument which you will probably encounter too often is the hypothetical proposition. Consider the following examples:

  • 4. If the Bible is accurate, Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Son of God.
  • 5. If you want to improve the economy, you have to lower taxes.
  • 6. If we don't act quickly, the environment will be damaged beyond repair.

These all look like arguments and, because of that, it isn't uncommon for them to be offered as if they were arguments. But they aren't: they are simply conditional statements of the if-then type. The part following the if is called the antecedent and the part following the then is called the consequent.

In none of the three cases above (#4-6) do we see any premises which would supposedly support the conclusion. If you want to try to create a genuine argument when you see such claims, you have to focus on the antecedent of the conditional and ask why it should be accepted as true. You can also ask why there is any connection between the hypothetical in the antecedent and the proposition in the consequent.

To better understand the difference between an argument and a hypothetical proposition, look at these two very similar statements:

  • 7. If today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.
  • 8. Because today is Tuesday, tomorrow will be Wednesday.

Both of these statements express similar ideas, but the second is an argument while the first is not. In the first, we have an if-then conditional (as you can see, sometimes the then is dropped). The author is not asking readers to make any inferences from any premises because it is not being claimed that today is, in fact, Tuesday. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but it doesn't matter.

Statement #8 is an argument because "today is Tuesday" is being offered as a factual premise. From this claim, it is being inferred — and we are asked to accept this inference — that tomorrow is, therefore, Wednesday.

Because it is an argument, we can challenge it by questioning what today is and what day truly follows today.

Commands, Warnings, and Suggestions

Another type of pseudo-argument can be found in the following examples:

  • 9. You must do your duty to God, your Creator.

  • 10. We must stop the government from interfering with people's private property.

  • 11. People must make sure that international corporations don't get too much power.

None of these are arguments, either — in fact, they aren't even propositions. A proposition is something which can be either true or false, and an argument is something offered to establish the truth value of the proposition. But the statements above are not like that. They are commands, and cannot be true or false — they can only be wise or unwise, justified or unjustified.

Similar to commands are warnings and suggestions, which are also not arguments:

  • 13. You should take foreign language classes while at college.

Arguments vs. Explanations

Something that is sometimes confused with an argument is an explanation. Contrast the following two statements:

  • 14. I am a Democrat, so I voted for the Democratic candidate.

  • 15. She didn't vote in the Republican primary, so she must be a Democrat.

In the first statement, no argument is being offered. It is an explanation of an already-accepted truth that the speaker voted for the Democratic candidate. Statement #13, however, is a bit different — here, we are being asked to infer something ("she must be a Democrat") from a premise ("She didn't vote..."). Thus, it is an argument.

Arguments vs. Beliefs & Opinions

Statements of belief and opinion are also often presented as if they were an argument. For example:

  • 16. I think that abortion is a horrendous procedure. It violently kills a young, innocent human life and the extent of abortions in this country constitutes a new holocaust.

There is no argument here — what we have are emotive statements rather than cognitive statements. No effort is made to establish the truth of what is said nor are they being used the establish the truth of something else. They are expressions of personal feelings. There is nothing wrong with emotive statements, of course — the point is that we must understand when we are looking at emotive statements and that they are not genuine arguments.

Of course, it will be common to find arguments which have both emotive and cognitive statements.

Often, the statements in #16 might be combined with other statements which would constitute an actual argument, explaining why abortion is wrong or why it should be illegal. It is important to recognize this and learn how to disengage the emotional and value claims from the logical structure of an argument.

It is easy to be distracted by language and miss what is going on, but with practice, you can avoid that. This is especially important not just when it comes to religion and politics, but especially in advertising. The entire marketing industry is dedicated to using language and symbols for the purpose of creating particular emotional and psychological responses in you, the customer.

They would rather you just spend your money than think too much about the product, and they design their advertising based on that premise. But when you learn how to set aside your emotional responses to certain words and images and get right at the logical — or illogical — heart of what is being claimed, you'll be a much better informed and prepared consumer.