Argument, Persuasion, and the 2nd Amendment: The Philosophies of Aristotle and Stephen Toulmin

It’s almost as if the Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing when forming the argument of the 2nd Amendment

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” Persuasion is the attempt to persuade an audience to believe an idea or to take an action, using the three “artistic” appeals: ethos (ethical), pathos (emotional), and logos(rational). The most effective means of persuasion is emotional (as advertising and public relations folks know), especially the use of fear, as Scott Adams points out in his idea of the “persuasion stack” in Win Bigly. Or, as George Campbell, the 18th century Scottish rhetorician said, “There is no persuasion without moving the passions.”

Persuasion does not have the same purpose as argument. Aristotle adapted syllogistic logic (major premise-minor premise-conclusion) into deductive logic based on the enthymeme(premise-conclusion). The enthymeme is the rhetorical equivalent of a syllogism. According to Aristotle, if you can show that the premise of an enthymeme is valid (the deductive standard is valid, not right or true) using various support strategies (such as studies, expert opinions, statistics), then your audience should accept that your conclusion is also valid. This is the purpose of a deductive argument.

Many people have a problem understanding that deductive argument is not about establishing truth, only validity. Take the current debate in the USA over gun control. The 2nd Amendment, whether you like it or not, is a perfectly formed enthymeme: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state [premise], the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed [conclusion].” According to Aristotle, if the premise is valid, then you should accept the conclusion as valid as well. The only way to counter a deductive argument is to show that the premise is not valid. In other words, good luck trying to show that some form of military is not necessary for the security of a free state. Which is why the debate over gun control usually takes the form of persuasion, especially pathos(and most especially, fear) in order to try to persuade an audience to believe one side or the other or take action for or against one side or the other.

Enter British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. In The Uses of Argument and An Introduction to Reasoning,Toulmin established a six-step method of analyzing arguments: claim, grounds, warrant, backing, qualifier and rebuttal. [Note to writing teachers: there’s no such thing as a Toulmin argument; Toulmin’s method is a way of analyzing the strength or weakness of an argument, not writing one]. Unlike Aristotle, who focused on validity, Toulmin focused on how various disciplines construct strong or weak claims, based on the grounds supporting those claims, and whether or not the they are qualified. Rare is the claim that can be made with absolute certainty; most claims are conditional (qualifiers include modal verbs like probably, possibly, necessarily, likely, apparently, maybe, perhaps). The grounds consist of reasons and facts. For Toulmin, the conclusion of an enthymeme becomes the claim, and the premise becomes one of the reasons supporting the claim. The focus for Toulmin is not showing that the premise of an argument is valid, but that the claim is either strong or weak.

For me, Toulmin’s great insight is that different disciplines have different fact values in argument. For example, an argument in biology, physics, chemistry, or engineering would have a high fact value based on the amount of facts available to support the claim; therefore, the claim would only be lightly qualified. Psychology, sociology, economics, or political science would have a smaller truth value based on the fewer number of facts available in those disciplines (more theory and empirical evidence based); therefore, claims would have to be more heavily qualified; and in the humanities, claims would have to be heavily qualified (almost all theory based). In fact, Toulmin used literary criticism as an example of a discipline that is 100% personal opinion.

Another example would be in sociology, where a disturbing number of academic journal articles freely admit that there are no facts or empirical evidence supporting their arguments, so the authors claim that auto-ethnography, or personal experiences, are enough to support their claims. Obviously, The Uses of Argumentis not required reading in sociology departments.

For Toulmin, a strong argument would be one supported with reasons, facts and light qualification. A weaker argument would have fewer facts and greater qualification.

Also in analyzing an argument, he posited the idea of the warrant, a general belief (idea, history, or theory) connecting the grounds to the claim. A warrant can be stated, implied, or unstated. The backing to the warrant is any relevant information that supports the warrant. And finally, any analysis of an argument should include rebuttal, which he defined as “extraordinary or exceptional circumstances that might undermine the force of the supporting arguments.” In other words, a normally sound argument might be invalidated as a result of those special circumstances.

If we return to the 2nd Amendment, the claim would be “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”; the premise “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” would become one of the grounds supporting the claim (along with other reasons and facts). The claim is qualified with “shall” instead of the unconditional “must”. The warrant would be the historical belief that an armed population stands as a bulwark against governments’ historical tendency to drift into tyranny, the backing any relevant information (studies, expert opinion, statistics, examples) that supports that belief, and the rebuttal would be, for example, denying the right to guns to mentally ill people or convicted felons.

It’s almost as if the Founding Fathers knew exactly what they were doing when forming that argument.

Writing. Literature. Philosophy. Culture. Ph.D. University of Arizona. BTC/ETH/ADA: bgatenby.crypto

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store