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I Object!

Continuing the discussion of how to represent arguments graphically using Toulmin diagrams, I mentioned in this example how drawing out an argument can help you identify weak points that are vulnerable to attack. One of the major benefits of a system that lets you track the branches of a complex argument is that objections to one of those branches can also be represented graphically as a rebuttal.

Keeping with the theme of the day, let’s illustrate rebuttals using a Coronavirus example, in this case an argument in favor of shutting down all non-essential businesses during the emergency.

Following Toulmin’s method, our argument begins with Grounds leading to a Claim:

In this case, we are arguing that non-essential business should be shut down during the crisis (that’s the Claim). The Grounds supporting that claim is that shutting down non-essential businesses will help limit the spread of the virus. Now we need an explanation as to why the Grounds lead to the Claim (that’s the Warrant), which we add to our argument diagram like so:

At this point, one can object to the Grounds, the Claim or the Warrant. For example, one could rebut the Warrant by claiming that closing businesses will not increase social distancing (because people still need to go somewhere) by adding a rebuttal branch (shown in red) to the argument diagram:

Such a rebuttal is pretty weak, given most people would stay in their homes (where the number of people can be controlled and limited) if they had nowhere else to go, or perhaps they would take walks in outside areas (like the hiking trails I’ve been walking with my family to preserve sanity) where you can keep your distance from fellow walkers. Still, this rebuttal does represent a direct attack on part of our argument (in this case, the Warrant).

Another way to rebut an argument is to present a concern that outweighs a statement in the argument. For example, if you are concerned that shutting down businesses will further hurt an already distressed economy, you might rebut the Claim as in:

If you disagree with this objection, you can offer a rebuttal to the rebuttal, providing a reason why one should reject the objection:

This is a fairly simple example, but one that shows how diagraming an argument allows you follow multiple threads, like the ones you find in most real-world debates over important matters. In our next Logic-Checker, we’ll see how this extension to argument diagraming can help us keep track when there is a lot going on in an argument.


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