Our Goal: To Stimulate Reflection

Reflecting on an enabler                         

AGORA-net is designed to direct your attention to the quality of your own arguments, and to help you to improve your arguments. The trick to achieve this is rather simple. The software will guide you to do something that is impossible in most cases, namely to create logically valid arguments in which all reasons are true or at least acceptable. In your -- hopefully serious -- struggle to achieve this, you will have to think a lot about which reasons you need, how to formulate these reasons and your conclusion, and how to structure your argument. This reasoning should help you to generate ideas on how to improve your arguments (see below for concrete suggestions).

Here is how it should work: An argument, as the term is used here, is a sequence of reason and conclusion in which one or more reasons are intended to support or to justify the conclusion. Any argument can easily be transformed into a logically valid argument by adding an appropriate additional reason. For example, if you want to justify the claim “Paul is responsible for what he did” by the reason “Paul is a rational human being,” then this argument can easily be transformed into a logically valid modus ponens argument by adding the reason: “If Paul is a rational human being, then Paul is responsible for what he did.” 

When you construct such an argument in AGORA, the software will automatically create the appropriate reason after you selected an argument scheme that fits to what you have in mind. There are only four schemes in AGORA, try them out! The result will look like in the picture below. (Find more background information about logically valid arguments here.) 

A basic argument diagram in AGORA-net.

When you look at a logically valid argument like the one above, you do not only see the claim and the reason that you entered into the system, but also an additional reason that combines your original reason with your conclusion. This additional reason is called the argument's "enabler" because it guarantees that your conclusion is true if your reason is true. As you can see in the argument above: If both the reason on the right and the enabler underneath the "therefore" are true, the conclusion on the left must also be true.

What this transformation of your original argument into a logically valid argument does for you is that it shows you what would need to be true additionally to guarantee that your conclusion is true given your original reason is true. For this to happen, the enabler of your argument needs to be true. Think of the enabler as something like a universal law: Is it always true, without any exception? In most cases it is unlikely that you get it right on your first try. That means, you need to improve your argument. Do this based on a reflection of the weaknesses of your enabler.

Reflecting on an argument's enabler

Here are things you need to consider:

  • First of all: Does the enabler make sense grammatically? If not, you need to reformulate your conclusion and your reasons as long as it takes to get it right. Formulate as simple as possible, but not too simplistic.
  • Is this enabler true or at least acceptable? Take the statement of the enabler as a whole and consider its acceptability. The question is always if all the reasons together are sufficient to justify the conclusion. This should be visible in the enabler. If the enabler is to complicated, you can also ask:
    1. Is each element that shows up in the conclusion justified by what you provide in the reasons? Often the conclusion talks about something that nowhere shows up in the reasons.
    2. What kind of statement is the conclusion? Descriptive, normative, or evaluative? Do the reasons fit to this kind of statement? Descriptive statements claim that something is the case, normative ones that something should be done or should be the case, and evaluative ones that something is good or bad or has any other quality.

    3. Are all the concepts clear that you use anywhere in your argument? 
  • If there can be any doubt that your enabler is true or acceptable, consider the following options:
    • Are there further reasons you should add to your argument? Any addition will change your enabler. If you want to add another reason, click on the "+" symbol.
    • Can you reformulate a reason or your conclusion to strengthen the enabler?
    • Would it be better to insert an intermediate argument to get from a reason to your conclusion? In this case, add another reason that makes it easier to justify your conclusion and justify this reason by your original reason. The new intermediate reason will strengthen your enabler.
    • Should you reformulate your conclusion so that the reasons are sufficient? It is always possible to weaken a conclusion by adding qualifiers such as "probably" or "there is reason to assume," or by specifying circumstances under which you think the conclusion is true. For example, you could include certain exceptions into your conclusion (find an example below). By weakening your conclusion, you can strengthen your argument.
    • Are the concepts that you use in your reasons and conclusion clear enough? Can they be replaced by better ones or clarified by a definition? If the latter is the case, click on the white triangle at the bottom of a text box and add a definition.
    • Is there an argument that could justify your enabler? If so, click on the white triangle at the bottom of your enabler and "Add ... an argument."
    • Would it be better to revise the entire structure of your argument?
    • Should you give up your conclusion and formulate a completely different one?

Always check the enabler to see whether you got a good and strong argument! The software makes sure that your arguments are logically valid, but you need to make sure that they are sound and convincing. If the enabler is too complex, it might help to combine several reasons into a more general reason and to justify it then by your original reasons, or to revise the overall structure of your argument. Everything that you write into a text box or that pops up in the enabler should be convincing. 

Are there further independent arguments for your claim? Independent arguments provide additional reasons for your claim that do not depend on the reasons you already have. If so, click on the white triangle at the bottom of your conclusion and then on “ Add … an argument for this statement.”

Did you clearly distinguish in your justification between providing (a) reasons; (b) evidence or data; and (c) references to experts or publications? These three options need either be structured as independent arguments or in chains, but never as co-dependent reasons.

 

In the case of our example, a critical reflection on the enabler should show that it is not always true. For example, if someone is forced at gunpoint to do something, we will not hold this person responsible. Reflecting on the acceptability of the enabler in the picture above should motivate you to revise and improve the argument to something like this:

Expanding the previous argument to make it more valid.

Or you improve your argument like this one:

The fact that the relation between your reason and your conclusion becomes visible in the software-generated enabler should motivate you to reflect critically on the truth and acceptability of this enabler. Read this enabler as a universal statement that needs to be always true, without exception, to guarantee the truth of your claim. Improve your argument as long as it takes to get a strong and convincing enabler.

At the same time, if you look at an argument that someone else constructed in AGORA, always check whether the enabler is convincing or not. If you have doubts, ask yourself if you can think of a counter-example to the universal statement that is provided in the enabler. If you can find one, click on the white triangle at the bottom of the enabler and select "add ... a counter-example to defeat this statement."

 

Michael Hoffmann, Aug 29, 2017