But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine it from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemies? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you ... But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
THE MAN IN BLACK
You’ve made your decision then?
Not remotely! Because Iocaine comes from Australia. As everyone knows, Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So, I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.
THE MAN IN BLACK
Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
Wait ’til I get going! ... Where was I?
THE MAN IN BLACK
Yes! Australia! And you must have suspected I would have known the powder’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
THE MAN IN BLACK
You’re just stalling now.
You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you! You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong ... so you could have put the poison in your own goblet trusting on your strength to save you, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard, which means you must have studied ... and in studying you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!
— William Goldman, The Princess Bride
A necessary consideration in setting up the argument of your essay involves looking at the most likely objections or counter-arguments that someone taking the opposing point of view might propose. This is especially important if your thesis is controversial, such as a claim that evolution theory is true or false, or that homeschooling is better or worse than public schooling. It is still a consideration even if your essay is one of definition and answers a question like “What is civilization?”, where other definitions might be proposed.
Forestalling a counter-argument involves raising possible counter-arguments yourself, and refuting them by showing that they are based on false premises, based on misinterpretation of evidence, do not apply to the case at hand, or fail for some other logical reason.
main points for this unit
In scholastic arguments (the kind used by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, written in the 1260s), the art of raising and forestalling objections reached its highest form, one that still exists in modern debate.
In a scholastic argument, one would raise each point and refute those that are not to be supported. For example, an argument might address the first point by appealing to various examples and authorities commonly used to support the point, then proposing a counter-argument for each:
Notice that in a scholastic argument, the points to be ultimately refuted are raised first, and each argument for the point presented, then each argument is revisited and refuted.
Qualifying an argument is a useful technique in forestalling arguments. A general claim like “All public school education is bad” can be refuted absolutely if you can find even one student who has a received a good education in a public school setting. Be wary of broad general statements that cannot be readily supported by evidence, but can be easily demolished by a trivial example. Limit your argument to appropriate cases. For example, instead of “All public school education is bad”, concentrate on showing that “Homeschooling has several advantages that public schooling by its very nature cannot support”, and be sure to give explicit examples!
It is absolutely necessary to state the argument you want to refute clearly and precisely. A good rule of thumb for “playing fair” is to see whether you can state your opponent’s position so that he will accept your statement as a good summary. Then you can begin to attack that position.
Be careful not to create a “straw man” argument by oversimplifying or twisting your opponent’s position into something he would not support, and then attacking that position.
Don’t use an isolated or extreme example and then generalize to all cases of that class. Condemning all science fiction movies as horrible on the basis of Plan 9 from Outer Space is unfair.
Be willing to consider the limitations of your own position and the possibility that the claims of your opponent are justified. Always act as if you believe that your opponent is operating fairly himself. Remember that your ultimate goal is not simply to win people over to your own point of view — which, in this fallen world, may be flawed — but to learn what is true. In everything, seek the truth. If you keep this in mind, you will find it easier to keep your arguments fair!
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