Arguments make up a large portion of the LSAT, and right fully so! Law school is full of arguments. You’ll be making arguments in class, on your exams, and (perhaps one day) in front of judges.
But what exactly do I mean by argument? I’m not referring here to bickering. An argument in law school and on the LSAT is an assertion backed up with some sort of reasoning. In other words, it’s a claim and at least one reason to believe that claim.
Now that we know what an argument is, let’s go in a bit more detail.
A statement is a passage of text with a truth value. In other words, it is a set of words that can either be true or false. Here is an example of a statement:
The LSAT is an exam.
The above passage is a set of words with a truth value; it is therefore a statement. It is possible to have a coherent passage without a truth value, but this would not be a statement. For instance:
Shut the door!
Is the above sentence true or false? Neither! Therefore, this sentence is not a statement despite being perfectly understandable.
Premises and Conclusions
A basic argument has two main elements: a set of premises and a conclusion. The conclusion is the main point of the argument; it is the position that is being argued for. Premises are statements that provide support for the conclusion.
Note: Non-statements cannot be premises or conclusions.
Let’s look at an example of an argument:
Cheese is awesome, and people should eat awesome foods. So you should eat cheese.
The conclusion of this argument is: “you should eat cheese.” This statement is the conclusion because it is what the person making the argument wants to convince you of. This is the statement that the rest of the argument is leading up to.
The other statements in this argument are premises. This argument has two premises:
- Cheese is awesome.
- People should eat awesome food.
We know these are premises because they support the argument’s conclusion; they are reasons to believe the conclusion.
Let’s look at another example:
I know Mary went to the bar last night. I saw her car in the bar’s parking lot, and Brenda said she got a drunk text from Mary last night! Plus when Mary got home, she smelled like alcohol.
So what is the argument’s conclusion? Remember, the entire point of an argument is to convince you of something. And the author is trying to convince us that Mary went to the bar last night. Thus, the conclusion is: “I know Mary went to bar last night.”
Now we need to think about which statements are premises. Which statements provide reasons to believe the conclusion? Which statements answer the question: “Why should I believe the conclusion?” There are three premises this time:
- I saw her car in the bar’s parking lot.
- Brenda said she got a drunk text from Mary.
- When Mary got home, she smelled like alcohol.
Each one of these premises provides some support for the argument’s conclusion; each one gives a reason to believe that Mary was actually at the bar last night.
Intermediate conclusions are statements that support the main conclusion, just like regular premises. However, unlike premises, intermediate conclusions are supported by other statements in the argument. Let look an example:
Brad is an ax murderer. And ax murders are bad people. So Brad is a bad person. And I don't want my daughter dating a bad person. Thus, I don't want my daughter to date Brad.
The main conclusion of this argument is “Thus, I don’t want my daughter to date Brad.” The conclusion is directly supported by the following statements:
- Brad is a bad person.
- I don’t want my daughter dating a bad person.
But there are two other statements in the argument. The argument also establishes that Brad is an ax murderer and that ax murderers are bad people. These two statements provide support for the statement “Brad is a bad person.” Thus, the statement “Brad is a bad person” both receives support from other statements in the argument and provides support for the main conclusion of the argument. In other words, it’s an intermediate conclusion.
Counter-Considerations and Rebuttals
Sometimes people creating arguments will think in advance about how opponents might respond. And sometimes those people will even incorporate that response into the original argument. Let look at an argument where that happens:
We need to lower the speed limit on Main Rd. There have been three accidents in the past week on Main Rd. Furthermore, the mayor said that he thinks these accidents were caused primarily by the high speeds the cars were traveling at. Now, you might think that the mayor is just playing politics. But he’s not even running for re-election, so we have no reason not to believe him.
Let’s first identify the conclusion of the argument: “We need to lower the speed limit on Main Rd.” Everything in the argument revolves around this sentence. Now let’s look at the premises. There are two premises this time:
- There have been three accidents in the past week on Main Rd.
- The mayor said that he thinks these accidents were caused primarily by the high speeds the cars were traveling at.
These two premises work together to support the conclusion.
But what about the part about the mayor and re-election? The author of the argument attempts here to discuss a potential objection in advance. To do this, she states the objection (called a counter-consideration) and then rebuts that objection (with a rebuttal).
So which sentence is a counter-consideration? The answer is: “Now, you might think that the Mayor is just playing politics.” This statement is a reason that you might not believe the original argument. If the mayor is playing politics, then you might not think he is telling the truth about the accidents.
Then comes the rebuttal: “But he’s not even running for re-election, so we have no reason not to believe him.” This sentence answers the counter-consideration; it is a response to the objection. The rebuttal answers the objection and makes you more likely to believe the argument’s conclusion.