As we pass through life our actions and our interest in the people and things we meet are fixed in the first place by the spontaneous movements of feeling, and in the second place, and constantly more so as we grow older, by our reasoning powers. The actions of all men are the resultant of these two forces of feeling and reason.
There are many political speeches, whose only object is to make things uncomfortable for the other side, and some speeches in college or school debates intended merely to trip up the other side; and neither type helps to clear up the subjects it deals with. On the other hand, we spend many a pleasant evening arguing whether science is more important in education than literature, or whether it is better to spend the summer at the seashore or in the mountains, or similar subjects, where we know that everybody will stand at the end just where he stood at the beginning. Here our real purpose is not to change any one's views so much as it is to exchange thoughts and likings with someone we know and care for. The purpose of argument, as we shall understand the word here, is to convince or persuade someone.
Arguments of policy which argue what ought to be done, make their appeal in the main to the moral, practical, or aesthetic interests of the audience. These interests have their ultimate roots in the deep-seated mass of inherited temperamental motives and forces which may be summed up here in the conveniently vague term "feeling." These motives and forces, it will be noticed, lie outside the field of reason, and are in the main recalcitrant to it. When you argue that it is "right" that rich men should endow the schools and colleges of this country, you would find it impossible to explain in detail just what you mean by "right"; your belief rises from feelings, partly inherited, partly drawn in with the air of the country, which make you positive of your assertion even when you can least give reasons for it. So our practical interests turn in the end on what we want and do not want, and are therefore molded by our temperament and tastes, which are obviously matters of feeling. Our aesthetic interests, who include our preferences in all the fields of art and literature and things beautiful or ugly in daily life, even more obviously go back to feeling. Now in practical life our will to do anything is latent until some part of this great body of feeling is stirred; therefore arguments of policy, which aim to show that something ought to be done, cannot neglect feeling.
An important practical difference between arguments of fact and arguments of policy lies in the different form and degree of certitude to which they lead. At the end of arguments of fact it is possible to say, if enough evidence can be had, "This is undeniably true." In these arguments we can use the word "proof" in its strict sense. In arguments of policy on the other hand, where the question is worth arguing, we know in many cases that in the end there will be men who are as wise and as upright as ourselves who will continue to disagree. In such cases it is obvious that we can use the word "proof" only loosely; and we speak of right or of expediency rather than of truth. This distinction is worth bearing in mind, for it leads to soberness and a seemly modesty in controversy. It is only in barber-shop politics and sophomore debating clubs that a decision of a question of policy takes its place among the eternal verities.
In arguments of fact, it will be noticed; there is little or no element of persuasion, for we deal with such matters almost wholly through our understanding and reason. Huxley, in his argument on evolution, which was addressed to a popular audience, was careful to choose examples that would be familiar; but his treatment of the subject was strictly expository in tone. In some arguments of this sort, which touch on the great forces of the universe and on the nature of the world of life of which we are an infinitesimal part, the tone of the discourse will take on warmth and eloquence…..
The chief danger when you reason through the method of agreement is of jumping to a conclusion too soon, and before you have collected enough cases for a safe conclusion. This is to commit the fallacy known as hasty generalization. It is the error committed by the dogmatic sort of globetrotter, who after six weeks spent in Swiss-managed hotels in Italy will supply you with a full set of opinions on the government, morals, and customs of the country.
When one has to refute an argument in which there is faulty generalization, it is often easy to point out that its author had no sufficient time or chance to make observations, or to point out that the instances on which he relied are not fair examples of their class. In practice the strength of an argument in which this error is to be found lies largely in the costiveness with which it is pronounced; for it is human nature to accept opinions which have an outward appearance of certainty.
A not uncommon form of faulty generalization is to base an argument on a mere enumeration of similar cases. This is a poor foundation for an argument, especially for a probability in the future, unless the enumeration approaches an exhaustive list of all possible cases. To have reasoned a few years ago that because Yale had beaten Harvard at rowing almost every year for fifteen years it had a permanent superiority in the strength and skill of its oarsmen would have been dangerous, for when the years before the given period were looked up they would have shown results the other way. And an enumeration may run through a very long period of time, and still in the end be upset.
To an inhabitant of Central Africa fifty years ago, no fact probably appeared to rest on more uniform experience than this, that all human beings are black. To Europeans not many years ago, the proposition, 'All swans are white,' appeared an equally unequivocal instance of uniformity in the course of nature. Further experience has proved to both that they were mistaken; but they had to wait fifty centuries for this experience. During that long time, mankind believed in a uniformity of the course of nature where no such uniformity really existed.
Unless you have so wide and complete a view of your subject that you can practically insure your enumeration as exhaustive, it is not safe to reason that because a thing has always happened so in the past, it will always happen so in the future. The notorious difficulty of proving a negative goes back to this principle.
Of the errors in reasoning about a cause none is more common than that known by the older logic as post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore on account of it), or more briefly, the post hoc fallacy. All of us who have a pet remedy for a cold probably commit this fallacy two times out of three when we declare that our quinine or rhinitis or camphor pill has cured us; for as a wise old doctor of two generations ago declared, and as the new doctrines of medical research are making clear, in nine cases out of ten nature cures.
Of the same character are the common superstitions of daily life, for example, that if thirteen sit at table together one will die within the year, or that crossing a funeral procession brings misfortune. Where such superstitions are more than playfully held, they are gross cases of calling that a cause which has no relation to the event.
The key to the whole matter lies in remembering that we are here dealing with feelings, and that feelings are irrational and are the product of personal experience. The experience may be bitter or sweet, and to some degree its effects are modified by education; but in substance your feelings and emotions make you what you are, and your capacities in these directions were born with you. If the citizens of a town have no feeling about political dishonesty, reformers may talk their throats out without producing any result; it is only when taxes get intolerable or the sewers smell to heaven that anything will be done. Many people die for whose deaths each of us ought to feel grief, but if these people have never happened to touch our feelings, we can reason with ourselves in vain that we should feel deeply grieved. Feeling and emotion are the deepest, most primitive part of human nature; and very little of its field has been reduced to the generalizations of reason.
When you come, therefore, in the making of your argument to the point of stirring up the feelings of your readers on the subject do not waste any time in considering what they ought to feel: the only pertinent question is what they do feel. On your shrewdness in estimating what these feelings are, and how strong they are, will hang your success as an advocate. Tact is the faculty you need now—the faculty of judging men, of knowing when they will rise to an appeal, and when they will lie back inert and uninterested. This is a matter you cannot reason about; if you have the faculty it will be borne in on you how other men will feel on your subject. The skill of politicians, where it does not confine itself to estimating how much the people will stand before rebelling, consists in this intuition of the movement of public opinion; and the great leaders are the men who have so sure a sense of these large waves of popular feeling that they can utter at the right moment the word that will gather together this diffused and uncrystallized feeling into a living force.
At the other extreme are the arguments where the appeal to feelings is everything, since it is clear that the audience is already of the speaker's way of thinking. Examples of such arguments are most apt to be found in speeches in political campaigns and in appeals for money to help forward charities of all kinds. It is probable that most of the conversions in political matters are through reading; consequently the purpose of the speeches is to stir up excitement and feeling to such a heat that the maximum of the party voters will take the trouble to go out to the polls. Arguments directed to this class, accordingly, are almost wholly appeals to feeling.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Making of Arguments, by J. H. Gardiner)