Analysing an Argument (WritePhilosophy Guide)

Reading philosophical texts can be challenging. Academic reading is an art form in itself (more on that here), but philosophical texts can complex, densely packed and layered with an intricate argument which is difficult to tease out. This problem is amplified when we read classic philosophical texts, written long before the coalescence of modern analytical philosophy into a discipline focused on precision and clarity. If you’re reading a Socratic dialogue or a Nietzchean fable or a gnomic Wittgensteinian aphorism, it can be very tricky to get the meaning and to reconstruct their reasoning as an argument with premises and a conclusion, to which you can turn your philosophical gaze.

How can we read complex papers to extract the philosophical argument? Let’s try it through an example. Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, had philosophical thoughts on the topic of death, often expressed through the pithy aphorism:

Death is nothing to us.

Epicurus is particularly difficult to interpret. This quotation is from his Letter to Menoeceus, a correspondent. We don’t know whether his views on death were codified more extensively elsewhere, as these fragments and letters are all that remain to us – his philosophical works have not survived. Before we turn to his letter itself, notice how ambiguous this phrase is. If this is Epicurus’ thesis on death, it’s far from clear what it should mean.

A good first step, if you have what looks like a thesis statement from a challenging text, is to brainstorm the possible ways in which the thesis statement could be read or understood. That way, you aren’t mentally committed to a single reading of the thesis, and trying to cram whatever comes next into formation to fit with that. Instead, you are open to interpreting the work in a variety of ways, which helps you to see different readings of the text.

A neat device to disambiguate a thesis like this is to take it word-by-word, listing the possible meanings of each term. In “Death is nothing to us“, at least four of the five words are ambiguous. Take them in turn. Before reading on, grab a piece of paper and jot down all the different ways Epicurus could mean “Death”, “is”, “nothing” and “us”.

Death

‘Death’ here could be a range of things. Does he mean the concept of death? Does he mean the state of being dead? Or the process of dying? It’s not clear whether dying is covered under ‘death’, or just being dead. Death could be a concept, a state or a process.

Whose death is he referring to here? Your own death? The deaths of others? Both? There’s a big difference between claiming “Your death is nothing to you”, and “Everyone’s deaths are nothing to us”.

Is

The little word ‘is’ can create all manner of philosophical woes. It has at least two distinct forms, sometimes called the ‘Is’ of identity and the ‘Is’ of predication. The Is of Identity is used to make the claim that two things are one and the same. For example: “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, “Charles is the Prince of Wales”, “Eddie Vedder is the frontman of Pearl Jam”. These identities are reversible: if I say “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, it follows that “Eric Blair is George Orwell”. If I know that Vedder is the frontman of Pearl Jam, then if I say: “The frontman of Pearl Jam is a great singer”, then it follows that “Eddie Vedder is a great singer”, because they are the same person. The Is of Prediction is used to ascribe properties to something. For instance: “This tree is very tall”, “Eddie Vedder is a great singer”, “Novak Djokovic is a tennis player”, and so on. Unlike the ‘is’ of identity, we can’t reverse these: it doesn’t even make sense to say “A tennis player is Novak Djokovic” or “Very tall is this tree” (unless you’re Yoda?).

This matters a lot for Epicurus’s epigram. Is Epicurus telling us about a property of death? Or is he drawing an equivalence between death and nothing? Or something more complicated?

Tense matters. This statement is present tense: death is nothing to us. Will it always be nothing to us? Could it be something to us for a time, and then no longer be? Is it nothing only while we are alive?

Nothing

Perhaps the most unclear term of the four, what could Epicurus mean when he says death is nothing? Nothingness. Death could be the absence of all sensation or experience. In this case, he might be using the ‘Is’ of identity to say that Death is Nothingness. Alternatively, perhaps he means not a thing. Death is not a thing that happens, it is not an experience, not a real state. Closely related, death is not experienced. Death is not something that happens to us. Or not real, maybe non-existent: there is no such thing as death. Perhaps he means meaningless: death has no meaning to us, or the concept has no meaning. Maybe he means ‘nothing’ in the sense of having no moral or practical importance, the way we can shrug something off as ‘nothing’. In this case, he is saying that death is not important, or not relevant, or perhaps not good or bad for us – morally nothing. All of these interpretations (and perhaps more besides) are open to us. They would need very different lines of argument to establish each.

To us

Finally, who is Epicurus referring to in this phrase? Who are ‘us’? Perhaps he means all humans or all living creatures? But his reference might be narrower. He might be making a sociological claim about Ancient Greek society – if ‘us’ is the Ancient Greeks, he could be claiming that they don’t see death as important. He could be talking about philosophers, or about intellectuals or well-educated members of society, those who understand his teachings and see death in the correct way. Or perhaps he is talking specifically about Epicureans, those who follow his lifestyle and teachings. This phrase comes from a letter from Epicurus to his friend, Menoeceus. Perhaps he is referring just to himself and his friend. Maybe he means that our own individual death is nothing to each of us individually – even if the death of another might be something to us, or our death might be something to others.

By breaking down this phrase in such detail, we’ve seen how there are a range of possible interpretations of “Death is nothing to us”. It could be any of these, or many more besides:

“Death is not a meaningful concept for philosophers.”
“Death is not considered important in Ancient Greek society.”
“Your own death is not something which you will experience.”
“Your own death is not good or bad for you.”
“Death is not good or bad for anyone.”
“Being dead is a state of nothingness with no experience.”
“For Epicureans, death is not an important thing.”

We can bear a myriad of possible interpretations in mind when we start to read Epicurus’s writings. But be aware, too, that Epicurus might not be defending a single thesis throughout his work. The way he uses a phrase like “Death is nothing to us”, and indeed the individual components therein, might shift and change throughout his writings. His letter is not a philosophical paper, and might deliberately play with ambiguity. It is also here in translation, and the nuances and subtleties might be blurred – and the effects of the 2,300+ years that have passed might leave us unable to really grasp his meaning. But let’s try to extract an argument from his letter, in which some meaning of “Death is nothing to us” serves as the thesis. Take a look at this excerpt:

Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation. And therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not because it adds to it an infinite span of time, but because it takes away the craving for immortality. For there is nothing terrible in life for the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living. So that the man speaks but idly who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when it comes, but because it is painful in anticipation. For that which gives no trouble when it comes, is but an empty pain in anticipation. So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, translated by Cyril Bailey (1926)

There are a couple of arguments in here, or perhaps a couple of ways of rendering the same general argument. Let’s try to break it down into a series of premises and a conclusion. We can start with the phrase: “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation.” The belief that death is nothing to us feels like the conclusion. “For … ” signifies reasons given for what precedes it. So consider these as premises:

1. All good and evil consists in sensation.
2. Death is deprivation of sensation.

Notice that Premise 2 here is one of our readings of “death is nothing to us”, namely that death is nothingless, the absence of all sensation. This is a contentious premise, to be sure, for many people believe that there are experiences post mortem. But Epicurus makes it clear that “the man who has truly comprehended” these facts believes this. So, now let’s see what we can get from our premises. It seems like we have a simple inference to make: the only goods and evils are those we experience through our senses, and after death we will not experience anything through our senses, so after death there will be no goods or evils. So the inference is:

1. All good and evil consists in sensation.
2. Death is deprivation of sensation.

Therefore, Death is not good or evil.

Can we get a little more precise and specific with this? Let’s return to our disambiguation of “death”. We asked questions like: Whose death? Is this dying or being dead? We can now answer these questions, with respect to our little inference at least. Dying is something that happens during life, which we can experience through the senses. So that doesn’t fit. It’s only being dead which is the deprivation of sensation. Moreover, we can experience that others who we care about have died, and that could elicit pleasurable or painful sensations. So, it’s only our own being dead that Epicurus’ argument can cover. Let’s make everything more precise, then:

1. Something can only be good or bad for us if we experience it.
2. We will not have any experience of being dead.

Therefore, being dead will not be good or bad for the person who dies.

We have a simple rendition of Epicurus’ argument! We could stop at this point, if we wanted to, and begin to analyse the argument. Premise 2 is controversial, but might be something we want to merely assume or absorb into our conclusion, so that our argument only applies where we agree that there is no experience after death. A religious person who believes in an afterlife or in reincarnation would see no merit in this argument. So Premise 1 seems to be the one to focus on. Is it true that “Something can only be good or bad for us if we experience it”? Epicurus has an argument for this, later in the text. All goods and evils are sensory, because he equates goods with pleasure and evils with pain. Epicurus’ philosophy is a form of hedonism, which equates pleasure with good and pain with evil. We could build this into our argument:

1. The only good is the experience of pleasure, the only bad is the experience of pain.
2. When we are dead, we will not experience any pleasure or pain.

Therefore, being dead will not be good or bad for the person who dies.

You might disagree with the hedonist precept here, but again Epicurus is speaking only of “the man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in not living“. For “for us”, is for Epicurean Hedonists. His thesis might read something like: “If hedonism is correct and that there is nothing after death, then being dead will not be good or bad for you.”

But Epicurus seems to want to go further than this. Not only is death not good or bad for the person who dies, his argument relates to the beliefs we should hold. We should “Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us“, and we should not fear death: “So that the man speaks but idly who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when it comes, but because it is painful in anticipation. For that which gives no trouble when it comes, is but an empty pain in anticipation.” We could adapt our argument above to lay out this further step, by modifying the final thesis and treating “being dead will not be good or bad for the person who dies” only as an interim conclusion. For example:

1. The only good is the experience of pleasure, the only bad is the experience of pain.
2. When we are dead, we will not experience any pleasure or pain.
Therefore, being dead will not be good or bad for the person who dies.
3. We should not fear anything which will not be bad for us.
Therefore, we should not fear being dead.

This adaption works quite nicely. Premise 3 is reasonably uncontroversial (challenge accepted!) but get us substantially further through his line of reasoning. Not only do we learn something about the moral value (or lack thereof) of being dead, we also learn how this should affect our belief structures. Epicurus offers more reasons not to fear death and indeed to that this belief can make life more enjoyable – but this is superfluous to requirements if the argument as given here goes through. He has done enough.


The Principle of Charity

Now that we have laid out a few versions of Epicurus’ argument, which should we choose to analyse, and how should we go about it? In philosophy, the way we use and analyse the works of others is governed by a rule of conduct, known as the Principle of Charity:

Principle of Charity:

Whenever you use or analyse the work of another philosopher, you must present and interpret their work in the most charitable way possible.

What does it mean to be as charitable as possible towards another philosopher? It means that you must make their arguments as strong as they could possibly be, their thesis as precise and as acutely aligned with their argument as possible, and refrain from any selective quotation or misrepresentation of their views, statements or arguments. It is your responsibility to ensure that their work is presented as favourably as possible, and that you give their views and their arguments every opportunity to win out.

This imposes two requirements. First, you must attempt to interpret them accurately to their intentions, and do so in the best possible light. If there are two possible ways to interpret a piece, you should choose the one which is the strongest, the hardest to argue against. If you cannot be sure that your interpretation of their work is accurate to their intention, you should make that very clear in your text. You should say that this is your reading of that author, and may not be fully representative of their views. This benefits you as well: it makes clear that you have done interpretative and analytical work in extracting the argument you present, and it means that if the original author were to respond and reject your interpretation (unlikely in Epicurus’ case, but more so with modern philosophers!), then your work can still have value as an exploration of a position that one could hold even if that philosopher does not. If you show that one possible view attributed to a philosopher is untenable, then at least that constrains them from evading a criticism of a different interpretation of their view by shifting position – it remains relevant work.

The second requirement is that you attempt, wherever possible, to improve upon and strengthen their work. To be sure, you can give yourself credit for these improvements. But you must not criticise an author but leave open a route for them respond without also stating that they have that option available. If I go on to criticise Epicurus’ views, I must anticipate what responses he has available to my criticism, and play those out on his behalf.

Why must we adhere to this principle? For two reasons, one selfless and the other selfish.

The selfless reason is a moral one. You are presenting this person’s work to others, and you owe it to them to do so at least as strongly as they present it themselves. If you don’t feel you can do justice to their views or their arguments, then you should make that clear.

The selfish reason relates to the Straw Man fallacy. When we present someone’s work in a weakened condition, or in a way in which there are obvious routes out of a criticism which we’ve made, we are setting up a ‘straw man’ to be knocked down. The analogy comes from fighting practice: you fight with a straw dummy to practice your footwork. But knocking down a dummy doesn’t prove that you could knock out a real opponent. Demolishing a straw man proves nothing. Only when we hold up the views we criticise in their strongest possible form, and defend them with the strongest possible arguments, can we say with any confidence, should we defeat them, that we have refuted the argument or disproved the claim. Anything less, and a reader of your work can rightly disregard what you’ve done as relating only to the weakened, and not the full-strength, version.

How does this apply to Epicurus’ argument? Well, I don’t know how Epicurus intended his writing to be understood, so I would include caveats to that effect in my text. But if I now go on to criticise Epicurus’ argument, I will be sure to explore his writings for responses to my critique, and to find any ways I can to reformulate his argument in a way that does not suffer from whatever flaws I might find. Otherwise, my criticism can be rightly discarded.


Analysing the argument: an Epicurean upgrade

Suppose I claim that Epicurus’s thesis can be characterised as “We should not fear being dead.” I lay out the following argument, derived from his work, and tentatively attribute this to him, noting as I go that there are other ways of formulating this embedded in his text, but stating that we will approach this one in this paper.

1. The only good is the experience of pleasure, the only bad is the experience of pain.
2. When we are dead, we will not experience any pleasure or pain.
Therefore, being dead will not be good or bad for the person who dies.
3. We should not fear anything which will not be bad for us.
Therefore, we should not fear being dead.

Is this a charitable interpretation of his argument? Not entirely. Given that it is possible to make a valid argument for the conclusion “we should not fear being dead” from his text, we definitely at least want the argument to be valid. That probably works here – it’s hard to see a way in which the premises could be true and yet we still should fear being dead. But validity alone is not the issue: we want to know if Epicurus’ argument is sound, so I must give him the greatest possible opportunity to deliver a sound argument. One consequence of this is that my premises must not claim anything more than what is strictly necessary to establish the conclusion. Suppose I added a new fourth premise to the argument:

4. The awareness of death takes away the craving for immortality.

This comes almost straight from Epicurus’ letter. But if I introduce this, and it turns out to be false – that in fact awareness of death does not take away the craving for immortality – then the argument has a false premise, and is as such unsound. But it seems quite unfair to Epicurus to claim that his argument was unsound when I could just as well remove Premise 4 entirely. So, we have the principle that no redundant premises or aspects of premises should be included when presenting the arguments of others. (This applies equally to your own arguments!) To do otherwise violates the Principle of Charity. You may wish to state clearly that the author originally included more elements to their argument, but that as the argument goes through without them, you will leave them aside.

Is there anything else redundant or unnecessary in my formulation of Epicurus’ argument that leaves him open to additional criticism? Yes. I am only trying to establish that we should not fear death, not that we should not look forward to it. After all, Epicurus later notes that in a life of pain, being dead could be “a respite from the evils of life“. To establish we should not fear death, we need only show that being dead will not be bad for us. But Premise 1 and 2 relate to both good and bad, pleasure and pain. So those elements referring to the good are superfluous. If it turns out that Epicurus is right that pain is the only evil, but wrong that pleasure is the only good (and he says something along these lines later, in fact), then my premises would be false, but unfairly so. So let’s recast the argument one last time:

1. The only bad is the experience of pain.
2. When we are dead, we will not experience any pain.
Therefore, being dead will not be bad for the person who dies.
3. We should not fear anything which will not be bad for us.
Therefore, we should not fear being dead.

This is a more streamlined argument, and thus is less open to criticism. But I could still have a good go at it. Suppose I reason as follows. Yes, being dead won’t be intrinsically bad for me. But being dead sooner, rather than later might be comparatively bad, compared to living a longer life in which I experienced more goodness. If I am hit by a bus today and die instantly, I won’t experience any evil, but my life could be worse off than if I live another fifty years of net benefit. So all Epicurus is entitled to claim in Premise 1 is: “The only intrinsic bad is the experience of pain.” So his interim conclusion is: “Being dead will not be intrinsically bad for the person who dies.” Can we reasonably fear something which is not intrinsically bad for us yet is comparatively bad for us? I would suggest that we can. (This argument resembles that of Thomas Nagel (1970) ‘Death,’ Noûs 4(1):73–80, articulated in respect to Epicurus by Ben Bradley (2004) ‘When is death bad for the one who dies?’, Noûs, 38(1):1-28, but was put to me in the Epicurean context by Prof. Alex Voorhoeve)

Now, we could stop here. We have interpreted Epicurus’ work and found an argument. We have brought a criticism to bear on it which seems to show that while death is not intrinsically bad for the person who dies, it could be comparatively bad, so it could be worthy of fear. But the Principle of Charity would not condone this. Rather, we must return to Epicurus to see if he has any route out of this problem, any response we can make to strengthen this line of reasoning against it. In fact, he does seem to. Epicurus writes:

But the wise man neither seeks to escape life nor fears the cessation of life, for neither does life offend him nor does the absence of life seem to be any evil. And just as with food he does not seek simply the larger share and nothing else, but rather the most pleasant, so he seeks to enjoy not the longest period of time, but the most pleasant.

(…)

The right understanding of these facts enables us to refer all choice and avoidance to the health of the body and the soul’s freedom from disturbance, since this is the aim of the life of blessedness. For it is to obtain this end that we always act, namely, to avoid pain and fear. And when this is once secured for us, all the tempest of the soul is dispersed, since the living creature has not to wander as though in search of something that is missing, and to look for some other thing by which he can fulfill the good of the soul and the good of the body. For it is then that we have need of pleasure, when we feel pain owing to the absence of pleasure; but when we do not feel pain, we no longer need pleasure.

(…)

When, therefore, we maintain that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of profligates and those that consist in sensuality, as is supposed by some who are either ignorant or disagree with us or do not understand, but freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind.

When we see these three further excerpts from Epicurus’ letter, we get a more complex picture of his view of the good life. It is not pleasure as we might normally understand it which is the only good, but rather the best possible life is characterised by “freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind“, and once we are free from pain and strife, “we no longer need pleasure” – in other words, more pleasure cannot make a contented life which is free from pain any better. This is echoed in his analogy with the plate of food. The larger share is not better, neither is the longer life better than the short, if it is already the most pleasant. What we have missed, in our characterisation of Epicurus’ writings so far, is his claim that once we have attained a state of freedom from bodily and mental suffering, more life is not better. Once you’ve got that, your cup of goodness is full, and any more pleasures will not add anything further. We need to recharacterise his argument accordingly.

1. The only intrinsic bad is the experience of pain.
2. When we are dead, we will not experience any pain.
Therefore, being dead will not be intrinsically bad for the person who dies.
3. Once we reach a state in which we are free from bodily and mental pain, further pleasures cannot increase the value of life.
4. For a person for whom further pleasures cannot increase the value of their life, then a shorter life is not a comparatively worse than a longer one.
Therefore, once we reach a state in which we are free from bodily and mental pain, being dead is not a comparative bad.
5. We should not fear anything which is neither intrinsically nor comparatively bad for us.

Therefore, once we reach a state in which we are free from bodily and mental pain, we should not fear being dead.

There’s something a bit off about this analysis still. After all, one of the steps to achieving freedom from mental pain and anguish is to overcome our fear of death, but this fear is only no longer pertinent to us once we have achieved that mental tranquility! So, it may be that Epicurus must mount an instrumental argument for believing that being dead will not be comparatively bad for us (even though it would be, at that stage!) in order to get past that stage, and solidify ourselves in the blissful state in which more life is not better – at which point, that belief becomes true. There are frameworks for belief in which there can be good reason to believe something which is not true, particularly when the act of believing can make it true, but we could do some interesting philosophical work to tease that out (always referring back to Epicurus to see if he has some further route out). We might equally set off on a philosophical analysis of the good life, and ask whether Epicurus is correct that the best possible life has been achieved once we are free from bodily and mental pain. After all, Epicurus’ worldview has some unpalatable consequences. To free ourselves from mental pain, we must divest ourselves of any commitments, relationships or possessions which we fear losing. If we love others, then we will fear losing them to death or desertion, so we will never truly achieve this state of full mental tranquility. Is this state truly the best possible life, if we must abandon all that we currently hold dear to attain it? Epicurus has it open to him to say yes – and testaments of his lifestyle do generally agree that he tried to practice this austere view of the good life. But it’s at this stage at which a charitable interpretation of Epicurus’ argument could start. (Again, this view of Epicurus’ work is due to Alex Voorhoeve)

We have analysed Epicurus’ arguments in various stages. The analysis we did on the simpler version of Epicurus’ views was not wrong. The concerns about comparative and intrinsic evils is what forces his hand to take this more extreme line about the nature of the good life. We can use this analysis to motivate what follows. But had we stopped there and attributed this simple view of the value of life as the sum total of pains and pleasures to Epicurus, and criticised him for failing to account for comparative evils in consequence, we would have transgressed the Principle of Charity, and our criticism could be rightly seen as developing a straw man version of Epicurus to knock down for sport, rather than for serious philosophical analysis.


Hidden premises

One of the reasons philosophers like to break arguments down into explicit premise-conclusion format is to expose hidden premises in an argument. When you’re analysing an argument from a text, particularly an older or non-philosophical source, it’s likely that they won’t have spelled out all of the assumptions that make up their argument. Sometimes, the hidden premise is something really obvious that they don’t think even merits stating – you should still include it in your breakdown, to ensure the argument as rendered is valid. Other times, though, the author may be unaware of the hidden premise or may be avoiding (consciously or unconsiously) spelling it out, precisely because the hidden premise is the controversial thing or is just plain wrong. Take a look at the following three arguments in ordinary language and break them out into premises and conclusions, being sure to spell out the hidden premise(s) each time:

It seems that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For if His existence could be demonstrated, then that would be scientific knowledge. But our knowledge of God is through faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas, paraphrased from Summa Theologica, pt.1, q.2

Killing babies is murder! Murder is wrong. So abortion is wrong.

Some people deny that man-made climate change is occurring. But these people have vested interests in making money by polluting the planet.

These three arguments each conceal hidden premises. Have a go at analysing them first, and then take a look at the breakdowns below.

Argument 1: It seems that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For if His existence could be demonstrated, then that would be scientific knowledge. But our knowledge of God is through faith.

This might be broken down as:

1. If the existence of God could be demonstrated, then the existence of God would be scientific knowledge.
2. Our knowledge of God is through faith.
3. That which is known through faith cannot be scientific knowledge.
Therefore, the existence of God cannot be demonstrated.

This argument seems to rest on some hair-splitting about what it means to “demonstrate” something. The version of the argument detailed above might well be invalid as it stands. After all, there is a switch of tenses between 1, 2 and 3. Premise 1 imagines a demonstration and claims that it would be scientific knowledge, whereas Premise 2 is only really entitling us to claim that present knowledge of God is through faith. It might be that acquiring scientific knowledge in addition to faith-based knowledge would be fine (contrary to Premise 3) but it might also be that once we obtained scientific knowledge of God, Premise 2 simply becomes false, even if it is currently true.

There are many ways in which you could have broken this out – mine is only one example.

Argument 2: Killing babies is murder! Murder is wrong. So abortion is wrong.

1. Killing babies is murder.
2. Murder is wrong.
3. Abortion is killing babies.
Therefore, abortion is wrong.

This is a straightforward case in which the hidden premise is the obviously false one, disguised because if it was spelled out, the argument immediately fails. Abortion doesn’t kill babies, it “kills” an embryo or fetus, which is not a baby. To make this argument go through, Premise 1 would need to be revised to: “Killing fetuses is murder” – and this is precisely what a pro-choice advocate would dispute, so will have no strength.

Argument 3: Some people deny that man-made climate change is occurring. But these people have vested interests in making money by polluting the planet.

There’s clearly some kind of argument being made here, but it’s not clear exactly what. It doesn’t help that the conclusion is left implicit along with some hidden premise(s). The conclusion is probably something like “The people who deny that man-made climate change is occurring are not credible”. There would need to be a premise linking the vested interests claim to the credibility claim (a credibility criterion), for instance:

1. Some people deny that man-made climate change is occurring.
2. All of the people who deny that man-made climate change is occurring have vested interests in making money by polluting the planet.
3. Anyone who has vested interests in making the money in polluting the planet is not credible if they deny that man-made climate change is occurring.
Therefore, everyone who asserts that man-made climate change is occurring is not credible.

Actually, Premise 1 is not necessary in this argument! We could run it with just 2 and 3. Weirdly, a three-part argument was embedded in two sentences, one of which was superfluous to that argument. This goes to show how much interpretation is sometimes needed to extract the argument. Of course, there are many ways in which this argument could be broken out. But the hidden premise which is very contentious here is the one that links vested interests to the falsity/lack of credibility of their claims. This kind of argument is unlikely to be sound, because the link between vested interests and credibility is not as strong as it would need to be (but see our discussion of inductive inferences, later in this guide).

In general, be wary of arguments which have a moral judgement or imperative in the conclusion. For instance: “Climate change is destroying the planet, so we must prevent climate change.” This kind of argument almost always come with an hidden premise, and that hidden premise is usually very hard to defend. In this case, it’s “Anything which is destroying the planet must be prevented”. We are short on moral standards on which we can all agree, and on methods of deriving moral rules, so defending claims like these – with anything short of total planetary catastrophe – becomes challenging quickly. (see also the Naturalistic Fallacy)

Latest edit: 02/03/2021 by CJ Blunt