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Building an Argument

Learn more about how to build strong arguments using different types of reasoning

Counterarguments

One way to strengthen your argument and show that you have a deep understanding of the issue you are discussing is to anticipate and address counterarguments or objections. By considering what someone who disagrees with your position might have to say about your argument, you show that you have thought things through, and you dispose of some of the reasons your audience might have for not accepting your argument.

You can generate counterarguments by asking yourself how someone who disagrees with you might respond to each of the points you’ve made or your position as a whole. If you can’t immediately imagine another position, here are some strategies to try:

  • Do some research. It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.
  • Talk with a friend or with your teacher. Another person may be able to imagine counterarguments that haven’t occurred to you.
  • Consider your conclusion or claim and the premises of your argument and imagine someone who denies each of them. For example, if you argued, “Cats make the best pets. This is because they are clean and independent,” you might imagine someone saying, “Cats do not make the best pets. They are dirty and needy.”

Once you have thought up some counterarguments, consider how you will respond to them—will you concede that your opponent has a point but explain why your audience should nonetheless accept your argument? Will you reject the counterargument and explain why it is mistaken? Either way, you will want to leave your reader with a sense that your argument is stronger than opposing arguments.

When you are summarizing opposing arguments, present each argument fairly and objectively, rather than trying to make it look foolish. You want to show that you have considered the many sides of the issue. If you simply attack or caricature your opponent (also referred to as presenting a “straw man”), you suggest that your argument is only capable of defeating an extremely weak adversary, which may undermine your argument rather than enhance it.

It is usually better to consider one or two serious counterarguments in some depth, rather than to give a long but superficial list of many different counterarguments and replies.

Be sure that your reply is consistent with your original argument. If considering a counterargument changes your position, you will need to go back and revise your original argument accordingly.

Image credit: Fathromi Ramdlon via Pixabay

Example counterarguments

Since a counterargument responds to your own ideas, stating your own position is the first step to developing a counterargument. For instance, a paper on the topic of drugs and criminalization in Canada might argue for legalizing medical marijuana. If this is the position of the paper, a discussion of good reasons to prohibit marijuana could form a counterargument. Understanding the reasons behind restricting marijuana will then allow you to assess these reasons and compare them with your own argument. At first, you might compare and contrast your position with an alternative, as well as some evidence in support of each position:

Claim

Medical marijuana should be legal.

Medical marijuana should not be legal.

Evidence

Countries and states that have legalized marijuana have seen decreased rates of incarceration and increased revenue from the sale and regulation of the drug.

Marijuana use leads to drug addiction, and drug addiction is terrible. Look at what happens from heroin or opioid overdoses!


This is not a bad start, but the counterargument in the right-hand column above does not respond directly to the evidence listed in the left-hand column. Ideally, a counterargument should be directly relevant to your own argument. If you are discussing the benefits of legalizing medical marijuana, a counterargument focused on the medical consequences of opioid or heroin addiction is not the most relevant objection or response. To find a more relevant counterargument, make a detailed list of the evidence in support of your own argument, and then think of the possible ways to doubt each item in your list. For example:

Claim

Medical marijuana should be legal.

Medical marijuana should not be legal.

Evidence

Reduced cost of enforcing laws.

Reduced capacity of law enforcement to address genuine harm (e.g., re-selling, second-hand smoke, drug addiction).

 

Legalization puts medical decisions into the hands of professionals.

Legalizing marijuana for medical purpose further restricts or stigmatizes existing access to and use of harmless recreational marijuana.

 

Tax from marijuana sales can directly offset other provincial or federal costs.

Higher prices for marijuana could also increase medical costs for patients requiring access to marijuana as another prescription drug.


Now you have a list of ideas that do not digress completely from the main argument. Of course, some of the reasons against legalizing medical marijuana might be less convincing than others. For example, if an advocate of marijuana legalization is most concerned with the consequence of patients’ increased medical costs, this might be the best counterargument to consider in the paper.

Other characteristics of counterarguments

Although the specific requirements may vary for different assignments, an argument on a topic often precedes a counterargument. Since the focus of a paper is ultimately on the writer’s own argument, a concise, neutral presentation of a counterargument can help the reader understand its importance without distracting from the writer’s position in the rest of the paper.

Consider the following example:

Not everyone agrees with me that the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada has hurt the U.S. job market. Some are of the opinion that the Agreement has actually helped the U.S. job market, by means of reaping cheaper products and creating more jobs in the import-export sector of the economy than were lost in the manufacturing sector. (Possin, 2002, p. 16)

The last sentence of this paragraph contains a clear conclusion (NAFTA has helped the U.S. job market), supported by two distinct, plausible reasons (decreased consumer costs, and increased job growth overall). Since Possin has expressed these reasons efficiently, he now has enough room to return to his own argument and consider each of those reasons in detail.  

The other characteristic of Possin’s argument is its neutral tone. For example, rather than stating “NAFTA has enabled greedy corporations to exploit cheap labour and take more of our money”, saying NAFTA “has actually helped the U.S. job market by means of reaping cheaper products and creating more jobs” (Possin, 2002, p. 16) presents the idea without using biased or emotional language. Of course, this does not mean that the writer agrees with the statement; however, the reader can now assess both positions objectively instead of reacting to the statement emotionally.

Ultimately, the best way to demonstrate the truth of a position is to argue for it, and the best arguments have the fewest problems (Possin, 2002, p. 13). By evaluating the strength of reasons for and against a position, a successful discussion of counterarguments shows that an argument survives critical examination and is better than alternative positions.

Reference

Possin, K. (2002). Self-defense: A student guide to writing position papers. The Critical Thinking Lab.