What is an Argument? What is a Conclusion?

Download a preview of

LR Perfection Free Preview: Chapter 2 Part II

Before we dive into Find the Conclusion/Main Point Questions, it is important to remember that behind every conclusion, there is an argument. The word “argument” often appears on the LSAT; too often, we don’t think too much about it, but it’s a word not to be taken lightly. 

So what is an argument? 

An argument is an author’s viewpoint, opinion, or decision supported by additional premises and evidence. 

An argument is not simply a statement of fact or opinion without any support. 

An argument will always contain a premise, main conclusion, and maybe an intermediate conclusion. 

Take a look at the following: 

            George Washington was the first president of the United States.

            Russia is the largest country in the world; its official language is Russian. 

            Justice Scalia was a member of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

            Water consists of hydrogen and oxygen. 

All of the above are FACTS. They are not independent arguments. Facts can be used in a logical reasoning stimulus as support and evidence. They can be used as premises to support a conclusion and as background information to better explain or situate the argument, but they are not arguments by themselves. 

Now take a look at these:

            We should attend the highest-ranked law school that we got into. 

            I will take the train from New York to Boston instead of flying. 

            Punishment should be proportional to the crime committed. 

            All swans are white. 

Are these facts also? The first and second statements most definitely are not. The first, “we should attend the highest ranked law school that we got into” is an OPINION, and a common one at that, but it is not set in stone and thus debatable. I can argue that we should go to the school that gave us the most scholarship, or the one closest to my home. An OPINION, by itself, is not an argument. 

The second statement is a DECISION. Independently, it does not suffice as a standalone argument either. But decisions, like opinions, can play the part of either the premise or the conclusion in an ARGUMENT. (Remember FACTS can only ever be used as premises in an Argument.) If we only slightly modify the statement above, we can come up with a pretty good argument:

Because I enjoy train travel and hate airport security, I will take the train from New York to Boston instead of flying.

Here, simply by adding a premise (“because I enjoy train travel and hate airport security”), we have a coherent argument. By providing the rationale behind my decision to take the train, I have support for a decision/opinion, and together, they constitute an argument. 

But the same statement can be equally effective as a premise as well: 

Because I will be taking the train from New York to Boston instead of flying, I can bring full-sized toiletries in my carry-on luggage. 

Here, the same statement just used as a conclusion is now a premise. It’s being used to support the statement on what I can bring with me on my trip to Boston. 

The third and fourth statements are a little bit trickier. The third statement can potentially be construed as a fact, but I prefer to consider it a PRINCIPLE. Principles will come up later on in related chapters, but for now, all we have to keep in mind is that principles have two important characteristics: 

A principle can be used to guide our actions or decisions; it is normative/directive in nature.

Principles can be debated: we can argue that proportionality shouldn’t apply in all situations (perhaps heavier punishment is called for when the crime is especially heinous), or that they shouldn’t apply to all people (perhaps exceptions should be made for underaged offenders). As a result, PRINCIPLES can appear as premises OR conclusions in an LR stimulus. For example: 

Because punishment should be proportional to the crime committed, John should not receive the death penalty for stealing a loaf of bread. (Principle as a premise) 

Because justice is the heart and soul of any form of legal sanction, punishment should be proportional to the crime committed. (Principle as a conclusion)

Now the last statement, “all swans are white”: 

What we have here is a GENERALIZATION. A generalization can often look and feel like a fact or a principle, but there are subtle differences involved:

Generalizations take individual findings and come up with an overarching summary or rule; it is descriptive in nature.

Principles are concerned with what should be done or ought to be done; generalizations are concerned with what things actually are.

Sometimes, the distinction between the two is blurred. What appears to be a generalization may also work as a guiding principle in the author’s argument, and vice versa. But for now, just be aware of the existence of these two discrete concepts.

Generalizations, like principles, appear in LR stimuli and answer choices frequently. Like principles, opinions, and decisions, generalizations can work as both premises or conclusions:

            All swans are white; the birds I saw in the lake are swans, so they must be white. 

            All the swans I have ever seen were white; therefore, all swans are white. 

So that’s a short introduction on the nature of statements appearing in LR stimuli: Facts, opinions, decisions, principles, and generalizations make up the majority. Facts cannot appear as conclusions in an argument, but the others can. Keep in mind that arguments will always have support, and individual statements without support are NOT considered arguments.