John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, said
three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.
In this spirit, the second lesson of our free email course, Argument Mapping: Make Your Case Clear and Compelling covers the importance of anticipating and responding to objections to your position, and shows how you can use argument mapping to organise these arguments.
A participant, Chantal, asked: “My question would be about how to produce objections. You are saying we can train for that. Sometimes I try and no interesting idea will arise :( What type of question should I be asking myself to create this other point of view?”
This is an excellent question. How might one actually go about identifying the strongest objections to one’s own position?
Here are some things you can try. Of course not all of these may be feasible in your situation.
1. Ask Opponents, or Bystanders
Perhaps the most obvious strategy is just to ask one or more people who strongly disagree with your position. Such people are likely to be quite happy to help, and are likely to know the best objections.
If you can’t ask somebody who strongly disagrees, you can try asking somebody who is neutral on the topic. Having no emotional involvement in the matter, they may find it easier than you do to see the problems with your position.
2. Research the Topic
If your position is on an issue that many people may have considered, a little digital sleuthing will often quickly uncover the main arguments on the other side. For public issues, it should be easy to find op-eds or magazine articles, government reports, and so on. For more technical or academic issues, scholar.google.com is a great resource.
3. Adapt Objections to Similar Positions
The best arguments against your position might just be adaptations of the best arguments against similar positions. For example, if you are proposing that there should be a new freeway to the airport, you could look at proposals for freeways elsewhere to quickly get an idea of the kind of objections you are likely to encounter.
4. Use Standard Form Objections
This is a closely related suggestion. There are many standard types of objections to positions of various kinds. For example, any position which involves restricting people’s behavior – e.g., a proposal to ban vaping in public places – will encounter objections from based on individual rights and liberties. (See the rest of Mill’s On Liberty). If your position is that your group or team should pursue a certain course of action, there will be objections based on risk, particularly worst-case possible outcomes. And so on.
5. Construct Objections from Interests
Consider what interests are threatened by your position. Objections might be direct or indirect expressions of those interests. For example, if your position is that our future energy needs should be met by large nuclear fusion plants, your position will threaten anyone with an interest (commercial, ideological, or any other type) in standard renewable energy industries such as wind or solar. Those interests will lead to objections such as the impact on jobs in regional areas.
6. Identify and Challenge Assumptions
Any position will depend on a range of assumptions. You can identify objections by ferreting out all or most of your assumptions and challenging those yourself. One way to do that is covered in the email course, Lessons 4 and 5. This is using principles of logic to expose the hidden assumptions in your own arguments supporting your position.
One heuristic that has helped me identify assumptions, or at least think about alternatives and objections: take any claim, and stress each key word in the sentence in the form of a question. With the example “The government should ban vaping,” you could ask several successive questions:
1. Should the GOVERNMENT ban vaping? Maybe somebody else should, maybe that’s not the government’s role.
2. Should the government BAN vaping? Maybe a better solution is to tax it heavily, or limit its sale to minors…
3. Should the government ban VAPING? Maybe there are other, more important things the government should do instead, maybe even things that would indirectly decrease vaping …
These don’t necessarily give you the specific objections, but they tell you what part to focus on.
Hi Jamel, thanks for this. Looks like a really handy technique.
Essentially you are talking about the process of generating objections to an argument. What you have to say is, I think, very interesting. Since anticipating and responding to objections is such a basic aspect of argumentation, you would have thought that there were a great many papers on this topic. But not so, at least so far as I am aware. In my Manifest Rationality (2000) I proposed a conception of argument as being constituted by an illative core (the evidence and reasons for the conclusion) and a dialectical tier in which the arguer deal with possible objections. (Chapter 6.2.)
One thing I wished you had covered in your post was an attempt to define just what an objection is, in such a way as to distinguish it from other forms of argumentative response: such as a criticism, a rebuttal, a counterargument, etc.
Thanks Ralph. The first two lessons in our short course correspond in a simple way to your illative core/dialetical tier distinction, though of course we don’t use that technical language. On defining objections – a big ask for a short blog post :)