Rhetoric and Research 02: Argumentation 1

Understanding Arguments and Debates with the Stases


Most of us have disagreements with people in our lives at one point or another. These disagreements can be simple, like deciding where to go for dinner on the weekend, or more complex, like considering the causes of a particular political or social problem, like racism or homelessness.   People in all walks of life engage in debate over issues great and small.  Rarely, however, will people involved in a given debate stop to consider the nature of the disagreements in which they are engaging.   Writers and thinkers who can take the time, however, to analyze and understand the specifics of what is being argued—which particular problems are being discussed—have a far greater chance of making substantial contribution to the conversation, or even achieving their goals within it. 


One system for organizing and understanding the different kinds of arguments that people make is called “the stases” (a plural, pronounced “stay-sees”; the singular of this is “stasis,” pronounced “stay-sis”).   The stases are in some ways “boxes” for different kinds of arguments, different kinds of problems that people arguing address; they are a way to sort and categorize types of disagreements. Understanding the types of arguments that people make will enable you to a.) understand the progress and structure of “discourse” or “conversation” on a topic, b.) see where there are points of agreement or disagreement within a discourse, and c.) comprehend how your own particular arguments / opinions fit into the conversation as a whole. 


There are five major stases used for categorizing types of arguments: 


  • Fact and Definition
  • Cause
  • Value and Quality
  • Action
  • Jurisdiction



Disagreements over Fact and Definition


These are disagreements on the most basic level:  whether or not something happened (or is happening), whether or not something exists, or whether or not something fits a particular definition or should be categorized in a particular way.   

A key element in the debate over global climate change, for example, is whether or not it is actually happening.   The vast majority of scientists and other climatologists assert that the planet is empirically getting progressively warmer, on average, every year.  Other voices in the media, in government, and in advocacy groups assert that this is not the case—that the planet is not getting warmer.   


A similar controversy can be observed in the “birther” phenomenon.  “Birthers” assert, without evidence, that President Obama was born outside the United States, in Kenya—many argue that this is a fact.  They might also question the authenticity of any document that purports to prove that he was, indeed, born in Hawaii in 1961.  People on the other side of the debate advance the idea that President Obama was born on American soil.  The essential question here—regardless of how silly or immaterial it might be to current politics—is “what happened?” or, more specifically, “where did event X happen?” 


This stasis also covers disagreements about definitions.  All parties might agree that John took Jerry’s car on Tuesday night, but there might be disagreements over whether or not Jerry “stole” or merely “borrowed” the car.  People might also disagree as to whether acts like school shootings or racial intimidation should be considered acts of “terrorism,” or what exactly constitutes an act of “plagiarism.” 



Disagreements over Cause


If questions over facts are settled, areas of disagreement may exist over what caused the situation or phenomenon.   Predictions, also, can be considered disagreements over cause, as they argue what the probable outcomes will be from a certain course of action.


To return to the global climate change example, disagreements over cause are easy to see in this debate.   Most parties to the debate are in agreement that the planet has been throughout most of the 20th century getting warmer.  There is disagreement, however, about the cause of the change.  Many scientists believe that the warming is “anthropogenic,” meaning that it is caused by humans and human activity—particularly the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  

Others believe that the earth is warming up for other reasons, such as a slight change in the axis of the earth, or patterns of solar radiation related to sunspot cycles.  Predictions about global warming show a similar divergence:  some predict that the increasing temperatures will cause droughts, a rise in sea level, and stronger, more intense, and more destructive weather patterns.  Others argue that the warming planet will have a positive effect on growing seasons and will result in milder temperatures in colder climates. 


Historical arguments often revolve around questions of causality.  Scholars often have arguments about the fall of an empire like that in Rome, of the causes of wars (like the American Civil War or either of the World Wars), or the rise of a particular leader or development of a particular political or social movement.   Some argue, for example, that the “Tea Party” movements active today in the United States are a result of excessive taxation and government spending; others may suggest that these movements are the result of popular anxiety over the presidency of Barack Obama and the financial crises of the last decade. 


Examples of arguments that center on predictions are often present in discussions of the economy.  Some policymakers and economists argue that if the government cuts taxes, the economy, flush with more cash for consumers and investors, will grow faster.  Conversely, others argue that cutting taxes will only increase government debt, thus slowing economic growth.    When debating regulations or new laws, stakeholders will often cite the possible positive or negative outcomes of implementing them:  one might argue that environmental regulation will cause businesses to spend more on compliance and thus hire fewer employees, or that regulating financial markets more strictly will lead to more overall stability in the economy.  



Disagreements over Value or Quality


Arguments in this stasis are about the qualities that a phenomenon exhibits, or its value or importance.    Does the thing have a certain quality, like “beauty” or “ugliness,” “noble” or “selfish,” “moral” or “immoral?”  Is the phenomenon under examination a good or bad example of its kind, or somewhere in between?  Is the subject a “good” thing or “bad” thing? 


These kinds of disagreements are present in many kinds of discourse (whether political, social, moral, philosophical, or educational).  Advertisements and speeches about a particular politician or point of view, for example might argue that their subject is good or bad for the constituents of a particular district.   Likewise, protests and efforts about particular legislation, like slots and gambling or same-sex marriage, are often couched in language about the subject’s value: slots are a bad thing for our town; same-sex marriage is a good thing for the state and nation.   Similarly, though, debaters sometimes make arguments about more specific qualities: some argue for example, that sex before marriage is immoral and dangerous; others may put forth the position that such activity is natural and healthy.   Abortion, for example, is hotly contested in this way.  Many support legal restrictions on abortion because they see it as an immoral taking of an innocent life; others favor keeping it legal because restricting it would be an unfair restriction on women’s rights to choose how and when they reproduce.  


Many competitions are also governed by disagreements (or rather judgments) of value.  Entrants in dog or other animal shows, for example, are judged as to how good an example of their respective breeds they are, based on a common standard.  Gymnastics, diving, ice-skating, and other sports are driven by judges evaluating competitors’ execution of a given program of moves.   Sports writers often argue about the “greatness” (or lack thereof) of particular athletes:  is Ray Lewis the greatest middle linebacker ever to play the game?  Is LeBron James the best ever to lace up basketball shoes?  Who is the best pitcher in the Major Leagues right now?  While the criteria might change depending on the particular subject, the core strategy of arguing based on quality remains the same.


In many cases, these arguments also center on what kinds of criteria should be applied to a given evaluation.   Should the works of a writer with objectionable political or social beliefs (like anti-Semitism or racism) be judged taking those beliefs into account? Or should the work stand on its own, judged solely on its artistic merits?  Should politicians be evaluated on their personal and sexual lives, or just on their job performance?  What about athletes?  Should they be judged based on what they do off the field?


Arguments about value and quality are often connected deeply with two other stases: that of cause and of action, which we will discuss below.  Writers often argue that a certain subject, person, or phenomenon is a good thing or bad thing based on things that the subject has done, or on the prediction of positive or negative things that will happen because of it.   To return to the slots example:  “Legalizing slots in Maryland is bad for our state, because it will cause an increase in crime, addiction, and financial problems.”  Conversely:  “Slots are a good thing for Maryland because legalizing them will raise significant revenue for education in the state and will provide hundreds of good-paying jobs to our citizens.” 


 Disagreements over Action


These are disagreements about what action to take on a given problem.  Once a problem is identified, and perhaps evaluated as a bad thing, the next logical step in the process is to develop and advocate for a particular course of action (or refrain from action) on that problem.  These arguments can be simple, everyday occurrences between family members. 

Parents convince their children that they should clean their rooms or eat all of their oatmeal in the morning.  Siblings argue that “he should stop poking / bothering / tormenting / annoying me” or that “she should repay me the ten dollars I loaned her last week.” 


The possibilities of this stasis, in nearly every avenue of discourse, are endless:  We should raise taxes on the wealthy; Taxes should remain at their current level; Our college should build more on-campus housing to encourage more students to spend time here; Our college should use the extra money in the budget to build an on-campus daycare; The United States should remove its combat forces from Iraq; Medicare and Medicaid should be reformed to be more like private insurance;  Medicaid and Medicare should remain in their current forms.   


Many, but not all, arguments lead up to the action stasis.   First, a set of facts is determined or a phenomenon identified; next, the causes of the situation can be considered, as well as consequences of its existence / continuation.  After this, one can evaluate the phenomenon as “good” or “bad,” and then consider what to do about it, if anything. 


Of course, a given course of action can be debated using questions in the stases as well: what will the action consist of? What are the consequences?  Will they be positive or negative?  What should be done?


Disagreements over Jurisdiction


Questions over who has the right to take action, define terms, decide facts, or even participate in a debate are essentially questions over jurisdiction.   Everyone who has ever watched a mediocre cop show (or a cop movie) has seen the concept in action:  the bad guy, who has just robbed a bank in Town A, tries to Town B get over the state line, and out of the jurisdiction of the sheriff / police / authorities of Town A.  The authorities of Town A have no power in Town B to make arrests or hold people responsible for their actions.  Questions of jurisdictions are at their core questions of power.


These types of questions often frame many other types of arguments.  Should a police commissioner, who lives outside the city where he works, get to decide law-enforcement policies for that city?  Does the United States have the right to go into other countries and overthrow their governments?  Does France have the right to evaluate American human rights policies or the conduct of the “war on terror”?  

Similarly, does Congress have the authority to force every American to have health insurance coverage?  Can the federal government dictate policies on marriage and family that supersede those of the individual States?  Who has the right to decide—or even talk about—what should be done about the problems of a particular ethnic or social group?     


Identifying the Dominant Stasis of a Disagreement


For each of the following debates, identify which of the stases characterizes the primary point of disagreement. 


  1. The Senator from Vermont argues in a floor speech to his colleagues that the United States should raise taxes on the richest 1% of the American population.  

    Stasis _____________________________
  2. Professor Markus Von Rictus argues in an academic paper of the possible origins of reproductive genetic mutations in the species rodentia gigantis.    Stasis _____________________________

  3. Journalist Tah-Nehisi Coates and hip-hop producer Russell Simmons debate who is the most skilled “freestyle” rapper working today.  Stasis _____________________________
  4. Music historian and Coppin professor Robert Cataliotti gives a lecture arguing that 1960s American Motown soul music is less influenced by the tradition of the blues than originally thought.  Stasis _____________________________

  5. District Attorney Murphy Brownhill asserts in her opening statement that Wilfred Smith committed a burglary of a residence on the West Side of Baltimore on January 5th, 2011.   Stasis _____________________________

  6. Jay Powell, a student at Central University, argues that a Resident Assistant, Walker Helms, is not permitted to search a dorm room that is not in that RA’s building.  Stasis _____________________________

  7. Scientist Richard Dawkins argues in his book The God Delusion that there is no such thing as a “god” as we currently conceive of it.

    Stasis _____________________________
  8. Theresa Bloom, graduate student, defends herself in an academic hearing, arguing that her appropriation of a particular passage from an article was not in fact an act of plagiarism.   Stasis _____________________________
  9. Astrophysicist Erica Linkshire disputes in a debate with a colleague as to what the consequences of a medium-sized asteroid hitting Earth would be. 

    Stasis _____________________________
  10.  Arlene Finn, mother of three, argues with her fifteen-year old son that he should clean up his room more often. 

    Stasis _____________________________



Tracing a Debate With the Stases


To put all this information in some sort of real-world context, let’s consider a common debate—and its corollary set of problems or questions—according to the stases.    The controversy over the legality and morality of abortion is a topic for which we can easily identify possible disagreements or questions in the stases.  




Questions / Disagreements

Fact and Definition


What constitutes an “abortion?”  How many abortions are performed each year? Who is getting them?   When does a fetus become a “person?”  Is a fetus just a part of woman’s body?  Is abortion “murder?”  Do people have the right to get an abortion?



What motivates someone to get an abortion?  What are the physical effects of having an abortion?  The emotional effects?  What would be the effects of making abortion illegal?  Would different types of sex education or parental attitudes lead to a decline in the rate of abortion? 



Is keeping abortion legal a good thing or a bad thing?  Is abortion “moral?”  Is outlawing abortion a bad thing for women?   Is violence against abortion providers justifiable under any circumstances? 



Should the U.S. restrict abortions?  Should the individual states ban particular abortion-related procedures?  Should U.S. taxpayer money go to fund abortions?  When should a woman get an abortion, if at all? 



Do men have the right to decide under which circumstances women should be allowed to have abortions?   Does the government have the authority to restrict what a woman does to her own body?   Do human beings have the right to decide when and how to reproduce?  Or does that authority reside somewhere else? 




The topic of concealed carry of firearms is also often defined by disagreements in the stases.  Use the chart below to outline some of the principal disagreements in this debate.  If you need to, use the questions above on abortion as a guide to get your thinking started. 




Questions / Disagreements

Fact and Definition