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Counter-arguments

Counter-arguments take a position in support of ideas that oppose your own argument. Usually, counter-arguments respond to an argument by challenging one or more of its claims. Discussing counter-arguments then shows both why the conclusion of a paper is ultimately correct, as well as why serious alternatives to a position are mistaken instead.

In pre-writing, a comparison of the strongest arguments on a topic can help to identify the best position to take. In a paper, expressing these counter-arguments can then help develop the complexity of a position and resolve its potential weaknesses. This page will briefly explain how to develop and present counter-arguments.

How do I develop a counter-argument?

Since a counter-argument responds to your own ideas, stating your own position is the first step to developing a counter-argument. 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 counter-argument. 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 counter-argument in the right-hand column above does not respond directly to the evidence listed in the left-hand column. Ideally, a counter-argument should be directly relevant to your own argument. If you are discussing the benefits of legalizing medical marijuana, a counter-argument focused on the medical consequences of opioid or heroin addiction is not the most relevant objection or response. To find a more relevant counter-argument, 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 counter-argument to consider in the paper.

Other characteristics of counter-arguments

Although the specific requirements may vary for different assignments, an argument on a topic often precedes a counter-argument. Since the focus of a paper is ultimately on the writer’s own argument, a concise, neutral presentation of a counter-argument 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 counter-arguments 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. Winona, MN: The Critical

Thinking Lab.

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