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If you are writing a persuasive, argumentative or opinion essay, or you’re presenting a speech; or you’re taking part in a debate, you will need to build an argument; and if you want to be taken seriously, you ought to include a counterargument and a refutation.

The argument is the main idea you are arguing for, what you are trying to convince your reader to believe, or persuade them to do. In Jacobson’s case, he is trying to persuade us that the relationship between exercise and happiness is not as simple as we may have been led to believe, that, in fact, exercise cannot make us happy.

A professional argument will always address the main arguments against the case the writer is making. This is called the counter-argument. It may seem counter-intuitive to mention your opponents’ ideas at all, especially if they have some persuasive points – why mention something that could weaken your own case? Well, it shows you have considered the other point of view and do understand it, but consider your own case the more persuasive. In some cases you will mention by name the people who make this opposing argument, but in other case it will suffice to say ‘some people say that’ or a like phrase. Jacobson includes two counterarguments in his article, one on exercise:

The received wisdom has it that running on a treadmill or pressing weights releases endorphins that make us happy

And one on jogging:

Some will no doubt maintain that a bracing walk can express high spirits

You may want to concede a good point or two to your opponent, admitting that, on this point at least, they are right. You may just want to acknowledge the strength of an argument, before you proceed to untangle it. Or you may have no time for your opponent’s point of view at all.

Having mentioned this view, and conceded whatever it is you’re willing to concede, you move on to your refutation. This is where you take apart, find reasons to discount, or demonstrate the fallacy of the counterargument.

Jacobson doesn’t waste any time getting to this:

The received wisdom has it that running on a treadmill or pressing weights releases endorphins that make us happy, but that’s only relative to how unhappy we were to start with.

He then goes on to take apart his opponent’s flimsy idea of happiness:

A man with a loving bed-warmed wife to stay wrapped around does not leave the house at seven in the morning to sweat in the company of other men. Unless… But that’s something else again. Ditto a man with a job he cannot be torn away from. The gym is a place we go to find a simulacrum of happiness, not to compound the happiness we already feel

And that is counterargument and refutation – two of the arts of argumentation. Great for argumentative essays and speeches, not so great for bar room brawls.

(Beware, by the way of straw men and non-refutation– the subjects of the coming Saturday and Monday’s posts, respectively)

Challenge

Government should increase tax on fatty foods. Discuss.

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3 thoughts on “Counterargument and Refutation

  1. As a debater, I can second the power of refutation. When I write debate briefs (or cases as some call them) I always research the opposite side to create blocks (counterarguments) so that I can efficiently deal with the main opposition points. It really does work.

    -M.M.

  2. Pingback: How to Write a Five-Paragraph Essay | Andy's Writing Tips

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