Analyzing What Assumptions Underlie Our Arguments

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Throughout all the editions of Elements of Argument, the concept of the warrant has been the most difficult to teach. In fact, we recently started using the term assumption because it was a more familiar term. Instead of discussing what warrant underlies an argument, we speak in terms of what assumption you must accept in order to accept the evidence offered in support of a claim.

The more examples we can draw from headlines, the easier it will be for students to find the assumptions that underlie the arguments they hear and read about in the media and to analyze the critical relationships among claim, support, and assumption. Identifying the underlying assumptions held by opposing sides in an argument can also help students see why it is so difficult to find a common ground.

Look at how the terms can be applied to this argument:

Claim: Abortion after sixteen weeks of pregnancy should not be allowed in our state for any reason.

Support: Killing an unborn child after sixteen weeks is murder.

Underlying assumption: A fetus of sixteen weeks is a person with the same protection under the law as any other person.


In order to accept the support as proof of the claim, you must first be able to accept the underlying assumption. On the other hand, anyone who cannot accept the underlying assumption will not be able to accept the claim.

Consider these statements:

Claim: It should be legal to terminate a pregnancy if the fetus is not viable.

Support: A non-viable fetus can never develop into a child that can survive outside of the womb.

Underlying assumption: It should be legal to terminate a pregnancy that cannot produce a child that can survive outside the womb.

This type of analysis can be applied to an argument on any subject.

Claim: Voting by mail should not be allowed in our state.

Support: Voting by mail increases the possibility of voter fraud.

Underlying assumption: Forms of voting that increase voter fraud should not be allowed.

There is nothing wrong with the form of this last argument, but of course, the support offered must be verifiable for the argument to be valid. The writer or speaker would have to offer convincing evidence that mail-in voting increases the possibility of voter fraud. So far, there seems to be little evidence to support that assertion of widespread fraud. Over sixty court cases have failed to prove fraud in the last presidential election.

In a recent interview with Jon Stewart, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who is currently running for Lieutenant Governor, defended her state’s decision to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Trans reporter and MSNBC Opinion Columnist Katelyn Burns writes, “In the interview, Stewart grounded his questions in fact, asking Rutledge what basis she had to overrule all of the major medical associations that have designed standards of care for trans minors over the last several decades. In the face of Stewart’s gentle pushback, Rutledge dissembled, remarking that she ‘wasn’t prepared to have a Supreme Court argument’ with Stewart at that particular time. The interview was notable because Stewart called out the attorney general’s arguments in real-time, such as when she tried to claim that 98% of all youth with gender dysphoria eventually grow out of it. ‘That is an incredibly made-up figure,’ Stewart replied, as Rutledge failed to name a single source for her claims.”

When Rutledge does face the Supreme Court, she must be prepared to provide evidence to back up her claim and the assumptions on which she bases her argument. This is an important lesson about argumentation that we hope all of our students will learn.

"Newspaper Collection, Three Headlines, July 2016"  by Daniel X. O'Neil is licensed under CC BY 2.0

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.