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Understanding Legal Argument (1): The Five Types of Argument

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I have been teaching about legal reasoning and legal argumentation for years. When I do so, I try to impress upon students that legal argument is both simple and complex. It is simple because in every legal case there is, in essence, one basic type of argument at the core of the dispute between the parties. This argument works from a general legal rule to a conclusion about the application of that rule to a set of facts. Philosophers and logicians would say that the basic form of legal argument is a syllogism: a simple three-step argument involving a major premise (a general principle or rule), a minor premise (a claim about a particular case or scenario) and then a conclusion (an application of the general rule to the particular case). Here is a simple conditional syllogism: (1) If roses are red, then violets are blue. (Major Premise)(2) Roses are red. (Minor Premise)(3) Therefore, violets are blue. (Conclusion) My view is that legal arguments take on a similar conditional, syllogistic form. There is a legal rule that stipulates that if certain conditions are met, then certain legal consequences will follow. This is the major premise of legal argument. Then there is a set of facts to which that rule may apply. This is the minor premise of legal argument. When you apply the rule to the facts you get a conclusion. In abstract form, all legal arguments look like this: (1) If conditions A, B and C are satisfied, then legal consequences X, Y and Z follow. (Major premise: legal rule)(2) Conditions A, B and C are satisfied (or not). (Minor Premise: the facts of the case)(3) Therefore, legal consequences X, Y and Z do (or do not) follow. (Conclusion: legal judgment in the case). To give a more concrete example, imagine a case involving a potential murder: (1*) If one person causes another person’s death through their actions, and they performed those actions with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, and they had no lawful excuse for those. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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