11 Ten Rules for Ethical Arguments

Another Way to Think about Logical Fallacies

Rebecca Jones; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly

Rebecca Jones

Adapted by Liz Delf, Rob Drummond, and Kristy Kelly

Pragma-dialectics is a study of argumentation that focuses on the ethics of one’s logical choices in creating an argument. While this version of argumentation deals with everything from ethics to arrangement, what this field adds to rhetorical studies is a new approach to argument fallacies. Fallacies are often the cause of the mystery feeling we get when we come across faulty logic or missteps in an argument.

What follows is an adaptation of Frans van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, and Francesca Snoeck Henkemans’s “violations of the rules for critical engagement” from their book Argumentation: Analysis, Evaluation, Presentation (109). Rather than discuss rhetorical fallacies in a list (ad hominem, straw man, equivocation, etc.), they argue that there should be rules for proper argument to ensure fairness, logic, and a solution to the problem being addressed. Violating these rules causes a fallacious argument and can result in a standoff rather than a solution.

While fallacious arguments, if purposeful, pose real ethical problems, most people do not realize they are committing fallacies when they create an argument. To purposely attack someone’s character rather than their argument (ad hominem) not only is unethical but demonstrates lazy argumentation. However, confusing cause and effect might simply be a misstep that needs fixing. It is important to admit that many fallacies, though making an argument somewhat unsound, can be rhetorically savvy. While we know that appeals to pity (or going overboard on the emotional appeal) can often demonstrate a lack of knowledge or evidence, they often work.

As such, these rules present argumentation as it would play out in a utopian world where everyone is calm and logical, where everyone cares about resolving the argument at hand rather than winning the battle, and where everyone plays by the rules. Despite the utopian nature of the list, it offers valuable insight into argument flaws and offers hope for better methods of deliberation.

I. The Freedom Rule

Parties must not prevent each other from putting forward standpoints or casting doubt on standpoints.

(van Eemeren et al. 110)

There are many ways to stop an individual from giving her own argument. This can come in the form of a physical threat but most often takes the form of a misplaced critique. Instead of focusing on the argument, the focus is shifted to the character of the writer or speaker (ad hominem) or to making the argument (or author) seem absurd (straw man) rather than addressing its actual components. In the past decade, “Bush is stupid” became a common ad hominem attack that allowed policy to go unaddressed. To steer clear of the real issues of global warming, someone might claim, “Only a fool would believe global warming is real” or “Trying to suck all of the CO2 out of the atmosphere with giant greenhouse gas machines is mere science fiction, so we should look at abandoning all this greenhouse gas nonsense.”

II. The Burden-of-Proof Rule

A party who puts forward a standpoint is obliged to defend it if asked to do so.

(van Eemeren et al. 113)

This is one of my favorites. It is clear and simple. If you make an argument, you have to provide evidence to back it up. During the 2008 presidential debates, Americans watched as all the candidates fumbled over the following question about health care: “How will this plan actually work?” If you are presenting a written argument, this requirement can be accommodated through quality, researched evidence applied to your standpoint.

III. The Standpoint Rule

A party’s attack on a standpoint must relate to the standpoint that has indeed been advanced by the other party.

(van Eemeren et al. 116)

Your standpoint is simply your claim, your basic argument in a nutshell. If you disagree with another person’s argument or they disagree with yours, the actual standpoint and not some related but more easily attacked issue must be addressed. For example, one person might argue that the rhetoric of global warming has created a multimillion-dollar green industry benefiting from fears over climate change. This is an argument about the effects of global warming rhetoric, not global warming itself. It would break the standpoint rule to argue that the writer/speaker does not believe in global warming. This is not the issue at hand.

IV. The Relevance Rule

A party may defend his or her standpoint only by advancing argumentation related to that standpoint.

(van Eemeren et al. 119)

Similar to #3, this rule assures that the evidence you use must actually relate to your standpoint. Let’s stick with the same argument: global warming has created a green industry benefiting from fears over climate change. Under this rule, your evidence would need to offer examples of the rhetoric and the resulting businesses that have developed since the introduction of green industries. It would break the rules to simply offer attacks on businesses that sell “eco-friendly” products.

V. The Unexpressed Premise Rule

A party may not falsely present something as a premise that has been left unexpressed by the other party or deny a premise that he or she has left implicit.

(van Eemeren et al. 121)

This one sounds a bit complex, though it happens nearly every day. If you have been talking to another person and feel the need to say, “That’s not what I meant,” then you have experienced a violation of the unexpressed premise rule. Overall, the rule attempts to keep the argument on track and not let it stray into irrelevant territory. The first violation of the rule, to falsely present what has been left unexpressed, is to rephrase someone’s standpoint in a way that redirects the argument. One person might argue, “I love to go to the beach,” and another might respond by saying, “So you don’t have any appreciation for mountain living.” The other aspect of this rule is to camouflage an unpopular idea and deny that it is part of your argument. For example, you might argue, “I have nothing against my neighbors. I just think that there should be a noise ordinance in this part of town to help cut down on crime.” This clearly shows that the writer does believe her neighbors to be criminals but won’t admit it.

VI. The Starting Point Rule

No party may falsely present a premise as an accepted starting point, or deny a premise representing an accepted starting point.

(van Eemeren et al. 128)

Part of quality argumentation is to agree on the opening standpoint. According to this theory, argument is pointless without this kind of agreement. It is well known that arguing about abortion is nearly pointless as long as one side is arguing about the rights of the unborn and the other about the rights of women. These are two different starting points.

VII. The Argument Scheme Rule

A standpoint may not be regarded as conclusively defended if the defense does not take place by means of an appropriate argument scheme that is correctly applied.

(van Eemeren et al. 130)

This rule is about argument strategy. Argument schemes could take up another paper altogether. Suffice it to say that schemes are ways of approaching an argument, your primary strategy. For example, you might choose emotional rather than logical appeals to present your position. This rule highlights the fact that some argument strategies are simply better than others. For example, if you choose to create an argument based largely on attacking the character of your opponent rather than the issues at hand, the argument is moot.

Argument by analogy is a popular and well-worn argument strategy (or scheme). Essentially, you compare your position to a more commonly known one and make your argument through the comparison. For example, in the “Trust No One” argument in chapter 9, the author equates the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky scandals. Since it is common knowledge that Watergate was a serious scandal, including Monica Lewinsky in the list offers a strong argument by analogy: the Lewinsky scandal did as much damage as Watergate. To break this rule, you might make an analogy that does not hold up, such as comparing a minor scandal involving a local school board to Watergate. This would be an exaggeration, in most cases.

VIII. The Validity Rule

The reasoning in the argumentation must be logically valid or must be capable of being made valid by making explicit one or more unexpressed premises.

(van Eemeren et al. 132)

This rule is about traditional logics. Violating this rule means that the parts of your argument do not match up. For example, your cause and effect might be off: If you swim in the ocean today, you will get stung by a jellyfish and need medical care. Joe went to the doctor today. He must have been stung by a jellyfish. While this example is obvious (we do not know that Joe went swimming), many argument problems are caused by violating this rule.

IX. The Closure Rule

A failed defense of a standpoint must result in the protagonist retracting the standpoint, and a successful defense of a standpoint must result in the antagonist retracting his or her doubts.

(van Eemeren et al. 134)

This seems the most obvious rule, yet it is one that most public arguments ignore. If your argument does not cut it, admit the faults and move on. If another writer/speaker offers a rebuttal and you clearly counter it, admit that the original argument is sound. Seems simple, but it’s not in our public culture. This would mean that George W. Bush would have to have a press conference and say, “My apologies, I was wrong about WMD,” or for someone who argued fervently that Americans want a single-payer option for health care to instead argue something like, “The polls show that Americans want to change health care, but not through the single-payer option. My argument was based on my opinion that the single-payer option is the best way and not on public opinion.” Academics are more accustomed to retraction because our arguments are explicitly part of particular conversations. Rebuttals and renegotiations are the norm. That does not make them any easier to stomach in an “argument is war” culture.

X. The Usage Rule

Parties must not use any formulations that are insufficiently clear or confusingly ambiguous, and they must interpret the formulations of the other party as carefully and accurately as possible.

(van Eemeren et al. 136)

While academics are perhaps the worst violators of this rule, it is an important one to discuss. Be clear. I notice in both student and professional academic writing that a confusing concept often means confusing prose, longer sentences, and more letters in a word. If you cannot say it / write it clearly, the concept might not yet be clear to you. Keep working. Ethical violations of this rule happen when someone is purposefully ambiguous so as to confuse the issue. We can see this on all the “law” shows on television or through deliberate propaganda.

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the ethics of argument fallacies. What’s the problem with violating these rules?
  2. Why is it helpful to identify and learn names for these rules? How does it impact how you may see arguments in the future?
  3. Is it possible to win the debate but still “lose” by some other measure? How do the ethics of argumentation connect to this question?


  1. These rules are examples of what not to do—but of course people still do them. Find an example of someone (a politician, a TikTok influencer, a journalist) willfully or unintentionally violating one of these rules. Discuss what they did and how it impacted their argument.
  2. Find a print ad or short commercial on the internet that violates one of these rules. How so? Why do they do this? Is it effective? Is it manipulative?
  3. Choose one of the “rules” that are established in this chapter:
    • Write a short argument (one to two sentences) about your next paper topic that clearly violates the rule. This can be a poorly framed version of your own argument, or it could be a real (but fallacious) argument that other people make about the issue.
    • Explain why this argument violates the rule. Why might someone do this in an argument? Would it be effective? (To be clear, these fallacies are examples of what not to do—but, of course, people still use them.)
    • Take the fallacious argument that you just created and correct it: write a solid argument that conforms to the rule.

Works Cited

van Eemeren, Frans H., Rob Grootendorst, and Francesca Snoeck Henkemans. Argumentation: Analysis, Evaluation, Presentation. Routledge, 2002.


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Ten Rules for Ethical Arguments by Rebecca Jones; Liz Delf; Rob Drummond; and Kristy Kelly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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