The Conundrum of ‘Conduction’

Some comments on the 2019 article on A Dialectical View on Conduction: Reasons, Warrants, and Normal Suasory Inclinations  by Shiyang Yu and Frank Zenker in  Informal Logic, Vol. 39, No. 1 (2019), pp. 32–69. 

The following comments were triggered by the article but may not be pertinent to the stated aim of the article’s aim and “Focal question: Should one treat conduction as argument-as-product?” as opposed to a dialectical view on natural language argumentation. But since the arguments I have studied in the design, planning, and policy-making discourse have at times been labeled a type of ‘conductive’ arguments, and I am interested in the ways such arguments lead to reasoned decisions, some questions arise for the implications of its views on a more systematic and transparent evaluation process within that discourse.  This is, in my opinion, an urgent concern for humanity’s treatment of problems and crises that transcend traditional decision-making boundaries and practices. So I welcome any effort to devote more attention to these kinds of arguments, and hoped to find useful insights in this article. 

Seen from this perspective, I am not particularly concerned about the labels give to these arguments, or whether the understanding of ‘conductive’ arguments should be narrowed (as the article seems to imply) to arguments that contain both ‘pro’ as well as ‘con’ premises or considerations: It had been my understanding that the key criterion was the presence of deontic premises to support the equally deontic ‘conclusion’.  If I am mistaken in this,  my comments and questions  may not apply to the discussion in the article.  

In my efforts to develop better evaluation approaches for arguments to ‘ought’ issues  – which arguably humanity argues about as much if not more than the ‘factual’ arguments analyzed by the traditional logic sources I was aware of  [1]– I found the treatment by these sources of such arguments to be of little help.  In their aims for establishing compelling ‘validity’ if not ‘actually ‘truth’, some disciplines – e.g. ‘deontic logic’ seemed to actually sidestep the problem, basing the analysis on concepts like ‘permitted’, ‘mandatory’ (as e.g. by law) or ‘forbidden’, thereby turning the argument inference rule into patterns closer to the deductively valid rules such as the modus ponens, — but neglecting the subsequent issue of all such premises whether they ought to be permitted, mandatory or forbidden.  Does the article make substantial progress towards a better treatment of these concerns? 

Or is it possible that the effort to stay within the traditional ‘proper’ discipline approach caused the analysis to neglect to pursue key features of planning arguments that they just mention almost as side comments:  

–  That the presence of the deontic claims ‘ought’  or ‘should’ (as in the sample argument discussed) and its argument pattern makes the argument inconclusive by the standards of formal logic (the fancy term used is ‘defeasible’);   

–  That the ‘dialectical’ discourse may aim at reaching ‘normal suasive’ attitudes but that these attitudes cannot be taken for granted, in fact, the ‘arguments’ express disagreements which may be fundamental and based on irreconcilable principles;  

—  That planning decisions rest on often large sets of both pros and cons, not on single arguments, that arguments intended by discourse participants as ‘pro’ reasons for adopting the plan proposal, may turn into equally plausible ‘con’ arguments by other parties, if they disagree (negate) one or more of the proposed premises;  

–  That participants may, in the same sentence, offer both a ‘pro’ as well as a ‘con’ reason for the ‘conclusion’ (as in the ‘monster argument’ discussed [2]) 

My approach to these issues was the following: 

*  Acknowledging that planning decisions should be based on the due consideration of the many ‘pros and cons’ people affected in any way by the problems a plan aims to remedy, as well as the plan alternatives (there is always the alternative of ‘doing nothing’) the discourse should be set up to encourage and even ‘reward’ as wide participation as possible, calling for both ‘pro’ and ‘con’ arguments. 

* Accepting the fact that may comments from the public will be ‘messy’, incomplete (enthymemes), even containing the disturbing ‘counter-considerations’ in one sentence that makes horrified argumentation scientists scream ’monster argument!’, organizing a more systematic, transparent evaluation process will require some formatting many comments into common argument ‘templates’ that clearly shows argument structure and missing (implied) premises. (However, original contributions must be kept for reference in a ‘verbatim’ file.)

* That re-formatting should be as close to conversational language as possible, so that authors can recognize their own intended concerns and agree to the format. 

* I chose to turn the argument patterns around to state the ‘conclusion’—the plan proposal – first, with the approval or rejection claim first, linked to the following support premises with the  link ‘because’ (or ‘since’ or a similar word): resulting in the pattern:

“Plan proposal A ought to be adopted (‘Conclusion’, a deontic D- claim


Plan A will imply or result in effect B (Factual-instrumental FI premise ) 


Effect B ought to be pursued” (Deontic D- premise) 

Summarized as  D(A) since {(FI(A)B) & D(B)}.

A more elaborate version would include a premise stating the conditions  C  under which it is assumed that the factual-instrumental  premise would apply:

D(A)  since / because  { ((FI A  B)  & D(B) | C)  & F(C)} 


A ought  to be adopted 


A will result in B given conditions C


B ought to be pursued 


Conditions C are (or will be) given. 

I was led to this because sometimes the third premise is present in actual arguments, often just in terms such as “Given the circumstances”  or ‘In the present state of affairs…) ,  but an argument could be made that this is really an argument supporting or questioning one of the other premises: ‘We can’t implement A because the needed resources just aren’t available to achieve B”.  

* The arguments do not have to (I suggest should not) be labeled as ‘pro’ or ‘con’ (other than perhaps as ‘intended’ by the author) because, as will be seen below, whether an argument is perceived as a pro or con by an individual, depends on the individual’s assignment of plausibility judgments to the premises.

* While the discussion may pursue the questions of supporting evidence or argument for any ot the premises, the assessment of  the set of all arguments will begin by individual participants assigning 

  a) plausibility judgments pl to all premises of the arguments (that can be seen as probability judgments  for FI and F premises), on a scale of e.g. -1 to +1, and

  b) weights of relative importance w, of the deontic premises in each argument, with the weight w(i) for deontic claim in argument i:  0 ≤ w(i) ≤ 1.0 and ∑w(i) =  1.0  of all deontic claims in the entire set of pro and con arguments. 

* For each individual participant:

   – The plausibility Argpl(i) of an argument i will be some function of  the plausibility judgments the participant has assigned to the premises of that argument;  e.g. 

Argpl(i) = ∏{Prempl(j) of all its premises, or Argpl(i) = MIN(Prempl(j ):   the argument is as plausible as its least plausible premise. 

  – The weight Argw(i)  of argument i  is a function of its plausibility and the weight w(i) of its deontic premise, e.g.  Argw(i) = Argpl(i) * w(i).

  – The plausibility of the proposed plan  (for an individual) is then a function of all argument weights:  e.g. Planpl = ∑(Argw(i) for all n arguments I considered.

* For the task of generating an acceptable ‘group” plausibility statistic to determine the group’s decision, each group or constituency will have to agree upon some such statistic, e.g. the average Planpl and a decision threshold for acceptance of a plan. There are several possibilities. For example,  it could be agreed that the group’s average Planpl should be at least positive (on the -1/+1 plausibility scale), or that it should be the highest one of several alternative ‘plans’ including the alternative of ‘doing nothing’, or a consideration of  the range of  plausibility values for individuals or subgroups (taking care of the ‘worst-off’ parties affected by the problem to be remedies and by proposed plan(s).  This important and controversial issue is beyond the scope of the issue at hand here – the treatment of pro and con arguments in the planning discourse.  

Whether these or similar provisions for collective design, planning, policy-making discourse can or should be applied to all ethical, moral, political discourse, is another much needed discussion. For now, just one significant implication of this view — that any measure of plausibility merit of social plans must be based on the distribution of individual judgments of affected or concerned people, not some general or universal  ‘truth’ or validity — should be noted: For any application of AI tools to collective decisions about controversial plans, is there any plausible basis for an AI system to make even recommendations for such decisions, unless the data base for its algorithms includes the individual  plausibility and weighting judgments of all human participants in the discourse? That is, much as machine assistance will be needed for the discourse of large or global planning projects or decisions, the AI tools or systems must be integrated into the human discourse and compute its results with the human judgment data as they evolve during the discourse. They cannot substitute for the discourse.  

Such implications may be lurking in the background for the theoretical discussions of arguments, whether deductive, inductive, or conductive. They must urgently be pulled out from the background into a human ‘planning–type’ discussion of its own. 


[1]  At the time of my first efforts in this  (the early 1970’s) I was not aware of Wellman’s introduction of the term ‘conductive’ for these arguments but was disappointed in the modal logic and deontic logic sources. There was some discussion whether they should be considered forms of ‘abduction’ (in Peirce’s sense). But the common understanding of abduction also did not seem to match the kinds of arguments I saw in the planning discourse. Abductive reasoning can play a role in the development of solution proposals, however, but not in the weighing of those different solutions. 

[2]  The statement simply combines two considerations, one ‘pro’, one ‘con’, which simply means that it offers two separate arguments to two different ‘conclusions’ or action proposals, as rudimentary enthymemes, with the ‘though’ wording also indicating that one of those reasons, however admittedly plausible, should be assigned less ‘weight’ than the other. I do not see any rationale for the desperate suggestion in one of the branches of the treatment decision tree, to consider the ‘counter-consideration’ as an implied part of the ‘conclusion’. Some necessary assumptions would also be necessary, for example that the only time period available for the two actions is the same (so that e.g. mowing the lawn might be done before going to the movie, or, why not …tomorrow? 

The implication is that for a systematic evaluation, the two arguments for the two different proposals must be stated separately, with all the missing premises made explicit, and that participants then add their individual evaluation judgments to all the premises. 

Similarly, the popular ‘informal logic’ recourse to the Toulmin argument pattern with its backing  and warrant components did not seem appropriate for planning arguments: the pattern seemed to somewhat arbitrarily select its components from premises of ‘successor issues’ arising from efforts to support or question the basic premises of the ‘planning argument’ as I perceived them. 

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