Law as Rhetoric, Rhetoric as Argument
Kurt M. Saunders**
Legal reasoning is . . . but an argumentation aiming to persuade and convince those whom it addresses, that such a choice, decision or attitude is preferable to concurrent choices, decisions and attitudes.1
Many lawyers lack a basic understanding of the structure and process of legal argumentation. Their limited understanding, which often leads to less than effective advocacy, stems from legal education's failure to make the structure and process of legal argument explicit and systematic. One approach to this problem is to explore the intrinsic relationship of law to rhetoric. Because law and rhetoric have a common cultural and historical heritage, classical and contemporary rhetorical theory offer conceptual frameworks for understanding and learning legal argumentation.2
This article discusses and applies heuristics from contemporary theories of argumentation to demonstrate how these models inform the study and practice of the law. My focus is on the practical nature and justificatory function of legal argument. Although theories of argumentation belong within the larger class of rhetorical theory, they are distinguished here because rhetorical theory lays the more general foundation for considering specific approaches to argument.
Traditionally, research on argument has followed two lines: normative and descriptive investigation. For the most part, normative theories of argument are treated in the area of formal logic and are concerned with internal correctness and validity.3 Instead, this article identifies the contributions of Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman, two rhetoricians who explore argument not as norm-giving but as norm-descriptive. This is in keeping with my concentration on the rhetorical, practical, and culturally constructed nature and function of legal argument. First I consider legal argument as a particular form of practical argumentation. From there I investigate the ideas of Toulmin and Perelman and illustrate how they can be used in legal education.
Legal Argument as Practical Argumentation
Aristotle believed that most arguments in the real world were practical in nature and took place outside highly rigorous systems of logical and mathematical proof.4 Until recently, rhetorical theorists have paid little attention to practical argumentation and have concentrated on more formal models of reasoning. But contemporary theorists such as Toulmin and Perelman have returned to Aristotle's original concern with practical argumentation, believing that logic and mathematical models are inadequate to explain how people actually make arguments. Both Toulmin and Perelman use legal reasoning as the model for their theories because it is a form of practical argumentation.
Practical arguments proceed informally; they are not concerned with formal demonstration, internal validity, and objective correctness. While logical arguments are specifically designed to produce conclusions that are universal and absolute in their proof, practical arguments are designed to establish one claim as more probable or reasonable than another. Likewise, legal argumentation is not concerned with proof of absolute truths, but acknowledges that it is always possible to argue for or against a particular claim. Arguments that support one claim never entirely exclude those supporting the opposing claim.5 Strict logical consequence and certainty are never the result, because arguments depend upon language, and language always admits of ambiguity, equivocality, and multiple interpretation.6
A legal argument is resolved when the audience, whether judge or jury, accepts one claim as more reasonable than another rather than as objectively and inherently valid. Similarly, the goal of practical argumentation is to gain the assent or adherence of the audience to a claim. The persuasiveness of an argument always depends upon what the relevant audience regards as persuasive. The audience decides when and to what extent a claim has been justified by the arguments.7
Justification, according to John Rawls, "seeks to convince others, or ourselves, of the reasonableness of the principles upon which our claims and judgments are founded."8 In practical argumentation, justification involves a heuristic search; that is, the arguer searches among the many available arguments to find those that will most likely persuade the audience to accept the claim. Justification provides reasons for accepting the claim. Similarly, a lawyer must justify a claim by generating arguments based on the evidence and available legal authority.9
Because law is a rhetorical activity and because legal argumentation is a form of practical argumentation,10 heuristics from the theories of Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman may prove instructive to our students' learning and understanding.
Heuristics from Argumentation
Stephen Toulmin and the Layout of Argument
Stephen E. Toulmin's starting point in his theory of argumentation is the distinction between analytic and substantial arguments. Toulmin believes that analytic arguments, such as mathematics and formal logic, do not extend beyond the information contained in the premises, and that substantial arguments involve inferences from the evidence to the conclusion of the argument.11 He maintains that while absolute standards of formal validity do not explain everyday reasoning in the real world,12 neither do relativistic standards, which he believes constitute no standards at all. These concerns prompted Toulmin to investigate the reasoning process and what he calls the justificatory function of argument.
Toulmin's chief contribution to argumentation theory is his model of the layout of argument. Based on legal reasoning,13 the layout of argument focuses on the movement of accepted data, through a warrant, to a claim. Toulmin's model is procedural, not static or spatial, and is based on an analog of motion. The following summary uses the analogy of taking a trip to illustrate Toulmin's approach to making an argument.
Toulmin's layout of argument involves six interrelated components. The first component is called a "claim." The claim is the conclusion of the argument that a person is seeking to justify or the destination of the trip. It is the answer to the question, "Where are we going?" Toulmin calls the second component of the argument "grounds." The grounds of the argument are the facts or other information on which the argument is based. Grounds provide the answer to the question, "What do we have to go on?" The third component of an argument is called the "warrant." This is the portion of the argument that authorizes our movement from the grounds to the claim; it assesses whether or not our "trip" from grounds to claim is a legitimate one. It answers the question, "How do you justify the move from these grounds to that claim? What road [do] you take to get from this starting point to that destination."14
Toulmin recognizes three secondary elements which may be present in an argument: backing, qualifier, and rebuttal. Backing is the authority for the warrant; it provides credibility for the warrant and may be introduced when the audience is unwilling to accept the warrant at face value. A qualifier indicates the degree of force or certainty which a claim possesses; it converts the terms of the argument from absolute to probable.15 Finally, rebuttal represents certain conditions or exceptions under which the claim will fail; it anticipates objections which might be advanced against the argument to refute the claim.16 The complete layout of argument is pictured in Figure 1:
The data-warrant-claim model has multiple applications in legal argumentation and can be employed both before and after the commencement of a lawsuit. For instance, during an initial interview with a client the lawyer must determine whether the facts of the client's problem reveal a cause of action. In essence, Toulmin's model covers this entire process. The client informs the lawyer of the relief sought, or claim, that will redress the injury. The facts of the dispute constitute the data. Using both the data and the claim, the lawyer generates or discovers a warrant that links the two.17 Authority (backing) must be cited to support the rule (warrant). Defenses or exceptions (rebuttal) to the rule must be addressed, because the law admits of probabilities and rebuttable presumptions (qualifiers) rather than absolutes.
Consider the following scenario as an application of Toulmin's model to the development of a case theory. A woman who has been dismissed from her managerial position meets with a lawyer to discuss a possible lawsuit. She explains that she has been terminated without an explanation of the cause, contrary to the conditions of her employment handbook. She would like to sue to recover money damages for her loss of income. In response, the lawyer suggests a cause of action for breach of employment agreement that links the relief sought with the facts of the woman's case. The lawyer will support the cause of action with mandatory precedent, and will recognize that the employer may assert a defense based on the employment-at-will doctrine that may deny recovery. Figure 2 illustrates the layout of this argument:
Furthermore, the layout of argument allows us to model an argument based on analogy. As depicted in Figure 3, the data again represent the facts of the present case, while the warrant indicates the existence of a precedent which shares facts with the present case and which is binding because of stare decisis. The conclusion that the present case should be resolved in the same manner as the precedent is a claim that may be rebutted if another contrary case is more closely analogous or the precedent case is distinguishable.
The data-warrant-claim model is useful in two ways. First, it can be used to identify the component parts of pretrial case development: determination of the desired relief, collection of facts, and generation of a supporting legal theory. Second, the model helps us to understand that this process is often reverse-engineered: using the remedy or relief sought, the lawyer works backward to arrive at a supporting legal theory that is grounded in legally relevant facts.
Toulmin's model can be used as a heuristic for teaching students how to construct arguments at various stages of litigation. In particular, the model works for legal argument because it is accurate, flexible, and effective. The notions of warrant and backing accurately incorporate the lawyer's dependence upon authority—both precedential and statutory. The data-warrant-claim model is more flexible than the syllogism because, by recognizing qualifiers, it accounts for the place of inference and uncertainty in judicial reasoning and decision-making. Finally, an effective argument must include the element of rebuttal; it must meet the court's expectation that the lawyer will attempt to refute the counterarguments.18
Toulmin developed data-warrant-claim to demonstrate that the criteria for evaluating arguments varied from field to field and from discipline to discipline.19 It is important to recognize that his model was not intended or designed to serve as a heuristic for analyzing argument. When the model is used for this purpose, uncertainties as to interpretation may result. For instance, distinctions between data and warrant may blur, particularly when data are implicit and warrants are explicit.20 Nevertheless, the Toulmin model provides a useful and easily mastered foundation on which to construct a legal argument.21
Chaim Perelman and the New Rhetoric
For Chaim Perelman, the "object of the theory of argumentation is the study of the discursive techniques allowing us to induce or to increase the mind's adherence to the theses presented for its assent."22 Like Toulmin, Perelman observes that formal logic or demonstration fails to account for value judgment in everyday argument, implying that arguments based on value judgments are nonrational. And like Toulmin, he is concerned with the justificatory function of argument, though he extends Toulmin's position and argues that neither absolute truth nor validity exists in practical argument.23 Appeals to reason are appeals to the adherence of the audience; a sound argument is an effective argument.24
Perelman suggests adaptations of rhetoric to law by focusing on practical argument, which he calls the new rhetoric.25 Perelman's theory rests on the idea that gaps exist between reason and justice. Rhetorical argument motivates the justification of legal decisions and judicial reasoning. In reaching legal conclusions, the judge must choose among probabilities, not certainties, while focusing on the societal audience. These probabilities, Perelman claims, clarify the role of rhetoric in law.26 The role of rhetoric in the classical tradition, he maintains, is to instill the abstract standards of law within the public "mind" or audience in order to insure that it reasons correctly.27
Perelman's thesis that argumentation proceeds informally rather than according to logical forms and theorems makes his theory particularly well suited to the study of legal argument. Perelman agrees that legal claims cannot be formally or empirically proved. Instead, they must be judged to be reasonable by the adjudicator; the lawyer must gain the adherence of the audience to the client's position. A second point of contact between Perelman's theory and legal argument is his notion that ambiguity is never entirely avoidable because the language that must be used is always open to multiple interpretations. Ambiguity in law typically arises in four contexts: when there is no applicable rule because the case is one of first impression;28 when the applicable rule is subject to more than one meaning; when an otherwise applicable rule is claimed to be invalid;29 and, finally, when a conflict exists between two potentially applicable rules.30 Because legal reasoning is largely rule-based and rule-directed, most issues of law involve the interpretation of legal rules.31
While Perelman's theory of argumentation is suggestive and has numerous applications to the study of legal argument, it is not possible here to do justice to his complex theory. This article treats only those elements of Perelman's new rhetoric that are most directly linked to understanding legal argument.
Starting Points: The Real and the Preferable
The starting points of an argument include the analysis of the audience and the points of departure.32 In Perelman's theory, there must be some initial common ground between those involved in an argument before it can proceed. Arguments must be based on premises that the audience accepts, or considers reasonable, because the adherence of the audience is the measure of validity.33 These premises, sometimes referred to as the "starting points," are divided into two classes: the real and the preferable. Facts, truths, and presumptions make up the real; values, hierarchies, and lines of argument relate to the preferable. As to the starting points of the real, a fact achieves its status as a fact on the basis of audience consent. Truths are larger principles, theories, or conceptions made up of linked facts.36 Presumptions retain their status as presumptions if they are not successfully challenged.37 By contrast, the starting points bearing on the preferable include abstract values (such as truth, faith, or justice); hierarchies of value, where one value is described as superior to another (such as freedom over fairness, justice over usefulness, honesty over benevolence); and the loci, or headings under which arguments may be classified.38
For the lawyer, the starting point of a dispute is always an issue of fact or law. The starting points of the real, as they relate to fact and presumption, help us to understand the sometimes subtle distinctions between a legally relevant fact and a legal presumption. Recall that a proposition achieves its status as a fact on the basis of audience consent. Similarly, the role of the lawyer at trial is to persuade the fact finder, whether judge or jury, to accept the client's evidence as fact in order to find in the client's favor. Legal presumptions are conclusions of law drawn from facts that relate to liability. "[T]he most immediate effect of a presumption [is to impose] the burden of proof upon the person who wants to oppose its application."39
The starting points of the preferable refer to the way that values are arranged according to their order of importance.40 Perelman identifies abstract and concrete hierarchies, as well as homogeneous and heterogeneous hierarchies. In homogeneous hierarchies, similar values such as mildness and severity are compared, making measures of degree and intensity crucial factors. In heterogeneous hierarchies, different values come into conflict; for example, honesty may conflict with kindness, or goodness may conflict with truth.41 Most often in legal argumentation, policy arguments involve the use of hierarchies and debates about the arrangement of values within those hierarchies. Examples of such policy arguments include individual rights versus state regulation, fair competition versus free competition, and caveat emptor versus caveat venditor.
Perelman's starting points based on the real and his loci of the preferable help the lawyer to identify the claim, or issues of fact and law that are in dispute. As such, the starting points link the exigence—the first element of the rhetorical situation—with stasis.42 Together, the starting points provide an expansive scheme to separate what is in agreement from what is in disagreement and to classify types of argument.
Kurt M. Saunders, Law as Rhetoric, Rhetoric as Argument, was first published at 44 J. Leg. Educ. 566 (1994). © 1994 Association of American Law Schools. Reprinted with permission.
** Original author's note: Kurt M. Saunders is Adjunct Professor of Law at Duquesne University. He thanks Linda Levine and his research assistants, Amy Phillips and Marc Farrell, for their contributions to this article.
Editor's note: Kurt M. Saunders currently is Associate Professor, California State University, Northridge.
The article has been reprinted with minor modifications in formatting.
1 Chaim Perelman, Justice, Law, and Argument 129 (Dordrecht, Neth., 1980).
2 See Linda Levine & Kurt M. Saunders, Thinking Like a Rhetor, 48 J. Legal Educ. 108 (1993); see also Julius Stone, Legal System and Lawyers' Reasonings 333 (Stanford, 1964).
3 For further discussion of normative theories, see, e.g., E. M. Barth & E. C. W. Krabbe, From Axiom to Dialogue (Berlin, 1982); Rupert Crawshay-Williams, Methods and Criteria of Reasoning: An Inquiry into the Structure of Controversy (New York, 1957); Arne Naess, Communication and Argument: Elements of Applied Semantics, trans. Alastair Hannay (London, 1966). For a more general overview, see F. Van Eemeren et. al., The Study of Argumentation (New York, 1984).
4 See Perelman, supra note 1, at 127. Aristotle refers to practical argumentation as dialectical reasoning. I use the term "practical" because "dialectical" is used interchangeably with "logical" in many texts.
5 See id. at 150.
6 Consider, for instance, that the literal interpretation of a statutory or common law rule may be at variance with notions of equity and fairness. Contrast this with a theorem of mathematics or an axiom of logic, which has a certain or conclusive meaning.
7 Demonstration, by contrast, transcends its immediate social and cultural context and is therefore field invariant. The conclusions of demonstration are objectively valid independent of their acceptance by any audience whatsoever.
8 A Theory of Justice 580 (Cambridge, Mass., 1971).
9 See Neil MacCormick, Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory 14-15 (Oxford, 1978).
For further elaboration on the notion of legal argumentation as practical argumentation, see John Ladd, The Place of Practical Reason in Judicial Decision, in Nomos VII: Rational Decision, ed. Carl J. Friedrich, 126 (New York,1954); Vincent Wellman, Practical Reasoning and judicial justification: Toward an Adequate Theory, 57 U. Colo. L Rev. 45 (1985).
11 The Uses of Argument 123-27 (Cambridge, England, 1958).
12 Id. at 118-19.
13 See id. at 7, 96.
14 Sonja K. Foss et al., Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric 87 (Prospect Heights, Ill., 1985). Foss and colleagues refer to the second component as grounds. This is the term used by Toulmin in Stephen Toulmin et al., An Introduction to Reasoning, 2d ed. (New York, 1984). Instead, I refer to the second component as data, which was Toulmin's original term. Toulmin, supra note 11, at 94-141.
15 "Qualifiers" are sometimes referred to as "modal qualifiers" or "modalities" in discussions of Toulmin's model.
16 Toulmin, supra note 11, at 101. Toulmin's representation of rebuttal is ambiguous: rebuttal may mean the anticipation of a counterargument or the recognition of an exception to the general rule. In either case, the element of rebuttal in Toulmin's model underscores its necessity in legal argument.
17 The warrant accounts for the inference from data to claim. Toulmin explains that the distinction between data and warrants "is similar to the distinctions drawn in the law-courts between questions of fact and questions of law." Id. at 100.
18 For other applications of Toulmin's layout of argument to legal argumentation, see, e.g., Fred E. Jandt, Effective Interviewing and a Profitable Practice 89-95 (Cincinnati, 1990) (application to client interviewing); Ronald J. Marion, Communication in the Legal Process 83-84 (New York, 1988) (exploring use of Toulmin's model to pretrial case building and theme development); Toulmin et al., supra note 14, at 281-311 (application to legal reasoning); see also Paul T. Wangerin, A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Structure of Persuasive Arguments, 16 Harv. J.L & Pub. Pol'y 195 (1993).
19 According to Toulmin, the layout of argument is field invariant but the criteria by which arguments are evaluated are field dependent. Field-dependent features include degree of precision, degree of formality, and mode of resolution. Toulmin et al., supra note 14, at 271-74. Toulmin's notions of field dependence and field invariance stem from his belief that universal principles alone cannot be used to judge arguments. Instead, we must use the criteria from the particular field in which the argument is made to judge the parts of the argument. Though the subject matter of the argument may differ from field to field, its structure remains the same. For Toulmin, the field equals the audience to which the argument is addressed. Id. at 11-38.
20 See Douglas Ehninger & Wayne Brockriede, Decision by Debate 125-67 (New York, 1963).
21 Moreover, the use of diagrams and concept maps is a useful learning tool in that it helps students to visually represent arguments and to understand the process of constructing arguments. See Charles W. Kneupper, On Argument and Diagrams, 14 J. Am. Forensic Ass'n 181 (1978).
22 Chaim Perelman & Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, trans. John Wilkinson & Purcell Weaver, 4 (Notre Dame, 1969).
23 Chaim Perelman, The Realm of Rhetoric, trans. William Kluback, 9 (Notre Dame, 1982).
24 Id. at 9-10.
25 Like Toulmin, Chaim Perelman, who was a lawyer, used legal reasoning as his model of argument. See Don Abbott, The Jurisprudential Analogy: Argumentation and the New Rhetoric, 22 Cent. Sts. Speech J. 50, 50-52 (1974); see also William E. Wiethoff, Critical Perspectives on Perelman's Philosophy of Legal Argument, 22 J. Am. Forensic Ass'n 88 (1985).
26 Perelman, supra note 23, at 9-11.
28 See Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, supra note 22, at 59-60, 131.
29 Id. at 59.
30 Id. at 196-97, 200, 414-15.
31 See Chaim Perelman, The Idea of Justice and the Problem of Argument, trans. John Petrie, 61-65 (New York, 1963). This statement is not meant to exclude the importance of case-based arguments founded on analogy. Rather, I use the term "rule" in the broad sense to include the interpretation or application that follows the choice of an analogous case.
32 See Perelman, supra note 23, at 21. Perelman identifies universal and particular audiences including the specialized, elite, single interlocutor, and self. Id. at 30.
33 Id. at 21.
34 Id. at 23. Perelman does not explicitly address the source for the starting points of agreement. He presumes that the speaker and the audience arrive on common ground, but he does not directly address how this occurs. He observes: "Someone who prophesies without troubling himself with the reactions of those who hear him is quickly regarded as a fanatic, the prey of interior demons, rather than as a reasonable person seeking to share his convictions." Id. at 16. Finally, he hints that certain theses and beliefs are specific to particular disciplines and fields of discourse. These theses, beliefs, and values constitute the points of departure. Id.
35 Id. at 23.
36 Id. at 23-24.
37 Id. at 25.
38 Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, supra note 22, at 80-85. Perelman's loci of the preferable include: quantity, quality, order, cause, essence, autonomy, among others. The loci of argument resemble Aristotle's topoi. He notes that "[l]oci have accordingly been defined as storehouses for arguments. Aristotle made a distinction between the loci communes, or ‘commonplaces,' which can be used indiscriminately for any science and do not depend on any, and the special topics, which belong to a particular science or a particular type of oratory." Id. at 83. The loci are sometimes referred to as lines of argument.
39 Perelman, supra note 23, at 25.
40 Id. at 26.
41 Id. at 29.
42 See Levine & Saunders, supra note 2, at 112, 114-16, see also Perelman & OIbrechts-Tyteca, supra note 22, at 83.