Causal Argument


ENG 106: Composition 2

Lesson 10: Causal Argument
Oct. 28-Nov. 1, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following:

  • Construct a claim and sketch an outline for a causal argument.
  • Define relevant terms.


Please complete the following assignments before coming to class on Tuesday:

Read Chapter 11 of Everything’s an Argument.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: In class I will play part of a taped lecture from a series called Conquest of the Americas.  Using what you learned about reading critically in Lesson 5, take notes on this lecture, focusing on the speaker’s causal argument, tone, and credibility.

Presentation: Causal Argument (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning: Working with the other members of your group, analyze Marshall Eakins’s argument in the taped lecture.  What evidence has Eakins used to support his claim?  Has his support come in the form of analogies, correlations, or other kinds of support?  Do you find his argument convincing?  Explain your assessment.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning. 

Think Again: Reflecting on the essays and narratives you have read this semester, choose an event or a phenomenon that interests you and write it down in the middle of a sheet of paper.  Now, using a bubble diagram, speculate on possible causes and effects of this event or phenomenon.

Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with some of you in one-on-one conferences.  During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.


Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following terms:

  • analogy
  • causal argument
  • cause
  • concomitant variation
  • effect
  • post hoc
  • variable


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the resource listed below:

Everything’s an Argument provides specific tips on writing causal arguments.

Updated October 24, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


Having studied evaluations, proposals, and definitions, we turn now to our fourth and last brand of argument—the causal argument.  Please bring your text books to our regular classroom, Dial 147, where we will begin discussing the structure of causal argument and launch the process of constructing one.


Causal argument underlies two of the most common, challenging, and difficult questions we confront in our lives: “Why?”  and “What if?”  When paleontologists consider the reasons why dinosaurs became extinct, when historians debate the causes of a war, when environmentalists speculate on the effects of pollution, and when psychologists study the effects of racism, they are working in the realm of causal argument.  That is, they are examining the complex process by which people, forces, events, and other phenomena interact to bring about other phenomena.  Although some people may speak of proving a causal connection between two things, causal argument is by its very nature highly speculative and prone to mistakes.  Part of the difficulty, as any scientist can attest, lies in isolating variables.  In other words, when examining the many factors that may have caused an event to occur or the many effects that may be traced back to a cause, we must be careful to determine exactly which ones really are valid.  Take, for example, the apparently simple case of the Civil War.  Anyone who has studied this conflict knows that slavery was an important issue that divided the northern and southern states.  In the three decades preceding the Civil War, however, America also was experiencing a number of other important phenomena: social upheaval, migration and immigration, technological changes, and even an economic panic.  How can we prove that it was slavery and not one of these other factors that caused the war?  The answer is that we can’t.  Indeed, as in other kinds of argument, we rarely can prove our causal claims definitively.


What we can do is to present compelling evidence that suggests a connection between what we are labeling as causes and effects.  Occasionally, we may be able to find primary or secondary sources that themselves make the connection.  Abraham Lincoln and other people from the period preceding and including the Civil War, for instance, spoke of the national tension over slavery, and scholars in subsequent decades have seen a connection between slavery and the war.  Such evidence is certainly compelling, but we can strengthen a causal argument by using other strategies.  When we use an analogy, for example, we argue that A caused B in this instance because a similar A caused a similar B in another instance.  The philosopher John Stuart Mill identified several other strategies, including concomitant variation—that is, if A and B have tended to occur or vary together in the past, it is logical to assume that they have a causal relationship—and process of elimination.  In the latter case, we would show why C, D, E, and F did not cause B, thus leaving A as the probable cause.  While none of these strategies can prove a cause-effect relationship beyond a shadow of a doubt, together they can make a strong case.  In particular, they can help a writer or speaker avoid a logical fallacy likely to emerge in causal argument—that is, the post hoc argument.  As suggested by its Latin name, which literally means “after the fact,” a post hoc argument claims that A caused B simply because A preceded B.  Because precedence is necessary but not sufficient for a factor to cause an effect, post hoc arguments are at best fallacious and at worst ridiculous.  You will want to avoid them and support your causal claim with solid evidence.


Building on the foundation we established this week, we will continuing working on causal argument in our next lesson.  Specifically, we will focus on evidence.