Types of argument: argument from authority

This article is the latest in a series that considers the different kinds of arguments that you may use in your doctoral thesis. As we have previously noted, strong arguments are an essential component of your PhD. This is why, in previous articles, we have introduced the categorical syllogism and discussed the use of argument by analogy. In this article, we consider the use of argument from authority.

Simply put, the point of an argument is to persuade the reader that your claim has merit. This may be achieved through empirical evidence in an attempt to convince the reader that the claim is verifiably true. Alternatively, an argument may rely on accepted prinicples and the use of logic to convince the reader that the claim should be accepted. A third way of convincing the reader is to rely on an authority to support the claim. This may take the form of relying on an expert opinion to add weight to your claim, or it may rely on an authoritative source of information.

A good example of the argument from authority may be found in legal argumentation. Lawyers may rely on the authority of statute based law or judicial decisions and statements (obiter dicta) made by judges in the course of deciding cases. In England, for example, judicicial decisions are afforded an authority through the doctrine of precedent. This means that a decision made by the Supreme Court (previously the House of Lords) is considered an authoritative source of law and may be relied on subsequently when making claims about the law.

Continuing with the example of law, a judge may make an obiter dictum that carries less authority than a legal decision and supporting reasoning (ratio decidendi). It may still be used in an argument from authority, but is not as persuasive in supporting a claim as a ratio decidendi. The same judge may also make a statement outside the court. Again this may be used as part of an argument from authority, but carries even less persuasive weight than either an obiter or ratio. What this illustrates is that the strength of an argument from authority depends on the weight of the authority. The more authoritative the source, the more persuasive the argument. This applies not just to legal argument, but to any argument that relies on authority rather than logic or empirical evidence, in support of the claim.

To conclude, a claim may be supported by reliance on authority, which includes experts as authoritative sources of opinion. Importantly, the strength of such an argument will depend the weight of the authority. Always try to use the most authoritative source available, and where possible back up the argument with empirical evidence and logic. If you need help in developing the arguments in your thesis, the PhD Consultancy can provide experts from a wide range of academic disciplines.