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Dealing with counter arguments

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It is important in law to be able to deal well with both sides of an argument. You must not only present your side convincingly, but you must also show why the arguments of the opposing side are less convincing.

One way to deal with opposing arguments is as follows:

  • Expose the weaknesses in the opposing position.
  • Anticipate the weaknesses in your own argument that opponents will try to expose, and provide some defence for them. Acknowledging potential weaknesses can sometimes lead you to qualify or adjust your own position, thus strengthening it.

Look at the following table which shows an argument, counter-argument, and one possible response to the counter-argument:

Argument Counter-argument Response to counter-argument

The primary focus in medical end-of-life decisions should be on patient consent, rather than doctor intention, because it is not a breach against a patient's rights if s/he consents to the termination of their life.

Terminally ill patients are likely to be depressed, and therefore unable to consent to their hastened death in a balanced or acceptable way.

Depression can be managed. The relevance of depression must be made on a case-by-case basis. Depression does not warrant a general rule prohibiting patients from consenting to a hastened death.

Look at the following paragraph, which is one way in which you might dismiss this counter-argument:

It is often feared that basing medical end-of-life decisions on patient consent may lead to abuse, since many terminally ill patients are depressed, and therefore unable to make sound decisions on matters of such significance. Although such patients may have a greater tendency to depression, we cannot justifiably assume all patients are depressed, or that depression, even when present, prevents a patient from consenting in a balanced and acceptable way. Depression is generally manageable nowadays, and medical diagnosis can determine when a person is incapable of making such a decision. Therefore, the issue of depression should be dealt with on a case by case basis, and not be a reason for prohibiting choice in general.

Notice the following points:

  1. The counter-argument is presented fairly.
  2. Merit in the counter-argument is acknowledged ("Although such patients may have a greater tendency to depression..."), but reasons why it does not undermine the case being made are given.

Conceding merit in the counter-argument leads in this case to a modification of the original position. Instead of simply holding that consent should be the basis of end-of-life decisions, there is now recognition that in some circumstances consent is not sufficient, since it may not have been given after reasonable and balanced consideration.


Look at another counter-argument and the writer's response to it where, once again, merit in the counter-argument is conceded:

Argument Counter-argument Response to counter-argument

The primary focus in medical end-of-life decisions should be on patient consent, rather than doctor intention, because it is not a breach against a patient's rights if s/he consents to the termination of their life.

Vulnerable people might be persuaded by relatives or hospitals to consent to early death because it will save costs, and it is the law's duty to protect vulnerable people.

The law could introduce rigorous procedures for establishing consent, and introduce heavy penalties for those who do try to influence decisions.

In the box provided, write a brief paragraph in which you present the counter-argument and your response to it. (Acknowledge the merit in the counter-argument, though you may or may not wish to modify your position because of it.)



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A possible model paragraph is as follows:

It is also argued that consent by a patient to the early termination of his/her life may be given under pressure. Family or hospitals may seek the patient's early death in order to save costs. Although this is possible, there is no reason why regulations cannot be implemented that ensure consent is freely given, and heavy penalties imposed on those who seek to influence a patient's decision. Such a fear is not grounds for rejecting a focus on patient consent in determining the legal permissibility of medical end-of-life decisions.


Sometimes you will make no concessions at all to a counter-argument. You will simply show it to be unjustified or irrelevant. Look at the following:

Argument Counter-argument Response to counter-argument

The primary focus in medical end-of-life decisions should be on patient consent, rather than doctor intention, because it is not a breach against a patient's rights if s/he consents to the termination of their life.

Allowing voluntary euthanasia will result in less respect for life (for example in a greater tolerance of non-voluntary euthanasia), and this is to be avoided.

Evidence from the Netherlands shows that liberal euthanasia laws do not lead to an increase in non-voluntary euthanasia; if anything they lead to a decrease. Respecting individual choice might lead to greater respect for life, not less.

Now write a paragraph in the following box responding to this counter-argument:

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One possible model response is as follows:

It is sometimes argued that allowing voluntary euthanasia will result in less respect for human life, and this will create a 'slippery slope' where people increasingly tolerate other kinds of mercy killing where the patient's consent is not sought. Evidence from the Netherlands suggests this fear is unjustified. Liberal euthanasia laws there have led to a decrease in non-voluntary euthanasia, not an increase. One possible reason for this is that respecting individual choices has led to an increase in respect for human life, not a decrease.


It is not always easy to deal satisfactorily with counter-arguments because you are not very sympathetic toward them and the temptation is to treat their weaknesses as obvious and therefore easily dismissed. However, you need to represent fairly what the counter-position is, and then provide sound and clear reasons for resisting it.

Look at how the following counter-argument against active voluntary euthanasia is dealt with:

The only other possible justification that the government can have for continuing to prohibit active voluntary euthanasia is that it is harmful to society, and therefore not simply an issue of personal choice. But when a terminally ill adult of sound mind makes a carefully considered decision to have his or her life terminated by a medical practitioner also of sound mind, how can this be harmful to the community as a whole?

Is this an effective response to the counter-argument?







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Feedback:

This is not a very effective response to the counter-argument that allowing active voluntary euthanasia is harmful to society . Although the writer's rhetorical question might elicit support from people who already share the implied reason (that considered consent by a patient cannot be harmful to society), it provides no reasons to persuade those who do not share that point of view. It fails to provide any reasons why we should reject the claim that active euthanasia is a wrong against society as a whole, and so it does nothing to strengthen the writer's position. Rhetorical questions have persuasive force only if you can be sure they will elicit the response you want.

Knowing about the law and its processes is clearly vital, but alone it is not enough. You need to be able to use that information to address a particular problem or issue. Therefore, you need to be clear about what you need to do as well as about what you need to know. Skills are as important as knowledge.

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