Evaluating Arguments: “What do you mean?” & “Why think that?”
To help overcome emotional and disengaged responses to moral questions it can be useful to consider some arguments about historical moral issues. Such issues can be useful for developing (or reminding ourselves of) some general skills in moral reasoning. Typically, we are emotionally, religiously and financially distanced from these issues and common beliefs, feelings, attitudes and behavior are generally better than they used to be: some moral progress has occurred. Many of our predecessors found these to be “controversial issues” but, fortunately, we can now see the faults with these arguments; it is partially for this reason that these issues are no longer controversial.
Here are three (extremely simplified) arguments that were made and much debated throughout history (and, in some parts of the world, still are):
About slavery: “Slavery is morally right because slave owners benefit from slave labor.”
About women: “It’s morally wrong to allow women to get a higher education because women are such emotional beings that reasoning and abstract thought are quite difficult for them.”
About animals: “Since animals are not rational, it’s morally permissible to raise them to be eaten.”
We would think poorly of anyone who makes claims about slavery and women like these above, but one “respectable” thing about them is that they are arguing for their views. They are not just asserting their conclusions: they are attempting to give reasons and, from an intellectual point of view, this is preferable to giving no reasons at all.
Two logical skills are readily seen with the argument about women. The stated conclusion of the argument is this:
(C1) “It’s morally wrong to allow women to get a higher education.”
(Premises and conclusions will often be numbered to more efficiently discuss them). We should notice that this conclusion is imprecise: the number of women mentioned is unclear and so we do not exactly know what the argument’s advocate means when he says what he says. He is claiming either:
(C2) “It’s morally wrong to allow some women to get a higher education,”
(C3) “It’s morally wrong to allow any (i.e., all) women to get a higher education.”
If (C2) is what’s being said, we might rightly ask, “Which women?” since perhaps there are (for whatever reason) some women (and some men?) who should not be allowed an education and so (C2) is true. Historically, however, the advocate of this argument has conclusion (C3) in mind, that “no women should be able to get an education.”
Thus, a first logical skill for identifying and evaluating moral arguments is the following:
Make premises and conclusions precise in quantity: is something said to be true (or false) of all things (or people, or animals, etc.), or just some of them (and if so, which ones?)?
The stated reason, or premise, in favor of this made-precise conclusion (C3) is that:
(P1) “Women are such emotional beings that reasoning and abstract thought are quite difficult for them.”
This claim again is imprecise, between an “all” and “some” understanding of the claim. If the claim is this:
(P2) “All women are such emotional beings that reasoning and abstract thought are quite difficult for them.”
This can be shown false by finding at least one (“unemotional”) woman who is capable of reasoning and thinking abstractly. The premise then must be this:
(P3) “Some women are such emotional beings that reasoning and abstract thought are quite difficult for them.”
We could grant that (P3) is true: some women are like this (as are some men!). But how would this truth give any rational support for the argument’s intended conclusion (C3) that “it’s morally wrong to allow any (i.e., all) women to get a higher education”? How would some women’s “emotionality” justify restricting educational opportunities for all women? And even if all women are so “emotional” and have such difficulty with “abstract thought,” why would that justify denying any women the opportunity to better themselves through education?
There must be some unstated premise linking the made-precise premise (P3) to the made-precise conclusion (C3) that answers these questions. Premises that offer these logical connections need to be general, universal claims so we can see the basis for the assumption that the stated premise(s) leads to and supports the conclusion. This leads us to a second logical skill:
State (any) assumed premises so that the complete pattern of reasoning in an argument is displayed and it is clear how the stated premise(s) logically leads to the conclusion.
Here this premise seems to be something like this:
(P4) If doing some activity is quite difficult for some people, then nobody should have a chance to do that activity.
(P4) and (P3) logically lead to (C3). But there is no good reason to think that (P4) is true. Sojourner Truth’s response to objections to women’s and African-American’s rights is relevant here:
. . they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Thus, to summarize this argument’s faults: first, we do not know what exactly is being said when this argument is given because the stated premise and conclusion are imprecise. Once we make these claims precise, however, we see that one way of making the premise precise (the “all women” version) results in a false premise, which is enough for the argument to be unsound. The other way of making the premise precise (the “some women” version) is true but we can reasonably suspect that the unstated premise linking this to the conclusion is false, making the argument unsound again.
To evaluate this premise (as well as [P6] and other premises that might come from clarifying it), we need to use a third logical skill:
Clarify the intended meaning of unclear or ambiguous words.
The meaning of “rational” is not at all clear: we need to ask an advocate of this argument what he or she means by “rational.” Suppose he responds, as some biologists have in trying to defend harmful animal use, with the observation that animals do not publish academic articles. Suppose he claims that a being is “rational” only if it does that. This suggests this premise: