Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Day 1's Discussion

Evaluating Arguments: “What do you mean?” & “Why think that?”

Synopsis: A basic theory of argument analysis is developed that focuses on identifying clear and precise conclusions and premises and adding assumed, but unstated, premises when needed.

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.

But their arguments are unsound because at least one premise is false (and we have good reason to believe this) or the premises do not make a chain of reasoning that leads us to the conclusion. Three core “logical skills” help us see exactly why this is so. Skills like these may seem obvious to many academic philosophers (who teach them), but – as the discussion below shows – they are not obvious to everyone. This fact and their potential for contributing to moral progress justify presenting them here.

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?[1]

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.

The slavery example further illustrates the need for revealing assumed, unstated premises linking premises to conclusions. The made-precise conclusion, uttered by the slave-owner, “slavery is morally right” follows from the (true) premise “slave owners benefit from slave labor” only when an assumed, unstated general premise is added, something like:

(P5) If one group benefits from the labor of another group, then it is right for the benefiting group to get those benefits.

This premise asserts that the mere fact that some group gets some benefits automatically makes that practice or action right.

But this premise is not true: successful bank robbers “benefit” from robbing banks; child-molesters and rapists might “benefit” from their actions too (they apparently enjoy doing this, which is a benefit to them). But these actions are not right and so the benefits people get do not automatically make them right. So this argument is not sound, as it too has a false premise, namely (P5).

The non-historical argument in favor of eating animals illustrates a third logical skill. The stated conclusion is that:

(C4) “It’s morally permissible to raise animals to be eaten.”

And the stated premise is that:

(P6) “Animals are not rational.”

Both the premise and the conclusion are imprecise: is the person saying that all animals are not “rational,” or just some of them (if so, which ones?)? That it’s morally permissible to eat any animals or just some of them (again, if so, which ones?).

This person probably means to be saying that all animals are not rational and that all animals are morally permissible to eat. But there clearly is an assumed, unstated general premise linking the premise to the conclusion, something like:

(P7) If a being is not ‘rational’, then it is morally permissible to raise and to eat him or her.

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.[2] Suppose he claims that a being is “rational” only if it does that. This suggests this premise:

(P8) If a being is not ‘rational,’ i.e., she does not publish academic articles, then it is not morally wrong to raise her to be eaten.

If this premise were true, then it would be morally permissible to raise human babies to eat them since they do not publish articles. So this premise has morally unacceptable implications, and animal experimentation advocates agree. Many other understandings of what it is to be “rational” would yield similar implications for human beings who are not “rational,” e.g., the severely mentally challenged, very old humans and many others. Thus, this argument is unsound.

Through these case studies, three fundamental logical skills for identifying and evaluating arguments have been articulated. They amount to getting clear on what exactly people mean when they say things about moral issues and finding out why they think that, i.e., what their reasons are, including any unstated assumptions essential to their reasoning. “What do you mean?” and “Why think that?” are some of the most useful questions to ask, and patiently and carefully answer, in critical discussions of moral issues.

These three logical skills are just the application of basic logic to ethics. The cases above confirm their value. They are generally useful for identifying and evaluating reasoning. Discussions of ethical issues would greatly improve if these skills were widely practiced.

[1] Ain't I A Woman?” (1851). Widely reprinted.

[2] McInerney, J.D., Morrison, A.R., and Schrock, J.R. “Reaction to ‘How we treat our relatives.’” The American Biology Teacher 66/4: 253-254, 2004