Thursday, March 16, 2006

Morality and Forms of Moral Argument

I am sorry that this is long. I have been challenged to step once again into the issue of moral theory. I love being able to do this from time to time. However, these arguments are a bit thicker than others and take a bit more time to develop and explain. I hope that I have done so adequately.

In an anonymous comment to yesterday’s post, a reader suggested that I was being inconsistent in my claims about intuition.

In yesterday’s post, I condemned intuition as a valid form of moral argument. I criticized the use of a story in which an individual was given a choice between saving a 2-year-old girl or 5 blastulae from a fire as a way of arguing that certain anti-abortion assumptions were mistaken. I argued that intuitions tell us what our moral sentiments (prejudices) are, but we cannot legitimately infer from this what our moral sentiments should be. So, the confirmed Nazi may have no trouble leaving a group of Jews to die in a fire. His intuitions cannot be used to infer that it is not wrong to leave a group of Jews to die in a fire. Nor can we infer anything from the intuition that one would rather save the girl than the blastulae.

Anonymous compared this to my post, “Morality and the Use of Analogy.” In that post, I defended my use of stories such as “A Perspective on the Pledge” as a legitimate form of moral argument. My defense would also extend to my post two days ago, where I condemned Senator Frist’s comments that Bush is not to be condemned for failure to defend the Constitution because it is wrong to condemn the Commander in Chief in times of war. I illustrated my point by describing the legitimacy of condemning a lieutenant who sought to destroy a fortification he was ordered to hold and defend.

Am I not being inconsistent here? Am I not defending the use of a story to defend a moral point in one case, and rejecting it in another? Is it not possible that a committed KKK member can read, “A Perspective on the Pledge” and come to the conclusion “We really ought to be one white nation under God”, the same way the committed Nazi can look at the fire scenario and say, “It really is permissible to abandon Jews to the fire?”


In one area, the anonymous comment raises a valid point – one that springs from strategic considerations.

In order to prevent my postings from being tremendously long (they are already too long as is), I have a specific audience in mind. I do not try to write for everybody. So, for example, I noted that over 80% of the population accepted having “one nation under God” in the pledge. Yet, I was under the impression that there were far fewer people who would accept “one white nation”. Furthermore, most who accepted the former while rejecting the latter would have a firmer commitment to rejecting the latter. So, I aimed my story at those people as a way of convincing them that they should reject the former as well.

In short, I assumed that my target reader already had certain beliefs that a pledge to “one white nation” was unquestionably wrong.

Who is the target audience for the “Who would you rescue” argument? In order to be similar to the Pledge argument, it would have to be people who would believed that a blastulae had the same rights as a child, who would nonetheless rescue the child, and whose commitment to rescuing the child was so strong that this would compel that person to conclude that the blastulae were not persons. By analogy, the “Rescue” argument would be useful only against those who viewed a preference for the blastula over the child was unquestionably wrong.

In questioning the Rescue argument, one of the things that I question is whether the requisite audience – the audience that views abortion as wrong and that saving the blastulae over the child is an even more unquestionable wrong – actually exists.

We must keep in mind that in the original rescue argument we must use the assumption that the blastulae would otherwise be implanted. The five blastulae will in fact become children, and then adults with a life, if the did not perish in the fire. Without this assumption, the arguments are not parallel to that of abortion.

If we apply the Rescue argument to those who firmly hold that blastulae are ‘persons’, it becomes impotent. Such people would save the blastulae precisely because failing to do so would mean that the five lives – the five children and, later, adults who would otherwise have existed, would not be able to experience the lives they would have had.

If we apply the Rescue argument to those who already hold that the blastulae are not ‘persons’, it is redundant and unnecessary. They would rescue the child precisely because they already see the blastulae as mere things not worth saving.

Thus, the ‘rescue’ argument is question-begging; working only on those people who already accept the conclusion, and working on them precisely because they already accept the conclusion.


More importantly, saying that the Pledge argument depends on an intuition that “one white nation” is wrong – an intuition that has nothing else behind it – is a mistake.

Intuitionism, by its very nature, employs the implication, “I would do (praise doing) X under condition C; therefore, people ought to do X under condition C.” This simply is not a valid inference. It is a clear-cut violation of the ‘is/ought’ distinction (it ‘is’ the case that I would do/praise X; therefore, people ought to do/praise X). Because of this fatal flaw, I reject the idea of using intuition as a form of moral argument.

Argument from analogy is not the same as argument from intuition. Though I reject the idea of moral intuition, I accept the practice of analogy in those circumstances where analogy can be shown to be valid.

In the earlier posting that the anonymous commenter made reference two, I argued for two types of analogy.

Disproof by Counter-Example

One is the standard practice among logicians to use a counter-example to prove that a particular argument form is invalid.

By definition, a valid argument is one in which, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. For example:

(P1) All cats are mammals

(P2) Tsunami is a cat

(C1) Therefore, Tsunami is a mammal

In this argument if premises 1 and 2 are true, then denying the conclusion would lead to a contradiction.

On the other hand, if we had the following argument

(P1’) All cats are mammals

(P2’) Tsunami is a mammal

(C1’) Therefore, Tsunami is a cat

We have an argument where the truth of the conclusion does not follow from the premises. If Tsunami were a dog, for example, both premises would be true, but the conclusion would be false.

This “tsunami = dog” analogy serves as a disproof by counter-example to the second argument. It shows that somebody can accept both of the premises as true, and still reject the conclusion, without forming creating a contradiction.

This is a legitimate use of analogy in an argument. However, it does not rely on intuition. We are not asking anybody to rely on an intuition in seeing that the form of the second argument is invalid. It is a matter of objective fact independent of intuition that there are cases in which the two premises can be true and the conclusion can be false.

This is the type of argument from analogy that I used against the rescue argument.

The rescue argument takes the following form:

(P1) A situation exists in which you can rescue R1 or R2

(P2) You would rescue R1

(C1) Therefore, it would be wrong to rescue R2

Using an analogy – a counter-example in which the person doing the rescuing is a Nazi, R1 is an Arian, and R2 a bunch of Jews, we come up with a situation where one can reasonably accept the premises and still reject the conclusion. By means of this counter-example, we have come up with a disproof of the claim that the Rescue argument is valid.

Desires as Persistent and General Entities

The other form of analogy that I defend relies on the fact that desires are persistent and general entities. What this means is that the desires that will cause a person to do action A under conditions C, will also cause the agent to do a relevantly similar action A’ under relevantly similar conditions C’.

As a result, if we are going to say that it is a ‘good idea’ that an agent have those desires that will cause him to do A under conditions C, then we have to evaluate whether it is also a good idea for him to have desires that will cause him to do A’ under conditions C’. We also have to ask how likely it is that an agent will find himself in conditions C or C’.

This is where action-based moral theories fail. Act-utilitarianism, for example, looks for the best act A under conditions C. It says, “Do that act that has the best consequences.” However, it ignores the question, “What if doing the best act A under conditions C requires desires and aversions that will then cause the agent to do acts without such good consequences under circumstances that are far more common?”

For example, we get counter-utilitarian stories that involve framing an innocent prisoner in order to prevent a riot in which many more people will be killed, or a doctor killing one healthy patient to save five sick patients. These are circumstances C that will almost never happen. Yet, to do the act-utilitarian best act in these circumstances, the agent must have a much lower aversion to framing or killing innocent people. Indeed, we would have to argue that people generally should have a much lower aversion to framing and killing innocent people.

There are countless situations (C’) in which this aversion to killing and framing innocent people prevent worse outcomes. Act-utilitarianism ignores the fact that we need people to have strong aversions to framing and killing innocent people to avoid the suffering and death that would result under all of those more common C’ type conditions.

This is another use for moral arguments from analogy. It is used to examine how those desires that would cause an agent to do act A under conditions C will act under analogous (and far more common) conditions C’. This is essential when it comes to determining whether promoting the desires that would cause the agent to do act A under conditions C is such a good idea.

The Pledge argument uses the relevant conditions C (one nation under God) and C’ (one what nation). It argues that the aversions to a pledge to “one white nation”, as general and persistent entities, apply as well to a pledge to “one nation under God.”


So, we have three forms of argument.

Argument from moral intuition. I reject this form of argument because it takes the form, “In situation C I would do A; therefore, in situation C I should do A.” There is nothing sitting behind this so-called moral intuition but the assessor’s preference for one option over the other. Yet, one cannot make a valid inference from an individual preference to what should or should not be done.

Disproof by counter-example. This is one of the most widely used arguments in logic to disprove the validity of an argument form. It is a perfectly legitimate argument, and I use it all the time. Indeed, this is just the type of analogy that I used to show the invalidity of argument from moral intuition

Argument from the persistence and generality of desire This is an argument concerning the consequences of having a particular desire or aversion which is entirely relevant to the question of whether we should use praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote or discourage a particular desire or aversion.

Of these, I condemn the “Rescue” argument as being an argument of the first type. Yet, this still leaves available arguments of the second and third type.

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