A Philosopher's Blog

Moral Reasoning: Logical Consistency

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2007

This method is primarily an “attack” method in that it is typically used when arguing against a view or position. It is generally not used when defending a position-except in terms of defending a position by criticizing another view.  

Concepts & Method  

This method is based on a basic concept in logic, that of logical consistency. Two claims are consistent when both can be true at the same time. For example, the claim “lying is sometimes acceptable” is consistent with the claim “lying is sometimes unacceptable.” This is because both of these claims could be correct.  Two claims are inconsistent when both cannot be true at the same time (but both could be false). For example, the claim “national health care would do more good than harm for America” is inconsistent with the claim “national health care would do more harm than good for America.” This is because while these claims cannot both be true at the same time, they could both be false. National health care might, for example, be neutral in terms of overall benefits and harms.Because of the nature of inconsistent claims, if someone makes inconsistent claims, then at least one of their claims must be false. Similarly, if a person accepts principles that are inconsistent or entail inconsistent claims, then at least one of the principles must be flawed. This assumes, of course, that principles have truth values. Not surprisingly, theories must also be internally inconsistent-a theory that has inconsistencies must contain at least one false claim.The fact that two (or more) claims are inconsistent does not show which of them is false-the inconsistency just shows that they all cannot be true at the same time. Sorting out the true from the false is another matter entirely.Given that logically inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, it is irrational to accept such claims when their inconsistency is known. This fact provides this method with its ‘teeth.’

The method is as follows: 

Step 1:  Show that two claims made by a person or principles held by a person are inconsistent.  

Step 2: Conclude that both cannot be true/correct. 

For example, suppose that during the course of a conversation Ann seems to accept the principle that people should be treated equally but she also asserts that certain people should receive special treatment. On the face of it, there seems to be an inconsistency here: If people should be treated equally, then certain people should not receive special treatment. But, if some people should receive special treatment, then all people should not be treated equally. Therefore, one of the principles must be incorrect.Of course, the fact that there is an inconsistency does not show which claim or principle is mistaken-it just shows that at least one must be incorrect. Unless, of course, there is a reasonable way to respond to the charge of inconsistency.  

Responding to a Charge of Inconsistency   As with most attacks and criticisms, there are ways to respond to a charge of inconsistency. One way is to abandon one of the inconsistent claims or principles. Obviously, the least plausible claim or principle should be the one rejected. For example, Ann might decide to abandon the principle that some people should receive special treatment and stick with the principle that people should be treated equally. Naturally, this is not really much of a defense. However, if there are excellent reasons to reject one (or more) of the principles or claims, then this can be the logical thing to do.In some cases it is possible to respond to the charge of inconsistency by dissolving the inconsistency. This can be done by showing that the inconsistency is merely apparent. This is achieved by arguing that the claims/principles are actually consistent. For example, Ann might present the following reply: Treating people equally requires providing special treatment to certain groups or people. For example, allowing equal access to public facilities requires provided some people with special treatment in the form of ramps and special parking. Thus, the inconsistency has been dissolved. 

Relativism, Subjectivism and Nihilism   For two claims to be logical consistency they must be such that they can actually be true or false (but not both at the same time). If the claims are such that they are relative, subjective or without any truth value, then the situation becomes rather problematic. Ethical relativism is the view that the truth of a moral statement depends on the culture. Obviously, cultures with different moralities will present claims that are inconsistent with each other. Assuming this theory is correct, the truth of such ethical claims depends on the culture, so that a claim can be true in one culture and false in another.  Hence this sort inconsistency is not a problem (assuming that ethical relativism is correct). Even on the assumption that ethical relativism is true it is still possible to apply a charge of inconsistency-but only within that culture. For example, in the 1800s American social morality (as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and countless speeches) held that all men are equal. Yet, slavery was also accepted by the culture, thus making it at least morally tolerable. Obviously the acceptance of slavery and the professed value of equality are inconsistent with each other. Hence, one of those views must be mistaken-within the context of American culture. Of course, a culture could accept as a moral principle that moral inconsistency is morally acceptable. In that case, the charge of inconsistency would bear no weight (assuming that relativism is correct). Ethical subjectivism is the view that the truth of a moral statement depends on the individual. Individuals with different moralities will obviously present claims that seem to be inconsistent with each other. For example, one person might claim that abortion is morally acceptable while another person endorses it. If ethical subjectivism is true, the truth of each moral claim depends on the individual, so a claim can be true for one person and false for another. In this case, inconsistency is not a problem because it simply cannot occur between individuals. Everyone is correct because morality is subjective.    However, even if subjectivism is true, a person can be charged with inconsistency in their principles and claims. However, a person could hold that moral inconsistency is perfectly acceptable and if subjectivism is true they would be right. Moral Nihilism is the view that moral claims have no truth value-they are neither true nor false. If moral claims are neither true nor false, then there is no possibility of logical inconsistency between moral claims .Hence, if moral nihilism is correct, then inconsistency in regard to moral claims and principles is impossible.

Moral Reasoning: Appeal to Consequences

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2007

Appeal to consequences is a very popular method of moral reasoning. The basic idea is that moral assessment is done in terms of weighing harms and benefits. It is generally accepted that harming people and things is morally bad and benefiting them is good. Not surprisingly, if something is more beneficial than harmful it is good; if something is more harmful than beneficial it is bad.

 Basis & Method

The theory behind this method is consequentialism-the view that the value of actions is to be assessed in terms of their consequences. There are many types of consequentialist theories and not all of them are moral theories. Because of this it is important to present an appeal to consequences as a moral argument and not just a cost-benefit analysis. Though this method is generally accepted, there is philosophical debate over the underlying theories.

The method involves the following steps:

      Step 1: Show that action, policy, etc. X creates Y harms and Z benefits.

      Step 2: Weigh and assess Y and Z.

      Step 3: Argue that moral assessment is based on the consequences of actions.

      Step 4A: If Y outweighs Z, then conclude that X is morally unacceptable.

      Step 4B: If Z outweighs Y, then conclude that X is morally acceptable.

Step 3 is a critical step. Without an argument that moral assessment should be based on consequences, there would be no reason for the reader to accept a moral conclusion based simply on an assessments and benefits. People often leave out this step when attempting to present a moral argument. Instead, they often end up providing practical advice instead of presenting a moral argument. This is discussed in greater detail, below.


   As an example, this method could be used to provide a moral argument in favor of censorship of violent movies. The first step would be presenting the harms and benefits of these movies. This could be done by using an argument from authority to present data from various studies that contend that exposure to such violent movies causes people to become violent (such as shooting people in schools). This would be a harmful consequence of such movies. The beneficial consequences would be the entertainment provided to the audience as well as the profits to the media industry. The second step would be to weigh these harms and benefits. One could argued that while there are some benefits from violent media, such as large profits, one cannot weigh money more than human suffering and death. The third step would be to argue that moral assessment should be based on assessing consequences. This could be done by using an argument from authority (appealing to, for example, the authority of philosophers such as John Stuart Mill) or by another sort of argument. The final step would be to draw the appropriate conclusion. In this case the argument would lead to the conclusion that such censorship is morally acceptable and hence violence in the media should be eliminated or at least curtailed.

 Moral versus Practical

   A common mistake when using this method is to simply weigh harms and benefits without including a moral element. This approach can be used to provide a practical argument for or against something but obviously does not provide a moral argument.  For example, when some argues against cheating in a relationship s/he might present practical reasons as to why someone should not cheat. In doing so they might begin by presenting potential harms such as disease, pregnancy, divorce, damage to one’s reputation and physical injury. The potential benefits would include such factors as pleasure and companionship. If the person concludes that a person should not cheat because of these practical concerns (like avoiding disease and harm) then s/he would be presenting a practical argument and not a moral argument: if you do not want to be harmed, then do not cheat. While this is good practical advice, it does not show that cheating is immoral or morally acceptable.

In order to properly use the method to make a moral argument, the moral element needs to be included. The object of this argument is to show that the morality of something (such as an action) can be determined by assessing its harms and benefits. One way to do this is to use an argument from authority. For example, you might use John Stuart Mill as an authority and cite his view of ethics (specifically utilitarianism). This would make the connection between consequences and morality. While this is a legitimate argument, it is rather weak because there other equally authoritative philosophers who argue against consequentialism.  A second approach is to use the method of applying moral theories and state that you are arguing within the context of a consequentialist ethical theory (such as Mill’s). While this is a legitimate approach it does have the weakness of simply assuming the correctness of the theory-thus making the argument conditional upon how appealing the theory is to the reader. A third approach is to develop an argument from intuition to argue that creating positive value is good and creating negative value is wrong. It could then be argued that more positive value is better than more negative value (this could be done by using an analogy, perhaps to something like profit and loss). The appropriate conclusion could then be drawn based on the assessment of the relative weight of harms and benefits. There are also other ways to bring in the moral element.



   Since this method is commonly used, you might have to argue against someone employing it. One way to respond to this method is to accept the method but offer an alternative assessment. This can be done by presenting an alternative set of harms of benefits or by arguing for a different assessment of their relative weight.

For example, a person might present the following counter to the example given above.

While violent media might produce such harms, it also produces benefits. Violent films, shows and video games are very popular, generating large profits. People also enjoy violent media. If we weigh the small number of deaths and injuries against the massive profits and enjoyment, it is clear that the benefits of violent media outweigh the harms. Therefore, violent media is morally acceptable. Naturally, a proper argument would need to be developed more, but the example provides the generally idea of how this sort of thing can be done.

A second way to respond is to reject the method and argue using another method (this would be to argue by counter method). It can be argued that some factor other than consequences should be used when assessing the situation. This can be done by using another method, such as appealing to rights or rules, to counter the original argument. To continue with the example of censorship of violent movies, the following illustrates this approach. While violence in the media might lead to harms, people have a moral right to free expression. This moral right overrides the consideration of harms. Therefore, violence in the media should not be censored. Naturally, this sort of argument would need to be fully developed. In this example, the right to free expression would need to be supported by an argument.

Running Deaths

Posted in Running by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2007

This weekend was a rather unfortunate one for runners. One runner died during the Chicago Marathon and another died during the Army 10 Mile race. The unusually hot conditions at both races were no doubt a causal factor in both these deaths.

Non-runners no doubt wonder how someone could literally run themselves to death. Most runners probably understand how this can occur, especially in a race. Racing, as any serious runner will tell you, hurts. When you race you are pushing your body and experiencing physical stress and pain. To continue to race, you have to endure this suffering and keep putting out a strong effort. This involves controlling the desire to stop and managing the pain. Unfortunately, the will of a runner can often exceed the limits of the body and injury and even death can result as s/he pushes beyond safe limits. It is, in an odd way, a testament to the power of the human will that people can push themselves to such extremes.

It is a sad thing that these two runners died. I did not know them, but running creates a bond between runners. We are, as the commercials said, different.

Voting Security

Posted in Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2007

Vote tampering has a long history. Such tampering can be done by influencing the voter in improper ways or by altering the actual votes. Naturally, honest people have been trying to defend against such tampering for as long as other have been trying to tamper.

It was hoped that electronic voting would help prevent tampering while also making the election process more efficient. However, as PC Magazine revealed in the October 2, 2007 issue (page 17) voting machines are not doing terribly well. Computer scientists at the University of California were able to hack electronic voting machines from Diebold, Election Systems and Hart InterCivic. In reply these companies complained that the scientists were given unrestricted access to the machines and in a context that did not replicate the conditions under which voting takes place. However, given the general success of hackers in breaking secure systems in “the wild” it seems likely that real hackers could find and exploit the security weaknesses the researchers located.

One obvious concern is that 100% security is not possible-if a system can be accessed it can be accessed in ways that allow misdeeds to be performed. Also, even if the hardware and software were amazingly secure, there is always the human element to contend with. The best hardware and software mean nothing if, for example, a corrupt official has suitable access to the system and can change the true results.

What we can reasonably expect is that the voting machines are adequately secure. Just what that means depends on what sort of attacks can be reasonably expected and how much accuracy is desired. Since 100% security is impossible, a realistic level needs to be determined. This obviously can be done. After all, ATM machines work with an adequate degree of security and a system that is modeled on them could be made to work as well for voting.

Some people have suggested that we should stick with paper ballots in order to avoid hacking problems. While paper ballots obviously cannot be hacked, they can easily be compromised. A fake ballot looks just like a real ballot and the only things that protect paper ballots are tamper-evident seals and the integrity of those monitoring the ballots. Obviously, there are multitudes of ways paper ballots can be tampered with.

While electronic voting machines are currently somewhat problematic, they do seem to offer the best chance of providing a secure and efficient method of voting. The efficiency part is easy-the secure part will be somewhat challenging, but similar secure systems do exist.

Now if we could only find candidates worth voting for.