A Philosopher's Blog

Begs the Question

Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 26, 2009

Being a philosophy professor, I find it vaguely annoying when people write or say things like “Referendum begs the question of our future in EU” or “Rolex ad on Newsweek site begs the question how big is too big.”

When people use “begs the question” in this manner, they actually mean “asks the question” or “raises the question.”However, the term “beg the question” already has an established usage as the name of a logical fallacy.

To beg the question is a logical fallacy that involves assuming what is to be proven. For example, if someone says “cheating on a test is wrong because it is wrongfully taking a test”, then he is begging the question. In effect, the person is saying “the reason cheating on a test is wrong is because it is wrong.”

One might wonder why this should be regarded as a problem. After all, it might be argued, people ought to be able to use words anyway they wish. If people use “beg the question” to mean “raises the question” then so be it.

While it is true that the meaning of terms is largely a matter of convention, it seems to make little sense to use “begs the question” to mean “asks the question.” After all, there are already perfectly good phrases to say “asks the question”, “raises the question” and so on. There thus seems to be little need to steal “begs the question.”

Another problem is that the increasingly popular usage of the phrase creates some confusion. For example, when I teach about fallacies I have to explain that to beg the question is a fallacy and that when someone says “begs the question” they might mean “asks the question.” Obviously, this is not a big deal. But, teaching logic is challenging enough without having to sort out such confusions.

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Posted in Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 29, 2009

As a philosophy professor, I have waged a never-ending and largely pointless battle against people using “fallacy” when they mean “factual error.” For example, someone might say “people often think that dogs won’t eat anything that is bad for them, but that is a fallacy.” This is, of course, a mistake. A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that occurs when the premises presented in an argument fail to adequately support the conclusion.

So, to think that a dog won’t eat anything that is bad for them is not a fallacy. Rather it is just a factual error. After all, dogs will consume anti-freeze and that will kill them.

Naturally enough, people might argue that words should mean whatever people say they mean. So, of folks use “fallacy” in place of “factual error”, then that is just they way things are.

While that has some appeal, since language is mostly a matter of convention, this sort of use is problematic. After all, there is an important distinction between an error in logic and a factual error. It certainly seems important to distinguish between those two mistakes. To see why, think about balancing your checkbook. You can make a mistake by doing the math incorrectly (adding $500 + $50.50 and getting $555) and you can make a mistake by entering the wrong amount (for example, $50 instead of $500) for a check. These errors are different and calling them the same would be a mistake and would also cause confusion.

Now, if people insist that “fallacy” should mean the same as “factual error”, then a new word would be needed to name what we used to call “fallacies.” However, since we already have a perfectly good word for fallacies, namely “fallacies”, then it makes sense to simply stick with the current usage.

A minor problem with using “fallacy” for “factual error” is that it makes teaching logic a bit more challenging. To be specific, it is quite challenging to make the distinction between assessing the quality of reasoning and assessing the quality of a claim without adding to the confusion by using two terms for the same thing.

As such, it would be nice if people would stop using “fallacy” in place of “factual error.” One refers to a mistake in reasoning and the other refers to being wrong about a fact and these are not the same things.

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Fox News & Consistency

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 23, 2009

During the Clinton administration, the folks at Fox News were generally rather critical of executive privilege. During George W. Bush’s years in office, the folks at Fox were staunch supporters of executive privilege. This serious inconsistency was mocked on the Daily Show. Now that Obama is in office, it seems likely that the folks at Fox will be returning to their Clinton era view of executive privilege. No doubt, this sort of inconsistency will extend beyond their comments on executive privilege.

Of course, this sort of behavior is hardly surprising. When it comes to matters of politics, ethics and so forth, people tend to subscribe to two basic principles: “what I like is good” and “what I dislike is bad”. Naturally, most people (including those at Fox) do not state these principles openly. Rather, they conceal them behind the facade of “fake” principles. For example, the fine folks at Fox are not going to say “we don’t like what Obama is doing, so he is wrong.” Rather, they will say something such as “Obama is making an illegitimate use of executive privilege.” Rather than engage in what seems to be deceit (and perhaps self-deceit) the folks at Fox should just be honest and express their political leanings without any such facade. Such deceit would seem unethical and, if they sincerely believe they are “fair and balanced”, they need to come to grips with what seems to be rationalizations on their part. This would certainly help them be better critical thinkers.

Lest I myself seem guilty of being inconsistent, it must be noted that people with liberal leanings do the same sort of thing. For example, someone might have been very critical of Bush’s methods but quite willing to excuse Obama if he to employ those same methods. Being inconsistent is, obviously enough, truly bipartisan.

Naturally, people might claim that there are relevant differences between Bush and Obama and that these would justify a diffence in assessing them. This is quite reasonable-provided that a relevant difference is presented. If someone praises Obama and criticizes Bush for the same sort of actions simply because of her likes and dislikes, then she is not using a relevant difference to justify her assessment. If, in contrast, she showed that Bush’s actions had terrible consequences and Obama’s actions help America, then that would be a relevant difference.

It will be interesting to watch Fox News over the next four years.

Partial Truths

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2008

In my Critical Inquiry class I teach a section on applying critical thinking skills to the news. One of the things I warm my students about is being aware of partial truths. That is, when a story presents only some of the facts while leaving out others that might be quite relevant to interpreting and understanding the events in question.

An excellent recent example of this is the coverage of Reverend Wright. The news coverage of his infamous 9/11 sermon did present what he in fact said. However, the whole story was not told. As CNN Roland Martin  has pointed out, his remarks were taken out of context. For example, it has been claimed that Wright said that 9/11 was a case of America’s chickens coming home to roost. It is true that he did say this. But this in only a partial truth. The full text of what he said is this:

“I heard Ambassador Peck on an interview yesterday did anybody else see or hear him? He was on FOX News, this is a white man, and he was upsetting the FOX News commentators to no end, he pointed out, a white man, an ambassador, he pointed out that what Malcolm X said when he was silenced by Elijah Mohammad was in fact true, he said Americas chickens, are coming home to roost.”

While Wright goes on to express agreement with this view, his main point seems to have been that Americans need to reflect on our actions and to consider their implications. He also calls on America to take action against problems at home and in the world rather than engaging in military actions abroad.

It cannot be denied that Wright has said things that seem to be wrong and hateful. But, it is important that the full truth of the matter be exposed as much as possible.

Why, then, is it so common for people to present only partial truths in the news? There are numerous possibilities, two of which are as follows.

One obvious factor is that fully investigating the facts takes more time, effort and resources than the much easier way of simply going with a partial truth. This is why it is important for those who bring the world the news to put in the required effort to ensure that the coverage is as complete as can reasonably be expected.

Another obvious reason is that partial truths can be much more inflammatory and hence more exciting to people. The main business of the news is still business-to make money.   As such, they need to appeal to the largest possible audience. Partial truths are one way to create a more dramatic story and hence increase the size of the audience. By presenting, for example, only some of the facts about what Wright said, a more inflammatory story can be created. Saying that Wright was quoting someone on Fox news is not as exciting as reporting that he said that America’s chickens had come home to roost. This is a tougher problem to deal with because the media depends on appealing to the audience and what people seem to want is the drama. As such, the solution to this problem also lies with us: since the people in the media aim to give us what we want, we should try to want the truth rather than mere spectacle.

Because of these two factors, it is always important to observe the news with a critical eye (or ear). To be specific, if it matters to you, then you should ask whether important facts have been left out or not. If the matter is inflammatory, it is also wise to pause and consider that not all the facts are in and that some additional information might change the story in significant ways. This can be rather challenging because of our emotions, our natural love of spectacle and the difficultly of being a critical thinker. It is also challenging because most of us have to rely on the news media for our information. As such, knowing how much of the story has been revealed can be a rather difficult matter.

Fortunately, it is worth the effort. We would be better off if we were better informed and if the media was more inclined to truth over spectacle. Again, much of the blame  must fall on us-as with our government, we mostly get what we want and deserve.

Is Obama’s Secret of Success Being a Black Male?

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on March 12, 2008

Geraldine Ferraro was previously best known as the first female VP candidate. Now she is gaining international notoriety for her comments about Barrack Obama.

Her comments were as follows:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position and if he was a woman of any color he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

From a practical standpoint, this was not exactly the most prudent thing she could have said. Given her involvement in the Clinton campaign and her status in the Democratic party, such a remark does not help the Democrats.

But, what is not imprudent need not also be untrue. Before deciding whether the claim is true or not, what she said has to be sorted out somewhat.

In terms of the logic, she is making the following claims:

1. If Obama was a white man, then he would not be in the position he occupies.

2. If Obama were a woman (any color), then he would not be in the position he occupies.

What she is obviously claiming is that Obama occupies the position he does because he is both black and male. So, if he lacked those traits but was (presumably) otherwise the same (however that would work) then he would not be where he is now.

Testing this claim would be rather challenging because it involves speculation on what might be-always a matter fraught with peril. But, a reasonable assessment can be made in certain particular areas, such as voting behavior.

Suppose that Barrack was white. Would people still vote for him in the same numbers? Some pundits have suggested that people are voting for him simply because he is black. Obviously, being black is not sufficient to get such votes. If that were true, then any black person would have the same number of votes as Obama. This is clearly not the case. Just imagine, for example, if  OJ Simpson declared his bid for the nomination. Other, more careful thinkers, have claimed that his being black, combined with his other qualities, is what has enabled his success.

I know that some people support him in part because he is black. This is because these people have made this claim and I infer they are not lying about this. Of course, I also know that some people are supporting Hillary because she is a woman and also because she is Bill’s wife. In the case of McCain, I know that some people support him because he is neither black nor a woman (nor Bill Clinton’s wife). But, few people are claiming that Hillary is only where she is because she is a woman and even fewer people claim McCain is where he is solely on being a white male (although some will consider this a relevant factor).

The important question is whether Obama being black is the primary causal factor in his being where he is now. In short, once all the other factors (personality, intelligence, drive, charisma, competence, ideas, etc.) are accounted for, will one primary factor remain-namely his being a black man (or perhaps that should be seen as two factors)?
On one hand, there is reason to think this. Obama is young (he’s about my age, so he is obviously a  young guy), has limited experience in politics, and has only occupied one major office (senator). In comparison with most other serious candidates it can be argued that he falls short in the traditional standards.  The three traditional standards he does meet are that he is male, tall, and has money. Hence, it might be concluded, his being a black is the primary causal factor.  It could be further added that his being male is also a major factor since that is one of the traditional standards.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that Obama’s success is not primarily dependent on his color and gender. He is clearly intelligent, motivated, charismatic, persuasive, likable, principled and offers a new perspective in politics (one that is not still caught in the mentality of the 1960s). These factors are not dependent on race and gender. If these factors are the secret of his success, than Ferraro’s claim is mistaken.

Naturally enough, it might be wondered why she made such a claim. One possibility is that she is trying to help Hillary by attacking Obama. Another possibility is that she honestly thinks that he is not qualified for the job and  hence is trying to protect America. Some have suggested that she is racist, but that seems unlikely given her background.

Definition of Argument

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 14, 2008

I’ve noticed that my entry on Argument by Definition gets numerous hits-mostly likely because people are searching for a definition of “argument.”As such, I’ve added this entry. I also created another site with resources for reasoning.

While people generally think of an argument as a fight, perhaps involving the hurling of small appliances, this is not the case-at least as the term is used in philosophy. In philosophy, an argument is a set of claims, one of which is supposed to be supported by the others. There are two types of claims in an argument. The first type of claim is the conclusion. This is the claim that is supposed to be supported by the premises. A single argument has one and only one conclusion, although the conclusion of one argument can be used as a premise in another argument (thus forming an extended argument). To find the conclusion of an argument, ask yourself “what is the point being made here?” If there is no point, then there is no conclusion and hence no argument.

The second type of claim is the premise. A premise is a claim given as evidence or a reason for accepting the conclusion. Aside from practical concerns, there is no limit to the number of premises in a single argument. To find the premise or premises of an argument, ask “what evidence is given for the point?” If there is no evidence, there are no premises and hence there is no argument.

Arguments can have unstated premises and even an unstated conclusion. However, to actually be an argument requires that enough is provided so that a person can recognize the argument as being an argument. For example, someone might say the following: “A conviction requires that we are confident beyond a reasonable doubt about her guilt. But, our discussion shows that were are not very confident about her being guilty. So, it is obvious what we should do.” The person is most likely concluding that the jury should not convict her and that would be the unstated conclusion.


There are two main categories of arguments, three if bad arguments are considered a category. The first type is the inductive arguments. An inductive argument is an argument in which the premises are intended to provide some degree of support but less than complete support for the conclusion.

The second type is the deductive argument. A deductive argument is an argument in which the premises are intended to provide complete support for the conclusion. The third “type” of argument is the fallacy . A fallacy is an argument in which the premises fail to provide adequate support for the conclusion.


Inductive Argument

Premise 1: When exposed to the nerve argent known as “Rage”, the chimpanzees showed a massive increase in aggression.
Premise 2: Humans are very similar to chimpanzees.
Conclusion: If exposed to “Rage”, humans would show a massive increase in aggression.

Deductive Argument

Premise 1: If pornography has a detrimental effect on one’s character, it would be best to avoid it.
Premise 2: Pornography has a detrimental effect on one’s character.
Conclusion: It would be best to avoid pornography.

Example of a Fallacy

Premise 1: Dave supports the tax reduction for businesses and says it will be good for everyone, but he owns a business.
Conclusion: Dave must be wrong about the tax reduction.

General Assessment

When assessing any argument there are two main factors to consider: the quality of the premises and the quality of the reasoning.

While people often blend the two together, the quality of the reasoning is quite distinct from the quality of the premises. Just as it is possible to build poorly using excellent materials, it is possible to reason badly using good premises. Also, just as it is possible for a skilled builder to assemble crappy material with great skill, it is possible to reason well using poor premises. As another analogy, consider a check book. Doing the math is the same thing as reasoning. The math can be done correctly (good reasoning) but the information entered for the checks (the premises) can be mistaken (for example, entering $5.00 instead of $50). It is also possible to enter all the check correctly, but for there to be errors in the mathematics.


When assessing the quality of reasoning, the question to ask is: Do the premises logically support the conclusion? If the premises do not logically support the conclusion, then the argument is flawed and the conclusion should not be accepted based on the premises provided. The conclusion may, in fact, be true, but a flawed argument gives you no logical reason to believe the conclusion because of the argument in question. Hence, it would be a mistake to accept it for those reasons. If the premises do logically support the conclusion, then you would have a good reason to accept the conclusion, on the assumption that the premises are true or at least plausible.

The way the reasoning is assessed depends on whether the argument is deductive or inductive. If the argument is deductive, it is assessed in terms of being valid or invalid. A valid argument is such that if the premises were true then the conclusion must be true. An invalid argument is such that all the premises could be true and the conclusion false at the same time. Validity is tested by formal means, such as truth tables, Venn diagrams and proofs.

If the argument is inductive, it is assessed in terms of being strong or weak. A strong argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is likely to be true. A weak argument is such that if the premises were true, then the conclusion is not likely to be true. Inductive arguments are assessed primarily in terms of standards specific to the argument in question.


When assessing the quality of the premises, the question to ask is: are the premises true (or at least plausible)? While the testing of premises can be a rather extensive matter, it is reasonable to accept a premise as plausible if it meets three conditions. First, the premise is consistent with your own observations. Second, the premise is consistent with your background beliefs and experience. Third, the premise is consistent with credible sources, such as experts, standard references and text books. It should be noted that thoroughly and rigorously examining premises can involve going far beyond the three basic standards presented here.


Mixing Norms

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2008

People commonly make inferences from one normative area to another. Normative areas are, roughly put, areas involving matters of value. Law, religion, aesthetics, morality, and etiquette are normative areas.

People often believe that the status of X in one normative area automatically gives it the same status is another normative area. For example, it is often assumed there is a moral right to be free of censorship because of the 1st Amendment, which guarantees a legal right to the freedom of press. Such inferences can be made, but must be made carefully.

 Flawed Method
The following is the method that you should avoid because it is flawed. 

Flawed Step 1: X has status S in normative area Y.                          

   Flawed Step 2: Therefore X should have the comparable status to S in normative area Z.

This method is flawed, even fallacious, because the conclusion does not follow unless a proper link is made between Y and Z. Here are some examples of flawed inferences:

·  Lying to a friend is immoral, so it should be illegal.
·  Capital punishment is legal, so it is morally acceptable.
·  Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that children who do not obey their parents are to be stoned to death, so it is morally acceptable.
·  Depicting graphic violence and sexuality is morally wrong, therefore such works are also aesthetically unacceptable as well. 

Acceptable Method   The following is an acceptable version of the method. It is acceptable because it is not logically flawed. 

      Step 1: X has status S in normative area Y.

      Step 2: Premise or Argument connecting area Y and normative area Z.

      Step 3: Therefore X should have the comparable status to S in normative area Z.

Provided that the connection between Y and Z is adequately made, the reasoning is acceptable. This is because the chain of reasoning is complete, unlike in the flawed method. The first premise will most likely require support of its own.

As an example, this method could be used to argue for the claim that making backup copies of media should be legal. The first step would be to argue that making backups of DVDs, software and CDs is morally acceptable. The second step would be to argue that things that are morally acceptable should be legal. The conclusion drawn would be that making backups of DVDs, software and CDs should be legal.

 Making the Connection

Making the connection between two normative areas can be difficult. Fortunately there are ways to do this. The overall task is to show that the status of X in normative area Z should be inferred from its status in normative area Y.

One way to make the connection is to make use of an existing theory. There are theories that explicitly or implicitly connect two normative areas. For example, divine command theory is the view that morality is determined by religion, so the inference from religious norms to moral norms is justified. As another example, Legalism is the view that morality is determined by the laws of the state, so the inference from legal norms (the laws) to moral norms is justified. To use an existing theory, simply use either an argument from authority or an appeal to a moral theory.

Another way to do this is to state that the argument is being made in the context of the theory. The obvious weakness of this approach is that only those who accept the theory will accept the inference. As an example, a person might claim that given divine command theory, since the bible permits torture (2 Samuel 12:26-31) it follows that torture is morally acceptable. As another example, a person might argue that given legalism, since the use of marijuana is illegal, it must also be evil.

Another approach is to argue for the theory, which will typically require a great deal of work. However, it is possible to present a sufficiently concise argument in favor of the relevant parts of the theory needed to make the connection. However, if there is an easier or more direct way to argue for the conclusion, this method can be overkill.

Another way to make the connection is by arguing explicitly for a connection between the two that justifies the inference. The task is to show that the status of X in normative area Z should be inferred from its status in normative area Y. The effectiveness of the method depends on the quality of the argument for the connection. For example, a person might present the following argument: The state exists to protect people from harm. Thus, the laws of the state are designed to protect people from harm by making harmful things illegal. Things that are immoral are harmful-at the very least they damage the person’s moral character. Thus, things that are immoral should also be made illegal by the state.

As a final point, given that this method can involve a great deal of work, if there is an easier or more direct way to argue for the conclusion, this method can be overkill.


The great variation in laws limits inferences from law to other normative areas and can lead to problems such as contradictions. For example, prostitution is legal in Nevada but not in Maine, so inferring from law to morality would entail that prostitution is both moral and immoral.

There are many different views of the foundation and purpose of law, so inferences to or from law can be problematic.  For example, the US has legal separation of Church and State, so inferring from religion to law would be problematic.


Inferences to or from a religion will generally only be accepted by those of the same faith.

 For example, pork is forbidden to Jews, but Christians are unlikely to accept that that pork should be outlawed.

There is a great variety even within one religion and this makes inferences from religion problematic. For example, the Koran calls for Jihad, but some interpret it in ways that justify terrorism and others do not.

Bringing in an entire religion and accompanying metaphysics to solve a problem is often overkill. Also, the religion and its assumptions are often far more controversial than the point being argued for.


Aesthetics is often regarded as being trumped by law, morality and religion. This often makes inferences from aesthetics to other areas too difficult. This often makes inferences from other areas to aesthetics too easy. The areas where aesthetics and other areas overlap are typically regarded as belonging to those other areas. For example, censorship is often regarded as primarily a legal or moral issue rather than an aesthetic issue.

There is a great deal of disagreement in aesthetics, which makes inferences from aesthetics problematic.

The concerns of aesthetics are seen as removed from those of other areas, thus making inferences from aesthetics more difficult. For example, what implications does a theory of beauty have for law, religion or morality? Aesthetics is often regarded as being a realm of pure opinion thus making inferences from aesthetics more difficult.


There is a great deal of disagreement about morality, which can make inferences to or from morality problematic. There are moral theories based on other normative areas, which can make inferences too easy or too difficult. For example, Divine command theory makes inferences from religion to morality automatic, but precludes inferences from morality to religion. As another example, legalism makes inferences from law to morality automatic, but precludes inferences from morality to law. This is dispute over the foundation and purpose of morality which can make such inferences problematic. For example, relativism is the view that morality is grounded in the culture, so making an inference from morality to international law would be problematic.


   One way to reply to this method to challenge the normative status of X, as presented in the first step. Challenging this status involves arguing that X does not have the alleged status. If X does not have the required normative status, then the inference fails.  Alternatively, the inference can be made, but the normative status will be based on the “new” status.

For example, suppose someone argued that copying DVDs is immoral and hence should be illegal. The response would be to argue that copying DVDs is moral and thus concluding that hence it should be legal.

A second way to reply is to attack the link. The argument depends on the link between the two normative areas-if the link fails, the argument fails. The objective is to argue that the inference is not justified. In some cases there are established ways to break the link. For example, a way to counter an argument for basing a law on religion is to appeal to the separation of church and state.

The link can also be attacked by arguing that the norms of one area do not apply to the other or that one area overrides another, thus preventing the inference. For example, Oscar Wilde claimed that morality does not apply to art. As another example, morality is often seen as trumping law, so the inference from law to morality would not be justified.

Appeal to Rights

Posted in Ethics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2008

Many people, especially those in Western style democracies, believe in rights. It is often accepted that people have rights that protect them and even entitle them to certain things. It is generally accepted that such rights must be respected under most conditions.

This method is involves assessing the action, policy, etc. in terms of whether it is in accord with such rights. This method is based on rights theory-the view that people and perhaps other beings have moral rights. Thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau and Hobbes have put forth theories of rights.

While rights theories have a great deal of appeal, they are also subject to debate. There are numerous criticisms of particular rights as well as rights theory in general.

 While they often overlap, it is important not to confuse moral rights with legal rights. Law and morality are distinct areas, although arguments can be made that link moral rights and legal rights. In order to do this, the method of mixing norms can be employed.


There are two variations on this method. Each has three general steps.


      Step 1:  Argue for right Y.

      Step 2: Argue that. X violates (or does not violate) right Y.

      Step 3:  Conclude that X is not morally acceptable (or is acceptable).


      Step 1: Argue for right Y.

      Step 2:  Argue that. X is required by right Y.

      Step 3:  Conclude that X is morally obligatory.


This method generally requires providing the audience with a reason (argument) that supports the right. In some cases this might involve using another method or a moral theory. One way to argue for a right is to use an existing moral theory that argues for the right you need. For example, an argument involving a right to liberty could be based on John Locke’s theory. Another way to do this is to use a right that has been established in another area, such as law, and use mixing norms to argue that it should be a moral right as well. For example, you might argue from the legal right of the free press to a moral right against censorship.


Censorship has often been proposed to protect people from the alleged harms of violent and sexually explicit media. Censorship can be argued against by arguing that people have a right to freedom of expression. If this right can be established, it can be concluded that such censorship is not acceptable.


There are a variety of ways to respond to this method.  The first is by arguing against there being such a right or by arguing that the right is incorrectly applied. . If the right is successfully attacked, then the argument is undercut. The type of attack varies depending on the right and the circumstances. It might be argued that the right is not a legitimate right. For example, if someone makes an argument based on an alleged right granting total freedom of expression, then this could be countered by arguing that there is no such total right. It might also be argued that a more important right overrides the right. For example, someone might argue against abortion rights by arguing that the right to make choices is overridden by the right to life.

A second way to reply is to use an appeal to consequences. In this it would be argued that the consequences morally override the right. For example, consider the matter of censorship. While it is generally accepted that people have a right to free expression, it is also accepted that this right is not absolute-a person has no right to slander another. While censorship would run against the right of free expression, the harms produced by certain works justify censoring them, just as it would be justified to quiet a person yelling “fire” in a crowded, but fire-free theatre.

A third way of replying is to use the appeal to rules method. It can be argued that a moral rule overrides the right in question. For example, people are supposed to have a right to life and property, but they can be justly deprived of them by a rule of due punishment.

A fourth way is to use some other method of moral reasoning to counter the appeal to the right.

Appeal to Rules

Posted in Ethics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2008


People often take the view that one must sometimes ignore the consequences of an action and simply assess the morality of the action itself.  It is generally accepted that some things are simply wrong even if they bring about good consequences. It is also accepted that people should not do such things (as the saying goes: “that’s just not right”). It is generally accepted that some things are acceptable or right even if they have harmful consequences. It is also accepted that people should do such things.

This method is involves assessing the action, policy, etc. in terms of the nature of X itself as opposed to its effect(s). The theoretical basis is deontology, the view that morality is based on determining and following the correct moral rules. Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best known deontologists. Religious ethics tend to be deontological in nature. For example, the Ten Commandments provide a set of rules that are supposed to be followed without exception.

While deontological theories often have a great deal of appeal, they are also subject to debate and criticism. This is discussed in part two of the course.

While this method refers to rules it is important not to confuse moral rules with other rules, such as those of civil or criminal law. There are theories that do involve the claim that morality is determined by the law of the state. For example, legal positivism is the view that morality is set by the state. Thomas Hobbes is often considered a legal positivist. The aptly named Chinese Legalists also held this view. Their rule in China was influential, but short lived. It is, of course, possible to argue from the legal rules to moral rule-this is discussed in the method known as mixing norms.


There are two general versions of this method. Each version has two steps.


      Step 1:  Argue that X violates (or does not) violate moral rule Y.

      Step 2:  Conclude that X is morally unacceptable (or acceptable).


      Step 1:  Argue that X is required by moral rule Y.

      Step 2:  Conclude that X is morally obligatory.


The most difficult part of the method is the first step. The challenge is to argue in favor of a moral rule and show how X breaks or is required by the moral rule. One way to do this is to use an established moral theory or principle (rule). For example, you might make an argument against lying by using the commandment against false witness in the context of divine command theory. Or you might use the method of mixing norms.


As an example, consider the matter of incurable diseases. Putting people to death who are infected with incurable contagious diseases would protect everyone else. By arguing that morality should be based on rules and that killing of innocent people violates a moral rule it can be concluded that we should not kill infected people.


There are two main ways to counter this method. The first is that the rule used in the method can be attacked. If the rule is successfully attacked, then the argument is undercut. The type of attack varies depending on the rule and the circumstances.

It can be argued that the rule is illegitimate. For example, someone might attack an argument based on a religious rule by arguing that the rule is mistaken or no longer applies today.

It can also be argued that a more important rule overrides the rule. For example, it could be argued that a rule about lying might be breakable because the rule of saving life is more important.

The second main avenue of reply is to argue that some factor other than moral rules should be used when assessing the situation. This can be done by using another method, such as an appeal to consequences, to offer a counter argument. For example, someone might argue that while it is not a pleasant thing to contemplate or do, those with incurable contagious diseases should be mercifully put to sleep. This would effectively reduce the spread of contagious diseases protecting everyone else from them. And, of course, the good of the many must outweigh the needs of the few, especially when it comes to life and death.

The Unnatural Argument

Posted in Ethics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on January 5, 2008

People often claim that certain things are wrong or that certain actions should not be done because doing so would be “unnatural.” This argument is sometimes used in conjunction with the “playing God” argument, but it does not require a religious foundation.

Literal Version

Taken literally, the argument rests on three assumptions: there is a natural way things should be, we should act in accord with the natural way and unnatural things and actions are morally wrong. Defining what is natural and what is not is a critical part of this method. Fortunately, there are moral theories that are based on the concept of human nature or a natural way and they can be used by those employing this method.  Aristotle, for example, bases his morality on his view about human nature. Taoism, although claiming to eschew ethics, includes a conception of nature and endorses acting in accord with this nature.

One common version of this method is based on the assumption that if X is not done in nature or does not exist in nature, then X is wrong. Interestingly, this method is often used in situations when it turns out that X actually happens in nature.

Metaphorical Version

Taken metaphorically, this method is based on the assumption that people should not go beyond certain limits. What it means to make decisions or take actions beyond these limits must be defined. This is often defined in terms of arrogance or acting outside the limits of normal constraints. Obviously, why this should not be done must also be defended.

In many cases when people use this method they are making a tacit or hidden appeal to another moral theory. For example, doing something unnatural might be seen as having terrible consequences. In this case the argument would be an appeal to consequences based on a consequentialist approach.

While this method has dramatic appeal, it is usually better to use the underlying moral theory rather than playing the “unnatural card.”


This method has the following three steps:

      Step 1: Argue that X or doing X is unnatural

      Step 2:  Argue that unnatural things or actions are wrong.

      Step 3: Conclude that X is wrong or X should not be done.


   This method is often employed to argue that homosexuality is immoral. Following this method, the first step would be to argue that homosexuality is an unnatural lifestyle. The second step would be to argue that people should not live unnatural lifestyles. The conclusion would be that homosexuality is morally wrong.

Like the “playing God” method, this method is often employed to argue against scientific “tampering.” For example, it might be used to argue against genetic engineering. The first step would be to argue that creating new life forms with genetic engineering creates unnatural things. The second step would be to argue that people should not create unnatural things. The conclusion would be that the use of genetic engineering to create new life forms is morally wrong.


Since this method rests on using unnaturalness as a moral defect, defining what is natural is critical. While people often uncritically make assumptions about what is natural and unnatural, presenting a coherent and plausible account of what is natural is rather difficult.

If natural is taken as being non-artificial, then all technology ranging from shoes to space shuttles would be immoral. This seems to be rather absurd.

If natural is taken in terms of the way things should be, the method seems to be circular since the argument would be that people should not do things they should not do.

Fortunately, as noted above, moral theorists have developed accounts of nature that can be employed (perhaps using an argument from authority) when using this method. In such uses, the applying moral theories method would be combined with this method to develop the argument.


   As with the “playing God” argument, one way to respond (at least in a live conversation) is to require that the person spell out exactly how X is unnatural and why X is wrong. This is can also be a request for the person to explicitly state the underlying theory/principle they are actually employing. This is not a counter-argument but can be used to expose the lack of an argument on the other person’s part. If it can be shown that the person has not spelled out how X is unnatural and why this is wrong and conclude they did not make their case-they merely expressed their unsupported opinion.

A second way to reply is to show that it is acceptable to be “unnatural” in similar situations. This can be done by an argument by analogy. The analogy is drawn between the situation at hand and a similar situation in which making the decision or taking the action is acceptable. The challenge is finding an analogy that is acceptable.

Using the genetic engineering example, it can be pointed out that people have been altering animals through selective breeding for thousands of years without being accused of engaging in unnatural activities. Genetic engineering is simply a more efficient method of achieving the ends of selective breeding. Therefore, genetic engineering is not unnatural.

A third way to reply is by Showing that the act or thing occurs in nature. For example, some people contend that homosexuality is common among animals. So, it is not unnatural. Therefore it is not morally unacceptable. The Daily Show did a rather interesting segment on gay penguins that makes fun of the unnatural argument.