Applied Ethics Moral Reasoning Philosophy Essay

1. Moral reasoning: Our basic concern in Applied Ethics is to come to grips with some moral issues. We may reject abortion as murder, or support abortion as nothing wrong. In dealing with moral problems or defending (or rejecting) moral points of view, we offer arguments. We want our moral conclusion or view be based upon moral principles and good reasoning.

1.1 Argument is a unit of reasoning which attempts to support a proposition or claim called its conclusion by means of other propositions called its premises. The premises and conclusion together make up an argument.

Premises are (reasons or evidence) offered to support a claim or statement.

Conclusion is the claim or statement that the premises attempt to support.

Example 1: It is likely that David took the money, since the money disappeared at the same time as David left, and he had stolen others' money before.

"The money disappeared at the same time as David left" and "he had stolen others' money before" are premises; "David took the money" is the conclusion.

2. Deductive arguments: In a valid deductive argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be also true; or if you accept all the premises, you must accept the conclusion. The necessity claimed for the truth of the conclusion based on the premises is absolute. A deductive argument is either valid or invalid, sound or unsound.

Example 2: All mammals are mortal. All humans are mammals. Therefore, all humans are mortal.

It is a valid deductive argument. If the premises are true, it is impossible for the conclusion to be false. It is also a sound argument (whose premises are all true).

Example 3: All dogs are mammals. All horses are mammals. Therefore, all horses are dogs.

This is an invalid argument, because its conclusion does not follow from its premises. The conclusion does not follow from the premises because, although the premises are true, the conclusion is false. Hence, the truth of the premises does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion.

3. Inductive argument: An argument in which the premises are put forward to make the conclusion likely or probable but not logically guaranteed. Inductive arguments are of various degrees of strength, that is, they support their conclusions more or less strongly. In a good or strong inductive argument, even all the premises are true, its conclusion may be false. An inductive argument is either strong or weak.

Example 4: My little brother is ill, and he has most of the symptoms of pneumonia. For these reasons, he probably has the disease.

This argument does not claim its conclusion necessarily is true if the premises are true. It is inductive in the sense that its conclusion is probable.

4. Evaluating arguments: An argument may be subject to two criticisms. Firstly, we might reject the way the conclusion is drawn from the premises. That is, the reasoning is invalid.

Example 5: All legislators are permanent residents of Hong Kong. Some businessmen are permanent residents of Hong Kong. Therefore, some businessmen are legislators.

The argument is ‘sensible’, but ‘logical’ is not a synonym for ‘sensible’. Logic is interested in whether arguments are valid, not in whether it is sensible to put them forward. The above argument is deductively invalid.

Secondly, we might reject one or more of the premises. That is, its premises are false or unacceptable. Anti-abortionists offered the following argument for their position:

Example 6: It is wrong to kill a person. A human fetus is a person. Abortion is killing human fetus. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Though the argument is deductively valid, you may reject the second premise as untrue or unacceptable. Thus you are reluctant to accept the conclusion.

5. Fallacies are simply mistakes or defects that occur in arguments. Fallacious arguments may superficially be persuasive, but logically incorrect. Fallacies can be committed in many ways, but usually they involve either a mistake in reasoning or the creation of some illusion that make a bad argument appear good.

(i)Hasty generalization: the fallacy of hasty generalization draws a conclusion about a class based on too few or atypical cases.

Example 7: I know that John Lee is bald but rich. Therefore, all bald persons are rich.

Only one particular case of being bald and rich is far from enough to support the conclusion that all bald persons are rich. The conclusion is likely to be false. So, the argument committed the fallacy of hasty generalization.

(ii)Fallacy of false cause (Post hoc ergo propter hoc): the Latin post hoc ergo propter hoc means "after this therefore because of this." The fallacy of false cause mistakes temporal succession for causal sequence. That is, one assumes that because two events are associated in time, one must have caused the other.

Example 8: John Dum, a middle-aged man, raped and killed an old lady after seeing a class-III film. "Had it not been for pornography," a conservative legislative councillor claimed, "John Dum would not have committed the crime."

Two events happened one after the other: "John Dum saw a pornographic film", "he committed the crime". But the legislative councillor jumped to the conclusion that these two events have causal relation. Though two events happened one after the other, they might not have causal relation.

(iii)Slippery slope argument is often used by those who wish to argue against or object to something on the grounds that if it is done, something else will happen as a result, and then something else, and then something else, right down the 'slippery slope' to a situation that is obviously undesirable. The reasoning is faulty because there is not sufficient justification to support that the chain of events could take place.

Example 9: Look, what has Donald Tsang done to HK? He has turned down HK people’s request for universal suffrage recently; he has used more-than-necessary forces to suppress the demonstrators and detained some Koreans during the WTO conference. Next, he will increase the power of police and limit our freedom of demonstration and protest; he will then set up a Press Monitoring Board to limit our freedom of speech and publication; and next he will outlaw Fa Lun Gong. He is consequently leading HK to a totalitarian society without freedom of expression, and our human rights unprotected.

We may doubt that all the events are connected. It is also doubtful that the chain of events could happen as a resulting sequence of one after another and finally lead to an undesirable situation of ‘totalitarian society’. Since there are no support that the chain of events could happen one after the other, so the conclusion "He is leading HK to a totalitarian society without freedom of expression and our human rights unprotected" is not warranted.

(iv)Begging the question occurs when an argument assumes its own conclusion. In practice, question-begging arguments are usually disguised, either by restating one of the premises in different words as the conclusion or by keeping one of the statements implicit. Consequently, the conclusion (which is to be proved) has not been proved.

Example 10: The soul is immortal because it lives forever.

‘Immortal’ means ‘live forever’. Conclusion and premise thus say the same thing.

(v)Equivocation (or ambiguity) occurs when a word or phrase is used with two or more meanings. Equivocal use of words is fallacious because it invites us to transfer what we are prepared to accept about one concept onto another one which happens to have the same name.

Example 11: If all men are created equal, then why basketball players so tall?

The phase ‘created equal’ could mean ‘the same height’, or ‘with equal moral and political rights’.

Example 12: It is silly to fight over mere words. Discrimination is just a word. Therefore, it is silly to fight over discrimination.

In this context, ‘discrimination’ can have one of two meanings: (i)action or policy based on prejudice or partiality, or (ii)the word 'discrimination' itself. It seems that the arguer intended ‘discrimination’ to mean the word itself in the premise but ‘the action or policy’ in the conclusion. In that case, the premises are true, but they are irrelevant to the conclusion and the argument is thus invalid.

(vi) Amphiboly is ambiguity at the level of sentence structure, i.e., ambiguity due to the way the words are assembled (the grammatical construction).

Example 13: Save soap and waste paper.

Is 'waste' an adjective or a verb?

Example 14: When we compare the danger of spreading AIDS with the incursion of privacy involved in widespread AIDS testing, we have to admit that it is a risk we have to take.

Is 'it' the spread of AIDS or the incursion of privacy?

Suggested readings:

1. Chapters 1-2, Applying Ethics: A Text with Readings, Jeffrey Olen & Vincent Barry. (course book)