sbccPhilosophy-111 Critical Thinking And Writing:

Ethical/Moral Reasoning


Ethical and Moral Arguments

How should we live our life? (Assuming, of course, that we ought to live it in the first place.) More than any others, ethical and moral questions present critical thinkers and writers with their most challenging arguments. This is so for a number of reasons.

1. Ethical/Moral questions are difficult to formulate unambiguously.
2. Religious, social, cultural and even psychological biases cloud reasoning on questions of ethics and morality.
3. The history of thought yields agreement only on the many options faced in formulating and demonstrating ethical and moral arguments.
4. While valid arguments are relatively easy to formulate, sound arguments on ethical and moral questions seem to require acceptance of some 'starting assumption' that is itself beyond sound proof.

Dealing rationally with ethical and moral arguments then is the supreme test of a persons critical thinking skills. Patience and systematic analysis, however, will produce at least the intelligent understanding of ethical and moral problems if not the ultimate solution to them.

Examination of the following questions will bring critical thinkers to that understanding.

What is the Nature of Ethics and Morality?

The disciple of Philosophy that seeks to establish first principles concerning questions of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what humans ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do relative to their desires and behavior is called Ethics. Any codification of those ethical first principles is called Morality.

Ethics investigates the origin of these underlying first principles. Do they exist? Can humans know them? What makes something good or bad, right or wrong? Is that something objectively knowable or merely subjectively affirmed? If objective, does it depend on the command of some deity or other? Is it simply society’s cultural consensus? Or, if personally subjective, does it fall only to each individual to finally decide? Those seem to be the only alternatives for ethical/moral first principles. It will be recalled that one of our 20 Distinctions for Critical Thinkers and Writers distinguished between Ethics and Morality.

Ethics / Morality: Any set of principles or values presumed to govern human character constitutes Ethics. Any set of rules, guides or precepts that apply given ethical principles to practical events constitutes Morality.

By their very meaning even in ordinary language, all ethical and/or moral terms are value terms. A ‘value’ term is one that ultimately rests on desirability as the definitional criterion. A value is something that we seek to have and hold as desirable. But do some 'human universals' exist objectively that all human desires are predicated on?

Professor Jim Chesher gave the Santa Barbara City College Faculty Lecture in 2006 on the topic: Dusting Off The Moral Compass. Rendering his thesis as a valid standard form categorical syllogism BARBARA (AAA-1) his argument may be construed as;

All those that seek to be 'moral' are those that seek "the virtuous life."
All thoughtful humans are those that seek to be 'moral'.
Therefore, all thoughtful humans are those that seek "the virtuous life".

Major term P = Those that seek the “virtuous life”
Minor term S = Thoughtful humans
Middle term M= Those that seek to be ‘moral’

Here’s the Venn Diagram graphically demonstrating its validity:

Even people with little formal education will probably agree with both Professor Chesher’s statement of the basic ethical/moral question as well as his proposed argument and conclusion. Anthropologically, it would be rare to find a culture in the human species that would formulate the nature of ethics and morality differently.

According to Professor Chesher, this argument arises from asking the question “How should I live my life?” This question, he contends is the basis of all ethical and moral thinking for thoughtful humans. If this is true, then the mentally deficient, rationally indolent and socially psychopathic have nothing to contribute to the analysis of ethical and moral issues.

What is the Nature of Ethical and Moral Terms?

With our ethical/moral distinction operational let’s examine the nature of ethical and moral terminology used in every ethical argument whether deductive or inductive.

Applied to the question “How should I live my life.” Any ‘should’ answer to that question will be based on the underlying values we profess. These underlying values about how our life ‘ought’ to be conducted then constitute our ethical principles. Our ethical ‘conduct’ is what we usually mean by our ‘moral character’ as a person. Living our life as we think it ‘ought’ to be led then is what we mean by adhering virtuously to a ‘moral code’. Ultimately then, all ethical and moral arguments are predicated on value terms. Therein lies the problem of sound proof. Can we prove an 'ought' from an 'is' ?

What are the Major Ethical and Moral Alternative Arguments?

All ethical and moral arguments seek to demonstrate that the source of ethical first principles can be known either objectively or subjectively. By objective they mean that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exist independently of human reasoning and experience. Objectivists, as they are called, further argue that objective good and evil can be known either by reason alone or reason aided by experience. Subjectivists, on the contrary, argue that ethical and morality truths do not exist objectively, and they cannot be known objectively. Furthermore, subjectivists maintain that ethical first principles are arrived at by a consensus within diverse societies, or by diverse individuals, or some patchwork of both. They have no existence in any sense outside human manufacture.

Objectivist, Subjectivist, Standard Form Categorical Propositions
When formulated as standard form categorical propositions the objectivist and subjectivist truth claims about ethical/moral first principles would read something like this.

Objectivist: All ethical and moral first principles exist independently in reality outside human thinking. Type A

Subjectivist: No ethical and moral first principles exist independently in reality outside human thinking. Type E

These two propositions are contraries, both cannot be factually true at the same time, but both can be factually false at the same time.

Subjectivist Standard Form Categorical Syllogism Example
The typical Subjectivist argument runs something like this.

No principles that rest on desires are objectively true principles.
All ethical/moral principles are principles that rest on desires.
Therefore, No ethical/moral principles are objectively true principles.

A sorites (Etymology: Latin, from Greek sOritEs, from sOros heap) is a chain of arguments consisting of propositions so arranged that the predicate of any one forms the subject of the next and the conclusion unites the subject of the first proposition with the predicate of the last.

The chain of reasoning (sorites) behind the subjectivist argument runs something like this. If true moral choices rest on ethical principles, and if ethical principles rest on values, and values rest on desire, then is it not logically entailed that moral choices ultimately rest on desires? And since our desires are relative to a diverse number of genetic, cultural and social factors, then is it not logically entailed that all ethical principles and their moral codes of conduct are merely relative to our diverse genetic, cultural and social factors? And if that is true, is it not logically entailed that all ethical/moral truths are subjectively relative and not objective?

The traditional criticism of the relativists argument goes something like this.

Not necessarily! This argument, popular among personal and/or cultural relativists, has significant logical defects not the least of which is its’ ultimate underlying contradiction that all ethical/moral truth is relative. If all such truths are relative then that very claim itself is relative. And if that claim is itself relative then it is not necessarily true. And if it is not necessarily true then there is no reason to accept it. This is the essential logical defect of the Post-Modernists as the current exponent of personal/cultural relativism known as subjectivism.

Objectivists Standard Form Categorical Syllogism Example
(Formulation from Professor Chesher’s lecture)

All those that seek to be 'moral' are those that seek "the virtuous life."
All thoughtful humans are those that seek to be 'moral'.
Therefore, all thoughtful humans are those that seek "the virtuous life".

The reasoning of the objectivist usually entails this chain of reasoning.

It may also be true that all our moral choices ‘are the objectively right thing to do’ because they rest on ethical principles that are objectively true independent of any human or divine being thinking they are objectively true. And it may logically be the case that these objective ethical principles are knowable, a priori, to our reason alone unaided by the senses as objectively true principles of our moral behavior. And it may be logically the case that the objective ethical truth of these principles knowable through reason reflects either the very structure of the universe itself or the dictates of a rational deity. In either of these two cases, moral decisions are made on the basis of some objectively knowable ethical truths. This is the view of the ethical/moral objectivists, usually, but not necessarily espoused by religions.

So, in this manner, one can argue the validity of an objective ethical system, and attending moral code, without a religious underpinning. That a person can be moral without believing in a deity is one of the very few settled philosophical debates despite the fact that some theologians maintain the contrary.

The standard refutation of the objectivists uses something like this line of argumentation.

While ethical/moral objectivism can be formulated to avoid the self-contradiction of the personal/cultural relativist such objectivism must still climb the formidable mountain of testable proof. How do we get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’? Most contemporary philosophers agree with David Hume, you can’t. Ethical obligation and moral behavior cannot be deduced simply by an examination of facts. This is so because ‘good’ and/or evil are not manifested to the senses. They have no color, shape, sound, taste or touch. Nor, it seems, can ethical principles and moral actions be arrived at by induction alone. This is obviously true since no number of observed ‘good’ or ‘evil’ behaviors inductively prove the existence of good and/or evil in themselves. It merely demonstrates how ‘good’ and/or are perceived by those making the claim.

Can Ethical/Moral Arguments be Valid and Sound?

So, is some ‘god’, some societal consensus, or some existential affirmation of the individual the ultimate source of ethical/moral first principles?

Critical analysis reveals that each ethical option has substantial, but not insurmountable problems provided some starting assumption is made to formulate a valid argument. Those assumptions being made, validity is a mere formality.

Soundness, however, is elusive since soundness entails a valid argument with factually true premises. And since the starting assumptions of all ethical/moral arguments can not be factually verified, then soundness is not achieved.

For the moment, some philosophers search for some observable, testable, verifiable ‘human universal’ to anthropologically ground an objectivist ethics. Problem with that is the empirically weak nature of anthropological truth claims. Others are waiting for some breakthrough in the neurosciences that will enable direct observation (and proof) of ethical/moral thoughts as they happen in the brain. This would enable society and/or the individual to ‘program’ ethical/moral thoughts and probably actions as well. Moral Philosophy twiddles its collective thumbs waiting for this to happen in some neuro-physics experiment. Still others cling to the notion that ethics and morality are similar to aesthetics (study of ‘the beautiful’) or even rooted in aesthetics, i.e. it’s just a matter of what one finds ‘attractive’, like your ‘favorite’ color or your ‘beautiful’ sculpture. The existentialists, for example, claim that our ethical/moral choices are a matter of passionate affirmation.

This ethical uncertainty swirls because our moral commitment gets complicated. We recall from experience that humans have a wide range of what they find ‘desirable’. We also know from experience that not everything humans prefer is necessarily what they find desirable. One can prefer the lesser of two choices, give your money to a robber or take a bullet to the brain for example, where neither of the two choices is desirable but one certainly seems more preferential. So, desire is more than preference. Desire reflects ultimately ‘what we would like to happen’. In this sense desire reflects our value in what ‘ought’ to be the case as opposed to what we think actually ‘is’ the case. Thus, desire sets up a tension between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ in our perception, impulses, urges and thoughts.

Our ethical/moral choices are our attempts to resolve this tension. If we are able to reach this resolution between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, then we claim that we are ‘happy’ or at least ‘pleased’. When we understand the reason(s) why we choose one thing more ethically/morally desirable over another, then we understand the value(s) that underpin our ethical/moral choices.

De gustibus non diputandum est.
(My translation from the Latin: "Concerning matters of desire, there is no real dispute.")