II. Moral Reasoning: Principles and Problems
We have seen in the previous chapter that ethicists attempt to move beyond
the simple acceptance of ethical viewpoints--they attempt to offer reasons
that recommend the general adoption of these viewpoints. The process
whereby a given belief or judgment is supported by reasons that recommend
its general adoption is known as "justification." Moral reasoning
is simply one form of justification. In this chapter, we will consider
first some basic terms and concepts that apply to all forms of justification,
and then look more closely at special principles and common errors that
pertain especially to moral justification.
Justification and Logic
Ethics, as any form of rational inquiry, is concerned with establishing
beliefs or judgments that can be justified in an objective manner. The
rational justification of a belief or judgment is expressed in the form
of an argument. (Common synonyms for "argument" are "proof" or "demonstration.")
In this context, the term "argument" does not refer, as it commonly does
in ordinary discourse, to a debate or disagreement between people (although
arguments can and commonly do enter into debates and disagreements), but
rather refers to the process by which reasons are offered that recommend
the acceptance of a given belief as true. Logic is the study of the fundamental
principles that enter into the determination of the quality of an argument:
the extent to which the reasons offered in support of a belief actually
do provide support for the belief. We will consider here some basic terminology
that applies in analyzing the structure of arguments, and determining their
The Structure of Arguments
Any argument can be analyzed into two basic elements: (1) a conclusion,
which is a statement that expresses the belief which is supported by the
argument; and (2) one or more premises, statements (or propositions)
which express the reason or reasons offered in support of the claim that
the conclusion is true. For example, consider the following argument.
It is clear that the world had no beginning, since if it did,
there would have been a first moment before which there was no other moment,
but every moment is preceded by some previous moment.
In this argument, the conclusion is "It is clear that the world had no
beginning," and two premises are offered in support of this conclusion:
(1) "if it did . . . other moment," and (2) "every moment . . . previous
moment." The premises are indicated by the word "since." Other common premise
indicators are the words and phrases "because," "for," "for the reason
that," and "on account of the fact that." The phrase "It is clear that"
indicates the conclusion. Other words or phrases that indicate conclusions
are the following: "therefore," "thus," "so," "it follows that," and "we
can conclude that." At times when arguments are offered in ordinary discourse,
premise or conclusion indicators are not used. When this happens, identifying
the conclusion requires that we determine the statement in the argument
that the author of the argument is trying to support.
It can be helpful to make the structure of an argument
explicit when writing it out. When this is done, the convention in logic
is to write out each premise as a separate statement, often numbered or
lettered, followed by the conclusion. Sometimes a line is drawn between
the premise(s) and conclusion so that their status in the argument is clear.
If we do this with the argument above, we get the following:
(1) If the world had a beginning, there would
have been a
Notice that when we put the argument in this form, the premise and conclusion
indicators can be removed. For clarity's sake, we also interpreted the
phrase "if it did" in the original expression of the argument in terms
of its antecedent "the world had a beginning" when restating the first
premise. Other conventions apply in some forms of logic that determine
the order in which the premises are written, but we will not consider these
conventions here. At times in this course we will express arguments in
this conventional form to make the logical relationship between the premises
and the conclusion clear.
before which there was no other moment.
(2) Every moment is preceded by some previous
The world had no beginning.
The Evaluation of Arguments
There are two standards by which the logical quality of an argument (the
degree to which the premises support the conclusion) can be determined:
deductive and inductive.
The deductive standards are called validity and soundness.
An argument is valid if on the assumption that the premises are
true, the conclusion must be true (cannot be false). An argument
is invalid if on the assumption that the premises are true, the
conclusion still could be false. For example, consider the following
(1) If the moon is made of green cheese, then
the moon is
This argument is deductively valid, which is to say that if premises (1)
and (2) were true, the conclusion would have to be true. Notice that the
fact that premise (2) is false does not effect the validity of the argument,
because validity has nothing to do with the actual truth or falsity
of the premises or the conclusion.
(2) The moon is made of green cheese.
The moon is edible.
The fact that valid reasoning is not dependent on
the actual truth of the premises of an argument allows for the possibility
of hypothetical reasoning: by assuming that something is the case
(that is, by making a hypothesis), we can discover what also must be the
case. For example, we can assume that the moon is made of green cheese
and discover that this implies that it is edible. Hypothetical reasoning
is a crucial tool in ethics as well as the natural sciences and mathematics.
Of course, if we want our deductions to provide
real understanding, the premises that we start with must be true. When
a deductively valid argument has premises that are actually true, it is
called a sound argument.
An argument may fail to meet the standard of deductive validity and yet
still be a useful argument in that the premises provide some support for
the conclusion. For example, no one could reasonably deny that the following
argument provides some support for its conclusion.
(1) From the dawn of recorded history, it
has been reported
This argument is deductively invalid, but by another standard of quality,
the inductive standard, it is quite a good argument. The inductive standard
of quality is known as strength. A strong argument shows
that the conclusion is highly likely to be true given the truth of the
premises. In other words, the premises provide strong support for the conclusion.
A weak argument, on the other hand, would provide very little support
for its conclusion. Notice that whereas the deductive standard defines
only two values in assessing the quality of an argument--either an argument
is valid or invalid--the inductive standard defines a continuum of values,
since there is a whole spectrum of degrees to which the premises of an
argument support an argument, from very strong to very weak arguments.
that the sun
rises above the horizon once every 24
(2) The circumstances that might prevent the
sun rising over
once every 24 hours (the sun exploding, the
its orbit), are highly improbable.
The sun will rise tomorrow.
The Nature of Moral Reasoning
Like any form of reasoning, moral reasoning attempts to establish that
some proposition or claim (a conclusion) is true on the basis of premises
which support its truth. The essential difference between moral reasoning
and other forms of reasoning is that the conclusion supported by the reasoning
is a moral judgment. There are basically two forms of moral reasoning:
(1) reasoning that attempts to demonstrate the truth of some general moral
principle, and (2) reasoning that attempts to establish the truth of particular
moral claims on the basis of general ethical principles. We will consider
some examples of the first form of moral reasoning when we study theoretical
normative ethics and consider some arguments offered by modern ethicists
in support of a variety of ethical theories. But for the most part we will
be considering moral reasoning of the second type, a form of reasoning
sometimes called "moral deliberation."
Joan Callahan offers a good account of the basic structure of moral arguments.1
One premise of such an argument will state a general moral principle (GMP)
that provides the normative criterion that is used by the argument. A second
premise states a factual claim or claims (FC), and the conclusion states
a derivative moral judgment (DMJ) that is more specific in application
than the principle stated in the first premise. This structure is deductive
in nature, since if the GMP is true, and the FC correctly applies the moral
criterion of the the GMP, then the conclusion must be accepted. The general
form of the argument can be represented in this fashion:
(1) Any action having properties A, B, C . . . is right (or
The properties cited constitute the moral criterion defined by the principle.
For example, the principle of honesty states that any statement of a falsehood
that is offered with the intention to deceive is wrong. The properties
of the action in this case are that the action is a statement, that the
statement is false, and the action is intended by the agent to deceive
(2) This action has properties A, B, C.
This action is right (or wrong).
Although this structure seems quite simple, moral
reasoning can be quite complex, involving not one but several moral principles,
a variety of factual claims, and at times a string of arguments that leads
to the final conclusion. All of these elements can be placed in a variety
of orders, making it difficult to sort out. Consider this argument, for
example, from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.
. . . Even opinions lose their immunity [to moral sanction] when the
circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute in
their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion
that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is
robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press,
but many justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob
assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among
the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts, of whatever kind, which without
justifiable cause do harm to others, may be, and in the more important
cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments,
and, when needed, by the active interference of mankind.2
In this argument, the conclusion is stated first: that opinions may be
sanctioned by blame or punishment when their expression under particular
circumstances constitutes "a positive instigation to some mischievous act,"
or, in other words, an incitement to others to cause harm. The general
moral principle of the argument is stated last: that actions which without
justification do harm to others may and in some cases should be controlled
by "the unfavorable sentiments" (i.e., disapproval) or "active interference,"
such as punishment. The factual link between the general moral principle
and the derived moral judgment is the claim that expressing opinions under
certain circumstances can inflame peoples' passions, which can lead to
harm. But notice that Mill doesn't simply state this claim, but offers
an example that he believes makes the point. This example is stated, furthermore,
in the context of a more specific moral argument applied to this
example, an argument that uses the same general moral principle as the
earlier argument. Thus Mill's statement "many justly incur punishment when
delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer"
can be analyzed in the context as the following moral argument (I've restated
some of Mill's claims for the sake of clarity).
It is morally permissible, and in some cases morally obligatory, to
sanction actions that incite others to do harm. (GMP)
Thus Mill's argument is complex, interweaving two arguments--one main argument,
and a more specific argument applying the same general moral principle
to a particular case.
Expressing the opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor will
likely incite others to do harm when delivered to an excited mob assembled
before the house of a corn-dealer. (FC)
Those who do this justly incur punishment. (DMJ)
Analyzing and understanding moral arguments can,
then, be a complicated affair. Some rules of thumb apply to the interpretation
of moral arguments offered in discursive form.
Try to identify first the conclusion (DMJ) that a writer or speaker
is attempting to support by his or her argument.
Next, answer two questions: (a) What general moral principle (GMP, a general
moral claim other than the conclusion) does the writer or speaker offer
as a basis of the argument? (b) What fact or facts does he offer that are
relevant to the conclusion of the argument (FC)?
If either the general moral principle or relevant factual statements are
missing, try to state these explicitly. Typically if a writer or speaker
does not state these explicitly, it is because he or she believes that
they are either so widely accepted that they need no argument, or that
at least they are easily understood by the audience of the argument.
Formal Principles of Moral Reasoning
There are many criteria that can be applied to assess the validity of moral
reasoning, but there are two formal principles of moral reasoning that
are particularly important and fundamental. These principles are "formal"
in the sense that they concern the form or structure of moral reasoning
rather than its content.
The first of these principles is quite easily grasped
from the analysis of the structure of moral arguments that we just considered.
All moral arguments must include both a statement of a general moral principle
(a normative claim) and a statement of relevant facts (descriptive claims)
if they are to be valid. Put in another way, no derivative moral
judgment follows from simply a description of facts. This principle
of moral reasoning was first clearly stated by an eighteenth century British
philosopher by the name of David Hume. Hume noted that there is a
logical barrier to deriving claims concerning how we ought to act from
descriptive claims concerning the way things are. This barrier has
come to be known as the "is/ought gap" in ethical thought. One cannot
validly claim that one, for example, ought to respect others merely on
the basis of the factual claim that respecting others assures that they
will treat us well. We must add some normative standard to the effect
that being well-treated by others is a good that we ought to seek.
The naturalistic fallacy considered below is one common way that this principle
of moral reasoning is not observed.
A second basic principle of moral reasoning is that
such reasoning must be consistent: we cannot hold inconsistent moral positions
in different situations. This principle of moral reasoning is typically
called "the principle of universalizability." This principle can
be stated as follows:
If one judges that an action is right (or wrong), one is committed
to judging that any other action that is like the first action in all morally
relevant respects is also right (or also wrong).
This principle simply states that rational moral judgment must be consistent
over all cases of actions that are similar to one another in respects that
are relevant to moral judgment. If, for example, one judges that
it is wrong to cause other human beings great physical pain because pain
is inherently bad, then one is committed to saying that it would be equally
wrong to cause nonhuman animals great pain for the same reason. If
one judges that this is wrong in the case of human beings but permissible
in the case of animals, and one cannot spell out how human pain is in a
relevant way different from animal pain, then one's moral position is inconsistent
and thus fundamentally irrational.
The principle of universalizability is the basis
of all moral reasoning. If this principle were not accepted, then moral
reasoning would be impossible. Could we reject this principle?
To do so would be to, in effect, deny that any moral judgment is more correct
or true than any other, that there are no moral truths that can be accepted
on rational grounds, and it seems quite impossible for us in a practical
sense to believe this, as we saw in the discussion of ethical relativism
in the previous chapter. When other people do harm to us, or treat
us in ways that accord us little respect as human beings, it seems quite
impossible for us to simply shrug our shoulders and say "I have no reason
to complain about this." Even if we might question the principle
of universalizability in theory, we all accept it in practice.
Fallacies of Moral Reasoning
A fallacy is an error in reasoning which prevents the reasons offered for
accepting a certain conclusion from providing any real support for the
claim that the conclusion is true. In other words, a fallacious argument
seems to offer reasons for accepting a conclusion as true, but on closer
examination it becomes clear that the argument provides no good reason
for doing this. Logicians have identified many such fallacies--fallacies
that arise quite commonly in debates and discussions of important issues.
Below, I will concentrate on a number of fallacies that arise most commonly
in these discussions.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
The naturalistic fallacy is a result of not recognizing the significance
of the distinction between normative and descriptive claims, and the necessity
of the former in any cogent ethical argument. The fallacy is committed
when someone offers simply a description of "natural" facts as the basis
for accepting a derivative moral judgment, without citing normative principles
as well. Such an argument is never cogent, since descriptions of
facts never imply the truth of some moral judgment. Consider, for
example, this moral argument against disciplining children.
Punishing a child for some wrongdoing is never right, since punishment
causes emotional pain.
The conclusion is a moral judgment, "punishing a child for some wrongdoing
is never right," and in support of this conclusion a fact is cited, "punishment
causes emotional pain." The fact itself, even if we admit that
it is always true, does not show that the conclusion is true. The
argument is based on an unarticulated normative claim, namely "Causing
emotion pain is never right." But once this claim is made explicit,
a number of questions are raised which the original argument doesn't address:
"Is emotional pain always bad?" "Isn't it the case that in some circumstances
linking a punishment with wrongdoing can inhibit wrongdoing in the future?"
Since the original argument doesn't state the normative claim, it avoids
raising some very important issues that must be addressed in order to evaluate
the truth of the conclusion.
One recent moral debate where the naturalistic fallacy
is often encountered is in the abortion debate. Consider these parallel
arguments, one supporting pro-choice, the other supporting the immorality
of abortions in the first trimester.
Pro-choice: Science has shown that the fetus in the first trimester
lacks the ability to u, v, w, therefore it is morally permissible to abort
a fetus in the first trimester.
Neither of these arguments support their conclusions, since the facts that
science uncovers concerning the abilities or inabilities of a first trimester
fetus simply do not, by themselves, imply that abortion is right or wrong.
What is needed, here, is some consideration of the normative question of
what sorts of abilities a living thing must have for it to be regarded
in a moral sense to be what in ethics is called a "person," someone
who is a holder of the right to life. Thus, with respect to the first
argument, a further premise is required that says "Everyone who has the
ability to x, y, z, is in a moral sense a person," and the second argument
requires a premise that says "Everyone who lacks the ability to u, v, w,
is not in a moral sense a person."
Antiabortion: Science has shown that the fetus in the first trimester
has the ability to x, y, z, therefore it is immoral to abort a fetus in
the first trimester.
Other examples of the naturalistic fallacy:
It is simply a fact that in our species, homo sapiens, sexual reproduction
requires the mating of a male and a female, and it is quite clear that
the diversity of two genders developed through evolution as a more advantageous
way to perpetuate species. Therefore, it is clear that homosexuality, which
fails to perpetuate the species, is morally wrong.
[Comment: Variants of this argument have often been offered
as a basis for a moral objection to homosexuality, but the reasoning is
quite obviously fallacious. It simply does not follow from the fact that
gender developed in evolutionary history as a basis for reproduction that
homosexuality is morally wrong. To make this argument, one would have to
maintain that any employment of physiological traits of the human species
that is inconsistent with the employment that favored their perpetuation
in evolutionary history is morally wrong. On this basis, one would have
to conclude that playing the violin is morally wrong, since clearly hands
did not develop in primate evolutionary development to allow for the playing
of musical instruments.]
Men need to feel dominant and to let off steam at times. So it is understandable
that men get aggressive, even violent, at times. It's simply part of their
[Comment: Even if it is true that men are more aggressive
naturally than women, a claim often cited but as
yet never proven, this would not mean that aggressive
actions on the part of men are morally permissible.]
Tu Quoque (pron. too kwokwee; Latin for "you
This fallacy is a quite familiar one, often used by those who are attempting
to absolve themselves of responsibility for moral wrongdoing. This
fallacy is committed when someone suggests that a certain action is not
morally objectionable because others have done the same or similar things.
Typically the person who offers this argument is someone who has been accused
of moral wrongdoing, and it is directed against that person's accusers,
as if to say "you cannot accuse me of wrongdoing, since you are guilty
of wrongdoing as well." The argument is clearly fallacious, since
the question of whether others are guilty of wrongdoing is irrelevant to
the question of the accused person's responsibility for moral wrongdoing:
as the old saying goes "two wrongs do not make a right."
Examples of tu quoque arguments:
Member of Congress: I'm not going to try to tell you that I didn't
take illegal campaign contributions. I freely admit this. But
if every person who ran for public office who took illegal campaign contributions
were kicked out of office because of it, the halls of Congress would be
considerably more empty than they are now.
"[Soviet] Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva publicly berated an American
correspondent for 'poking his nose into our [Soviet] internal affairs'
when he asked a question related to the case of disgraced novelist Alexander
Solzhenitsyn [a Russian writer who was a critic of the Soviet government
in the 1960s and 70s]. 'If you cannot punish the killers of your government
leaders, you have no right to be interested in such questions,' the culture
[Source: Hartford Courant (December 20, 1970)]
Children often attempt to convince their parents that there is nothing
wrong with something that they have done or wish to do because "all the
kids are doing it." This is an instance of a very familiar fallacy
known as "moral conventionalism." More generally, one commits this
fallacy if one suggests that common or conventional practices in society
provide the normative standard by which the moral status of actions should
be judged, thereby suggesting that if people in one's society commonly
perform some action, the action is morally permissible. One problem
with moral conventionalism is that often it is committed with exaggerated
claims concerning the prevalence of the action that is adjudged to be morally
permissible. When children, for example, say "all the kids are doing
it," this often is quite untrue. But there is a deeper logical problem
with moral conventionalism--it implies that "common practices" within a
given social group cannot be morally impermissible, which on the face of
it is clearly untrue. If this were the case, then the practice of
slavery in the southern states of the United States prior to the Emancipation
Proclamation would have been morally permissible simply because it was
common practice--an absurd suggestion.
Examples of moral conventionalism:
Historically one can find very few examples of governments of modern nations
that have never taken extreme measures at times to promote the security
and welfare of their people. There is indeed good evidence that the
CIA funded assassination plots against leaders of foreign nations who were
regarded as threats to US interests, but looking at history, one cannot
seriously raise objections against this.
"The Inquisition must have been justified and beneficial, if whole peoples
invoked and defended it, if men of the loftiest souls founded and created
it severally and impartially, and its very adversaries applied it on their
own account, [funeral] pyre answering to pyre."
[Source: Benedetto Croce, Philosophy of the Practical]
A fallacy that is closely associated with moral conventionalism is moral
legalism. Whereas moral conventionalism appeals to common or conventional
practices as a normative standard, moral legalism appeals to laws of the
state or, more generally, any codes of conduct that are accepted within
some social group. Thus one commits this fallacy if one argues that
some action is morally impermissible because the law of the land or some
other generally accepted code of conduct forbids the action, or that an
action is morally permissible because the law or some code of conduct does
not forbid it.
There are two main reasons why this form of reasoning
is fallacious. First, the law does not forbid all actions that can
on reasonable grounds be regarded as ethically impermissible. There
are good reasons for this: legislating morality is not consistent with
the values of a free and open society. If in every case of moral
wrongdoing the government stepped in to prosecute the wrongdoer, we would
find that the most personal aspects of our lives and personal relationships
would be subject to the government's oversight--a way of life that would
be demeaning to personal freedom and dignity. Another good reason
for not legislating morality is simply the impracticality of enforcing
such broad legal proscriptions: there is simply too much immorality in
society for any judicial system of reasonable size to handle. Accepted
codes of conduct adopted by clubs, professional organizations, etc., do
typically make stricter demands of individuals than does the law, but even
these codes of conduct can fail to proscribe actions that are immoral.
Thus an action that is allowed under the law or a particular code of conduct
can still be immoral.
A second, and more significant, reason that moral
legalism is fallacious is that it simply does not follow from the fact
that a legislative body within a state or a social group decides that some
action should be proscribed that therefore the action is morally impermissible;
nor does it follow from the fact that such a body does not proscribe an
action that the action is morally permissible. Historically it is
not difficult to find examples of actions that can reasonably be considered
to be morally permissible that were in fact illegal in their day.
To take one quite obvious example from the history of our country, the
founding of the United States as a separate nation from England was an
illegal act. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence,
offers a moral justification for the action, despite its illegality.
A perusal of historical and present day legal systems will also yield abundant
examples of the legal acceptance of actions that are on any reasonable
standards clearly immoral, from slavery to mass extermination of cultural
and religious groups.
None of this implies, of course, that we have moral
license to do anything we want to do, legal or not. There are very
good moral justifications that one can offer in support of abiding
by the laws of the state or the ethical codes adopted by other social groups.
But in moral discussion and debate, it is not enough to cite a law or an
ethical code in support of a moral judgment--ethical principles and standards
must be offered in support of adopting a law or ethical code as a reasonable
Examples of moral legalism:
It is perfectly legal, in fact is a legal right, for landlords to evict
tenants who have not paid their rent, any time, whatever the circumstances.
There's nothing wrong with this.
[Comment: The legal right of landlords to evict their
tenants does not mean that there can be no moral objection to this under
certain circumstances: if, for example, a tenant has no place to go but
the streets, and the landlord would suffer no extreme financial loss by
allowing a tenant to stay where he/she is until suitable alternative housing
can be found.]
There is a law still on the books of our state which outlaws acts of sodomy,
even between consenting adults. Therefore it is clear that sodomy is morally
Prudence is a normative standard of action that requires rational agents
to act in their own best interests. Although it is certainly wise
to follow the demands of prudence, and we do this every day when we brush
our teeth, take medicine for an illness, and perform other actions that
we believe will be a benefit to us, a fallacy is nevertheless committed
when it is argued that a certain action or practice is morally permissible
or required because it will benefit (is prudent for) one person or a certain
group of people. Thus if someone were to suggest that each person
has a moral responsibility never to help others when doing so detracts
from their own interests, the fallacy of moral prudentialism is committed.
We will be considering in class an ethical theory
known as "ethical egoism" which does not recognize moral prudentialism
as a fallacy--in fact this theory says explicitly that the demands of prudence
are in fact moral obligations, and thus we as moral agents are obligated
to seek our own interests in all circumstances. Although this theory
has been accepted by some ethicists, it is generally rejected on the grounds
that it leads to absurd conclusions. We will consider these objections
Other examples of moral prudentialism:
The practice of granting aid to foreign countries is immoral since the
wealth expended in this manner could be used to benefit our own people.
There's nothing wrong with cheating on your taxes. After all, it
saves you a few bucks in the long run.
Slippery Slope Argument
A familiar tactic in ethical debate is to suggest that some practice should
not be allowed because it will lead to dire consequences for society.
If sex education is allowed in the schools, the result will be rampant
sexual promiscuity; if women are allowed equal status in the workplace
to men, countless numbers of men will be jobless; if physician-assisted
suicide is allowed, we will end up executing the physically disabled ("just
as the Nazis did!"). The general strategy here is to suggest that
even if a certain practice of itself is not morally objectionable, accepting
it as morally permissible will lead us inevitably to consequences that
are morally objectionable, and therefore the practice itself should be
proscribed on moral grounds. The problem with this strategy of argument
is that it fails to establish that the foreseen, undesirable consequences
will be inevitable. Considering the examples used above, there is
no reason to believe that the availability of sex education in schools
leads to sexual promiscuity, that equal status for women in the work place
will lead to widespread unemployment amongst men, or that allowing physician
assisted suicide will inevitably lead to executing disabled people.
Without strong empirical evidence (which is typically not offered by people
who use slippery slope arguments) the conclusion simply has no support.
Other examples of slippery slope arguments:
We dare not allow people in a persistent vegetative state to be taken off
life support. If we do, it will be no time before we start taking
people with terminal diseases off of life support, and the old people,
and finally anyone who is not deemed to be useful to society.
There is an inherent danger in allowing any consideration of religion in
public school classes, since although teachers may begin by teaching this
material in a noncommittal fashion, it won't be long before they begin
to indoctrinate students, and our schools will end up being evangelical
Argument to the People (also known
in its Latin form, argumentum ad populum)
An argument to the people in support of a particular moral judgment involves
an appeal to certain popular prejudices and biases shared by a large number
of people. Unlike moral conventionalism, which appeals to common
practices, an ad populum argument is designed to inflame the passions
of a certain audience, passions that will lead that audience to accept
a certain moral conclusion. For example, consider a hypothetical
example of a conservative religious leader proclaiming the following to
his equally conservative congregation:
No one who is in the faith, and true to that faith, can accept
the scourge of abortion perpetrated by the godless heathens that are destroying
The reference to "godless heathens" and their acts of "destroying
our society" will no doubt encourage many people to consider accept the
implied conclusion of this argument, that abortion is morally wrong, but
even if those who advocate the right of abortion in our society were primarily
atheists (which in fact is clearly wrong from recent surveys), and even
if these atheists were doing things that may be thought to be destroying
the fabric of society, these facts would not establish by valid moral reasoning
that abortion is morally wrong. In fact, these facts are quite irrelevant
to the question of the moral status of abortion. This example suggests
generally why ad populum arguments are fallacious: the prejudices
and biases appealed to in such arguments, and the emotions they incite,
are simply irrelevant to the moral issues they address.
Other examples of arguments to the people (ad populum arguments):
Social programs designed to aid the poor are immoral. After all,
they are poor because they are lazy, and we shouldn't reward laziness.
[Comment: Even if it were true that poor people are generally
lazy, which is a quite simplistic and dubious explanation of the economic
inequities in our society, this argument does not establish why laziness
should be a relevant factor in evaluating the moral status of social programs
designed to benefit the poor. Shouldn't lazy people be entitled to
some minimum economic and personal well-being? If not, the reasons
for this need to be explained. In fact this argument, however, is
not designed to offer any such valid basis for its conclusion--it simply
relies on the emotional impact of the popular abhorrence to laziness.]
Experimenting on animals is morally wrong! Would you experiment on
your cat or dog?
[Comment: We typically become quite emotionally attached
to our pets, and this argument relies on that widespread emotional appeal.
But our emotional attachment to our pets does not imply that it is morally
wrong to experiment on any animals, just as the fact that people become
emotionally attached to their houses implies that it would be immoral to
raze a house.]
Red Herrings (sometimes known as the fallacy
of "Irrelevant Premise" or in its Latin form "Non Sequitur," which
means "it does not follow")
Red herrings are issues or points raised which are irrelevant to the conclusion
that is drawn from these points or issues. The strategy of this argument
is to divert the attention of the person hearing the argument from real
issues, ones that need to be addressed in order to evaluate the truth or
falsity of a conclusion, to bogus issues, but in such a way that it is
not clear to the hearer that the cited issues are bogus. Consider
a moral argument offered against the view that nonhuman animals are objects
of moral concern (that is, that some forms of treatment of nonhuman animals
are morally impermissible):
It doesn't matter what we do to animals, people are what matter.
Human beings have moral rights--you cannot morally do harm to any human
being. Animals are not people--they have no rights.
All that this argument says in support of the claim that it doesn't matter,
on moral grounds, what we do to animals is the undeniable fact that human
beings have moral rights. But this fact is quite irrelevant to the
question of whether nonhuman animals should be regarded as objects of moral
concern. From the fact that human beings are objects of moral concern,
it does not follow that no nonhumans are objects of moral concern.
The issue of the moral status or human beings raised in the context of
this argument is, therefore, a red herring.
Other examples of red herrings or non sequitur moral arguments:
Suicide is not morally objectionable, since it is a choice made by a person
who is not satisfied with their life, and we all have choices to make in
[Comment: There is no doubt that in many cases people
who kill themselves genuinely choose that course of action, but this is
wholly irrelevant to the question of whether suicide is morally permissible
or not. Things we choose to do can be morally permissible or impermissible:
that we choose a course of action has no bearing on the action's moral
Some people have objected to the past practice of dumping chemicals, saying
that this pollutes the natural environment. Some have even suggested
that this is immoral. But you know, our environment is already filled with
chemicals. Water itself is a substance with a chemical composition.
Plants have chlorophyll, and that's a chemical too. In fact, every substance
in nature is a chemical. So there isn't anything wrong with dumping
chemicals into the environment--they're already there!
[Comment: The objection to the dumping of industrial
wastes has to do with their toxicity and their destructive effects on the
natural environment. This argument simply misses the point.]
1. Joan C. Callahan, ed., Ethical Issues in Professional
Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 14. Back
2. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Alburey
Castell (Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing, 1947), p. 55. Back
and Descriptive Statements
and Descriptive Statements Quiz
Simple Moral Arguments
Fallacies in Moral Reasoning
Fallacies in Moral Reasoning Quiz