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Critical Thinking about Morality and Introduction to Moral Theory

2006 Makoto Suzuki


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Aims of Day 2

  • In this philosophy class, we will examine various moral positions to know whether they are correct.

  • However, you might wonder how to do this.

  • We will consider this question, taking into account what Regan and Timmons say.


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Tom Regan on Ways Not to Answer Moral Qs: 1. Irrelevance of Personal Preferences

  • Practice: Concise Summary of the Premises (Reasons)

  • Regan (on p.5) argues that moral right and wrong cannot be determined just by finding out about someone’s personal preferences because moral judgments are not just expressions of personal preference. What are the two reasons for this?

    • While different persons’ expressions of personal preferences cannot deny each other, different persons’ moral judgments can deny each other. (See Jack-Jill exchange on liking of Grateful Dead & justness of war)

    • While it is not appropriate to press people for justifying their personal preferences, it is always appropriate to press people for justifying their moral judgments.


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2. Irrelevance of What a Person Think

  • Regan (on p.6) argues that a person’s thinking something right or wrong does not make it so because his moral claims are not reports of what he thinks. Why?

  • One person’s report of what he thinks cannot contradict another person’s report of what she thinks. For they describe different things. In contrast, one person’s moral claim can contradict another person’s moral claim.

    • Regan illustrates this point with the Bonnie-Clyde exchange.


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3. Irrelevance of Statistics

  • On pp.6-7, Regan argues that what all or most people think does not settle moral issues. Why?

  • It is odd to think that the rightness or wrongness of actions changes as people’s view changes.

    • Regan asks you, for example, “As people’s view on capital punishment changes, does it get right (or wrong)?”

  • In general, even what all people think cannot make it so: everyone can be mistaken. (E.g., everyone was mistaken about the shape of the earth.) Why do you think morality is any different?


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Arguments from Consensus

  • Regan thus points out that arguments from consensus is often fallacious.

  • Arguments from consensus take the following general form:

    When most people agree on a claim about a subject matter S, the claim is often true.

    p is a claim most people make about S.

    

    p is true.


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4. Problems about Appeal to Authority

  • Appeal to authority is often indispensable to know truths. For example, we novices generally accept what physics or chemistry texts say, depending on the authority of the authors as scientists. Example of Appeal to Authority:

  • World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking says that the condition of the universe at the instant of the Big Bang was more highly ordered than it is today. In view of Hawking’s stature in the scientific community, we should conclude that this description of the universe is correct.


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Conditions on ProperAppeals to Authority

  • The argument appeals to an expert or experts in the area of knowledge under consideration (it is not like appealing to Makoto on what clothes, cosmetics, hair styles etc. are fashionable);

    2.There is agreement among the experts in the area of knowledge under consideration;

    3.There is no good reason to suspect that the expert appealed to is biased on the particular issue in question.

  • Does appeal to moral authority satisfy these three conditions?


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Appeal to the Authority of the Authors/Interpreters of Religious Texts

  • In moral contexts, the appealed authority tends to be religious.

  • If we can use religious authorities as moral authorities to settle moral disputes, that is convenient.

  • However, as Regan points out (on p.7), there are several problems haunting this appeal to authority.

  • Let’s consider these problems in connection to homosexuality.

    • This glance at homosexuality is an illustration, and it is not meant to settle whether homosexual acts are permissible.


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Problems Haunting the Use of Religious Texts

  • There are many religions and their sects. Therefore, if their texts give us different ethical teachings, we have to show which religious sect, if any, is true. And in many cases, these texts actually differ in their ethical teachings.

    • Ex. The texts of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions seem to condemn homosexuality, but many non-theistic religions, such as ancient Greek or Roman religions and many sects of Buddhism, do not seem to condemn homosexuality.


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Problems Haunting the Use of Religious Texts

2.It is often difficult to determine which interpretation of the text in question is correct.

  • Religious texts are often mysteriously vague.

  • Even if we agree what the text says, we might disagree on what their ethical implications are.

  • If there are more than one authoritative texts in a religious sect, sometimes they seem to contradict each other.

  • As for homosexuality and the Bible: the Old Testament seems to condemn it. (We will see this later.) In the New testament, though Jesus himself does not condemn homosexuality, Paul (alone) appears to do so. (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10). But some interpreters in the 20th century question this orthodox interpretation.


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    Problems Haunting the Use of Religious Texts

    3.Religious texts, esp. old ones, often give us more than we bargain for.

    • Let me exemplify this point in relation to the Bible and homosexuality.

    • Leviticus 18:22 says “You may not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”


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    E.g. Leviticus

    • However, Leviticus also gives lengthy instructions for diet, hygiene, treating leprosy, detailed requirements concerning burnt offerings, an elaborate routine for dealing with menstruating women.

    • There are a number of rules about the daughters of priests, including the notation that if they play the whore, they shall be burned alive (21:9).

    • Leviticus forbids eating fat (7:23), letting a woman into church until 42 days after giving birth (12:4-5), and seeing your uncle naked, which is also called an abomination (18:14, 26).

    • It says that a beard must have square corners (19:27) and that we may purchase slaves from neighborhood states (25:44).


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    Problems Haunting the Use of Religious Texts

    • If someone condemns homosexuality based on the authority of the text, he has to either (1) accept these other teachings or (2) show the reasons why we do not have to obey them while we should obey the text on homosexuality.

      • Such a dilemma is not limited to homosexuality or the Bible. It also occurs in relation to other issues and other religious texts.

    • Caution: (2) is unavailable if one takes the text to be:

      • the exact words given by the God or by the religious authority that he or she believes in; and,

      • applied in entirety by the God or the authority to our situation; and,

      • not retracted even in part by the God or the authority.


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    Continued

    • Taking (2) means explainingwhy the particular passages one accepts – the passage on homosexuality in this case – are authoritative (in relation to our situation) while the passages he discards are not.

      • For example, suppose he claims that the ‘problematic’ passages on eating fat, slavery etc. in Leviticus do not correctly represent God’s dictate while the passage on homosexuality does. Then, he needs to provide the reason why he can say so.

    • If the reason is a moral reason independent of religious texts, he ultimately bases his ethical view not on the authority of the texts but on the moral reason.


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    How Can We Know Correct Moral Views?

    • On pp.8-11, Regan lists six positive proposals about how to approach moral issues.

      • Make relevant concepts clear

      • Take into account all relevant information

      • Be logically consistent

      • Give the same judgment when there is no relevant difference [Formal Justice]

      • Be cool (Well, I would rather say, “Cool head, warm heart”.)

      • Seek for valid moral principles

    • The first three are conditions for study of any subject whatsoever; the last three are probably specific to moral inquiry.


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    1. Make the question and the view clear!

    • Suppose that unbeknownst to him, Mike is a sleepwalker, and while he is sleeping, he drives his car and parks the car in the area where one is legally prohibited from parking.

    • Is Mike responsible?

    • Well, the correct answer depends on what this question means. For example, depending on what “responsible” here means, the correct answer will be different.

      • If “responsible” means “having the legal duty (to pay the bill for the illegal parking),” the correct answer is probably “Yes, he is responsible.”

      • If “responsible” means “morally blameworthy,” probably the correct answer is “No, he is not responsible.”

      • If “responsible” means “trustworthy”, we cannot tell “yes” or “no” from the example.


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    Continued

    • Without knowing what questions or moral views mean, you cannot properly evaluate them.

    • Therefore, before trying to examine a moral question or a moral view, you need to make it clear.

      • In the above example, we should ask the questioner to define what he means by “responsible.”


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    Defining a Complex Concept: Conceptual Analysis (Regan, section 2, pp. 3-4)

    • As for a complex concept, you can make it clear by analyzing the concept into the elements that constitute the concept, i.e., setting out the conditions for the application of the concept.

      • For example, the complex concept of “bachelor” is probably analyzed as follows:

      • Something is a bachelor if and only if (1) it is a person, (2) it is male, (3) it is not married, and (4) it is an adult.

      • According to this analysis, the concept of “bachelor” is constituted by four elements or conditions.

    • For obvious reasons, philosophers call this activity “conceptual analysis”.


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    2. Take into all the relevant considerations: (a) Consider both reasons for and against the moral view

    • Suppose that Makoto considers whether death penalty is permissible.

    • In order to determine whether it is permissible, Makoto needs to take into account all the relevant considerations.

      • He needs to consider the reasons for this view, such as “Death penalty deters crimes”, “Only death penalty gives some criminals what they deserve” etc.

      • He also needs to consider the reasons against this view, such as “Death penalty violates the dignity of the punished” or “Death penalty sometimes kills an innocent person, and this harm cannot be compensated” etc.


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    (b) Consider possible objections to arguments for your positions.

    • Not all arguments are good. Considering possible replies, we can evaluate whether they are good.

    • Suppose Makoto gives a following argument:

      Death penalty deters crimes more than any other punishment.

      Therefore, death penalty is permissible.

    • What are the possible replies to this argument?

    • You can either (1) argue thatthe premise is incorrect (e.g., “Statistics show that life imprisonment deters crimes more than death penalty”), or (2) argue thatthe conclusion does not follow from the premise (e.g., “Even if death penalty deters, it does not satisfy other necessary conditions for the permissibility of punishment, such as rehabilitating criminals, not being cruel etc.”).


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    3. Be Consistent

    • Suppose that Makoto has the two general views:

      • Killing any person whoever is wrong.

      • Death penalty is permissible.

    • Is there any problem?

    • These views are inconsistent. And inconsistent views cannot be all correct. Therefore, Makoto should either abandon or modify one of his views.

      • One way is to abandon the view that death penalty is permissible.

      • Another way is to modify the first view to this: “Killing any innocent person (knowingly) is wrong.”

    • In general, consider whether your views can be consistently applied in combination with each other.


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    Mind consistency between general views and views on particular cases

    • Suppose Makoto holds the view that killing oneself is always wrong.

    • However, watching a military movie, Makoto finds out that on reflection he thinks it is morally permissible or even recommendable that a person sacrifices his life in order to save others (say, by covering up a bomb with his body and armor, which otherwise would kill his defense-less comrades though he would survive due to the armor).

    • What does consistency require?

    • Consistency requires that Makoto should either drop the considered view about the case, or should modify the view that killing oneself is always wrong.


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    4. Give the Same Judgment When There Is No Relevant Difference

    • Suppose that two students get the same grade in every exam.

    • Suppose that the instructor gives one of them a B (as his total grade) while he gives another a C (as her total grade).

    • The instructor might be morally criticized in that he gives different judgments when there is no morally relevant difference.

    • He can refute this challenge only by pointing to a morally relevant difference, such as a difference in the grade in some assignment or a difference in the contribution to the class discussion.

      • He needs to point to a relevant difference. For example, the difference in sex is not a relevant difference in this context.


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    An Application

    • Consider Thomson’s “Violinist” case. (the text, p.221)

    • You wake up and find yourself back to back in bed with a famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment. The Society of Music Lovers has found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood. The doctor in the hospital tells you that to unplug you would be to kill him. In nine months he will recover from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged.

    • Is it permissible for you to unplug yourself?

    • If you says “yes” and are a pro-life person, here comes a challenge. Is there any relevant difference between unplugging the unconscious violinist and aborting a fetus? If no, even if a fetus is a person, it is permissible to abort him or her.


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    6. Seek for valid moral principles: Introduction to Moral Theory

    • As Timmons points out (pp.5-6), valid moral principles will both

      • explain why certain actions are right (or wrong), and

      • help us to arrive at justified moral verdicts about actions and rationally settle moral disputes. (See the inference on p.5)

    • As Timmons points out (pp.1-4), because these two are the practical and theoretical aims of moral theory, so moral theorists seek for valid moral principles.


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    Deontic Categories v. Value Categories (Timmons, 7-10)

    • Concepts like “right”, “wrong”, “obligatory”, “merely permissible/optional” etc. are used to evaluate the morality of actions, i.e., what one can intentionally do. They are called deonticconcepts.

      • For the basic deontic categories of actions, see Figure 1.1 on Timmons, p.9.

    • Concepts like “good”, “bad” and “value-neutral/indifferent” are primarily used to evaluate objects, feelings, character traits, consequences etc. They are called value concepts.

    • That is, other things than actions, e.g., a picture, a computer, suffering, can be good or bad, but only actions can be right or wrong.


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    The Structure of Moral Theory (Timmons, pp. 10-12)

    • Moral Theory has two parts: theory of right conduct, and theory of value.

    • Theory of right conduct seeks for principles of right or wrong actions.

    • Theory of value seeks for principles of good or bad things.

      • See the components of moral theory on p.11.

    • In stating principles, moral theory tells how right or wrong actions relate to good or bad things.

      • For example, one type of theories of right conduct (called consequentialism) holds that actions are right if and only if the upshot would be the best if the action were taken.


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    Reading for Tuesday

    • Read:

      Hugo Adam Bedau, “Capital Punishment”, Chapter 5 (pp.160-194) of the text

      • You do not have to read section 30 “Equal justice and Capital Punishment”, pp.188-190 because we will discuss this part on the next Thursday.


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