Wednesday 8/29

Case Discussion




Following up on our discussion of the two cases from last time, The Useful Sibling and Students' Little Helper, today we took up only the first of the two cases in the above bundle of cases: Differential Tuition and Intelligent Design.

Our interest, I said, is not in the study of obvious moral cases--killing an innocent person without sufficient reason, say, or lying to manipulate for political gain--but in the hard cases, which last time we characterized as moral dilemmas.

Recall that,

  1. In a moral dilemma we find apparently equally good reasons for alternative, incompatible, and consequential courses of action.
  2. The existence of such competing reasons makes us unsure how to proceed, particularly when the stakes are high.
  3. Competing reasons raises the difficult question of how we should go about adjudicating between them.
  4. The challenge of assessing competing reasons in an unbiased, principled way can even make us wonder whether there really is a morally right course of action in the first place!

Today we split up into groups to practice making the case for and against differential tuition rates and for and against teaching intelligent design as a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory in biology class.

My point in this exercise in giving arguments advocatus dei and advocatus diaboli was to illustrate a very important point: In a moral dilemma, we seem to have good reasons on both sides (or, in many cases, many sides!) How, then, do we correctly and in principled fashion weigh these reasons? Equivalently, how do we judge arguments? After all, we want to know what is the right thing to do. Presumably, the right thing to do is whatever course of action has the best arguments in its favor. What, though, determines 'best' when it comes to arguments?

This is a deep and difficult puzzle. It is also why we begin next week with some of the most challenging material we will encounter this semester, logic, namely.