Monday 7/08

Introduction and Logic





We began today, and the class, by considering two cases: The Useful Sibling and Students' Little Helper. These, we said, are moral dilemmas. But what are moral dilemmas?

While identifying precisely the features of a case that make it a moral dilemma is surprisingly difficult, I suggested on a first run that our discussion of the cases revealed:

  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!

So the thought that we shall study ethics this session begs an important question:

Can ethics be taught?

This is a surprisingly difficult question.

On the one hand, people will say that ethics is about not hurting other people and doing good things; there's nothing especially puzzling or challenging about that, so we really shouldn't need to spend time talking about ethics.

These people are in the 'Ethics is Obvious' camp. According to the Ethics-is-Obvious camp, ethics cannot be taught in the same sense that the fact that grass is green cannot be taught; just looking is enough to know the truth, and if you don't know what it is to be green, no amount of explaining will help.

On the other hand, people will say that ethics is about whatever a person happens to believe she ought to do. There's no truth to ethics. It's just whatever you believe, or maybe it's just whatever you were raised to believe. There's no point in talking about ethics since there's nothing to be decided; people believe what they believe, end of story.

These people are in the 'Ethics is Mysterious' camp. According to the Ethics-is-Mysterious camp, ethics cannot be taught in the same sense that one cannot be taught what one believes.

Either way, there's seems to be little point in spending time talking about ethics.

But let's not be too hasty.

What if the two camps are mistaken? Suppose there is a middle camp. Suppose there are some situations where it really isn't obvious what we ought to do, but there is a fact of the matter and we are able to figure it out if we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

I'm in this middle camp.

  • I don't think it's obvious that capital punishment is morally permissible, but I do think we can discover the truth.
  • I don't think it's obvious that colleges and universities shouldn't be allowed to use race as part of admission's standards, but I do think there are reasons for and against that we ought to study very carefully.
  • I don't think it's obvious that conducting experiments on animals is morally permissible, but I do think the debate will, eventually, lead us to the truth.
  • I don't think it's obvious that cloning a human being is morally wrong, but I do think there is a fact about whether it's right or wrong--a fact that is accessible to us.

Those of us in the middle camp have learned that answers aren't always easy when it comes to moral questions; yet we are confident that the answers exist and are accessible to us.

Because we are rational animals, we have the capacity to arrive at the truth of moral matters; because we are rational animals, the truth of moral matters sometimes escapes us.

Plato had it right: ethics is about nothing less than how we ought to live our lives, and this is certainly something about which we can reason.

To be sure, this is not yet an argument. The argument I plan on making to justify the view that even hard ethical cases can be solved provided we are diligent, careful, and smart will take most of the summer to make. It may be that you won't find the argument convincing, although I hope some will. Yet even if you reject the argument, you will have gained a much deeper of matters moral in the process.

Having introduced the point of the course today, I proceeded to introduce the foundation for the course - logic. Logic is foundational in the sense that virtually everything we do in the course involves the presentation and critical assessment of arguments. Of course, it is completely unfair to expect students to understand logic after a single lecture; it's the best we can do in a course of this nature, nonetheless.

I do not expect, require, demand, or even believe that you understand every concept from this lecture. At best, the terminology of arguments is "in the air", as it were, and definitions are available for your repeated review. What I have discovered from previous classes is that once I start using the terminology on a regular basis, students steadily catch on to what is meant. If you feel completely lost, take heart: There are many, many others feeling the same way at this point.

Eventually you will be able (I promise!) to

  • Explain the distinction between inductive and deductive arguments.
  • Explain the distinction between a weak and a strong inductive argument.
  • Explain the distinction between invalid, valid, and sound deductive arguments.

Unfortunately, our discussion today was rudely interrupted by a fire alarm. We had just defined validity, invalidity, and soundness, which is barely enough to get started on these difficult concepts. Tomorrow I'll flesh them out with examples and we'll discuss the crucial difference between an argument which is formally correct and an argument which is not merely formally correct but also factually correct.