Core Concepts

DRAFT 8/30/16

This book uses a small set of concepts to achieve big results. Here are the basics:

1.     Wrong, permissible & obligatory:

Actions are right or wrong, right? Wrong! Not right!
These are three basic moral or ethical categories for actions. There are actions that are wrong: that concept is clear (what particular actions and types of actions are wrong, however, is often a harder question).
But ‘morally right’ is ambiguous: it sometimes means permissible and it sometimes means obligatory. Suppose someone says, “Abortion is right,” or “Homosexuality is right,” or “Saving a drowning toddler at the kiddy pool would be right.” About the first two, they probably just mean, “Not wrong.” About the third, they probably mean that, “Not saving that child would be wrong!” ‘Right’ then has two meanings: morally permissible (OK to do, not wrong to do) and morally obligatory (must be done, wrong to not do). We will use these two clearer terms and avoid the confusion of the term ‘right.’ And morally wrong actions are impermissible, we are obligated to not do them.
While we will discuss evaluating people, motives and institutions, such as governments and laws, our focus will be on actions, what individual people do. 

2.     Prima facie wrongness, permissibility, and obligations:

This is a useful Latin expression: to say that an action is “prima facie” wrong is say that it is the type or kind of action that is typically wrong, or wrong in most circumstances.
This is useful for productive generalizations: e.g., that it’s wrong to kill people. (Unfortunately, thinking about ethics often involves thinking about a lot of unpleasant examples, from real life and made-up examples! [Why is that?]). 

Arguably there are exceptions to that rule or principle, but we often don’t want to get sidetracked by those exceptions. So we can say, e.g., that it’s prima facie wrong to kill people, meaning something like, “It’s wrong to kill people unless there is a really good reason to do so,” or “In normal circumstances it is wrong to kill people but in some extreme circumstances doing that can be not wrong.” We can also say that, e.g., it’s prima facie morally permissible to spend an afternoon cleaning your room and it’s prima facie morally obligatory to try to help someone who is drowning in a pool.
Prima facie” allows for useful generalizations and helps us avoid getting sidetracked by exceptions. We can, of course, try to figure out when a particular action that’s of a prima facie wrong type of action is actually not wrong, that is, when the justified exceptions to otherwise plausible moral principles are.

3.     Arguments:

An argument is a conclusion supported by a premise or premises. People offer conclusions on moral issues: that doing such and such is wrong or not. We’ll ask, “Why think that?” The conclusion is the that in “Why think that?” and the premises are the why, the reason(s). Without the ‘why’ we don’t have an argument: both a conclusion and at least one premise are needed for an argument. 

4.     “Logically valid” arguments:

This is a special term that means that the premises lead to the conclusion, as a matter of logic: there is a mathematical relation between the premise and conclusion so that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must also be true. We’re doing math with words here, and the math is often as simple as adding the italicized premise here to link “Socrates is a man” to “Socrates is mortal”:

Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal (or, If someone is a man, then he is mortal).
So, Socrates is mortal.


This form or pattern of argument is called a syllogism. This form of argument can be symbolized like this:

What this pattern says is this: “There is something, a, that has a characteristic (or feature, or property) P. And anything, x, that has that characteristic P also has a characteristic Q. Therefore, a also is Q.” As we will see, many moral arguments are instances of this pattern of reasoning and so this form of argument is very useful.

Modus Tollens

Another pattern is called modus tollens:

If P is true, then Q is true.
But Q is no true.
So P is not true.

Or, more simply:

If P, then Q.
But not Q.
So, not P.

Here P and Q each stand for a sentence, a claim. Modus tollens is a way to “test” claims in light of what follows from them, as a matter of logic, or is a consequence of the claim. Here’s a simple, somewhat silly, example:

Suppose someone proposed that “only brown eyed people have the right to life.” We can argue against this with this reasoning:

1.     If only brown-eyed people have the right to life, then it’s not wrong to kill blue-eyed people (since they wouldn’t have right to life).
2.     But it is wrong to kill blue eyed people.
3.     Therefore, it’s not true that only brown-eyed people have the right to life.

The form of argument involves considering a claim and seeing what follows from it or is a logical consequence. And if something follows that is false, that gives a reason to think that the initial claim is false also. Modus tollens is very useful, both in philosophy and in daily life.

Modus Ponens

Finally, there’s modus ponens:

If P is true, then Q is true.
P is true.
So Q is true.

Or, more simply:

If P, then Q.
So, Q.

An example:
If Eve lives in Ohio, she lives in the United States.
Eve lives in Ohio.
So, she lives in the United States. 

The syllogism pattern above is related to modus ponens, but the syllogism pattern allows us to talk about people, actions, things of all kinds in general which is useful.

This video offers an explanation of how to make arguments logically valid, focusing on syllogisms:

See also:

5.     “Sound” arguments:

This is another special term. A “sound” argument is (a) a logically valid argument with (b) true premises. Since “logically valid” means, “if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true,” the conclusion is true in a sound argument, since the premises are true and the argument is logically valid. One we’ve determined an argument is logically valid, we next try to figure out if the premises are true or not, or whether there are good reasons to accept the premises or not.

6.     Clarifying words’ meaning:

To decide whether a premise is true or false, we must understand what the premise says. Sometimes this is obvious, but sometimes words used in moral arguments – in premises and/or conclusions – are unclear in their meaning: e.g., ‘person,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘human,’ ‘rights’, and many more. Sometimes these words have multiple meanings. When a meaning is unclear, we’ll have to ask “What do you mean?” since we must understand what is being said to try to figure out whether what is said is true or not. And the same is true about our own thoughts: “What do I mean when I say that?”

7.     Precise premises and conclusions:

It’s sometimes initially unclear how many things or people are mentioned in a premise or a conclusion: ‘Men are …’, ‘Women are …’, ‘Criminals are …’ ‘Drugs are . . ‘, ‘Human beings are …’ and many more. So, we have to ask, “Are you saying all things (or people, or actions or whatever) are like that? Or just some of them? Which ones are like that? To determine whether something said is true or false, we need to be clear what quantity or number of things that person is talking about. ‘All’ and ‘some’ can make a big difference to whether a claim is true or false.

8.     “Counterexamples”:

Moral arguments usually have at least one premise that is a moral rule or principle: this is a generalization about when actions are wrong, or permissible or obligatory: “If an action is like this …., then it is wrong.” These are related to moral theories, discussed below.
Counterexamples are a way to try to show that moral principle is not true. Suppose an argument has a moral premise, “All causing pain is wrong” or “If an action causes pain, then that action is wrong.” To respond that it’s not wrong to go to the dentist, or to lift heavy weights, even though those cause pain, and so it’s not always wrong to cause pain, and so this premise is false, is to offer a counterexample. This is an exception to the proposed rule or principle that shows it to be false.
Counterexamples are best when they are as uncontroversial as possible.
Counterexamples can lead to a revised, potentially improved principle: “All causing unwanted pain is wrong.” Are there counterexamples to that principle? (See below in the section 10 for more discussion of these examples).

9.     “Question-begging arguments”:

Arguments are supposed to give a reason to believe a conclusion. Some arguments don’t do this at all because the “reason” given for the conclusion is just the conclusion itself: “You should believe this because you should believe this.” If you were wondering whether you should believe this or not, that argument wouldn’t help you decide. Arguments that “beg the question” offer, as a premise for that conclusion, that conclusion itself. That conclusion is often in different words, but it always, at least, a claim that you would accept only if you already accepted the conclusion. So, this type of argument literally assumes the conclusion in a premise; it is a kind of circular reasoning: you wouldn’t believe the premises unless you already believed the conclusion. Since we trying to decide whether to accept the conclusion or not, being given that conclusion as a premise doesn’t help us decide what to believe. Question begging arguments are bad arguments, and we always want to avoid them.

10.  Necessary, Sufficient and Necessary & Sufficient conditions:

A necessary condition says that you “have” something, or such and such is the case only if you have some something else: that something else is needed for the initial thing to be the case. For examples:

·        The (normal) car will run only if there is gas in it.
·        Someone is a mother only if she is female.

These necessary conditions, however, are not sufficient conditions for the topic in question: while gas is necessary for a running car, it’s not enough (spark plugs are needed, and much more); while one must be female to be a mother – that’s necessary – being female is not enough for being a mother, it’s insufficient.

A sufficient condition is something that if you have it, then you indeed have something else. So:

·        If the (normal) car is running, then there is gas in it.
·        If someone is a mother, then she is female.

A set of necessary and condition(s) is what you must have to have something else (necessary conditions) and if you have them (or it), then you have that other thing (sufficient conditions). An example:

·        A shape is a square if and only if:
o   It has 4 sides.
o   It has four, 90 degree angles.
o   It is a closed figure.

Conditions 1-3 are necessary for a figure to be a square (you can't have a square without them; you must have them to have a square), and a figure being a square is sufficient for conditions 1-3 being met (all three are enough to have a square).

The concepts of Necessary, Sufficient and Necessary & Sufficient conditions will be very useful in thinking about moral arguments. For examples,

·        Moral theories usually attempt to state the necessary and sufficient conditions for an act being morally permissible.
·        Moral principles offer sufficient condition(s) for an action being permissible, wrong or obligatory. E.g.,

o   If an action X causes pain, then action X is wrong. (What are counterexamples to show this to be false?)
o   If an action X causes pain that’s unwanted by the individual in pain, then action X is wrong. (What are counterexamples to show this to be false?)
o   If an action X causes pain that’s unwanted and doesn’t benefit the individual in pain, then action X is wrong. (Are there counterexamples to this principle?)

·        Many analyses of moral concepts (proposed definitions) attempt to state necessary conditions, sufficient conditions or necessary and sufficient conditions. E.g., to ask what it is to be a person is to ask what the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a person. Many objections to these analyses involve these concepts also, e.g., arguing that some alleged necessary condition really isn’t one, that some condition(s) really aren’t sufficient, that a necessary condition isn’t really met in some case, and so on. (This is a bit abstract; we’ll illustrate later with more examples).

These are the basic concepts we will use. Many of these concepts will be explained more soon.  Combine these with a discussion of moral theories and we are on our way!

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