John Nolt on Moral Arguments

For those of you studying IB Philosophy, or taking Higher but interested in going beyond the simplicities of the course, John Nolt’s Environmental Ethics for the Long Term has an excellent section on philosophical arguments in ethics.

Section 2.2.1 has one of the best explanations of the “is/ought” fallacy I have ever read. Using the terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ to refer to premises that respectively contain or do not contain a sentiment of something being right or wrong, he uses the phrase ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to refer to an argument where (at least) one premise and the conclusion include some sort of moral valuing.

Of course an argument can be valid and sound if it contains no moral sentiments (1), and one which has ‘moral’ or ‘ought’ premises might lead to a valid and ‘ought’ type conclusion (2).

Example 1:

all volvo cars have a steering wheel

my car is a volvo

therefore my car has a steering wheel


Example 2:

one should intervene when one person is abusing another against the latter’s will

‘abusing another against their will’ is what happens in sex-trafficking

therefore you should be acting against sex-trafficking

Of course one might object to the ‘truth’ of each of the premises here, but if one did agree with both then it would commit you to the conclusion. This is an example of what Nolt calls ‘prescriptive reasoning’. The problem is when someone tries to move from purely ‘descriptive’ premises to a prescriptive conclusion. This is the is/ought fallacy. The example used by Nolt is the use of Social Darwinism by the Nazis, simply because the ‘strong’ or ‘fittest’ survive it certainly does not follow that one should act in a way to make this happen.

Allowing this ‘prescriptive reasoning’ to stand is not the same as believing it to be sound. In fact it can be particularly difficult to spot problematic premises. Consider the following:

We ought to eliminate suffering.

The only feasible way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate all sentient beings.

Therefore we ought to eliminate all sentient beings.*

*Nolt, J Environmental Ethics for the Long Term (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015) 39.

Peep Show and Errors in Reasoning

Jeremy Usborne: Yeah, it’s all based on the seven sacred truths from the golden tablets found in the asteroid which crashed in Siberia in 1911. It’s a really great book, you’d love the chapter on Orgones.

Mark Corrigan: Orgones?

Jeremy Usborne: Orgones are the invisible molecules of universal life energy which govern our moods and our actions. Negative Orgones are the sources of all the problems in the world.

Mark Corrigan: And you believe that?

Jeremy Usborne: Well, how do explain all the problems in the world.

Mark Corrigan: I mean, I couldn’t just… There are so many historical and economic factors.

Jeremy Usborne: Exactly. You haven’t got a clue.

Mark Corrigan: But come on, Jez? Asteroids? Orgones? What would you say if I came home one day talking about that kind of stuff?

Jeremy Usborne: I’d say “That’s sounds fascinating, please tell me more.” See you later.

Or here’s another…

Jeremy Usborne: The good news is that in my last personality chart I was thirty percent up. Which was pretty wicked.

Super Hans: Your wellness levels must be through the fucking roof. You’re right on schedule, according to the book. Hardback book, based on tablets brought by an asteroid. Something you can rely on.

Jeremy Usborne: Yeah. What do you think about the… asteroid stuff?

Super Hans: What, are you having a few doubts?

Jeremy Usborne: No. God no. More sort of… thoughts.
Or another…. Cally (Jez’s new manager) justifies her belief in the sacredness of crystal skulls…

CALLY: How could you possibly make one of these [crystal skulls] except by some type of magic?
MARK CORRIGAN: In a factory…from glass.
CALLY: Oh sure, c’mon! Could you make that?

family guy again…

In ‘Screwed the Pooch’ Brian is up in courst and the prosecution lawyer cross examines Peter…

Lawyer: Mr Griffin, which of the following two phrases best describes Brian Griffin: Problem Drinker or African-American Haberdasher?
Peter: Uh, do I-I guess problem drinker, but that’s uh-
Lawyer: Thank-you. Now: Sexual deviant or magic picture that if you stare at it long enough, you see something?
Peter: Well, sexual deviant, but that other one’s not even, eh-
Lawyer: Thank-you

Reductio ad absurdum – finally an example….

Last night when I was out I ended up sitting across from a massive group of girls who were preening themselves and clucking like something out of an episode of family guy. It was like our city’s version of TOWIE.

Anyway as the night went on one girl calls her ‘mate’ an unrepeatable word alluding to her friend’s ‘unattractiveness’. The friend was clearly hurt by this remark and quickly pointed out that she had been brought several drinks this evening and that the girl with the extensive vocabulary had been unapproached all night.

to this the original girl said something meaning something like ‘yes dear, but that’s because I’m so stunning that everyone one in this establishment is intimidated by me…’. One of her other friends chuckled. The original insulted girl muttered under her breath that that would mean she must be the most attractive girl in the club – perhaps even the city. The implication was clear, even though it passed the person at whom it was directed uncomprehended. the whisperer was stating something that she thought was obviously ridiculous.

And this is it. This is what philosophers are doing when they use the word absurd.