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).
all volvo cars have a steering wheel
my car is a volvo
therefore my car has a steering wheel
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.
This is a wonderful clip for thinking about religion and ethics. For those not familiar with The West Wing the bald gentleman plays Toby Ziegler, a senior aide to the President. In this episode, President Bartlett is face with a decision on whether to pardon a criminal due to be executed.
Non-religious people tend to think that religious people suppose they have some sort of ‘monopoly’ on truth when it comes to ethics, but this clip shows the ‘uncomfortableness‘ of religious ethics.
A long long time ago Plato recorded Socrates posing a difficulty for all those who believe right and wrong are what the god(s) say they are. This was the position held by the young and ‘upright’ Euthyphro.
‘Philosophy TV’ is a site of which I was previously unaware. I haven’t watched any of the videos yet – but looking at the names and the discussion topics, it could be very useful. Let me know if you find anything good…
Bioethics bites was around at the beginning of philosophy bites and you may have listened to a few of these without really knowing where they were from. They are full of really useful information that will help you to gain top evaluating marks in the exam…