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.

IB Philosophy IA ideas from my SQA classes…

One of the best bits about the IB Philosophy course is that it keeps philosophy ‘real’. I don’t mean that to sound quite as ‘street’ as it does but the arrangements ensure that the academic side will never become too separated from the real world.

Unfortunately SQA (Scottish) Philosophy does not have this link, although there are plenty of good teachers out there trying to forge it, and doing this despite massive time pressures. As someone who believes that philosophy too separtate from ‘real’ life is just plain boring I try to ensure that my students get this link better than their examinations authority.

Every year I ask my exam and core classes to find their own examples of musicians, filmmakers and artists ‘doing philosophy’. The sources they bring are invariably brillliant. Here are a few:


IB Philosophy IA on the ontological argument?

I’ll come back and add to this at some point but if you’re studying IB Philosophy of Religion it should be clear enough…

Julian Young on Schopenhauer

Every so often I read (or start reading) a book that makes me read more by the same author. It”s not always because I agree with the writer, in fact recently it more often goes the other way… Julian Young’s The Death of God and the Meaning of Life was my most recent book like this… In fact it might be a very good addition to an IB philosophy reading list…

Both in this book, and his Schopenhauer, Young provides a seriously clear and useful definition that would be of use to any IB student reading Nietzsche for paper 2 or for anyone that would like to write something ‘a bit off the beaten track’ in their core theme question. I always encourage my paper 2 Nietzsche students to mention Schopenhauer in their answers and this book and that chapter explain very clearly why.

There’s an excellent section on what ‘will’ is and why it matters which may seem familiar to students of Freud. Best, perhaps is the description of Schopenhauer’s case for pessimism. I’ll return to both these books later but for now here is Young quoting Schopenhauer making a case for the creulty of nature. This point could also find a home in a philosophy of religion essay…Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 09.07.01

*Young, Julian Schopenhauer (New York: Routledge, 2005) 84.

Every year…

Every year I get at least one email from a student that shows me they have really ‘got’ what we have been studying. Last year a guy found Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons and was adamant (completely correctly in my view) that the philosophy described a sort of Christian ‘Platonism’, an idea of the human’s essence that was rejected by Jean-Paul Sartre (this was what we had been studying).

Anyway there’s more about that on my ib philosophy page, but the email I got this year was about the experience of doing philosophy. IB philosophy is a wonderful course with an emphasis on doing philosophy rather than just learning about it.It takes two years and the entire structure of the course is about helping the students to become the IB learner profile rather than just gaining some knowledge in order to repeat it. It is far more academically challenging and philosophically useful than any of the courses I have encountered that are taught elsewhere in Scotland or England. Those students that choose to take the ‘higher level’ (HL) version of the subject complete and exam paper on the question of ‘What is Philosophy?’, reflecting upon their mounting experience of studying it, and all students of both HL and Standard levels are required to complete a unit on ‘what makes a person?’

Of course this question is central to almost every other philosophical foray and it has always astounded me how certain exam boards think they can simply ‘miss it out’ of their syllabi. What’s nice about the song the student above emailed me is that it includes both of these elements:

Imagine if the life that you thought you shared
Wasn’t really there.
It was made up in your mind,
Could be anyone/anywhere


As the dust clears and it all starts to disappear,
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.
And wherever you are, land on another star!
It may get harder ’cause you just restarted.