Some of you have noticed how Norcross’ Puppy Argument, Singer’s Drowning Child Argument, and what I called Huemer’s “Sam” Argument share the same overall argumentative strategy. This a post about that overall strategy.
This is not to say that they are always presented with the same form. Norcross, for instance, presents his Puppy Argument as a modus ponens at one point:
Puppy Argument (Modus Ponens formulation) (Norcross, 236)
- Premise 1: If it’s wrong to torture puppies for gustatory pleasure, it’s wrong to support factory farming.
- Premise 2: It is wrong to torture puppies for gustatory pleasure.
- Conclusion: Therefore it’s wrong to support factory farming.
But as I pointed out in the later added extra slide, his argument might be better formulated like the below, to bring out the force of his argument better:
Puppy Argument (Moral Analogy formulation)
- Premise 1’: Eating dessert at Fred’s is morally the same as consuming factory-farmed meat.
- Premise 2’: You already believe that whether or not your action/in-action would discourage Fred from torturing puppies, it’s wrong to eat dessert at Fred’s.
- Conclusion’: You ought also to believe that whether or not your action/in-action would affect factory-farming, it’s wrong to consume factory-farmed meat!
Now compare my formulation of Singer’s argument:
Drowning Child Argument
- Premise 1: You have a moral obligation to save the drowning child in the pond even if it means getting your clothes muddy.
- Premise 2: The relationship between you and the drowning child in the pond, and between you and the starving child in the poor country, are morally the same.
- Conclusion: You have a moral obligation to save the starving child in the poor country, even if it means sacrificing your material wealth.
And my formulation of Huemer’s “Sam” argument (template):
- Premise 1: Coercive act X undertaken by private individuals and groups—e.g., Sam and his friends—is morally wrong.
- Premise 2: If X is wrong when undertaken by private individuals and groups, it is also wrong when undertaken by government.
- Conclusion: Coercive act X undertaken by government is morally wrong.
All of three arguments share the following core features:
There is a Moral Judgment Premise (MJP) claiming that some class of actions–X–has a certain moral status, e.g., that they are morally wrong.
There is a Moral Equivalence Premise (MEP) claiming that some other class of actions–Y–is morally analogous to X.
The conclusion is then drawn, that the actions in Y also has the same moral status, e.g., that they are also morally wrong.
(Note that the sequencing of the MJP and the MEP doesn’t matter.)
Let’s call the whole package, an Argument from Moral Analogy (AMA).
As an aside, the general argumentative strategy was already noticed and utilized by Mozi (the ancient Chinese philosopher–yes, the one who may have been the earliest known Consequentist thinker philosopher). His followers codified such arguments as the “pushing out” (tuī 推) style of argument, where the proponent of the argument “pushes out” from the judgment that X falls under a certain category to the judgement that Y also falls under that category.
Why is AMA such a standard argumentative strategy in the ethicist’s toolkit? The reason isn’t hard to find–arguments in the AMA style works by arguing from moral judgments that the audience already share (if they work at all), rather than abstract moral theories which are, by nature, more controversial. Perhaps you might be persuaded by some form of Utilitarianism, or a variety of Deontology with a specific list of duties. But typically, your compatriots will be but a segment of the audience you are trying to reach. If the point is just to speak to your philosophical compatriots, sure, why not.
But if the point is to convince as many people as possible that eating factory-farmed meat is wrong or that people who live in rich countries have the moral obligation to donate much more than they already do to help the suffering poor–where those “many people” can’t be counted on to already agree with your preferred moral theory, then something more like the AMA presents a much better strategy. That is, as long as you are able to latch onto an existing moral judgment that your audience already share. More generally, if and when an argument in the AMA style works, it’s because it successfully latched onto just such a moral judgement already shared by the audience.
Now, you might ask (and a student did ask this very perceptive question one semester)–so when an argument in the AMA style works on me (let’s say), it’s because it successfully latched onto a moral judgement I already share. But how do I know that that judgement is true? How do I know that it is wrong to torture puppies for gustatory pleasure, for instance? Is it a matter of my intuition? Does the AMA presuppose the doctrine that our moral intuitions justifies our moral judgments?
Now, it’s true that some philosophers who use the AMA are ethical intuitionists (Michael Huemer is a good example). But my point here isn’t about that at all. When I talk about the AMA “working”, and “convincing” you, the claim isn’t that the AMA establishes truth in the abstract. Rather, when the AMA works, it gives you a reason to believe that something is true, because you already believe that the relevant MJP is true. For the purposes at hand, this is not only “good enough”, it’s better than establishing truth in the abstract–if the point is to convince people that eating factory-farmed meat is wrong or that people who live in rich countries have the moral obligation to donate much more than they already do to help the suffering poor–so that they will go on to do the required things! Later in the semester, we’ll talk about the distinction between truth and justification, which will be relevant to the issue at hand.