Here I briefly sum up my basic goals and strategy in my Introduction to Philosophical Ethics course.
My approach is:
- interactive and discussion-based,
- skills-of-reasoning-focused, with the hope that students retain these basic skills and attitudes and apply them to future ethical questions,
- built on a foundation of "data" -- concerning the reasons given about various issues -- gathered from everyday observations, asking people questions (informal surveys) and, potentially, internet research, and so
- not readings-based: most readings augment the process; they aren't essential.
My overall goal is:
- to show students that we can systematically reason about moral issues, and teach them how to do that, to develop their skills at doing that. Here's the summary:
See below for the details!
A handout of basic concepts (click on the graphic for a better sized version):
A video on arguments and stating arguments as syllogisms (also known as "simple moral arguments," from Richard Feldman's Reason and Argument):
Some argument completion handouts:
Note: these are old and are much in need of revision.
- HOMOSEXUALITY: Arguments against homosexuality worksheet.
- POVERTY: argument worksheet.
- EATING ANIMALS: argument worksheet.
The general strategy:
A worksheet to address that strategy:
This worksheet below provides a step by step process for finding, developing and evaluating moral arguments.
Download in Word. Download in Google Docs.
1. What do you mean, your topic?
In this section, explain what the issue is, and explain what any unclear terms mean (or, at least, how you are going to use the terms: e.g., what do you mean by ‘an abortion’? What is ‘absolute poverty’? What do you mean by ‘homosexuality’? etc. Here we basically want an explanation what the issue is and the relevant facts and information.
How to find these? Reflect on your own observations, talk to fellow students, ask (random) people - interview them just about anywhere, do some internet research using any sources, do some internet research using philosophical sources, etc.
How many reasons to find? This depends on your purpose or your assignment. Maybe the top three would do. Maybe 5-10? Should you focus on common reasons, or ones that philosophers focus on? Again that depends on your purpose or assignment.
2. State the relevant conclusions on the topic, for example:
a. Doing X is wrong.b. Doing X is not wrong.c. Doing X is prima facie wrong.d. Doing X is wrong in these specified circumstances…e. Whatever conclusions are needed, given the goal of having precise conclusions.
3. Why think that? State the reasons or premises people give, or might give, in favor of these various conclusions.
4. Identify any question begging premises at this point: strike those arguments.
5. Formulate the arguments in logically valid form. (Strike any arguments that are irreparably logically invalid also).
How many arguments? Again, it depends on your purpose.
6. Evaluate each argument as sound ( = logically valid and with true or reasonable premises) or not and why.
7. Tentative conclusions. This might be about just one argument, some of the most common or popular arguments, or broader conclusions, depending on how many arguments you evaluated.A final assignment of "philosophical community service":
See also: How to Have a Philosophical Discussion
You need to clearly identify a topic or issue. Sometimes that's easy, sometimes people "dance around" a topic -- raising related issues about a topic -- before getting an exact topic.
You need to identify a conclusion(s) about the topic. Sometimes you need to think about what various words in those conclusions mean: ask, "What do you mean?"
You need to identify a premise(s) or reason(s) given in favor of that conclusion. For many moral issues, at least one premise is often an empirical or scientific claim, and at least one premise is a moral principle, that is, a claim about when an action is wrong or not. Sometimes you need to think about what various words in those premises mean: ask, "What do you mean?"
4. Unstated Premises?
Once the full pattern of reasoning is stated, i.e., it is in logically valid form, you need to evaluate the argument as sound or not: are the premises true or false, supported by good evidence or not? If at least one premise is false, then the argument is sound and does not provide a good reason to accept the conclusion. You need to check the facts to see if any factual claims are true, and try to identify any strong counterexamples to any moral principles.
This process can and should be repeated with any and all premises given in favor of a conclusion, and for different conclusions and the premises given in their favor. You must focus on one and only one argument at a time.