PHL101: Critical Thinking, Ethical Reasoning
Evaluating Ethical Claims
- Ethical claims are claims that include (even if only
implicitly) a "should" or "ought" in them, or that make use of the
concepts of good and evil. Examples include, "You should tell the
truth" or "Murder is evil."
- Ethical claims are perhaps the most important kinds of claims
we make, and yet they do not fit with the taxonomy of claims that
we discussed at the beginning of class, nor is it clear how we should
- To get more clear about ethical claims, we are going to make
a controversial but generally accepted distinction between factual
claims and value claims. Factual claims are the kinds of claims
that we have primarily discussed in this class. (They include
empirical claims and mathematical and logical claims. Some debate
exists about whether metaphysical and methodological claims are
factual claims; we can set that debate aside.) The clearest cases
of value claims are what we will call basic value claims
that are about what should be, and from which we have separated
all of the factual claims that are implicit.
- Our standards for evaluating factual claims are just those
we have discussed in the class up to now: identify the kind of
claim and its source, evaluate it according to its source.
- There is no such agreement about how to evaluate ethical claims.
- One of the greatest problems, perhaps the greatest problem, of
philosophy is how ethical claims "fit with" other kinds of claims.
Or, equivalently, how a world that science describes only in terms of
what is, might also have facts about what should be. Philosophers
call ethical and also aesthetic statements "normative" statements,
and what such statements express are "norms."
- Philosophers have struggled hard with this problem, and many
different answers have been proposed. Here is a sampling:
- Norms exist because God wills them.
- Norms exist because there is a thing good, and norms
are rules which lead to the realization of the good.
- Norms are arbitrary rules.
- Normative claims are not really claims, but rather
expressions of emotion.
- Normative claims are all false, since there is no
good or evil.
- Most philosophers have adopted the second strategy, and tried
to describe what it means to be good and thus how we can have true
- However, the bad news is, there is very very little agreement
about what the good is, or what methods should be used to determine
whether a statement about the good is true or false (that is, even
if there is a good, surely people might sometimes be mistaken about
whether some act is good; how do we recognize such mistakes).
- This lack of agreement in method puts settling questions
about good beyond the scope of this class. However, we can still
bring a great deal of clarity to reasoning about ethics by analyzing
ethical statements and recognizing what factual and what value statements
are being made.
Analyzing Ethical Claims
- Very often, ethical debates are very confused. People
do not make it clear what they are claiming, they mix empirical
with value claims, and they attack principles which are irrelevant
to the thing at issue. We can avoid most of these confusions
if we distinguish the implicit factual and value claims. Factual
claims we now know how to evaluate. Basic ethical claims we do not
agree on how to evaluate, but by clarifying them we can at least
identify the real thing at issue.
- Example. Consider the following claim: Lying is wrong
because it undermines social cohesion. This is a complex claim.
If we asked the person who made the claim, we might get them to
explain that they believe that social cohesion is good. If they
do not offer any additional reasons for why social cohesion is
good, then we can take this as a basic value claim. Then, the
person is making two claims, implicitly: (1) Lying reduces social
cohesion; (2) social cohesion is good. The first is a factual
claim. The second is a basic value claim.
- Suppose now that someone denies the claim that lying is wrong
because it undermines social cohesion. Our defender of this
claim, as described above, should now ask: do you deny that lying
reduces social cohesion, do you deny that social cohesion is good,
or do you deny both? If the other person denies the first claim,
we know how they can try to settle that (we might try a big
experiment where a group of people lied to each other, and compare
it to a group that did not, and so on). If the person denies the
second, then they have at least exposed their most fundamental
- Note that people don't often use the words "good" and "evil."
They typically use terms like "murder," "cruel," "beneficial,"
"liberating," and so on. Philosophers call these "thick" terms:
they both describe something, but they also have implicit ethical
claims. "Murder" for example means something unjust killing -- it
is both a factual description (killing) but also an ethical one
(unjust, evil). You'll have to recognize such terms for what they
are, and unpack them to distinguish both the factual and the
- More than two thousand years ago, the philosopher Aristotle
offered an important test to determine our ethical values. Some
things we say are good, but this is only because they are good
for something else. But some things we say are good and there is
no other reason. These are our ultimate or basic ethical values.
- We might imagine something like the following dialogue.
Suppose someone says vaccines are good. You ask, why are vaccines
good? Presumably the answer is because they save human lives.
Why is that good? Because human's living is a good. Why is that?
Just because it is good -- there is no additional reason, but
rather this is a fundamental good.
- Consider other cases, such as "abortion is evil," "wealth
redistribution hurts the economy," or "meat is murder."
- In such cases, ask the person making the claim to
explain sufficiently for you to discern:
Of course, if the person making the claim is unavailable and
did not make these clear, you will have to make some hypotheses
about what these are, but keep in mind your hypotheses may
- What are the basic ethical claims? These
will often be of the form "x is evil" or "x is
good," and there is little more to be said about
them. Use Aristotle's test.
- What are the factual claims that link us from the
basic ethical claims to the broad ethical claim? That is,
what got us in our example above from the basic ethical
claim "social cohesion is good" to the more broad ethical
claim, "lying is wrong"
- Here are some more examples