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Writing an Ethical Argument

Updated on October 10, 2012

Writing an Ethical Argument

This document is intended to be an instructional resource for students or instructors who want to learn more about how to write an ethical argument. This document is divided into four sections, each of which discusses a particular point to keep in mind when writing an ethical argument.

If your professor assigned you an ethical argument paper, it’s likely that he or she will have specific guidelines for the assignment that are not mentioned here. Whenever you are writing an ethical argument paper, it is important to consult your assignment sheet and/or syllabus.

1. What is an Ethical Argument?
2. Defining the Word Ethical
3. Things to Consider When Arguing for Each Kind of Ethical Claim
4. Making Assumptions
5. Examples of Each Kind of Ethical Argument

1. What is an Ethical Argument?

Generally, an ethical argument tries to show that certain actions or policies are either ethical or unethical. In other words, an ethical argument tries to show that a specific thing is either morally right or wrong.

2. Defining the Word “Ethical”

The most important thing to do when writing an ethical argument is to define the word “ethical”. This is easier said than done. The reason for this is that people often have different ideas of what the word means. By the previous statement, I do not mean simply that people disagree over which actions are ethical actions, but that people also disagree over what it even means to say that something is ethical.

For this reason, it is very important that you clearly define what you mean by the word “ethical”. When choosing a definition, keep in mind that there are several kinds of ethical arguments and that the way you argue for your particular claim depends in large part on how you define your terms.

While there may be several nuanced definitions of the word “ethical”, there are three major ways that ethical philosophers have defined it:

A. Mind-Independent/Objective Obligations

Several philosophers, when they say that a certain action is ethical, mean that there is a mind-independent reason for any person to do that action. Likewise, to say that a certain action is unethical would be equivalent to saying that there is a mind-independent reason for any person to refrain from doing that action.

A mind-independent reason is some kind of reason that exists independently of human thought. For example, if action X is unethical in the mind-independent sense, then that action would be ethically wrong regardless of what anyone thought about it. That is, there is a fact of the matter.

Mind-independent obligations are often referred to as objective obligations.

B. Requirement of reason.

Many ethical philosophers have conceived of the ethical not as some kind of mind-independent entity, but as things we are obligated to do in order to be rational. By this definition, saying that an action is ethical means that we have a reason to do that action simply because we are rational human beings.

C. Obligations Arising From Sentiments.

Ethical philosophers have often defined the word ethical as a word used to describe an action that we have a reason to do because we care about and sympathize with other people. He or she would start with the premise that, for whatever reason, as humans we tend to value the lives and happiness of other humans. From there, he or she would argue that we have reason to perform a certain action because it promotes human happiness, or that we should not perform a certain action because it impedes happiness or promotes suffering.

3. Things to Consider When Arguing for Each Type of Ethical Claim

A. Mind-Independent.

Mind-independent ethical claims are the strongest kind of ethical claim, but the hardest to defend. The problem is that it is difficult to find evidence for the existence of mind-independent ethical obligations. While ethical philosophers have made various kinds of arguments for the existence of mind-independent moral requirements, many ethical arguments of this kind rely on the fact that the vast majority of humans have very strong ethical intuitions. For example, if you were to see someone doing something horrific to another person, you would have a strong feeling that what they were doing is wrong. You wouldn’t just feel that the action was something you personally disliked; you would feel that there was something objectively wrong with it. A typical argument of this type would try to establish what ethical intuitions we all share and use that information to come to conclusion about whether a certain action is ethical.

For example, if you were arguing that action X is unethical, you might say that humans share the strong ethical intuition that dishonesty is wrong, and would then go on to show how action X is dishonest. Another example might be to argue that action Z is ethical by saying that humans share a strong ethical intuition that preserving individual liberty is the right thing to do, and that action Z promotes individual liberty.

When making any kind of argument, it is important to consider objections. Often times, our ethical intuitions can be at odds. For example, based on our ethical intuitions, you might conclude that preserving individual liberty is ethically right and also conclude that maximizing human happiness is ethically right. It might also be the case that a certain action would impede individual liberty, but at the same time would be likely to maximize human happiness. In such a case, it is up to you as a writer to decide which ethical intuition takes precedent, and on what grounds.

B. Requirements of Reason-

Arguing that we have a certain ethical obligation as a result of our rationality can be difficult. If you have not studied ethical philosophy or have never written an ethical argument paper before, you may want to avoid making this kind of ethical argument. However, it is of course still an option. These kinds of ethical arguments are wide and varied; For this reason, there aren’t many generally applicable tips for this kind of argument.

C. Obligations Arising From Sentiments

Making an ethical argument while using this definition of ethical is probably the easiest and simplest way to make an ethical argument. The first part of making such an argument is generally establishing that we tend to care about and sympathize with other humans. From there, your task as a writer would be to show that the action which you are claiming is ethical improves human well-being.
Be prepared for the possibility that people who disagree with you may claim that the action which you are claiming is unethical is actually beneficial to human well-being; likewise, they might claim that an action you are supporting as ethical is detrimental to human well-being. If you’re arguing that action X is ethical in this particular sense, you may want to consider what possible negative consequences action X might have and whether or not the benefits of action X outweigh the consequences.

4. Assumptions

Writing an ethical argument is a little bit like building a pyramid. Every argument you make will inevitably rely on some contentious premise. For example, say you were making a mind-independent ethical argument in which you claimed that doing action X is immoral. In order to show that your claim is true, you would have to build your argument in steps. You would need to first provide an argument for the existence of mind-independent moral obligations. You would then need to provide an argument which shows that a particular mind-independent moral obligation exists. From there, you would try to show that the action which you are claiming to be unethical somehow violates that moral obligation.

This task of building your arguments can seem very daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. As a writer, you have the option of narrowing the scope of your paper. You can narrow your paper by making assumptions, which is fairly common in ethical argumentation. For example, if you were making the above argument, you might state in your opening paragraph that your paper is working under the assumption that there are mind-independent moral principles. Then, your paper’s thesis would change from something like “action X is immoral” to, “if there are mind-independent moral obligations, then action X would be immoral”. To take another example, suppose you were a religious person and that your religion influenced your moral beliefs. In that case, you might want to assume the existence of God in your opening paragraph instead of spending several pages providing an argument for the existence of God.

Another thing to keep in mind about assumptions is that the amount of assumptions you are able to make depends in large part on the scope and length of your paper. For example, if you were writing a thesis on ethics, it would probably be unwise to make many assumptions, if any. However, if you are limited to a page or two, it’s very unlikely that you will be able to defend all of the premises that you need for your argument; as a result, you would probably want to use assumptions to limit the scope of your paper.

Try to avoid unreasonable assumptions. This advice may seem vague, but perhaps this is unavoidable. Basically though, the idea is to avoid making assumptions that very few or no reasonable people would make. For example, it would be inappropriate to have a ridiculous assumption like “Everything I say is correct”. You can’t make any assumption that you want. Use common sense to avoid bad assumptions.

5.Examples of Each Kind of Ethical Argument.

In this section you will find an example of each kind of ethical argument that has been discussed in this text. Please keep in mind that the following examples only represent a small portion of the different ethical arguments that philosophers have made throughout time. They are meant to be a tool for developing a better sense of how each kind of argument works in practice.

A. Mind-independent

An example of a mind-independent ethical argument is Divine Command Theory. According to Divine Command Theory (DCV), our ethical obligations come from God. In DVC, Our ethical obligations are not creations of society nor are they requirements of logic. God creates ethical rightness, or at least uses his omniscience to discover objective rules of ethical rightness. He then makes these ethical rules available to us through holy texts.

B. Requirements of Reason

In his book The Possibility of Altruism Thomas Nagel argues for what he calls the “Silver Rule” of morality. According to Nagel, if someone were to treat us badly, say by robbing us, we would feel outraged. We would not just feel upset at the loss of our money, we would also feel that the person who robbed us had a reason not to do so. We would feel that the person had done something wrong.
Nagel then asks his reader to ask themselves the following question: Is there anything particularly special about me which would cause me to be exempt from moral obligations which I feel others have? Nagel believes that, if an individual is honest with him or herself, he or she will have to admit that there is no particular quality which sets them apart from others in this way. Therefore, says Nagel, in order to be logically consistent we would ourselves have to accept any ethical obligations which we believe others to have. If we think it would be wrong for someone to rob us, we must acknowledge that it would be wrong for us to rob another person. If we believe it would be wrong for someone to physically harm us, we must acknowledge that it would be wrong for us to physically harm someone else.

C. Obligations Arising from Sentiments

David Hume argued that morality was founded in our sympathies. According to Hume, when we see other people suffering, we feel their pain, but to a lesser degree, through the mechanism of sympathy. Likewise, when we see someone who is very happy, we sympathize with that happiness. Basically, we care about other people and have a vested interest in their happiness. Because of this interest in others, we have reason to treat them with respect and kindness.

Because society is made up of individuals, Hume also argues that we have reason to act in ways that benefit society and refrain from acting in ways that are harmful to society. Hume argues for many behaviors which he considers virtuous (charity, modesty, benevolence, etc.) based on how they contribute to the well-being of society and individuals.


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