2 Reason and Argument

2.1 Reason

The subject of disagreement is intimately related to argument. If we are reasonable, we will, presumably, have reasons for our decisions and actions.  If we want to convince others that these decisions and actions are right, then we will want to put these reasons into a logical order so that they form a strong argument. Logic is a subdiscipline of philosophy that is as old as ethics. Like ethics, logic has a global history woven into parallel histories of rhetoric and theories about language. Although formal logic has dominated discussions of logic in the European tradition for the last two centuries, it tends to have a limited application in applied ethics discussions. So, we will take a rather broader approach that includes, but is not restricted to, some of the inference patterns of formal logic.

At this point, we’re inclined to direct you to a classic skit by the British comedy troupe, Monty Python.


In their “Argument Sketch,”[1] they discuss and exemplify both what philosophical argument is and what it isn’t. Part of what they play with is the fact that we use the word “argument” in a number of different ways. We can see three different senses of the term in the skit, only two of which are philosophical. The first sense is when people who disagree about something (or think they disagree) yell at each other. This is not the philosophical sense of argument. It is correlated with it, however, as sometimes people who are engaged in such yelling matches at least started out with each taking up a contrary position and trying to convince the other.

This second sense of argument is basically a synonym for debate. Two or more parties—interlocutors—take up contrary positions on a point and try to convince the other(s). This is “an intellectual process,” as one of the characters points out, and a practice that is crucial to philosophy. It is not mere contradiction because reasons are given in an effort to change the other’s mind.

Even when there is no other person around, philosophers will often think of and defend their own positions with a type of internal debate. They themselves take up a contrary position to their own view, make as good a case as possible for it, only to defeat it later. This is one of the reasons that you need to pay careful attention when reading philosophy. It is all too easy to mistake a passage where an author is explaining an objection to their position as an account of their own view (in philosophy, we call this process dialogic reasoning). If you are not used to reading philosophy this can seem bizarre. Why would someone argue against their own view just to show that the argument they have given does not work? The idea is, if you can correctly articulate your opponent’s reasons for disagreeing with you and then show that either there is a flaw in this reasoning or that it is insufficient to dislodge your claim, then you effectively undermine their position and support your own. The point of debate is to convince other people of your own view or discover errors in your thinking and revise it. So, considering objections—thinking about why others might disagree with you and what you can say in response—is crucial for philosophical argumentation.

This brings us to our third sense of argument. These are the parts of the argument in the debate sense. Here, Monty Python offers a definition that you might find in any introductory logic book: “An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.” Often philosophers will call the “connected series of statements,” “premises,” though this is really just a fancy word for reasons. The “definite proposition”, or “conclusion”, is established by the premises. (This use of the term “conclusion” can sometimes be a bit confusing as the same word is also used to refer to the final section of an essay.) Philosophers often use this language of premises and conclusion, but it is important not to let these technical terms intimidate you. A conclusion is just a controversial statement that you are trying to convince others to believe, and the premises are the reasons that you give for holding it. Sometimes it can be tricky to determine what the conclusion is, but often authors will use verbal signs, predicating their conclusion with “thus,” “therefore,” “hence,” or a phrase like “it follows that.” (You can find a list of these kinds of verbal signs on the Appendix A, Tips for Reading Philosophy Actively.) It is important to note that philosophers will often have multiple conclusions and arguments in their paper, though typically these all serve to defend one central conclusion.

Summary of the Three Senses of “Argument”

  1. Yelling match—mere contradiction
  2. Debate—two or more parties trying to convince each other of opposing positions
  3. Philosophical argument—a connected series of premises given to establish a conclusion

Another useful point we can find in Monty Python’s “Argument Sketch” is the distinction between an argument and a good argument. Of course, in the sketch, when one of the characters says, “I came here for a good argument,” he means something like he was expecting a debate that was interesting and fun. Because we are more concerned with the third type of argument, we are going to think about good arguments as ones that are successful. That is, a good argument is one that would convince any rational person of the truth (or reasonableness) of the conclusion. The premises of a good argument really do establish the conclusion (or at least show it to be more reasonable than alternatives).

2.2 How to Evaluate Philosophical Arguments

Now, it is all very well to say this, but we still need more guidance as to how to assess arguments. Again, there is a huge and diverse global literature on this very topic. Nonetheless, most of it can be summarized (albeit superficially) in a neat heuristic offered by Canadian philosopher, Trudy Govier. She suggests that we evaluate arguments by posing three different questions about the premises and their relation to the conclusion, which she calls the ARG conditions: A, are the premises true or at least acceptable? R, are the premises relevant to the conclusion? G, do the premises provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion?[2] (See Appendix B: Critical Thinking Worksheet for an interactive resource to help you assess whether a philosopher adequately meets the ARG conditions. It can also be used to help you develop your own philosophical arguments.)

The first condition—A, the truth or acceptability of the premises—is pretty easy to understand. If the reasons that someone gives for believing a particular conclusion are false (or otherwise unacceptable), then you don’t have any reason for accepting that conclusion. Ideally, we would be certain that each premise is true, but certain truth is a difficult standard to maintain. After all, even very well verified and widely accepted claims in the sciences—for instance, that cigarette smoking causes cancer—might just be false. This is not a flaw of science; it is a side effect of the empirical and statistical methods that are characteristic of scientific research. It is possible, albeit extraordinarily unlikely, that every study of the issue had some unrecognized fatal flaw and that the well-evidenced correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer is the result of some other factor or factors, that are correlated with cigarette smoking, and that actually cause cancer. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to accept the claim that cigarette smoking causes cancer even if we don’t have absolute certainty. Indeed, if we are not willing to accept claims like this, we will find it difficult to make any ethical decisions at all (or, indeed, any other kind of decision).

At the same time, we do want to avoid uncritically accepting everything that someone says to defend their position. Thus, it is important to reflect on why each premise is acceptable and to sincerely question whether, in fact, more information is needed before a rational evaluation of a given premise can be made.

The second condition—R, the relevance of the premises—is a bit trickier. It may seem obvious that for a premise to establish a conclusion it must be relevant, but, in fact, people quite often will use irrelevant facts to try to convince others to think or do something. There are many different ways of distracting people from carefully thinking through the matter at hand and irrelevant premises tend to do this. One of our favorite examples is a false equivalency that is used in an antacid commercial from the 1990s.[3] In this commercial, a man first dips a rose into a glass of hydrochloric acid, visibly damaging the rose. He then dips a second rose into the same acid, but only after first coating it in the antacid product being advertised. The second rose emerges seemingly unharmed.


We can reconstruct the argument offered by the commercial as something like this:

Premise 1. If we dip a rose in acid the acid will eat away the rose.

Premise 2. But if we coat the rose in this particular brand of antacid before dipping it in acid the acid will not eat away the rose.

Conclusion. Therefore, if you have acid indigestion you should “coat” your stomach with this particular brand of antacid.

Of course, a rose is nothing like the human stomach. On the face of it, the fact that the rose is protected by a particular brand of antacid is just not relevant to whether it will help with acid indigestion. Minimally, we need some additional reason to think that it is acceptable to “think of this rose as your stomach,” as the commercial suggests. That means that for this argument to work you would need to add some reason (or reasons) for thinking that roses and human stomachs are relevantly similar. As it stands, the premises aren’t relevant to the conclusion.

The third condition—G, whether the premises provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion—is the most general as it includes the other two conditions. After all, premises that aren’t true (or at least reasonable) and premises that aren’t relevant cannot provide good grounds for accepting a conclusion. Indeed, you may think that if all the premises are true (or at least acceptable) and relevant then they must provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion. This, however, is not the case.

Consider a friend who urges you to try taking a herbal remedy the next time you get a cold. The reason they give is that they have started taking it when they get a cold and it works for them. It may well be true that it works for them and it’s certainly relevant to the broader question of whether one should try the remedy oneself, but is it good enough grounds for doing so?

You might ask your friend how they came across this remedy. In effect, what you would be doing here is seeing if there are better reasons for taking the remedy. Suppose they say some dude at the farmer’s market was selling it and swore by it as the best cold remedy he had ever tried. Do you have better grounds for thinking it will work? On one hand, you now know that there are at least two people who say it works, but on the other hand, you know that one of them has a vested interest as he is selling it. Suppose, instead, that your friend cites a meta-analysis of 20 randomized control trials showing the efficacy of the remedy for various cold viruses and across various population groups. Now, clearly, that’s much better grounds for thinking that the remedy will work for you than simply the testimony of either your friend or the dude at the farmer’s market.

When it comes to some applied ethics contexts, we will find that what constitutes good enough grounds depends on the seriousness of a situation and the risks involved should we make a bad choice. With the question of whether you should take the herbal remedy at your friend’s urging, the stakes are pretty low. After all, they’re still alive, so you can infer that it’s likely not poisonous. The worst thing that is likely to happen is that it just won’t make any difference to your cold symptoms, and you’ll be out a few dollars. But suppose instead that you are a health officer in charge of coordinating a response to a global pandemic in your local area and the president of the United States claims that a particular drug (in which they have a financial interest) has worked for them and can significantly reduce the mortality of those infected with the illness. Does this constitute good grounds for spending a considerable portion of your region’s budget on this remedy? Here the stakes are higher. The illness is considerably more dangerous; the decision affects many more people than just you; you are in a position of public trust; it’s your job to make these kinds of decisions well; millions of dollars will be diverted from other priorities and treatments for the pandemic should you buy the drug; and so on.  When the stakes are high it is reasonable to expect people to have very good grounds for their conclusions and their decisions.

2.3 How to Engage in Productive Debates

In ethics (and other areas of philosophy), debate has an important role in facilitating the exchange of ideas and providing opportunities for us to learn from each other. However, it is easy to get caught up in the “battle” of argumentation. After all, the first two meanings of the word “argument,” discussed above, suggest an antagonistic approach where two (or more) interlocutors take opposing sides on an issue and fight it out. It is especially easy to fall into an adversarial attitude in ethics where we may have strong feelings about right and wrong or have commitments to particular values and important issues may be at stake. In such contexts, it is tempting to try to defend one’s own views at all costs. Debate can become emotionally charged, inhibiting our ability to think rationally or listen to the perspectives of others. A focus on winning can distract us from attending to what makes an argument a good one—having premises that are acceptable (i.e., true or, at least, reasonable), relevant, and provide good grounds for accepting our conclusion.

There are, however, a couple of things that we can do to make our debates more productive. First, when criticizing someone else’s position, we should try to find all the points of agreement. This process will help to narrow down exactly where the disagreement lies and focus the discussion there. Many debates make little progress because people talk past each other; conflicts cannot be resolved because the interlocutors are not arguing about the same thing! (Debates about abortion frequently exemplify this problem as one side focuses on the rights of the pregnant person while the other focuses on the moral status of the fetus.[4]

Second, instead of trying to win, we can engage in argument repair.[5] This is where you help your interlocutor make the best case possible for their position. Argument repair can be achieved by making assumptions explicit, clarifying ambiguous terms, adding missing premises, or offering subarguments in defence of dubious premises. It is important not to misrepresent the argument when we are trying to repair it, which is easy to do if we disagree.[6] Moreover, for argument repair to be successful, our interlocutor must be open to revising their position and we should allow them an opportunity to do so. Amendments are only justifiable if they make the argument stronger. Added premises must be relevant (it’s remarkably easy to get carried away and add irrelevant premises) and provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion and changes should be acceptable to all parties in the debate.

In our everyday conversations, we typically don’t state all of the premises needed to give a complete defence of our arguments because we share common background knowledge and assumptions with our interlocutors. However, in more fraught contexts (such as in ethical disputes), there are often unstated premises that aren’t shared by all parties or the argument hinges on an important term that each defines in a subtly different way. (We touched on this in the discussion of disagreement in section 1.3.) In these cases, engaging in argument repair can make the debate more productive for everyone by redirecting debate away from an adversarial process to a more collaborative one that is aimed at mutual understanding and a resolution to the dispute that everyone can accept.

Engaging in respectful, good faith dialogue can alert us to features of the moral landscape we may have overlooked or show us how our own reasoning is lacking. We can then use these insights to revise our own views and make the arguments defending them stronger.

2.4 Public Reason

Because applied ethics often addresses issues that affect large groups of people, this constrains what kinds of reasons and ethical theories are appropriate. We need to stand on ethical common ground if our arguments and judgements are to be seen as reasonable or right by others. There are certain theories that, although important in the history of ethics, will not prove fruitful in applied ethics contexts in a pluralist or secular society. These are ethical claims and theories that are based on a commitment to a particular religion. Obviously, some people have deeply held religious convictions and find the laws or principles of their religion a crucial guide for their moral lives. Nonetheless, although such commitments may provide compelling reasons for a practitioner of a given religion, they provide no reason at all for a non-practitioner or someone who is equally strongly committed to an entirely different faith tradition or practice. This is a crucial point because it means that a religious practitioner cannot justify their moral claims or decisions to a non-practitioner, so long as they rest only on their religious commitment. Thus, although it may be acceptable to make ethical decisions concerning your own life on the basis of your religious convictions, it is unreasonable to expect others to accept the imposition of ethical prescriptions on them that are based on your (or anyone else’s) religion.

A religious practitioner might object that they believe that their religion does in fact offer the best guidance for right action, which is why other people should follow their ethical prescriptions. Of course, this is possible. After all, there are many different religious traditions and considerable diveristy within each of them and at least some, if not most, of them will have important insights into moral life. The problem is that there is no obvious way to determine which religion is the right one and thus which specific ethical rules one should follow.

Mozi pictured is a sound icon linked to the pronunciation of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher who lived over 2000 years ago (ca. 480–392? BCE),[7] made a similar point. He argued that it is important that people not simply adopt conventional views and practices—the kinds of practices that people often unthinkingly follow because they were taught them as children—as these practices might not be morally right. Moreover, because people come from different cultures with different practices, simply following these conventions, particularly in contexts of ethical conflict, inevitably leads to social discord and, in some cases, war. Mozi recognized that accepting a kind of cultural relativism where right and wrong are simply determined by cultural convention isn’t a viable option when people from many different cultures have to live together. Instead, Mozi argued for objective moral standards that everyone should follow.[8]

While Mozi was not an advocate for the kind of general freedom that characterizes contemporary democratic societies, his insights about needing shared ethical standards are still pertinent. This is why applied ethics typically deals with public reason. The idea of public reason is that the ethical rules must be acceptable or at least justifiable to everyone who is expected to live by them. This means that reasons given in applied ethics contexts should rest on ideas and theories that are not parochial. As we will see when we look at the ethical lenses below, values like rationality, happiness, and freedom have the sort of broad appeal that is characteristic of public reason.

Though not strictly necessary, there is a certain sense of fairness implicit in the idea of public reason. All things being equal, we are all expected to follow the same rules. If there is to be differential treatment, there must be a good reason for it. Indeed, this is really a point about rationality as well as fairness. Like should be treated alike. In ethical contexts, this ideal is called formal justice. It is a part of a broader rational norm of consistency.

To summarize, ethics requires us to do more than simply follow our knee-jerk reactions, our emotional responses, or conventional norms when deciding what to do. It is not that they are irrelevant. They can alert us to moral issues and important aspects of a tricky moral dilemma. However, they can also mislead. Moral reasoning requires not only an assessment of the moral issues with a sensitivity to competing analyses but that we have good reasons for what we ultimately decide. We need to commit to shared standards of rational argumentation and constructive debate if we are to defend our judgements and hold each other accountable for our actions. The ethical lenses discussed below help to provide the normative content of these reasons.


  1. Monty Python, “Argument Clinic—Monty Python—The Secret Policeman’s Balls,” YouTube, January 21, 2009, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkQhK8O9Jik.
  2. Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument, Enhanced Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, 2014), 87-103.
  3. Retrobox, “Pepto Bismol Rose (1992),” YouTube, November 17, 2012, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGRtg6W6Kug.
  4. Shannon Dea has an interesting chapter that takes an argument repair approach to abortion debates by suggesting harm reduction as a common value shared by pro-life and pro-choice advocates and then seeing what follows ("A Harm Reduction Approach to Abortion," in Without Apology: Writings on Abortion in Canada, ed. Shannon Stettner [Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2016], 317-32. https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/11165/Stettner_2016-Without_Apology.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y#page=327).
  5. See Catherine Hundleby for more discussion on argument repair: https://chundleby.com/2015/01/16/what-is-argument-repair.
  6. This is also fallacious (illogical) reasoning known as attacking a straw figure. If we misrepresent someone's account so that it is easier to refute, we are not working productively or collaboratively to repair the argument. See the School of Thought's "thou shalt not commit logical fallacies" for more logical fallacies to avoid in your reasoning and writing (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com).
  7. JeeLoo Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 108.
  8. Chris Fraser, "Mohism," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, §3, last modified November 6, 2015.  https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/mohism/


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Applied Ethics Primer Copyright © 2021 by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book