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Ethical Episodes

Trade Secret

by Joel Marks

Some of my readers may wonder how I do it. How am I able to defend or attack thesis after thesis about any subject under the sun (and indeed, when in my astronomical mode, about the sun itself and things beyond it) in column after column … and actually win the day? (I hope you agree!) Of course one answer is simply: practice, practice, practice. But there are also certain tricks of the trade.

My particular stock in trade is arguments, and my line of work consists of producing and explaining them (mine and other people’s) as well as analyzing and critiquing them (usually other people’s). The main trick, then, is to understand how arguments operate. Once that basic schema is in place in one’s mind, the rest is a mere filling in of the blanks (by using one’s own ingenuity or doing some research or dialoguing with others).

By ‘argument’ I am referring to the logical variety, which consists of giving a reason for a claim. Thus, if somebody were to assert that the Moon is made of green cheese, a natural demand would be, “Oh, yeah? What’s your argument?” In other words, give me a reason why I should believe that. Expecting reasons and being prepared to provide them are the beginnings of rationality, as may be judged from the word’s derivation (the Latin word ratio means ‘reason’).

Ultimately, of course, we want not just arguments, but good arguments. It seems to be a sad and perhaps odd fact of the human condition that most of the arguments we encounter, even in our own mind, are bad ones. Sometimes they are bad intentionally, as when a politician or a salesperson is trying to win our vote or our dollar by tricking us. But most of the time, I suspect, arguments are bad simply because people are generally untrained in how to parse them. The same sort of refinement can be expected from the formal study of reasoning as one would expect in one’s writing from the study of grammar. But for some bizarre reason, the latter is stressed throughout our schooling while the former is largely ignored. I happened upon reasoning when I took up philosophy, which seems to be considered its home discipline nowadays. And that’s how I came to be able to write all of these argumentative essays.

Let me then cut to the chase and share with you my chief ‘trade secret’ when testing the worth of an argument. Of course my master is Socrates, so consider this passage from one of his dialogues (as recorded by Plato): “I say that the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer … whether the wrongdoer is your father or your mother or anyone else … And observe, Socrates, that I can quote the law as a great proof that this is so.” (Euthyphro, 5e)

Euthyphro is defending his decision to prosecute his own father for murder. The argument he gives is that the gods do this sort of thing (the ‘law’ cited is presumably the religious law); therefore it must be right, or ‘pious’.

Socrates demolishes that argument. In order to show how, let me introduce some technical terminology. In the context of logical argument a claim is known as the conclusion and a reason as the premise. The whole ‘secret’ of sound reasoning is that an argument should satisfy two conditions: (1) The premise or premises are true and (2) The conclusion follows from the premises. Condition 2 is known as validity. If these conditions are satisfied, then the conclusion of the argument is true; you have proved it.

By the same token, if either condition is not satisfied, then the truth of the conclusion has not been established, and the argument is unsound. Note that the conclusion might still be true, but the interlocutor’s claim to have proven it has been refuted. If you can show that neither condition has been satisfied, then you have scored a knockout with a one-two punch. That is what Socrates does to Euthyphro.

Euthyphro’s premise is that the gods behave in like fashion to what he is doing. He cites Zeus and others who have punished their own fathers for wrongdoing. Socrates immediately takes issue with these claims. “I find it hard to accept things like that being said about the gods” (6a). Now, this does not prove the falsity of Euthyphro’s claims about the gods. But it does indicate that those claims are problematic: It is possible, even reasonable to be skeptical. This is sufficient to doom Euthyphro’s argument, for his premise is at least moot, hence not known to be true, which is what a sound argument requires.

However, while Euthyphro may have been bloodied, he is unbowed, since he himself is a staunch believer; and it is Euthyphro, after all, whom Socrates is trying to convince. Socrates therefore shifts to the second strategy: questioning validity. In fact, this is the peculiarly logical move; for logic does not even attempt to assess the truth or falsity of a belief (or assertion or hypothesis or, in this case, premise) directly, but only looks at the relations among beliefs.

Thus, suppose one were to accept the stories about the gods: Would it follow (that phrase being the logician’s mantra) that Euthyphro’s behavior is justified? Socrates demonstrates that it would not, as follows. Euthyphro has made an assumption, namely: If the gods do x (in the stories about them), x must be the right thing to do. But this cannot be true because, according to the stories, some gods do x and others do -x. But x and -x can’t both be right, so Euthyphro’s principle cannot be the criterion of right and wrong. POW! and down for the count.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2013

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. It follows that you should read his new book Ethics without Morals.

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