Normative Arguments

A normative argument is an argument
from reasons to a course of action

Contents
Normative Arguments
  • A normative argument is an argument from reasons to a course of action.
  • Kinds:
    • A deontic argument is an argument from a principle to a course of action. For example:
      • You shouldn’t shoplift because stealing is wrong.
    • A consequence argument is an argument from possible consequences to a course of action. For example:
      • You shouldn’t shoplift because you might get caught.
    • An analogical normative argument is a deductive argument that an action should (shouldn’t) be done because it’s the same in all relevant respects as actions that clearly should (shouldn’t) be done. For example:
      • You shouldn’t cheat because it’s just like surreptitiously changing your grade on the instructor’s spreadsheet.
  • The distinction between normative and consequence arguments is reflected in the two basic theories of normative ethics.
Deontic Arguments
  • A deontic argument is an argument from a principle to a course of action.
Basic Form
  1. Principle
  2. Facts
  3. Therefore, course of action
Examples
  • You shouldn’t shoplift because stealing is wrong.
    1. Stealing is wrong
    2. Shoplifting is stealing
    3. So shoplifting is wrong.
    4. Therefore you shouldn’t shoplift.
  • Capital Punishment
    1. The punishment should fit the crime.
    2. Some crimes are so heinous the only fitting punishment is execution.
    3. Therefore capital punishment should be used for such heinous crimes.
  • Keeping your promise
    1. Promises should be kept.
    2. You promised your brother you would take him to the zoo.
    3. Therefore you should take your brother to the zoo.
  • Capital Punishment
    • “Death is the only final and irreversible criminal punishment.  As DNA exonerations vividly show, humans and their governments are fallible and corruptible.  Fallible governments should refrain from inflicting irreversible punishments.”
    • Argument Reconstructed
      1. Fallible governments should refrain from inflicting irreversible punishments
      2. Capital punishment is an irreversible punishment.
      3. All governments are fallible.
      4. Therefore, governments should refrain from inflicting capital punishment.
Principles, Other Things Being Equal
  • The key thing to understand about deontic arguments is that principles typically apply other things being equal. Thus, “killing is wrong” means killing is wrong, other things being equal. Another way of saying this is: killing in itself (or considered by itself) is wrong. This sheds light on the curious argument:
    • Killing is wrong.
    • Killing in self-defense is killing.
    • Therefore killing in self-defense is wrong.
  • Which is equivalent to:
    • Killing, considered by itself, is wrong.
    • Killing in self-defense, considered by itself, is killing, considered by itself.
    • Therefore killing in self-defense, considered by itself, is wrong.
  • The second premise is false. So the argument fails.
  • The rationale for keeping other things equal is that reasoning about a complex and uncertain world is messy and difficult. A way of facilitating such reasoning is to simplify matters by keeping other things equal. Like putting reasoning into a box.
  • Economics, for example, is a complicated subject. Thus the fundamental law of supply and demand holds other things being equal. About the demand curve the Britannica says:
    • “In basic economic analysis, all factors except the price of the commodity are often held constant; the analysis then involves examining the relationship between various price levels and the maximum quantity that would potentially be purchased by consumers at each of those prices.”
  • View Law of Supply and Demand
Consequence Arguments
  • A consequence argument is an argument from possible consequences to a course of action.
    • Specifically, consequence arguments concern
      • the probability, improbability, and possibility of the consequences
      • the value of the consequences, i.e. their desirability and undesirability
Basic Form
  1. Probability, improbability, or possibility of the consequences of a course of action.
  2. Value of the consequences of the course of action.
  3. Therefore, course of action
Examples
  • You shouldn’t shoplift because you might get caught.
    1. If you shoplift, you might get caught
    2. Getting caught is undesirable.
    3. So you shouldn’t shoplift.
  • The possession, use, and sale of guns should be strictly regulated because they’re inherently dangerous.
    1. If the possession, use, and sale of guns are strictly regulated, gun deaths and injuries will decrease.
      • Since guns are inherently dangerous,
    2. Fewer gun deaths and injuries is desirable.
    3. Therefore, the possession, use, and sale of guns should be strictly regulated
  • Motorcyclists should be required to wear helmets because they save lives.
    1. A cyclist is less likely to get killed in accident, wearing a helmet.
    2. Getting killed is bad
    3. Therefore helmets should be mandatory.
  • Capital punishment should be abolished because of the risk of executing an innocent person.
    1. Capital punishment risks executing an innocent person.
    2. Executing an innocent person is a terrible wrong and a grave injustice
    3. Therefore capital punishment should be abolished.
Analogical Normative Arguments
  • An analogical normative argument is a deductive argument that an action should (shouldn’t) be done because it’s the same in all relevant respects as actions that clearly should (shouldn’t) be done.
  • For example:
    1. There’s no relevant difference between cheating and surreptitiously changing your grade on the instructor’s spreadsheet.
    2. You shouldn’t change your grade on the instructor’s spreadsheet.
    3. Therefore, you shouldn’t cheat.

View Analogical Deductive Arguments

Deliberating about What Should be Done
Weighing Normative Arguments
Determining Fact and Value
  • Deliberating about what ought to be done involves weighing the normative arguments for and against the options.
  • For example, arguments for and against capital punishment versus life imprisonment with no parole include:
    • Deontic arguments
      • The punishment should fit the crime
      • Killing is wrong
      • Inhumane punishments are wrong
    • Consequence arguments
      • Risk of executing an innocent person
      • Deterring capital crimes
      • Preventing the criminal from committing future crimes
  • Weighing the arguments involves determining both fact and value. For instance, weighing the principle that the punishment should fit the crime against the risk of executing an innocent person involves determining:
    • the extent that execution and life imprisonment fit heinous crimes such serial murder
    • the value of the punishment fitting the crime
    • the risk of executing an innocent person
    • the disvalue of executing an innocent person
  • Another conflict between deontic and consequence arguments is the Deathbed Promise

View Deliberation
View Capital Punishment
View Decision Making Tools

Addenda
Deathbed Promise
  • Suppose on her deathbed Mason and Ella’s mother requests her will be changed, leaving her estate to a wealthy televangelist rather than to her children and grandchildren.  They make the change, she signs the updated will, and they promise to abide by the new will.
  • Their mother dies later in the day.
  • Mason and Ella debate whether to abide by the will or destroy it.
  • Deontic Argument
    • Promises should be kept, other things being equal.
    • Mason and Ella promised their mother they would abide by the updated will.
    • Therefore, they should abide by the will.
  • Consequence Argument
    • The estate passing to the children and grandchildren is much better than it going to a wealthy televangelist.
    • Therefore, Mason and Ella should destroy the new will.
Deontological and Consequential Normative Ethics
  • The distinction between deontic and consequence arguments is reflected in the two kinds of theories of normative ethics.
  • Normative Ethics (Britannica)
    • “A crucial question of normative ethics is whether actions are to be judged right or wrong solely on the basis of their consequences. Traditionally, theories that judge actions by their consequences were called “teleological,” and theories that judge actions by whether they accord with a certain rule were called “deontological.” Although the latter term continues to be used, the former has been largely replaced by the more straightforward term “consequentialist.” The debate between consequentialist and deontological theories has led to the development of a number of rival views in both camps.”
  • britannica.com/topic/consequentialism
    •  ‘In ethics, the doctrine that actions should be judged right or wrong on the basis of their consequences. “
  • britannica.com/topic/deontological-ethics
    • “In philosophy, ethical theories that place special emphasis on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions.”
Senses of ‘Reason’
  • Normative Sense
    • “Reason for or against” in the normative sense is a reason for or against an action, i.e. a basis or argument for or against the action.
    • Dictionary definitions
    • Examples
      • Give me one good reason why I should believe you.
      • That an action is illegal is a reason against doing it.
      • What are the reasons for and against capital punishment?
      • That an action is in one’s interest is a reason for doing it.
      • The risk of getting caught is a reason against stealing. That it’s morally wrong is a better reason.
      • There are two good reasons for quitting your job.
      • Enjoying an activity is a reason for pursuing it.
  • Motivating Sense
    • “Reason for or against” in the motivating sense is a person’s reason for or against an action
    • Dictionary definitions
    • Examples
      • Her reason for quitting was low pay.
      • She explained her reasons for deciding to change jobs.
      • I can’t give you the report for the simple reason that it isn’t yet finished.
        • i.e. My reason for not giving you the report is that it isn’t finished.
      • She resigned for personal reasons.
        • i.e. Her reasons for resigning were personal.
  • Explanatory Sense
    • “Reason” in the explanatory sense is a reason for an event or a state-of-affairs, a reason why something happened, a reason that something is the case.
    • Dictionary definitions
    • Examples
      • The reason he died was Covid pneumonia.
        • i.e. the explanation why he died was that he had Covid pneumonia.
      • I gave a reason for my absence.
        • i.e. I gave an explanation for my absence.
      • The reason John Oliver is ineligible to be president is that he’s not a natural-born U.S. citizen.
        • i.e. the explanation for John Olivers ineligibility is that he’s not a natural-born U.S. citizen.
      • Is there a reason for your strange behavior?
        • i.e. Is there an explanation for your strange behavior.
      • There is a reason why they don’t want to come.
        • i.e. There is an explanation why they don’t want to come.
    • Sentences using reason in the explanatory sense are interchangeable with sentences using why, because, therefore, explain
  • Capacity Sense
    • “Reason” in the capacity sense is reason as a capacity for reasoning
    • Dictionary definitions
    • Examples
      • All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. (David Hume)
Senses of ‘Reasoning

Decision Making Tools

Decisions based on consequence arguments get complex. Tools have been developed to lay out the options and possible consequences.

Decision Trees

A decision tree is a tree showing options with their possible consequences.

Decision Theory

  • Decision Theory combines the probability and value of a state-of-affairs into one quantity: expected value.
    • The expected value of a state-of-affairs is the product of its probability and value.
    • The expected value of an action is the sum of the expected values of the possible outcomes.
  • For example, the expected value of betting $100 on red in roulette in Las Vegas is: 
    • [expected value of winning] + [expected value of losing]
    • [value of winning x probability of winning] + [value of losing x probability of losing]
    • [$100 x  (18/38)] +  [– $100 * (20/38)] = -$5.26

Forecasting Model

  • forecasting model is a computer program that generates predictions by simulating aspects of the real world.
  • Forecasting models are useful for consequence decision-making in two ways:
    • Forecasting Conditions, e.g. forecasting the weather on D-Day.
    • What-if Analysis, e.g. forecasting the effects of proposed legislation or competing military strategies.
Using someone else’s Internet connection
  • There’s a morally relevant difference between the analogs: unlike light waves Internet bandwidth is a limited resource.
  • The use of Internet bandwidth by one person may adversely affect its use by someone else.  But a person reading over another’s shoulder doesn’t absorb photons the other person could have used.
  • Principles have an implicit condition that other things are equal. Thus:
    • Killing is wrong, other things being equal.
    • Promises should be kept, other things being equal.
    • The punishment should fit the crime, other things being equal.
  • Consider the curious argument:
    1. Killing is wrong.
    2. Killing in self-defense is killing.
    3. Therefore killing in self-defense is wrong.
  • Supplying the implicit other things are equal explains why the argument invalid
    1. Killing is wrong, other things being equal.
    2. Killing in self-defense is killing.
    3. Other things are equal
    4. Therefore, killing in self-defense is wrong.
  • The argument fails because other things are not equal, since killing in self-defense is a justified exception.