Further Explanation of Major Paper Assignment:

Positions, Issues, Arguments, Fallacies


The various parties to moral and philosophical controversies take different positions. That is, they defend different propositions or statements. A proposition or statement is most clearly expressed in a declarative sentence. "Abortion is sometimes morally permissible" and "abortion is never morally permissible" are two positions that people take on the abortion issue.


Warning: Many people, including news analysts, often confuse positions with issues. ("Sen. Smith can work together with Sen. Jones because Sen. Jones will support his issues." What is meant, and should have been said, is "Sen. Smith can work together with Sen. Jones because Sen. Jones will support positions Sen. Smith cares about.")

An issue is a matter that is in dispute between two or more parties. It involves an alternative between two or more positions, and usually there is some urgency or importance to this alternative.

The standard and clearest way of stating an issue is to use the phrase "whether [statement-1] or [statement-2]." For instance, "the issue is whether libertarianism is correct or utilitarianism is correct."

A sentence can include just one issue statement, for example, "the issue is whether abortion is morally permissible." Actually, that sentence is shorthand for "the issue is whether abortion is morally permissible or [abortion is] not [morally permissible]." If we include the bracketed terms, the alternatives are explicitly stated by means of two statements linked by "or," but the result is rather verbose.

In the example regarding abortion in the previous paragraph, the alternatives are mutually incompatible and jointly exhaustive. That is, at least one of them must be true and both of them cannot be true.

In the example about utilitarianism and libertarianism, the alternatives are mutually incompatible (because libertarianism and utilitarianism really do disagree) but not jointly exhaustive of all the possibilities. There are ethical theories that differ from both libertarianism and utilitarianism. If one of these theories were true, then libertarianism and utilitarianism would both be false.

When we start from opposed positions that do not exhaust the alternatives, we may later be able to construct or discover a superior middle position that preserves the strengths of the opposing positions we first considered but avoids their weaknesses.


Positions (e.g., that abortion is always wrong, that euthanasia is sometimes permissible) call for logical defense. To present reasons for a position is to present an argument.

Strictly speaking an argument (actually a simple argument) is a set of statements consisting of

(1) one or more statements meant as reasons

and (2) one statement of what the reasons aim to support.

The reasons are called premises. The position, or statement, they aim to support is called the conclusion of the argument.

Often an argument is complex, and can be broken down into smaller arguments (subarguments). The conclusion of some of the subarguments will then serve as premises of others, which in turn aim to support still others, leading eventually to the final or main conclusion. (The diagram of a complex argument looks like a tree, but the alleged support moves from the "upper branches" to the "trunk.")

Evaluating Arguments

A. Evaluating descriptive ("factual") premises:

Are the fact-type premises known to be true?

If not, is there a way that they might be proven?

Is there evidence for them? Against them? Is it reliable evidence? Is it extensive enough?

B. Evaluating moral premises:

Are the moral premises as stated accepted by all or most thoughtful people?

Are they too broad (do they assert "all . . . " where only "some . . . " is likely or plausible)?

Can we think of any clear counter-example?

Fruits: Are the over-all results of people accepting this premise likely to violate basic social values?

Do they cohere or "hang together" with moral premises that are not in dispute?

C. Evaluating the premise-conclusion connection: Supposing "for the sake of argument" the premises are true, would they give the degree of support to the conclusion the argument claims?

In particular, do the arguments avoid common logical errors?

Common logical errors include:

Fallacies of ambiguity

The apparent strength of the argument rest on a shift in meaning of a word or phrase from one part of the argument to another.

False Cause Fallacies

Some causal arguments mistake a mere sequence of observed events for a cause-effect sequence. But the two events may have a common hidden cause or their occurrence one after the other may be accidental.

The argument that just because a second event occurs right after a first event, the first event is the cause of the second commits the "after this, therefore because of this" fallacy.

Hasty Generalization

Generalizations are statements that take forms like "all S are P," "most S are P," "every S is followed by a P," whenever there is an S, there is a P," "no S are P," "nobody who is an S is a P," etc.

(Sometimes the logical indicators, such as "all," are understood but not stated. "A god is an immortal being" means that all gods are immortal beings.)

Is the generalization well supported, or is it backed by too few or unrepresentative examples? (If the latter is true, then we have a hasty generalization.)