The course assignments will be to write three papers of 6-7 pages on three ethical problems we have discussed in class, due March 7th,April 16th and May 16th respectively. The aim is to teach the student how to write a cogently reasoned argumentative type paper which might have a chance of persuading someone reading it that the writer has weighed the pros and cons on the issue in an even-handed way, and that the conclusions reached are sound and convincing. The student is expected to research the topic using the assigned text, but also to think about the issue by actually evaluating the arguments on the various sides in his/her own mind. Very often one has already made up one’s mind on such controversial issues, and thus already has a fixed opinion about which one might have strong feelings. We might not feel that we have to justify or give reasons why one holds these opinions or feels the way one does. But the assumption guiding this assignment is that we ought to be able to justify it, for this is demanded of anyone who enters into a rational dialogue with others to search for a common truth.
We don’t do this in a vacuum, but rather within a social and historical context where positions have already been staked out and expressed and the debate is already in progress. The first part of the paper is therefore 1) an introduction, which contains some acknowledgement of the history of the debate and identifies the basic issue being addressed and states the problem. The second part should be 2) to give an account of the main arguments both pro and con. This should not be a mere list but also contain some analyses and evaluation of each one. It can also include identifying which side appears to have the burden of proof in general or on one of the points on which the arguments on the various sides conflict. The next part is 3) to state one’s own considered point of view and then, 4) the reasons why one holds it to be correct.
But what counts as a good reason? First it should be the kind of reason which has a good chance of persuading a reader, who doesn’t necessarily share one’s own background or prejudices, to accept your view. That means that one should seek a common ground and give arguments, which potentially have universal appeal. One should thus avoid appeals to authority, which aren’t respected by everyone. ( eg. “the Bible says so”or “the founding fathers held”) and one should avoid personal experiences or biographical details ( eg. “I was raised Catholic, so…” or “in my experience such and such is the case”) which explain perhaps why one personally holds a view, but fails to justify it, unless one goes on to make the point that this exemplifies the typical or universal. Otherwise, these appeals to authority or the particular case will have no good chance of persuading someone, who already doesn’t share your background, experiences, or prejudices, to change their mind. Ethical dialogue should ideally take place on the plane of the universal where in principle a good reason should be able to gain universal assent because people can think for themselves by rising above their prejudices or narrow background or particular experiences. They can transcend their particularity because they are being addressed as rational beings, who have the capacity to evaluate things on the basis of universal considerations such as correct generalizations or general moral principles based upon mutual respect for each other as persons with rights.
These last two steps are an open admission that one’s own position is not unassailable and that one is open to further debate. There is no claim to being in the possession of the absolute truth, but rather a willingness to keep on testing one’s own best insights against the best arguments your opponents can muster. The process here is more important than the tentative result, in that the rational discussion is an on-going invitation to oneself and others to broaden and deepen mutual understanding and to approach the truth without ever claiming that one is already in possession of it. Rational assent is the acknowledgement of what one’s own reason must accept in the light of what one currently understands after weighing the arguments pro and con and attempting to overcome bias through being open to universal considerations. But there is still always the possibility that upon further reflection and discussion, one might be forced by the better argument to change one’s mind. It is this possibility, which keeps rational debate from ending in a new absolutism. And it is the willingness to debate seriously with others to get at the truth, which distinguishes the process of rational debate from a relativism , which would make such a process seem nonsensical.
This might seem to some students to be a new kind of intolerance, particularly if they lean toward relativism. But the debate is in principle open-ended with the proviso that one should be willing to change one’s mind if the other side in the debate comes up with a better argument, which has more universal appeal. The aim in such an ethical debate is not to win the argument by hook of by crook, but rather to allow the truth to emerge through the give and take of the argument and to be willing to test one’s own arguments against the best counter-arguments that the opponents have developed – not in order to triumph over them, but rather because this is the best means we have to ascertain the truth on controversial moral issues. Therefore the last two steps in the paper should be 5) to consider counter-arguments or objections to one’s own view, and 6) try to respond adequately to them by saying why they don’t convince you to change your mind or why one is forced to revise it in some way. These last two steps require one to be self-critical, which is easier said than done. But don’t forget these last two steps, as that is the typical mistake students tend to make on their first try.
1 Lead-in with a historical introduction
2. Give an account of the arguments pro and con.
3. State one’s own view,
4. Give reasons for holding which have universal appeal.
5. Consider likely objections or counter-arguments to one’s own position and the reasons you have given for holding it.
6. Respond adequately to these objections or counter-arguments either by trying to argue against them or by revising one’s own position in the light of them.
P.S. Avoid plagiarism! When giving an account of another’s argument or point of view use quotation marks or paraphrase in your own words and give due credit to your source.