Here’s a useful reasoning pattern: test a claim by seeing what follows from it deductively and considering whether there are good reasons for thinking those things are false. If you claim entails truths, that doesn’t tell you so much. But if you claim entails falsehoods, that tells you the claim must be false. The pattern of reasoning here can be represented as follows:
- If P is true, the Q must be true.
- But Q is not true
- So P is not true
This pattern of argument is known to logicians as modus tollens. We employ this pattern of reasoning on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. I think that my keys are on the coffee table and infer that I’ll find them there when I look. I don’t find them on the coffee table and reject my original notion as false. This pattern of argument is so straightforward and clear that it is typically listed as a basic rule of inference in logic textbooks.
Karl Popper, the famous 20th century philosopher of science, took this pattern of reasoning to be central to the methods of science and dubbed it the method of conjecture and refutation. We make a conjecture, see what follows from it, and then look for evidence that refutes one or another of the logical consequences of our conjectures. Inquiry proceeds by rejecting mistaken conjectures. Often our “refutations” are less than decisive. Sometimes our inquiry reveals serious problems for our conjectures but leaves the question of whether those problems can be resolved unsettled. And sometimes we find that our conjectures entail things we can’t exactly refute but still find pretty implausible. Bet even in cases like this, deductively reasoning from our conjectures gives us a better view of the “price” of holding a view.
A good example of this method at work in philosophy classes is the standard treatment of moral relativism in ethics. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a specific group (a culture, say) and that what is right or wrong relative to a culture is just a matter of that culture’s standards, what is deemed right or wrong in that culture. It’s important to keep in mind that this is theory of what moral rightness is, not just a view about what people consider right or wrong. This view has a number of interesting and problematic entailments. Here are just a few
- Moral relativism entails that every culture is infallible relative to itself. Moral relativism says that what is right relative to a culture is whatever is deemed right in that culture. So this view clearly entails that every culture is right relative to itself. People in other cultures might see the matter differently, but that’s just their perspective and moral relativism guarantees as a matter of principle that their perspective on some practice is no better than ours. Lots of people find this to be an attractive feature of moral relativism since it seems to speak against ethnocentrism. But there are better ways to counter ethnocentrism. This one means that Nazi culture was right relative to itself in gassing the Jews and our view that this practice was horrible is just about what’s right relative to us, which is no better in principle than the Nazi take on the matter.
- If you happen to be a decent and respectful person to begin with, it might be tempting to think that a view about morality that denies your own culture an inside track will imply that we should be more tolerant of diversity. In fact many people who like moral relativism like it because they think it supports the cause of tolerance for diversity. But moral relativism does no such thing. It says nothing about tolerance specifically. Moral relativism does entail that tolerance will be a good thing relative to cultures that endorse tolerance. But it also entails that tolerance will be bad relative to intolerant cultures. But worse yet, moral relativism denies us any possibility of principled argument against cultures that embrace intolerance. If we think respect and tolerance for diversity is a good thing, the straightforward thing to do would be to take a principled stand on that. But moral relativism doesn’t help here. In fact, it hurts the cause of tolerance and respect for diversity.
- We have special regard for those rare individuals that markedly improve the moral quality of their culture. A short list of notable moral reformers might include Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But moral relativism affords no grounds for taking these people to be praiseworthy. To be a moral reformer is just to be someone who improves the moral quality of her culture. Moral relativism entails that it is conceptually impossible for a culture to change its moral standards for the better since any change for the better presupposes a standard of moral goodness that is independent of the cultures say so. But moral relativism says that good and bad is always relative to the conventionally accepted standards of a culture and so denies that there is any independent standard of goodness relative to which a culture could be said to improve. Moral relativism does allow that Ghandi and Nelson Mandela are significant agents of change. But it denies us grounds for deeming them any more praiseworthy than Vlad the Impaler or Hitler.
Moral relativism is currently an enormously popular view about the nature of morality. So much so that most philosophy instructor’s routinely find it necessary to draw attention to its rather deep pitfalls before expecting students to pay close attention to more plausible alternative accounts of morality. But as is often the case, we discover the flaws in misguided views by carefully and rigorously chasing down the logical consequences of the view.
Human beings are not very diligent deductive thinkers by nature. We are more social than rational beings and we often tend to follow the crowd without asking too many questions. But we can become more effective critical thinkers and a key developmental stage in this direction involves making a reflexive habit out of curiously asking “What would follow from that?”
W, Russ Payne
December 9, 2013