Bernard Williams on what makes consequentialism a distinctive moral theory

For this Argument in the Wild post, I’ll discuss Bernard William’s “A Critique of Utilitarianism” from Utilitarianism: For and Against. This volume also features the essay “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics” by J.C.C. Smart.

I chose this essay as the result of a happy accident. While browsing the books at a local thrift store, I happened to find a used copy of Utilitarianism: For and Against. The price? Eleven cents!

This fortuitous find motivated me to finally read William’s essay and discuss it here.

My aim is to clarify the following passage:

I agree with what in general is [Smart’s] stand . . . That utilitarianism, properly understood and consistently carried through, is a distinctive way of looking at human action and morality. These distinctive characteristics he mostly seems to find agreeable, while to me some of them seem horrible. (78)

Clarifying what makes consequentialism distinctive is the primary goal of section 2, “The Structure of Consequentialism”. More precisely, the goal is to fill in the right side of the following biconditional:

(0) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if . . .

(A note for clarification: while Williams’ main target in his essay is utilitarianism, he focuses on the broader moral theory of consequentialism of which utilitarianism is a species.)

First Attempt: Only States of Affairs are Intrinsically Valuable

Williams’ first attempt suggests that consequentialists regard only states of affairs as intrinsically valuable:

I take it to be the central idea of consequentialism that the only kind of thing that has intrinsic value is states of affairs, and that anything else that has value has it because it conduces to some intrinsically valuable states of affairs.

How much, however, does this say? Does it succeed in distinguishing consequentialism from anything else? (83)

According to this first attempt, our biconditional will look like this:

(1) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value.

Let us break (1) into two conditionals:

(1.1) If a moral theory X is consequentialist, then X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value.

(1.2) If a moral theory X implies that only states of affairs have intrinsic value, then X is consequentialist.

Roughly, (1.1) says that all consequentialist moral theories imply that only states of affairs have intrinsic value, and (1.2) says that all moral theories that imply that only states of affairs have intrinsic value are consequentialist.

We can argue against (1.1) by finding a consequentialist moral theory which does not have this implication, and we can argue against (1.2) by finding a moral theory which does have this implication but is not consequentialist.

What is Williams’ strategy?

The trouble is that the term ‘states of affairs’ seems altogether too permissive to exclude anything: may not the obtaining of absolutely anything be represented formally as a state of affairs? A Kantian view of morality, for instance, is usually thought to be opposed to consequentialism, if any is; at the very least, if someone were going to show that Kantianism collapsed into consequentialism, it should be the product of a long and unobvious argument, and not just happen at the drop of a definition. But on the present account it looks as though Kantianism can be made instantly into a kind of consequentialism — a kind which identifies the states of affairs that have intrinsic value (or at least intrinsic moral value) as those that consist of actions being performed for duty’s sake. We need something more to our specification if it is to be the specification of anything distinctly consequentialist. (83)

Here Williams argues against (1) by arguing against (1.2). There is a moral theory, Kantianism, which implies that only states of affairs are intrinsically value. These states of affairs are those in which an action is performed for duty’s sake. But Kantianism is not consequentialist, or at least should not be thought to be consequentialist so easily. But if (1) is true, then Kantianism is easily shown to be consequentialist. So (1) is false.

Second Attempt: Actions are not Intrinsically Valuable

If we want to fill in the right side of (0), Williams will need to look elsewhere. He offers a second suggestion in the following section:

The point of saying that consequentialism ascribes intrinsic value to states of affairs is rather to contrast states of affairs with other candidates for having value: in particular, perhaps, actions. A distinctive mark of consequentialism might rather be this, that it regards the value of actions as always consequential (or, as we may more generally say, derivative), and not intrinsic. The value of actions would then lie in their causal properties, of producing valuable states of affairs . . . (83-84)

Actions are never intrinsically valuable but only derivatively valuable, or valuable insofar as they produce states of affairs which are intrinsically valuable. This gives us:

(2) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable.

Which, again, can be broken down into its constituent conditionals:

(2.1) If a moral theory X is consequentialist, then X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable.

(2.2) If X implies that actions are not intrinsically valuable, then X is consequentialist.

(2) solves the problem facing (1). This can be made explicit by focusing on the contrapositive of (2.1):

(2.1C) If X implies that actions are intrinsically valuable, then X is not consequentialist.

Since Kantianism implies that actions performed for duty’s sake are intrinsically valuable, we can infer in conjunction with (2.1C) that Kantianism is not consequentialist. So far, so good!

But there is still trouble lurking about:

. . . It may be that we have still not hit exactly what we want, and that the restriction is now too severe. Surely some actions, compatibly with consequentialism, might have intrinsic value? This is a question which has a special interest for utilitarianism, that is to say, the form of consequentialism concerned particularly with happiness. (84)

The trouble with (2) suggested by this passage is (2.1); There are moral theories which are consequentialist and imply some actions are intrinsically valuable.

It would be helpful if we had a working example to think about. To make it as simple as possible, let us focus on an egotistical form of consequentialism which implies that an action is morally right if it has the best consequences for me.

Let’s take my decision to play pinball. Why is my decision the right decision? Our egotistical consequentialism is going to say that this decision was the right one because it has the best intrinsically valuable consequences for me. But in this example that intrinsically valuable consequence looks to just be my playing pinball. So here we have a consequentialist moral theory which implies some actions, in this case playing pinball, are intrinsically valuable.

Williams’ argument (nor the example) require that this version of consequentialism be correct; it only requires that this moral theory be consequentialist. Given that it implies that right actions are those which bring about the best consequences, it certainly looks consequentialist. But (2) says it is not, so (2) cannot be correct.

Or can it?

Traditionally utilitarians have tended to regard happiness or, again, pleasure, as experiences or sensations which were related to actions and activity as effect to cause; and, granted that view, utilitarianism will indeed see the value of all action as derivative, intrinsic value being reserved for the experiences of happiness. (84)

My pinball case is only a problem for (2) if my playing pinball is intrinsically valuable. But in the above passage Williams notes that traditional utilitarians would argue that what is really intrinsically valuable in the pinball case is my happy or pleasurable experience while playing pinball.

If the egotistical moral theory only implies that my decision to play pinball was right because playing pinball induces a pleasurable or happy experience in me, then this moral theory does not imply that actions are intrinsically valuable. Playing pinball is only valuable because it causes these happy feelings. So this moral theory does not provide a counterexample to (2).

All this hinges on whether the traditional utilitarian gambit is successful. Williams thinks it is not:

But that view of the relations between action and either pleasure or happiness is widely recognized to be inadequate. To say that a man finds certain actions or activity pleasant, or that they make him happy, or that he finds his happiness in them, is certainly not always to say that they induce certain sensations in him, and in the case of happiness, it is doubtful whether that is ever what is meant. Rather it means such things (among others) as that he enjoys doing these things for their own sake. (84-85)

To get clear on what the problem is, let us make the Traditional Utilitarian Gambit (TUG) explicit:

(TUG) If an action is pleasant or makes one happy, then that action induces certain sensations in him or her.

According to TUG, playing pinball is pleasant because it causes me to experience certain pleasureable mental states.

Williams’ denies TUG and instead advocates the following principle:

(BWP) If an action is pleasant or makes one happy, then he or she enjoys that action for its own sake.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t argue against TUG and for BWP in this passage. To be charitable, let us try to fill in the argument ourselves.

Compare playing pinball with the enjoyment some people get from drinking alcohol. Here it seems clear that one reason people enjoy drinking is the particular sensation it induces in them, the sensation of being tipsy or, at one extreme, drunk. I think Williams is suggesting that this is only the case for particular kinds of enjoyment. I don’t enjoy pinball, Williams thinks, because there is a particular sensation stapled into my consciousness when I play it the way a person enjoys drinking because of a sensation that it induces in them.

If there is this disanalogy between enjoying drinking and enjoying pinball, then Williams is right to deny TUG. If he is right about this, then TUG does not offer a way of salvaging (2). Our egotistical moral theory can be modified according to BWP to say that my decision to play pinball was right because it lead to the intrinsically valuable circumstance of my playing pinball. Thus the egotistical moral theory is consequentialist and implies there are intrinsically valuable actions and so stands as a counterexample for (2).

But TUG isn’t just false. There are also contemporary versions of consequentialism which deny TUG:

It would trivialize the discussion of utilitarianism to tie it by definition to inadequate conceptions of happiness or pleasure, and we must be able to recognize as versions of utilitarianism those which, as most modern versions do, take as central some notion such as satisfaction and connect that criteria only with such matters as the activities which a man will freely choose to engage in. But the activities which a man engages in for their own sake are activities in which he finds intrinsic value. So any specification of consequentialism which logically debars action or activity from having intrinsic value will be too restrictive even to admit the central case, utilitarianism, so soon as that takes on a more sophisticated and adequate conception of its basic value of happiness. (85)

What is here meant by “satisfaction”? Many contemporary utilitarians think that what is intrinsically valuable are the satisfaction of desires. So my playing pinball is intrinsically valuable because it satisfies my desire to play pinball.

But what satisfies my desire to play pinball, so these utilitarians think, is not merely that I think I have played pinball. Rather, it is the non-mental actions of actually playing pinball.

So if we are to treat these contemporary utilitarians as indeed consequentialists, then (2) fails to express what is distinctive of consequentialism. These utilitarians who focus on desire satisfaction think actions are intrinsically valuable when they satisfy desires. But this, combined with (2.1C), implies that these utilitarians are not consequentialist.

Let’s take stock of where we are:

The first idea was that consequentialism was distinctive because it implied that only states of affairs are intrinsically valuable. But this didn’t make consequentialism a distinctive moral theory at all because every moral theory, even Kantianism, can be understood as saying only states of affairs are intrinsically valuable.

The second idea was that consequentialism was distinctive because it implied that actions are not intrinsically valuable. This has the advantage over the first of implying that moral theories like Kantianism are not consequentialist. But it has the opposite problem: it implies that contemporary utilitarianisms which treat desire satisfaction as intrinsically valuable are not consequentialist.

In short, (1) was too permissive while (2) was too restrictive.

Third Attempt: Actions are Right Because They Bring About (or Consist in) Intrinsically Valuable States of Affairs

. . . For the consequentialist, even a situation of this kind in which that action itself possesses intrinsic value is one in which the rightness of the act is derived from the goodness of a certain state of affairs — the act is right because the state of affairs which consists in its being done is better than any other state of affairs accessible to the agent; whereas for the non-consequentialist it is sometimes, at least, the other way round, and a state of affairs which is better than the alternative sis so because it consists of the right act being done. (87)

(1) and (2) both claim that consequentialism is distinctive in virtue of what it either finds intrinsically valuable (state of affairs, according to (1)) or what it doesn’t find intrinsically valuable (actions, according to (2)). In this third attempt to specify how consequentialism is a distinctive moral theory, Williams proposes instead that what makes consequentialism distinctive is the relationship between intrinsic value and right action. Specifically, consequentialism implies that actions are right in virtue of the intrinsically valuable states of affairs brought about by those actions:

(3) A moral theory X is consequentialist if and only if X implies that actions are right because of the intrinsically valuable states of affairs they consist in or bring about.

Let’s take the example of pinball. Perhaps out of all the actions I could perform at a given moment, my playing pinball will lead to the most happiness, pleasure, satisfaction, or whatever as compared to any other action I could perform. This would make my action the right action according to consequentialists. The rightness of the action depends upon the goodness of the states of affairs being produced by performing the action.

But sometimes it seems the dependence goes the other way. My cat David Lewis loves knocking over glasses and watching them break on the floor. Even though he surely enjoys this, we might say that his knocking over a glass isn’t good, and it isn’t good because it isn’t right. For a more horrifying example, consider the enjoyment certain criminals get performing dastardly deeds. We might think that no matter how much they enjoy committing crimes, their actions aren’t good because they aren’t right.

Williams is saying here is that this latter attitude is a distinctively non-consequentialist moral attitude, while the former attitude is distinctively consequentialist.

He brings about the link between right action and intrinsic value more precisely:

Suppose S is some particular concrete situation. Consider the statement, made about some particular agent

(A) In S, he did the right thing in doing A.

For consequentialists, (A) implies a statement of the form

(B) The state of affairs P is better than any other state of affairs accessible to him;

where a state of affairs being ‘accessible’ to an agent means that it is a state of affairs which is the consequence of, or is constituted by, his doing an act available to him . . . ; and P is a state of affairs accessible to him only in virtue of his doing A.

Now in the exceptional case where it is just his doing A which carries the intrinsic value, we get for (B)

(C) The state of affairs which consists in his doing A is better than any other state of affairs accessible to him.

It was just the possibility of this sort of case which raised the difficulty of not being able to distinguish between a sophisticated consequentialism and non-consequentialism. The question thus is: if (C) is what we get for consequentialism in this case, is it what a non-consequentialist would regard as implied by (A)? If so, we still cannot tell the difference between them. But the answer in fact seems to be ‘no’. (87-88)

(Note: In the above and the following I replaced “1”, “2”, and “3” with “A”, “B”, and “C” to distinguish these sentences from the one’s I have called (1), (2), and (3).)

This helps make Williams point more precise. What makes consequentialism distinctive according to (3) is that the consequentialist regards (A) as implying either (B) or (C). The non-consequentialist does not regard (A) as implying (B) or (C). But why does Williams think the non-consequentialist doesn’t think (A) implies (B) or (C)?

One reason is that a non-consequentialist, though he must inevitably be able to attach a sense to (A), does not have to be able to attach a sense to (C) at all, while the consequentialist, of course, attaches a sense to (A) only because he attaches a sense to (C). Although the non-consequentialist is concerned with right actions — such as the carrying out of promises — he may have no general way of comparing states of affairs from a moral point of view at all. Indeed, we shall see later and in greater depth the necessary comparability of situations is a peculiar feature of consequentialism in general, and of utilitarianism in particular. (88)

The argument here seems to be that (A) does not imply (C) for the non-consequentialist because the non-consequentialist can reject (C) outright. She may not have any idea about what makes one state of affairs better than another.

Here is a possible example. What is better: working at a soup kitchen or working at a homeless shelter? It seems perfectly possible to not think there is a straightforward answer to this question. Our hypothetical non-consequentialist will think these are both right actions, but not think there is any clear sense in which one is better than the other.

The consequentialist, however, cannot say this, or at least Williams says she can’t. If one had the option to do one or the other, the consequentialist can only judge which is the right option in virtue of which would have better consequences. Perhaps she agrees with the non-consequentialist that they would both be right actions, but this can only be because she believes both actions would have equally good consequences. Either way, she has to be able to make comparisons between the value of different sets of consequences to correctly judge which action is right.

A different kind of reason emerges if we suppose that the non-consequentialist does admit, in general, comparison between states of affairs. Thus, we might suppose that some non-consequentialist would consider it a better state of things in which more, rather than fewer, people kept their promises, and kept them for non-consequentialist reasons. Yet consistently with that he could accept, in a particular case, all of the following: that X would do the right thing only if he kept his promise; that keeping his promise would involve (or consist in) doing A; that several other people would, as a matter of fact, keep their promises (and for the right reasons) if and only if X did not do A. (88-89)

Let’s make this second reason more concrete with a hypothetical case. A celebrity breaks an important promise, and this becomes a public scandal. In response, a national campaign to encourage keeping promises is instituted, and as a result more promises are kept than would be if the celebrity kept her original promise.

According to the non-consequentialist, it was still wrong for the celebrity to break her promise, even though by breaking it she caused more promises to be kept than otherwise would have been. Breaking the promise led to an intrinsically better state of affairs according to the non-consequentialist, yet was still wrong.


To conclude, let us see how (3) fares with all the problematic cases we have considered.

(3) implies that Kantianism is non-consequentialist. It is one’s duty to not break a promise and is wrong to break a promise even if, like the celebrity, breaking it leads to more people keeping promises then would have otherwise.

(3) implies that utilitarianisms which treat desire satisfaction as intrinsically valuable are consequentialist. My decision to play pinball is right because it brings about an intrinsically valuable state of affairs: my playing pinball.

Compared to (1) and (2), (3) is neither too permissive (it rules out Kantianism) nor too restrictive (it does not rule out desire-satisfaction forms of utilitarianism).

Do you agree with Williams that (3) expresses what is distinctive of consequentialism? Or do you think it is also either too permissive (like (1)) or too restrictive (like (2)). Perhaps you think Williams is wrong and that (1) or (2) can be salvaged. Let me know in your comments below!

Announcement: The Thought Laboratory is now free, forever and for everyone

Today signals a change in direction. We initially provided our online office visits for a fee. No longer. You will now be able to schedule online office hour visits for free.

We decided to go in this direction because we are committed to helping everyone think critically about the important ideas and arguments that surround each and every one of us. This commitment was in conflict with offering our online office hours at any price.

Instead, we have decided to go the Patreon route. If you think our mission is important, you can pledge a monthly donation here.

And if you don’t decide to pledge? Our office hours are still open to you.

Responding to online comments that make you angry

Most critical thinking courses focus on the more cognitive aspects of critical thinking: what an argument is, when it is valid, the types of logical fallacies, and so on.

These are definitely crucial, but an equally crucial aspect of critical thinking is the affective or emotional aspect. You can know all the logical fallacies in the world, but if you fill with rage upon encountering a claim you disagree with, that knowledge isn’t going to be very useful to you.

This is especially the case when discussion happens online. In this series of posts, I will address some issues surrounding how to handle emotional responses to comments online.

A common emotional response when reading something online is anger. Thinking and responding critically will require recognizing why we are angry and acting on that anger in appropriate and helpful ways.

What is the source of my anger?

The first step to responding appropriately is to ask yourself why the comment makes you angry in the first place. Does the comment express views you find morally repugnant? Does the commenter treat some intellectual issue you find deep and difficult glibly and as though it has an easy answer?

Knowing why the comment makes you angry can help you think more clearly about how to respond to it. Sometimes figuring out why you are angry can diffuse the anger and make you more capable of critically evaluating and helpfully responding to the comment. Other times uncovering the source of the anger will reveal that it is simply best not to engage in dialogue in the first place.

If they treat some intellectual dispute glibly, you can ask yourself if they are only doing this because of lack of knowledge or simple arrogance. We all have thought some of the deep questions of life had an easy answer at some point in our lives. Recognizing that you also had this attitude can diffuse the anger. This will put you in a better position to critically evaluate and helpfully respond to the comment.

This probably won’t be the case if the comment angers you because it expresses morally repugnant views as is the case with racist or sexist comments. At this point you need to ask yourself if responding at all will be a useful way of expressing your anger. Will it help diminish the morally repugnant views on display? If not, it is probably best to take that anger in more constructive directions.

What is my role?

If after uncovering the source of your anger you do decide that responding to the comment is appropriate, you need to ask yourself what role you see yourself in and what role the commenter sees themselves in. Are you an intellectual equal of the person you are responding to or are you a teacher seeking to correct mistakes in someone less knowledgeable than yourself?

Whatever role you see yourself in, you need to ask yourself if the person you are engaging with also sees you in that role. A lot of angry dialogue online stems from a mismatch between the roles discussants see themselves in and the roles they see the other person in.

Someone responding as a teacher will get push back from someone who does not see themselves as a student but rather as an peer. The teacher will often be frustrated that the person they are responding to doesn’t recognize their need to be taught. The teacher might display their credentials or simply point towards teaching aids without considering the claims and arguments the other is making.

This type of response misses the point. If a commenter does not see themselves as a student, they do not want to be taught; they want to discuss. Only frustration will result by continuing the dialogue while adopting these mismatched roles.

Thus if you approach a conversation as a teacher, you need to make sure the other person sees themselves as a student. If they see themselves instead as a peer, it is better to engage the person as a peer. If you don’t see this being fruitful, it is better not to start the dialogue in the first place.

Reading and responding constructively

If you think there is a match between the role you see yourself in and the role the commenter sees themselves in and you decide to respond, you are still probably somewhat angry about the comment.

One helpful technique to respond constructively is to reread the comment as slowly and deliberately as possible. Imagine the person you are responding to is honest, earnest, and intelligent. If you are unable to do this or suspect that the person does not have these qualities, responding won’t be in anyone’s interest, especially your own.

Assuming the commenter has these qualities, look only for claims and arguments. If there is some claim for which you see no evidence, ask what evidence the commenter has for that claim. If there is an argument you think is problematic, explain why it is problematic.

The key here is directly responding to the claims and arguments. If the commenter sees you as a peer and you are responding as a peer, don’t wheel out credentials or point out that professionals who have thought about the issue have a different opinion. The commenter isn’t likely to care about this and only wants to discuss the argument directly. If you respond at all, you should respond in this manner.


When a comment online makes you angry, ask yourself four questions before responding:

  1. Why does the comment make me angry? Can I defuse the anger by understanding why the person has the views they have and recognizing that we have all displayed ignorance and arrogance at some point in our lives?
  2. What role do I see myself in, and what role does the commenter see me in? Am I a teacher correcting mistakes or a peer engaging in a dialogue?
  3. Can I read the comment as though it is coming from someone who is ready to engage in a fruitful exchange?
  4. Am I willing to respond directly to the claims and arguments in the comment?

Answering these questions can help you respond to comments that make you angry in a critical and productive way (or decide to refrain from commenting at all).

Do you have any more tips on responding to comments that make you angry? Comment below!

“Moral and Ethical”

It doesn’t take a lot of internet sleuthing to find the phrase “moral and ethical” as an adjective phrase. Here are three examples from just the past week, emphasis my own:

Carter, who said he backed Bernie Sanders ahead of Hillary Clinton to take on Trump as the Democratic Party’s nominee, has criticized Trump strongly in the past, telling the Democratic National Convention last year that Trump “seems to reject the most important moral and ethical principles on which our nation was founded.” 1

At the end of a cat’s life, when restoration of comfort and function is unattainable and the patient appears to be suffering or suffering is imminent, it is our moral and ethical responsibility to focus the owner’s attention on the patient’s quality of life.2

Adults tend to become lazy with their thinking, backing into moral and ethical wrongdoing without noticing fully what they’re doing. 3

Including both the words “moral” and “ethical” implies that there is a distinction between these terms. Otherwise, we would see the inclusion of both as repetitive. But so often this combination appears without any indication of what the distinction is supposed to be. This is a problem because there are many different distinctions people make by using these two words.

If we want our writing to be clear, then we need to be explicit about what distinction we have in mind when we use “moral and ethical”. Here are some distinctions writers have made using these two words.

Discipline Versus Subject Matter

One possible way to distinguish these two words is that one is a discipline while the other is thesubject matter. So ethicists concern themselves with what is moral. Morality is “out there” to speak metaphorically, and ethicists want to get it right.

It should be noted that this doesn’t look like the distinction being made in the passages above, so let’s take a look at some other possibilities.

Role-Dependent Versus Role-Independent

Some people treat morals are dependent on individuals while ethics are dependent on groups. Ethical principles are those codified by some group, like doctors, lawyers, or corporations while morals are based on one’s personal moral compass.

But this distinction as specified is problematic. When we talk about a person’s moral compass, we often mean simply what they believe to be moral. So each person is going to have a slightly different moral compass depending on their beliefs. But just because someone believe an action is moral doesn’t mean that it is moral. Someone’s moral compass could tell them it is impermissible to buy gum on a Tuesday, but it isn’t morally wrong to buy gum on a Tuesday.

The distinction has a similar problem when it comes to ethics because being ethical goes beyond just adhering to principles formulated by some group. We can imagine silly doctors concocting a code of conduct which included stealing food from patients and forcing them to watch only the Weather Channel. This doesn’t make it ethical for a doctor to do these things!

Instead, I think a better way of understanding this distinction is in terms of roles. In virtue of being a doctor, one ought to act in certain ways. Different roles come with different obligations. Doctors are obligated to not harm their patients while lawyers are obligated to explain a client’s legal situation clearly to them

Morality, then, would concern what we ought to do independent of our roles. So I ought not steal a lollipop from the passing toddler regardless of whether I am a doctor, lawyer, clown, or car salesman.

Bernard William’s Distinction

The last distinction drawn between morals and ethics was drawn by Bernard Williams. He uses “morals” to describe what we ought to do in terms of duties and rules. This contrasts with ethics, which is more concerned with virtuous behavior.

Let’s go into more detail:

  1. Morality is characterized as fairly abstract. It involves claims about what is moral (duh), right, obligatory, and permissible. Ethics, on the other hand, uses “thick” evaluative terms like kind, creepy, honest, and sneaky.
  2. Morality involves explicit rules: Do not lie, do not steal, etc. Ethics is more about the actions flowing from a virtuous character and cannot be broken down into explicit rules.
  3. Morality is often based on really general features of human beings. This is most explicit in Kant, who thought that moral rules depended on our status as rational agents. Ethics rather is based on more concrete facts about us and the society we live in.
  4. Morality is often contrasted with well-being. The moral action will often lead us to a less pleasurable life. Ethics on the other hand is based on what contributes to our well-being.

This is only a bare summary. There is a lot going on in William’s distinction between ethics and morality that I can’t go into here. I would recommend checking out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Bernard Williams and ”Bernard William’s Rejection of Morality” by James Griffin.


It would be wrong to say that one of these distinctions between “morality” and “ethics” is the correct distinction to be drawn. Rather, the point is that these are very different distinctions, and the clear use of language requires that we make it clear which of these distinctions we want to invoke. If any of these distinctions aren’t important to your argument, than don’t say “moral and ethical”; just say “moral” or “ethical”.

Are there distinctions between morality and ethics that I didn’t cover? Mention it in the comments below!

  1. Damien Sharkov, “Jimmy Carter Wants to Step in Between Trump and ‘Unpredicatable’ Kim Jong Un,” Newsweek, October 23, 2017.
  2. William Ray Folger, “Feline Euthanasia: Part 1 – Ethics, Aesculpian Authority, and Moral Stress,” American Veternarian, October 24, 2017.–ethics-aesculapian-authority-and-moral-stress
  3. Teodora Zareva, “4 Tips to Help You Make Better, More Ethical Decisions,” Big Think, October 21, 2017.

Arguments in the Wild: “A Pressure Point For North Korea” by Ted Cruz, New York Times, Oct. 22, 2017

My previous posts (here and here) have been pretty abstract, dealing with arguments expressed in a fairly straightforward premise conclusion style.

But while working through such toy examples is a helpful first step towards being a more critical thinker, we also need to be able to extract arguments from what we read in our day-to-day lives: blog posts, essays, op-eds, and social media comments, for example.

Towards that end, I’m starting a series I call “Arguments in the Wild”. I will take a piece of argument and explicitly work through the process of figuring out what the argument is. The focus won’t be on academic work but more popular fare.

We can make an analogy with learning a new language. While it is important to read and listen to very simple bits of the new language and understand what they mean, this isn’t enough to become fluent. We must also learn to understand and respond to the language as it is used by real people in real contexts. Becoming more critical thinkers is no different.

The subject this week is Ted Cruz’s op-ed “A Pressure Point for North Korea” published by the New York Times on Oct. 22, 2017.

What’s the Conclusion?

The first goal when trying to reconstruct the argument of a written work is figure out what the conclusion is. How do we do this?

A good rule of thumb is to look at both the introduction and the conclusion of the piece. That heuristic pays off for Cruz’s op-ed. Here is the first paragraph and the last paragraph:

On Oct. 31, the State Department faces a critical decision in our relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Iran-Russia-North Korea sanctions bill enacted in August included legislation I introduced that requires the secretary of state to decide whether to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism within 90 days.

We must tell the truth about the dangerous ambitions of North Korea and once again list it as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that only strengthens our hand and weakens that of Kim Jong-un. I strongly urge the State Department to relist North Korea, and to meet this challenge with the resolve it has long demanded.

Both paragraphs focus on one main claim: that the State Department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cruz urges this course of action in his conclusion and says he introduced legislation to require the Secretary of State to do so in the introduction, so we have good reason to believe that this is what Cruz believes.

Let us make this explicit as possible and write:

C) Therefore, the state department ought to relist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

With the conclusion in our grasp, we can read through the piece and figure out the reasons Cruz puts forth to justify this conclusion.

Hunting For Reasons

Let’s look at Cruz’s second paragraph:

Look at the accusations against Pyongyang: the unspeakable treatment of Otto Warmbier; the assassination of a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil; collusion with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; cyberattacks on American film companies; support for Syria’s chemical weapons program; arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas; and attempts to assassinate dissidents in exile. Given this, the decision should be easy. In fact, Americans could be forgiven for wondering why North Korea is not already designated as a sponsor of terrorism.

Cruz isn’t so explicit as to say, “My conclusion follows for the following reasons . . . “, but we can still look at clues in the paragraph to see that that is what he is doing implicitly. He lists a series of claims about North Korea, and follows this list with, “Given all this, the decision should be easy.” This tells us that he sees the list of claims as reason for the conclusion. The decision should be easy because the correct decision follows from these claims.

So let us make the argument explicit:

P1) North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier was unspeakable.

P2) The North Korean government assassinated a member of the Kim family with chemical weapons on foreign soil.

P3) North Korea colluded with Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

P4) The North Korean government has launched cyberattacks on American film companies.

P5) North Korea supports Syria’s chemical weapons program.

P6) North Korea sells arms to Hezbollah and Hamas.

P7) North Korea has attempted to assassinate dissidents in exile.

C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted by the Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism.

There are a lot of premises in just one paragraph! Let us try to take stock where we are.

One approach is to ask why these premises are reasons to believe the conclusion. Even if we accept P1-P7, why should we believe the conclusion?

One obvious reason might be that a country should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism if it is in fact a state sponsor of terrorism. The premises would be reasons for the conclusion, then, if they are acts of terrorism. We can make this bit explicit in the following way (for the sake of not needlessly repeating myself, I’m going to just refer to the premises above as P1-P7):

P8) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, then it ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

P9) P1-P7 are examples of state sponsor of terrorism by North Korea.

C) Therefore, North Korea ought to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.

We’ve done a lot with only three paragraphs! We have managed to:

  1. Identify the conclusion.
  2. Identify (some) premises.
  3. Reconstruct why those premises are arguments.

Next we need to look at the argument and figure out what we need to know in order to be persuaded by it.

From Reconstruction to Analysis

Besides being valid, an argument also needs to be sound, which requires all the premises to be true. By looking at the argument above we can see that different kinds of claims require different approaches to determining whether or not they are true.

P1-P7 are all descriptive claims about matters of fact and our approach to them is more or less straight forward. We need to consult the historical record to determine if North Korea performed these actions as Cruz claims. This will involve research of newspapers, history books, and experts on North Korea.

In the future, I will tackle just how to research these kinds of claims. Today, however, I want to focus on P8 and P9, which are not as straight forward. Towards that end, I will simply assume that P1-P7 are true to bring P8 and P9 into sharper relief.

Working With Conditionals

P8 makes a claim about what we ought to do given some set of circumstances. How should we approach such a claim?

One way is to try to more fully develop conditionals like P8 into necessary and sufficient conditions for some normative claim (a claim with words like ‘ought’ in them). P8 lists one sufficient condition for listing a country as a state sponsor of terrorism; can we think of others?

In fact, Cruz offers more sufficient conditions that we can consider when thinking about potential necessary and sufficient conditions:

Given this, the United States must approach North Korea with sobriety and urgency. The Trump administration has the opportunity to join both houses of Congress in acknowledging the truth about North Korea and using it to open new opportunities to maximize pressure.

Among North Korea’s many significant forms of illicit financing are foreign slave labor and money laundering. From Africa to Europe, North Korean diplomats exploit their consular posts to launder money at the expense of international comity. If North Korea is relisted, these nations would face a significant decision: Is continuing diplomatic and economic relations with a state that uses diplomacy and finance to export and foment terrorism in their interest?

It would pose an even deeper question to the United States: Will we continue our diplomatic overtures to the Kim regime on the flawed assumption that it is interested in a future without nuclear weapons? It is because of America’s bipartisan belief in North Korea’s potential amenity in a political settlement, captured in the 2008 delisting, that North Korea can now marry a miniaturized warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile. Relisting Pyongyang is the first step toward a strategic vision based on facts rather than aspirations.

Each paragraph offers a further sufficient condition for it being appropriate to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism: when it will maximize pressure towards some positive end; when it will persuade countries aiding a state sponsor of terrorism to stop doing so; and when it will promote a “strategic vision” for dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism.

With more sufficient conditions in tow, we can modify P8:

P8+) If a country is a state sponsor of terrorism, listing that country as such will maximize pressure towards that country for some positive end, listing that country will persuade it’s allies to rethink their alliance, and when it will promote a strategic vision for dealing with that country, then that country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

That is quite the mouthful! But putting all that detail in their helps us think more clearly about when a country ought to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Thinking about P8+ includes two steps. First, we will need to clarify some of the words and phrases it invokes to properly evaluate whether the claim is true. What is a “strategic vision”? What kinds of positive ends do we have in mind? What kind of help from allies do we seek to stop with the listing?

Once we clarify these phrases, the next step is to try and come up with counter examples: are there situations in which the antecedent is true and the conclusion is false? If there are, then P8+ is false and Cruz’s argument fails. If we have trouble finding such a counterexample, this is reason to believe that P8+ is true.

Working With Conceptual Claims

P9 is neither a straightforward matter of fact nor a conditional claim like P8. Instead, P9 is something of a conceptual claim: it states that some concept applies to a given scenario. We can’t simply read a newspaper to determine if P9 is true; instead, we need to think about our concept of terrorism.

A common method for doing so is similar to how we approached P8+: we should try to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for an act to be an act of terrorism. With a list in hand, we can see if there are any counter examples to our conditional claim.


As you can see, a lot goes into critical reading! Let’s end with a brief recap. Critical reading involves:

  1. Identifying the conclusion
  2. Identifying some premises
  3. Figuring out why those premises are reasons for the conclusion
  4. Asking whether or not the premises are true and the kind of method needed to figure out if they are true.

So, what do you think? Using this post as a guide, I recommend commenting with your analysis of Cruz’s argument. Are P1-P7 backed up by the historical record? Does P8+ have counterexamples? Is P9 supported by our concept of terrorism? I’m excited to hear your thoughts!

Logically Valid Arguments

When developing an argument, the goal is for it to sound, part of which means being valid. So lets start with validity first.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, an argument consists of a set of premises from which a conclusion is supposed to follow. A valid argument is just an argument from which the conclusion actually follows from the premises.

What does this mean? We talked a little about his previously but let’s go into more detail.


Some arguments are valid because of their structure. What kind of structure are we talking about? Logical structure.

When we talk about structure, we are talking about, roughly, how the pieces of language are fit together rather than what those pieces of language mean. For example, all these claims mean very different things:

Kelsey is a writer.

Daassa is a lovebird.

Lewis is a Sagittarius.

But when it comes to structure, all three of these claims have the same structure: they are all simple subject-predicate sentences. We can reveal this structure by writing:

A is a B.

Now let’s take a look at the following argument to see what logical structure is:

P1) If my cat is a ginger cream, then my cat is a ginger.

P2) My cat is a ginger cream.

C) Therefore, my cat is a ginger.

When looking at structure, we want to find repeating elements and replace them with capital letters so as not to distract ourselves from the structure. Specifically, we want to find the biggest repeating elements we can find.

This last point is important because if we focus just on the smallest repeating elements, we might be capturing structure at too fine grain at level. For example, we may notice that “my”, “cat”, “ginger”, and “cream” are repeating elements of the previous argument. Taking the advice of the previous paragraph, we would end up with this:

If A B is a C D, then A B is a C.

A B is a C D.

Therefore, A B is a C.

This is a good start! Now we aren’t distracted by the meanings of the words involved. But there is such a thing as too much structure. When is structure too much? When even the structure itself includes repeating elements. Looking at the argument, we can see that there are still two repeating elements: “A B is a C D” and “A B is a C”. Thus we can simplify the structure and make the argument clearer by replacing these elements themselves with capital letters:

If E, then F.


Therefore, F.

Now that’s simple!

The rule of thumb for this is: replace repeating elements with capital letters until there are no more repeating elements that are not themselves capital letters.

Back to Validity

Now that we have isolated the structure, we can see if the argument is valid. We do this by means of truth tables.

Remember: a logically valid argument is one in which there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. This is precisely what a truth table can tell us.

We want to start by listing all the atomic claims in our argument. Atomic claims are represented by the capital letters. In our example, this would be E and F. We assume that a claim is either true or false, so there are four truth possibilities for our claims: either both are true, both are false, E is true while F is false, or F is true while E is false:

E | F


T | T

T | F

F | T

F | F

Once we have listed our atomic propositions, we want to add the premises of our argument. The second premise is easy to list since it is just E. But our first premise requires a bit more explaining. How do we know what truth values to assign to “If E then F”?

We know because in the logical system we are using, called classical logic, claims which are constructed out of atomic claims are true or false in virtue of solely the truth value of the atomic claims which make them up.

For conditionals like our first premise, they are true just in case the antecedent (the claim right after ‘if’) is true and the consequent (the claim right after ‘then’) is false.

This means that our first premise will only be false given the truth values of the atomic claims listed in the second row of our truth table. Our truth table thus far looks like this:

E F | If E then F ——— E


T T |———T—————T

T F |———F—————T

F T |———T—————F

F F |———F—————F

The thing to notice right off the bat is that only on the first row of our truth table are both premises true. That means that all we need to figure out is if the conclusion is also true on that first row. Remember: when testing validity we only care about the scenarios in which all the premises are true.

Adding the conclusion to the end completes the truth table:

E F | If E then F ——— E—| F

——|—————————— |—

T T |———T—————T—| T

T F |———F—————T—| F

F T |———T—————F—| T

F F |———F—————F—| F

We can see that on the first row, the conclusion is true. Thus there are no situations in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. Thus, this argument is valid.

What is an argument?

For our first ever blog post, I thought a website dedicated to helping students with arguments ought to start with the most basic question: just what is an argument, anyway?

The word ‘argument’ often has negative connotations. If you learned that your friends recently had an argument, you would be concerned for them. An argument in this sense is some kind of scuffle or public row.

Arguments as understood at the Thought Laboratory, however, are not a bad thing at all! In fact, they are the bedrock of us relating to each other as people trying to collaborate to find the truth. It is how we try to convince each other of some view.

Ok, arguments are pretty nifty things. But what are they?

In short, an argument is a set of claims from which follows some conclusion. That’s it. Easy, right?

Not so fast. Just what is a claim? An easy way to understand a claim is that it is the kind of thing that can be expressed with a complete sentence. Here are a few claims to chew on:

1) My lucky bamboo needs to be watered.
2) Cats are mammals.
3) The moon is made of green cheese.

An important thing to notice about 1-3 is that they can be either true or false: 1 and 2 are true while 3 is false.

That might be simple enough. But the last bit that needs explaining is this “following” business. What is that all about?

This is in fact a deeply controversial issue debated by philosophers and logicians specifically. (If you want to learn more, scheduling office hours might be a great way to do so!.) But we can avoid these controversies by starting simple: C follows from P if P is a reason to believe C.

Ok, but when is P a reason to believe C? A common way of understanding this is that the truth of P guarantees the truth of C. Let’s see how that works. Take the following argument:

P1) My cat is a mammal.
C) Therefore, my cat is an animal.

“Therefore” is an important word to remember: it is the “follows” indicator. What the above is saying is that C follows from P1. This is because if P1 is true, then C must be true. There is no situation in which my cat is a mammal but not an animal. Such an argument is said to be valid

Let’s take another example:

P1) Daassa is a lovebird and the bike is blue.
C) Therefore, Daassa is a lovebird.

Like the previous argument about my cat, if P1 is true, then so is C.

There is an important difference between these arguments. In the second argument, the argument is logically valid. The validity of the argument is due to its structure. You could replace “Daassa is a lovebird” and “the bike is blue” with any claim and the C would still follow from C. In the first argument this isn’t the case. C follows from P1 because of the meaning of P1 and C. Changing the claims would change whether it was valid. Such arguments are said to be materially.

After all that, we now know what an argument is! An argument is a conclusion which follows from some premises. In later posts we will go into more depth about validity and other features of arguments. Stay tuned!