If you’re thinking about entering the Responsibility and Ethics competition, we’d like to offer some tips for making your video entry as good as it can be!
What is an ‘argument’?
People use the word ‘argument’ in different ways. Sometimes it just means people disagreeing with each other.
In philosophy, we use it in a slightly different way: when you offer an argument, you are attempting to persuade others. You can do this by offering reasons, and showing how those reasons support what you are arguing.
What you are trying to argue for is called a conclusion. For instance, your conclusion might be: People shouldn’t eat meat.
By itself, that’s not an argument; it’s just someone expressing their view. To turn it into an argument you need to support it with some reasons (also called ‘premises’). For example:
(1) Animals can feel pain
(2) Farming animals for meat causes them pain.
(3) There’s no morally relevant difference between animals and humans, so it’s just as wrong to cause animals pain as it is to cause humans pain.
You probably noticed that these are all statements too, and some of them might need supporting with further arguments. You could keep going like this forever, but you’ll run out of time, and your audience will run out of patience! So, you probably want to start with claims that are uncontroversial or well-established (Premises 1 and 2) and give arguments for the claims that are more likely to be rejected by your audience (Premise 3).
A good argument makes it clear how the premises support the conclusion. It’s great to have facts and figures to back up your case – but you need to show us how those facts and figures support your argument.
And remember, this is an ethics competition. While facts are important, we also want to hear some ethical arguments.
Ethical arguments aren’t just about what’s actually going on in the world; they also tell us how things should be: they are about what’s right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral.
There are several ways to make an ethical argument, including:
• Drawing an analogy. Explain how the ethical claim you are making (like ‘killing animals is wrong’) is relevantly similar to an ethical claim that lots of people accept. Perhaps you think killing animals is ethically similar to killing humans. If so, that would be a good ethical argument against it.
• Showing that the arguments which could be used against you lead to unacceptable conclusions:
“If we say it’s OK to kill animals just because they aren’t as clever as we are, that implies that it’s OK to kill infants too, because they aren’t as clever as we are either”.
Make sure that this unacceptable implication really is unacceptable!
• Showing how your conclusion is supported by widely accepted principles. Maybe you think that most people accept the principle “Don’t kill innocents for fun”. Do animals count as ‘innocents’? Does the pleasure people get from eating them count as ‘fun’? Other ethical principles might include: appealing to human (or animal) rights; explaining why what you are supporting is more fair or more just than alternatives.
• Show that the idea you support would have good consequences. For example you could show that it will make people happier or healthier, or that it will lead to benefits for society.
• Considering possible objections. Think: what might a reasonable person who disagrees with you say in response? One way to strengthen your argument is to show how the best responses someone might make don’t succeed.
Even if you don’t consider every possible objection in your video, it’s a helpful way to make your argument better.
Remember, we want to hear about the idea of responsibility in your videos, and how it applies to a practical ethics issue.
Just like ‘argument’, ‘responsibility’ can be used in several different ways:
• Causal responsibility: this just means that one thing caused another.
Think of a line of dominoes. One domino falling will hit another and cause the next one in the line to fall.
“The candle tipped over, so it was responsible for the fire”.
• Role responsibility: Your job or social role means that a particular outcome is something you need to take care of, whether you caused it or not.
“A doctor is responsible for the health of their patients”.
“All of us are responsible for combatting climate change”.
• Liability responsibility: This is usually applied only to people. It means that the relevant person can be held accountable, and maybe blamed or praised, for an outcome.
“You knew what you were doing when you pushed him: you are responsible for his injuries!”
Usually we would think that if someone is liable, they either have to have caused an outcome, or have role responsibility for it. However, that might not be enough.
I might cause your injury because I knocked you over. But if I was pushed, then there was nothing I could do about it. So maybe I need to have some kind of control over my behaviour to be liable.
A teacher might have ‘role responsibility’ to stop their students cheating in tests. But if a student can find a really clever way to cheat, which the teacher has no chance of detecting, it might be unfair to hold the teacher liable. So maybe liability requires that I knew, or could have known, what was happening and that it was wrong.
Some final tips…
• Remember not to overstate your case. We’re not expecting you to prove beyond all doubt that your conclusion is right. It’s enough that, on balance, your conclusion looks more plausible than others. A good argument for a ‘modest’ conclusion (e.g. ‘We should probably stop eating meat’) is better than a bad argument for a ‘strong’ conclusion (e.g. ‘It’s just obvious that animals don’t matter at all’).
• Be clear about what you are doing. Your audience can’t read your mind, so it’s important to tell us what you think is going on at any point in your argument. For instance, the following kind of sentences might be helpful:
“So, we’ve just shown you that we have ethical reasons not to cause animals pain for no good reason. Now we’re going to explain why eating meat doesn’t count as a good reason”.
“We’ve accepted that animals can feel pain. However, we’re now going to argue that it’s much more important to benefit humans than animals, and that this means it’s ethically acceptable to eat meat”.
• Be generous to those who disagree with you. As we said above, part of your argument might involve thinking about possible objections or responses, and in turn responding to them. But be careful: it doesn’t look good if you raise obviously bad arguments, and then easily defeat them. It is much better to think of the very best arguments someone on the other side might make, and to give plausible responses even if that means you can’t prove that your view is the only possible way to go.
• Pick a topic that you are interested in, and passionate about!