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Summary of Week 7

Logical and critical thinking in morality.

In the last three weeks we’ve been considering domains that call upon our critical thinking skills in distinctive ways. In the previous two weeks we talked about science and law. This week we turned to morality.

Our aim in the course has been to give you the skills to ensure that you adopt true beliefs and reject false ones. Some of the most important decisions we make are about which beliefs to adopt, reject, or revise; some concern moral beliefs: beliefs about whether something – a situation, an action, a person – is morally good or bad, right or wrong, or has some other moral quality such as being just, admirable, or blameworthy.

We began by distinguishing between descriptive, normative, and moral statements, and by describing the form of at least valid moral arguments, introducing you to the great philosopher of Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume. A valid argument which has a moral conclusion must have a moral premise.

We discussed relativism – the view that moral beliefs are true or false only relative to cultures, or times, or individuals (the “that may be true for you, but it’s not for me” claim) – offering some non-deductive reasons to think it was unlikely to be true.

We talked about moral theories and the way in which they both resembled and differed from scientific theories: moral theories are not ‘mere’ theories – untested, tentative, vague generalisations. They are based on repeated observations, integrated hypotheses, and attempt to explain a range of data. But the data that scientific theories try to explain is provided by observation of the natural world, the data that moral theories try to explain is our considered moral judgements; judgements that have, we might say, survived the test of good logical and critical thinking.

And we gave an account of good ethical reasoning which rested not on anything like an exclusive access to the moral truth but instead on more accessible standards of reason and argumentation, standards of the sort one might learn in a course on logical and critical thinking.

And finally, we saw that moral reasoning is vulnerable to the same obstacles and biases which threaten good logical and critical thinking more generally. Our moral thinking is subject to framing and confirmation bias, and even to influences such as smell! We suggested that science might provide some external checks on these obstacles, and Glen Pettigrove thought that taking advantage of a range of perspectives might provide a similar check in moral contexts.

© Tim Dare, University of Auckland
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Logical and Critical Thinking

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