We sometimes convince others of the rightness of our views by persuasion, sometimes by bullying and shouting (well that's what politicians do), sometimes by cajoling, sometimes by mockery, and sometimes using argument. 'Argument' is an ambiguous term.
I used to introduce philosophy to first year students by saying that philosophy involved argument, until I realised that for many students 'an argument' was something you had with your mother. When politicians speak of 'winning the argument', they are thinking less of logic than good headlines and votes in parliament. I'll not take up that kind of 'argument winning' but consider some examples of moral argument which use logical considerations rather than mass appeal, counting votes or having a row with your mother.
One kind of moral argument goes like this: 'What would happen if everybody did that?' That sort of argument is effective in some situations but not all. For example, it may not matter if one person walks on the grass but if everybody did, the grass would be ruined. Or it may not matter if one person breaks a Covid rule, but if everybody did, infection would increase. This kind of argument requires that most people approve of the state of affairs being protected – preserving the grass or keeping infection down. It also assumes that what one or several people might do would encourage others to do the same.
It is not effective where what one person does is wrong irrespective of what others might do. For example, one case of child abuse is wrong whether or not others do the same. It would be absurd if a judge said to a child abuser: 'What would happen if everybody abused children?' Moreover, it is not effective if other people are not likely to want to do what is in question. For example, if your son wants to become an astronaut or your daughter a ballet dancer, it will not cut much ice if you say: 'What would happen if everybody wanted that?' That would lead to an argument!
The second sort of moral argument is very familiar and is featured in most religions. It is sometimes called the 'Golden Rule'. It can be expressed positively or negatively. In its positive form it states: Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. In its negative form it says: Don't treat others in ways you would not like to be treated yourself. Despite its widespread popularity, it has only a limited use.
For example, it has no relevance in matters of economics or justice. The boss might think: If I were an applicant, I would like to be given a job – so should I give all the applicants jobs? But, unfortunately, I don't have the money to give all the applicants jobs. Or the judge might think: if I were the criminal, I should like to be let off. But that is not relevant. I must follow the law and it would be unjust to let him off.
In other contexts, the Golden Rule leaves itself open to mockery. Bernard Shaw said something like: Don't treat others as you would like to be treated – they may have different tastes. The weakness here arises from the indeterminate nature of the supposition about the other person and the context. Nevertheless, the Golden Rule is effective, less as an argument than as an appeal to kindness, to use your imagination and think of how others might feel. How would you like it if someone did that to you?
To illustrate issues of a different kind, consider this example. Imagine, having been vaccinated, you are on holiday in a beautiful mountainous area in a far-away country. Your hotel arranges a bus run into the mountains. Unfortunately, your bus is stopped by bandits, and the notorious bandit chief, I'll call him Pedro, robs everyone on the bus. It is his rule then to shoot everyone, but Pedro suddenly remembers that it is his saint's day and he considers it wrong to shoot anyone on his saint's day. He therefore has a moral dilemma: as a good bandit, he must shoot everyone but he can't shoot anyone on his saint's day. He figures it out, approaches you and says: 'I will give you my gun and if you make a solemn promise to shoot one person – not me
– I will let everyone else go free. If you don't, I will shoot everyone, and it will be your fault'.
Well, you might take his gun and shoot the person who has been talking loudly, smoking and eating chips at the back of the bus. But if you are a good utilitarian, an easier solution might occur to you. You will make a solemn promise/oath as he requests, take his gun and then shoot him. As a utilitarian, you will have a clear conscience because for a utilitarian promises as such have no moral authority; only good consequences do.
On the other hand, if you have read Adam Smith, you might worry a bit longer. According to Smith: 'Fidelity is so necessary a virtue, that we apprehend it in general to be due even to those to whom nothing else is due, and whom we think it lawful to kill and destroy' (Theory of Moral Sentiments
, pt VII, 1V).
If you go along with Smith, you might be advised not to promise anything to Pedro. You might say to him: 'If you are going to murder all these people that is for your conscience, but I will have no part in it. I want to keep my hands clean and conscience clear'. To take that line would be brave but there is a moral case for it.
There is another way of considering your moral problem. For a utilitarian, as I said, promise-keeping and truth-telling have no claim on us as such but only as means to the best consequences in a given situation. But many people feel strongly in opposition to the utilitarian that rules such as promise-keeping or truth-telling do make moral claims on us in their own right and apart from any consequences. 'A promise is a promise' we say. Now life is such that sometimes a promise may clash with truth-telling. For example, your daughter might say: 'Promise not to tell mum that I am seeing Adam again'. You duly promise, and then your wife asks: 'Is she seeing Adam again?' Whatever you decided to say in that situation, you wouldn't feel good about yourself.
To break a promise or tell a lie is always wrong, although sometimes you might need to do one or the other. So you are left with a moral burden. You would do what you thought morally right in the situation but there would still be a residue of guilt.
You could therefore promise Pedro not to shoot him and then shoot him. Now, assuming you are not a utilitarian, and you accept that it is always wrong to break a promise, it would seriously disturb your conscience to do so, especially as Pedro would be a man of honour and would trust you. So when you later got a medal from the authorities, you might not feel good about yourself. A burden of unease would always linger with you. I have broken a solemn promise. Should I have done that?
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow