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Lecture 04

3. Ethical Argumentation

In principle, an ethical argument – one that makes an evaluative or normative statement, advise or conclusion – consists of the following form:


Pi is a descriptive premise based on a fact, an observation, a statement that the one who makes the argument claims to be true or valid. It describes what is (or, in some future-directed ethical arguments, will be), and, therefore, is called is-premise (with index i). Po is a prescriptive or normative premise that adds an ethical judgment based on an ethical principle or theory (a value), telling what ought to be. Therefore, it is called ought-premise (with index o). Both together allow a prescriptive conclusion Cs that suggests what should be done (therefore index s), what is good or right. The standard example from ethics classes is this: Pi = “The liver is detoxifying the body.” Po = “It is important/good/worthwhile/desirable to have good health.” Cs = “You should protect your liver!”.  Deriving Cs without the input from a Po is called naturalistic fallacy, because the bare state of something (what is) can never imply what should be without defining the value framework (in this example: the functional purpose of the liver is not sufficient for claiming the validity of the prescriptive conclusion). Also, a normative principle (in form of a Po) is meaningless when it is not applied to certain situations, cases, observations, etc. (e.i., when there is no Pi; in the given example: to conclude from “the importance of good health” that you should protect your liver requires the knowledge that there is a link between its function and your health state).

When people disagree on viewpoints, arguments and conclusions (the Cs), they usually look at the premises and argue about their validity. One way is to question the plausibility of the Pi. Maybe the knowledge that feeds the argument is mistaken, misrepresented, incomplete, or simply wrong. For this course, the other option is more important: the validity of the Po. When someone makes a normative judgement or claim, we can question its correctness, validity or plausibility. When I say you shouldn’t smoke because it affects your health, you may question the underlying premise (Po) that health is a value that needs to be protected. Instead, you may give me good reasons why you value pleasure (satisfied by smoking) higher than health. This is the point where we start doing ethics. In many situation our daily-life common sense (or laymen ethics) is sufficient to provide orientations for our decisions and conclusions. Here, we want to talk about all the other cases. Therefore, we will need to have a look at how we are able to reason our Pos. In the history of philosophy, famous scholars have proposed different ways of reasoning ethical judgements. Knowing these theories will help us analyse and make arguments.

3.1 Virtue Ethics

The easiest (and probably oldest) systematic way to reflect on good life conduct is the idea that it is cultivated as the compliance with an ethos. This is a term used for a set of virtues according to which members of a society should orient their decisions and actions. The idea of virtues as a source for knowing what is good and right is the oldest form of ethics. The most prominent advocates of virtue ethics (德性倫理學) are the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, but also the Asian schools of thought from that time, Kongzi’s, Laozi’s and Siddhartha Gautama’s (Buddha’s) philosophy, are at least partly built on the idea of virtues as a source for good life conduct.


What was these wise men’s idea? If you want to find out what you should do in a particular role, imagine the ideal person and what he would do, and that is what you should do. For example: when you are a soldier and wonder how you should act in a certain situation, you imagine the “ideal soldier” and will certainly find that he would have virtues like bravery, courage, and persistence, but would certainly not have vices (the opposite of virtues) like daredevilry or cowardice. Therefore, you – as a soldier – should act brave and wise. Here, you can see that virtues are thought of a golden mean, the middle way (note the link to Buddhist philosophy), between two extremes (the vices) of “a lack of it” and “too much of it”. A lack of courage is cowardice, an excess of courage (or “an over-ambition of showing courage”) is daredevilry. Another example could be the virtue generosity with its vices stinginess and wastefulness, for example for a businessman.


In all kinds of life situations and the roles a person can find itself in – politician, boss, employee, citizen, husband, etc. – this consideration can be applied. Some virtues are valid for all and therefore considered universal virtues, like wisdom or benevolence. An important aspect of virtues is that they are expressions of personality and not utilised strategies for certain goals in particular situations. Virtues are cultivated by the willingness to act according to them and the repeated application so that they become part of one’s habits and personality. The approach sounds simple and, actually, it was criticised for being vague and arbitrary. In many cases it serves the purpose of defining codes of conduct very well and is easy to understand for those who are obliged to follow the rules (as a virtuous person, or君子). However, many contemporary issues in applied ethics, as we will see, can’t be satisfyingly clarified with the virtue ethics approach. In order to illustrate the next two ethical theories, consequentialism and deontology, I will first introduce one of such contemporary issues as an example:

Case: Animal Experiments


A special critical issue in science and research is experiments that involve animals. This topic can’t be sufficiently covered with the virtue approach described in section 3.1. Arguments in favour and against animal experimentation as well as on procedural questions are more sophisticated and need deeper insights into ethical reasoning. First, however, as we have learned, we need to be clear on what is the problem (the Pi in the scheme).

We start with a few numbers: It is estimated that around 100 million vertebrate animals are used worldwide per year for experiments. This doesn’t include invertebrates like insects (e.g. fruit flies). More than 60% of those are rats and mice, 25% are fish, 10% reptiles and amphibians, and the rest are birds and mammals.


Experiments with and on animals are conducted for the purpose of basic research (more than 50%), medical testing (25%), breeding (16%), regulatory testing (1,7%) and education (1%).


Animal testing dates back very far in history. The Cartesian worldview that regards animals as some kind of biomechanical machines was totally fine with treating animals as objects, examining them in the cruelest ways (e.g. nailing dogs onto boards and cutting them open to observe the beating of a heart). When the scientific experimenting with animals turned into a more systematic method on a large scale (in the 19th century), also the first movements of resistance formed, the anti-vivisectionists. Today, organised activism against animal research is widespread. Animal rights movements like that organised by PETA are well known. Sometimes, the protest even turns violent against individual scientists and/or their institutions, for example in the form of attempts to set research labs on fire or threatening researchers at their home.

Why is animal testing such a hot topic? Those supporting research on animals defend their approach by referring to the huge benefits for mankind, for example safety and efficiency of new drugs and cosmetics, anatomic and other medical knowledge, understanding of natural (biological) processes, etc., for a relatively low price – “only” animals, avoiding human suffering. The contra arguments are much more diverse and focus on different aspects of animals and their usage for research. Indeed, some activists put a strong focus on emotion and aesthetics, pointing at the suffering and despair of animals, and the misuse of “beautiful”, “cute” and “lovely” animals. This is, understandably, target of criticism, since personal preferences and aesthetic standards can’t be applied in a philosophical debate. Here, I’d like to focus on different ways of arguing against (or in favour of) animal experiments.

3.2 Consequentialism

As mentioned, some people argue on the grounds of benefits (or the negative opposite, risks). Here, people measure the goodness or rightness of a decision or action by the outcome or consequences. This viewpoint is shared by consequentialism (歸結主義), a theory based on the idea that every human being desires to increase its well-being. Therefore, the action that increases the well-being (or pleasure) of the highest possible number of entities (e.g. human beings) to the largest possible extend is the ethically favoured one. The most prominent form of consequentialism is Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism, developed in the 18th/19th century.

Many people argue against animal testing on the grounds of utilitarianism. For ethicists like Peter Singer, we can’t just point at the benefits for mankind without granting animals their place in the equation. Animals as ethically relevant entities have no benefit at all from those experiments. Their suffering diminishes the benefits so massively that it is impossible to regard such experiments as morally acceptable. There are two things we have to check at this point: Is consequentialism an appropriate theory to apply here, and are animals justifiably part of the equation?

A famous thought experiment to question the validity of consequentialist reasoning is the Trolley problem (有軌電車難題). Imagine the following situation:


A trolley (a tram car) is out of control and rolling down a slope, threatening to kill 5 workers on the tracks (or 5 otherwise “trapped” people). You stand at a lever that can switch the track to another one on which the trolley would kill only one person. If you do nothing, 5 people die. If you switch the lever, only 1 person dies. Will you pull the lever? 90% of people exposed to this problem answer “yes”. The simple consequentialistic consideration is: 1 person dead is better than 5 people dead. Now we can introduce some special variations: What if the 1 person is a 2-year-old boy and the 5 people on the other track are all above-90-year-old terminally ill cancer patients? What if the 1 person is a member of your family and the 5 are all strangers? What if the choice is to be made between 1 of your family members and 1000 strangers? We can see, these considerations often come to limits where simple numerical calculation of benefits (or consequences in general) becomes impossible or insufficient. Let’s see another variation of the thought experiment:


Again, the trolley is approaching the five people on the track, certainly killing them if nothing stops it. You are on a bridge above the track, together with a very fat man. It is clear that if you push down that fat man, he would block the trolley, saving the five people, but dying himself. In essence, the outcome is the same: 1 person dying instead of 5. However, in this case, only around 30% of people respond that they would push down that man. There is a clear difference between the first and the second variation: In the first case, all deaths can be regarded as an accident, an unlucky chain of events. Either the one or the five are just unlucky. In the second case, however, pushing down the fat man (instead of simply pulling a lever) is an act of killing – murder. It seems, for most people, it makes a huge difference to act passively or to actively get involved in the fate of other people. Calculating benefits alone, therefore, obviously can’t determine the goodness or rightness of a decision. Again, we can vary this scenario slightly: What if the fat man is a villain who put those 5 poor people onto the track? Would it be different? Under these circumstances, would it be “allowed” to push him down to save his victims and take his own death into account? Most people answer “yes”.

The Trolley episode tells us that another consideration that is beyond mere consequentialistic calculation of benefits is important: The rights of people and the ethical duties that stand behind actions and decisions to act.

3.3 Deontology

In the former example, the basis for the idea to look at the outcome of an action as ethically relevant factor was the benefits (in terms of well-being) of human beings or other entities. Philosophers inquired that well-being is a too vague concept, very subjective and corrupt, or hedonistic. As a kind of counter movement, almost at the same time as the rise of consequentialism, another idea found many followers: Ethics as a rational and reasonable duty. The philosophical considerations behind this idea can easily fill an entire course. Here, I will reduce it to the most important thoughts.

The basis of human existence is our free will. As rational beings we can reflect upon our self, form desires and interests and express those in our decisions and intentions. This has severe consequences: Every rational being (and no being can be more rational than the human) has dignity. Later, the idea of human rights was derived from this. Moreover, every rational being has a legitimate interest in autonomy and self-determination. As a conclusion, freedom is the highest good: freedom from suffering and pain, freedom from outer power or force, freedom to decide how to live one’s life. At the same time – and that is the crucial claim – we are able to change our mental perspective so that we understand that everybody has this interest in personal integrity, making it a duty to respect this interest and to act accordingly. With other words, one’s own freedom has a limit: the freedom of the others! Here, the “Golden rule” that is found in many cultures and societies and their Philosophies over the globe (also strongly in Confucianism) comes into play: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to be done to you!“. A famous variation is Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative”: “Act as if your maxims should serve at the same time as a universal law. (只依據那些你可以同時願意它成為普遍法則的準則行動.)” Kant’s philosophical reflections have been so fundamental and influential that he can be considered the most important thinker of Europe. He is a central figure in the European Enlightenment movement and the essence of his findings found its way into many social institutions such as democracy, the law-and-order system, or our modern idea of education. His famous categorical imperative as the core of his ethical system can be applied like this: When you consider doing a certain action you have to ask yourself: If the motivation (“maxim”) for this action would be a law (or allowed by law), would that be a world (or society, or state) I’d like to live in, or a world that would be “reasonable”? For example: Is “lying” a moral or immoral act? Can we imagine a society in which “lying” is allowed by law that works reasonably well? A rational person with a sufficiently clear mind would surely find that a society of liars could never work out well. Therefore, we conclude that lying is unethical. That means, as the ultimate conclusion, from our rationality (esp. the rational insight that we “have to do good” in order to keep social peace) and our free will (esp. the ability to decide what to do) we derive the duty (Greek: deon) to do good. This idea of duty ethics – the moral obligation to act morally – is known as deontology (義務倫理學), with Immanuel Kant as its most prominent advocate.

Here, within 10 minutes, I tried to explain a philosophical topic to you that would need a whole year regular lectures and we still wouldn’t be able to understand it to the fullest. Myriads of Philosophers have analysed, debated, deconstructed and reconstructed Kant’s reasoning approach. It was criticised, refined and applied to many questions of daily life. For our purpose here – animal testing and later experiments with humans – I’d like to introduce an alternative reading of his categorical imperative: “Never treat a moral agent merely as means, but always also as ends! (行動時對待人性的方式是,不論是自己或任何一個他人,絕對不能當成只是手段,而永遠要同時當成是目的.)” The term moral agent is introduced by myself, here. Kant would refer solely to human beings. However, this way of expressing the golden rule is applied by most animal rights activists – those who are not utilitarian (see above) but who argue that animals are moral agents that need moral protection. In animal experiments, they argue, animals are treated merely as means for ends that they have nothing to do with or that are not for themselves, which makes it unethical to perform such experiments. But are animals really moral agents? This question overlaps with the question whether animals are part of the utilitarian equation of benefits. Let’s see, therefore, what is the moral status of animals.

3.4 Centrisms

There are several positions in bioethics on who or what counts in in ethical considerations. These are so called centrisms, based on what the respective worldview puts into the center of its morality. The most confined viewpoint is “I only take care of myself!”. This is known as egocentrism and certainly not helpful for an ethical discussion. The next level would be a kind of sociocentrism: Members of a society (for example a family, a clan, a village, a nation) care about the members of this particular society and give them ethical relevance. A variety of that, ethnocentrism, would define the group that carries moral status by ethnicity. It is obvious that these criteria are very selective and discriminative, a form of fascism or racism. Therefore, reasonable philosophical approaches start at the mankind level.


Some might say, only the human sphere is important for us humans. We can reflect on ethical aspects only for mankind because other spheres (like animals, mountains, planets) can’t participate in the discourse, can’t express what they want, and wouldn’t understand what we conclude. Therefore, we have no choice but conducting ethical debates from the human point of view. We do Ethics only for human. The rest is beyond our capability and responsibility. This is called anthropocentrism. It doesn’t mean that animals, plants, the planet, the cosmos don’t matter to us! But if it does, we must understand it as a human interest! We have to treat dogs nicely for the sake of our own good, not for the sake of the dog! Kant, for example, pointed out that mistreatment of animals has negative impact on the personal character disposition. Violence against animals just forms a bad character. The suffering of the dog is not a point at all. The next level of ethical relevance is a pathocentric viewpoint: Every sentient being, at least every being that obviously feels pain and tries to escape from it, has a moral interest for its own sake. For some of you that might sound somehow incomplete. Why only those organisms that feel pain? What about the border cases where we just don’t recognise the expression of pain? Taking the feeling of pain as a criterion bears the danger of speciesism: Putting some species above others (same as anthropocentrism is a form of speciesism, putting mankind above other animals). If you think this is not valid, you might be a biocentrist and give all living organisms (including animals and plants, and maybe life forms of other planets) the status of being an ethical entity having an ethical value for its own sake. Some people argue that this is still incomplete: Also geological formations, mountains, landscapes, the whole planet with its ecosystem has an ethical value as such. This is an ecocentric viewpoint. It is also possible to extend the ethical realm to the whole universe: everything counts in! Cosmocentrism or Holism is based on the idea that everything in the universe is connected and everything has its place. The harmony of the whole is, therefore, the fundamental value of all existence. Chinese and Indian philosophy, especially Daoism (Laozi’s teachings) and Buddhism (Gautama’s teachings, fundamentally extended by Nagarjuna (龍樹)), are based on this holistic worldview. [There is, indeed, a difference – especially for Buddhists – between cosmocentrism (still a “putting something (everything) into the center of importance“) and holism (no center of attention, everything has equal status). This, however, shall not be discussed here.] All these considerations come into play when we reflect on environmental impact of science and technology. Do we only care about the well-being of mankind? Do we want to protect the environment because we understand that we, as the human race, need an environment that functions well? Or do we want to protect it because we believe that Nature has a value independent from mankind? Is it acceptable to take the pollution of a river into account as the prize for a few more jobs in a nearby factory? May we shoot polluted materials (like, for example, radioactive waste) to the moon, to Mars or into the sun to get rid of them, risking to pollute extraterrestrial places? We will come back to questions like this in later classes. Now, we want to see how it affects our arguments concerning animal experiments.

The pressing question for both utilitarian and deontological arguments is whether animals have an intrinsic value or an extrinsic one. According to biocentrists (and those with “larger” centers, or holists), animals have an intrinsic value for the sake of themselves. Pathocentrists would grant this at least to those animals that can feel pain, roughly defined as “higher organisms” with a central nervous system such as vertebrates. Anthropocentrists argue that animals can only be attributed with extrinsic value by us – we value them (for something). This can be an instrumental value (they are good for something, for example human purposes or the balance of the global eco-system), aesthetic value (they are beautiful, and there is beauty in global biodiversity), personal preference (we like animals), emotional value (we feel sad when we see them suffering). Only a deontological bio- or pathocentrist, for example, could grant “animal rights”. A utilitarian biocentrist would argue that animals’ benefits (or well-being) plays a role in our calculation of consequences. An anthropocentric utilitarian has to take the instrumental or other mankind-related values of animals into account when making statements about risks and benefits. Anthropocentric deontologists might find no argument for the protection of animals, except – like Kant – that a mistreatment affects the person’s character and personality negatively. Let’s try to make these considerations clearer by looking closer at the means-ends-relations in animal experimentation.

3.5 Means and Ends

We apply means to achieve certain ends in almost all our actions. Sometimes we take other people as means (for example a busdriver) to realise ends (for example being transported from A to B). The ethical guideline never to take anyone solely as means but always also as ends expresses (in this example), that the busdriver we exploit in his role as busdriver has to be treated at the same time as a human being with all the rights we grant to everyone. In this case it is easy for us. What about animals? The following considerations might play a role.


In this sketch, the size of the arrow (the means) and the circle (the ends that are to be achieved with the help of those means) illustrate the significance, importance or value of the respective means and ends. When the ends are very “big” (important, with huge benefit, etc.) and the means are “small” (cheap, easily available, uncritical, not conflict-laden, etc.) the case is unproblematic. When the ends are small (meaningless, unimportant) but the means (costs, risks, harm) are big, we better refrain from this option. However, sometimes it is debatable whether the ends are really “big” or not. In other words: Are the ends justified? In regard of animal testing, the “ends” are either scientific knowledge (as we have seen: more than 50% of animals experiments are for basic research) and its dissipation (education), or efficient and safe drugs (through medical research), or efficient and safe cosmetics. Many people see a strong necessity to perform drug testing, but cosmetic products are considered a luxury good that animals shouldn’t suffer for.

A variation of the question of the legitimacy of ends is whether they justify the means. Are these achievements really so important that torturing and killing animals is an acceptable strategy? We can also ask about the size of the means: Is the sacrifice of animals for science and research really such a big issue, or are these “only” animals? Does it make a difference if we use chimpanzees, mice or fruit flies, or should we generally treat all animals the same? Wouldn’t it otherwise be speciesism? Here we are at the bioethical considerations of the former section again.

Specific problems in the means-ends-relations in animal testing have been pointed out by several scholars and the public. First, the means-ends-relation is here highly asymmetric. The ones who benefit from the ends (humans) are not the ones who are affected by the means. Or with other words: The ones exploited as means (animals) have no benefits at all from the ends.

Second, by referring to several empirical studies, it has been argued that the means are not effective in achieving the ends. Animal models are not adequate to relate to the conditions in human physiology, so that medical testing on animals gives no important insights. Also, it is often sufficient to perform in vitro experiments (on tissue samples) rather than in vivo experiments (on living organisms).

A third aspect has been raised recently by some scientists: When suffering and pain are the core problems, what if with the methods of genetic engineering a genetically modified synthetic animal is produced that can’t feel pain? It is possible (not just theoretically) to knock out certain genes and grow mice that literally have no central nervous system. Then, pathocentrists’ arguments have no more power. Still, many people think this is disgusting and humiliating. The scientists’ argument is clearly utilitarian (reduced suffering increases the benefit-cost-relation), but a deontologist might argue against a severe case of animal rights violation by producing “Frankenstein”-animals. This is an even stronger case of reducing animals to mere means and granting them no ends at all.

Practice Questions

  • Terrorists hijack a jetplane with 200 passengers on board and threaten to crash it into a skyscraper. Is it ethically justified to shoot the airplane before it can destroy the building and cause many more casualties?
  • A pedophile who murdered children is caught by the police. The chief officer knows that the criminal is hiding a child at an unknown place where it might die if it is not rescued soon. Is the policeman ethically justified to torture the criminal in order to get the information to save the child?
  • Are you rather a Confucian, a Utilitarian or a Kantian?



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