What is a Moral Argument?

A moral argument is an argument with a conclusion that expresses a moral claim.

Pretty simple, maybe even trivial. But even simple definitions can contain important information.

Moral Arguments are Arguments

First, this definition makes it clear that moral arguments are indeed ARGUMENTS. So they inherit all of the familiar properties of arguments.

[If the concepts I introduce below are entirely unfamiliar to you, I recommend reviewing the first few sections of the course titled “Become an Argument Ninja”.]

Moral arguments, like all arguments, are composed of claims, or propositions, or statements (these are all synonymous for our purposes). One of these claims we call the “conclusion”; the others we call the “premises”.

These claims — the premises, and the conclusion — make assertions that can be either true or false (that’s what makes them claims at all).

[There are some exceptions to this rule. Definitions, for example, may play important roles as premises in arguments, but definitions are meant to stipulate the meaning of a term, they don’t actually assert something that could be true or false. But let’s move on …!]

In an argument, it is understood that the premises are being offered as reasons to believe or accept the conclusion, that are directed toward some intended audience (real or hypothetical).

For any argument, we can ask whether the conclusion follows from the premises or not (is the argument valid or invalid? strong or weak?). If the logic of the argument is valid or strong, the argument satisfies the “logic condition”, and is a candidate for a good argument.

We can also ask whether the intended audience of the argument has good reasons to accept the premises or not. If they do, then the argument satisfies the “truth condition”.

[Note: the “truth condition” is really a “plausibility condition”. What it means for a claim to be plausible to an audience is that the audience has good reasons to accept it, whether or not the claim is in fact true. This is a subtle but important distinction, which is discussed at length in “Become an Argument Ninja”.]

If the argument satisfies both the logic condition and the truth condition, then we may ultimately judge it to be a good argument. If it fails to satisfy either or both of these conditions, then it’s a bad argument.

So, moral arguments are no different from other arguments in these respects. They’re open to the same kinds of analysis and criticism as any other argument.

But What Is a Moral Claim?

The distinguishing feature of moral arguments is their subject matter. They offer reasons to accept or believe a moral conclusion, a conclusion that expresses a moral claim.

But what exactly is a moral claim? How are they different from other sorts of claims?

We’ll turn to this question next.