PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday January 12, 2015




[2.7.] Applying Logical Concepts to the Baby Theresa Arguments.


Last week we asked which of the following arguments is best:


The Benefits Argument (EMP p.3)

If we can benefit someone without harming anyone else, we ought to do so.

Transplanting the organs would benefit the other children without harming Baby Theresa.

Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs.


The Argument that We Should Not Use People as Means (EMP p.3)

It is wrong to use people as means to other people’s ends.

Taking Theresa's organs would be using her to benefit the other children.

Therefore, taking the organs would be wrong.


The Argument from the Wrongness of Killing (EMP p.4)

It is wrong to kill one person to save another.

Taking Theresa’s organs would be killing her to save others.

Therefore, taking the organs would be wrong.


But now we can ask: which, if any, of these arguments is sound? I.e., is any of them valid with all true premises? This is a question about which I expect you to form your own opinion.



[2.8.] The (Limited) Cultural Differences Argument.


To illustrate some further, simple points about philosophical arguments, we will consider a specific ethical claim, as well as an argument for this claim.


Different societies disagree about the morality of certain actions. For example, in traditional Eskimo (Inuit) society, infanticide (df.: the deliberate killing of a newborn baby) is believed to be morally permissible (not immoral) in certain circumstances (in these circumstances, it is left up to the parents to decide whether to kill the infant; there is no social stigma attached to the practice; it is more common with baby girls than with boys).[1]


But in contemporary American society, killing an infant is believed to be immoral, no matter what the circumstances. (You will read more about this practice of the Eskimos in EMP 2.5).


Here is the argument that Rachels asks us to consider (argument #4 on RTD p.23). I will call it the (Limited) Cultural Differences Argument (LCDA):


1.      In some societies, such as among the Eskimos, infanticide is thought to be morally acceptable.

2.      In other societies, such as our own, infanticide is thought to be morally odious.

3.      Therefore, infanticide is neither objectively right nor objectively wrong; it is merely a matter of opinion that varies from culture to culture.


Discussion: Is this a valid argument? Does it have true premises?



[2.7.1.] Objectivity.


The word “objective” plays a crucial role in the (Limited) Cultural Differences Argument (LCDA). The word is a familiar one, but it is hard to define precisely. In the LCDA, it means something like this:


objective (df.): something is objective when it is independent of what anyone believes, thinks, or feels about it.

·         “It is objectively true that p” =  “it is true that p, whether or not anyone believes that p.”

·         For example: it is objectively true that the earth orbits the sun; that water is H2O; and that 2+2=4.

·         A word that means nearly the same thing as “objective” is “real.”[2]


“Objective” is the opposite of “subjective.”


subjective (df.): something is subjective when there is no truth or fact of the matter about it; there are only opinions, beliefs or feelings about it. For example, whether Turkey and Gravy Soda is delicious is a subjective matter.  [But whether I think that Turkey and Gravy Soda is delicious is an objective fact about me.]


In the definition of “objective,” the phrase “about it” is very important—some objective facts depend on what someone thinks (or feels, or believes) without depending on what anyone thinks (or feels, or believes) ABOUT THOSE FACTS.


For example, facts about a person’s mental states:

·         Amy thinks that the Grand Canyon is beautiful.

·         Bill feels sad that Robin Williams died.

·         Craig believes that Montgomery is the capitol of Alabama.


Each of these facts depends on what someone thinks, feels or believes. For example, the fact that Amy thinks that the Grand Canyon is beautiful depends on what someone thinks: it depends on what Amy thinks, because it is a fact about what Amy thinks.


Yet, it is still an objective fact about Amy. It is objectively true of her that she thinks that the Grand Canyon is beautiful. This is an objective fact about Amy’s mind.


It is an objective fact because it does not depend on what Amy or anyone else thinks about it. We cannot make it the case that Amy thinks that the Grand Canyon is ugly simply by believing that she thinks that. In other words, we cannot change that fact about her simply by our beginning to think that she thinks that the Grand Canyon is hideous. This is what makes it objectively true of Amy that she thinks the Grand Canyon is beautiful.



Stopping point for Monday January 12. For next time, study the lecture notes from today. No new reading—we will continue discussing EMP pp.21-24 and the (Limited) Cultural Differences Argument.  We will also discuss your first writing assignment, a Response Paper due on Weds. Jan. 21.


[1] For more on the practice of infanticide among some tribes of Inuit people, see Milton Freeman, “A Social and Ecologic Analysis of Systematic Female Infanticide among the Netsilik Eskimo,” American Anthropologist 73 (5), 1971, URL = < >, accessed August 29, 2011. But also note the following claim, made by a more recent researcher: “While there is little disagreement that there were examples of infanticide in Inuit communities, it is presently not known the depth and breadth of these incidents. The research is neither complete nor conclusive to allow for a determination of whether infanticide was a rare or a widely practiced event.” Andrew Hund, “Inuit.” In The Encyclopedia of Infanticide, Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.


[2] I derive this definition of the word “objective” from the definition of the word “real” given by the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914). Peirce is covered in American Philosophy (PHIL 3120; class web site:

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