Getting Started

If you're a college-level reader, you won't need to work through this material. If your reading skills are any less than college level, this material will help you fill in the gap between how good you are and how good you should be. The reading questions are designed to help you understand the material. If they turn out to be really, really, really easy to answer after you've done the reading, then you don't have to bother with them if you don't want to. If they're hard to answer, then you really, really, really need to work through them before you come to class! Please note that these web pages will get progressively less and less helpful as the course goes on, because you're expected to get better and better at reading as the course goes on.

This page will mainly cover the material I covered in the first lecture. If you missed that lecture, you should read this page! You should also read your class syllabus and intro01.htm to prepare you for the next lecture. (If you attended the first lecture, you don't necessarily have to read this material because it basically recaps that first lecture.)

The first thing you need to know is that most of the materials for this course are on the World Wide Web. Most of it is on my web site,, so if I give you a file name, like filename.htm, you must remember to put in front of that file name when you enter it as a URL in your Web browser. (By the way, make sure the Web browser you're using has its left margin set to one-half inch. (Click on file, click on page set up, then set the margins.) This will prevent the text from being cut off on the right side, and it will save paper.) To reach the web page for this course, type in, then type in the course number, then type in.htm and hit enter. (This URL is also listed on your syllabus.) All pages related to this course can be reached from that course web page.

My cellphone number is on the syllabus, so you can text me with questions and comments.

You need to provide your own college-ruled paper, with straight edges, not spiral tear-out, so I can easily sort your quizes.

This is not class where you can skimp on the reading. I work hard to make the reading clear and easy to understand, but I absolutely insist that you do all the assigned reading, work through the assigned exercises that are on the Web pages, and of course do the homework.

Class participation is really encouraged. Even when I'm lecturing, feel free to ask questions and make comments. Jokes are welcome. You can't make a joke about the material unless you understand the material. If you don't understand something, please let me know.

There are six graded course requirements. They are attendance, wrangling, odyssey workshop, homework, odyssey and exams.

Attendance is mandatory. Failure to attend class costs you a ten point penalty for every class you miss. This is the easiest requirement to fulfill, since all you have to do is show up, stay the whole lesson, and pay attention.

Wrangling is pretty easy. It's an in-class exercise designed to expose various aspects of logical reasoning for discussion. To accomplish this, I will split you into paired teams to attack and defend various controversial propositions. It's not graded on whether you win or lose the debate, it's graded on whether or not you make a proper effort to do the things I ask you to during the wrangle. I'll tell you more about this later.

The odyssey workshop is also fairly easy. It requires you to talk about any problems you might be having with the "odyssey" writing assignment. We do this in class, and everyone takes a turn, so that everyone gets to hear discussion of all the problems that can come up. It is also designed to expose various aspects of the critical writing process for discussion, so you can think of it as a lecture on writing in which students act as examples of people with specific problems. Again, more later.

The homework is a little harder, but it purely tests whether you have really done the reading, which includes working through all the problems yourself. Whenever reading is assigned to a particular day, the reading and homework must be done before that day, and the homework must be handed in on that day. If I assign a reading for July 7th, then that reading must be completely done before July 7th, the homework must be done before July 7th, and the homework must be handed in at beginning of class on July 7th. I cut you a lot of slack on the homework, but you have to do it before class to get the credit.

The odyssey is a critical performance requirement, so it is graded at a very high standard. The odyssey requires you to think through the evidence and arguments presently available for your chosen topic, logically determine which thesis is best supported by those evidence and arguments, and explain in detail the logical reasoning that supports your determination. The thing to remember is that only things that support this goal can get you credit. A rambling, disorganized mess of a paper will get full credit if it turns out to contain all the necessary critical thinking. A highly polished, elegantly phrased, beautifully organized, academically worded five-paragraph essay will get no credit whatsoever if it fails to contain any of the necessary critical thinking. You can bet I will tell you more about this later.

The exams, two midterms and a final, are the most critical performance requirement. The questions won't be particularly hard, but they will expect you to know the material thoroughly, and to be able to recognize and explain subtle but important distinctions. To get full marks on any question, you have to get the answer exactly right. Less than perfect answers will get less than perfect scores, and so on.

See the syllabus for the grade requirements and the point values of the various assignments. Also see the syllabus for my grading policy (which probably won't affect you), my drop policy, classroom etiquette and my policy on accommodations for disabled students.

There are two things in this class that are probably new to you because I invented them. They are "Wrangling" and "Odyssey."

Wrangling goes like this. In a week or so, I will give out a survey form that will ask your opinion on various topics. The form will contain opposing pairs of statements, like "cat juggling is morally wrong" and "cat juggling is not morally wrong." If you agree with one of these statements (which means you disagree with the other), you should circle the number of the one you agree with. If you have no opinion on the matter, you should leave the pair blank. If you don't ever want to find yourself up in front of the class talking about this particular issue, cross out both statements. If you find some particular issue so interesting that you would like to be up here defending your opinion of it, put an asterisk in the little square to the right of the statement pair. If you really want to defend your opinion on that issue, put a circle around the square as well.

What happens to these forms is that I find somewhere quiet to sit down and find four issues such that I can put together a team on each side of the issue. I generally pick the issues based on what's in the little squares, providing I can put together a team on each side of that issue. In any case, I try to accommodate everyone's preferences as much as possible, or at least avoid assigning anyone to a team that he or she really doesn't want to be on.

The next thing that happens is that I write the teams on the board, you make sure I have not assigned you to defend a proposition you really don't want to defend, and write down the statement assigned to your team. Preparation for the actual wrangle is not actually necessary, but you can do it if you like.

If you want to prepare, you can practice turning long sentences into very short sentences. Heck, you can practice picking out keywords, and not bothering with the rest of the sentence. Writing on the board takes time, and things go much faster if you can make your point in a couple of words.

On the day of your wrangle, you'll be called up to stand by one side of the board with one or two other students while a similar group stands by the other side of the board. Each group writes its thesis on the board, and the group that bears the burden of proof will follow this by writing one or two keywords that indicate their main reason for thinking that their thesis is true. I'll talk about what the other group needs to do to answer that reason, and we'll go on from there. It's actually a lot easier than it sounds.

Odyssey writing is also a lot easier than it sounds, except that some people seem to have a hard time figuring out that it really is easy. You can think of it as writing four separate papers, except that the topics for the later papers are based on your work in the earlier papers, and you won't know what your next topic is until the previous paper is graded and returned to you. The second thing to remember is that you should only use things you learned in English class when those things make it easier for you to write the paper. If you can do what I ask you to do while forgetting everything you ever learned in an English class, go for it. The writing assignments all ask you to clearly explain what position you think is best supported by the evidence and arguments available to you. None of them ask you to write in a particular format, to use a particular style, or to use any vocabulary that is not necessary to clearly explain your reasoning. I expect you to spend a lot of time figuring out just what you are going to say. I don't want you to spend any time worrying about what the result looks like.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of thinking available to people. There is critical thinking, which seeks to discover the truth by applying logic to the available evidence, and there is comfort thinking, which seeks to maintain preferred beliefs independent of logic and evidence. A comfort thinker is someone who defends his existing beliefs by any means necessary. These means can include ignoring, discounting or distorting the available evidence. They can include ignoring, distorting or misrepresenting the positions, arguments and motivations of people who disagree with him. And, of course, these means include abuse, physical threats and violence. Most importantly for our purposes, the means by which comfort thinkers maintain their beliefs include plausible sounding but logically worthless arguments.

In terms of improving the lives of everyone on our planet, comfort thinking has been a miserable failure. Just about every human action that has ever made things better has been based entirely on critical thinking. Critical thinking has given us medicine, social reform, and technology. If you make a list of things that actually make your life better, each one of those things, if it really does make your life better, will turn out to be the result of somebody's critical thinking. Comfort thinking has given us religious persecution, genocide and a long list of other horrors.

If you take actions that affect the lives of others, it is morally wrong for you to base those actions on comfort thinking. This is because your action is basically a complete gamble as far as morality is concerned. When you use comfort thinking, you have absolutely no real reason to think that your conclusion is correct. So if you hurt someone else, you have done something morally wrong, even though you might have been able to delude yourself into thinking that it was morally right. Don't tell yourself that it was an innocent mistake because you sincerely believed in what you were doing. If you indulged in comfort thinking to achieve that belief, then that belief  was come by dishonestly. Comfort thinking is fundamentally dishonest, no matter how sincerely or passionately you believe your favorite conclusions.

Bad moral rules, or "pseudomorality," are rules that people say are moral rules, but which aren't moral at all. Remember that just because people believe something is a moral rule does not make it a real moral rule. Real moral rules are justified by logic and evidence, not by consensus or tradition! In this class, we will only be concerned with real moral rules. Claims about morality that are not supported by logic and evidence are simply false.

Even among honest and honorable people who apply logic and evidence to ethical issues, there is considerable debate about the true nature of morality. There are many different moral theories, but the two we will be most concerned with in this class are "utilitarianism" and "rights theory."

Utilitarianism holds that the way to make moral decisions is to consider all the foreseeable consequences of each of the available options, and to choose the option that offers the best overall aggregate trade-off between welfare (including pleasure, health and mental well-being) and suffering for everyone affected by the decision. Here is an example of utilitarian thinking. Suppose there are five patients dying in a hospital from different kinds of organ failure. Each patient is young, otherwise healthy, and would certainly survive if given a transplant organ. However, thanks to motorcycle helmet laws, there are no transplant organs available, and all the patients will die in about a month. A naive critic of utilitarianism might suppose that utilitarianism would advocate grabbing a suitable donor from the street and cutting him up for transplant organs. The consequences of this would be that the five patients would survive and only the donor would die. Since it's overall better than one person die rather than five, the naive critic concludes that utilitarianism demands that the donor be sacrificed. An actual utilitarian, however, would take into account all the consequences, and all the options, available here. One option is that we have a rule that innocent people may never be killed (or seriously harmed) against their will, even if the alternative is that several people will die. The real utilitarian compares the consequences of having that rule to the consequences of not having that rule and finds that a society in which innocent people can be killed in such situations is a society in which people suffer more, because they are individually devalued and disrespected by their society as well as because they run some risk of being cut up for parts. On this basis, the real utilitarian sees an overwhelming justification for such a rule, and that rule rules out the option of cutting up an arbitrarily chosen donor.

Rights theory holds that there are certain categories of things that should not be done to individuals, no matter what the consequences. A rights theorist would come to the same conclusion as the utilitarian, but for different reasons. The rights theorist would say that the donor has a compelling right to life so cutting him up for parts would violate his right to life, and so would be seriously morally wrong unless failing to do so would be a worse violation of somebody else's rights. It's true that the recipients also have a right to life, but withholding the donor's organs does not violate their right to life, since the right to life is basically a right not be killed, not a right to be given any particular means of preserving one's life. Furthermore, the rights theorist would say that we do not need to consider the consequences of our options here because recognizing the donor's right to life, (and the fact that the recipients don't have any right to other people's organs), is all we need to think about. Unlike utilitarians, rights theorists start by figuring out what moral rights apply to the situation, and then consider which rights would be violated by what options, and finally figuring out which option involves the least serious violations of the least serious rights.

Although these two moral theories are generally seen as opposed to each other, we do not necessarily have to see them so, or to prefer one over the other. A moral theory known as "pluralism" holds that morality is not fully or easily captured by any single moral principle but instead is best understood by deploying a number of different principles, each of which is most appropriate in its own particular area. This class will generally operate from a pluralistic standpoint, and will consider all moral theories as potentially valid.

Since we are not going to automatically prefer one particular moral theory, we need to think about how we are going to think about morality. In any moral question, the answer depends on two things. First, there is the question of what moral principle, out of those that apply to the case, is most important. Second, there is the question of what that most important moral principle actually says we should do in this particular case. Both of these can turn out to be very complicated questions, so it is vitally important that we think clearly and logically about all moral issues.

It should be noted that nothing is morally wrong without a reason. If Jack claims that something Jill does is morally wrong, but cannot come up with a logically good reason why that thing is wrong, then follows that what Jill does is not morally wrong. The burden of proof always lies on he who seeks to impose rules upon others.

Since moral reasoning is difficult, and ethicists often make claims that are new and counterintuitive to the ordinary reader, it is vitally important that we read carefully. Since we are supposed to think about whether these counterintuitive claims are true or false, we must be careful to dig out the arguments that the writer offers for his claims. Therefore I want you to read carefully and closely. Read one word at a time. Don't skim. Don't hunt for keywords. Don't content yourself with picking up a "general idea" of what you think the text says. Read every single word and figure out what the text actually says. Make notes as you read. In particular, look for new things. Look for ideas you've never heard before, and ideas that go against the conventional wisdom. Make sure you get the author's main point, her "thesis," as close to exactly right as you can get it. Write her thesis out in your own words. Get her main argument for this thesis, and summarize that in your own words. Look for places where the author talks about objections to her thesis. Note down those objections as well as the author's answers to those objections. Finally, think of your own criticisms, and search the text for places where the author might have said things that answer your criticisms.

The essence of comfort thinking is to start with a thesis, and then look through the available facts, possibilities and speculations to find whatever claims can be used to make it appear that the thesis is supported by logic and evidence. A comfort thinker may take this mess and write a paper that purports to show that this thesis is logically supported by putting in whatever facts, possibilities, speculations and falsehoods that can be made to appear to support the thesis, and leaving out or illogically dismissing any facts and logical principles that might inconveniently show that the thesis is not in fact supported by the available evidence. The technical term for this process is "lying." The essence of critical thinking is to start with the best available evidence and apply strict logic to that evidence to see just what thesis turns out to be logically supported by that evidence. The technical term for this process is "thinking." Thinking is not easy, it is not simple, and above all else, is not tidy. Real thinking is in fact a very messy process. You start with whatever you happen to know about the subject, try to find out as much else as you can, and try to figure out what else you would need to know to solve the problem. At every step of the way you try to figure out the implications of whatever you happen to know at that point. And whenever you manage to come up with some kind of thesis, you look back at your thinking and try to find places where you might have gone wrong. Instead of picking a thesis and sticking with it, a real thinker picks different theses along the way, switching back and forth and rethinking every time a new piece of information or a new logical implication comes to light. Comfort thinkers rarely if ever change their minds. Critical thinkers change their minds frequently.

The wrangling exercise is designed to expose instances of the thinking process in action. It is intended to show how various claims can be deployed to support and oppose a particular thesis. It is both a model of how two opposing sides may rationally discuss an issue, and a model of how an individual may work his own way through the logic of an issue by carefully considering the logical implications of individual claims, one claim at a time.

Another important aspect of critical thinking is the process of assembling an argument for the thesis that seems best supported at the time for the purposes of finding out whether or not that thesis really is supported. The usual academic way to do this is to write an essay which you then present to other reasonable people for comment and criticism. These others often see things in your writing that you didn't notice. They might see logical problems. They might see factual problems. Or they might see opportunities to dig even deeper into the subject. Whatever they see, the critical thinker takes their comments and criticisms and uses them as a basis to rethink the issue. He might change his mind entirely, or he may merely tweak his argument a little. Or, he may decide that his next essay will be about a completely different aspect of his chosen issue. Whatever he does will be based at least in part on his understanding of the logical implications of those comments and criticisms.

The odyssey writing exercises are designed to provide opportunities for the deepest thinking possible in the confines of a single college course. They are meant to allow you to do the kind of thinking, and rethinking, and re-rethinking you would do if you were seriously researching your topic. They are also structured so that if you choose not to think deeply about your topic, you will not get a good grade for the assignment. (Remember that the assignment requires you to attach all previous work to each subsequent stage when you turn it in. If your second stage doesn't come attached to your previous stage, with all my comments and the second stage assignment sheet, then you haven't fulfilled the assignment.)

The basic thing we think about is arguments. In philosophy, an "argument" is generally some collection of (supposedly) previously established facts together with a further claim that somebody thinks is proved by those previously established facts taken all together. The supposedly established facts are referred to as "premises" and the thing that is supposedly proved by the argument is called the "conclusion." Arguments can be written out in any form, but for clarity, we philosophers can also write them out in "standard form."

Premise one.
Premise two.

Once you have got a particular argument clear in your head (which isn't always easy), you can start trying to evaluate the argument. An argument is good if it meets two criteria. The first criterion is that, if the premises were true, it would be completely unreasonable to think that the conclusion is not also true. The second criterion is just that the premises really are established facts. So to evaluate an argument, you think about two things. First, you think about whether or not the premises really are previously established facts. (If it turns out that even one of the premises is not an established fact, then the argument is no good.) Second, you think about is whether the premises could be true without the conclusion also being true. (If it turns out there's a way for the premises to be true while the conclusion is false, then the argument is no good.) Here are those criteria again.

1. The premises really are previously established facts.
2. If the premises were true, then it would be unreasonable to think that the conclusion is false.

If one of these features is lacking, then the argument is no good. In particular, if someone can come up with an adequate explanation for the premises that does not itself make the conclusion true, then that alternative explanation, all by itself, makes the argument no good. For this reason, argumentative writing concerns itself greatly with coming up with further arguments to support main premises, with showing that conclusions really are adequate explanations for the premises, and with showing that alternative explanations really aren't any good.

Remember to read phil-mythos.htm before next week. Remember also that you will be quizzed on that reading! The quiz always tests the reading for that day.

For more on comfort thinking, see hownottothink.htm

Copyright 2016 by Martin C. Young

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