Is it legitimate to win a moral, political or ethical argument by using logical methods?

  1. If you demonstrate that an opponent's statements are somehow illogical, the reason the opponent is considered defeated is still non-rational (the fact that a person holding contradictory or absurd beliefs is considered stupid or ridiculous).
  2. Moral/political beliefs go "deeper" than what people make in statements, therefore even though they may make a statement that can be logically refuted (through contradiction or absurdity), their actual moral beliefs are not contradictory or absurd, they just used language incorrectly.

I think it's in bad faith to try to do this is because I don't think anyone believes that a person actually holds the absurd or contradictory statements made, it is just useful to discredit them or make them look stupid by taking their words "at face value" and showing how they are illogical (this isn't meant to refer to all cases).

In some way it seems like non-rational methods of winning arguments are more honest, in that they seem to attack the roots of moral beliefs or ideology, since they are bound up with the non-rational world of culture, character, ethnicity, religion, psychology etc, and are therefore more truthful or honest about what moral disagreement or debate is really about.

Does my stance make sense? Why or why not?

  • 1
    Logic brings you from A (premises) to B (conclusion), but doesn't give you A. It is merely a tool to derive B from A. So, you need some premises to start with. It is like this in ethics and in any branch of philosophy or indeed any science. If a moral debate were to be held without logic, it would be nothing more than an exchange of opinions without any argumentation.
    – user2953
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 6:25
  • The formatting for this question is not ideal since this SE isn't meant for "am I right" questions, but the core of it at least to me seems like an interesting enough question.
    – virmaior
    Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 11:47
  • Reminder that having a bad argument is not the same as having a bad position. You can't prove you're right by proving someone else's argument is wrong, you need to prove that their position is wrong. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 22:43

4 Answers 4


Reading your question, my top concern would relate to some odd constellations of terms:

Is it (a) hypocritical, false, deceitful, or in bad faith to try to win (b) a moral, political or ethical argument by (c) using logical methods instead of non-rational ones (like insults)?

In cluster (a), you're grouping "hypocritical, false, deceitful, and bad faith," but these terms are pretty different in meaning. "hypocrisy" of course referring to offering an argument that you yourself violate or that holds others to a standard you fail. "false" is a word that's problematic to apply to arguments since it either means "lying" or is an inappropriate use of the technical term from the pair true / false which applies to statements -- not arguments. "deceitful" matches the first definition of "false" . "Bad faith" is a term that either means "deceitful" or a technical term from Sartre that mirrors Hegel's unhappy consciousness as an incomplete stage in subjective thought.

In cluster (b), the terms might all mean the same thing but might all mean something completely different. And I think this is the real crux of why you draw the conclusion you do. On the one hand, these terms can refer to arguing with someone about their personal behaviors or mores, and in this case, you're probably right that on a psychological level, they aren't really offering an argument for their position and to engage them with an argument and expect that to fit is to misunderstand what's going on. Thus, for "moral ..." understood as raw behavioral modification situations, logic becomes a tool of utility seemingly equal with emotion, bribery, manipulation, etc.

But, on the other hand, if they can critically reflect, then they can abstract from themselves to at least some degree. And that's precisely what we're doing in almost all "moral arguments" in philosophy. We are looking at the parameters of what might make an action right or wrong and trying to figure things out systematically. There's no reason to think it's disingenuous to use logic to do this (or at least you don't offer an argument for it above). So the appeal to reason as a way of thinking about what is right to do needn't be made under any of cluster (a)'s problematic set.

We can see this sort of thing (where we can reason non-hypocritically about our own morality) as far back as Plato et al. -- where they condemn behaviors they themselves undertake seeing their behaviors as inadequacies. (The same discussion is Aristotle's akrasia).


You may be reflecting on the splitting point between morality and ethics. In many ways, ethics = morality + math.

It is not so much illegitimate as meaningless to address the part 'before the plus sign' with logic, since finding one's basic sentiments illogical means nothing -- they are one's basic sentiments and simply are not going away without reconstructing experiences that reshape your investment in the values.

As some Quaker sects put it "Notions direct, but do not Lead. Leadings will be known Experimentally." Giving "direction opposed to Leading", in this sense, is simply condescending toward the person's internal life -- and yes, that is illegitimate.

On the other hand most of our behavior is based on thinking far 'after the plus sign', and all of that thinking needs logic, or a culture with a given morality still won't function.


This is a better question than it first appears. On the one hand, the underlying purpose of bringing logic into any argument is really to clarify commitments, increase understanding and expose contradictions. It's hard to see that as a bad or bad faith thing to do in any argument (unless it is actually deployed in explicit bad faith, which is something that can be done with any tool of communication). On the other hand, attempts (such as the trolley problem) to use logic to clarify and organize moral intuitions have proven --in my personal opinion --morally unhelpful to an extent that suggests they may misunderstand or misconstrue something fundamental about moral principles.

So my own answer to your question would be twofold:

  1. While logic can be deployed in a bad faith manner in a moral argument, there is nothing that makes bringing logic to bear on a moral argument intrinsically wrong or harmful. The specific example you provided of using logic to paint the other party as foolish or crazy is a clearly illegitimate use of logic (ad hominem). Logic is only properly deployed against an argument, not against a person.
  2. I think you may have a legitimate insight that there is a limit to how much logic can actually clarify ethical questions, since it seems likely that we don't actually relate to morality in the kind of algorithmic, clearly defined hierarchy logic typically assumes (or, rather, that those attempting to analyze morality logically typically assume).

It's perfectly fine to try to bring an emotional debate onto reasonable grounds by using logic. Including when you make a moral decision. A moral decision has to be based on facts. If the facts are wrong because they are discussed in an emotional way, then the moral decision based on the facts is wrong.

For example: Is it moral to do X when X is highly dangerous to children? Now we are deep into the emotional end of the discussion, and if you dare arguing for X then you are a child abuser. When the actual facts may be that the risk of X to children is highly exaggerated, and the premise that X is highly dangerous to children is clearly wrong.

(Just yesterday a newspaper in Britain reported about a poor (British) child who on holiday in Africa saw her father killed by an elephant. Very emotional. I personally felt more for the father; the kid will recover, the father won't. Many people would be outraged if you told them that).

Now in your example: You would say that doing X is still immoral, and convincing people with logic that it isn't is hypocritical (why on earth would it be hypocritical? Do you know what the word means? ), deceitful and in bad faith exactly why?

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