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Ethics Bowl - Hidden Premises

Ethical issues, like those covered in this year’s (and every year’s) Ethics Bowl championships, cannot be solved using the same methods used to solve empirical problems such as determining the best material to use when building a bridge.

This is because ethical challenges often require us to select between equally valid goods or choose the lesser of two evils in situations where facts and science might not provide clear answers. Ethical questions also tend to require making decisions about what will happen or what to do in an unknown future, and as I’ve noted in previous discussions of the importance of logic-checking: you cannot fact-check things that haven’t happened yet.

But you can argue in favor of one choice versus another, although to do so you need to correctly identify what you are arguing about.

Now there are many methods for turning editorials, advertisement, and Ethics Bowl cases into arguments in which the claims making up such pieces are identified and clarified. The method I use most frequently, informal argumentation, involves pulling from a prose argument (like an Ethics Bowl case) the premises the arguer is asking you to accept and the conclusion they say you should or must accept if you accept the premises.

If you are unfamiliar with techniques for setting up an argument and analyzing it for strengths and weaknesses, you can go through the Getting Started lessons permanently anchored on the home page. One of the most important reasons to go through this process is that it often brings to the surface hidden premises that turn out to represent the most important things we are arguing about.

This is important since, on many occasions, the point our arguments hinge on are implied, but not stated outright. For example, arguments over abortion and abortion rights often hang on the question of when does life begin, which leads to the even harder question: “What is life?” Given the challenges of trying to answer either of those questions definitively, it should come as no surprise that debates over this issue have continued unresolved for generations.

To illustrate hidden premises more clearly, consider two people arguing over who is the greatest baseball player of all time. One person says it is clearly Barry Bonds who holds the Major League record for home runs. His opponent insists that it’s actually Yogi Berra, the player who played in the most winning World Series teams. The statistics supporting each person’s description of their favorite player’s record are solid, so why can’t they agree?

To understand why, you can translate each person’s argument into structured premises leading to a conclusion. For example, the first person’s argument looks like this:

Premise 1: Hitting the most home runs makes you the greatest baseball player of all time.

Premise 2: Barry Bonds has the record for home runs in Major League Baseball.

Conclusion: Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all time.

His opponent’s argument is very similar, but it reads:

Premise 1: Playing on the most winning World Series teams makes you the greatest baseball player of all time.

Premise 2: Yogi Berra played in the most winning World Series teams.

Conclusion: Yogi Berra is the greatest baseball player of all time.

Once you boil down each person’s argument to its essence, you can quickly see that they are not actually having a debate over who is the greatest ball player ever. Rather, they are in a disagreement over how to define “greatest player.”

One person thinks it has something do with home runs, while the other thinks it’s about playing on winning World Series teams. But unless they are going to turn this into a debate over what it means to be the greatest, then it doesn’t matter how much data they bring to the table to support each person’s second premise since they are not arguing about what they think they are (who’s the greatest player) but over definition of the word “greatest.”

This same technique can be used to expose the hidden premises behind ethical issues we debate and struggle with. For example, in this piece I use the process of unearthing hidden premises to discover the actual things we’re disagreeing over when we argue over how to prioritize who gets vaccinated against COVID.

In cases where there is societal consensus (such as prioritizing healthcare workers and the elderly) hidden premises behind arguments over favoring these two groups represent settled questions. But once you get to harder cases (like prioritizing essential workers or the needy), exposing hidden premises reveals the controversy we need to debate (like which workers get to be defined as “essential” or whether factors other than risk of infection should be used to prioritize who gets vaccinated).

We can apply this same technique to this year’s national Ethics Bowl case #12 “Left Behind at Warp Speed” which asks students to grapple with global inequity regarding vaccine distribution in which wealthy industrialized countries have been able to purchase the vaccines necessary to protect their own populations, pushing the population of poorer countries to the back of the line.

People’s natural aversion to unfairness can drive us to condemn this situation out of hand. But ethical reasoning requires us to look past our emotional reactions (however justified) to see bigger pictures that can often be revealed by teasing out the hidden premises of arguments in favor of one side or the other.

For example, a simple argument in favor of globally equitable vaccine distribution might look like this:

Premise 1: People in poor countries deserve the same access to vaccines as those in wealthier countries.

Conclusion: Vaccine distribution should be based on factors other than who can afford to buy them.

Like other arguments regarding vaccine distribution in the article mentioned previously, this seemingly simple argument contains a hidden premise, which would make the full argument look like this:

Premise 1: People in poor countries deserve the same access to vaccines as those in wealthier countries.

Premise 2 [Hidden Premise]: Vaccine distribution should be based on equity concerns, not national wealth.

Conclusion: Vaccine distribution should be based on factors other than who can afford to buy them.

For those of you new to the argumentation game, this is a valid argument in that accepting the premises requires you to accept the conclusion. But a strong argument also needs to be both valid and sound and soundness requires that the premises (all of them) be true, or at least something a reasonable person would agree with.

In this case, the first premise is backed up by facts, so we can easily accept it as true (or at least reasonable). But what about our new formerly hidden premise 2?

While it is easy to say equity should trump wealth if those are the only two considerations on the table, there are other factors we might want to take into account when making decisions regarding vaccine distribution. For example, perhaps countries with high infection rates or high risks of infection (regardless of whether they are wealthy or poor) should be prioritized over countries where risks are not so high.

Take the case of Cambodia which suffered its first COVID death one full year into the pandemic. Cambodia’s success in avoiding the worst of the pandemic may be due to the country’s having closed its borders early in the crisis, lockdown strategies, or the outdoor nature of Cambodian daily life. And Cambodians are being vaccinated using vaccines provided by China and India. But, whatever the reason for the country’s success, here is a case where one poor country seems to face fewer problems than other poor countries (like Brazil) or rich countries (like the United States).

This does not provide an airtight case against more equitable global vaccine distribution, but it does demonstrate how applying critical-thinking principles (such as argumentation and identifying hidden premises) can help reveal the actual challenges we should be addressing better than intuitions regarding perfectly justifiable principles like fairness and equity.

As with all posts in this series, I will provide no answers to difficult questions participants in Ethics Bowl will be deliberating. But I do urge those participants to take advantage of critical-thinking tools such as logic that have helped people navigate similar dilemmas for more than two thousand years.


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