Many of the strategies so far help students elicit arguments for themselves, but sometimes a bit more guidance may be necessary. Some arguments may be quite complex and the students may need a bit of help to come to see the various points they make and how they relate to each other. This strategy takes a case study and explicitly sets out two rival positions, the students are then encouraged to identify and critically assess the arguments contained in each. This is a particularly good strategy for introducing students to two prevalent views in the literature, encouraging them to read further on the topic and giving them the research skills to analyse the texts they read.

What is it in a nut-shell?

A well defined debate, clearly setting out two points of view.


George the Chemist

Case study

“George, who has just taken his PhD in chemistry, finds it extremely difficult to get a job. He is not very robust in health, which cuts down the number of jobs he might be able to do satisfactorily his wife has to go out to work to keep them, which itself causes a great deal of strain, since they have small children and there are severe problems about looking after them. The results of this, especially on the children, are damaging. An older chemist, who knows about this situation, says that he can get George a decently paid job in a certain laboratory, which pursues research into chemical and biological warfare. The older man replies that he is not too keen on it himself, come to that, but after all George’s refusal is not going to make the job or the laboratory go away; what is more, he happens to know that if George refuses the job, it will certainly go to a contemporary of George’s who is not inhibited by any such scruples and is likely if appointed to push along the research with greater zeal than George would. Indeed, it is not merely concern for George and his family, but (to speak frankly and in confidence) some alarm about the other man’s excess of zeal, which has led the older man to offer to use his influence to get George the job...George’s wife, to whom he is deeply attached, has views (the details of which need not concern us) from which it follows that at least there is nothing particularly wrong with research into CBW.” Williams B., “A Critique of Utilitarianism” IN Smart J.J.C. and Williams B., Utilitarianism: For and Against (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973)

Here are two different ways of looking at the George the Chemist case:

The Utilitarian

“Morality is about doing good. The ‘doing’ bit is important as we are judged on our actions, on what we achieve, on the consequences of what we do, on the results of our actions. After all, moral requirements are about making the world a better place, so our actions had better have the best consequences possible. I think this is quite an intuitively plausible point of view; we can all agree that pleasure is a good thing and pain is bad, so surely our moral obligations must involve brining about as much pleasure as possible and avoiding as much pain as possible. In these thoughts I follow in the footsteps of great philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who are fellow Utilitarians. We all agree that our moral obligations can be captured in this one principle: Bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Notice here how egalitarian we are; I am not suggesting that my happiness is worth more than yours. Suppose we could measure happiness in units, then I am more than happy to accept that one unit of your happiness counts exactly as much as one unit of mine; I am equally concerned with everyone’s happiness. Now, you might say the world is a tough place and I am being unrealistic, sometimes there is no choice to maximize happiness, sometimes it’s a choice between a bad outcome and a worse one. Well, I appreciate that, and if the only option is disutility, then let’s choose the least bad outcome. A great advantage of my theory is that it is very helpful as it can give concrete guidance on what to do in practical situations. Take George the Chemist above, how should he decide whether to work for the CBW firm? Well, he should weigh up the utility and disutility produced by each of his choices and do what brings about the greatest happiness. Working for the CBW might result in weapons which will harm thousands of people, however, if George does not do the job then his colleague will do and he will do it better – the outcome is the same, if not worse. So it makes no difference in this respect whether George does it or not (in fact, George is preferable as he might do the job less efficiently). Not only that, but if George takes the job, his wife and children will be better off, producing quite a lot of overall happiness. It is quite clear to me that George should take the job.”

The Integrity Proponent

“Life is not a statistical calculation. Even if we could assign values to everything, which I very much doubt for how would you compare George’s wife’s pleasure at spending more time with her children against the potential harm George’s research could cause people half way round the world, utility and disutility do not capture all the value there is. If developing CBW is morally reprehensible then it makes no little difference, but all the difference in the world that it is me who does it, rather than someone else. Morality isn’t just about what we do, the consequences of our actions, but how we do it. Our character, our intentions matter. If I develop CBW, then I am responsible for brining them about, if I decline then it is up to someone else to make their own choice for which they will be held responsible. If I were to make decisions as my Utilitarian interlocutor suggests I would find myself unable to live with integrity. For it matters to me that these are my actions, which I have chosen, to represent my values, attitudes and worth-while projects. Think of this other example: Jim, an unwitting tourist in the Amazon jungle, has stumbled across a group of local terrorists who take him captive. Back at their camp the terrorist leader offers Jim a choice: either Jim accepts his gun and shoots one of the other twenty innocent, civilian Amazon Indian prisoners, or the terrorist leader will kill all twenty of them. Now my friend the Utilitarian has a simple formula: if your only choices are disutility, choose the least bad option. Clearly one dead person is less bad than twenty dead people, so Jim should accept the gun and kill one prisoner. But this would be a mistake, because surely consequences are not the only thing to take into account here. Indeed twenty dead people is a worse outcome than one dead person, but that Jim has to kill the one person is crucially significant. A moral person should find it literally unthinkable that he kills an innocent human being, no matter what the consequences, for there are more things that matter in evaluating what we do than consequences and integrity, the value of doing the right as such, is one of them.”

These two ‘voices’ are inspired by the work of Bernard Williams, who developed this objection to act-utilitarianism by using the George the Chemist and Jim and the Indians examples. For a more detailed analysis of these ideas see Williams B., “A Critique of Utilitarianism” IN Smart J.J.C. and Williams B., Utilitarianism: For and Against (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

Ask your students to read the case study without thinking about their own views too much and go straight on to reading the two positions. They should try to identify all the arguments used in each position and identify whether any are related to each other (e.g. are any answering the same question, is one a response to another, is one an objection to another, etc.). Ask your students to evaluate the arguments one at a time and then arrive at a conclusion as to which of the two positions they find most convincing. These two viewpoints are fictional but roughly represent the Utilitarian Bernard Williams takes himself to be arguing against and Bernard William’s own position which he elaborates on following the George the Chemist (and Jim and the Indian) examples.

There are a number of different arguments put forward here.

The Utilitarian:

  • for Consequentialist theories, of which Utilitarianism is one, the purpose of morality is to do good, so whether an act is morally right or not will depend on its consequences. This is a very fundamental claim and distinguished Consequentialist theories from other normative theories, e.g. Deontological theories claim that whether an act is morally right or not depends on the motives of the agent not the consequences of the act, Virtue Ethics theories claim that whether an act is morally right or not depends on the character of the agent not the consequences of the act. The Utilitarian in this exercise justifies this point by claiming that if morality is about anything it must be about making the world a better place, bringing about good resultsfollowing on from that there is a very intuitively plausible claim that pleasure is good and pain is bad. So if we are aiming to make the world a better place and pleasure is good, then we had better bring about more pleasure. So our actions should aim to bring about the greatest pleasure possible. Note that the term ‘pleasure’ should be interpreted broadly to mean all kinds of pleasures, including higher pleasures such as aesthetic pleasure, pleasure in acquiring knowledge, pleasure in achievements, etc.
  • then there is a cheeky argument by appeal to authority, when the Utilitarian claims he is following in the footsteps of great men like Bentham and Mill. This is a cheeky argument as mere appeal to authority is a fallacy, just because great men said this, it doesn’t necessarily make it right.
  • he then introduces the main Utilitarian principle “Maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. It is important to note the claim that Utilitarian theories are egalitarian and everyone’s happiness counts the same. What this means is that, if it were possible to measure pleasure or pain in units, then one unit of my pain is equal to one unit of yours – just because it is my pain it does not mean it gets to count for more. This is claimed to be a great advantage of Utilitarian theories as they are fair.
  • finally there is a recognition that in some cases no pleasure can be had, in which case the obligation is to minimize the pain.
  • he then goes on to apply all this to George’s case. Now whether George or his colleague take up the job is irrelevant from the Utilitarian perspective, as the job gets done either way, so the same consequences come about. In fact, if the colleague does it, he is likely to do it better, so overall it would be morally better if George took the job, as he would do it less well, there would be slower development of CBW, so less pain and suffering overall. In addition, by taking the job George is brining pleasure to his wife and benefiting his family so these are further points which tip the scale in favor of taking the job. For the Utilitarian making moral decisions is about identifying pleasures and pains and weighing them up against each other. You then do what the scales advise.

The Integrity Proponent, is essentially Bernard William’s voice:

  • his first point is that it is impossible to assign values to different outcomes, and therefore impossible to compare them. For it is impossible to compare George’s wife’s pleasure at the new job with the pain the outcomes of the research of this job may cause people half way round the world.
  • his second point, which occurs in the same sentence, is that even if we could compare pleasures and pains, utility (pleasure) and disutility (pain) are not all the values there are. The Utilitarian focuses on the consequences of one’s action, but Williams is concerned with the fact that this is my action and therefore my responsibility. If it is wrong to develop CBWs then it makes all the difference that I am the one who does so.
  • this is the main point of contention between the two viewpoints. For Williams the Consequentialist focus on results is wrong, morality isn’t just about what we do, but also about how we do it. Our moral character captures our motives, intentions and dispositions, and if George were to take the job he would be displaying callous disregard for the welfare of everyone who would be harmed by his research. If he does not take the job then he is not responsible for whether someone else chooses to do so or not.
  • now Williams introduces the concept of ‘integrity’. This is the idea that we all have to live with ourselves, we are all responsible for what we do and our actions exemplify our choices. This means that it makes all the difference whether I do something or whether someone else does the exact same thing.
  • he uses the example of Jim and the Indians to further make this point. If Jim chooses to act, strictly speaking the consequences will be better as only one Indian will be killed rather than twenty. But Williams wants us to revolt at this Utilitarian conclusion. Surely the fact that Jim would then be a murdered makes all the difference. If Jim refuses to kill, then the terrorist chooses to kill twenty people, not Jim.


Stem Cell Therapy

This may be an appealing exercise because these are two real people, Steve Jones is a Biology Professor at the University College, London, and Kevin Dillon runs the Movement Against the Cloning of Humans. This exercise is also more challenging because it presents two real, complex positions, where a number of arguments are used to support each conclusion and the interlocutors are not necessarily addressing each other’s points. Ask the students to work in their small groups to identify all the arguments used by Jones and Dillon. Ask them specifically only to identify rather than discuss or criticise the arguments at this stage – they should just end up with a list of arguments for a list against, put these up on the board. Now ask the students to work on their own, pick the best argument and develop and argument for it, then pick the weakest argument and develop an argument against it. They should do this on their own and aim to write down their thoughts, so that they have about a paragraph of work to report back to the larger group (they will need quite a bit of time to do this as it is quite demanding). Now ask them to report their ideas back to the group, but again don’t engage in too much discussion of individual arguments, the point is to see all the alternatives and how they relate to each other, not resolve the cloning issue. This exercise relates directly to the assignment where they are asked to develop what they did in the seminar in greater detail.

In your small groups consider either the views below either for (Jones) or against (Dillon) cloning and identify as many of the arguments used by the author to support his position as you can. Then, on your own, pick what you think is the best argument and explain why you think it is the best and pick what you think is the weakest argument and explain why it is weak.

The argument for human cloning
By Professor Steve Jones

Cloning is one of those words that delivers a lot less than it promises. Cloning is simply reproduction without sex. You are a clone, and so am I, descended in the most chaste fashion from a single fertilised egg by simple cell division. Every one of the millions of King Edward potatoes is one too, grown without sex by dividing one plant into two. There is also, of course, Dolly the sheep. That amazing animal that was cloned by inserting the genes of one sheep into the emptied egg of another, to give a perfectly normal lamb with no father but two mothers. Transplant breakthrough All this is cloning but most people see the word only in terms of making identical copies not of sheep, but of humans. The government has given the go-ahead for a very limited form of the process, for copying cells, not people. This therapeutic cloning just might be the breakthrough that means that transplants of kidneys or hearts become a standard treatment, rather than exceptional events that depend on a matching donor becoming available. Even if that is not possible, there is already hope that such engineered stem cells could be used to make skin for burns victims, or brain cells for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Every day, thousands of early embryos are thrown away from fertility clinics because, to have any chance of success, many more eggs are fertilised than are in the end replaced in a potential mother. The new law allows these small groups of cells to be used in the hope of treating the sick, rather than simply being discarded. Radical improvements I would expect that the parents of those tiny pieces of material would feel happier that they are used in this way than simply seeing them as gone for ever. It is worth remembering that half a century ago, even transplants of the cornea of the eye from a corpse to a blind person were not allowed on ethical grounds. Organ transplants are now a standard part of medicine. My guess is that 50 years from now, we will look back in as much amazement at the days when therapeutic cloning was seen as unethical, as we now do at the time when the blind stayed blind because society was not willing to follow where science was leading them.

Argument against cloning 

By Kevin Dillon

The public belief that science acts in the interest of society is in crisis, according to a recent report of the House of Lords committee on Science and Society. And this finding accurately reflects the publication of the report by the Donaldson committee, which sanctions the first stage of human cloning. Electing to speculate on the “quick fix” approach, the government has foregone cutting-edge research that has shown the efficiency and ethical viability of using adults as an alternative source of stem cells. Instead, they have adopted the grossly simplistic and unsubstantiated position that the ethical objections are “outweighed by the potential benefits”. Government “on the run” The Donaldson committee’s approach can be explained in simple terms. First, it has escaped public notice that the government has co-ownership of the patents required to exploit therapeutic cloning in the marketplace. Secondly, that scientists are set to export their research elsewhere if the government refuses to legalise therapeutic cloning. The government is being held to ransom by what the expert in genetics Dr Patrick Dixon refers to as “institutions” that “have the power to dictate terms to governments”. But this approach may already have backfired. The recent announcement by the Roslin Institute that it is to abandon a £12.5m research project into the cloning of pig organs for human transplantation indicates that there is a real fear of public backlash within the corridors of power. Public confidence Creating human beings as tiny stem cell generators, only to destroy them once their utility has been served, tramples on the critical ethical principle that human beings should never be treated as a means to an end. Ethics have been no more than a 3-5% consideration in the entire debate, according to the geneticist Art Caplan, commenting in his capacity as ethical advisor to the Human Genome Project. The ultimate irony is that the government has spent more time deliberating on the “stage management” of Wednesday’s report than on the profound ethical implications of its findings. Public confidence in science may be at its lowest point in recent history, but public confidence in government is now running a close second.’

BBC News


Drilling for Oil

It is not always necessary to provide all the viewpoints, you can always make one side of the case and ask the students to focus on responding to it. This exercise is on a very current and pressing environmental problem which should appeal to the students, however an open ended discussion could become too wide and it would then be difficult to see how particular arguments relate to each other and what kind of conclusion follows. To help with this problem this exercise presents only arguments in favour of the drilling and asks students to concentrate only on arguments against that ‘map against’ the arguments in favour. The students may object that they don’t necessarily object to drilling and even if they do they don’t agree with these arguments. This is fair enough, but ask them, for the purposes of this exercise, to suspend their own ideas. If they have strong views either for or against, the best way to defeat their opponent is to understand his position thoroughly, and they can do this by, temporarily, adopting this position and trying to defend it. Showing how a really weak argument doesn’t work is no great achievement, taking a really weak argument, making it strong and then showing how it still doesn’t work, is worth doing. They should also concentrate on specific counter-arguments to the specific arguments (to do this they will need to identify what the arguments are about in the first place), as this will help them focus on how arguments relate to each other.

In light of rising oil prices and a growing concern with dwindling energy supplies, President George W. Bush has been advocating an increase in energy supply. As part of his policy he has given the go ahead for tapping the oil supply at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR, pronounced An-war) in Northeast Alaska. This has led to heated debate with many arguments for and against the ethical permissibility of drilling for oil in Alaska. Below is a list of arguments in favour of drilling for oil. For each argument in favour, can you develop a counter-argument, i.e. an argument against?

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one big emptyness. Unlike other national treasures such as the Grand Canyon, there are no tourists in Alaska, no one enjoys the area, as Alaskan Senator Frank Murkowski said all you see is ‘snow and ice’, so we might as well get some usefulness out of it.” 

“People matter more than animals. We need fuel and without out millions of human beings would suffer.” 

“The loss of small number of animals is insignificant. We kill animals every day for food, so it is acceptable that some would die during or because of the drilling.” 

“This is public land and the tax paying public should be able to benefit from it.” 

“Desperate times require desperate measures.” 

“It is possible to carry out environmentally sensitive drilling.” 

“This is a National Security matter. Dependence on foreign oil, leaves the US vulnerable to being blackmailed by these foreign nations. National Security trumps environmental concerns.” 

“The 7,000 Inupiat Eskimos who live in the area support the drilling as a source of jobs, income and increase in living standards for them. Drilling means education, health care and a future for their children (Alaskan residents get an annual dividend from the state’s oil revenues)”

T. McCarthy “War Over Arctic Oil” Times article

If it is empty it is useless to humans. If it is of no use to us then it has no value. This relates to the value of nature in general – is nature valuable in and of itself regardless of whether we value it? OK, there may be some value here but it doesn’t compare with the value we place on human beings.

Drilling will destroy some habitats and affect some animals but this is nothing compared to the human suffering that is likely to result from low oil supplies.

Related to the one above, even if animals were to die we are putting disproportionate significance on this. Animals are killed all the time for all sorts of purposes, food, fun, fashion, etc. so why not for a serious purpose such as supplying our energy needs.

This resource belongs to the public, it is maintained through public taxes so it should be available to benefit the public.

It may be a terrible thing (as opposed to the previous arguments which tried to minimise the impact of drilling and its ethical significance), but the alternative is terrible as well.

The opposite: it’s not a terrible thing at all, the impact will be minimal.

Again a kind of public interest argument, with a National Security slant which may sound more convincing because of it.

Again a benefit to humans argument with a difference, here the claim is that the locals, who (it is implied) have more to gain or lose from this, are in support of drilling.