People commonly make inferences from one normative area to another. Normative areas are, roughly put, areas involving matters of value. Law, religion, aesthetics, morality, and etiquette are normative areas.
People often believe that the status of X in one normative area automatically gives it the same status is another normative area. For example, it is often assumed there is a moral right to be free of censorship because of the 1st Amendment, which guarantees a legal right to the freedom of press. Such inferences can be made, but must be made carefully.
The following is the method that you should avoid because it is flawed.
Flawed Step 1: X has status S in normative area Y.
Flawed Step 2: Therefore X should have the comparable status to S in normative area Z.
This method is flawed, even fallacious, because the conclusion does not follow unless a proper link is made between Y and Z. Here are some examples of flawed inferences:
· Lying to a friend is immoral, so it should be illegal.
· Capital punishment is legal, so it is morally acceptable.
· Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says that children who do not obey their parents are to be stoned to death, so it is morally acceptable.
· Depicting graphic violence and sexuality is morally wrong, therefore such works are also aesthetically unacceptable as well.
Acceptable Method The following is an acceptable version of the method. It is acceptable because it is not logically flawed.
Step 1: X has status S in normative area Y.
Step 2: Premise or Argument connecting area Y and normative area Z.
Step 3: Therefore X should have the comparable status to S in normative area Z.
Provided that the connection between Y and Z is adequately made, the reasoning is acceptable. This is because the chain of reasoning is complete, unlike in the flawed method. The first premise will most likely require support of its own.
As an example, this method could be used to argue for the claim that making backup copies of media should be legal. The first step would be to argue that making backups of DVDs, software and CDs is morally acceptable. The second step would be to argue that things that are morally acceptable should be legal. The conclusion drawn would be that making backups of DVDs, software and CDs should be legal.
Making the Connection
Making the connection between two normative areas can be difficult. Fortunately there are ways to do this. The overall task is to show that the status of X in normative area Z should be inferred from its status in normative area Y.
One way to make the connection is to make use of an existing theory. There are theories that explicitly or implicitly connect two normative areas. For example, divine command theory is the view that morality is determined by religion, so the inference from religious norms to moral norms is justified. As another example, Legalism is the view that morality is determined by the laws of the state, so the inference from legal norms (the laws) to moral norms is justified. To use an existing theory, simply use either an argument from authority or an appeal to a moral theory.
Another way to do this is to state that the argument is being made in the context of the theory. The obvious weakness of this approach is that only those who accept the theory will accept the inference. As an example, a person might claim that given divine command theory, since the bible permits torture (2 Samuel 12:26-31) it follows that torture is morally acceptable. As another example, a person might argue that given legalism, since the use of marijuana is illegal, it must also be evil.
Another approach is to argue for the theory, which will typically require a great deal of work. However, it is possible to present a sufficiently concise argument in favor of the relevant parts of the theory needed to make the connection. However, if there is an easier or more direct way to argue for the conclusion, this method can be overkill.
Another way to make the connection is by arguing explicitly for a connection between the two that justifies the inference. The task is to show that the status of X in normative area Z should be inferred from its status in normative area Y. The effectiveness of the method depends on the quality of the argument for the connection. For example, a person might present the following argument: The state exists to protect people from harm. Thus, the laws of the state are designed to protect people from harm by making harmful things illegal. Things that are immoral are harmful-at the very least they damage the person’s moral character. Thus, things that are immoral should also be made illegal by the state.
As a final point, given that this method can involve a great deal of work, if there is an easier or more direct way to argue for the conclusion, this method can be overkill.
The great variation in laws limits inferences from law to other normative areas and can lead to problems such as contradictions. For example, prostitution is legal in Nevada but not in Maine, so inferring from law to morality would entail that prostitution is both moral and immoral.
There are many different views of the foundation and purpose of law, so inferences to or from law can be problematic. For example, the US has legal separation of Church and State, so inferring from religion to law would be problematic.
Inferences to or from a religion will generally only be accepted by those of the same faith.
For example, pork is forbidden to Jews, but Christians are unlikely to accept that that pork should be outlawed.
There is a great variety even within one religion and this makes inferences from religion problematic. For example, the Koran calls for Jihad, but some interpret it in ways that justify terrorism and others do not.
Bringing in an entire religion and accompanying metaphysics to solve a problem is often overkill. Also, the religion and its assumptions are often far more controversial than the point being argued for.
Aesthetics is often regarded as being trumped by law, morality and religion. This often makes inferences from aesthetics to other areas too difficult. This often makes inferences from other areas to aesthetics too easy. The areas where aesthetics and other areas overlap are typically regarded as belonging to those other areas. For example, censorship is often regarded as primarily a legal or moral issue rather than an aesthetic issue.
There is a great deal of disagreement in aesthetics, which makes inferences from aesthetics problematic.
The concerns of aesthetics are seen as removed from those of other areas, thus making inferences from aesthetics more difficult. For example, what implications does a theory of beauty have for law, religion or morality? Aesthetics is often regarded as being a realm of pure opinion thus making inferences from aesthetics more difficult.
There is a great deal of disagreement about morality, which can make inferences to or from morality problematic. There are moral theories based on other normative areas, which can make inferences too easy or too difficult. For example, Divine command theory makes inferences from religion to morality automatic, but precludes inferences from morality to religion. As another example, legalism makes inferences from law to morality automatic, but precludes inferences from morality to law. This is dispute over the foundation and purpose of morality which can make such inferences problematic. For example, relativism is the view that morality is grounded in the culture, so making an inference from morality to international law would be problematic.
One way to reply to this method to challenge the normative status of X, as presented in the first step. Challenging this status involves arguing that X does not have the alleged status. If X does not have the required normative status, then the inference fails. Alternatively, the inference can be made, but the normative status will be based on the “new” status.
For example, suppose someone argued that copying DVDs is immoral and hence should be illegal. The response would be to argue that copying DVDs is moral and thus concluding that hence it should be legal.
A second way to reply is to attack the link. The argument depends on the link between the two normative areas-if the link fails, the argument fails. The objective is to argue that the inference is not justified. In some cases there are established ways to break the link. For example, a way to counter an argument for basing a law on religion is to appeal to the separation of church and state.
The link can also be attacked by arguing that the norms of one area do not apply to the other or that one area overrides another, thus preventing the inference. For example, Oscar Wilde claimed that morality does not apply to art. As another example, morality is often seen as trumping law, so the inference from law to morality would not be justified.