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Chapter 4 Moral Reasons and Explanations

Reasons and Explanations: An Overview

One of the necessary steps in argumentation and defending your position, is the development of moral reasons and explanations. When we make or defend a decision or judge a decision we give reasons. When we choose a course of action we offer an explanation.

Important Points

Not all reasons and explanations are strong Not all reasons and explanations are moral THERE ARE WEAK AND NON-MORAL REASONS AND EXPLANATIONS!


A reason is given in order explain something, how something came to be or came to happen. Reasons:
1. 2. 3. 4.

5. 6. 7.

Describe a cause Refer to a motivation Are hypothetical explainers Are stated independently of the actions or decisions they explain Not necessarily tied to anything being explained Are transferable Can be used in various contexts


When a reason is used to explain a particular decision/action, it becomes an explanation. An explanation occurs when a reason or many reasons are used to explain something; its the sum of all reasons offered for a decision.

Key Words to Guide You

Key words identifying an explanation: since, because, for, etc. precedes a reason and the decision may be preceded by thus, therefore, hence.

Moral Reasons

A moral reason must satisfy certain criteria. A moral reason:

Is universalizable and not contingent Is thoughtful and reflective not based on natural instincts, gut feelings, outside pressures, or the desires of authority figures Expresses concern for others not selfishness Expresses a moral value not an economic, legal or social value

A reason must meet four criteria in order to count as a moral reason


A moral reason is universalizable in that it is not unique to a particular person or applicable to only one situation. It can be generally applied and sets a policy for persons in similar situations.


A moral reason must be the product of ones own thinking, revealing thoughtful, reflective views not entirely influenced by others, instincts, or feelings. Giving a moral reason requires making a commitment deciding whether the opinions of others should count and how much.


In showing concern for others a moral reason must not be selfish or based on self-interest alone. A moral reason identifies something as morally valuable points to a moral values such as respect for persons.


Moral Explanations

A collection of moral reasons offered in defense of a decision is a moral explanation. Moral explanations can include non-moral as well as moral reasons. If some or at least one of the reasons is moral then we have a moral explanation.


Give me an example of a reason. Give me an example of a moral reason. Give me an example of an explanation. Give me an example of a moral explanation.

Moral Dilemmas

In deciding which action to perform and which decision to make, we may be confronted with reasons the lead to incompatible choices dilemma. Decision-making requires us to resolve and avoid dilemmas.
Dilemma broadly understood, is any perplexing situation or problem; a situation in which a person has to choose between two equally balanced alternatives. A person is faced with two (or more) assumptions or beliefs or reasons for action.

Moral dilemmas

Moral dilemmas are more difficult to deal with than other types of dilemmas two alternatives are at stake, backed up by moral reasons. Moral dilemmas force moral decision makers to choose between incompatible alternatives and, in doing so, to choose between moral explanations.


Position: We should use stem cell research because it can benefit people by preventing disease and advancing our scientific knowledge. But there exists a dilemma: helping people by eliminating or preventing disease is the right thing to do vs. we should not use stem cell research because it destroys human life (destroying human life is wrong). This is an example of a moral dilemma. Sometimes there is a third alternative that is supported by both moral explanations e.g., doing adult stem cell research instead of embryonic stem cell research, since it preserves human life and helps people by eliminating disease. However, many would argue that this third alternative forces us closer to one side than the other.

Cases to Consider
Look at Cases 1 and 3 in your text book (pp. 108-109) When answering the following questions, give moral and non-moral reasons and explanations in support of your position. Write down your position (what you would do) and your reasons/explanations.

If you were Theresa what would you do at this point? As the physician, what obligations, if any, do you have to your patient? To Theresa? If you were Ms. Chung, what would you say or do with Mary at this point? What would you say or do with her parents?

Stop here!

For the next class:

Review your notes Review what strong moral reasons and explanations are. Review what weak moral reasons and explanations are. Study for your exam; there will be a review session on Tuesday after the lecture.

Evaluating Moral Reasons and Moral Explanations

Moral decision making involves giving a moral explanation moral reasons for having reached a decision or action.

Evaluating a moral reason or a moral explanation means judging how strong the reason or explanation is, and this requires that we distinguish between strong and weak moral reasons and explanations.

Important Points to Consider

Two people can reach the same decision, though one person may have a better explanation. To resolve moral dilemmas and to facilitate the assessing of moral explanations, we must find a way to evaluate which reasons and explanations are weak or strong.

Strong Moral Reasons

Are relevant to the decision made (are focused moral reasons) Take account of the person or persons most affected by the decision. Consider the values most central to the situation rather than less central values.

Weak Moral Reasons

Are irrelevant to or only vaguely relate to the decision made. Are indifferent to the person or persons most affected by the decision. Consider the values less central to the situation and thereby fail to act on central values.

Keep in Mind

A set of strong moral reasons does not necessarily add up to make a strong moral explanation. Even if moral reasons are strong, motivating us to act, they may not provide a strong explanation.

COMPREHENSIVENESS is another element besides strong moral reasons that will make explanations strong. A better moral explanation will comprehensively consider all the perspectives that help us apply values in a particular situation, all of the persons affected by the decision, and all the values at issue.

Strong Moral Explanations

Use several perspectives to interpret and apply values (e.g., consider consequences, motives, rights, virtues, and life stories) Take into account all persons affected by the decision Consider more values rather than fewer values.

Weak Moral Explanations

Focus single-mindedly on one perspective to interpret and apply values (e.g., may consider only consequences and ignore motives, rights, virtues, relationships, life stories, etc.) Are indifferent to some of the persons affected by the decision Consider at least one values, but in doing so ignore other values.

Strong moral explanations take a broad view of the whole situation and involve multiple strong moral reasons; several perspectives are used to decide whether values to be enacted by focusing on consequences, motives, and/or rights, etc.


Give me an example of a strong moral reason. Give me an example of a weak moral reason Give me an example of a strong moral explanation Give me an example of a weak moral explanation

Revisiting Cases 1 and 3

Return to what you wrote down during the previous discussion (your reasons/explanations in support of what you would say or do).
Would you say that your moral reasons were strong or weak? Why/why not? Would you say that your moral explanations were strong or weak? Why/why not?