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Learning from Arguments
An Introduction to Philosophy
By Daniel Z. Korman
Spring 2020 Edition
Table of Contents
1. Can God Allow Suffering?
2. Why You Should Bet on God
3. No Freedom
4. You Know Nothing
5. What Makes You You
6. Don’t Fear the Reaper
7. Taxation is Immoral
8. Abortion is Immoral
9. Eating Animals is Immoral
10. What Makes Things Right
Appendix A: Logic
Appendix B: Writing
I’m going to argue that you have no free will. I’m going to argue for some other surprising things
too, for instance that death isn’t bad for you, taxation is immoral, and you can’t know anything
whatsoever about the world around you. I’m also going to argue for some things you’re probably
not going to like: that abortion is immoral, you shouldn’t eat meat, and God doesn’t exist.
The arguments aren’t my own. I didn’t come up with them. I don’t even accept all of them:
there are two chapters whose conclusions I accept, three I’m undecided about, and five I’m certain
can’t be right. (I’ll let you guess which are which.) This isn’t for the sake of playing devil’s
advocate. Rather, the idea is that the best way to appreciate what’s at stake in philosophical
disagreements is to study and engage with serious arguments against the views you’d like to hold.
Each chapter offers a sustained argument for some controversial thesis, specifically written
for an audience of beginners. The aim is to introduce newcomers to the dynamics of philosophical
argumentation, using some of the standard arguments one would cover in an introductory
philosophy course, but without the additional hurdles one encounters when reading the primary
sources of the arguments: challenging writing, obscure jargon, and references to unfamiliar books
or schools of thought.
The different chapters aren’t all written from the same perspective. This is obvious from a
quick glance at the opening chapters: the first chapter argues that you shouldn’t believe in God,
while the second argues that you should. You’ll also find that chapters 5 and 6 contain arguments
pointing to different conclusions about the relationship between people and their bodies, and
chapter 7 contains arguments against the very theory of morality that’s defended in chapter 10. So
you will be exposed to a variety of different philosophical perspectives, and you should be on the
lookout for ways in which the arguments in one chapter provide the resources for resisting
arguments in other chapters.
And while there are chapters arguing both for and against belief in God, that isn’t the case
for other topics we’ll cover. For instance, there’s a chapter arguing that you don’t have free will,
but no chapter arguing that you do have free will. That doesn’t mean that you’ll only get to hear
one side of the argument. Along the way you will be exposed to many of the standard objections
to the views and arguments I’m advancing, and you can decide for yourself whether the responses
I offer to those objections are convincing. Those who need help finding the flaws in the reasoning
(or ideas for paper topics) can look to the reflection questions at the end of each chapter for some
As I said, the arguments advanced in the book are not my own, and at the end of each
chapter I point out the original sources of the arguments. In some chapters, the central arguments
have a long history, and the formulations I use can’t be credited to any one philosopher in
particular. Other chapters, however, are much more directly indebted to the work of specific
contemporary philosophers, reproducing the contents of their books and articles (though often with
some modifications and simplifications). In particular, chapter 7 closely follows the opening
chapters of Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority; chapter 8 reproduces the central
arguments of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” and Don Marquis’s “Why
Abortion is Immoral”; and chapter 9 draws heavily from Dan Lowe’s “Common Arguments for
the Moral Acceptability of Eating Meat” and Alastair Norcross’s “Puppies, Pigs, and People”.
I’m grateful to Jeff Bagwell, Matt Davidson, Nikki Evans, Jason Fishbein, Bill Hartmann,
Colton Heiberg, Irem Kurtsal, Clayton Littlejohn, David Mokriski, and Neil Sinhababu for helpful
suggestions, and to the Facebook Hivemind for help identifying the further readings for the various
chapters. Special thanks are due to Chad Carmichael, Jonathan Livengood, and Daniel Story for
extensive feedback on a previous draft of the book, and to the students in my 2019 Freshman
Seminar: Shreya Acharya, Maile Buckman, Andrea Chavez, Dylan Choi, Lucas Goefft, Mino Han,
PK Kottapalli, Mollie Kraus, Mia Lombardo, Dean Mantelzak, Sam Min, Vivian Nguyen, Ariana
Pacheco Lara, Kaelen Perrochet, Rijul Singhal, Austin Tam, Jennifer Vargas, Kerry Wang, and
Lilly Witonsky. Finally, thanks to Renée Bolinger for permission to use her portrait of the great
20th century philosopher and logician Ruth Barcan Marcus on the cover. You can see some more
of her portraits of philosophers here: https://www.reneebolinger.com/portraits.html
The aim of this book is to introduce you to the topics and methods of philosophy by advancing a
series of arguments for controversial philosophical conclusions. That’s what I’ll do in the ten
chapters that follow. In this introductory chapter, I’ll give you an overview of what I’ll be arguing
for in the different chapters (section 1), explain what an argument is (sections 2-3), and identify
some common argumentative strategies (sections 4-7). I’ll close by saying a few words about what
1. Detailed Contents
As I explained in the preface, each chapter is written “in character”, representing a specific
perspective (not necessarily my own!) on the issue in question. Nor are they all written from the
same perspective. You should not expect the separate chapters to fit together into a coherent whole.
I realize that this may cause some confusion. But you should take this as an invitation to engage
with the book in the way that I intend for you to engage with it: by questioning the claims being
made, and deciding for yourself whether the reasons and arguments offered in support of those
claims are convincing.
In Chapter 1, “Can God Allow Suffering?”, I advance an argument that God—who is
supposed to be all-powerful and morally perfect—could not allow all the suffering we find in the
world, and therefore must not exist. I address a number of attempts to explain why God might
allow suffering, for instance that it’s necessary for appreciating the good things that we have, or
for building valuable character traits, or for having free will. I also address the response that God
has hidden reasons for allowing suffering that we cannot expect to understand.
In Chapter 2, “Why You Should Bet on God”, I advance an argument that you should
believe in God because it is in your best interest: you’re putting yourself in the running for an
eternity in heaven without risking losing anything of comparable value. I defend the argument
against a variety of objections, for instance that it is incredibly unlikely that God exists, that merely
believing in God isn’t enough to gain entry into heaven, and that it’s impossible to change one’s
beliefs at will.
In Chapter 3, “No Freedom”, I advance two arguments that no one ever acts freely. The
first turns on the idea that all of our actions are determined by something that lies outside our
control, namely the strength of our desires. The second turns on the idea that our actions are all
consequences of exceptionless, “deterministic” laws of nature. In response to the concern that the
laws may not be deterministic, I argue that undetermined, random actions wouldn’t be free either.
Finally, I address attempts to show that there can be free will even in a deterministic universe.
In Chapter 4, “You Know Nothing”, I argue for two skeptical conclusions. First, I advance
an argument that we cannot know anything about the future. That’s so, I argue, because all of our
reasoning about the future relies on an assumption that we have no good reason to accept, namely
that the future will resemble the past. Second, I advance an argument that we cannot know anything
about how things presently are in the world around us, since we cannot rule out the possibility that
we are currently dreaming.
In Chapter 5, “What Makes You You”, I criticize a number of attempts to answer the
question of personal identity: under what conditions are a person at one time and a person at
another time one and the same person? I reject the suggestion that personal identity is a matter of
having the same body, on the basis of an argument from conjoined twins and an argument from
the possibility of two people swapping bodies. I reject the suggestion that personal identity can be
defined in terms of psychological factors on the strength of “fission” cases in which one person’s
mental life is transferred into two separate bodies.
In Chapter 6, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, I advance an argument that death cannot be bad for
you, since you don’t experience any painful sensations while dead, and that since death is not bad
for you it would be irrational to fear it. I argue that you don’t experience any painful sensations
while dead by arguing that physical organisms cease to be conscious when they die and that you
are a physical organism. I also address the suggestion that what makes death bad for you is that it
deprives you of pleasures you would otherwise have had.
In Chapter 7, “Taxation is Immoral”, I argue that it is wrong for governments to tax or
imprison their citizens, on the grounds that these practices are not relevantly different from a
vigilante locking vandals in her basement and robbing her neighbors to pay for her makeshift
prison. I address a variety of potential differences, with special attention to the suggestion that we
have tacitly consented to following the law and paying taxes and thereby entered into a “social
contract” with the government.
In Chapter 8, “Abortion is Immoral”, I examine a number of arguments both for and against
the immorality of abortion. I argue that the question cannot be settled by pointing to the fact that
the embryo isn’t self-sufficient or conscious or rational, nor by pointing to the fact that it has
human DNA, that it is a potential person, or that life begins at conception. I then examine the
argument that abortion is immoral because the embryo has a right to life, and I argue that having
a right to life doesn’t entail having a right to continued use of the mother’s womb. Finally, I
advance an alternative argument for the immorality of abortion, according to which this killing,
like other killings, is wrong because it deprives its victim of a valuable future.
In Chapter 9, “Eating Animals is Immoral”, I defend the view that it is immoral to eat meat
that comes from so-called “factory farms”. I begin by criticizing three common reasons for
thinking that eating meat is morally acceptable: because people have always eaten meat, because
eating meat is necessary, and because eating meat is natural. I then argue that eating factory-farmed
meat is immoral, on the grounds that it would be immoral to raise and slaughter puppies in similar
ways and for similar reasons.
In Chapter 10, “What Makes Things Right”, I advance a “utilitarian” theory of morality,
according to which the rightness or wrongness of an action is always entirely a matter of the extent
to which it increases or decreases overall levels of happiness in the world. I defend the theory
against the objection that it wrongly permits killing one person to save five. Along the way, I
consider the ways in which morality is and isn’t subjective and variable across cultures, and what
to say about the notorious “trolley cases”.
In Appendix A, “Logic”, I examine one of the features that makes an argument a good
argument, namely validity. I explain what it means for an argument to be valid, and I illustrate the
notion of validity by presenting and illustrating four types of valid arguments.
In Appendix B, “Writing”, I present a model for writing papers for philosophy courses:
introduce the view or argument you plan to criticize (section 1), advance your objections (section
2), and address likely responses to your objections (section 3). Along the way, I explain the
importance of clear and unpretentious writing that is charitable towards opposing viewpoints; I
offer advice for editing rough drafts; I identify some criteria that philosophy instructors commonly
use when evaluating papers; and I explain the difference between consulting online sources and
2. The Elements of Arguments
Let’s begin by having a look at what an argument is. An argument is a sequence of claims,
consisting of premises, a conclusion, and in some cases one or more subconclusions. The
conclusion is what the argument is ultimately trying to establish, or what’s ultimately being argued
for. The premises are the assumptions that, taken together, are meant to serve as reasons for
accepting the conclusion. A subconclusion is a claim that is meant to be established by some subset
of the premises but that isn’t itself the ultimate conclusion of the argument.
As an illustration, consider the following argument:
Against Fearing Death
(FD1) You cease to be conscious when you die
(FD2) If you cease to be conscious when you die, then being dead isn’t bad for you
(FD3) So, being dead isn’t bad for you
(FD4) If being dead isn’t bad for you, then you shouldn’t fear death
(FD5) So, you shouldn’t fear death
The argument has three premises: FD1, FD2, and FD4. FD5 is the conclusion of the argument,
since that’s what the argument is ultimately trying to establish. FD3 is a subconclusion. It isn’t the
conclusion, since the ultimate goal of the argument is to establish that you shouldn’t fear death,
not that being dead isn’t bad for you (which is just a step along the way). Nor is it a premise, since
it isn’t merely being assumed. Rather, it’s been argued for: it is meant to be established by FD1
In this book, you can always tell which claims in the labeled and indented arguments are
premises, conclusions, and subconclusions. The conclusion is always the final claim in the
sequence. The subconclusions are anything other than the final claim that begins with a “So”. Any
claim that doesn’t begin with “So” is a premise. However, when it comes to unlabeled arguments—
arguments appearing in paragraph form—all bets are off. For instance, I might say:
Death isn’t bad for you. After all, you cease to be conscious when you die, and something
can’t be bad for you if you’re not even aware of it. And if that’s right, then you shouldn’t
fear death, since it would be irrational to fear something that isn’t bad for you.
The paragraph begins with a subconclusion, the conclusion shows up right in the middle of the
paragraph, and neither of them is preceded by a “So”. Here, you have to use some brain-power
and clues from the context to figure out which bits are the basic assumptions (the premises), which
bit is the conclusion, and which bits are mere subconclusions.
All of the labeled arguments in the book are constructed in such a way that the conclusion
is a logical consequence of the premises—or, as I sometimes put it, the conclusion “follows from”
the premises. You may or may not agree with FD1, and you may or may not agree with FD2. But
what you can’t deny is that FD1 and FD2 together entail FD3. If FD3 is false, then it must be that
either FD1 or FD2 (or both) is false. You would be contradicting yourself if you accepted FD1 and
FD2 but denied FD3. Because all the arguments are constructed in this way, you cannot reject the
conclusion of any of the labeled arguments in the book while agreeing with all of the premises.
You must find some premise to deny if you do not want to accept the conclusion. (See Appendix
A, “Logic”, for more on how to tell when a conclusion is a logical consequence of some premises.)
3. Premises and Conditionals
There are no restrictions on which sorts of statements can figure as premises in an
argument. A premise can be a speculative claim like FD1 or a conceptual truth like FD4. A premise
can also be a statement of fact, for instance that a six-week-old embryo has a beating heart, or it
can be a moral judgment, for instance that a six-week-old embryo has a right to life. Arguments
can have premises that are mere matters of opinion, for instance that mushrooms are tasty. They
can even have premises that are utterly and obviously false, for instance that the sky is yellow or
that 1+1=3. Anything can be a premise.
That said, an argument is only as strong as its premises. The point of giving an argument
is to persuade people of its conclusion, and an argument built on false, dubious, or indefensible
premises is unlikely to persuade anyone.
Arguments frequently contain premises of the form “if… then…”, like FD2 and FD4. Such
statements are called conditionals, and there are names for the different parts of a conditional. The
bit that comes between the ‘if’ and the ‘then’ is the antecedent of the conditional, and the bit that
comes after the ‘then’ is the consequent of the conditional. Using FD2 as an illustration, the
antecedent is you cease to be conscious when you die, the consequent is being dead is not bad for
you, and the conditional is the whole claim: if you cease to be conscious when you die then being
dead is not bad for you.
(Strictly speaking, conditionals don’t have to be of the form “if… then…”. They can also
be of the form “… only if…”, as in “You should fear death only if being dead is bad for you”, or
of the form “… if …”, as in “You shouldn’t fear death if being dead isn’t bad for you”.)
Conditionals affirm a link between two claims, and you can agree that some claims are
linked in the way a conditional says they are, even if you don’t agree with the claims themselves.
To see this, consider the following argument:
The Drinking Age Argument
(DG1) Corrine is under 21
(DG2) If Corrine is under 21, then Corrine is not allowed to drink alcohol
(DG3) So, Corrine is not allowed to drink alcohol
You might object to this argument because you think that Corrine is 22 and that she is allowed to
drink alcohol. Still, you should agree with the conditional premise DG2: you should agree that
being under 21 and being allowed to drink are linked in the way DG2 says they are. You should
agree that DG2 is true even though you disagree with both its antecedent and its consequence. To
deny DG2, you’d have to think, for instance, that the drinking age was 18. But if you agree that
the drinking age is 21, then your quarrel is not with DG2; it’s with DG1.
Likewise, you can agree with the conditional premise FD4 even if you think that being
dead is bad for you. To disagree with FD4, you’d have to think that it’s sometimes rational to fear
things that aren’t bad for you.
4. Common Argumentative Strategies
Arguments can play a variety of different roles in philosophical debates. Let’s have a look
as some common argumentative strategies that you’ll encounter in the book.
First, an argument can be used to defend a premise from another argument. For instance,
premise FD1 of the Against Fearing Death argument—that you cease to be conscious when you
die—is hardly obvious. So someone who likes the Against Fearing Death argument might try to
produce a further argument in defense of that premise, like the following:
The Brain Death Argument
(BD1) Y ...