Some Further Hints on Reconstructing Practical Moral Arguments


What often makes sense when trying to reconstruct an author's argument is to attribute to the author (Pollitt in this case) a short, barebones argument for his/her conclusion (in this case that surrogate motherhood contracts should not be permitted, or, if permitted that they should not be enforceable). One can then separately consider how the author might argue for her/his premises.

For example, consider the argument (which is not Pollitt's!) on the practice quiz:

"Since it is obviously unobjectionable to permit people to sell blood or hair, there can be no objection to a woman charging "rent" for the use of her womb."

In the answer sheet for the quiz, I offer three reconstructions, and even the most complicated reconstruction leaves further work to do in clarifying how the author would argue for one of the premises. (In the context of a quiz, you can obviously leave many more loose ends than in a paper.)  Consider the first reconstruction:

1.  If it is legally permissible to sell blood and hair, then surrogate motherhood should be legally permissible.

2.  It is legally permissible to sell blood and hair.

thus 3.  Surrogate motherhood should be legally permissible.

One might this call an "ultra-barebones" version, since it does not attempt to formulate what principle if any would justify its first premise. Such a reconstruction is not very useful, though it may perhaps help to focus the questions and the disagreements you might have with the author's argument.

The second reconstruction is a better model for what you should be aiming for in your introductory papers.  Here it is:

1. Other things being equal, it should be legally permissible for individuals to sell or rent parts of their bodies.

2. Surrogate motherhood involves the selling or renting of parts of people's bodies.

thus 3. Other things being equal, surrogate motherhood should be legally permissible.

4. Other things are equal (i.e. there are no other considerations counting against permitting surrogate motherhood).

thus 5. Surrogate motherhood should be legally permissible.

The general form involves a premise that states some moral principle that applies to things that have such and such a property and a premise that surrogate motherhood has that property.  Clearly the quotation says nothing about "other things being equal," but one doesn't want to attribute unnecessary mistakes to people, and without the "other things being equal clause," this premise is pretty obviously false.   Whether the premise is true with the qualification included remains to be seen.   (Note that the interim conclusion, step 3, could be omitted without affecting the logic, but that it is easier to understand the argument the way that it is written.)   One could then complete the reconstruction of the author's argument by constructing a separate argument for the first premise that relies on premises concerning the permissibility of selling hair and blood.