Moral Reasoning

This law uses a suspect classification, and the state has not shown that it serves any compelling purpose, so the law is unconstitutional.

This argument is strong if the strict-scrutiny interpretation is accepted (assuming the premises are true). But this argument fails if a weaker burden of proof is required, as in the rational-relation test. When one chooses between interpretations of the equal protection clause and between different burdens of proof, one also chooses which arguments will have force in courts of law. This is another example of a general phenomenon that has been stressed throughout this book—that background assumptions can determine whether an argument is any good.

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Many acts—such as lying to a friend—are not illegal, but they still seem immoral. Thus, even if such an act is legally permitted, this does not show that it is morally permitted. That is a separate issue, and it is one that many people care deeply about, because they want to do what is moral and avoid doing what is immoral. But how can we show that an act is moral or immoral? One kind of argument will not do. We can often show that an act is illegal by citing official pronouncements by judges and legislators, such as precedents and statutes. In contrast, morality is not decided by any official. There are no authoritative books in which we can look up whether a certain act is immoral without asking whether that book is correct. This affects the nature of moral arguments and the criteria for evaluating them. We cannot appeal to any documents or officials to justify our moral beliefs, so moral beliefs must be based on something else. The kinds of arguments that can be used to justify moral beliefs will be the topic of this chapter.


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