Home > Articles

Convince Me That I'm Wrong: Why Reasons Matter in Ethics

Why do reasons matter in ethics? What do good and bad reasons look like? To think clearly about ethics, and to build toward your own consistent and well-reasoned set of ethical beliefs, you need to consider these questions and apply them to your currently held views.
This chapter is from the book

In This Chapter

  • Why reasons matter

  • The role of authority figures

  • The importance of impartiality

  • Being a skeptic

A recent Gallup poll shows the following statistics about Americans: 52 percent believe in astrology; 22 percent believe that aliens have visited the earth; 67 percent claim they had a psychic experience; and 33 percent believe there was once a lost continent called Atlantis.

These high numbers are surprising and, while not directly ethical issues, do relate to this chapter on reasons in ethics. The above statistics should make you ask: What reasons do people have for believing these things? Are there good reasons for such beliefs? That is exactly what we will talk about in this chapter. You will consider things like: Why do reasons matter in ethics? What do good and bad reasons look like? To think clearly about ethics, and to build toward your own consistent and well-reasoned set of ethical beliefs, you need to consider these questions and apply them to your currently held views.

Give Me One Good Reason

Let's start by examining that riddle we've all heard: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. It's a silly riddle precisely because the chicken has no good reasons for doing so; but, then again, chickens probably don't have good reasons for doing much of anything! If we can learn anything from such a dumb riddle, it's that not all reasons were created equally, some are better than others. You don't want to be like that chicken, crossing the road to get to the other side, then once you get there having no idea why you're there, do you? Of course not! While we don't expect chickens to give reasoned accounts of why they do things, we do expect it of people. That's why reasons matter.

Reasons have everything to do with ethics: If you have no good reasons for an act or a belief, then you can't have thought it through very well and maybe you shouldn't be doing it or believing it at all. It's quite scary to think that there are people out there who are voting, protesting, financing causes, or running campaigns without any clear idea of why they are doing it. Each and every one of us should be clear about our reasons for our values, beliefs, and behaviors, and we should each be able to give a reasoned account of them to others.

Tried and True

If someone asks you why you believe or act as you do, don't just say, "Because I believe (or act) that way." Give them a reason why. But before you give a reason why, ask yourself why—and keep on asking yourself why. Only then will your life become meaningful to you.

But it's not true in every case that we need to give a reasoned account of our choices. For example, people may ask why you give money to a certain charity, and you should be able to provide some reasons. It may be none of their business, but you should at least in principle be able to give reasons for your choice. You might respond that it's a good charity, or the cause really matters to you, or you want to give something back to society. If someone asks why you like beer, though ... well, that's a different story. You don't need a reasoned account in that case. Why not? Because, as Chapter 2 explained, there is a difference between preferences and values; and you don't have to give a long-winded, reasoned account of why you have a preference for beer, unless you want to bore everyone to death! So we have two lessons so far:

  1. Not all reasons are created equally.

  2. We don't need to have, or give, reasons for everything.

Basically, you don't need any reason at all for drinking beer. The fact that you like it is reason enough for drinking it. Nobody really cares. Not so for those charities, however. Giving reasons is important to ethical life, but isn't so important in the nonethical domain where questions about personal preferences come up. In short, no one really cares why you like beer, but people do care about what charities you support and why.

Giving reasons for our actions is important socially, too. It either connects us to others or divides us from them. So much of our social life depends on a shared understanding of what's true, right, and appropriate. When this understanding breaks down, the only way to restore it is by asking the reason why we disagree with one another.

For Example ...

To clarify things, let's use pornography as an example. We know that different groups oppose pornography, and sometimes for different reasons. Fundamentalist Christians, for example, are against pornography because it goes against traditional family values. Some feminist groups are also against it, but because they believe it treats women as objects and promotes violence against women. While both groups are anti-pornography, their reasons may be different, and those reasons divide them up into different social groups. So it's important to know not just what people believe but why they hold those beliefs!

Moral Musings

The saying "birds of a feather flock together" helps to understand why reasons are socially important. People who have similar reasons for their beliefs and actions tend to gravitate toward one another. Our reasons for believing X and Y connect us with others who have the same reasons. They set us apart from people who dispute our reasons.

The point in reading this book and in doing ethics isn't to get you to change your mind about things, or to think about ethics in one particular way. It's to get you to think about why you value certain things—like charity—and why you think it's right to practice them. To take a popular example, if you are opposed to abortion, examining your reasons for your opposition won't necessarily change your position (though it may!); it will make clear your reasons for holding that view, though. I teach ethics to university students every semester, and rarely do I change their minds about the ethical issues we study. Students who start class as pro-life usually finish that way, too. But students do clarify their thinking and think through their reasons for their ethical beliefs.

Changing Your Mind?

But—and this is a big but!—sometimes thinking through your beliefs and your reasons for having them will lead you to conclude that you were wrong, that you don't agree with the reasons, and that maybe you need to change your beliefs and actions. If, to use the abortion example again, you examined your reasons for believing that abortion is wrong and realized that you just don't agree with them anymore, then it would be pretty hard to continue picketing outside abortion clinics and lobbying the government for stronger laws against abortion. Or, if you did the same thing as a pro-choice advocate and discovered that the arguments against abortion were persuasive, you would be pretty ethically inconsistent if you continued to lobby for more liberal abortion laws.

Ethically Speaking

Dogmatism is the stubborn refusal to consider challenges to your own ethical point-of-view. It is also the out-of-hand rejection of competing ethical theories or explanations. You might know some dogmatic people ... you probably call them "pig-headed"!

While changing your mind isn't the end goal of doing ethics, it is certainly a possibility that you have to leave yourself open to; otherwise, you are being dogmatic. Dogmatism is a real problem because it means that you have slapped on your blinders, and are refusing to consider challenges to your beliefs, values, and actions.

It's Your Decision

There's another thing to keep in mind about our reasons for doing things: we have to come to them by our own lights, and not be manipulated into accepting them by someone else. This is why children aren't held to the same moral and legal standards that adults are, because they often can't give their own, well-thought-out reasons for doing or believing something. To put it bluntly, parents hold the purse-strings; they have the authority and control. (As I said in Chapter 2, parents can make us eat brussels sprouts against our will!) There's an important distinction here between being convinced of someone's reasons through a sound argument and being manipulated into accepting their reasons. In the one case, you are resting on your convictions. In the other, you are being held hostage to that other person's belief.

To recap, we've settled the following issues so far:

  1. Where ethics is concerned, you must have reasons for your beliefs.

  2. Reasons can either socially bind people together or divide them.

  3. By thinking about your ethical reasons for believing something, you need to be open to the possibility of revising them.

  4. There is a difference between being convinced by someone's reasons and being manipulated into accepting them.

But now let's get back to a point that was raised earlier in this chapter: Not all reasons are created equally.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020