Appendix 1 – Analysing ethical arguments

  1. Introduction
  2. Using embryonic stem cells for research
    1. An argument against using embryonic stem cells for research
  3. Euthanasia
    1. An argument in favour of euthanasia
    2. A Catholic argument against euthanasia
  4. Cohabitation before marriage
    1. Living together?
  5. Writing a personal ethical position


In the political and social culture of Australia in the twenty-first century, arguments about ethical issues appear constantly in the print and electronic media, and on the Internet, and are discussed by teachers, families and friends. It is therefore important to develop the skills of decoding ethical arguments, so that we can make intelligent judgements about whether or not we agree with them. Our judgements of the arguments we encounter influence the positions we take on ethical issues, and the social and political ways in which we take part in society.

We need not only to know about the issues themselves, but also how to unpack the arguments, so that we can discern good argument from bad in coming to good choices.

In Appendix 1 you analyse arguments concerning:

  • use of embryonic stem cells for research
  • euthanasia
  • couples living together before marriage.

Becoming skilled at discerning the qualities of an argument requires taking a logical rather than an emotional approach to examining an argument, to consider it carefully, and to assess its worth. In this way, you develop skills in analysing and evaluating ethical arguments.

Three arguments are presented, each related to an issue encountered in the main text of this book

Using embryonic stem cells for research

Background information

Stem cells are the basic ‘building block’ cells of the human body. They have the unique ability to develop further into other more specialised cells, such as skin cells, liver cells or nerve cells. At its earliest stages, the human embryo has eight identical cells that together can produce other types of more specialised human cells. Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells have the potential, when introduced into another human body, to produce new cells that will overcome defective cells and cure diseases such as diabetes, many cancers,
Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions.

The stem cells of very early embryos, or recently fertilised eggs, produce every kind of human tissue, and so are referred to as totipotent. At a later stage of the life of the embryo, its stem cells can become almost every kind of cell, and so are referred to as pluripotent. The stem cells of adult human beings can produce a large number of other cells, and these are referred to as multipotent.

Because very early embryonic stem cells are the most versatile, being able to turn into every other kind of cell, many researchers favour using them over adult stem cells, arguing that embryonic stem cells have the highest potential to cure diseases and disabilities.

Some scientists claim that they should be able to breed embryos specifically for stem-cell research and also to use the stem cells of aborted embryos.

The controversy over use of embryonic stem cells for research rests on whether or not it is ethical to use human embryonic stem cells in this way.

An argument against using embryonic stem cells for research

The following argument by John Anderson, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party, 7 August, 2002, is accompanied by commentary that analyses the argument he presents.

Embryos must be protected

Ever notice that in public debate the weaker the argument, the louder the proponent shouts? Bob Carr, for one, has been shouting about embryonic stem cells very loudly. His form of shouting has been to parade stricken and disabled children, suggesting that anyone who opposes embryonic stem-cell research lacks compassion for their plight. He has said that opponents of embryonic stem-cell research have no right to ‘shatter the hopes’ of these suffering children and their families.

John Anderson dismisses the arguments of those who promote use of embryonic stem cells for research, especially the New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and leading stem-cell scientist Alan Trounson.

The New South Wales Premier has labelled those with concerns about embryonic stem-cell research as being anti-humanity, bogged down in the ‘subtle theology’ of the nineteenth century and unwilling to relieve suffering wherever they find it.

Now we also have Alan Trounson labelling the Catholics in this group as irrational since they don’t approach him to do embryo funerals. (Since when did Catholics solicit anyone to do funerals?)

Emotional manipulation and personal insult do not constitute argument; it is shouting, which usually hides a weak position.

Anderson exposes the tactics of his two opponents and accuses them of manipulating the emotions of the public by playing on compassion for sick and disabled children.

To present us with sick children and to build excessive expectations that this research will miraculously cure them is simply inappropriate. Even if the obstacles to embryonic stem-cell research are overcome, the odds are overwhelmingly against even Superman benefiting from it in [Carr’s] lifetime. Has Carr explained this to the parents of the children involved?

He then accuses his opponents of raising false hopes among the parents of ill and disabled children, arguing that they will not benefit from it because results of the research will take a very long time to become available to the public.

After all, [use of embryonic stem cells for research] has so far provided no cures for human suffering. Compare this with adult stem-cell research (requiring no embryos), which is providing cures for many diseases and injuries, including spinal-cord damage.

Carr must also be aware that before any patient receives a therapy that one day may be developed from embryonic stem-cell research, stem cells must be found that match the patient; otherwise the patient’s immune system will reject the cells. This raises an important point that has been largely ignored in the public debate. The curative stem cells cannot come from any old embryo.

Until recently, researchers told us that each patient would have to be cloned, using a donated egg. The stem cells are then extracted, killing the clone, before they are genetically reprogrammed and injected back into the patient.

Next Anderson advances his argument. He makes two points:
First he argues that there is no evidence for claiming that embryonic stem cells will provide cures, whereas there is already evidence that adult stem cells can do so.
Secondly, he claims that the process is so complex and expensive that it is unworkable.

Alternatively, stem cells will need to be matched through a donor bank of embryonic stem cells. This will require the creation of many new embryos destined for destruction in the process of harvesting the stem cells. The 70,000 frozen embryos will not be suitable as they will not meet safety requirements.

Trounson, it seems, has acknowledged that the logistics of overcoming the many technical problems, such as finding that many eggs (something like five million to treat diabetics alone, in Australia) are enormously complex. Many in the scientific community, including the Children’s Medical Research Council, see embryonic stem-cell research as an expensive dead-end. In view of the risks of any sort of cloning, let’s ban it altogether.

The 70,000 embryos referred to here were the estimated number of those in storage in Australia at the time of Anderson’s speech.

  1. List in your own words the steps in Anderson’s argument in this section.
  2. What authorities (foundations) does Anderson use in this section of the argument? Does he draw on medical fact, opinion or research? On any other authority? What is the key foundation of his argument?

It is bizarre to insult opponents of embryonic stem-cell research, such as the Christian Churches, by suggesting they don’t care about suffering or are anti-humanity. Without the compassionate service rendered by the members and welfare agencies of the Catholic, Salvation Army, Uniting and Anglican Churches, our society would be in disarray. Such organisations pour millions of dollars and countless hours of labour into relieving suffering. This is based on their Christian conviction that every human life is significant and deserving of respect. In fact, it is because of their compassion and love for humanity that many oppose this line of research.

Next Anderson defends those who oppose use of embryonic stem cells for research, such as the Christian Churches, stating that the Churches have been insulted by his opponents.

He argues that the Churches oppose using embryonic stem cells for research because of their love for humanity and their respect for human life – pointing to the work of the Churches in alleviating suffering.

It is not a religious divide. Opponents include economic and ecological progressives as well as religious and moral conservatives. They are aware that every embryo has its own unique DNA from the time of fertilisation. After that, only time and nourishment are required for this tiny human life to grow to maturity. Any other starting point is arbitrary. Most opponents lack neither compassion nor humanity. Indeed, they seem to want to keep the boundaries of humanity wide, to include the weak and the nameless. They want to see even the smallest and most fragile human life protected, honoured and nourished.

He reminds his opponents that it is not only on religious grounds that people oppose embryo research.

  1. What assumption does Anderson make in this section of the argument? Which of his words help us to discern this assumption?
  2. In this assumption, Anderson reveals the authority that is the real basis of his argument. What is this authority?

Proponents of embryonic stem-cell research should desist from emotional manipulation and personal insult. It’s time for a more rational debate that should focus on four crucial issues:

  • Is there any realistic chance of clinically viable therapies being developed from embryonic stem-cell research, given the obstacles?
  • Would we not be wiser to concentrate all our efforts in researching adult stem cells, which are already producing cures?
  • Are we prepared to accept human cloning or embryo farming, given that embryonic stem-cell research will almost certainly lead to calls for either or both?
  • And is there any sound reason for our not regarding each human embryo as a unique human life deserving our care and protection?

In this section of his argument, a key assumption held by Anderson becomes evident. (An assumption is an idea or principle that is taken for granted and therefore not justified within the argument.)
Now Anderson concludes his argument, reiterating his main authority (the foundation of his argument) in the last sentence.

  1. Give your assessment of Anderson’s argument. How well does he argue his point? Are his authorities trustworthy? What do you think of the assumption he makes about human life?
  2. Is it necessary to hold the same assumption about human life as Anderson in order to oppose using embryonic stem cells for research? On what other grounds may it be opposed?


Euthanasia is an action or omission that intentionally and of itself causes death, with the purpose of eliminating all suffering.

The decision not to undergo ‘aggressive medical treatment’, or treatment that is not useful or is burdensome to a dying person, is not euthanasia. In such situations, when death is clearly imminent and inevitable, one can in conscience refuse unnecessary treatment.

One way to assess the validity of an ethical argument is to identify the assumptions and authorities in the argument and then judge whether or not these are credible or trustworthy. In the first argument presented in this section, Derek Humphry argues for active euthanasia on the basis of his own experience. In the second, the Church argues against euthanasia on the basis of its belief in the sanctity of life. The extent to which we give credibility to the authorities decides to a large extent whether or not we agree with an argument.

An argument in favour of euthanasia

The following argument by Derek Humphry, author of Final Exit, is accompanied by questions for analysing the argument.

Let me explain how I became involved with the subject of euthanasia. In 1974 my first wife, Jean, was dying of bone cancer. Thrombosis had set in, her bones were cracking and she was losing control of her bowels. One day, after a very close brush with death, she sat up in her hospital bed and said to me, ‘Will you help me die?’ That is when I first encountered the issue of euthanasia; from across my late wife’s hospital bed.

After she made her request, I asked myself, ‘What if I were sitting in that hospital bed? What if I had had two years of pain and agony? What if I faced an imminent death? What if I was losing control of my bowels and my bones were cracking and so forth?’ I realised then that I would be asking her to help me to die. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my simple reason for what I did. It was an act of love.

  1. On what basis did Humphry decide to end his wife’s life?
  2. In this situation, what was the authority upon which he made his decision?
  3. In your view, is this a trustworthy authority?

Jean had been a good wife to me for 22 years. She stood by me in good times and bad. And when she was experiencing a bad time, I felt it was my duty to support her in her decision. I am not a Christian. I am an atheist. So, for me there was no question of consulting any god. It was a matter of situational ethics.

  1. What authority is being called upon here? Do you agree with the assumption contained in this paragraph – that we have a duty to support those we love in everything?
  2. What is an atheist? How might Derek Humphry’s being an atheist influence his decision?
  3. See Chapter 1 (1.6) for a description of ‘situation ethics’. What are the disadvantages of such an approach to decision making?

In 1980, five years after Jean’s death, I helped to establish the Hemlock Society. This organisation seeks to change certain laws regarding suicide. We want the government to decriminalise the actions taken by physicians in the assisted suicides of terminally ill patients.

We believe that a mentally competent adult who is dying should be able to submit a written request to their doctor that would state, ‘I’ve had all I can take. The pain and suffering are too much. I wish to die. Help me’.

The physician, according to the Hemlock movement’s prepared ‘law’, would have to obtain the opinion of a second doctor. They would both have to agree that the person is dying. The first doctor could then end the life of the patient with an oral or intravenous drug overdose, without the threat of prosecution or lawsuit. Our ‘laws’ also state that the doctor could elect not to assist the patient with such an action.

I would claim that this is the ultimate civil liberty. If we cannot go to our deaths in the manner of our own choosing, what liberty do we have?

‘Legalising euthanasia: medical perspectives on death and dying’, Issues in Ethics, vol. 4, no. 2, Fall 1991.

  1. Humphry’s opinion about euthanasia is based on his personal experience. Is it legitimate to decide about issues on the basis of personal experience, whether of one person or of many? Justify your response.
  2. Make a judgement about the worth of Humphry’s argument based on your sense of whether his assumptions and authorities are trustworthy.

A Catholic argument against euthanasia

This argument is adapted from Pope Paul ll’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae – The Gospel of Life. It is accompanied by questions for analysing the argument.


When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs. The temptation grows to have recourse to euthanasia, that is, to take control of death and bring it about before its time, ‘gently’ ending one’s own life or the life of others. But what might seem logical and humane is seen to be senseless and inhumane when looked at more closely.

Do we have a ‘culture of death’?

Euthanasia is one of the more alarming symptoms of the ‘culture of death’. Its legal use is being advocated, particularly in prosperous societies where a culture of death is evident in excessive preoccupation with efficiency – according to which a significantly impaired life no longer has any value.

The growing number of elderly and disabled people, very often isolated from their families and society, are being viewed as an intolerable burden.

  1. What do you think is meant by a ‘culture of death’?
  2. Do we see the elderly, the disabled and the terminally ill as ‘too much trouble’? Could that sort of thinking be creating pressure to legalise euthanasia?
Euthanasia is not the same as trying to relieve pain

In modern medicine, increased attention is being given to what is called ‘palliative care’ – seeking to make suffering more bearable in the final stages of illness and to ensure that the patient is supported and accompanied in his or her ordeal.

Among the questions that arise in this context is the use of various types of pain-killers and sedatives for relieving the patient’s pain when this treatment also involves the risk of shortening life.

It is permissible to relieve pain by narcotics, even when the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life, if no other means can do so.

  1. What point is being made here about the use of pain-killers and sedatives to relieve suffering at the end of life?
  2. How is this different from active euthanasia?
The ethical position is summarised

(Active) euthanasia is a grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God (see Exodus 20:13).

  1. What authority is invoked to support opposition to euthanasia?
  2. What assumptions (ideas or principles that are taken for granted) are evident?

To concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice that can never be excused, even if it is requested.

Even when not motivated by a selfish refusal to be burdened with the life of someone who is suffering, euthanasia is a false mercy, and even a disturbing ‘perversion’ of mercy.

  1. Restate the argument of this section in your own words.

True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear. Moreover, the act of euthanasia appears all the more perverse if it is carried out by those, such as relatives, who are supposed to treat a family member with patience and love, or by those, such as doctors, who by virtue of their specific profession are supposed to care for the sick person even in the most painful terminal stages.

  1. Compassion is a Christian virtue. In what way is it being used as an authority in this argument?
  2. Pain is part of life. What does the call for legalised euthanasia imply about how we as a society and as individuals should deal with another’s pain?

The height of injustice is reached when people such as physicians or legislators take upon themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die. God alone has the power over life and death and he exercises this power in accordance with a plan of wisdom and love.

  1. What does this statement imply about the rights of governments to make euthanasia legal?
Deal with another’s suffering with compassion and faith

The request that arises from the human heart in the confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail.

The certainty of future immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery of suffering and death, and fill the believer with an extraordinary capacity to trust fully in the plan of God.

  1. What beliefs held within the Catholic tradition can give meaning to suffering and death?
  2. Make your own assessment of this ethical position of the Catholic Church based on your view of the credibility of its authorities and assumptions.

Cohabitation before marriage

The following text (adapted from M Andrews 2002, Living Together, Threshold Publishing, Melbourne) presents an argument against the common practice of couples to live together before marriage. It is accompanied by questions for analysing the argument.

Living together?

Peter and Julie have been seeing each other for four months. Peter has asked Julie to move in with him, saying it will give them more time together and greater independence. Julie likes Peter but she hasn’t thought much about marriage.

‘This will give us the time to test our relationship and we’ll see what happens,’ she says.

  1. What is your initial reaction to the practice of couples living together before marriage? What arguments do you see for it and against it?
  2. What is your reaction to the decision made by Julie and Peter? Is ‘testing the relationship’ a good reason to live together?

As soon as Brian and Daniela decided to get married they moved in together.

‘We are saving money to buy a house and plan to get married in about 18 months,’ says Daniela.

‘Not long after I met Danni, I knew she was the one for me,’ adds Brian.

  1. What is your reaction to Brian and Daniela’s situation? Should couples live together before marriage for financial reasons?

As these examples illustrate, a variety of reasons are given for cohabitation. For some couples it may be a test of the relationship, for others it may be an informal marriage. Motivations for living together can be varied and complex.

  1. What other reasons have you heard given for couples deciding to live together before marriage?

Even within the one relationship, one person may see cohabitation as a stepping stone to marriage, while their partner is content with the relationship as it is, and is not considering a long-term commitment.

Some people find that once they decide to live together, family expectations increase and the slide towards marriage gains momentum. ‘Commitment creep’ begins almost unnoticed but nevertheless sweeps the couple along. Research shows that 50 per cent of cohabiting partners marry each other, 40 per cent end their relationship within five years, and 10 per cent continue to cohabit for more than five years.

  1. Do you agree that living together may encourage a couple to drift into marriage?
  2. What authority is used to justify this argument?

Research also shows that cohabiting couples who marry appear to be less satisfied with their marriage than are couples who did not live together before marriage, and experience higher rates of divorce. This is especially the case for couples who have lived together for three years or more. The divorce rate is higher for couples who live together before marriage

  1. What might be some of the reasons for a higher divorce rate among couples who have lived together before marriage?
Arguments against cohabitation

While living together may not initially be viewed as a permanent bond, family and societal expectations increase and encourage moving towards marriage.

The personal investment in cohabitating, even in just domestic arrangements, can encourage maintaining the situation. The effort and energy invested in the relationship is not easily discarded – to the extent that breaking up may seem harder than getting married.

  1. What argument is being put? Can you see any value in the argument? If so, what is it?

If one partner has stronger expectations than the other that living together will lead to marriage, this can create an inequality in the relationship.

  1. How might couples who live together have different expectations of the relationship?

Couples living together often believe that successfully living together will guarantee a successful marriage. While cohabiting couples usually develop interpersonal skills, marriage relies on a permanent commitment, as opposed to the ‘opt-out clause’ associated with cohabitation.

  1. What contrast is put in this section of the argument?

Experience of several cohabiting relationships may weaken commitment. If a person is in the habit of leaving relationships, they may become tolerant of failed relationships.

  1. Do you agree that a series of living-together relationships may not be good for a person’s eventual marriage? Give reasons for your answer.

Many people believe that marriage will be the same as living together. However, if you are living together and one person decides that ‘it’s not working’ he or she can leave. Marriage, however, is based on lifelong commitment and is a public social, emotional and legal promise to family, friends and community. The couple may not be prepared for the psychological and social changes involved in these opposing concepts.

  1. Here it is asserted that marriage is fundamentally different from cohabitation. On what basis is this argued?

Fear of long-term commitment may motivate a couple to live together. We live in a society that says if something is broken it is better to throw it away and get a new one than try to fix it. Our society also says that we can change and outgrow our marriage.

  1. Do you think that young people find it harder to make permanent commitments today? If so, what may be some of the explanation for this?

Marriage is a journey where husband and wife grow together (sometimes at different rates) rather than a destination. Marriage is renewable rather than expendable. Fulfilment is found in working at the relationship so that it deepens and matures.

  1. Explain the meaning of the sentence in bold print.

Some couples live together for sexual need alone. They confuse sex with love. A couple can begin to use sex as a way to convince themselves that the relationship is going well. When sexual intimacy becomes the predominant way of communicating, it stifles a couple’s discovery of the attitudes, hopes and desires of the other person. A couple must have the freedom and the emotional strength to be able to separate the sexual dimension of their attraction for each other and their true love for each other.

  1. What are the differences between sexual attraction and love?
  2. In your view, is sexual attraction alone a foundation for cohabitation? For marriage?
  3. If you do not agree, list what you think are healthy foundations for marriage.

The highest expression of real love, rather than just sexual attraction, is in marriage.

‘At the heart of Christian marriage is a profound respect between wife and husband that is based on a lifelong commitment to love and honour each other. This commitment is made freely and publicly – before God, relatives, friends and the community’ (Australian Catholic Bishops 1993, Families: Our Hidden Treasure).

To give this gift of sexuality in a context any less than the total commitment of married love demeans the dignity of the gift.

  1. Discuss and evaluate this argument from the Catholic tradition.

The argument put here is from the Catholic tradition. In summary, the Catholic tradition holds that because sex is so sacred, beautiful and meaningful, it is a gift that should be given only to a person to whom we have committed our lives. Sexual intercourse belongs only within marriage because it expresses total commitment, a commitment that is not given in cohabitation.

Writing a personal ethical position

In relation to any ethical issue in which you are interested, including any of those listed in the shaded box on this page, use the following steps to develop an argument about the issue.

Capital punishment, Cloning, Detention of asylum seekers, Free speech, even if it is offensive to some groups in society, Genetic engineering, Just wars, Letting severely disabled babies die, Logging of old growth forests, Organ transplants.

  1. State what the issue is, why it is important and for what groups in society it is especially important.
  2. Describe at least two different viewpoints about the issue that do not come from religious traditions. For each viewpoint highlight the assumptions and authorities in the argument. Make sure you state which individuals or groups argue each viewpoint.
  3. Then explain the Catholic position on the issue, highlighting the assumptions and authorities used in the argument. Analyse this Catholic position in terms of the beliefs and values that underpin it.
  4. Consider carefully where you stand. Describe which views you cannot agree with and why. State the authorities and assumptions you have examined that you think are the most credible, and that influence how you judge the various viewpoints on the issue. In summary, describe your own position on the issue, highlighting your authorities and assumptions.