Occam’s Phaser?

by John Holbo on February 25, 2012

I’m rereading Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia because I got to thinking: what’s wrong with good old fashioned ‘force and fraud’ anyway? Isn’t the Night Watchman state just creeping Soft Tyranny, in Tocqueville’s sense? Plus it’s obviously a moral hazard and generally destructive to private virtue.

So Nozick seemed like relevant reading. Some unsystematic liveblogging:

First, Nozick is amusingly harsh, in passing, to fellow libertarians.

Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company.

The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.

Next, this classic bit:

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed.

This is true!

Next, he spends a great deal of time answering my question. 150 pages. Why have even a minimal state that secures everyone against force and fraud? I know now that his answer is … really quite complicated and ultimately not altogether clear, despite the fact that Nozick is generally a clear writer. I’m not convinced Nozick really has any right, by his lights, to a full-fledged Night Watchman state. Something more minimal would be more respectful of the individual rights that we are, supposedly, respecting at all costs, seems to me.

But that’s more than I can put in a post, so let’s consider a different issue:

If someone picks up a third party and throws him at you down at the bottom of a deep well, the third party is innocent and a threat; had he chosen to launch himself at you in that trajectory he would be an aggressor. Even though the falling person would survive his fall onto you, may you use your ray gun to disintegrate the falling body before it crushes and kills you? (p. 33-4)

Let me propose a principle (or maybe it’s a fallacy): Occam’s Phaser. Do not compound the silliness of your examples beyond necessity.

It’s perfectly easy to construct a vanilla life-or-death case in which someone uses someone as a human shield without throwing anyone down a well or arming anyone with a phaser set on disintegrate, let alone both. And certainly there is no need to be simulataneously generous with the outlandish stage-dressings and utterly unforthcoming about what’s going on, onstage. Who are these people?

So why go for the phaser option?

It is often suggested that philosophers (or analytic philosophers, or Anglo-American philosophers, call us what you will) are just somehow autistic about this stuff. We write examples as if we’ve read about humans in books but never actually met one. But this is a mistake. Philosophers (or analytic philosophers, or Anglo-American philosophers) may be autistic – it is possible some at the mild end of that scale may find refuge in our tribe – but what we tend to be, in our choice of examples, is mildly whimsical. Whimsy is not the same as Asperger Syndrome. In academic philosophy example selection, there is an aesthetic of sustained, low-grade whimsy; odd-angle cases, with curiously crinkly edges, that scrupulously fail to rise to the level of being outright jokes, but that faintly tickle the funny bone. I think it’s probably originally an Ox-Bridge thing. Be that as it may, it may be a problem. Or maybe not.

What is the typical effect of offering half a phaser-down-a-well case (i.e. you provide lurid incidentals while omitting the core of the human drama – who are these people?) when you could perfectly well have offered a full ordinary case. Some plausible human shield scenario, with plausible context and motives sketched in.

I think it’s fair to say that the effect of narrating half a phaser-down-a-well case is the opposite of what it is often advertised to be. Such cases are supposed to function as ‘intuition pumps’. Trolley cars. People who wake up attached to famous violinists. You know the score. But really they are the opposite. (You could call them ‘intuition pumps’, but only if you meant by that the opposite of what people actually mean by that; if you meant that they that pump intuitions out, not in.) What these examples really are, if anything, is principle pumps. You nudge for a response while depriving people of the sorts of thick descriptive detail that would usually ground intuitive responses. If you are nudged to respond, and the only way to respond is to come up with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly indicated set of cases, then you will tend to respond by coming up with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly delimited set of cases. Which begs the question: ought I to respond to human shield cases with an abstract principle for dealing with an abstractly delimited set of human shield cases?

The human shield case makes this clear. Any realistic case – a criminal using a human shield to try to get away from the police; a terrorist; an enemy soldier – is going to get a very strong ‘intuitive’ response, one way or another. But that is obviously precisely what Nozick does not want. Really what he wants is to peel back our intuitions, put a principle in place, and start reconstructing our intuitions on that basis. Possibly this is the right thing to do. Or possible not.

What do you think: is Occam’s Phaser a sound principle, or a fallacy, or what?

When is it appropriate to use silly examples, to pump our intuitions out, the better to get clear about principles, and when isn’t it?

UPDATE: I was initially unclear in using the terms ‘principle’ and ‘fallacy’. Edited for clarity, accordingly. But maybe my usage is still unclear. But I hope you get the idea.

UPDATE THE 2ND:

{ 440 comments }

1

Charles 02.25.12 at 6:01 am

“When is it appropriate to use silly examples, to pump our intuitions out, the better to get clear about principles, and when isn’t it?”

Never.

A friend of mine who works in finance occasionally begins arguments with the words, “Okay, look, imagine you’ve got a completely rational person – ”

At which point I immediately interrupt with, “No.” Similar case, I think.

Pumping our intuition out may lead to clear principles, but they will be bad, unrealistic clear principles.

2

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 6:12 am

I’m tempted by that answer, Charles. But I don’t think it’s right. I think the right answer is to pump out the intuitions with silly examples while being more explicit that this is the procedure. More truth in advertising what you are up to. Because you are trying to get clear, for intellectual purposes, from a tangle of ordinary attitudes that may need some examination. You are trying to solve for variables and place conventional moral responses in brackets. That’s all perfectly legitimate.

The principles you arrive at won’t necessarily be bad and unrealistic unless you are willing to assume that all our messy ordinary responses, which are pretty obviously unprincipled in lots of ways, are necessarily just fine as they stand. That’s too conservative an assumption for my tastes. Conservative of our actual attitudes, I mean. It leaves too little room for principled revisionism of moral notions.

3

nostalgebraist 02.25.12 at 6:18 am

“Which begs the question”? Come on, man. . . .

More seriously: I think one of the problems with “intuition pumps” is that people’s responses to them, in practice, really do depend strongly on those “human details,” in ways that don’t feel right when we sit back and think about them. Isn’t that one of the main results of the academic study of trolley problems? That if you give them to ordinary people, their responses will change depending on weird things like whether you directly push the fat man or just cause him to be pushed, etc.?

Which suggests that while whimsical scenarios aren’t enough, realistic scenarios aren’t either. It would be wrong to just ignore those “weird” results about trolley problems, but it would be just as wrong to assume that the weird results simply are what people really think, and that we should start changing murder laws to radically depend on the level of physical intermediation involved. We could just as easily say that the human details tend to be a distraction that prevent people from doing what they really should be doing, which is using (or coming up with) principles. Realistic intuition pumps may get at our “unprincipled” intuitions, but we may not actually want those for the purposes of philosophy, because they contain weird things that reveal themselves to be weird (intuitively speaking!) after a little reflection.

4

nostalgebraist 02.25.12 at 6:22 am

That is, what we want to do in philosophy is to identify reasoning that’s intuitive but still principled, rather than just unprincipled knee-jerk responses. (I would think?) But it’s hard to distinguish the two with thought experiments.

5

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 6:32 am

““Which begs the question”? Come on, man. . . .”

Ha! I unintentionally used ‘beg the question’ in a way that was ambiguous between the old (correct) way and the new (incorrect) way. I meant it in the old way, as all good philosophers always do. I meant: “This begs the question. So now we need to ask …”

6

Medrawt 02.25.12 at 7:02 am

As a philosophy undergrad who wasn’t terribly fond of the prose style of (let’s say) Anglo-American philosophers for the most part, I did enjoy the general tenor of whimsy fluttering through the paragraphs. I still sometimes chuckle at Bertrand Russell’s silly joke about Hegelians and the present King of France. But I grew to really hate these sorts of “intuitive” examples.

For the sake of space I’ll leave out some personal objections to the Trolley Problem Austistic Whimsy genre which aren’t responsive to the particular issue of this post, but let’s look at the hole/falling guy/ray gun example. So the idea is to find out how I feel about a circumstance where the only way to protect myself from being harmed by an entirely innocent individual is to kill him. Coming up with a realistic example that isn’t at least almost as distracting as the raygun scenario is difficult, and requires the imposition of some serious constraints to offer such a restrictive choice; I’m reminded of Justice Scalia being overly impressed by the contortions which 24 imposed on Jack Bauer whereby torture was the only reasonable course of action. (I also think it’s interesting that you include a standoff with cops; at least to my intuition the canonical notion of a criminal using a human shield against the police involves the criminal trying to escape, not kill police officers, which changes the moral math.)

But look, the raygun example also involves a change in the laws of physics (or at least of what we know to be physically possible). At which point my mind shuts off, much like Charles w/the “completely rational person”, because if what we know to be physically possible were different, we might have different moral intuitions to begin with. Were reincarnation a commonplace of human activity, we might have different attitudes towards murder. The Nozick example can only pretend to work because of the raygun; as constructed, shooting him with bullets, or an arrow, or stabbing upwards with a spear or a sword, won’t do the trick, because the body’s gonna crush me anyway. The example only works if I can, nay it requires me to, remove the innocent man from physical existence, a thing I cannot actually do in the world (maybe someday?). This does not clear my mind of its previous associative biases! Intuition peeling, good. Raygun, bad.

7

js. 02.25.12 at 7:07 am

I’m not sure what the answer to your question is, and I’m not sure that the following Anscombe quote provides an answer either, but it’s really the best thing on this sort of stuff that I know of. She’s giving advice here on what to do if you want to corrupt the youth:

“…concentrate on examples which are either banal which are either banal…; or fantastic: what you ought to do if you had to move forward and stepping with your right foot meant killing twenty-five fine young men while stepping with your left foot would kill fifty drooling old ones. (Obviously the right thing to do would be to jump and polish off the lot.)” G.E.M. Anscombe, “Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt Youth,” Human Life, Action, and Ethics . Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005. 161-168.

8

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 7:18 am

But I think it’s significant that the whimsy so often points in the direction of callousness and cruelty, and so seldom in the direction of generosity or compassion or even the ranking of not-entirely-compatible good things.Whimsy doesn’t have to be mean, basically.

I have this nagging feeling that whimsical goodness is likely to be less morally misleading that whimsical lethality, though I can’t right now lay out a hard line of argument for it. A lot of it, I’m guessing about myself, is seeing the last decade’s worth of awful mass killing and misery inflicting by people really deeply disengaged from basic realities, and feeling that I’d like decisions about death and life to be anchored a lot more closely in any situation a real person is ever going to face anytime soon.

I would be reassured if I saw more whimsy directed at whatever the speculator personally takes more seriously. For Nozick, I guess that’d be whimsical dismissals of respect or gravity due to contracts, or something of the sort.

I must note that I have a cold today, and apologize for any incoherence beyond my usual.

9

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 7:31 am

“But I think it’s significant that the whimsy so often points in the direction of callousness and cruelty”

I don’t agree with this. I think the issue is, rather, that the examples tend to open the door to radical thinking – at least to significant revisionism of our ordinary intuitions. And revisions to our ordinary notions of morality tend to be cruel-looking, from at least some angles. There’s typically an element of ‘maybe we should consider the possibility that something commonly regarded as forbidden should be allowed’, or ‘something that is commonly allowed should be forbidden’. Both possibilities look cruel to the person inclined to stand pat, morally. But I don’t think it’s fair to say that the philosopher’s motive is to be cruel. Or even to make excuses for cruelty.

10

js. 02.25.12 at 7:36 am

Somewhat more (or rather less) seriously, if this is in fact the question:

When is it appropriate to use silly examples, to pump our intuitions out, the better to get clear about principles, and when isn’t it?

Then surely there’s no general answer. Really, it’s not a “when” question, but rather a “how” question, as you yourself suggest @2. For myself, I’d rather not argue from examples at all (and generally try not to). Just get the damn principle out there, front and center, so to speak. Then, if necessary, you can use examples to get to a Rawlsian “reflective equilibrium”, say.

On an other other note, I’m curious whether you think Occam’s Phaser should apply just as much in the philosophy of mind, say, as in ethics (very broadly conceived). Shit gets seriously sci-fi out there, after all.

11

SB 02.25.12 at 7:37 am

I have no suggestions. But I love the idea of Occam’s Phaser. And I get why it has to be used for this minor (but genuinely annoying) problem. But it is such a great phrase I want it to mean something else–something that happens all the time and that annoys me–so I can shout out Occam’s Phaser!

I’m sure I can still get a chance to use it.

Of course Nozick’s best funny vignette–and he did have some good ones–is

“Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies.”

Unfortunately, many philosophers do wish for this even when their arguments are bunk and they are not kidding. But I sort of think this somehow goes with Occam’s phaser–something needs to get vaporized. Don’t ask me what–it’s late.

12

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 7:50 am

“I’m curious whether you think Occam’s Phaser should apply just as much in the philosophy of mind”

In defense of the seriously SF phil mind folks: it’s less clear that there are vanilla cases to be had that would serve the same purposes. The Occam’s Phaser principle merely says: don’t tell an outlandish story when you could as easily tell a non-outlandish one.

Re: ““Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies.”

Obviously the first thing that needs to be said is that the illustration I need for this post is a cover scan from PKD, “The Zap Gun”. I will update forthwith.

Next, we need to turn the problem into a novel, loosely adapted from the PDK novel. Two philosophers have been arguing by means of increasingly elaborate thought-experiments involving people thrown down wells, responding to various threats with increasingly powerful ‘zap guns’. But now a third philosopher is threatening both philosophers and they need to come up with a ‘zap gun’ argument so powerful it will actually set up reverberations in his brain that will kill him. Can they do it!

13

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 7:51 am

Maybe the radical revision looks cruel because it is cruel. Certainly Nozick’s philosophy is callous, and I think it does slide into casual cruelty from time to time. This is a “yes, and” agreement with Medrawt.

14

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 8:00 am

“Maybe the radical revision looks cruel because it is cruel.”

Well, yes, but the point of exploring the revision, experimentally, isn’t to BE cruel. Rather, it’s to think things through. The issue doesn’t concern just Nozick (I don’t actually think he’s cruel – just weird. But your mileage may vary.) But if you think philosophers’ broader penchant for whimsical examples shows that philosophers generally have a crypto-tendency to cruelty, I think that’s a misreading of the typical Angl0-American personality profile. They are cruel only in the sense that Lewis Carroll’s puzzle about the Walrus and Carpenter is cruel. It is cruel – all those poor oysters! – in the higher service of something milder.

15

Alex Gregory 02.25.12 at 8:05 am

I suppose what’s going on is that you could start with a realistic – even actual – example, and then make very clear which features of the case we’re supposed to focus on, and which we’re supposed to ignore. But this is tedious to write, tedious to read, and it’s always difficult to be sure whether you’ve really succeeded in ignoring all of the irrelevant factors. So philosophers start at the other end and build up to a case which has the fewest details possible, a case with only whatever is needed to generate the features we’re supposed to concentrate on. And better yet, if we need to put in some irrelevant feature to make the case work, make that feature so ridiculous that no-one could make the mistake of thinking that the correct moral judgement hangs on it. (Perhaps there are special moral rules for warfare. But there clearly aren’t special moral rules for the use of ray guns.) I’m sure you’re right that odd examples are sometimes semi-jokes, but I suspect that they’re common because they make clearest what’s at stake.

16

js. 02.25.12 at 8:10 am

Bruce:

Maybe the radical revision looks cruel because it is cruel. Certainly Nozick’s philosophy is callous, and I think it does slide into casual cruelty from time to time.

I really have no love for Nozick’s philosophy, but the use of (unnecessarily?) violent examples has sort of been a hallmark of (Anglo-American) philosophy for at least decades now. Philippa Foot’s Doctrine of Double Effect is in some ways the gold standard for this sort of stuff—all the trolley stuff, fat man stuck in a cave, etc.—and Foot’s views are anything but callous. There’s tons of other examples. I’m totally willing to believe there’s something kinda sorta weird going on here, but no way is there a direct connection to cruel or callous views.

17

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 8:10 am

“So philosophers start at the other end and build up to a case which has the fewest details possible, a case with only whatever is needed to generate the features we’re supposed to concentrate on. And better yet, if we need to put in some irrelevant feature to make the case work, make that feature so ridiculous that no-one could make the mistake of thinking that the correct moral judgement hangs on it.”

I agree with this, and I agree it is legitimate, in principle. My only point against it is that we should describe it as pumping out our intuitions, rather than pumping them in.

18

Adam Roberts 02.25.12 at 8:19 am

I would say ‘Oxbridge’ rather than the rather peculiar (indeed, whimsical) looking ‘Ox-Bridge’. And in fact I think I would say ‘English’ — I know that Nozick wasn’t English, of course, but I wonder if you’re putting your finger on something in the cultural DNA of certain sorts of thought-experimenting. Salman Rushdie has an essay on the difference between US and English comedy in which he characterises the former as ‘isn’t it funny that’-style humour (Friends et al) and the latter as ‘wouldn’t it be funny if-style (Monty Python and so on). I wouldn’t want to stick my neck out, but I suppose it might have something to do with living within more restrctive, though largely unwritten, codes of proper behaviour, and having mild eccentricity — whimsy — as the socially acceptable pressure valve.

And being English I’m perhaps likely to think more positively of whimsy for that reason. Charles makes a good point at the top of this thread: ‘posit a perfectly rational person’ — ‘no I won’t'; but presumably these sorts of phasered thought-experiments are attempts to flip precisely that sort of response around: ‘posit that the world will present you with a situation that simply doesn’t fit your preconceptions about the world … what would you do?’ Saying ‘I refuse so to posit’ wouldn’t be cricket.

19

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 8:27 am

There’s another thing to be said about the tendency to combine the desire to tell semi-jokes with it being the case that really the intellectual point is something else. Here let me be a typical philoospher and tell a weird little story.

Suppose it were socially conventional for all little potted philosophy thought-experiments to have a faintly sentimental whiff about them. (Possibly because philosophy has somehow become associated with theories of the sentiments or because a number of famous philosophers happen to have also been sentimental poets or whatever you want to imagine.) It might be perfectly fair for these folks to say: this atmosphere isn’t really the point. The point is to get at what is essential, conceptually, about these cases. Still, the persistent, albeit exquisitely mild, sentimentality would, I think, have a constant, low-grade effect. Whimsy is a mood/tone that may genuinely affect your moral responses. You take things lightly. You are playful. It isn’t neutral, no more so than faint sentimentality (or nostalgia, or manliness, or whatever other mood you might, alternatively, evoke) would be. I think Bruce is getting at something like this with his ‘cruelty’ point. But I think ‘cruelty’ misstates it.

20

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 8:28 am

Oxbridge. Yes. Don’t know why I put the hyphen in there! I will let it stand, for posterity’s sake!

21

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 8:33 am

John, I’m definitely slower than I’d like to be thanks to my cold. I think that “callous” covers more of what concerns me than “cruelty” – a detachment from what’s up with actual people, and what would be up if we all went with principle X, and a lack of interest as well as empathy. Cruelty is an independent feature and not what’s bugging me at the moment, really.

22

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 8:38 am

Adam, I would add to your Rushdie point a point taken from Mark Twain’s short essay on how to tell a story. He says the difference between the American style and other styles – including the English – is that the American is more understated in a certain sense. Americans are the only ones, he says, who tell proper ‘humorous stories’.

http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/mtwain/bl-mtwain-howto.htm

“The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art–high and delicate art– and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story–understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print–was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.”

Anglo-American philosophy, in its steady bubble of silly thought-experiments, partakes of the genre of the humorous story. And Twain is obviously wrong that this is a peculiarly American phenomenon. At the very least, it is Platonic and Socratic. Socrates’ schtick – the whole goggle-eyed ‘gosh I don’t know what virtue is?’ mock-innocent attitude – is very much in line with Twain’s story-telling advice. This is actually sort of an important point, potentially.

23

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 8:55 am

I’ve been continuing to think about Medrawt’s comment, and it occurs to me to wonder about the following. This is pondering, not declaiming.

I’m going to guess that Nozick knew that phasers may well be impossible. But I wonder if ever thought about the point Medrawt brought up, that there is absolutely no real personal weapon or tool pressed into service as a weapon available in that kind of situation that could do the same thing. Given the tunnel and the situations of the three parties, saving oneself simply isn’t an option. One dies, with or without torture porn rendition of the scene.

I have the semi-recollection that past threads about trolley experiments and other forays into whimsy have run into kind of related problems, in that it turns out that something we’re supposed to accept as part of the setup doesn’t work. It may be impossible and the propounder seems not to know it. (There are ways of talking about impossible situations that make it clear one does.) Or it may be missing something important about how the thing’s done in reality, and it’s clear that the propounder doesn’t know that and thinks this element is realistic.

I think it’s important to have a basic bullshit filter on oneself. And I think it’s harder to do the farther any of us gets from what we know and what we think to check because we know we don’t know about it. And…okay, maybe other people don’t have this problem, but I know about myself that I’m less likely to stop and do that “but is this just bullshit?” check precisely when I’m really on a roll and feeling pleased and giddy with some good wit and like that. If I feel like I’m proceeding carefully and maybe not very enjoyably on something that I regard as important and want to get right, then checks of this kind fit in comfortably. They don’t when I’m having a grand old time and zipping cheerily.

As witness the zillion past threads right on this site where I’ve had to go “well, no, wait, let me back up…”

24

Zamfir 02.25.12 at 8:57 am

if the goal is to remove unnecessary frills and concentrate on the principle, why make a story in the first place? You can ask ‘ is it OK to kill an innocent, if someone else put you in a situation where you die if you don’t kill the innocent’, and leave out the phasers.

They are called intuition pumps relative to such questions, not relative to realistic scenarios. It’s a weird middle ground: people add a few details to make the abstract question more live-like, then vehemently insist that the added detail should not distract from the abstract principle.

25

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 8:58 am

John, invoking Twain is a good way to get me to go back to self-questioning, since I think that Twain’s kind of deadpan excess is very important in a well-rounded human life.

26

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.25.12 at 9:34 am

Silly examples may be useful. Not to pump intuitions or principles, but to discredit principles that are presumed to be universal.

27

Goody 02.25.12 at 10:21 am

‘If someone picks up a third party and throws him at you down at the bottom of a deep well, the third party is innocent and a threat; had he chosen to launch himself at you in that trajectory he would be an aggressor. Even though the falling person would survive his fall onto you, may you use your ray gun to disintegrate the falling body before it crushes and kills you? (p. 33-4)’

Just for clarity’s sake, I don’t think that this is a human shield case. The case is designed to make us think about the permissibility of taking self-defensive action against someone who is not intending the threat they cause us, and is not relevantly an agent at the time.

I don’t know how this can be likened to a human shield case, unless you are suggesting that to save your own life in a case where you a threatened by some aggressor, you must first kill their human shield, this shield being analogous to the innocent threat in Nozick’s example.

I don’t think this analogy holds, however, as there are some (I think) important differences between Nozick’s threat and an innocent shield. First, a human shield cannot be said to threaten you (vis-a-vis causal responsibility) and so the triggering conditions for a legitimate self-defensive action towards them do not exist; they are – relative to the threat – a bystander. Nozick’s threat, on the other hand, does cause a triggering condition of self- defensive action to exist, they threaten your life – albeit innocently – and so a discussion of whether we may kill them in self-defence must proceed differently in the two cases.

This is not to mention the fact that in such a case you would presumably have to kill two people to save your life, the innocent shield and the aggressor, which changes things completely. I would be very unwilling to argue that we have a clear right of self-defense in a case where there are two innocent shields, and think that the presence of even one entails the strong possibility that self-defensive action is not permissible. In Nozick’s case, on the other hand, it is a life for a life.

As such, I think that Nozick’s example is a valid one; he is using it to point out some important elements that may make a difference in self-defence. The example is designed to test our moral intuitions about the permissibility of self-defensive violence in various
cases, particularly about the importance of intention, culpability and agency. The use of ray gun is indeed a little silly, but the case could easily be designed without this, and the important moral elements would still be the same.

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John Quiggin 02.25.12 at 10:51 am

I’ve been complaining about both implausible intuition pumps and unnecessary bloodthirstiness since some time in the pre-Cambrian

http://johnquiggin.com/2003/05/29/economists-v-philosophers-round-v/
http://johnquiggin.com/2010/01/30/moral-philosophy-casuistry-and-the-ethics-of-organ-donation-crosspost-from-ct/

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Guido Nius 02.25.12 at 11:13 am

Imagine a country with what appeared to be a benevolent tyrant, let’s call it Syria.

Imagine a rebellion that shows the benevolent tyrant is in fact a fiendish one.

Imagine a civil war between rebels of all sorts and the tyrant who still possesses the vast majority of the instruments of the state.

Is it OK to leave the people of Syria to figure it out for themselves resulting in many an innocent death, or, is it more OK to go for some kind of intervention resulting in many an innocent death?

30

Chris Bertram 02.25.12 at 11:53 am

I think there’s (at least) two ways to look at this. Someone like Nozick really does quite a lot of intuiting of basic principles on the basis of thought experiments and then building from there to justify what, at the macro level (in his case), is (from my pov) a ghastly dystopian world as the morally-preferred one. Something has gone wrong somewhere. But think of it from the other end, as it were. We’ve got our grand macro vision and its generative principles (consequentialist, Rawlsian, whatever) but then we need to test them to see that they don’t generate absurd conclusions like “slavery is ok after all!” Thought experiments can help with that.

31

Alison P 02.25.12 at 11:58 am

A common implicit feature of these little stories is ‘let’s assume we know for certain that…’ (by doing x you will save y number of persons). I feel this leads to a set of ethical principles which would be useful in a Universe where you could know the outcomes of actions in that assured way. The little stories generate/endorse almost literally ‘alien’ moral principles which are not useful in our own universe. If you knew that torturing a terrorist would save a million people… If you knew that lynching an innocent man would save the town … but you never do know that.

BTW I recently read The Sisters Brothers and I think that’s an excellent modern example of deadpan Twain-alike humour. And in contrast to the little stories of philosophers, such humour seem to lead to compassion.

32

Mike Otsuka 02.25.12 at 1:11 pm

It may be easy to come up with more realistic cases “in which someone uses someone as a human shield “. But Nozick’s case of the well and the ray gun is not meant to be a case of this type. Rather, it’s meant to illustrate an innocent threat, which is, in Nancy Davis’s terminology (which is somewhat more helpful than Nozick’s own), a person ‘whose mere movements qua physical object or mere presence constitutes a threat to our life’. She calls such threats ‘passive threats’. Davis further explains that ‘what renders someone a passive threat is … his or her lack of agency: at least at the time of the attack, the person whose movements or presence poses a threat to someone’s life is not an agent, but (in the old terminology) a patient’. See Davis, ‘Abortion and Self-Defense’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13 (1984): 175-207, at 190.

Having written on this topic, I can testify that it is somewhat difficult to come up with realistic cases of innocent threats.

It is easier to come up with real cases of innocent aggressors, whose killing is intentional but fully excused (rather than justified). The tragic case of Brian Thomas is one such case, which would probably have been dismissed by philosophers who hate outlandish cases, had it been made up by someone like Nozick rather than being a true story:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/nov/20/brian-thomas-dream-strangler-tragedy

Nozick goes on, only after his well case, to introduce a case involving innocent human shields. His example involves “[i]nnocent persons strapped onto the front of the tanks of aggressors so that the tanks cannot be hit without also hitting them” (p. 35). This is not a far cry from actual cases: e.g., three Palestian teenagers who told the Guardian that they “were taken from home at gunpoint” by Israeli soldier and “made to kneel in front of Israeli tanks to deter Hamas fighters from firing”. (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/23/israel-gaza-war-crimes-guardian )

33

robotslave 02.25.12 at 1:23 pm

I endorse this “Occam’s Phaser” idea, because it is so obviously eating its own tail, and thus appeals tremendously to my perhaps overdeveloped sense of perversity.

An amusing phrase, referencing a whimsical story, without context? That I can hurl at internet opponents without bothering to provide argumentative support, as I do with “Slippery Slope” and “False Dilemma” and the rest of the brutally abused Zoo of Named Logical Fallacies? Especially if I don’t understand exactly what it means, or when or where it was originally meant to apply?

God yes, let’s do this.

34

Jim 02.25.12 at 1:39 pm

Chris Bertram,

I’ve read ASU as a reductio. Take Nozick’s view of rights as axiomatic. See where that view leads. Reject the position that you’ve been led to. Reject the axiom set that you began with.

35

Barry 02.25.12 at 1:45 pm

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 7:18 am

” But I think it’s significant that the whimsy so often points in the direction of callousness and cruelty, and so seldom in the direction of generosity or compassion or even the ranking of not-entirely-compatible good things.Whimsy doesn’t have to be mean, basically.”

Hmmmmmmmmm. Sounds like Econ 101 examples, where the goal is to justify particular policies.

36

John Holbo 02.25.12 at 1:46 pm

Mike Otsuka is probably right that I am glossing the case too quickly as a human shield case. I was thinking of something like an innocent people strapped to a tank that is firing at you case. Someone upthread mentioned that usually human shields, deployed against police, are cases of someone trying to get away from the police, not kill them. Fine, but you could easily imagine that the person is both using a human shield and attempting to kill a cop.

I probably wasn’t being totally fair to Nozick. Fair enough. But I think that’s ok because I wasn’t so determined to say that what he’s doing is wrong, even though I certainly was making fun of it. Nozick wasn’t my target but more an occasion to think about outlandish cases and their role. I think mostly it’s that these cases don’t trigger our sense of existing social norms. We have ideas about how soldiers and cops should behave. Those are known roles. We may not all agree about what those roles should be. The guy down the well with a phaser just doesn’t fit in with any role. We can’t slot him in anywhere, socially. So the function of the example is to pump out all intuitions that depend on slotting people in, socially, due to a prior conception of ‘my station and its duties’, maybe. What are the duties accruing to the station of phaser-armed well-dweller? I have no idea. This may have advantages but it also has disadvantages.

37

Michael E Sullivan 02.25.12 at 2:04 pm

Alison P, Zamfir and Medrawt have between them said pretty much exactly what my issue is with these little philosophical trolley questions.

The problem with Trolley problems is *NOT* that they are intuition less, but that they assume things in a ways that cannot happen in the real world. There is no such thing as a ray gun, a fat man cannot actually stop a train.

If you can’t come up with a plausible story in which your killing or other repugnant action really is the only feasible choice to save [yourself|innocents], and in which it really could be suggested to work, in our universe, with a very high degree of certainty, then you are, in fact asking us to make a moral judgement that isn’t valid in this universe.

38

Mike Huben 02.25.12 at 2:04 pm

This makes me think of Gerd Gigerenzer’s work on non-monotonic decision making heuristics.

These examples don’t illuminate general principles: they are misunderstood attempts to reverse-engineer the kludgy, low-information heuristics we actually use. The reason why the trolly-problem results can change so dramatically with slight changes to the problem is that non-monotonic decision making means that given the same data but reordered, some of the heuristics can give diffferent answers (because stopping rules are triggered before all the data is processed.)

Depending on slight changes of presentation, we can process the data from a problem in different orders, based on whether we are primed to recognize various characteristics of the problems sooner or later.

In this respect, much philosophy is starting with a completely incorrect model of how we actually think, and is on a fool’s errand.

39

Charles 02.25.12 at 2:25 pm

“I think the right answer is to pump out the intuitions with silly examples while being more explicit that this is the procedure. More truth in advertising what you are up to. Because you are trying to get clear, for intellectual purposes, from a tangle of ordinary attitudes that may need some examination. You are trying to solve for variables and place conventional moral responses in brackets. That’s all perfectly legitimate.”

John,

I disagree. What would be useful for actually navigating difficult moral situations would be to clarify the tangle of ordinary attitudes — and other emotional responses and various baggage we carry — that affect how we see and act morally. And to do that without pretending that it is possible or desirable to act utterly free of that baggage, or that it is desirable to generate our actions from principles that are so far removed from reality.

Besides making it harder to do this, turning to extremely abstract examples for guidance makes it easier to ignore empirical considerations which, at least intuitively (heh), would seem to be important. The Syria example at comment 29 is instructive. As soon as I see an example that’s closer to the real world we actually live in, I can’t help but think things like, “Huh, the last time something like that happened, it went like this…” I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

“The principles you arrive at won’t necessarily be bad and unrealistic unless you are willing to assume that all our messy ordinary responses, which are pretty obviously unprincipled in lots of ways, are necessarily just fine as they stand.”

I don’t see this. It is possible both that our messy ordinary unprincipled responses are mightily screwed up, and that the principles you’ll arrive at using this kind of procedure are horrible and worse. This is simply a false dichotomy. Again, I think that getting better at being moral has more to do with getting clear about what our messiness is (and possibly, gradually, trying to change it) and less to do with arriving at principles.

40

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 2:29 pm

Mike Otsuka: I hope this doesn’t come across sounding arch or rude, because I’m actually genuinely curious. If you have a really hard time constructing any sort of viable example of a category, why not say just that, and wonder if maybe it’s not all that important or relevant, and move on?

On the side, I would like to note that the CPAP, truly an amazing gift of applied science and technology, becomes a lot less enjoyable and useful if you sneeze a big sneeze into the face mask.

Mike Huben: That sounds interesting. Is there anything on the subject available on the web at short length that you’d recommend on the subject, or is it book-length/go-to-U-library stuff?

41

Michael E Sullivan 02.25.12 at 2:58 pm

Charles, I think you’ve got what can be useful about these sort of problems, which is to tease out the actual heuristics and thinking processes we tend to use in our non-deliberate decision making.

A marked difference in people’s responses to two problems that have slight differences which “shouldn’t” make a rational difference in our decision making, can provide clues to how our brains actually work, and what kind of errors and biases our messy wetware introduces.

It’s when we think that the legitimate answer to some massively contrived problem should somehow generalize to real world situations, that we can start to suggest alternate heuristics that are simply insane. Examples include consideration of 24 like scenarios leading not merely to some leniency towards punishing rogue uses of torture in the kind of very rare circumstances similar to these thought experiments, but instead to argue for systematic torture and abuse, as if we didn’t have a pile of evidence to suggest that it is not actually helpful on average.

There’s a reason we’ve involved heuristics that don’t intuitively think of killing someone to save ourselves or innocents as a moral solution. It balances one of the ways our brain works which has some severe drawbacks, which is that we satisfice solutions. Ok, vaporize the guy, I’m saved. Check. Good enough for me. But in real life, there is almost *always* a better solution. And it turns out to be a better equilibrium to bite it once in a while because you really can’t think of a better solution, than to be killing innocents willy nilly the 99.9999% of the time that another few second’s thought would give an alternate answer that has the potential to save both of you. And whether this is true really does depend on exactly how outlandish and unrealistic the thought experiment is.

42

Medrawt 02.25.12 at 3:26 pm

Incidentally, while I think there’s something sort of wrong and creepy about the Trolley Problem genre, my intention was less to discredit the possibility of these examples being useful, and more to provide a concrete instance of an individual (me, though there are clearly others in this thread) for whom this particular instrument just doesn’t work, and in fact has something close to the opposite of what I take to be the desired effect. (I’m not opposed to all fictional examples, even of a fantastical nature, but there’s something about the stubborn reality-bending of these famous examples that seems to both attract a certain type and repel a different type. I was introduced to the trolley scenarios in concert with something like “OK, now imagine instead that you’re a transplant surgeon…” and I think the latter example didn’t bother me nearly as much.) But ANYWAY, what I’m muddling towards saying is that my objection is a little less about the intrinsic correctness of the trolley problems and a little more about how there is a group of people such that the trolley problem is an ineffective, perhaps even a defective, teaching tool, and telling us we’re not thinking about it properly (I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in this thread, just remembering college) doesn’t get the job done either

The raygun example just literally does not operate on my mind the way Holbo suggests it’s supposed to, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t operate on Holbo’s mind in the intended fashion. The introduction of a man with a raygun doesn’t wipe my mind of preexisting real-world roles to which I’ve preassigned different duties and moral weights, it causes me to cycle through real world analogies and start trying to figure out if the duties accrued to a raygun-wielder are analogous to those accrued to a guy holding a more conventional weapon, and I have a nagging intuition (ugh!) that this isn’t the case. For my sensibility, fleshing out examples which are supposed to be utterly neutral is likely to distract me in the unwanted manner if the fleshing out is ill-considered, and I’d rather start with the skeleton. (i.e., is it acceptable to kill a person who is innocent but is nonetheless going to inadvertently kill you.) And then you can point out, perhaps, how different fleshes make me treat the skeleton differently, and can I justify that logically or do I need to cultivate a new attitude towards these problems? That may take longer than trying to startle me into satori, but the latter only works if you startle me the right way.

43

Goody 02.25.12 at 3:32 pm

In response to Mike Otsuka and Bruce Baugh, here is an attempt to construct an innocent threat case with some bearing on reality (and that, as far as I remember, happened – more or less – in Touching the Void).

There are a pair of climbers on a steep mountain face. They are tied together for safety, and are trapped in a storm. A snow bank gives way and climber 1 falls into a crevasse, ending up dangling 100ft below the other climber in the air. He begins to climb the rope using a specialist device, while climber 2 is left exposed on the mountain slope. Climber 2 knows that he has an hour at most to dig a snow cave before dying of exposure. He can feel, through tugging on the rope, that his friend is attempting to climb up, and knows, through the amount of rope paid out, that it will take a significant amount of time. He can only survive if he cuts the rope.

Climber 1 is an innocent threat; he is innocent qua the causal threat he poses to 2. He is thus analogous to the falling person in Nozick’s example.

However, this complex example, with its many necessary caveats and additions, points to the relevance of Otsuka/Nozick’s simpler examples: the issue at stake is the discussion of the permissibility of self-defence in a variety of cases. Many of these ultimately will have complex real world applications. To reach a moral consensus about such cases, however, it is necessary to strip away unnecessarily complex elements and deal with them simply first.

44

mdc 02.25.12 at 3:44 pm

What is the earliest philosophical use of an example/thought-experiment with a significant whimsy factor?

45

Manta1976 02.25.12 at 3:49 pm

2 observations
1) weren’t people discussing on this very forum, soem time ago, about German Costitutional court decision to forbid shooting down planes taken by terrirists? Would it have made a better example?
2) more generally, I think “silly” cases and reasoning from general principles work well in mathematics (Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, after all), but (may) fail badly in giving moral advice; the “reasons” are:
-logic reasoning is very anti-intuitive
-very small differences in the formulation of a problem can give very different answer
-reasoning by analogy does no work; heuristicss do not work
-natural language really sucks at expressing logical arguments.

46

Manta1976 02.25.12 at 3:58 pm

mdc: Zeno’s (ca. 490 – 430 BC) Achylles and the turtle comes to my mind.

47

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 4:12 pm

Goody: It happens that I have a life-long fascination with mountaineering and spelunking, so “Two climbers have fallen, and the one higher up cannot keep supporting the one lower down” is most of an example that is, for me, not just solid but related to real incidents I’ve read about. It’s exotic, but it’s something people have to deal with a few times each year and have for most of a century. There are other interesting real-world cases too – it turns out to arise for surfers working on particularly hard and/or large waves, as I was reminded when reading Susan Casey’s The Wave. (I never had the knees for surfing, but had high school friends who surfed, and some had been injured by others’ wipeouts.)

And then that leads me to think about disaster situations like earthquakes in areas with poor safety standards or poor enforcement of good ones, and so on. Again a thing that people are confronted with, so that one could go listen to them and compare what they did and what they think about it with various constructions.

48

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.25.12 at 4:21 pm

I don’t think the climber guy is innocent, in the same sense as the guy thrown into the well is, or even the violinist (assuming the violinist is unconscious). The climber guy is actually deliberately using you and killing you. In the movies a good climber guy in this situation will cut the rope himself. And if he doesn’t, then he’s a rotten bastard who deserves to die anyway.

49

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 4:26 pm

48 posts to get to something actually contemptible. Not bad.

Mdc: If you want to include them, there’s a fair amount of whimsy in Proverbs, and in Daoist teachings, off the top of my head, along with the excellent suggestion of Zeno.

50

christian_h 02.25.12 at 4:30 pm

It seems to me that one thing examples like this attempt to do is to isolate one variable, and transform a moral decision into a problem of binary logic (“you will survive if and only if you kill”). I don’t see, however, how this could lead to sound principles. After all variables are never isolated in real life, and the choice is never binary. So my problem is not that the example is unrealistic in the details – bring on the ray guns – but rather that it is not an example. In my opinion, morality always has to be holistic. Any attempt to break reality up into a collection of platonic ideal situations and reconstruct morality from these pieces is a fool’s errand.

51

Darryl 02.25.12 at 4:31 pm

The other problem with Occam’s Phaser is that it leaves you vulnerable to the Three-Year-Old Challenge, which is to say, holes in your story which can and will be challenged by a Three-Year-Old. To wit:

If you have a-a-a ray-ser gun, then why dont you SHOOT th’ first man BEFORE he throwed th’other man down on you?

At which point you then must explain that the first man is using a catapult to launch the second person at high arc (but no, not at such a high arc that he will be dead when he hits the bottom of the well) at some distance from the well. At which point you will have to explain why he is not just using big rocks. And while we’re thinking about it, if you have a disintegration-capable ray-gun in your position, couldn’t you just use that to tunnel your way out of the bottom of the well? Etc, etc. Who ARE these people, indeed?

52

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 4:39 pm

Christian H: But…we have to do some reducing. It’s literally impossible to take everything that might bear. If holism is necessary, then we are doomed to life without moral reasoning at all, because we can’t do it, and not just in the “we can’t fly on our own because we don’t have wings that could carry us” way. (The soundtrack for this post in Suzanne Vega’s “Language”.

53

Sebastian 02.25.12 at 4:40 pm

I know it is a dangerous example to bring into an internet discussion, but a paradigm real world example can be pregnancies where something has gone horribly wrong. The fetus is innocent, but causing a medical problem which will lead to the death of the mother. In such a case, abortion is not only a legitimate option, it is almost a moral necessity. And I say that as someone who is largely NOT pro-choice for [many] abortions. And even for very pro-life people, not only could the woman morally abort the child, a third party who is not even threatened himself (the abortion performing doctor) can abort the child.

Nearly everyone agrees with that case (I think less than 8% of people disagree, and that is well into kook territory) even though the number of people who think abortion should be banned generally is about 1/3, while the number of people in the US who think it should either be banned generally or restricted much more than it is now is about 2/3 of the population.

However, on the other side of the discussion, I can imagine why philosophers wouldn’t want to use abortion as their example case. It is such a hot button topic that it is likely to create confusion with the topic they want to discuss.

54

christian_h 02.25.12 at 4:45 pm

Bruce, I don’t see that at all. Of course we have to prioritize, and of course not being gods we can’t actually consider the totality of everything in decision making. What I mean by saying we need to be holistic is that in any real-life situation there are many “moral” problems that need to be addressed at one time, and not only do they interact (as in piece of a machine), they are constitutive of each other. Taking one of those problems out of this doesn’t merely make it a problem out of its context, it makes it an entirely different problem to the one resembling it in a real-life situation.

55

Keith K. 02.25.12 at 5:44 pm

But what if you’re at the bottom of a gravity well and a Klingon throws Scotty at you? Can you use your phaser then?

56

Bill Peteson 02.25.12 at 5:57 pm

The raygun problem is a ‘lifeboat’ problem not a human shield or mountain climber problem (brought up by Goody above).
The mountain climb problem is the choice between one dies or both die.

The lifeboat problem is:
the lifeboat is full
you will die if you don’t pull someone out and take their place in the lifeboat
they will die if you pull them out and take their place
is it acceptable to pull someone out of the lifeboat?

57

Hogan 02.25.12 at 6:13 pm

It’s really more a human sword case.

58

Random Lurker 02.25.12 at 6:40 pm

I have two observations:
1) I think that ethical judgements are always strongly influenced by culture: for example today most people agree that raping girls is bad, but for example ancient Romans and Greeks tought it was ok. Culture is something that evolved in a very long time through a lot of real world situations, so that when we judge through culture, in some sense we are using a condensed form of comparison per analogy to a lot of things that we don’t remember, but influenced our ancestors. This kind of “whimsy” examples are supposed to isolate the reader from the influence of known social roles but in fact this can’t happen because the judgement in itself is always rooted in culture, so that imho it just hides the cultural influences without removing them (in the example of the raygun it is implicit that you shouldn’t kill random people, but I think that many societies considered correct to kill random outsiders, so the example crumbles outside our cultural contest).

2) It seems to me that this kind of examples uses a binary logic (good/evil), while in reality we use a ternary logic of Good, Neutral and Evil like in D&D (killing random people>E; killing for self defence only>N; give the other cheek>G).

59

SB 02.25.12 at 8:07 pm

Here’s a question I have for those who doubt whether far out examples generate anything legitimate in an argument: What sort of examples are allowed.

For examples, I can think of these options:

(1) Things that a person claims actually occurred to him or her. ‘Real life’ examples from the philosopher’s life

(2) Examples from literature or movies.

(3) Bespoke examples that do not involve any science fiction or unreal elements.

Basically, if we hold too fast to these restrictions people are urging on us we lose both the Ring of Gyges and the Allegory of the Cave for a start. Definitely get rid of the dream argument.

Philosophy is deeply wedded to the fantastic example, as far as I can tell. So the more I think about it, the more I realize Occam’s Phaser is a fine principle and the only one that makes any sense because the degree of departure from realism has to be determined on a case by case basis.

60

Mike Otsuka 02.25.12 at 8:15 pm

Goody 02.25.12 at 10:21 am:

I see that, in this comment, you note that the well case involves an innocent threat rather than an innocent shield. You comment wasn’t displaying — probably stuck in the moderation queue — when I made the same point in mine at 1:11 pm.

Goody 02.25.12 at 3:32 pm

Regarding your climbers case, I think we’re in agreement that there are various respects in which it’s not a clear-cut case of an innocent threat.

Bruce Baugh 02.25.12 at 2:29 pm:

You write: “If you have a really hard time constructing any sort of viable example of a category, why not say just that, and wonder if maybe it’s not all that important or relevant, and move on?”

I’m actually not as bothered by this inability to construct a realistic case of an innocent threat as your question appears to assume. I think unrealistic cases can be illuminating and are often essential insofar as there is sometimes no other effective way to establish a moral claim. They need to be handled with care. But they are not nearly as problematic as most detractors claims.

One thing, however, that does bother me about unrealistic cases involving killing is something along the lines of a worry that I think you have been voicing above. The actual case of Brian Thomas, to which I link above, drove this home for me. Suppose, to take a couple cases from the philosophical literature, that we’re asked to imagine that we’re confronted by an innocent aggressor who is “moved by an uncharacteristic and overwhelming rage that has been induced by a powerful mind-altering drug that someone has slipped into her morning coffee” or who has been deceived by a “stunningly realistic holographic image of a pistol onto your hand”. (Here I’m quoting from a paper on self-defence that I wrote about 20 years ago.)

What these sorts of cases bring to mind are scenes from Hollywood thrillers. I think we become desensitized to the badness of killing when we start imagining ourselves as characters in a Hollywood film. (Or as players in a virtual reality video game who are armed with ray guns and the like.) Perhaps for this reason we’re more inclined than we should be to think it’s okay to kill these innocent threats and aggressors.

When we’re confronted with the details of an actual case of an innocent aggressor, such as the case of Brian Thomas, I think we become much more hesitant to affirm that it would have been justifiable (and not merely excusable) to kill such an innocent aggressor in self-defence. Here’s another account of this case:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/8364393.stm

61

Consumatopia 02.25.12 at 8:17 pm

I’m with Sullivan @37 & 41 (who was in turn with others).

I’ve heard complaints about Occam’s Razor that any claim that one explanation is simpler than another is a physical rather than a mathematical or logical claim. One can imagine a logically consistent universe in which the set of computable functions was different than the set we believe to be computable in our universe.

It’s not that hard to imagine that in such a universe, where epistemology would be nearly unrecognizable to us, that ethics would be as well. (I vaguely recall a CT thread considering whether it was possible to write fiction with alternate ethics analogous to the way some fiction involves alternate history or physics, but I can’t dig it up).

Ethical thought experiments, like physics thought experiments, are useful for clarifying theories. But imagining some situation in which an ethical principle looks like a bad idea doesn’t falsify that ethical principle anymore than Star Trek falsifies relativity.

Take a “Fail-Safe” like thought experiment* in which a leader has to kill millions of his own innocent countrymen to avoid the end of the world. Maybe most people in such a situation would make the sacrifice. It doesn’t follow from this that the U.S. government should make a formal policy indicating exactly what circumstances it should nuke New York City.

It doesn’t even follow that there’s an abstract utilitarian rule that it’s worth sacrificing a city to save a planet–maybe even contemplating such a rule makes us all colder, more paranoid people that would make the sort of accident portrayed in Fail-Safe that much more likely, in some sort of Newcomb’s Paradox sort of thing. (In which case I guess I owe the world quite an apology for bringing it up, but I think moral examples where you have to do thing X to innocents to placate an enemy threatening mega-deaths are more clarifying than cases where you do X to the enemy, and therefore “Fail-Safe” ought to be the standard fictional example rather than “24″.)

62

Consumatopia 02.25.12 at 8:19 pm

pardon the extraneous asterisk

63

uni 02.25.12 at 9:39 pm

John Holby: “I think mostly it’s that these cases don’t trigger our sense of existing social norms. We have ideas about how soldiers and cops should behave. Those are known roles. We may not all agree about what those roles should be. The guy down the well with a phaser just doesn’t fit in with any role.”

Social norms and often the output of political compromises over balancing of multiple relevant ethical factors. They reside in the logical space of all things considered norms.

Hypothetical cases often serve the purpose of getting clear on the normative properties of one factor. Get clear on the factor in isolation. Study how it interacts. Work back and forth on the long and winding road to reflective equilibrium.

64

Daniel 02.25.12 at 9:50 pm

Maybe this was already mentioned, but to clarify why a ray gun- if the body is not completely disintegrated the corpse will still kill the well dweller if he were to use a gun.

It is not analogous to the human shield example because you could also try to run away or surrender whereas the well dweller has only two options– an abortion to save the mother’s life is a more apt comparison.

And it is not analogous to the mountain climber example since the lower climber would die in either scenario (because the rope was cut or because the dead climber higher up can’t support the other one). In Nozick’s example, the falling third party would survive because the well dweller would break his fall.

This is not nitpicking but rather to point out that such thought experiments force us to consider the truly relevant details. They rely on certain conditions ( a ray gun e.g.) which, if they don’t hold in the real world force you to reconsider the principle. As a heuristic for delving into what we can be certain of and what conditions must obtain, they are helpful.

In the real world we are told torture/murder of one or a few will save many lives and with fewer details than a typical thought experiment or loaded with irrelevant details which serve only to distract. So if we are trying to arrive at universal principles maybe one important thing is to be able to separate the critical conditions from the red herrings and blind spots.

The risk with such scenarios is that they may used to bury the messiness of real life cases (as was mentioned in an earlier post), and the principle being promoted is spared such scrutiny.

65

Adrian Kelleher 02.25.12 at 10:41 pm

The plausibility, as opposed to the possibility, of any chosen example is of no relevance if the objective is to test an ethical or legal proposition. Neither is the framing of the problem — even in the case of an obvious set-up — so long as it’s logically consistent with more orthodox scenarios. Even seemingly absolute principles such as that against killing innocents can have exceptions as has been illustrated above. To resort to complaints that some example proposed is unfair somehow is a weak and indecisive response when all that’s required is to elaborate upon generally useful ideas rather than their complete rejection.

The notorious ticking time-bomb scenario (which the TV series 24 has frighteningly embedded in the minds of an entire generation) is a case in point. The example is artificial but that’s not an especially compelling objection to raise. It’s more forceful to point out that torture could not be licensed for that specific circumstance. Someone would moreover be required to judge both the criticality of the threat and the certainty of the suspect’s guilt, and the circumstances specifically defined by the person posing the problem are so time critical as to preclude judicial or democratic involvement. It therefore amounts to a requirement that officers of the state be licensed to torture at their own discretion. Moving from practical to ethical considerations, it is then reasonable to ask what morally separates the authority claiming just powers of trial and punishment from the imaginary bombers if its use of violence and intimidation is distinguished solely by criteria of power and convenience.

More challenging is Zeno’s paradox. A greyhound races a snail, confidently offering it a 10m head start in a 100m race. By the time the greyhound has covered the 10m, the snail has moved on. By the time the greyhound has further travelled the distance the snail passed on the previous iteration, the snail will have moved on once more. As both are in continuous motion it doesn’t matter how many cycles are carried out; the greyhound can neither overtake nor catch the snail.

The clue here is the iterative formulation of the problem. It is a time-limited series that only covers a tiny fraction of an instant longer than the time required for the greyhound to run 10 yards. Each iteration is much briefer than the previous one and an infinity of such cycles lasts only moments. This is provable using calculus which is in turn founded on logic, but calculus was unknown to the Greeks.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.25.12 at 10:55 pm

(More particularly…)

Rick Santorum is not generally popular around these parts, but suppose Santorum’s stock were to fall even lower. Suppose his detractors were to then secure both the presidency and the necessary congressional majorities required to alter the constitution. They might then make being Rick Santorum an offense punishable by death — let’s say an especially gruesome death for argument’s sake.

The US constitution provides for mechanisms by which it may itself be altered using purely majoritarian methods so this is legally imaginable. Even if some individual felt it to be not worth challenging the country’s democratic foundation for Rick Santorum alone, it is always possible to imagine even worse scenarios up to a point where 50.0001% vote to wipe out the remaining 49.9999%. This would justify violent resistance in the minds of most, yet it would be resistance that was both illegal and anti-democratic.

While this must seem like the most artificial of examples, it is worth noting that German judges were punished after WWII precisely for acting as the instruments of unjust laws. Majoritarian tyranny is furthermore hardly unknown even in democracies, the ante-bellum South being a case in point, so the scenario is implausible only by degree.

There is in fact a historical example from Ireland quite similar to Santorum’s hypothetical treatment. During WWII an IRA member called George Plant was tried for murder. At his trial, a key piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible by the judge on procedural grounds.

Eamon De Valera, the prime minister, then used his parliamentary majority to create a new kind of court where the evidence would be admissible, a military tribunal that would convene in secret and which could only pass one sentence: death. Without regard for double jeopardy, Plant was tried for a second time in this new court and convicted. In effect voted to death, he was subsequently executed by firing squad.

Kundera quotes Dostoevsky as writing that for a man of vision there is no law, a judgement made law itself in the case of the Nazi judges. In a democracy, such a proposition is dramatic and even frightening, but complaints about unfair or unlikely situations are of little use when the unfair or unlikely becomes the reality.

Either the concept of universal ethical principles must be abandoned or responsibility must be accepted for situations that arise. Johann Elser felt he knew the answer in the case of Hitler. Plant’s case, involving an otherwise reasonably functional democracy, is more difficult but both examples have one thing in common: they ultimately force responsibility on the individual without the consolation of either legal or popular legitimacy.

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Consumatopia 02.25.12 at 11:11 pm

The example is artificial but that’s not an especially compelling objection to raise. It’s more forceful to point out that torture could not be licensed for that specific circumstance.

This is universally true–when you decide to hold ethical proposition or enact any law, you cannot stop that decision from having effects in circumstances other than the specific case you’re thinking of. The good that your rule would do in the new circumstance must be weighed against the harm that would be done in other circumstance. This weighing inevitably involves some judgment of plausibility–if not probability and expected value.

I wouldn’t say it’s indecisive or weak to object to implausible examples, it’s lazy and suspicious to fail to cite better examples.

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Medrawt 02.26.12 at 12:03 am

The plausibility, as opposed to the possibility, of any chosen example is of no relevance if the objective is to test an ethical or legal proposition. Neither is the framing of the problem—even in the case of an obvious set-up—so long as it’s logically consistent with more orthodox scenarios.

But that “so long as” is doing a lot of heavy lifting, no? In my opinion an example is a failure for a given reader if that reader is distracted by trying to work out whether it is in fact logically consistent with more orthodox scenarios. As I was by the well/raygun, which I ultimately think is a poor attempt to model something that might happen in real life. (Plus one of the exceptions some of us take is how often the implausible seems to shade into the impossible w/r/t trolleys and rayguns.)

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 12:08 am

@Consumatopia

The artificiality is designed exactly to frustrate the adversary. It’s reasonable to point that out, but restricting the objection to the unfairness of it all is pretty much what someone posing that kind of example has in mind.

The mental prison the scenario constructs is unsound, however. It’s a straightforward matter to escape it and highlight its horrible implications so long as the mistake of playing the other guy’s game is avoided. It’s frightening that law students at a top university were incapable of doing this, as reported in the linked article.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 12:23 am

@Medrawt

If the activity is to have any practical implications then it doesn’t matter even if the problem is bizarrely cast if other reasonable examples exist that are logically equivalent. Preparation should always be aimed at addressing the strongest forms of a given argument instead of the weakest.

So long as it’s thought that the whole undertaking might have any applications in the real world — and if not then it’s just a waste of time anyway — then the assumption must be that the most challenging case will be the one that arises in actuality.

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 1:18 am

Nobody here, or as far as I can tell anywhere else, is objecting to any sort of unfairness.

I argued @67 that this sentence was false, not unfair: “The plausibility, as opposed to the possibility, of any chosen example is of no relevance if the objective is to test an ethical or legal proposition.” Basically, any discussion of the practical results of a rule can’t avoid discussing which results are plausible and which results are not plausible.

Also, I universalize my ethical principles across all people in the actual world, not all possible persons in all possible worlds.

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Medrawt 02.26.12 at 1:23 am

Adrian Kelleher -

But in trying to hue close to what I took to be Holbo’s intent with the original post, I’ve attempted to restrict my comments to the issue of whether these examples are effective as a method of provoking people’s thoughts in a fruitful direection. And as some people (including me) have attested in this thread, they’re not effective for everyone. This is a separate issue from whether they can be used to logically achieve the ends for which they’re intended; I think that when constructed properly they clearly can.

Look – I think it’s vanishingly unlikely that I will ever find myself in a circumstance where a completely innocent person is going to cause my death unless I cause theirs first. In its least flexible terms, it’s vanishingly unlikely that anyone ever will. But: I think in such a circumstance it would be ok to do so. Fire the raygun, if you will. I already thought that beforehand. But the example doesn’t make me realize this, or strengthen my resolve, or whatever. Instead, I think about how firing a disintegrating ray is going to have drastically different effects than firing a bullet. I suspect that a fall long enough that my death is guaranteed as a consequence of serving as a cushion is also going to kill the person falling; I’m fat, but nobody’s THAT fat. (So I’d be an idiot not to fire the ray, because “realistically” the person is going to die anyway. Unless they’re wearing a suit from Starship Troopers.) If I can’t receive the example in the spirit with which it was intended, then it doesn’t work (for me).

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John Holbo 02.26.12 at 1:24 am

“Maybe this was already mentioned, but to clarify why a ray gun- if the body is not completely disintegrated the corpse will still kill the well dweller if he were to use a gun.

It is not analogous to the human shield example because you could also try to run away or surrender whereas the well dweller has only two options—an abortion to save the mother’s life is a more apt comparison.”

I think we all understand – I was taking it for granted – that the nominal point of the well is to keep you locked in position and the point of the zap gun is to keep the body from killing you by disintegrating it. Nevertheless, the fact remains: the example is conspicuously bizarre. The question is: should examples be conspicuously bizarre?

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 2:15 am

John, is there anyway I could still read the essay you were writing here: http://crookedtimber.org/2011/03/25/moralitytales/ ?

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chris 02.26.12 at 3:26 am

Nevertheless, the fact remains: the example is conspicuously bizarre. The question is: should examples be conspicuously bizarre?

I think they need to be conspicuously bizarre in order to serve their purpose. The analogy between this example and a pregnancy with serious medical complications has already been pointed out, but if you just ask about the pregnancy with medical complications, you’ll very likely get someone’s preconceived answer about abortion with little if any thought about the principles underlying that answer. Assuming, of course, that there are any such principles and not just a repetition of whatever answer is conventional in the answerer’s social circle. (Let’s not get into the reasons repetitions of the conventionally accepted answer rather than constantly reinventing the wheel might actually be a useful heuristic, most of the time…)

That’s the point of the conspicuous bizarreness: to force you back to first principles, which is definitely not the normal way of thinking about normal situations. The ray gun example itself doesn’t even really need the ray gun; you can just make the well wide enough to dodge, but if you dodge, the falling person dies because you don’t break his fall. That’s enough to make it you or him, but not either of your fault in particular, which is all the example really requires.

But if the answer you come up with when thinking about the ray gun is *different* than the answer you recite by rote when asked about the abortion (or even dodging)… then the contrived example may be worthwhile after all.

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David Hobby 02.26.12 at 4:28 am

It seems to me that this could just as well be a trolley problem.

“Dr. Evil has chained you to the tracks, drugged an innocent tourist, put them in a trolley, and sent it hurtling towards you. You can reach the controls for a switch in the tracks, and have a choice. You can leave the switch as it is, and the trolley will crush you but the tourist will live. Or you can turn the switch, in which case the trolley will turn aside, go over a cliff and crash. Then you will live, but the tourist will certainly die. What is the right action?”

I see the Trolley Problems as similar to Polya’s urn schemes in mathematics. A lot of ethical decision problems can be cast as trolley problems, so it’s customary to do so.

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greg 02.26.12 at 4:43 am

Examples should be as bizarre as necessary. No more.

However, to paint it as a sound principle is to take it too seriously. The creating mind should delight in its creations. Deeper waters may be plumbed than if the mind was limited by narrow intention.

But bizarreness, while it fixates in the mind, and may dislodge a few preconceptions, detracts from its perceived applicability.

Take our well and the ray-gun. This is just a special case. Instead of ray-gun, assume a deflector gun, which will deflect the falling body, (popping it back out of the well,) while inflicting damage on the innocent person with a certain probability and which may include death. Even if you reject shooting the innocent with the ray-gun, (certainly killing him,) do you reject shooting him with the deflector gun if the probability of his death is say, something around 33%? Where do you change your mind? And how will you plead if he does die? We may further generalize to the effect that the falling body may only kill you with a certain probability…

I actually made this choice, when I chose a college deferment during the Vietnam draft. I pulled my deflector gun and shot, and someone else went to Vietnam instead of me. (Or my number may have been too high, anyway. But I still shot.)

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TGGP 02.26.12 at 5:10 am

There is a point in between anarcho-capitalism (which Murray Rothbard advocated and Nozick was specifically inspired by) and the minarchism Nozick winds up advocating: the remedial state.

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between4walls 02.26.12 at 6:01 am

I always wonder whether answers to these questions would change if the “you” in the question were the falling person/fat man/violinist instead of the guy doing the potential pushing or shooting or disconnecting.

Or if there weren’t a “should you” at all, but merely “should one”.

As to the example at hand, while one may shoot the falling man, one shouldn’t. I don’t see how this example forces one back to first principles more than framing it in terms of first principles, eg “Should one sacrifice an innocent person to preserve one’s own life?”

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 10:26 am

@Consumatopia

See e.g. 1, 31, 37 for objections to assumptions.

Regarding scenarios judged implausible, first of all assessing the probability of a given event will often be an involved argument in itself. Often no answer will calculable, meaning that judgement of plausibility merely opens up an avenue of criticism for no advantage. The only class of exception is of the monkeys-bashing-on-typewriters variety where the probability of occurance is both calculable and likely only over timescales very much greater than the age of the universe, a minor category.

More fundamentally, something is either possible or not. If propositions tested are only contingently correct then by definition the whole project of deriving universal principles — the entire object of the exercise — has already been abandoned.

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Charles 02.26.12 at 1:32 pm

greg,

Neither the ray gun example nor the deflector gun example model your case. They omit important details such as what you might have spent time doing in Vietnam, not to mention how you (or the person who may have gone in your place) might have felt about it, the trauma you might have suffered whether or not you’d survived, your suitability for what you’d have been doing, etc.

The point here is not that you haven’t managed to come up with a good example, or that the ray gun or deflector examples don’t model your case. The point is that they don’t model any case at all. They take out almost everything that makes a real moral situation into a real moral situation, and then ask you to come up with a principle which applies in real moral situations.

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Charles 02.26.12 at 1:42 pm

To (hopefully) clarify what I wrote in my previous post:

Absurd examples remove everything “messy” from (hypothetical) moral situations, to get at the supposed essence of real moral decision-making. All I’m claiming is that messiness doesn’t get in the way of seeing the essence of real moral decision-making but is in fact inseparable from it. Therefore overly-abstracted examples are a liability; they make good moral thinking more difficult. They make it harder to understand how and why we do what we do, and they breed principles that don’t apply to real moral situations.

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Mike Huben 02.26.12 at 2:47 pm

Bruce Baugh @ 40:
The book I’ve read on the subject is:

Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group (1999). Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514381-7

The idea that trolley problems are a class of problems solved by such heuristics is my own speculation.

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Matt McIrvin 02.26.12 at 2:50 pm

Or instead of a deflector gun, suppose you have the opportunity to step out of the way, which completely avoids injury to yourself while guaranteeing death for the falling person because you’re not there to act as a cushion. This version involves no fantastical ray gun whatsoever, but I suppose it changes the terms somewhat because getting out of the way doesn’t seem like an attack on the human projectile, and it’s something that most people would do automatically if they had the chance. (And we’re still assuming you know some difficult-to-know things about the probability of death.)

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Matt McIrvin 02.26.12 at 2:54 pm

The analogy between this example and a pregnancy with serious medical complications has already been pointed out, but if you just ask about the pregnancy with medical complications, you’ll very likely get someone’s preconceived answer about abortion with little if any thought about the principles underlying that answer.

Indeed, I sort of assumed that the point of the whole discussion in the original book was to shed some light on a debate about abortion using an example that didn’t involve abortion (like Thomson’s violinist). The question is whether or not this actually does any good.

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 4:00 pm

@Adrian Kelleher, 1 and 37 are objections to vacuousness, 35 is an objection to callousness. Vacuousness has nothing remotely to do with “unfairness”, and callousness isn’t quite the same thing either. Of course, some assumptions are objectionable in ways that make conclusions derived from them useless (not unfair).

Whether you like it or not, any discussion of practicality, such as part of your argument @65, depends upon assumptions about plausibility, because any discussion of the practical results of a rule can’t avoid discussing which results are plausible and which results are not plausible.

If propositions tested are only contingently correct then by definition the whole project of deriving universal principles—the entire object of the exercise—has already been abandoned.

Universal across what? Across all living persons? All persons who ever live? Across all physically possible persons? All logically possible persons? All but the last of those are “contingent”. It may be the object of the exercise for you but I would be quite satisfied with the second or third, and have doubts that the fourth is actually meaningful.

The very question “is it wrong to torture people to save people’s lives?” is inherently contingent–a universe in which physics and probability worked differently than ours would have different concepts of “person”, “life” and “torture”. And that’s assuming it has the same concept of “wrong”.

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TB 02.26.12 at 4:31 pm

The whole line of inquiry here is bizarre: it’s really an analysis of why analytical philosophers are such bad writers without just coming out and saying so.

I mean that even the standard jargon here sucks. “Intuition pump” is a remarkably ugly turn of phrase. It’s a bad metaphor. And yet here’s everybody using it as if it’s not Vogon poetry.

I guess it’s okay to carry out a typology of bad writing, and maybe labeling one type of it ‘whimsical’ is a fine way to make all concerned feel a bit better about the whole business, but I think you’d be better off framing things more severely.

Analytic philosophy is aesthetically repugnant. Analytic philosophers cannot write well. How come? How did things get to be this way?

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Bruce Baugh 02.26.12 at 4:45 pm

Much obliged, Mike. *adds it to the queue*

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gkn 02.26.12 at 5:39 pm

Actually, the abortion to save the mother scenario is not the same as the well+ray gun. If the baby cannot survive the mothers death, then allowing the pregnancy to kill the mother kills them both. If the baby would survive the mother’s death, why abort it instead of an early delivery which would end the pregnancy just as well?

It’s the climber scenario and yet we don’t endlessly debate whether climbers should have the right to cut the rope. Charles is right that our social norms cannot be divorced from our moral decisions.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 6:07 pm

@Consumatopia

Nowhere was it suggested that all discussion of likelihood be avoided. It’s still true by definition that a contingent statement is only true in certain circumstances. Unless some objection in principle can be raised in a given circumstance — quantum uncertainty, incomplete knowledge, possible deceit etc. — there’s simply no good reason for ignoring imaginable circumstances.

Your last two paragraphs border on gibberish. Probability is not real — it is a perfect, imagined, mathematical construct. Like all mathematics, all probabilistic statements are either true by definition or are inescapable logical consequences of the axioms. Probability cannot function differently in a different universe because it’s not real in any universe.

Likewise, the concept of “wrong” is not — so far as is testable — a quality of physical reality here or in any other imaginary reality. Like with all dialectics the object of Nozick’s exercise, whatever its merits, is to test the implications of propositions. Any axiomatic propositions that might act as starting points must be assumed — a basic fact of all logic. This is true however you define “person”, “life”, “torture” or whatever terms you like to mention.

It’s not very productive to speculate about alternative realities, however “universal” is also a logical quantifier in this context, meaning true across all implications of the axioms, however defined and be they modeled somehow on reality or wholly imaginary. You claim that some implications of the axioms, that’s to say some possibilities, should be ignored on probabilistic grounds but there is simply no good reason in logic to do so. A general solution provides more information than a contingent one and is preferable in a mathematically provable way.

To argue that some events are more plausible than others while simultaneously asserting the contingency of probability is itself an improbable line of argumentation. It has the merit of originality, but not that of consistency.

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Salient 02.26.12 at 7:15 pm

I tried to write the following without impugning anyone

I think they need to be conspicuously bizarre in order to serve their purpose.

True, but their purpose IMO is to trick my audience into affirming something they don’t actually believe, by disarming them of their sense of place in the social world and depriving them of their right to make reasonable assumptions about context and environment.

All of these types of problems assert certainty. That’s possibly the most aggressive thing that one finds regularly in works of philosophy. If I tell you that you’re certain of something, even in a story, I am taking control of your mind and your personality, I am enforcing a rule that prohibits you from being you. Uncertainty is the fundamental condition of individual humanity, and to deprive someone of their uncertainties is to rob them of their personhood.

To make this clearer and hopefully a bit more convincing, consider an example such as, Dear convention of atheists, I propose the following thought experiment: suppose you live in a universe governed by a God and you are certain He exists and is fundamentally good, [...] would it be immoral to disobey His commandments, even if you found some of them disagreeable?

The utility of this act is not its propensity to get at ‘something deeper,’ it’s to incapacitate and subjugate my audience, so that I can replace their intuitions with mine. Have you ever seen a trolley/whimsy-category problem for which the default answer intended by the author was not patently clear from a single read-through? I haven’t. It’s baked into the cake.

If this rhetorical method doesn’t result in 100% agreement with the conclusion I’m trying to con the audience into, it’s probably because some folks are refusing to play along, refusing to give up their uncertainty. (And, since I’ve built my trolley-category example in order to make their positions look awful and unseemly, I admittedly think they’re rather brave for doing so.)

I think a good broad counter-argument to trolley-type analysis would be, people have a fundamental right to not be placed in phenomenally weird situations that they cannot imagine themselves being in without a loss of autonomy or sense of self; ergo, we are perfectly justified relaxing our judgment of persons in those situations, so that we may accept and forgive whatever responses they choose, even if we would find similar choices repugnant and worthy of condemnation in the allegedly comparable situation we were trying to discuss before you started pulling one over on me.

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Substance McGravitas 02.26.12 at 7:26 pm

Why not foxes and crows and lions and crocodiles instead of people?

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Anderson 02.26.12 at 7:33 pm

91 comments and no mention of Parfit, in a thread about whimsical philosophical thought-experiments?

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 8:31 pm

@Adrian Kelleher, it is amusing to hear you lecture anyone on coherence.

All statements of practicality must be contingent–there is no statement about what would be a practical action that would hold true in all imaginable circumstances. The conclusions of any system of ethics that depends on practicality must be contingent. If you demand to escape contingency, you must abandon practicality–in which case, the argument against torture, or against anything else, becomes trivial (proving that particular system of ethical axioms forbids a specific action may be difficult, but finding a system of ethical axioms that forbids any particular ethical action is easy, and without reference to anything contingent or practical there is no reason to prefer any set of ethical axioms to any other.)

There are axiomatic systems of probability, but they’re only worth thinking about insofar as they describe likelihood, frequency or something else in a particular world of interest to us.

Likewise, the concept of “wrong” is not—so far as is testable—a quality of physical reality here or in any other imaginary reality.

I don’t think we understand enough about other realities to make such a claim, but I already granted the assumption that they have the same concept of “wrong” that we do.

Like with all dialectics the object of Nozick’s exercise, whatever its merits, is to test the implications of propositions.

Nozick didn’t care whether his propositions were actually true, but only cared about the implications of them? In any event, I consider the thread to be about ethical examples generally, not those of Nozick in particular. Just because a belief has false implications in some imaginary world doesn’t mean that it is false in this world.

It’s not very productive to speculate about alternative realities

And that’s what these contrived ethical examples are–alternative realities.

however “universal” is also a logical quantifier in this context, meaning true across all implications of the axioms, however defined and be they modeled somehow on reality or wholly imaginary.

Not very many people used the term “universal” here, but I don’t think that actually is the context. You can play all the word games you want, but I don’t care whether my ethical system applies to all logically possible worlds, and no one here has provided any good reason why we should care at all. (I may look at those possible worlds to clarify my theories, but not to test them.) “By definition” is never a good reason to do anything–that’s just the historical contingency of etymology.

A general solution provides more information than a contingent one and is preferable in a mathematically provable way.

“General” is a different word than “universal”. That you just would just throw in a different word like that suggests that not as much hinges on the specific definition of the word as you would think it does. I would like my solution to be as general across as much of this world as possible. But I won’t abandon the rule that best describes this world because it fails to describe some imaginary worlds.

To argue that some events are more plausible than others while simultaneously asserting the contingency of probability

Plausible in this particular contingent world, not somehow “necessarily” plausible.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 9:18 pm

@Consumatopia

I kind of took observable physical reality as read from the get go — it was you who started introducing imaginary realities. Either way, any system of law, be it physical, ethical or legal, consists of a set of axioms. All possibilities of (or anything imaginable within) the system are implicit in the axioms in that they’re derivable from them — the axioms ultimately and solely determine the possibilities.

Your claim is (without further elaboration) that certain circumstances, claimed without reference to any specific evidence or example to be implausible, can be neglected. There’s simply no reason to do so where solutions exist covering all contingencies. A solution that is valid both when a certain contingency is valid and when not yields more information than an otherwise identical solution that only holds when that contingency is valid or not. Yet again by definition, the former is the general case and the latter a particular one.

These aren’t claims of Kantian sophistication exactly — they’re about as basic as is imaginable.

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greg 02.26.12 at 9:30 pm

Charles @ 82

A model is necessarily a simplification, leaving out (hopefully unnecessary and mostly irrelevant) details.

Models are unavoidable. We think with models. Never do we analyze a situation out to its last degree, which is infinity, because we simply do not have the time and energy to do so. We simply cannot.

Eventually we always settle back on what we have, which is a model to some degree of accuracy of the real situation, and make our decision. The messy residue we leave to intuition, or feelings, which is really probably preconception or habit.

Our perceptions, and conceptions, of the world are models, and not the reality. It’s just the way the brain works, and has to work. ( See: http://www.truthabouttheone.com/2010.08.01_arch.html for a brief discussion from a somewhat theological point of view.)

Granted, the brightly colored toy models of moral philosophy you decry are often so simplified as to be irrelevant to real world decisions.

But I submit the deflector gun tale is precisely what a model is, and to some degree of accuracy, reflects the situation I was in. The model did not inform my decision. But what I, or the person ‘deflected,’ might have done in Vietnam, how we might have felt, and all the rest, are not excluded by the model, they are the messy details I did not give much thought to. Basically my thinking was it was a nasty war in a nasty place, and I did not want to go. The deflector gun model, in this case, is more informed than my thinking was, which, at the time, slid over the annoying detail that someone would be put in harm’s way in my place, by my choice of action.

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 11:15 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

Hypothetical examples involving rayguns are imaginary realities, and I certainly didn’t introduce them. See 6 and others.

Declaring a system of ethical axioms to be true does not mean that I am declaring it to be true in all possible worlds. If I build an axiomatic system describing relativity and assert that this system correctly describes reality, you haven’t falsified my claim by citing Star Trek or any other possible world in which the conclusions of my system don’t describe the world.

Your claim is (without further elaboration) that certain circumstances, claimed without reference to any specific evidence or example to be implausible, can be neglected.

No. I can’t really see where you would get this. Sorry.

There’s simply no reason to do so where solutions exist covering all contingencies. A solution that is valid both when a certain contingency is valid and when not yields more information than an otherwise identical solution that only holds when that contingency is valid or not.

I haven’t seen any argument between two different theories that imply exactly the same results across all situations in the entire actual universe, but different things in possible worlds. Generally, when you have competing theories, each is more compatible with our intuitions in different subsets of all possible worlds.

Maybe we’d like to say a theory that holds in “more” possible worlds than the other, but unfortunately there’s no such concept. In the actual world, we can make a claim like “this set of circumstances is more likely to happen (or happens more frequently) that that set”. We can’t make any such claim about all possible worlds.

Simply put, I don’t count possible worlds because possible worlds aren’t countable.

These aren’t claims of Kantian sophistication exactly

Don’t get ahead of yourself. Learn to walk before you run. You’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re still trying, and that’s the first step.

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Consumatopia 02.26.12 at 11:41 pm

Your claim is (without further elaboration) that certain circumstances, claimed without reference to any specific evidence or example to be implausible, can be neglected.

Okay, thinking again I see your misunderstanding. When I’m considering refutations, it’s not that I rule out implausible ones, it’s that possibility isn’t sufficient to refute a theory. If my theory badly fits a particular circumstance, you need to show something more than that the circumstance holds in some possible world–I never claimed my theory applied to all possible worlds.

It’s not I’m seeing some refutations and saying “unfair!” It’s that the refutations themselves are incomplete.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.26.12 at 11:44 pm

@Consumatopia

Multiple examples imaginable in this reality and logically equivalent to Nozick’s scenario have been provided — e.g. 32.

I’m at a complete loss as to the relevance of anything else you’ve written above. My previous post concerned the most elementary foundations of mathematics and logic. I’ve no interest whatsoever in imaginary realities, a topic introduced by you and strangely to which you now object to at length. Complaints were made about the ticking bomb example and you yourself introduced the Fail Safe scenario, both readily imaginable in the real world.

My contention is that if a scenario is imaginable (let’s say in physical reality, something I’m generally accustomed to assuming) then, however unlikely, it may prove sufficient to falsify a proposition. A proposition valid in all eventualities is preferable.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 12:44 am

I don’t necessarily object to Nozick’s scenario. I don’t necessarily object to imaginary scenarios, I object to the way some people use them. I don’t know how Nozick uses it.

Stop claiming I introduced imaginary realities. Ray guns. What more can I say?

I introduced the Fail Safe scenario to point out that it wasn’t sufficient to invalidate a general moral rule against a president annihilating one of his own cities. It would be stupid to write an exception into the law that determines exactly when a president should and shouldn’t annihilate New York City.

To put it another way, I can consistently say both “the U.S. president should never nuke New York City”, and “Henry Fonda’s character made the right decision in that film”. The first statement represents both a normative and an empirical claim–that any actual U.S. president will never find himself in a situation in which it would be the right thing to do to nuke New York City. If an actual U.S. president found himself in that situation, that would falsify the statement. But the mere existence of the film, novel, or thought experiment does not.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 1:38 am

@Consumatopia

You brought up “a universe in which physics and probability worked differently than ours”. As for the rest, “the exception that proves the rule” is not the sort of argument that would impress Cantor or Gödel.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 1:50 am

@Adrian Kelleher

Like a universe that has ray guns, for example?

“the exception that proves the rule”–accurately restating other people’s words doesn’t seem to be in your skill set. At no point did you ever succeed in pointing out a genuine mistake made by anyone else.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 12:32 pm

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 1:07 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

I wish I could read the third paragraph of Medrawt@6 to you personally (because you won’t read things by yourself) so I could see the look on your face as it dawns on you how stupid you’ve been here.

A laser does not remove its target from physical existence.

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ajay 02.27.12 at 3:15 pm

“Dear convention of atheists, I propose the following thought experiment: suppose you live in a universe governed by a God and you are certain He exists and is fundamentally good, [...] would it be immoral to disobey His commandments, even if you found some of them disagreeable?”

I don’t know about immoral, but it would certainly be unwise.

Actually, therefore, it wouldn’t be immoral at all. If you are certain God exists, then his commandments are essentially the dictates of an omnipotent being with the power to condemn you to eternal suffering. Therefore any action you take is taken under compulsion and cannot be immoral. Even if it’s “butcher all the Amalekites” – if you do it you are condemning several thousand people to brief pain followed by (in most cases, God being good) eternal happiness in heaven. Refuse, and you are condemning one person (yourself) to eternal agony. Ethically, you have no option but to do the whole village.

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ajay 02.27.12 at 3:19 pm

“A laser does not remove its target from physical existence.”

Hit a human body with a 10 MW beam for two seconds and you’ll boil it to vapour. That would count.

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OCS 02.27.12 at 4:58 pm

I always thought that the very artificiality of these sorts of thought experiments is what makes them useful. They are a way to try to isolate exactly what factors are nudging our moral intuitions one way or another, and then to use those results to understand (or build) broader real-world principles.

It’s been awhile, but one of the results I seem to recall is that people are more willing to allow a result to occur than they are to take an action that gives the same result — if the trolley is going to kill one hiker on the tracks but four will be saved, they’ll let it happen, but often won’t pull the switch that would direct the trolley onto the siding with one hiker rather than the track with four hikers. And of those who will pull the switch, many aren’t willing to push a bystander onto the tracks to save the four. Why?

(I’d bet that in the ray gun example above, many people would find an intuitive difference between zapping the falling man with the ray gun and simply stepping out of the way, even though the intent (save my life) and the result (the other guy dies) are the same. Regardless of whether we’d do it in the actual situation, zapping raises ethical qualms, stepping to the side raises none. Maybe that’s just me).

Untangling these intuitions is supposed to give us better insights into our moral judgments, in the same way that a lab physics experiment leads to better understanding of physics, even thought it “unrealistically” isolates just one variable.

I think it’s interesting that the artificiality of the endeavor puts some people off, however. I’m reminded of an annoyed letter to the editor of the local paper from a transit worker, complaining that the trolley problems described could never realistically happen because of training and safety devices. At the time I thought it was a great example of too much specialized knowledge obscuring the overall point. But it sounds like that transit worker isn’t the only one who has a problem with these cases.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 4:58 pm

Changing the man to vapor is not the same as “remov[ing] the innocent man from physical existence”. And even if it were, Adrian Kelleher should still note that those were not my words, I did not “introduce” the idea.

And it doesn’t quite work. Remember the well is narrow enough that you can’t move out of the way (I’m not sure how it could be that narrow–so narrow that you can’t even flatten yourself against one side to avoid getting the full blow–without being narrow enough that the falling person could slow themselves down by pushing against the sides. I guess we’re assuming it’s frictionless too?) And the beam of your laser has to be wide enough to boil the entire falling person (otherwise chunks of superheated flesh would still crush you). So the entire well that you’re trapped in is, basically, a laser with someone falling down the barrel towards you. Except you’re able to fire the laser without fatally killing yourself.

So we have to construct a long tube with a frictionless inside. (Fairly long–a falling body starting from rest on Earth falls something like 20 meters in 2 seconds, which is already kind of a problem because this person didn’t just start falling, they were thrown, and we’re supposed to assume that the falling person would certainly survive were it not for your action. But I’m sure you’ll just ask for more megawatts.) The tube has a laser covering the bottom and you trapped in a crushable chamber underneath the laser. At which point we’ve added enough complexity that I’m no longer sure we’ve retained what was important in the original scenario. If we’re looking for distinctions subtle enough that we distinguish between disintergrating an innocent falling body and shooting human shields, then the very availability of a given technology by present day science could be enough to change our ethical position. So this has become an engineering challenge rather than an ethics experiment.

Furthermore, Adrian’s argument, not mine, is the one that depends crucially on some difference between improbable/implausible events and events that violate physical law. That distinction doesn’t matter to me–in fact, I don’t think it’s real, as physical law makes statements about probability and frequency (e.g. quantum and statistical mechanics). If I hold a moral belief that works everywhere except at the bottom of the strange Rube Goldberg death machine we just imagined, the mere conceivability of such an implausible machine is not a good reason to change it.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 5:20 pm

@Consumatopia

You understand that events in accordance with physical law can occur and those that are not can’t? Or are you trying to abolish the distinction between “impossible” and “improbable”?

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OCS 02.27.12 at 5:21 pm

Consumatopia #108

But it’s not a laser — it’s a ray gun! It disapparates the matter in the target in a way that leaves no physical trace, results in no release of energy or residue of hot vapor, and also fails to violate any of the conservation laws! (I imagine it merely transports the target into another dimension, but what do I know?)

Seriously, though, is it really that hard to assume for purposes of argument that a ray gun exists that disintegrates a falling body, but that no other aspects of the universe are appreciably different? It seems to me that sort of “just imagine this one thing is different” is what good science fiction does all the time.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 5:49 pm

Oh come now. Seems to me a lot of you all are just being obtuse.

Nozick’s phaser example is perfectly clear in a way that a real world example that included a lot of extraneous detail would not be. Maybe a Geertzian thick description would make for more entertaining reading but, as is the case with Geertz in general, it is not clear it actually sheds light along with the entertainment value. The idea is to focus you on the principle and not the irrelevancies, but there are a lot of people on this thread who are oddly insistent on the irrelevancies. Perhaps this is because once the principles are made clear, they find their cherished intuitions threatened.

But you know what? Whether you find your own personal pet intution threatened happens to be irrlevant to the question at hand. Deal with it!

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 6:00 pm

@Adrian Kelleher ,“Thermodynamic miracles… events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.”

If that’s not good enough for you, note that some physicists argue for a multiverse in which different universes have different physical laws.

@OCS@110, I apologize, I was directing my response to ajay @106. So your first paragraph represents agreement with me, which may not be clear if you thought I was responding to you.

As to your second–well, it depends on which purposes of argument. If I want to clarify exactly what I believe, then ray guns and trolleys are useful. If someone says “killing innocents is always wrong”, and you want to know exactly what they mean by “innocent”, then the ray gun example is pretty good.

If, on the other hand, you’re trying to argue that a position is wrong because it disagrees with our intuitions in a science fiction scenario, well, I think I’ve some problems with that. Whimsy is good for clarification, bad for falsification.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 6:06 pm

The idea is to focus you on the principle and not the irrelevancies

“How likely is this scenario?” is relevant to whether my moral beliefs should be changed to accommodate it.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 6:13 pm

@Consumatopia

I already addressed the thermodynamic example here (“monkeys bashing on typewriters etc.). The difference between these examples and the ones you cite is calculability. I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that the ticking bomb scenario will arise in reality at intervals very much greater than the lifetime of the universe.

You’re knowledge of physics is as inadequate as that of philosophy. No physicists argue for the multiverse. Some point out that it’s a permissible interpretation of quantum physics, however no such entity or entities have ever been observed. The multiverse is in the same category as string theory: a theoretical nicety without a whit of material evidence in its support.

I note that yet again you take refuge in alternative realities.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 6:38 pm

Consumatopia said, ““How likely is this scenario?” is relevant to whether my moral beliefs should be changed to accommodate it.”

Really? How so? What is the relevance of likelihood to ethical relevance?
Many unlikely scenarios come to pass. I would venture to say trillions of them every day. Are they all exempt from ethical examination because they are somehow made “irrelevant” by their unlikelihood?

I question the motivation of those who refuse to accept the utility of hypothetical scenarios. I think you all just want to have your intuitions protected from challenge. Yep. Some people hang onto their intuitions like a life raft that they will gladly throw the rest of us out of.

There is a reason why hypothetical cases work. Its because in philosophy people often make universal claims. Universal claims are falsified by a single contrary case, hence the relevance and merit of the thought experiment. Existence, in these cases, is an irrelevant property, as long as the scenario is possible.

The idea that thought experiments are a fundamentally flawed methodology is not born out by experience. Scientists use models and thought experiments all the time. Perhaps Einstein’s methods are not up to the strict standards of social scientists like Geertz or many of those on this thread. But Einstein’s methodology arguably worked out pretty well nevertheless.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 6:47 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

The difference between these examples and the ones you cite is calculability

It’s actually easy to calculate the improbability of typing any particular typed message. Simple combinatorics.

Now you don’t want to make a distinction between the impossible and the improbable, you want a distinction between the “incalculably” improbable and the ordinarily improbable. (Are you an ultrafinitist now?) And nothing in the rest of your posts suggests any reason why we should care about “calculability”.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that the ticking bomb scenario will arise in reality at intervals very much greater than the lifetime of the universe.”

Assuming you meant unreasonable, fine. We aren’t talking Poincaré recurrence here. But the point is that the question of how often? matters, in exactly the same way as the question how big is the bomb? matters. I’m amazed that some people don’t get this.

You’re knowledge of physics is as inadequate as that of philosophy.

It is extremely amusing to watch you struggle to point out even one genuine mistake I made, after I’ve pointed out mistake, after mistake. I’m sure I made plenty, but you haven’t found one yet. Just point out one of my typos so you can declare victory and we can go home ;)

No physicists argue for the multiverse. Some point out that it’s a permissible interpretation of quantum physics, however no such entity or entities have ever been observed. The multiverse is in the same category as string theory: a theoretical nicety without a whit of material evidence in its support.

Not getting into a physics argument with you. If you want to argue that literally zero physicists argue for a multiverse, you could start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiverse

I note that yet again you take refuge in alternative realities.

Both sentences I directed towards you @112 refer to this physical reality. Like I said, accurately restating other people’s words doesn’t seem to be in your skill set.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 7:15 pm

@The Fool

Really? How so? What is the relevance of likelihood to ethical relevance?

It should be obvious. Maybe you would understand if you didn’t have your meltdown there.

Take the ticking time bomb for example. I suppose you think we should torture the innocent child to stop the bomb going off that would kill millions of people. So you change your principles to accommodate that: “it is okay to torture to save lives”. But that principle changes the outcome of many, many situations. In some situations–I would argue most–it actually means MORE people die, because of the problems that torture produces, and the difficulty of determining which situations are the ones in which torture is applicable. Adopting the principle can cause people to die even if you don’t torture anyone–e.g. someone is so angry at you for holding that principle that they try to remove you from power.

So you’re stuck balancing one set of situations in which torture would save lives, and another in which torture would take lives. And you are stuck, when choosing the moral principle, to weigh one set against the other (if the utiltiarian motivations of the torture proponent are sincere.). The comparative likelihood of these sets of situations obviously matters. That’s how expected value works. Obviously.

Universal claims are falsified by a single contrary case, hence the relevance and merit of the thought experiment.

I deny that the kind of ethical claims most people make are “universal claims” in the sense that you are talking about. “I should always do X” means “in all situations that have actually occurred or will actually occur to me, I should do X”. It does not mean “In all possible situations I should do X”.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 7:18 pm

@Calculability

I dealt with the category of events provable to occur very much less frequently than the lifetime of the universe (post 114) before you ever brought it up.

Some physicists may argue for multiverse hypotheses to be taken seriously, but I’ve no idea why I should care about that. As the article you link to states on multiple occasions, the idea is not supported by experimental verification of any sort — there’s literally zero evidence for it.

In comment 86 you decry the resort to imaginary worlds (Hurray!):

Universal across what? Across all living persons? All persons who ever live? Across all physically possible persons? All logically possible persons? All but the last of those are “contingent”. It may be the object of the exercise for you but I would be quite satisfied with the second or third, and have doubts that the fourth is actually meaningful.

But in the very next paragraph you spoil it all, abruptly returning to imaginationland (Boo!):

“The very question “is it wrong to torture people to save people’s lives?” is inherently contingent—a universe in which physics and probability worked differently than ours would have different concepts of “person”, “life” and “torture”. And that’s assuming it has the same concept of “wrong”.”

In post 94, imaginary realities are ruled out once again (Hurray!):

“Just because a belief has false implications in some imaginary world doesn’t mean that it is false in this world.”

But you then immediately turn 180 degrees and imaginary worlds become your get out clause (Boo!):

“Plausible in this particular contingent world, not somehow “necessarily” plausible.”

By post 108, you’re once again insisting on the most literal minded interpretation of reality (Hurray!):

“And it doesn’t quite work. Remember the well is narrow enough that you can’t move out of the way (I’m not sure how it could be that narrow—so narrow that you can’t even flatten yourself against one side to avoid getting the full blow—without being narrow enough that the falling person could slow themselves down by pushing against the sides. I guess we’re assuming it’s frictionless too?) And the beam of your laser has to be wide enough to boil the entire falling person (otherwise chunks of superheated flesh would still crush you). So the entire well that you’re trapped in…” (etc. etc.)

Now you introduce the multiverse and with yet another u-turn you’re promoting things nobody has ever seen; mysteriously, you somehow understand that all the evidence nobody has ever observed stacks up on your side.

What is it that makes “this particular” world “contingent”? You appear to posses knowledge of interest to CERN or the Nobel prize committee. I’m also certain the Fields Medal people would be fascinated to learn of “a universe in which … probability worked differently than ours”.

You recall that physics used to be known as “natural philosophy”? You bring up physical examples and now insist you don’t need to stand by them. Well that’s my real name above this post and I’m simply not letting go. I intend to defend my professional competence for as long as is required.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.27.12 at 7:21 pm

@Consumatopia, 117

“I deny that the kind of ethical claims most people make are “universal claims” in the sense that you are talking about. “I should always do X” means “in all situations that have actually occurred or will actually occur to me, I should do X”. It does not mean “In all possible situations I should do X”.”

Why need a universally proposition valid proposition require someone to perform the same action in all situations? The laws of thermodynamics are universally valid — do they force you to do the same thing in all instances somehow?

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Jeff R. 02.27.12 at 8:21 pm

Look, it’s pretty clear that almost every single philosophical thought experiment is, at its core, actually about abortion*, and it’s also clear that the entire point of these experiments is to entice the student into taking a general moral position that is inconsistent with their actual stance on abortion, at which point the philosopher can smugly point out the contradiction. So it follows that all of the absurdity, excessive abstraction, and outright whimsy found in these experiments is all about hiding that essential about-abortion-ness so that the experiment can do its job properly.

*: The other ones are about Vietnam, or, if minted recently enough, Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Steve LaBonne 02.27.12 at 8:35 pm

greg @86:

A model is necessarily a simplification, leaving out (hopefully unnecessary and mostly irrelevant) details.

The problems come when the models are not subjected to carefully designed empirical tests and continually refined based on the results of those tests, but merely employed in an essentially anecdotal fashion. Both a lot of philosophers and a lot of economists need to get a lot more serious about this (and pay a lot more attention to the people who already are serious about it) when it comes to their models of how people think, though matters seem to be slowly improving in both disciplines.

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Medrawt 02.27.12 at 8:56 pm

The Fool @111 -

For the ump-damn-teenth time, what those of us who are being obtuse get hung up on is whether the supposedly irrelevant details actually change the underlying scenario or not. I won’t create a whimsically murderous example to illustrate this, but it’s possible to imagine, I hope, that an example meant to ilustrate some premise/principle in fact mucks up the details such that it stops really referring to the thing it was meant to. I haven’t read Nozick, but I have a guess as to where he’s going with this (it’s ok to fire the raygun? – I mean, that’s supposed to be the thing you think we’re afraid to admit to ourselves, right?) and I agree! I would have had the same reaction if presented with no example whatsoever, but a bare statement of the principle in question.

And yet I still think, and it’s comforting to know I’m not alone on this, even we don’t all have the same precise reasoning for it, that this is a shitty example.

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Herman Newticks 02.27.12 at 9:02 pm

I think, if the plan is to get clear about principles, then silly examples are are perfectly suited to the job. But, in my experience, it’s not usually the basic principle that people have problems with. Rather it is whatever gets layered on top that causes fits and disagreements.

The examples — trolleys, violinists, people tossed down wells — generally are about argument by analogy.
1) it is morally permissible to disconnect the violinist
2) disconnecting a violinist is relevantly like terminating an unwanted pregnancy.
3) therefore, it is morally permissible to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Of course, all the work happens in the justification for (2). Many people agree with (1) and won’t agree with the conclusion. Once this is pointed out, they will argue that there are all sorts of disanalogies that make it the case that the morally clear choice in the example is not relevantly like the morally ambiguous choice in the conclusion.

Now, the more you load up the analogy with more info to more closely track the behavior in question – so the violinist might only attach to people who attend concerts, and that if you where ear protection, you are even less likely to get a violinist, etc. And the more you lard up the example, the more likely it is that you’ll get a result exactly like the results of the original question, i.e., opponents of abortion will think you can’t remove a violinist, and pro-choicers will say you can.

And that’s where the examples are actually useful. You may use them to tease out which of the elements actually matter to people. Maybe you can then do further analysis to get your audience to evaluate whether those elements SHOULD matter.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 9:02 pm

@118,
I’m not against all imaginary examples. Just some uses of them. Like I said in my first post @61.

Ethical thought experiments, like physics thought experiments, are useful for clarifying theories. But imagining some situation in which an ethical principle looks like a bad idea doesn’t falsify that ethical principle anymore than Star Trek falsifies relativity.

@119,
That’s actually a reasonable question. The trouble is that rules with conditions have effects outside their conditions. The example I gave at @117 “it is okay to torture to save lives” is an example of such–it only advises torture when its use would save lives, but the effects of holding such a principle spills over into other situations (somewhat as you described @65).

Let me fix it:

“I should always do X when Y” means “in all Y situations that have actually occurred or will actually occur to me, I should do X”. It does not mean “In all possible Y situations I should do X”.

Objection?

If you want to personalize this further you’ll have to name neutral turf to take this to because we’ll get in trouble for making this our personal dueling ground.

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Herman Newticks 02.27.12 at 9:03 pm

“wear ear protection”, not “where ear protection”. ugh.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 9:09 pm

Medrawt:

What you’re saying is otiose. Yes, it goes — or should go — without saying that if there is some relevant aspect of the situation at hand that is not included in the model or is misspecified by the model then that provides grounds to critique the model. This is exactly what happens with philosophical examples: they get dissected and fine tuned.

But is no argument against this methodology to simply say, “oh but you hypothetically could go wrong.” In fact, there is something hilariously self-referential about the whole idea that you could attempt prove the method of hypotheticals wrong by pointing to a hypothetical.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 9:21 pm

But is no argument against this methodology to simply say, “oh but you hypothetically could go wrong.”

This isn’t my argument, but we have different intuitions in different situations, but we only know imperfectly why we have those diverse intuitions. We are not only uncertain exactly which elements of the situation produce those intuitions, we are uncertain whether those intuitions represent moral insight or prejudice. So constructing alien situations could very well introduce new prejudices. Using an alien example to refute a general moral statement might just be nothing more than throwing out our principles because they conflict with prejudice.

In fact, there is something hilariously self-referential about the whole idea that you could attempt prove the method of hypotheticals wrong by pointing to a hypothetical.

No, there’s a difference between disproving a moral law and disproving a method of reasoning about moral law.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 9:23 pm

Consumatopia:

You are right. I — notoriously for one so liberal as myself — have taken the position that 1) torture can possibly work in some cases and 2) you’re goddamn right I would torture the terrorist to prevent the nuking of a city.

As a consequentialist, I do not however have to slide down the slippery slope with you. And my position does not mean Bush and Cheney are not war criminals. Because they are.

You hilariously argue, “The comparative likelihood of these sets of situations obviously matters. That’s how expected value works.” Uh, in the tickin time bomb case, ex hypothesi the likelihood is arbitrarily high.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 9:30 pm

As a consequentialist, I do not however have to slide down the slippery slope with you.

It’s not a slippery slope. The problem is holding the principle “it is okay to torture to save lives” effects situations other than the ticking time bomb. You have to weigh the situations like the ticking time bomb against other situations where torture would cost lives.

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Medrawt 02.27.12 at 9:30 pm

The Fool -

Then I’m being otiose, fine, perhaps that is my state in life. I am, after all, not even bothering to try and interrogate the logical justifiability of whimsical examples, but rather reporting how my brain works (at least so far as my limited self-perception tells me it does). The original post, I took it, was querying the usefulness of these examples for their presumed purpose, and I report that I do not find them useful because I instead I find them rather distracting unless discussed at such length as to obviate the purpose of making up a pithy eye-catching example in the first place. “No one’s fat enough to stop a trolley!” I blurt helplessly, and then my face reddens because That Wasn’t The Point. But these examples seemed to have a tendency to catch me up in a way that other philosophical methods did not. So for me, they were not an effective means of prodding my mind and trying, as Holbo had it, to pump my principles. I am already aware that I’m missing the point; I’m observing that there’s a class of people who otherwise don’t exhibit evidence of serious brain damage who seem to always miss this one point, so maybe someone might think: “perhaps I’ll go about my argument a different way,” or even “those folks lack the mental makeup necessary for Doing Philosophy, so I’m going to ignore them,” rather than thinking “if I patiently explain that it doesn’t matter whether my example could actually be enacted in the real world, understanding will dawn on this benightedly literal simpleton, who probably doesn’t even understand that fictitious stories aren’t works of journalism.”

Perhaps another tack for expressing myself would be: I am suspicious when other people present elaborate analogies in a logical/factual exchange, because in my experience analogies, even of the not-a-trolley-problem-sort, are often carriers (intentionally or not) for confusion and the conflation of unlike scenarios, so my predisposition is to try and take apart the analogy and examine its validity as an example of the thing we were really discussing. In this way, perhaps, I resemble the dim person who narrows his eyes and then smiles because he thinks he’s caught you trying to get one over on him when in fact you were doing no such thing. This, I have gathered, is not how people are supposed to respond to trolley problems, but it’s not a habit I have yet cared to unlearn, since the only benefit I can see to doing so would be that I’d be more amenable to trolley problems.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 9:31 pm

(constructing alien situations could very well introduce new prejudices) = (oh but you hypothetically coudl go wrong)

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Steve LaBonne 02.27.12 at 9:35 pm

You have to weigh the situations like the ticking time bomb against other situations where torture would cost lives.

And to do that he needs to be looking at actual empirical investigations into both the effectiveness and the effects of torture. Whereupon he might discover that his premise, that he could save the city via torture, is at best suspect and likely just wrong. Torture makes people talk all right, but there is little if any evidence that it makes them tell the truth and plenty of evidence to the contrary.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 9:35 pm

Not “hypothetically” could go wrong, but that you may already have gone wrong.

And if it doesn’t worry you that you’re wrong, then why worry about ethical reasoning? The rest of us are just trying to do what we hazily grasp as correct in this uncertain world. For us, introducing new prejudices is something we want to guard against.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 9:48 pm

Consumatopia says, Not “hypothetically” could go wrong, but that you may already have gone wrong.”

Again, unless it is necessarily the case that I have gone wrong, then all your argument amounts to is the otiose, “oh but you could go wrong”.

Using my desk calculator, if you’ll forgive my use of an example, is a sound methodology for making calculations. Could my calculator go wrong? Yeah, but so what? My calculator says that 57 x 32 = 1824 and I think that is pretty good evidence that 57 x 32 = 1824 even though my calculator could go wrong. (Now quick, get your calculator out and see if I got my math right!)

To help get your brain wrapped around the emptiness of your argument consider this intuition pump: Imagine if, hypothetically, I said your argument, here on this thread, is wrong because it might be wrong. That’s what you are saying to me. I remain unimpressed.

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Consumatopia 02.27.12 at 10:03 pm

Okay, not merely that you may have gone wrong, but that you’re more likely to go wrong.

And the whole point of this is that people disagree on moral intuitions, and the causes behind moral intuitions. So one calculator says one thing, another calculator says another. Building a theory of when our “ethical calculators”–our intuitions–are correct is hard.

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Salient 02.27.12 at 10:37 pm

I’m supportive of Medrawt’s take on all this.

Whereupon he might discover that his premise, that he could save the city via torture, is at best suspect and likely just wrong.

…but he’s certain he could save the city! By hypothesis! Never mind that he would never experience certainty of that kind, and that the experience of that kind of certainty would warp and dement him into a being scarcely recognizable as himself…

Uh, in the tickin time bomb case, ex hypothesi the likelihood is arbitrarily high.

Which is, incidentally, a nontrivial reason why the tickin time bomb case is an awful, counterproductive, and frankly immoral case to examine. To damage a person’s sensitivity to suffering, by demanding they cede to impossible certainty conditions which rob them of their individual dignity so that you can get them to confess an artificial willingness to commit acts they would reject as heinous in any set of plausible circumstances, is an immoral act.

Aside, thankfully, most men still have the decency to not look me in the eye and not follow through when I demand they repeat the scenario to me, with the same vocal inflection and casualness and knowing smiles and everything, replacing each instance of the word ‘torture’ with the word ‘rape.’ Seems to heighten the contradictions for them enough to restore some semblance of humanity, even though, of course, rape is a subcategory of torture. (I would propose it is a consequence of patriarchy that this very basic fact is not immediately apparent to everyone, but that’s a matter for a different day.)

I’ll add that anyone who feels comfortable assuming certainty that needed information can only be obtained from nonsexual physical torture, but who feels less comfortable assuming certainty that needed information can only be obtained from rape, needs to spend some time reflecting on what this says about themselves — I would put forth the argument that through their hypothetical musings and adopted certainties they’ve managed to attain the sense that torture isn’t really all that bad a thing, and they’ve lost some portion of their humanity in the process. Ironically and sadly, it seems the only way to goad them into reflecting on this is to put them in a situation where they need to do precisely what they ask of us–take on uncomfortable and implausible hypothetical certainties that they haven’t already grown used to, and modify their sense of self beyond recognition in the process.

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The Fool 02.27.12 at 10:40 pm

“conditions which rob them of their individual dignity”

May I refer you to the wonderful piece by Steven Pinker called “The Stupidity of Dignity”?

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Salient 02.27.12 at 10:51 pm

I remain unimpressed.

The Fool, you’ve confessed enthusiastically to being a moral monster, a person who would readily mutilate a human being in order to obtain information. Even if you can construct a hypothetical reality in which that monstrous act saves lives, you’ve lost sight of the fact that you’re promoting a monstrous act.

My own interpretation of your words here is that you feel a kind of enjoyable whimsy at the prospect of getting to talk about torturing someone in order to Be A Hero — certainly neither “you’re goddamn right I would torture” nor “I remain unimpressed” carry with them any of the gravity or sensitivity that would indicate the kind of regret or moral conflict that we could reasonably expect a respectable person to experience. You’re not treating torture as anything approaching horrifying; you’re treating it as something bold — and dare I say, whimsically fun? — that you get to do in order to Save Lives.

The exact point of bringing up the ticking time bomb scenario is to wear away at people’s humanity, pushing them into the implausible, demanding they give up the sense of limited context in which they can identify themselves as a participant person, until their sense of moral dignity erodes right along with their sense of implausibility, and they become people a little more like you have, just now, made yourself out to be.

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Salient 02.27.12 at 11:07 pm

“May I refer you to”

Nope. Stop there. The answer is no.

to the wonderful piece by Steven Pinker called “The Stupidity of Dignity”?

Oh, I see, you weren’t actually asking my permission, you were placing me under duress for rhetorical effect. Does that not strike you as inappropriate, in a response to the suggestion (rather charitable of me in hindsight) that you’d at least hesitate before expressing enthusiasm about committing other forms of duress?

The problem with your ploy is that you just indicated that, in your opinion, being vaguely disquieted at the prospect of mutilating and raping someone in order to obtain information is comparable to being vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways, i.e. bioengineering.

…I somehow doubt Ruth Macklin (who is really the person who should be given credit here) would find that conscionable.

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Gotchaye 02.27.12 at 11:49 pm

Weird and implausible examples aren’t useful for coming up with principles, but they’re great for testing principles. No one’s being tricked by a particular trolley problem into thinking that they’re not /actually/ being asked to formulate a principle about doing/allowing, for example. And, like others have said, real situations are complicated in ways that really do complicate the moral judgments involved.

But, given a general principle, it makes a lot of sense to “experiment” on it in weird ways. That your principle fails for a weird but obvious case doesn’t mean that your principle is wrong everywhere, but it does mean that your principle is wrong, and improvements you make to it to fix how it works in the weird cases can change what it tells you to do in more ambiguous cases.

I’ve actually found weird thought experiments useful in talking to some anti-abortion folks in real life. “Life begins at conception” can lead to counter-intuitive results when we’re dealing with (possibly asexual) aliens. And because we’re talking about aliens, who may reproduce in bizarre ways, the conversations gets away from the specifics of human reproduction and the particular slogans that people are often attached to, and can help people to see that what seemed like obvious lines to draw really aren’t. So the sheer weirdness of the thought experiments can be a plus.

The silliness here isn’t strictly necessary. Probably similar points could be made with the help of an exhaustive review of all of the things that have actually been observed to happen with human reproduction. But the silliness actually helps insulate me from charges that I’m being really nitpicky about boundary cases. It’s going to sound a little like that either way, but in some sense intelligent asexual aliens are more conceivable for many people than is some of the weirdness that we’ve actually seen. Ray guns which *poof* things into nonexistence are a lot easier to imagine than the specific features of the situation which would be necessary to get a mechanically similar thought experiment using only what current science allows, and you’re going to sound like a lawyer when you try to describe that second experiment. The silliness signals that “but that’s really unlikely” isn’t an appropriate response; it makes clear to most people that we’re just testing a principle and not asking how someone should act in a situation which actually obtains, and that can help make things less tense.

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Gotchaye 02.27.12 at 11:55 pm

Actually, in light of the last few comments, the contrast with the ticking time bomb case is helpful for me in clearing up my thinking about this.

Ticking time bombs don’t run afoul of Occam’s Phaser. They’re not silly or whimsical. And they can be hugely problematic because sometimes it’s not clear if, when we’re talking about what one ought to do in a TTB case, we’re really only talking about what one ought to do in the highly abstract and unlikely case described. The TTB is a ‘gotcha question’. If we instead gussied up the TTB with aliens and ray guns and magical spells which will destroy the world and the galaxy and all the universe if the wizards who cast them aren’t forced to undo them, it’s actually a lot easier to conceive of ourselves as having the kinds of certainty required by the thought experiment without risking giving others or ourselves the idea that we have that kind of certainty in real life situations.

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Steve LaBonne 02.28.12 at 12:17 am

If we instead gussied up the TTB with aliens and ray guns and magical spells which will destroy the world and the galaxy and all the universe if the wizards who cast them aren’t forced to undo them, it’s actually a lot easier to conceive of ourselves as having the kinds of certainty required by the thought experiment without risking giving others or ourselves the idea that we have that kind of certainty in real life situations.

But in proportion to that increasing implausibility, the thought experiment becomes (even) less useful.

Apropos of thought experiments, I must say that Einstein is really a bad example for philosophers. Thought experiments have from time to time played a useful role in theoretical physics, but they have almost never been a useful tool in any of the other natural sciences.

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 12:47 am

That your principle fails for a weird but obvious case doesn’t mean that your principle is wrong everywhere, but it does mean that your principle is wrong, and improvements you make to it to fix how it works in the weird cases can change what it tells you to do in more ambiguous cases.

You made a lot of good points and I’m not sure you’re wrong, but I have two possible objections:

1. Maybe the principle didn’t fail. Maybe our intuitions about weird cases are just wrong. The one kind of certainty you can’t phaser into existence is certainty that your moral intuitions are correct (not even phasering in God is enough for this–Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?) Should circumstances change and the weird case is no longer weird (following an actual alien invasion or wizard attack or apocalypse or whatever) we might obtain better intuitions about that particular kind of weird case.

2. Maybe the principle only applies to actual, or likely to be actual, situations. I spent a while above arguing why that might be a reasonable condition to put on our principles. Or to put it in terms similar to what Salient was talking about, there are lots of reasons why I don’t want to give you a system that perfectly describes everything I consider ethical in absolutely every possible situation.

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Gotchaye 02.28.12 at 3:10 am

Steve, it seems to me that that depends on what the thought experiment is actually for. Lots of people (in the US, at least) seem to have the intuition that torture is permissible in the TTB case, and I imagine they’d think the same in the evil wizard case. For helping us come to good principles that work in the situations that we’ll actually find ourselves in, the TTB case is less useful than the wizard case insofar as it makes it easier for people to wrongly slide from the situation in the thought experiment to real-life situations. Lots of reasonable people have concluded that the TTB case is a good thing to base policy on without really thinking through all of the important differences. That’s a lot harder to do with the evil wizard case, and since it’s generally good to understand the ways in which thought experiments don’t reflect reality, the evil wizard case is more helpful – it gives rise to the same intuitions and helps clear up issues about certainty and one-off actions vs policy without getting us confused about whether real-world situations are set up the same way. The whole issue is that both the TTB case and the evil wizard case are extremely implausible, but the TTB’s implausibility is not obvious to many people.

Consumatopia, I’d basically agree with you. I think I’m using “your principle is wrong” to mean something slightly different than how you’ve used similar phrases upthread. You shouldn’t be abandoning your ethical positions just because they seem to you to go wrong in some implausible case. And I agree that we should worry about being too concerned with implausible cases when making policy, since that risks misinterpretation or shifting the way we think over time.

It seems to me that we have a reason to lay down and not try to elaborate on a policy or principle which is too broad in the sense that we can imagine it failing in possible but extremely unlikely situations only if the situations in which the principle is merely ambiguously true are also very unlikely. Your “the President shouldn’t nuke NYC” is a good example – I can’t think of an at-all plausible case where the answer is “I’m not sure”. But, frequently, we not only have a bunch of commonly occurring cases where the principle seems to give the obviously correct result, we also have a bunch of commonly occurring cases where, because we lack strong intuitions for these cases, we’re not sure if the principle gives the correct result. Principles about abortion seem to me to be good examples (for many people, at least). Because ambiguous cases could still be of moral importance, them being common gives us strong reason to want to be as sure as possible of our principle so that we can be as sure as possible that we’re making good decisions in those cases. Weird thought experiments can be very helpful in situations like this in order to try to get at what aspects of actually occurring cases are really important to us, and, like I said above in my response to Steve, sometimes the weirdness itself can be helpful insofar as it helps us keep the implausible and the plausible separate while still allowing us to think about seemingly clear-cut cases.

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DelRey 02.28.12 at 3:13 am

The exact point of bringing up the ticking time bomb scenario is to wear away at people’s humanity

No, the exact point of the ticking time bomb scenario is get people to face up to uncomfortable situations they don’t want to think about.

If we instead gussied up the TTB with aliens and ray guns and magical spells which will destroy the world and the galaxy and all the universe if the wizards who cast them aren’t forced to undo them, it’s actually a lot easier to conceive of ourselves as having the kinds of certainty required by the thought experiment without risking giving others or ourselves the idea that we have that kind of certainty in real life situations.

The TTB scenario does not require “certainty” any more than, say, wartime bombing of enemy targets requires certainty.

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 7:07 am

No, the exact point of the ticking time bomb scenario is get people to face up to uncomfortable situations they don’t want to think about.

You set yourself up there way too easy.

The TTB scenario does not require “certainty” any more than, say, wartime bombing of enemy targets requires certainty.

Wartime bombing at least increases the probability that an enemy dies. I think even those who oppose it would have to admit that.

Torture does not generally improve your knowledge. That is generally the point of TTB–to take something with a negative expected value, and contrive an artificial situation in which it is has positive expected value. Whether that something is torture or rape or whatever. “Do X or the bomb explodes!” “Why would X make the bomb less likely to explode?” “No, it’s a thought experiment you’re not allowed to ask that!”

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Alison P 02.28.12 at 10:13 am

I like Michael Sullivan’s point way back at #41

“in real life, there is almost always a better solution. And it turns out to be a better equilibrium to bite it once in a while because you really can’t think of a better solution, than to be killing innocents willy nilly the 99.9999% of the time that another few second’s thought would give an alternate answer that has the potential to save both of you.”

That is a typical moral commitment that you or I might make, in real life: to always look for a better solution rather than commit act x. For example, we believe we can win a war without torture, and we will go all out on that basis, or we believe we can survive this shipwreck without throwing anyone out the lifeboat (or whatever – a vegetarian might commit to always finding something non-meat to eat).

Thought experiments attempt to subvert that approach by saying ‘but what if you know from the start that there was no alternative solution’. But in real life we can so rarely, if ever, know that. So preserving a general principle against act x is never the futile gesture it would be in the imaginary universe of the experiment, it is always a constructive ongoing project to build a particular kind of life – to commit to find a better solution, even though in a few cases you may not succeed (or for example you may die).

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 11:33 am

Well this has all taken a wacky and fairly inept turn. Exceptions don’t refute rules (what exactly does refute a rule then?), mathematics has multiple forms and certain scenarios are discounted on nebulous, situational and poorly-defined grounds of objectionability while logically identical ones are not.

Logic creates nothing. All information is implicit in the premises. The point of these exercises is to test the implications of the axioms. If the same individual judges to be unacceptable a given implication of a premise he or she had previously regarded as universally correct then progress has been made. What logic can never do is create the premises for us, whether they concern torture, abortion or whatever, or force everybody to judge the same premises to be correct.

Objections on grounds of probability are inadequate unless those objections can somehow be well defined, meaning both expressed formally and in a finite way, and quantified. If not, the project of deriving universal principles has been abandoned.

However artificial the example, artificiality is weak objection because it is unreliable. However improbable, unlikely events can by definition occur. Quantum mechanics and relativity were built on artificial examples — classical mechanics is perfectly reliable exept in very odd circumstances: the presence tremendous masses or speeds, or the observation of tiny scales that never impinge on every-day life.

The sound method to adopt when faced with a simple set up is to alter the formulation of the problem, something strangely and frighteningly beyond the capability of law students about to graduate from a top university as pointed out in the link. Obviously not all the students were eager to whip out a bowie knife for a brisk torture session. Rather, those opposed were simply incapable of broadening the scope of the problem to accomodate their preferences and to illustrate what they felt to be the correct universal premises.

The ticking bomb scenario is consciously constructed as an adversarial weapon. However likely, it cannot seriously be disputed that it’s possible. If on the other hand a competing and more general scenario can be constructed that encompasses not only the ticking bomb hypothesis but also many more — and more probable — circumstances then the weaknesses can be revealed that the artificiality of the scenario is specifically designed to conceal.

Of course in the real world people are subject the violence of the state every day, state violence was one of the leading causes of premature death — rivalling even war — in recent history, the restraint of state violence is one of the cornerstones of individual rights and one of the defining differences between free and unfree societies, and the number of people killed by bombs planted by people captured prior to detonation is by comparision a vanishingly small number.

More interesting is the trial of the Nazi judges which, as it was conducted in a US military court, might be cited as precedent in the USA. Hypothetically, someone tried and convicted on the basis might be punished for effecting laws having both popular and legal legitimacy. If however neither legal (the Nuremberg laws) nor democratic legitimacy (slavery) is absolute then what is? Arguably, exonerating Johann Elser legally dictates exonerating also people like Eric Rudolph or Osama Bin Laden.

Constitutional principles drafted as lowest common denominators acceptable to a wide range of minority groups rather than on a majoritarian basis might evade the problem, and international human rights legislation might serve as a placeholder for these. There would always exist, however, groups having cultural, religious, historical or ethnic legitimacy in members’ eyes with demands unacceptable to the others. These will always cast themselves as Elser whereas their enemies will cast them as Hitler.

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The Fool 02.28.12 at 1:24 pm

@Salient who said:

“The Fool, you’ve confessed enthusiastically to being a moral monster, a person who would readily mutilate a human being in order to obtain information…My own interpretation of your words here is that you feel a kind of enjoyable whimsy at the prospect of getting to talk about torturing someone in order to Be A Hero.”

Two can play that game, bro. A few points:

1) You have it exactly wrong. It is crystal clear that it is YOU who is the moral monster in this case. You would readily allow millions of human beings to be incinerated and/or suffer severe radiation sickness and then die horrible deaths. You sick, sick monster.

2) I would not “readily” mutilate a human being for information. I’m not like that at all. I have a hard time even killing bugs and I woudl never kill anything higher up the evolutionary scale unless I absolutely had to.

3) My own interpretation of your words is that you are an overly romantic moral prig who derives enjoyment from posturing as a supposed moral “purist” and preening in his own moral heroism. And this ties into point 1): if you really mean what you say, (which I doubt by the way) then you are such an extreme moral monster that you would sacrifice the lives of millions of human beings just so you can more effectivelty posture as a moral “purist.” You sick, sick monster.

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Charles 02.28.12 at 2:44 pm

greg,

Thanks for the link. Interesting reading, though I think it doesn’t go far enough. I suppose that’s outside the scope of this thread, so I’ll leave it at that.

You wrote:

“A model is necessarily a simplification, leaving out (hopefully unnecessary and mostly irrelevant) details.”

Of course. The question is, what is relevant? That is more or less what I’m contesting.

“Models are unavoidable. We think with models. Never do we analyze a situation out to its last degree, which is infinity, because we simply do not have the time and energy to do so. We simply cannot.”

Yes. And we do quite a bit more than think. We also feel, blindly apply habitual responses, and other things besides. The effect of using models like the ones we’re talking about is to get our feelings and habits out of the picture. This seems to be (at least in part) the point of the models. This is why I object to them.

“Eventually we always settle back on what we have, which is a model to some degree of accuracy of the real situation, and make our decision.”

I’m not sure that this is an accurate description of what we actually do. Depending on how you mean it, it may imply that we act based on rational thinking more than we actually do.

“The messy residue we leave to intuition, or feelings, which is really probably preconception or habit.”

And that’s really the most important point for me. Preconception and habit (and feelings) are themselves different kinds of models. And far from merely dealing with the “messy residue,” they do most of the heavy lifting. They have to, because they are the foundation of all morality, in that they control (or comprise?) desire and preference.

So: these models are bad because they model the wrong things. They don’t help to get us clear about what is actually central in moral situations: what we feel, what we’re motivated by, why we are comfortable or uncomfortable. At best they can demonstrate that we are inconsistent, but this is not in question, nor is it interesting. The most insightful questions it can lead to are “Why does it bother me when I find out I’m being inconsistent? Which of my preconceptions about morality inform me that inconsistency is a problem?”

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 2:58 pm

@Charles

The answer is not to complain about the example given. It is to formulate some other example which encompasses that you find inadequate.

To create a thought experiment involving any imaginable situation is perfectly reasonable. What is not reasonable is to reject a second more general thought experiment valid both in those specific circumstances and in a broader context. So nobody has the right to confine you with a phaser down a well or put you in a sealed room with a terrorist with a bomb so long as you can prove that other more broadly applicable ideas produce superior outcomes even once the scenario constructed is taken into account. All imaginable situations should be addressed — this doesn’t restrict anyone to considering only situations imagined by someone else.

As regards “Which of my preconceptions about morality inform me that inconsistency is a problem?”, I’d say none of them. If you’re inconsistent then you’re wrong somewhere. Correcting that error is a practical matter for you more than a moral issue.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 2:59 pm

…which encompasses the scenario that…

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 4:02 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

Nobody cares what you find “inept”. Like I said, if you want to talk more about who was correct up above, we’ll need some other place to discuss it. I just note that your restatements of my views are all wrong (some of which are, frankly, amazing).

Logic creates nothing. All information is implicit in the premises. The point of these exercises is to test the implications of the axioms.

Compare this to your first sentence:

The plausibility, as opposed to the possibility, of any chosen example is of no relevance if the objective is to test an ethical or legal proposition

I think the reasonable reading of your first sentence is that by “test an ethical or legal proposition”, you’re testing it’s truth, not merely that it’s validly derived from some set of premises or axioms.

My issue is, when the the valid results of your premises disagree with your intuitions in a particular situation, is it because your premises are wrong or your intuition in that particular situation is wrong?

My position is “it depends.” From my very first post @61, as quoted at @124, I’ve argued that thought experiments are useful, but a contradiction between the conclusions of your ethical premises and your intuitions in particular ethical thought experiment is not sufficient to refute the premises.

Other people, like The Fool, claimed that it would be sufficient–that there’s no reason we shouldn’t immediately trust our intuitions in imagined situations and immediately throw out the premise. The students don’t get to “broaden the scope of the problem to accomodate their preferences”, they simply have to find new premises.

From what I can see, you’ve been trying to say “our side doesn’t get to declare victory by finding the situation improbable” and I have been saying “their side doesn’t get to declare victory by finding the situation possible”. Fair?

To which I’d add, an argument is only valid if it successfully shows its conclusion to be true. An objection to an argument is valid if it merely shows the argument has failed to show its conclusion to be true. To object to the TTB argument, you don’t have to show that torture is always wrong, you just have to show that the TTB argument doesn’t disprove the claim that torture is always wrong. (If it did disprove it, there would be no room to “broaden the scope” of any problems.)

If on the other hand a competing and more general scenario can be constructed that encompasses not only the ticking bomb hypothesis but also many more—and more probable—circumstances then the weaknesses can be revealed that the artificiality of the scenario is specifically designed to conceal.

This is pretty close to what I’ve been saying. I would clarify that it isn’t enough for either side in the torture argument to find a more general scenario encompassing the situation being discussed. There’s an infinite number of scenarios, so both sides are going to be able to find some larger general scenario in which which, on average, the outcome with highest utility is is their preferred action. You can’t just say “my scenario has many more scenarios than yours”, because both sides can always find more scenarios to add to the pile.

What’s needed, then, is some reason to consider some “general” situations more relevant than other, intersecting “general” situations.. You offer an example of that: “and more probable”. (thus in a world in which different things were probable, different general scenarios would be relevant, and different ethical premises would be true.) In fact, even with these words it’s still incomplete, you still need something like you said @65 “torture could not be licensed for that specific circumstance”–some reason you can’t make an ethical rule like @119 that permits torture in only some of your more general encompassing of situations.

You will need some way to decide which scenarios are ethically relevant–which general scenarios your ethical statements actually apply to. As you had in your example. And this need is symmetric: pro- and anti- torture, both sides need to explain the relevance of their scenarios.

And if what worries you is the performance of students when looking at situations like this, then it ought to worry you that some of what the The Fool was said sounded very similar to what you were saying. If he read what you were saying, he probably thought he was agreeing with you. But he’s basically one of the students in your link.

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Salient 02.28.12 at 4:02 pm

It is crystal clear that it is YOU who is the moral monster in this case.

Whew. I had a nontrivial bout of anxiety last evening about whether I’d be taken too severely, after remembering the meme phrase I was trying to invoke is “history’s greatest monster” not “moral monster.” Relieved to see I didn’t lose all facetiousness in the process of dispute.

You would readily allow millions of human beings to be incinerated and/or suffer severe radiation sickness and then die horrible deaths. You sick, sick monster.

Well, no, the point is that it is impossible for me (or anyone sensible) to feel certain about the alleged fact that (1) this terrorist person has vital information and (2) torture will obtain that information but (3) no non-torture option will. That scenario, or even a close approximation to it, is unrealistic in the worst sense.

So I wouldn’t be letting anyone die, in the sense of making the choice to not torture (and to question my own sanity, if I felt certain torture would obtain me accurate vital information); even thrown into a hypothetical situation that absurd, I simply wouldn’t ever have the power to save them, any more than any of the millions of people on the ground have the power to save themselves. Torture doesn’t get you reliable information, period. So if you’re even thinking about torturing someone for needed information, what you’re actually doing is torturing someone for false information that will lead you to chasing down a false lead while millions of people get nuked because you invested what little time you had into a technique that will fail you, regardless of whether or not you “feel certain” that it won’t. Which brings me to,

I would not “readily” mutilate a human being for information. I’m not like that at all.

True — you’d readily mutilate a human being for false information. So YOU’RE history’s greatest monster, so THERE.

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Salient 02.28.12 at 4:23 pm

Nobody cares what you find “inept”.

Hey now, I for one do care. It tells me something about the person speaking, if nothing else.

To create a thought experiment involving any imaginable situation is perfectly reasonable.

No, really, it’s not. Would you like for me to go on for a hundred pages lavishly detailing the horrible events I demand you consider hypothetically happening to every family member and friend you have, because on page one hundred and one I’m going to force you to make a painful decision about which of your family members you’re going to have to torture, regardless of the wild implausibility of the whole scenario?

Thought experiments that are designed to make people horribly uncomfortable are every bit as immoral as demanding they imagine a horribly painful, just for the sake of imagining it. Furthermore, these kinds of thought experiments are designed, intentionally, to hurt the audience, and cow them into submitting to your arguments.

The principal goal of a trolley-type problem is to damage your audience’s sense of the plausible.

I am really disquieted by the apparent fact that proponents of trolley-type problems do not see this. It’s as if psychological damage goes entirely unthought-about. When you demand someone envision themselves doing horrific things, by placing them in a completely artificial and unrealistic context in which they apparently must, what exactly are you accomplishing other than destroying that person’s sense of self?

An “intuition pump” primes a cold, calculating, nonindividual intuition. It’s personality-destroying. And that’s the point. It really, really is the point. Cut past all the messiness of individuals having individual methods of assessing situations, cut past them caring about different aspects of a scenario, refuse to let them perceive the situation before them as they would perceive it as a person, enforce a strict inhuman computational Turing structure onto them, force them all to behave like a binary computer robot with two choices they never would have considered to be choices if you hadn’t locked them into a train of thought they’d never have, and you’ve got an audience of (1) people whose nonrobotic selves just took a severe hit and (2) people so hurt by what you’re trying to do to them that they’re in full self-defense mode and trying their best to tune you out.

There’s nothing more moral in a trolley problem designed to induce discomfort, than there is in a long florid narrative passage about horrible things happening to the audience’s family in which the audience is periodically reminded they are incapable of doing anything but watching it all happen. Both cases are designed to wear away at the person listening to you until you’re able to dismiss their personhood, so that you can force them to adopt your style of thinking.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 4:25 pm

@Consumatopia

No, and you really are inept. You’ve made no bones about directing similar barbs in my direction and the truth is you know nothing of about half what you talk about — mathematics, physics, logic or philosophy.

There are no facts in logic save that some propositions are the consequences of others. The initial premises of morality like everything else are in the eyes of the beholder. They are assumptions — there is no objectively “true” starting point.

As no objective criteria exist to select one premise in preference to another, it follows that there are no “true” conclusions either. If two premises imply a contradiction, then at most one is correct, however.

Truth in science or the material world, insofar as it exists, is derived from observation. By contrast, ethical propositions are chosen rather than solely derived from observed, objective facts.

Your claims imply the collapse of everything since Aristotle.

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 5:02 pm

Adrian, it’s not about flinging barbs. I would have been happy to take this to some neutral turf and have at it. But nobody else here needs to see “Well that’s my real name above this post and I’m simply not letting go. I intend to defend my professional competence for as long as is required.” (118) Why the hell would anyone on Crooked Timber want to read that? The fact that you would even say that is a bigger problem for your “professional competence” than any mere logical error you could possibly make, in any profession I can imagine, unless that profession is “spammer”.

I think our exchange of posts above greatly decreases your credibility. You seem to disagree–you think it saves it. So I guess we both think we’re done here.

But if you had just started with “as no objective criteria exist to select one premise in preference to another, it follows that there are no ‘true’ conclusions either” you would have saved us a whole lot of time.

I mean, okay, you are not a moral realist, you do not believe “intuition pumps” in any way bring you closer to moral truth, or that moral truth exists at all. Fine. But then this whole thread, including the OP, is completely irrelevant to you.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 5:14 pm

@Consumatopia

I believe that large numbers of ethical principles are shared by large numbers of people and are mostly uncontroversial. It is moreover useful to test the implications and mutual compatibility of those principles so that they may be defined with ever greater perfection to the satisfaction of greater numbers of individuals. However everybody could agree on all ethical principles without making a single one of them objectively correct.

A principle is defined as “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning”.

To suggest that an exception does not invalidate a principle is to suggest that that which is without exception may possess exceptions, or that that which is a fundamental truth is not fundamental or that that which is a foundation for a system of belief is not a foundation. It is nonsense — literal gibberish.

What’s true of your opinions on fundamental principles is likewise true of your comprehension of mathematics and logic. Alternative mathematics, unlike science, is not a meaningful concept. It’s possible to argue with a contrary position but it is not possible to argue with gibberish because gibberish is not meaningful.

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 5:37 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

Seriously, if you do not believe “intuition pumps” in any way bring you closer to moral truth, or that moral truth exists at all, then John Holbo’s original post is already irrelevant to you. Everything else you say is just spam. If someone else thinks you’ve found a good objection to my points, they can ask me for clarification. But I don’t see a connection between your last post and my arguments.

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Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 5:49 pm

@Consumatopia

I didn’t say there are no moral truths, I said that they can’t be established objectively.

As regards gibberish:

#98
“When I’m considering refutations, it’s not that I rule out implausible ones, it’s that possibility isn’t sufficient to refute a theory.”

#153
“I’ve argued that thought experiments are useful, but a contradiction between the conclusions of your ethical premises and your intuitions in particular ethical thought experiment is not sufficient to refute the premises.”

#86
“…a universe in which physics and probability worked differently than ours would have different concepts of “person”, “life” and “torture”.”

161

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 6:03 pm

yes you did: @157 “it follows that there are no ‘true’ conclusions”

But, fine, if you do not believe “intuition pumps” in any way bring you closer to moral truth, then John Holbo’s original post is already irrelevant to you. (Did you notice the “or” in my original statement?)

#98, obviously true. Star Trek doesn’t refute relativity.

#153, to add emphasis, “I’ve argued that thought experiments are useful, but a contradiction between the conclusions of your ethical premises and your intuitions in particular ethical thought experiment is not sufficient to refute the premises.” Note, intuitions are not logical implications of the premises they would supposedly refute.

#86, “probability worked differently” means different sets of events are probable.

Is this somehow supposed to be related to #158? You’re spamming just like you promised to.

And don’t you get that someone who promised to spam a comment thread already has zero credibility, no matter what the other guy said?

162

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 6:09 pm

@Consumatopia

#98
Star Trek isn’t possible.

Just so we’re super-duper sure, just to make completely certain, are you now saying that the possibility here in actual reality of an exception does refute a principle?

163

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 6:21 pm

@Consumatopia

#61 “One can imagine a logically consistent universe in which the set of computable functions was different than the set we believe to be computable in our universe.”

AK: No we can’t.

164

Charles 02.28.12 at 6:21 pm

Adrian Kelleher,

In response to:

“As regards “Which of my preconceptions about morality inform me that inconsistency is a problem?”, I’d say none of them. If you’re inconsistent then you’re wrong somewhere. Correcting that error is a practical matter for you more than a moral issue.”

As you note at 156,

“There are no facts in logic save that some propositions are the consequences of others. The initial premises of morality like everything else are in the eyes of the beholder. They are assumptions—there is no objectively “true” starting point.”

Including the initial premise that contradiction or inconsistency is “wrong.” Morality begins with desire. Desires change. Is it wrong for me to want milk with breakfast and juice with lunch? If I insist on treating my dietary habits as some kind of proof, maybe, but then only on the basis of conflicting desires.

Logic, as a tool, cannot do even so much as to tell us what good and bad outcomes are. It can sometimes tell us how to get to what we want — that is, to get to what we feel is right or wrong. but even this is complicated by our continually conflicting, contradictory desires, which provide the underlying problems in all morality: we aren’t unified beings, what we want changes moment to moment, and even in one moment we want contradictory outcomes.

I think that the best way forward morally is to clarify what we want, and as much as possible, why we want it. That is at least a starting point for moving toward some kind of truth or clarity about what we are. So is it reasonable to run a thought experiment? Sure. It’s also reasonable to daydream, write a poem, or drink a bottle of whiskey. And in this context, probably more useful.

165

OCS 02.28.12 at 6:26 pm

Salient #155
Furthermore, these kinds of thought experiments are designed, intentionally, to hurt the audience, and cow them into submitting to your arguments.

The principal goal of a trolley-type problem is to damage your audience’s sense of the plausible.

Thanks for this. I’m finally beginning to understand the objections to a kind of thinking that it never occurred to me was objectionable. You and many others see these sorts of contrived ethical dilemmas as bludgeons intended to force a particular response. For me, though, it’s the kind of reasoning I do all the time. Why do I feel this way? What if I changed that detail, this circumstance? How do my intuitions change, and why? Is there an inconsistency, and if so does it suggest I should change a belief, or that I need to work harder to understand the source of my beliefs?

In the case of the trolley problems, I’ve actually found them quite illuminating about my own intuitions. I know Marc Hauser has since had his difficulties, but I found his book Moral Minds interesting. His idea is that we do have these wired-in moral intuitions, but they really have to be interrogated before we can understand what we believe and why. The trolley problem(s) give us a chance to try to isolate what feels wrong to us. Is it a matter of math? Better one die than four? Or is it a matter of responsibility (it’s better for one to die than four, but it’s wrong for me personally to take an action that causes anyone to die, even at the sacrifice of an additional three lives) etc.

Now, what would I do in a real trolley situation? I might freeze. I might panic. I might feel incapable of taking on the responsibility of the “right” action. I might doubt that I even knew what throwing the switch would do. I might notice that the lone hiker reminds me of my mother. The usefulness of the hypothetical problem is that it removes all of these influences, not because they’re not of practical importance, but because they confuse the issue I’m trying to isolate.

Let me look at the ticking time bomb case. I agree that it’s often employed as a bludgeon. But I think that considering it seriously can still help us figure out how we feel about the morality of torture and why.

So, ticking time bomb, terrorist, absolute certainty a bomb will go off without torture. I’d say yes, torture is allowable. Some people say no, not even in those circumstances. Already we’ve seen an important difference in moral stances.

But then I say, OK, I allow torture with absolute certainty. What about 90 percent certainty? 10 percent? Say you have 10 people, you know for certain one of them has the bomb info and torture will certainly reveal it. Is it OK to torture all 10 of them? How about 100? How about 100,000? How’s it change if you’re only 50 percent sure that there’s a bomb at all? Or 1 percent certain? My experience is that the more you multiply the uncertainties, the less people are willing to condone torture.

In my case, thinking through the ticking time bomb scenario — in addition to reading about the realities of the usefulness of torture, and the real-world tendency of torture to move quickly from ticking-time-bomb use to routine, maybe-he knows-something use — has convinced me that despite a hypothetical argument for torture, in the real-world torture should never, ever be used as a matter of policy.

That may make me less moral or less human than someone who refuses to consider the possibility of torture anywhere, ever. But if someone can’t even walk through my list of hypotheticals, I do have to question whether they’ve thought through (or perhaps intuited through) their objections, in which case I wonder if they’re really more certain than I am.

166

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 6:32 pm

@Adrian Kelleher 162

If we’re considering a law of physics, then simply throwing out “physically impossible” events, those that contradict physical law, is just throwing out all possible events that contradict the law you’re trying to refute. If you propose a law of physics, and I want to refute it, I have to show you either an actual event that contradicts it, or show that it contradicts some other law that you believe.

Showing that it’s “possible in actual reality” doesn’t mean anything in this context–since the very extent of what’s possible in actual reality is what you’re arguing over if you dispute a physical law.

If I state an ethical principle, and you want to refute it, you have to show how it contradicts some other law or conclusion reachable from my premise–not merely an intuition that we may happen to feel.

@163 It’s called the Church–Turing conjecture for a reason.

When you respond to what I said by going up and digging up unrelated stuff I said earlier, that suggets you don’t have so much confidence that what you earlier called “gibberish” truly is.

167

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 6:35 pm

@myself “If I state an ethical principle, and you want to refute it, you have to show how it contradicts some other law or conclusion reachable from my premise—not merely an intuition that we may happen to feel.”

Or you could show that some law or conclusion reachable from my premises is actually wrong, but AK doesn’t believe it’s possible to show that.

168

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 6:54 pm

@Consumatopia

You’ve made not one but multiple statements suggesting the possibility of alternative mathematics, so your suggestion of a universe where probability worked differently wasn’t an isolated offense. The Church Turing conjecture is irrelevant — yet another canard.

The set of computable functions cannot differ regardless of physical law because mathematics isn’t real: it’s defined, made up, imaginary.

I asked a simple question and got waffle. Once more: does the possibility of an exception refute a principle? It’s a fairly easy question, one most small children could answer if encouraged to refer to a dictionary.

169

DelRey 02.28.12 at 7:06 pm

Wartime bombing at least increases the probability that an enemy dies.

Then torture at least increases the probability that a ticking time bomb is found before it explodes. But you’ve missed the point, which is that in neither case is “certainty” required to justify the infliction of harm for some greater good. If we’re willing to drop bombs that kill and maim innocent civilians for uncertain military objectives, then we should be willing to inflict temporary pain on terrorist prisoners for uncertain prevention of catastrophic terrorist attacks.

170

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 7:18 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

First two paragraphs–I think we’re each satisfied that the exchange above vindicates us on all relevant issues. Don’t be surprised to see me link it.

Re: your question–my position at 166 was clear. It depends on what kind of principle and what kind of “exception”–you’ve used both terms in a variety of ways (especially “exception”, referring both to intuitions and logical inferences from premises.)

I do agree that if logical inferences from premises reach a contradiction, the premises are wrong. If that’s not good enough for you, you’re trying to get away with something dishonest.

171

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 7:23 pm

Then torture at least increases the probability that a ticking time bomb is found before it explodes.

No. I don’t see any point having a protracted argument on the efficacy of torture, but that’s precisely the point–we believe bizarre assumptions must be made in order to for the statement you just made to become true. Perhaps you believe, in the case of torture, we are wrong about that, but the topic of this thread is what bizarre assumptions imply for ethics, not which assumptions happen to be bizarre.

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Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 7:38 pm

The set of computable functions cannot differ regardless of physical law because mathematics isn’t real: it’s defined, made up, imaginary.

Actually, I have to go back here, because it’s too juicy. If the basis of your claim that I don’t know anything about mathematics because “mathematics isn’t real”, well, to paraphrase what you said earlier, Gödel is unimpressed.

Also, clarification: the sets of functions that are computable according to specific logically defined machines or languages is, of course, determined by mathematics. But other logically definable machines that we believe cannot be implemented in physical reality have different sets of computable functions.

173

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 9:28 pm

Re. computability:

Statements proven by Cantor such as Infinity > Infinity or Infinity + Infinity = Infinity mean infinity without qualification is vague — simply stating that a given quantity is infinite does not define it unambiguously. The idea remains controversial, but I’ll readily concede I’d no prior knowledge of hypercomputation. Whether an alternative universe embracing such infinities is therefore meaningfully “imaginable” is an interesting question and it’s not clear to me that a hypercomputer — possessing infinity as part of its definition — is in fact logically defined.

It doesn’t alter (though you have at the third prompting) your postulation of realities where probability works differently. You’ve redefined it as a place where different events are probable but of course that would be a universe where “physics worked differently and probability worked the same than [sic] ours” rather than the place you described where “physics and probability worked differently than our ours”.

Re. #166 which I’d skipped for the purposes of focus:

“If we’re considering a law of physics, then simply throwing out “physically impossible” events, those that contradict physical law, is just throwing out all possible events that contradict the law you’re trying to refute. If you propose a law of physics, and I want to refute it, I have to show you either an actual event that contradicts it, or show that it contradicts some other law that you believe.

“Showing that it’s “possible in actual reality” doesn’t mean anything in this context—since the very extent of what’s possible in actual reality is what you’re arguing over if you dispute a physical law.”

But we’re not arguing physical law, are we? Duh. We’re arguing ethics. “Possible” means simply “things that can happen”. If “things that can happen” violate an ethical “principle” then that “principle” is not always valid, and when it comes to “principles” ones not always valid are not in fact valid at all. That’s pretty straightforward.

#161, also skipped for brevity

“it follows that there are no ‘true’ conclusions” — You edited this. What I wrote was “as no objective criteria exist to select one [ethical - AK] premise in preference to another, it follows that there are no “true” conclusions either.” This isn’t controversial.

#108
“Furthermore, Adrian’s argument, not mine, is the one that depends crucially on some difference between improbable/implausible events and events that violate physical law. That distinction doesn’t matter to me—in fact, I don’t think it’s real, as physical law makes statements about probability and frequency (e.g. quantum and statistical mechanics).”

You may decide the difference between “impossible” and “improbable” isn’t real but the dictionary and the every physicist in the world holds a contrary position. Star Trek is impossible. This exchange is improbable. QED.

Likewise, re. #170: Whether an exception refutes a principle depends in no way “on what kind of principle and what kind of “exception””. It follows from the unambiguous definitions of “principle” and “exception”. I’d ask a third time whether exceptions — according to the common dictionary definition — violate principles — ditto — but what’s the use?

PS Please, please link to this page. The world deserves to share your #108 at least.

174

The Fool 02.28.12 at 9:40 pm

Del Rey is exactly right.

I will not rehearse all the arguments about the TTB because I have before and it became obvious that the detractors of the argument for saving millions of lives get far too emotional to make it worth the effort to enlighten the rule worshipping gits.

But I will ask people like Salient this: Are you really that certain that you couldn’t get any good information out of anyone by torturing them? Really? Because, I’m tougher than the average the dude, but as soon as they started applying electrical wires to my balls I ‘d sing like Adele. And its very important that you be like 99.9999999999999% certain that torture couldn’t possibly work in the TTB case. Because with millions of lives at stake, even a very small chance easily qualifies as worth it.

And if you are right, I wonder why the military totally wastes its time training its guys how to resist torture. Hey Pentagon: save the money dudes! Some lefty academic type on a blog assures me that torture totally doesn’t work. No worries!

175

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 10:39 pm

@Adrian Kelleher

I agree with your first paragraph, including the final statement of uncertainty (well, I think they have to be logically defined–the function that gives you the right answer to the Halting Problem is defined–but maybe there’s some other sense of logically real that they’re missing) That you hadn’t yet seen this (obscure and esoteric, I admit) corner of mathematics might explain why you are misinterpreting some of my words. Your problem is not so much that your position is indefensible as that you think many things are “basic” that are actually fairly subtle, and you aren’t aware of sufficiently many defensible positions on these things. Don’t lecture me on Gödel and then insult me because I don’t agree that “mathematics isn’t real”.

Also note that your first paragraph makes you look a bit reasonable, while “…I’m simply not letting go. I intend to defend my professional competence for as long as is required” does not.

If you want to say that when I said “probability works differently”, I should have said “different sets of events are probable”, fine. That doesn’t hurt any larger point I was making.

“which I’d skipped for the purposes of focus”

It doesn’t look good for you if you feel forced to go back to it. Nobody else here cares whether you or I are right here, so lets try to keep this short.

If “things that can happen” violate an ethical “principle”

No, an event, possible or actual, doesn’t violate an ethical claim by itself. Laws of physics ban things from happening. Laws of ethics tell you which things are wrong. Murder happens all the time, doesn’t mean that “murder is wrong” is wrong.

If you want to show that an ethical premise is wrong, you have to show either that it produces a contradiction, or that it bans something that is good. The latter forces you to look at two subtleties you refuse to look at. Does the ethical rule really ban the action (this can be subtle, see yourself @119, rules can have conditions), and is the action really good? But since you believe “no objective criteria exist to select one ethical premise in preference to another”, you have no basis on which to dispute anyone’s judgment on the latter. So you, given your logical position, can’t use the TTB or any dilemma to refute Kant or pacifists or anyone–they just say “no, it’s not right to torture no matter what” and they’re done.

“it follows that there are no ‘true’ conclusions”—You edited this. What I wrote was “as no objective criteria exist to select one [ethical – AK] premise in preference to another, it follows that there are no “true” conclusions either.” This isn’t controversial.

If you say “as X; it follows that Y”, and you believe X is true, that means you believe Y. I didn’t edit Y.

I don’t think physicists are gonna get too upset if I call something “impossible” when it’s astronomically unlikely by stat mech. There are even some classes of events that happen with infintesimal probability (example: that every time you drop an egg on your kitchen floor, it breaks, but 2 seconds later it reforms and flies back up towards your hand. This is has astronomically small yet non-infinitesimal chance of happening each time you drop the egg. But that it could happen every time, an infinite number of times, while not ruled out by deterministic laws of physics, has infinitesimal probability.

Are there events (or infinite series of events) with infinitesimal probability? Should such events be call “impossible” or “improbable”? I think physicists would take a variety of positions on both questions, and so neither answer particularly embarrasses me. If this is the crown jewel of your campaign here–well, okay, I guess we’re both happy.

I don’t trust you to use “exception” and “principle” honestly. I said “if logical inferences from premises reach a contradiction, the premises are wrong.” Tell me, what is the difference between “principle” and “premise”? Between “exception” and “contradiction”?

re: linking, thank you for your gracious invitation.

176

Salient 02.28.12 at 10:40 pm

Because with millions of lives at stake, even a very small chance easily qualifies as worth it.

Alright, I’m done with you. I’d like for you to go on record specifically asserting that you’d be willing to rape someone in order to obtain information from them. No, wait, actually, I’d like for you to go on record saying you’d be willing to rape their children in order to obtain information from them. Here’s the situation you’re in. No no, you don’t get to protest. No no, you don’t get to stop playing. I tell you the situation, then I judge you according to your performance. That’s how these games work.

So here’s the situation. You’re not in the presence of the terrorist, you’re among his kids, aged four to thirteen, and he’s on video feed, watching and hearing what you do. You’re completely certain that you can convince the terrorist to give you information, but only if you rape at least three of the four children to death while flaying their flesh with a steak knife, and you’re certain you will also have to begin raping the fourth before obtaining the information you need in order to save ten million lives. You’re convinced that he won’t really believe you’re doing what you’re doing unless you begin removing organs from the living children with the steak knife. You have to make sure the children survive for at least an hour and a half each, because you’re only certain he will give you the information if you do exactly this for a total of at least six hours, because you know exactly when and why he will finally cave and give you the information you need.

Heighten the contradictions enough for you? If you’re not willing to play this game, and specifically word for word type out exactly what I am saying you have to do in order to save lives then FUCK OFF AND DIE ASSHOLE, because you’re just talking meaningless nonsense shit, and the moment you’re confronted with having to do exactly the kind of thing you’re shoving down our throats, you’re not even willing to play the game you insist we must play for you.

The whole fucking point I’m trying to make is that no human being will never, ever, ever be in anything even remotely comparable the kind of situation you’re describing, so if we’re going to talk about asinine crazily implausible situations, then let’s fucking talk asinine crazily implausible situations.

But hey. I read some serial killer documentary books as a teenager, I can play this game all day. And I’m better at it then you are, if only because (1) it’s really not hard to just type in random disgusting things for you to endure as a ‘thought experiment’ and (2) from prior reading I have some ‘creative’ source material to draw on that I haven’t even attempted to tap just yet. When you’re done with the first ‘thought experiment’ scenario I’m forcing you to entertain, no worries. I have a second. And a third. And a fourth. You might want to grab a cup of coffee before returning to your keyboard to hammer in your answers to the games I’m going to insist you play. We’re going to be here for a long. long. while.

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Salient 02.28.12 at 10:56 pm

That may make me less moral or less human than someone who refuses to consider the possibility of torture anywhere, ever.

No, it doesn’t, precisely because you’re backing off from pushing the insistence on certainty in order to contemplate more realistic scenarios, and you’re interested in moving away from implausible pseudo-realities and toward plausible realities with your reasoning. That’s exactly what needs to happen. If we were talking about this and you proposed a thought experiment and I said “I’m not willing to adopt such a strange position of certainty,” I imagine you saying something like, well, okay, let’s compromise on a more realistic scenario to contemplate, and start from there.

Granted, that renders the thought experiment that I declined useless as a rhetorical tool for you, but… you’re not trying to use the thought experiment as a rhetorical tool, or as a means for positioning the person you’re talking with.

There’s also a huge difference between ‘propose for consideration’ and ‘contemplate via introspection’ — consider, it’s actually fairly reasonable for me to introspectively contemplate how I would feel and react if I were sexually assaulted, but it would be absolutely awful of me to propose to people that they ought to engage in a thought experiment in which they have to imagine themselves having just been sexually assaulted. But again, what you use to contemplate ideas in your own head and formulate your own sense of self is not a rhetorical tool, and I’m protesting the use of (some) thought experiments as rhetorical tools deployed for psychologically manipulative purposes, with the intent of suggesting that quite a lot of supposedly benign thought-experiment situations actually fall under that italicized category.

178

The Fool 02.28.12 at 11:11 pm

@Salient

See what I mean about the posturing “purists” getting all emotional?

Bye bye now.

179

Consumatopia 02.28.12 at 11:18 pm

@Salient
Seems to heighten the contradictions for them enough to restore some semblance of humanity, even though, of course, rape is a subcategory of torture.

Yeah I’ve noticed that among many people (including myself), “would you do X to stop a bomb from exploding” is variable on X in strange ways. To the point where for a lot of values of X I can only say “I don’t know. I don’t know what the right choice is and I don’t know what I would do.” The exercise is not only psychologically destructive, it’s socially destructive (which is kind of a problem for ethics in a democracy, right?) and doesn’t produce reliable results.

“Bye bye now”. Huh. Well at least he didn’t tell you about his mother.

180

OCS 02.28.12 at 11:33 pm

Salient @177

I see what you mean — the difference is between proposing these scenarios to provoke thought and merely to bully someone into agreement. I agree that the ticking time bomb scenario is often used the latter way.

Still, I think it’s useful to at least try and consider these scenarios. For instance, the disturbing scenario you painted above about raping and torturing a terrorist’s offspring to death. Although I said earlier that I think torturing a terrorist with the certainty of saving a million innocent people is morally allowable, the scenario you paint makes me reconsider. It is unimaginable to me to say it would be okay to torture children to death, no matter what the benefit. Why? Is it their innocence? The fact that they’re children? Both? Are there in fact things we should not contemplate doing because they are fundamentally inhuman, no matter how many might be saved? And if there are such things, should torture, even of a guilty adult, not be one of them? Although I will never find myself in the position of making that decision, imagining how I would feel about it does help clarify to myself the intuitions I have about morality.

I actually agree with you that these lines of thinking are disturbing. (Personally I’ve never read a serial killer novel, and I can’t believe people willingly watch things like the Saw movies). I wouldn’t bother to engage in these thought experiments except that, unbelievably, the US found itself as a nation engaged in a debate about the morality of torture. Once torture as policy was a live option, I ended up spending more time than I wanted trying to figure out why I felt the way I did about it.

181

Salient 02.28.12 at 11:41 pm

See what I mean about the posturing “purists” getting all emotional?

…I really can’t top this. I’ll have to link this thread from now on when I make some variation of my usual point about the relationship between dehumanizing thought experiments and maliciously aggressive thought-experiment proposers and proponents.

Which I might as well wrap up with, some portion of what JH identifies as whimsy, and monikers Occam’s Phaser, I call out as concealed malice, and moniker Occam’s Tazer.

182

Salient 02.28.12 at 11:59 pm

OCS, what might make it all the more disturbing is that that was basically a relationship-changing bonding experience with my mom, who became determined to write a serial killer novel after seeing an episode of 48 Hours Mystery during my junior year in high school, and then discovered in a library trip that fictionalized serial killer novels are, like, a thing. (I won serious points for proposing that this must be a ‘cottage industry’ with the cottage owned by Annie Wilkes.) For what it’s worth, Mom also at various times wanted to write a historical romance set in Czechoslovakia [after discovering she had ancestral ties there], a ‘hackbook’ about a computer security expert who wired herself to a nuclear bomb ‘to be as dangerous offline as she was online’ [after seeing one of those hacker movies], and a children’s novel about an unfurnished basement that both curls in on itself and extends onward forever [I chalk this one up to divine inspiration]. We were both pretty creeped out and/or entertained to discover Snow Crash and House of Leaves a few years later

But anyway, part of my intended point is that many seemingly-innocuous thought experiments implicitly serve “to bully someone into agreement” in a much subtler fashion, by depriving them of the agency they possess as a person, and reducing them to a kind of logic machine capable only of thinking and doing what you say they ought to be thinking and doing. The classic trolley problem itself is a fine example of this; the ticking time-bomb thought experiment is just a conveniently obvious example.

183

DelRey 02.29.12 at 12:01 am

we believe bizarre assumptions must be made in order to for the statement you just made to become true

What I typically see is critics of the TTB scenario making their own bizarre assumptions (e.g., “you’d have to be CERTAIN the prisoner knew the location of the bomb,” “you’d have to be CERTAIN the torture would work”) and then falsely attributing those bizarre assumptions to their opponents.

184

Charles 02.29.12 at 12:02 am

OCS,

“Are there in fact things we should not contemplate doing because they are fundamentally inhuman, no matter how many might be saved?”

Actions that we would both probably find utterly unconscionable have been (or perhaps are) cultural norms in some places, and would be good candidates for “fundamentally inhuman.” Child slave labor comes to mind, as do various forms of sexual slavery. But the problem with the “fundamentally inhuman” category is that human beings did these things. These actions are fundamentally human. (If the word “fundamental” means anything at all in this context, which I sometimes question.)

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 12:07 am

Those aren’t assumptions, those are statements about what you would need to assume to make torture either effective or justifiable. I am not spending time arguing over the truth of those statements in this thread. Torture is not the main point here.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 12:09 am

#185 was @183

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 12:27 am

Those aren’t assumptions, those are statements about what you would need to assume to make torture either effective or justifiable.

They’re assumptions about the conditions that would need to be satisfied for the use of torture to be justified. False assumptions.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 12:33 am

@187, they’re not assumptions, they’re assertions–things that they believe to be true about this world, not that are true in some hypothetical world they are considering. They aren’t telling you to assume it’s true, they’re telling you that it’s true.

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The Fool 02.29.12 at 12:35 am

I will make one last post on this topic.

Salient: you have really embarrassed yourself here. When you start talking about “maliciously aggressive thought-experiment proposers” the projection is obvious. You have issues, my friend.

But to the lefty community at large: I am one of you. I hate torture. Really, truly, honestly, and viscerally. My revulsion at the credible reports of torture being inflicted on peasants by the Contras back in the 80′s is what first radicalized me politically.

BUT, that said, you do those of us in the strongly anti-torture camp no favors at all by making transparently ludicrous straw man arguments and making patently false claims. Making these paethetically weak arguments is ultimately detrimental to your cause. So enough with the lame arguments.

Just as a matter of pure communcations strategy you need to understand that you will NEVER convince average people that torture can’t work. The best argument I heard on this point was in a long ago thread on this very topic. Someone chimed in and said I know torture works because back in 3rd grade when Billy Smith stole my lunch, I sat on him and beat him until he told me where it was. You will never convince people with your hand wavy straw man arguments that the Billy Smith argument does not establish the efficacy of torture. Of course torture can work! Do you take us for fools? Do you think that just because something is morally wrong that it cannot work? If only the universe actually worked that way!

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 12:41 am

It is unimaginable to me to say it would be okay to torture children to death, no matter what the benefit.

The Allies dropped bombs on Germany and Japan in WWII that killed countless children in horrific, agonizing ways (burning them to death, blowing their limbs off, etc.). And the people who authorized these bombings certainly knew that they were going to cause civilian casualties. There doesn’t seem to be any general sense that causing the deaths of innocent civilians, including children, in the course of fighting a war is always wrong. We accept the deaths as a regrettable but necessary price for the greater good.

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 12:49 am

they’re not assumptions,

Yes, they are assumptions. They’re false assumptions about what would need to be true for the use of torture to be justified.

Just as a matter of pure communcations strategy you need to understand that you will NEVER convince average people that torture can’t work.

We know torture can work. Even just the threat of torture can work. A man in Germany who had kidnapped a boy for ransom revealed where he had hidden the child after being threatened with torture.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 12:55 am

@DelRey, see 188 again. We’re talking about assumptions the person posing the scenario asks you to make. That’s the only kind of assumption relevant here. Things that they happen to believe that aren’t true is not what “Occam’s Phaser” is about.

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 1:04 am

We’re talking about assumptions the person posing the scenario asks you to make.

No, we’re talking about (bizarre) assumptions, period. You are certainly free to assume that a ticking time bomb scenario could never arise in the real world, but I doubt many people would agree with you.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 1:13 am

@193, sorry, you still don’t get it. Occam’s Phaser is not just people believing incorrect things.

I understand that you have larger opinions on torture not specific to this thread. Maybe take them up in another thread that mentions torture in the original post?

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 1:16 am

@193, sorry, you still don’t get it. Occam’s Phaser is not just people believing incorrect things.

No, you don’t get it. I’m not talking about “Occam’s Phaser.” I’m responding to your comments about assumptions.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 1:20 am

My comments are all about Occam’s Phaser, so, no, you aren’t responding to my comments. You’re just misunderstanding them.

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Salient 02.29.12 at 1:23 am

“Bye bye now”. Huh.

You can always distinguish the trolls from the real people by their declaration of goodbye followed by a return to the thread, as if the power of Christ compelled them.

Fool: I am one of you. I hate torture. Really, truly, honestly, and viscerally.

Fool: you’re goddamn right I would torture

Well, aren’t you bold, declaring your open enthusiasm for doing something you really, truly, honestly, and viscerally hate, and raining contempt on those who wouldn’t charge right into the torture chamber alongside you. Look, one of those two statements above is a lie–people might do something they really honestly truly hate, sure, but not with the gusto you put on display. Nobody could bring themselves to say “you’re goddamn right I would rape her” if they truly, honestly, really, viscerally hated rape — even if they found themselves in the horrific and implausible scene I painted for you above in #176 and actually found they needed to become a monster in order to be a hero, in classic Rorschach fashion. Pretty much every response I’ve given you has been with the aim of nudging you into realizing that the most revealing thing you’ve said, this whole time, was “you’re goddamn right.” Actually, hardly any of the rest matters.

As for which of the two statements is the lie and which is the revealing truth, for rhetorical reasons, I’m tempted to go with the one that sounds like after-the-fact pleading, but I have enough sense in my head to know that’s unfair. I’m goddamn right that “you’re goddamn right I would torture” is a goddamn lie.

What I do think is true is that your sense of context has been corrupted by the very thought experiment you demand we share your enthusiasm for, in exactly the way that I’m arguing thought experiments corrupt the people who flirt with them. For all your aggression — you pathetically weak lame ludicrous people, I’m one of you! — you’re no torturer, and in the event you found yourself up against a TTB scenario like you describe, you’d crack and fall apart, same as anyone else who’s not actually a moral monster. I refuse to believe you would, in any real, earthly scenario, torture another human being. Your enthused declaration to the contrary? That was a lie. I’ll take as given that you’ve managed to convince yourself it’s true. That must suck. I’m not really trying to rescue you from that misconviction; I’m just trying to challenge its acceptance as the default from which only radicals deviate.

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 1:24 am

The comments of yours I am responding to are most definitely about assumptions. The only way I could be misunderstanding them is if you didn’t mean what you wrote.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 1:33 am

Assumptions in the context of Occam’s Phaser. See 171. If you can’t get this basic stuff, it is good that your further threadjacking has fizzled.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 1:41 am

Also, I may have been lazy and unfortunately copied your usage of “assumption” to mean something that you believe to be true that your argument depends on, but that’s not what it means. If it’s an assumption, it doesn’t matter whether or not it its true. Get it?

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 2:22 am

Assumptions in the context of Occam’s Phaser

No, assumptions in the context of what you wrote. If you didn’t mean what you wrote, that’s your problem, not mine.

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Royal Cheese 02.29.12 at 2:58 am

I seem to remember how the ticking bomb scenario was discussed a few years ago, in the context of attempts to legalize torture. It was a useful discussion, and in the end most people concluded that, even though inflicting pain on someone may, under rare circumstances, be necessary, legalizing torture would be, nevertheless, a very bad idea.

That’s the story of the ticking bomb scenario. Well, it looks like this may not be the whole story. I didn’t realize, but apparently it has another useful application: to make a moral absolutist throw a hissy fit.

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DelRey 02.29.12 at 5:36 am

legalizing torture would be, nevertheless, a very bad idea.

But it’s only sorta, kinda illegal even now. Not only does the vagueness of the statute (“severe pain,” etc. ) make torture hard to reliably prosecute, but there is little willingness to prosecute torture done in the name of national security anyway, as the Obama Administration’s total failure to go after anyone involved in the Bush-era “torture regime” demonstrates.

Totally agree with you about moral absolutists and hissy fits.

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js. 02.29.12 at 5:59 am

I’m curious what the contrast class for a “moral absolutist” is. A moral relativist? A moral fudge-ist? A moral obfuscation-ist?

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greg 02.29.12 at 6:44 am

Charles @184 : ““Are there in fact things we should not contemplate doing because they are fundamentally inhuman, no matter how many might be saved?””

Is all conflict, all warfare, ultimately moral warfare? That is the holder, the practitioner, of the higher moral principles eventually wins? The terrorist would say no. But what was the proper response to 9/11? The War on Terror? We, the US, have inflicted terror on nations and millions of people, and what have we bought with it?
Enemies, more than before.

Would we not have done better to set our house in order, and if we were to go to war, to attack instead the moral foundations of those who use terror?

Or are the terrorists correct, that there are no moral foundations, but merely the whims of God?

And is the US’s decision, to fight terror with terror, to use torture, etc., not only an abdication of the moral high ground, but an admission that none exists?

If so, this means there is no end to it, but only more terror.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 1:55 pm

That is the holder, the practitioner, of the higher moral principles eventually wins? The terrorist would say no

I think more importantly for the USA’s strategic position, the People’s Republic of China would say no. They argue against our claims that what we consider moral governance is the most effective way to run a country, they claim vindication when we deviate from our principles to pursue some end (e.g. ‘we told you so’ editorials in response to SOPA), and they push against any attempt to shift international human rights norms in a stronger direction.

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Charles 02.29.12 at 2:23 pm

greg,

Just to be clear, the section of 184 you quoted was me quoting OCS.

I’m not sure how to respond to you within the confines of the topic. I guess I just don’t find questions like “Who has the higher moral principle” and “Who has the moral high ground” to be philosophically useful. That is to say, I don’t think they help us figure out why we (and others) act the way we (and they) do. That’s because I don’t think principles are ever actually the foundations of morals. I see them as formulations that we insist on after the actual foundations — a tangled complex of our desires, preferences, habits, learning, cultural training, etc. — have done much of their work. I’m therefore less interested in what I believe than I am in why I believe it.

What this adds up to, for me, regarding the issues you’ve raised, is that the important moral questions any of us would do well to look at are: What kind world do I want to live in? What would the world look like if it were to satisfy my complex tangle of desires etc? I think that’s a more useful exercise that working with the kinds of bizarre thought experiments mentioned in the original post about Occam’s Phaser. It leads to a host of problems — including the problem that the things required to satisfy many of the desires in that complex tangle are incompatible — but I think those problems are valuable and can tell us a great deal about what we are. Unfortunately this kind of inquiry is more difficult, because we have a tendency to hide many of our desires from ourselves.

I think your questions about the best course for a nation to take have to come after this kind of reflection. They are essentially questions about strategy (how to get to what we want) and not morals (how to get to clarity about what we want). If what “we” want is human misery, increased terror, enemies — we’ve certainly done a great job.

Also, in case you missed it in the swamp of posts, I responded to your comment at 96 in my comment at 150. I’m not requesting a response, just wanted to make sure you’d seen it.

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ajay 02.29.12 at 2:30 pm

Is all conflict, all warfare, ultimately moral warfare? That is the holder, the practitioner, of the higher moral principles eventually wins? The terrorist would say no.

I think most historians would say no as well. And most Cherokee.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 2:36 pm

Change it slightly to “some one of higher moral principles eventually wins”, even if that’s just the future children of the present day villian, and it becomes plausible.

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Steve LaBonne 02.29.12 at 2:39 pm

Charles @207 has beautifully summarized how I view these matters as well. Thank you.

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ajay 02.29.12 at 2:44 pm

Change it slightly to “some one of higher moral principles eventually wins”, even if that’s just the future children of the present day villian, and it becomes plausible.

Sounds awfully Whiggish, if you ask me. And undisprovable: if I point to something really unarguable, some little harmless group which was utterly crushed by the PLA for example, all you have to say is “well, the morally superior group hasn’t won yet, but it will”.

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.29.12 at 3:48 pm

Interesting that through 200+ comments, no one has mentioned the concept of reflective equilibrium. I really like Nelson Goodman’s original formulation of it, which goes like this: “A rule is amended if it yields an inference we are unwilling to accept; an inference is rejected if it violates a rule we are unwilling to amend.”

That’s what this debate is really about. If you think of an ethical principle as a sort of blob (bear with me here), universalizing that principle means that you’re expanding that blob (like the balloon in that Don Barthelme story) until it encompasses the entire world of ethical possibility. Actually, it’s even worse than that, because unless you explicitly restrict yourself, your blob will consume all possible worlds too. So what these wacky examples do is construct possible worlds where your blob runs up against some hard corner that it can’t consume. They basically define the edges of your principle-blob by performing a reductio to conclusions you are likely unwilling to accept, largely because they’re repugnant (and parenthetically I concur with everything said by Salient above).

Ok, so what’s the problem? The problem is that ethical principles don’t deductively commit you the way that logical rules do; they aren’t deductive axioms so much as they are heuristics. Maybe I believe that being a good guy is the right thing to do 99% of the time but then there’s that 1% of the time when it’s more important to be the bad guy, in contravention of my allegedly held “be a good guy” principle. So the thought experiment plays an abstraction game where it smuggles in a deductive conclusion in place of something that wasn’t ever really intended to be a starting point for universal deduction anyway. I say “universal” here because obviously we do make some deductions from ethical principles (e.g. if we value bodily autonomy, we might say that abortion is justifiable, and so on) but they’re only a kind of iterative approximation. Most of the commenters here are presumably fine with using force to compel people to pay taxes, but not, say, using force to compel people not to politically oppose the government. That stance doesn’t resolve into anything like a single view of force and there isn’t one principle (or even a small set of principles) that you can deduce that position from.

What you’ve really got is a bunch of general heuristics that provide a kind of basic framework on which to hang your ethical philosophy. It’s bad to use force, generally, except sometimes it isn’t. It’s good to allow people to speak freely, except for those times when maybe it’s not. And so on. And you perform this kind of iterative refinement of these principles over and over again by taking real-world situations and examining how they play out, which is sort of like having a house frame and then figuring out how to furnish it. Of course if your initial principles suck (“be a dick to all”) then probably your society won’t even get off the ground, but the mistake that cute thought experiments that “abstract away the details so you can focus on the principles” make is that they claim that committing to a particular house frame implies an implicit commitment to the kind of rug you want in your living room or the kind of faucet you’re going to get for your bathroom. And if you claim that you find this rug repellent (“It doesn’t tie the room together at all!”), then, well, you’re being inconsistent.

We’ve got a word for people who view ethical frameworks as deductive axioms that must be followed to their allegedly logical conclusions and damn the consequences: libertarians. Most of the rest of us understand, quite sensibly, that ethics (in the actual, real world) does not work that way, and are at peace with this.

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Sebastian 02.29.12 at 4:03 pm

“We’ve got a word for people who view ethical frameworks as deductive axioms that must be followed to their allegedly logical conclusions and damn the consequences: libertarians. “

I’m following you up to there, but this seems to reduce the implications of your point too much. Probably closer if you say “we call them fundamentalists” and they come in almost any ideological stripe. I’m pretty sure we’ve seen Communists, Muslims, Christians, monarchists, environmentalists, AND libertarians, who all operate that way.

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Jerry Vinokurov 02.29.12 at 4:14 pm

Sorry, I couldn’t resist a joke at libertarians’ expense. Obviously, there are other examples, but at least in the modern American context, this is the most salient one, to me. Feel free to substitute the bugbear of your choice.

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js. 02.29.12 at 6:22 pm

Interesting that through 200+ comments, no one has mentioned the concept of reflective equilibrium.

Actually, I did, way, way upthread, (before it all descended into hackery about torture and I lost interest in the thread). I had Rawls in mind more than Goodman, but the point is ultimately similar. Bertram made a similar point I think without using the exact phrase. In any case, you make the right points I think.

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The Fool 02.29.12 at 11:30 pm

@Vinokurov who said, “We’ve got a word for people who view ethical frameworks as deductive axioms that must be followed to their allegedly logical conclusions and damn the consequences”

There is another word for them: deontologists. Of course, no self-respecting consequentialist would ever say, “damn the consequences.”

I’m sure it would be nice for you to think you could dismiss the TTB thought experiment with a wave of your hand as thoughtless rationalism gone amok. But it isn’t. You can be quite nuanced and open minded and reflective and still conclude, all things considered, that the good of saving millions of lives far exceeds the good of not torturing a terrorist.

Whatever the basis of your reflection is — whether it be heuristics or first principles or simple common sense — you will need to apply it to the question at hand. And a thought experiment that makes the issues in question clear will still be useful in applying those heuristics or first principles or common sense.

Why don’t you all quit trying to come up with some bullshit methodological reason to contradict the TTB and just grasp the nettle? Do you have any good substantive reason that will survive common sense reflective equilibrium to prefer protecting a terrorist to saving millions of lives?

For any sane person in the real world it would take all of about 2 seconds of reflection to make the right call. It is the detractors of those who support saving millions of lives who are the ones stuck on a rationalistic “principle” of no torture that nothing can move them off of, not those of us pointing to the obvious implications of the TTB.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 11:40 pm

Deontologists are the only people with any business using improbable thought experiments. A utilitarian evaluating a proposed rule change must weigh the probabilities of all the situations the rule change applies to.

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Consumatopia 02.29.12 at 11:54 pm

Also, The Fool, unless I misunderstood Jerry, his point was that, even allowing that “there’s that 1% of the time when it’s more important to be the bad guy”, it’s not necessarily wise to rewrite your heuristics to be consistent with that 1% of the time.

I think you’re misunderstanding many of the people you’re replying to–they aren’t all positively declaring that they would not torture in the TTB case (not necessarily admitting that they would, either), but they are all refusing to write a general code of morality that would permit it.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 12:22 am

Why don’t you all quit trying to come up with some bullshit methodological reason to contradict the TTB and just grasp the nettle?

Because bullshit is all they’ve got. Tediously long-winded and repetitious bullshit.

they are all refusing to write a general code of morality that would permit it.

Like other kinds of action, such as killing and injuring and stealing, torture is generally wrong, but in certain situations it isn’t. Voila, there’s your “general code of morality” that permits torture.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 12:28 am

And well-demonstrated refusal to read is all you’ve got.

If you can’t see that torture could decrease the chance you will find good information, that it could be difficult to tell when it decreases or increases that chance, and that having an explicit list of situations allowing and permitting torture could itself decrease utility, I can’t help you.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 12:40 am

If you can’t see that torture could decrease the chance you will find good information, that it could be difficult to tell when it decreases or increases that chance, and that having an explicit list of situations allowing and permitting torture could itself decrease utility, I can’t help you.

I can see that torture *could* have many different effects. If you can’t see that that’s not a serious reason to oppose all torture, I can’t help you.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 1:07 am

Oh, but once you’ve admitted that those things could be true, then your work isn’t done–you have to argue that for the particular list of scenarios you want to add (which you haven’t even bothered to specify yet) they aren’t true.

And if you aren’t beyond all hope, you’ll see that that argument is too complicated to start @ post 222+ in an unrelated thread that started 4 days ago. But if you are beyond all hope, carry on. If I see you say something non-idiotic, I might respond.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 1:23 am

Oh, but once you’ve admitted that those things could be true, then your work isn’t done—you have to argue that for the particular list of scenarios you want to add (which you haven’t even bothered to specify yet) they aren’t true.

You’re funny. If I have to argue that for torture, then you have to argue it for homicide, injury, detention, imprisonment, etc., assuming you do not oppose those acts in all cases. You’d better get started. It’s going to take you a while.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 2:07 am

If I have to … then you have to…

Neither of us have to do anything. We’re off-topic, we can discuss it another day.

But it’s actually pretty simple. We DO have rules that specify when we can impose all of those things on people in our custody. One of those rules is due process. And part of due process is that you can’t compel people to testify against themselves. Which is exactly the point of torture. Torture breaks down the whole system.

Yeah, me personally, I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law. But that’s what’s at stake when you decide to torture.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 2:35 am

Neither of us have to do anything.

Make up your mind.

We DO have rules that specify when we can impose all of those things on people in our custody. One of those rules is due process.

This is nonsense. There is no “due process” requirement for killing, injuring or imprisoning people in a war. Torture could be authorized at the discretion of the president or some lesser government official, just as bombing raids and other military actions already are. But a “due process” procedure could be established for torture, anyway. Alan Dershowitz has proposed to regulate torture using warrants issued by a judge, for example.

And part of due process is that you can’t compel people to testify against themselves. Which is exactly the point of torture. Torture breaks down the whole system.

You are hopelessly confused. A witness cannot be compelled to testify against himself in a court of law. But a prisoner can most definitely be interrogated against his will by police or military officers. You’re also completely wrong about the “point of torture” in a TTB scenario. The purpose of the torture is to obtain the information needed to prevent a catastrophe. That information may also be used in a criminal prosecution of the prisoner, just as information obtained using conventional interrogation techniques may be used for that purpose.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 2:52 am

Yeah, me personally, I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law. But that’s what’s at stake when you decide to torture.

Golly, “undermining our system of law.” How chilling. There are lots of laws that are rarely enforced. And lots of other laws that are occasionally broken in extreme circumstances for some greater good. Preventing a million people from being incinerated in a nuclear fireball would seem to be a greater good than sparing a terrorist from five minutes of waterboarding.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 3:00 am

We DO have rules that specify when we can impose all of those things on people in our custody.

I’m aware that we follow that principle imperfectly. I think that’s a mistake.

You have the right to remain silent under interrogation. You can remain silent before, during, and after your trial. Torture destroys due process.

Make up your mind

If you want to make the case, I explained what you have to do. If you wisely realize this is the wrong time, you can wait. The task you set for me was basic enough that I figured I’d answer. But I’ve spent enough time off-topic.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 3:04 am

@DelRay

Golly, “undermining our system of law.” How chilling.

Thank you.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 3:24 am

We DO have rules that specify when we can impose all of those things on people in our custody.

I’m not sure how you think we could imprison someone who is not in our custody. We do not require a legal conviction be we lock up prisoners of war. And why should “custody” matter, anyway? If we can blow innocent children to bits without due process by dropping bombs on them, why shouldn’t we be able to waterboard a terrorist without due process to save a million lives? And as I said, a due process procedure could be established for torture, anyway. Did you miss that? You keep repeating false claims that I have already answered.

Thank you.

Find a dictionary and look up the word “sarcasm.”

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 3:31 am

If you want to make the case, I explained what you have to do.

I’ll make that case for torturing people just as soon as you make it for killing, injuring and imprisoning people, all of which could also have adverse consequences that negate their anticipated benefit.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 3:32 am

Uh, yeah, that’s why I thanked you. I wish I could get some kind of sound or video of you saying “Golly, ‘undermining our system of law.’ How chilling.” in your most sarcastic voice.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 3:38 am

DelRay, #224 is the relevant post. Make whatever other additional mistakes you want, but that’s the key post of our exchange. That and “Golly, ‘undermining our system of law.’ How chilling.”

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 3:54 am

DelRay, #224 is the relevant post

I already responded to that post. Your factual claims about due process and custody are simply false, as I already explained. And even if they were true, you haven’t explained why they’re relevant, anyway. Nor have you explained why we should care if torture “undermines our system of law” when we already do that in a hundred other ways. I’m not sure why you’re even still arguing, given that you’ve already admitted, albeit in your characteristically clumsy phrasing, that “I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law.”

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 4:22 am

You said “Golly, ‘undermining our system of law.’ How chilling.” So, of course, #224 doesn’t convince you. From your perspective, much of our existing system of laws is superfluous or unimportant. “And why should ‘custody’ matter, anyway?”–hey, ask the people who wrote the laws, precedents and treaties saying that it does. Anyone else can read #224 and judge for themselves if they share your objections to it, or even find them sensible.

I’m not sure why you’re even still arguing, given that you’ve already admitted, albeit in your characteristically clumsy phrasing, that “I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law.”

Well, think harder, can you see the difference between my admission and your position? Can you see a difference between Royal Cheese’s position up above and Alan Dershowitz’s position?

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 4:56 am

So, of course, #224 doesn’t convince you. From your perspective, much of our existing system of laws is superfluous or unimportant.

No, I’m saying that many laws are enforced only rarely, many others are broken with impunity in emergency situations, and that there is nothing particularly controversial about this. Which is one reason why your claim that any use of torture at all, even in an emergency situation to save thousands of lives, would “undermine our system of laws” is so silly. What really would undermine our system of laws is a rigid, no-exceptions enforcement policy. The Obama Administration understands this, which is why it has refused to prosecute anyone involved in the Bush-era national security “torture regime.” And that didn’t even involve any ticking time bombs. Just broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering.

“And why should ‘custody’ matter, anyway?”—hey, ask the people who wrote the laws, precedents and treaties saying that it does.

No, I’m asking you, since you’re the one who cited it as if it’s relevant here. If we can blow innocent children to bits without due process by dropping bombs on them, and lock up prisoners of war without due process, why shouldn’t we be able to waterboard a terrorist without due process?

Well, think harder, can you see the difference between my admission and your position?

State clearly what your position is, and I’ll let you know. I think it’s obvious that you’re at war with yourself on this issue. You’ve pretty much conceded that you think torture might sometimes be justified, but you hate yourself for making that admission, so you keep trying to come up with arguments against it, like all this guff about custody and due process and undermining the law.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 5:05 am

People can compare our last two posts and judge for themselves if you’ve made any sense at all, or even understood what I was saying.

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The Fool 03.01.12 at 5:16 am

Del Rey said, “What really would undermine our system of laws is a rigid, no-exceptions enforcement policy. The Obama Administration understands this, which is why it has refused to prosecute anyone involved in the Bush-era national security “torture regime.”

Bro, I’ve been with you thus far but here is where I part company with you. The Bush-Cheney administrartion faced nothing remotely like the TTB. What they mostly faced was the dire consequences of their own lies. They got probably hundreds of thousands of people killed based on loads of dishonest horseshit and for that they are ignominious war criminals who deserve to be tried in the Hague and probably hung.

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greg 03.01.12 at 5:29 am

Charles @ 207
“…They are essentially questions about strategy (how to get to what we want) and not morals (how to get to clarity about what we want).”

I submit that finding clarity about what you want, sorting out your “complex tangle of desires,” is a prerequisite for trying to get what you really want. Thus a prerequisite for strategy. The lack of a coherent goal obviates a coherent plan.

Part of the problem for our poor nation is we’re not clear on what we want for a society, given the very real constraints of the world. Do we want our poor people starving in the streets? Do we want torture? Thus no basis for any coherent strategy.

…”What this adds up to, for me, regarding the issues you’ve raised, is that the important moral questions any of us would do well to look at are: What kind world do I want to live in? What would the world look like if it were to satisfy my complex tangle of desires etc?”

Yes. The bottom line. But how to sort these out. Remember who you want to be, in the world you want to live in.

“…I think that’s a more useful exercise that working with the kinds of bizarre thought experiments mentioned in the original post about Occam’s Phaser. “

I think Occam’s Phaser, and the like, qualify as tactics. ( JBTW, the TTB scenario seems like a type of Trolley scenario, as does the Occam’s Phaser, except you are the one standing on one of the tracks. Are they just branches of the same tree? In any case, I think the choices eventually all devolve between being a whore: “How many must die before I’ll compromise my principles?” or a monster: “Let millions die, I’ll not compromise my principles.” The source of the induced discomfort, really. Just a matter of the numbers.)

Should have been clearer in my attribution of the OCS quote. Sorry. Did read your reply @150. Thank you.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 5:51 am

What [Bush-Cheney] mostly faced was the dire consequences of their own lies. They got probably hundreds of thousands of people killed based on loads of dishonest horseshit and for that they are ignominious war criminals who deserve to be tried in the Hague and probably hung.

I think this claim is ridiculous. Most people seem to agree with me. There’s been no public pressure to prosecute Bush-Cheney for alleged war crimes. The Obama Administration has not only refused to pursue any such prosecutions, but has actively blocked such efforts.

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js. 03.01.12 at 5:57 am

the TTB scenario seems like a type of Trolley scenario

No. The “ticking time bomb” scenario is pure hackery; it can’t be anything else given the time and place we live in. The point of this obviously to get people to say, “goddamn! I’d torture the fuckin’ shit out of the motherfuckin’ terrorist!” (to somewhat paraphrase The Fool from up above). The trolley case, at least as originally used by Foot, is not at all like this. Her point isn’t to make one course of action seem more reasonable than another; it’s rather to argue against a particular conception of what underlies (what she thinks are) our shared intuitions about these cases, and to argue for a different conception as giving us better guidance. In general, I think, if you’re doing the latter kind of thing, bizzaro-world thought experiments are fine. If you’re doing the former (trying to elicit responses like: “fuck the brown mutherfucker! yeah!”), not so much.

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Salient 03.01.12 at 6:44 am

DelRay, your ability to push people out of every conversation you enter never ceases to amaze, and your determination to slide in superfluous insults isn’t failing to disgust (characteristically clumsy? seriously?) but, look, if you’re finding it necessary to claim ten of the last twenty posts on the thread for yourself in order to strike at everybody else, you should probably give a second thought to statements like Most people seem to agree with me. I’d readily believe that most people seem to shut up and bite their tongue and and wander away in your presence, but that’s not normally interpreted as a measure of popular assent.

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DelRey 03.01.12 at 7:33 am

superfluous insults

Good grief, the irony.

you should probably give a second thought to statements like Most people seem to agree with me

Yes, that must be wrong. Most people obviously agree with you. That must explain all the demonstrations and protests we’ve seen over the last few years demanding prosecution of the “monsters” George Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes.

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greg 03.01.12 at 7:55 am

js. @ 240

“No. The “ticking time bomb” scenario is pure hackery; it can’t be anything else given the time and place we live in.

You’re claiming a motivational distinction where I merely observe a structural relationship: The trolley is headed down track one, where 1 million (innocents) will die. I could switch the Trolley down track two, (possibly) saving the 1 million people, but where one (presumed guilty) individual will suffer injury and or maiming and or death. That’s all.

I’m afraid calling into question the motive for a proposition does not qualify as refutation. I wish it did, in this case, because I am not happy with the choices this one offers.

“…and to argue for a different conception as giving us better guidance.”

I think you have to honestly look at all of the varieties of the Trolley case to get better guidance, by which I mean a clearer understanding of your own moral priorities. There’s really only so many.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 11:36 am

@greg, If by TTB we mean “would you torture the suspect to try to obtain information to defuse the bomb?” then it doesn’t have the trolley structure. There aren’t just two tracks. There’s an unlimited number of ways to try convincing the bomber to give up the information. Even negotiation or bribery. But torture can preclude the success of those other methods. If nothing else, torture consumes valuable time–torture is not an instantaneous process.

Also, I think js was criticising the function, not merely the motivation, of the TTB as a moral example.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 11:53 am

@The Fool, I don’t see how you can be with DelRay “thus far” and still take the position you do re: Bush/Cheney. All of DelRay’s posts, when not just simply making bullshit misreadings of me, assert that torture is like killing, bombing, injuring or even stealing. If you agree with him that it’s not morally significant whether someone is in our custody when we mistreat them, then Bush’s torture is just a drop in the bucket on the ongoing violence of our recent wars.

You and I have different positions on the efficacy of torture, but so far as I can tell our ethical position is almost the same. I might be forced to torture if it’s the only way to save millions, but I want that exception to be both extremely rare and not part of a formal system. DelRay, OTOH, would seem to go further than the Yoo memos.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 1:19 pm

re: TTB and trolley problems, while trolley problems isolates our intuitions (would you flip the switch? would you push the fat guy? would you kill one guy and take his organs to save five recipients? etc.) the TTB entangles motivations–a desire to stop the bomb from exploding, and a desire to make the bomber suffer.

Morally, we’ve already decided that torture isn’t supposed to be a method of punishment or revenge. So that secondary motivation (not the motivation of the person posing the TTB, but the motivation of the person stuck in the scenario), clouds our judgment. It would be as though you changed the trolley problem to “would you flip the switch to save five white men and kill one black man?” Inserting race might reveal something about our psychology, but it doesn’t reveal anything about our moral intuition (assuming we’ve already decided racism is immoral).

Furthermore, the opposition to torture isn’t entirely a matter of abstract morality. There’s also issues of law, treaties, institutions, etc. And trolley problems are unsuitable there–hard cases make bad law.

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The Fool 03.01.12 at 1:36 pm

@consumatopia

Its not hard to understand at all. Del Rey is right in certain respects about some of the principle of the matter. There are certain extreme situations in which torture is justified. The whole point of consequentialism is that anything is hypothetically justifiable under certain specific conditions because we are not following exceptionless rules.

You can bitch and moan all day long about how hard the calculations are and whether or not we are certain enough etc etc. But in part it’s a sorites problem. At some point the benefits so overwhelm the costs that even though there are borderline cases that may be undecideable, if you postulate the right hypothetical scenario, sometimes the answer is clear.

That is exactly what we have in the TTB. The costs and benefits are so extreme — millions of innocent lives on the one hand versus one guilty life responsible for the threat to the innocent lives on the other hand — that the right call is obvious to anyone not in the thrall of moral absolutism, particularly of the deontological variety.

Where Del Rey and I part company is not on the question of exceptionless rules but largely on the facts of what happened under Cheney-Bush. There Del Rey goes badly off the rails. It is clear that Cheney and Bush perpetrated a hoax on the American people. They are members of the War Party and they were intent on ginning up a war — damn the consequences. As a consequentialist, I can never damn the consequences — especially not when you are talking about hundreds of thouands killed and millions displaced.

More than likely it is Del Rey’s ideology and partisan loyalty (I am guessing now) that prevent him from making a calculation which is almost as obvious as the one in the TTB. The Iraq War was essentially all cost — often dire cost — and precious little benefit. And it was based on a foundation of vicious lies.

What is particuarly disturbing about Del Rey’s comments is his appeal to the actions of the Obama Administration as support for his view. That is quite twisted, Mr. Del Rey. Anyone who was watching what happened in the run up to the Iraq War knows that the War Party made a largely successful effort to propagandize the population and intimidate their opponents.

The Democrats are a weak opposition party and people like Hillary Clinton and many many others were too weak to stand up for what was right. Obama was better on that point than Hillary, but once in office he too has largely succumbed to the intimidation. This is not support for your position, Del Rey. These are further harmful consequences of Cheney and Bush’s war crimes and crimes against democracy.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 2:10 pm

@The Fool

The whole point of consequentialism is that anything is hypothetically justifiable under certain specific conditions because we are not following exceptionless rules.

But we are determining policies, laws, institutions, moral heuristics, etc.

The point is not that you make absolutely no exception, the point is that if you go outside our policies, laws, institutions, and moral heuristics, you do so only in extreme cases.

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Consumatopia 03.01.12 at 2:16 pm

Del Rey is right in certain respects about some of the principle of the matter. There are certain extreme situations in which torture is justified.

DelRey is arguing way more than “there are certain extreme situations in which torture is justified”. He doesn’t limit it to “extreme” cases at all.

If you say “I’ve been with you thus far”, then you’re accepting some crazy stuff.

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piglet 03.01.12 at 10:12 pm

I am not getting the point Mike Otsuka is trying to make with the Christine Thomas case. Is the question whether the wife could have acted in self-defense although the aggressor was “innocent”? If somebody physically attacks another person, surely the possibility that the attacker might be under the influence of a mental sickness or drugs doesn’t negate the victim’s right to self-defense?

Speaking of real world cases, it happens quite frequently that some police officer kills a mentally disturbed attacker. Nobody that I heard of ever suggested that the officer shouldn’t defend themselves. What is often at issue however is the proportionality of the force – the officer shooting an attacker armed with a knife, claiming he or she had no other choice. And often, the officer should have known that they were dealing with a disturbed and potentially dangerous person and should have acted accordingly, instead of escalating the situation and then killing somebody. I have heard of more than one case when people called the police explicitly telling them they were concerned about an aggressive family member with a knife, and the police arriving and first thing shooting the person in question, claiming they were threatened with a knife and had no other choice.

Speaking of real world examples, these seem to me a lot more relevant than what I have read so far on this thread. Can’t say I find this discussion very illuminating.

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DelRey 03.02.12 at 12:29 am

If by TTB we mean “would you torture the suspect to try to obtain information to defuse the bomb?” then it doesn’t have the trolley structure. There aren’t just two tracks. There’s an unlimited number of ways to try convincing the bomber to give up the information.

We’ve tried conventional interrogation methods. They haven’t worked. The bomb is ticking. A million lives are at stake. Now what?

assert that torture is like killing, bombing, injuring or even stealing

Your argument was that torture “could” have adverse consequences that outweigh or negative its anticipated benefit. The same is true of killing, bombing, injuring and stealing. Torture is “like” those other acts in this respect. Yet few people, including you, seem to think that killing, bombing, injuring or stealing are always wrong. That’s why this argument is so weak.

If you agree with him that it’s not morally significant whether someone is in our custody when we mistreat them,

I didn’t say that. I’m still waiting for you to explain why you think custody is relevant with respect to torture given the terrible things we sometimes do to people who are not in our custody. You have no explanation, of course; hence your endless evasions and misrepresentations.

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DelRey 03.02.12 at 12:41 am

@247,
The Iraq War was essentially all cost—often dire cost—and precious little benefit.

Among other things, it got rid of a brutal dictator with a 20-year record of military aggression, mass murder and human rights violations. If you think that’s “precious little benefit” then I think there’s something seriously wrong with your judgment.

The fact that so many congressional Democrats as well as Republicans supported the invasion, not to mention a large majority of the general public, is further evidence that your analysis of the war is seriously flawed.

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DelRey 03.02.12 at 12:46 am

If you say “I’ve been with you thus far”, then you’re accepting some crazy stuff.

What “crazy stuff” would that be? Be careful to cite only statements I have actually made. Not statements that exist only in your fevered imagination. You do seem to have a very hard time responding to what people actually write.

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Consumatopia 03.02.12 at 2:55 am

DelRay, since you have accused me of misstating your views, this post is dedicated to determining exactly what your views are.

Your argument was that torture “could” have adverse consequences that outweigh or negative its anticipated benefit. The same is true of killing, bombing, injuring and stealing.

Seems like dangerous logic. To you, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about torture other than the pain and suffering felt by the detainee (if there is you haven’t bothered to mention it.) So why not torture a suspect if it means saving one life? Or even if it just has a strong chance of saving a life? Given a belief in your assertions, I can’t see any reason not to torture frequently, as a standard police procedure. (Some police departments in this world do!) If that isn’t what you think, I’d like you to explain why you think that would be a bad idea.

I’m still waiting for you to explain why you think custody is relevant with respect to torture given the terrible things we sometimes do to people who are not in our custody.

Do you think the people who wrote our law had never heard of war? Did they knew the terrible things we sometimes do to people who are not in our custody? If so, why do you think they wrote the law? Do you think they were mistaken? Is it just a convenient fiction? What makes this fiction convenient?

The Obama Administration understands this, which is why it has refused to prosecute anyone involved in the Bush-era national security “torture regime.” And that didn’t even involve any ticking time bombs. Just broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering.

Are you endorsing the use of torture for broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering? Even when it doesn’t involve ticking time bombs or other imminent threat?

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js. 03.02.12 at 5:00 am

greg:

I think you have to honestly look at all of the varieties of the Trolley case to get better guidance, by which I mean a clearer understanding of your own moral priorities. There’s really only so many.

The “guidance” has nothing to do with moral priorities; it has to do with the underlying conception that informs the (first-order) moral priorities. This was the point of my ante- and penultimate sentences.

And Comsumatopia already covered this, but the point (of the earlier bit) wasn’t at all about motivation. Just for instance, the motivation of a “useful idiot” is never impugned.

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js. 03.02.12 at 5:18 am

me:

The “guidance” has nothing to do with moral priorities

Wanted to clarify that this is obviously false, and not what I should have said. Just that, in slightly different terms, the point of well used bizzaro-world thought experiments shouldn’t be to (directly) clarify our intuitions about what we should or would do in a particular situation, but rather to get us to reflect on what principles we are in fact relying on when we give our intuitive responses (which is also why torture-the-fucking-terrorist! thought experiments can’t but be hackery).

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 2:33 am

Seems like dangerous logic. To you, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about torture other than the pain and suffering felt by the detainee (if there is you haven’t bothered to mention it.)

Why is it “dangerous logic?” In what ways relevant to this discussion is torture “special,” and what are the implications of that “specialness,” in your view? Torture certainly isn’t “special” in the sense that it can have adverse unintended consequences. As I keep telling you, so can killing, injuring, imprisoning, etc. You don’t seem to have any coherent argument to offer, just a disconnected series of vague allusions and half-baked thoughts .

Given a belief in your assertions, I can’t see any reason not to torture frequently, as a standard police procedure.

What assertions are those? I’m still waiting for you to identify the statements I have made about torture that you claim to be “crazy stuff.” And I’m still waiting for you to explain why you think custody is relevant with respect to torture given the terrible things we sometimes do to people who are not in our custody.

Are you endorsing the use of torture for broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering?

The statement of mine you quote isn’t an endorsement of anything. It is the observation that the Obama Administration has refused to prosecute acts widely regarded as torture, including hundreds of instances of waterboarding, even though there was no ticking time bomb to justify those acts. And there has been no significant public protest about this. That suggests most people just don’t consider torture to be nearly as bad as you think it is.

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Kaveh 03.03.12 at 5:51 am

10+ consecutive DelRey comments is a good sign that I’m way too late to the party, but here goes anyway:

Oh wow! @ Salient’s “Occam’s tazer” rhetorical/affective take on trolley problems–that the purpose is to wear away the listener’s sense of self. This argument made it worth wading through the long, long thread.

‘Occam’s tazer’ describes TTB perfectly. What TTB is actually used to argue for is, typically, much, much more permissiveness towards torture than the TTB problem itself admits. ‘If you would do it to save 1 million with 5% chance of success, then is doing it to save 1000 with 20% chance of success really so bad?’ Force people to imagine themselves torturing people in implausible situations, in order to warm them up to the idea of actually allowing it.

I think The Fool has heartily missed the point on this one. The issue isn’t the rightness or wrongness of torture in this hypothetical circumstance, but the real-world costs of using this argument, the consequences of its being repeated ad nauseum in public discourse.

As for more typically trolley problems, I agree that our sense of self comprises how we would handle all the contextual nuances. This bears out in the original phaser problem. I would suggest that the reason why there is so much more hesitation towards phasering the guy isn’t because of abstract distinctions between agency and intent, but because the phaser problem maps onto other, plausible (or slightly more plausible) situations that influence our answer. What if the phaser for some reason only disintegrates the fellow’s head and leaves the headless body intact to kill us? What if there’s some way for them to stop their fall we didn’t notice? What if the fall isn’t fatal? Using the time to find a better alternative, as mentioned above, is surely one of the key contextual factors. The lifeboat version of the problem isn’t any better, because it doesn’t assume a repeated game.

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Kaveh 03.03.12 at 5:57 am

@257 So what is your position on the Bush & Obama administrations’ use of torture to obtain intelligence?

That suggests most people just don’t consider torture to be nearly as bad as you think it is.

And yet, 15 years ago, American politicians never admitted in public that torture was permissible, especially on this kind of scale. Abu Ghrayb was a genuine scandal when it happened and did terrible things to Bush’s popularity, almost cost him the 2004 election. What changed? Likely TTB rhetoric and shows like 24 have had some effect.

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 8:12 am

What TTB is actually used to argue for is, typically, much, much more permissiveness towards torture than the TTB problem itself admits … [blah, blah]

When people are confronted with arguments they cannot answer, such as the TTB, they often respond with various efforts at distraction.

Force people to imagine themselves torturing people in implausible situations, in order to warm them up to the idea of actually allowing it.

If your position is that torture is never justified under any circumstances whatsoever, your argument to that effect must cover every possible scenario, no matter how rare or unlikely.

And yet, 15 years ago, American politicians never admitted in public that torture was permissible, especially on this kind of scale.

I doubt that’s true, but even if it is I’m not sure why you think it’s relevant. There’s plenty of evidence that both American politicians and people in general believe that torture is “permissible” (to be more precise, justified) in at least some circumstances.

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Kaveh 03.03.12 at 8:27 am

Again, what is your position on the permissibility of torture to gather intelligence?

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Merp 03.03.12 at 8:35 am

What’s the reason again that y’all are hashing out the TTB scenario w/r/t the US torture program?

The US torture program was not designed to cater to TTB scenarios, and has never faced a TTB scenario, which is good because no intelligence has come out of the US torture program. So, buh?

Further, as a matter of policy, even if a TTB scenario justifies torture (which, no, but for the sake of argument) we can’t codify it with law. Because if we do, the law will be stretched into non-TTB scenarios. Nature of the beast. Besides if someone is actually faced with an honest-to-Jack-Bauer TTB scenario and thinks torture will do the job, she’ll torture and get the intel and will be forgiven her illegal action just as all plausibly-justified-by-circumstances executive actions in wartime are forgiven. Lincoln suspending habeas corpus, etc.

So we get the best of all worlds: if some crazy virus affects everyone and makes torture effective, then when TTB scenarios come up we get to stop them, and we don’t create a metastasizing legal apparatus which will kill what we’re trying to protect.

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Matt 03.03.12 at 9:54 am

I think that torturers should be put to death without exception. That way nobody is easily tempted to torture but omniscient adamantine utilitarians can still use torture when they know it’s really necessary. Hurray, you saved the city with your heroic torturing, here’s your ticker tape parade to the gallows.

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Consumatopia 03.03.12 at 2:18 pm

Was there any question I asked in 254 that DelRay answered? It’s rich accusing me of misstating his views when he’s working really hard to keep his views deliberately ambiguous. I mean, there are so many posts here, I gave him an open ended invitation to clarify his views. If he isn’t posting to clarify his views, what exactly is he posting for?

@js

Just that, in slightly different terms, the point of well used bizzaro-world thought experiments shouldn’t be to (directly) clarify our intuitions about what we should or would do in a particular situation, but rather to get us to reflect on what principles we are in fact relying on when we give our intuitive responses

Yep. Notice how when one does try to reflect on your principles in regard to the TTB, that just pisses DelRay and TheFool off. For example:

I’m not sure why you’re even still arguing, given that you’ve already admitted, albeit in your characteristically clumsy phrasing, that “I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law.”

For a trolley problem, understanding exactly why we take a given position is the whole point. For DelRay, understanding anything is besides the point–the TTB isn’t supposed to do anything but shut the other guy up, and he’s really pissed off that it’s not working.

@Matt, I would say that torture should at least be like mutiny on a ship. If the ship’s captain truly goes crazy, maybe a court martial will let him the officers the hook for relieving him of command. But the officers have to make that case, after the fact, knowing that the court martial is strongly predisposed to hang them.

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 7:22 pm

Again, what is your position on the permissibility of torture to gather intelligence?

I think torture to gather intelligence is sometimes justified.

Further, as a matter of policy, even if a TTB scenario justifies torture (which, no, but for the sake of argument)

Why isn’t torture justified in a TTB scenario?

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 7:26 pm

the TTB isn’t supposed to do anything but shut the other guy up, and he’s really pissed off that it’s not working.

The primary purpose of the TTB is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that torture is never justified under any circumstances. That’s why it sends people like you into such a tizzy. As I said, you’re clearly at war with yourself on this issue.

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Cranky Observer 03.03.12 at 7:43 pm

= = =
Del Ray@7:26 “The primary purpose of the TTB is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that torture is never justified under any circumstances. That’s why it sends people like you into such a tizzy. As I said, you’re clearly at war with yourself on this issue.
= = =

So DelRay, if you found yourself in a TTB scenario (absurd, given that terrorists don’t attach big glowing LED countdown clocks to their bombs, but somehow you are in it), would you go ahead and torture to save the city under Matt’s stipulation?

= = =
Matt@9:54 “I think that torturers should be put to death without exception. That way nobody is easily tempted to torture but omniscient adamantine utilitarians can still use torture when they know it’s really necessary. Hurray, you saved the city with your heroic torturing, here’s your ticker tape parade to the gallows.”
= = =

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 8:10 pm

So DelRay, if you found yourself in a TTB scenario , would you go ahead and torture to save the city under Matt’s stipulation?

I don’t know. I don’t know how you think anyone could know that Matt’s stipulation would hold. If torture is used successfully to thwart a TTB, I doubt that the torturer would even face charges. Most likely, the government would simply decline to prosecute.

(absurd, given that terrorists don’t attach big glowing LED countdown clocks to their bombs, but somehow you are in it)

I have no idea why you think the TTB scenario requires that terrorists attach big glowing LED countdown clocks to their bombs.

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Cranky Observer 03.03.12 at 8:20 pm

= = = = = = So DelRay, if you found yourself in a TTB scenario , would you go ahead and torture to save the city under Matt’s stipulation? = = = = = =

= = =
DelRay @ 8:10 “I don’t know. I don’t know how you think anyone could know that Matt’s stipulation would hold. If torture is used successfully to thwart a TTB, I doubt that the torturer would even face charges. Most likely, the government would simply decline to prosecute.”
= = =

The same way you know with utter certainty that the imagined terrorist organization will have set up their nefarious scheme so that one person will have knowledge of all its key components, that you will know that you have captured this person, that torture will work to make him talk, that he will tell you the truth about the key component, and that you will arrive at the target in time to thwart the explosion. It is a given; it is written in the Constitution; it is an unbreakable tradition in our nation; no less a person that George Meade submitted to execution after using torture to extract the battle plan from the Confederate messenger before the battle at Gettysburg; etc.

By the way, “TTB” = “ticking time bomb”. Ticking. Get it? And of course on that bedrock of our constitutional government, the television show ’24′, the bomb usually is ticking. Which is absurd.

Cranky

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 8:31 pm

The same way you know with utter certainty that the imagined terrorist organization will have set up their nefarious scheme so that one person will have knowledge of all its key components, that you will know that you have captured this person, that torture will work to make him talk, that he will tell you the truth about the key component, and that you will arrive at the target in time to thwart the explosion.

You can’t know those things with utter certainty. The TTB scenario does not require utter certainty. We don’t require certainty before dropping bombs that kill innocent civilians in wartime bombing raids, so we’re not likely to require certainty before subjecting a terrorist to five minutes of waterboarding to save a million lives.

By the way, “TTB” = “ticking time bomb”. Ticking. Get it? And of course on that bedrock of our constitutional government, the television show ‘24’, the bomb usually is ticking. Which is absurd.

Huh? Why is a ticking time bomb absurd?

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Cranky Observer 03.03.12 at 8:48 pm

The primary purpose of the Matt-Cranky variation on the TTB problem is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that TTB/trolley problems are never used to groom lines of thought and the acceptable range of public opinion under any circumstances. That’s why it sends people like you into such a tizzy. As I said, you’re clearly at war with yourself on this issue.

Cranky

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 8:53 pm

The primary purpose of the Matt-Cranky variation on the TTB problem is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that TTB/trolley problems are never used to groom lines of thought and the acceptable range of public opinion under any circumstances.

As far as I’m aware, no one has claimed that “TTB/trolley problems are never used to groom lines of thought and the acceptable range of public opinion under any circumstances.” So you and Matt are arguing against a strawman. You might want to try responding to what people actually write.

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Cranky Observer 03.03.12 at 8:56 pm

= = =
DelRay @ 8:53 “You might want to try responding to what people actually write.”
= = =

We have, Del Ray, we have. That’s what seems to infuriate you so much.

Cranky

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 9:02 pm

No you’re not. You’re attributing to me positions I have not expressed, and responding to those imagined positions. Because you have no rebuttal to the TTB scenario.

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 9:43 pm

Further, as a matter of policy, even if a TTB scenario justifies torture (which, no, but for the sake of argument) we can’t codify it with law. Because if we do, the law will be stretched into non-TTB scenarios. Nature of the beast.

Yes, that must explain why we’ve stretched the death penalty into non-murder scenarios, and now impose it for all sorts of lesser crimes. Nature of the beast. You just can’t contain these things once you legalize them at all. If we legalize torture, before you know it we’ll be waterboarding petty criminals to find out the names of their accomplices. Just like we execute people for jaywalking.

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Merp 03.03.12 at 10:40 pm

“Yes, that must explain why we’ve stretched the death penalty into non-murder scenarios, and now impose it for all sorts of lesser crimes.”

- Wrong example to pick, man. The death penalty has been justified numerous ways: to deter crime, give victims closure, etc. And these are rigorous justifications, codified in law. Which of those justifications apply to, say, the capital punishment of Ricky Ray Rector? Capital punishment has slipped the bounds of its legal justification, same as most things do, same as a legal torture regime would.

- But you’re right, the actual use of capital punishment hasn’t slipped that far from its legal justifications. Unlike, say, the legal authority to wiretap people. Or the legal rules regarding “necessary force”. Or any other of the dozens of regular routine law enforcement procedures that are putatively regulated by law that exceed that regulation every day. The ironclad rule in developing rules to constrain government action is: give them an inch, they’ll take a yard. And, unfortunately for your position, a legal regime authorizing torture but restricting its use is almost nothing like the use of the death penalty and nearly identical to wiretapping, “necessary force” rules, and the like.

Because the death penalty is a public and singular decision which is an end to itself. Whereas torture, wiretapping, and the other procedures are means to an end, conducted out of sight of the public, and can serve the institutional goals of thousands of more people than a death penalty decision. There are fewer brakes on stopping these procedures from growing beyond their legal bounds. Consequently, there are far more abuses of these procedures than the death penalty. And torture is one of these procedures.

- We don’t have to deal with hypotheticals and analogies. The Bush/Obama Torture Program tortured the shit out of people they didn’t expect to get information from. They tortured people they knew were innocent. Whatever legal rationale they thought they were using, it didn’t cover that. What I’m talking about has already happened.

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Merp 03.03.12 at 10:41 pm

grumble I swear that formatting looked better before I posted grumble

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Matt 03.03.12 at 10:50 pm

When a solipsist dies, a universe is destroyed. You’d have to be a real monster to destroy the universe in order to extend a million human lives. That’s why “suppose you need to torture someone else to save a million people” is just an interesting thought exercise while “suppose you personally will be killed afterward” demands struggle against the premises. It’s simply good utilitarianism to use every weapon at hand in the fight to save the universe.

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 11:37 pm

Wrong example to pick, man. The death penalty has been justified numerous ways: to deter crime, give victims closure, etc. And these are rigorous justifications, codified in law. Which of those justifications apply to, say, the capital punishment of Ricky Ray Rector? Capital punishment has slipped the bounds of its legal justification, same as most things do, same as a legal torture regime would. – But you’re right, the actual use of capital punishment hasn’t slipped that far from its legal justifications.

The issue here isn’t whether it’s justified, but your claim about the supposed slippery-slope effect of authorizing its use in law. The example of the death penalty explicitly contradicts your claim. The circumstances under which the death penalty is used have become narrower over time, not broader.

Unlike, say, the legal authority to wiretap people. Or the legal rules regarding “necessary force”. Or any other of the dozens of regular routine law enforcement procedures that are putatively regulated by law that exceed that regulation every day.

This is not true. The legal authority to wiretap was narrowed by the requirement for a court order.

And you haven’t offered any argument as to why torture should be limited to TTB cases only, anyway.

The Bush/Obama Torture Program tortured the shit out of people they didn’t expect to get information from.

Stop making up facts out of thin air.

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js. 03.03.12 at 11:49 pm

Yes, that must explain why we’ve stretched the death penalty into non-murder scenarios, and now impose it for all sorts of lesser crimes.

You know, your garden variety premeditated homicide is relatively small change in the real crime-stakes. I’ll leave you the task of figuring out the biggie as homework.

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DelRey 03.03.12 at 11:52 pm

Whereas torture, wiretapping, and the other procedures are means to an end, conducted out of sight of the public, and can serve the institutional goals of thousands of more people than a death penalty decision. There are fewer brakes on stopping these procedures from growing beyond their legal bounds. Consequently, there are far more abuses of these procedures than the death penalty. And torture is one of these procedures.

This is a different claim from what you said before. Your complaint was about the supposed expansion of the legal bounds (“the law will be stretched into non-TTB scenarios”), not about use outside of the legal bounds. It is hard to see how expansion of the legal bounds for torture is likely to increase, rather than reduce, illegal use of torture. The more circumstances in which it is legal, the fewer in which it is illegal.

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Kaveh 03.04.12 at 12:05 am

Given that DelRey supports using torture to gather intelligence, considers TTB a useful thought experiment, and more or less acknowledged using TTB to argue for wider uses of torture than just the TTB itself, the Occam’s tazer theory about TTB is confirmed in this instance.

Since the TTB scenario itself is not the one that’s really at stake, we can also say that it’s being used in a manipulative way, not as a tool to examine why we make certain moral choices rather than others. I’ve heard of no close variants of the TTB scenario the way we have close variants of the trolley problem–pushing fat man onto the track vs rerouting the train, &c. TTB is a propaganda tool.

DelRey’s history in other threads is crazy enough that I don’t think it’s good use of time to try and convince him torture should always be banned.

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 12:20 am

Kaveh,
Do you think the use of torture is never justified, or don’t you? If you do think that, why do you think it?

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Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 1:51 am

I’ve heard of no close variants of the TTB scenario the way we have close variants of the trolley problem

I brought up Fail-Safe. Salient suggested replacing torture with rape. So, yeah, there are close variants, but generally the “goddamn right I would torture” side doesn’t want to hear about them.

The weird thing is the existence of folks like DelRay is actually one of the strongest possible against their position. I had earlier said “I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law.” But then I see talk about torture for “broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering”, and it looks like I have to rethink my position. If my position in some hypothetical case gives license to idiots in actual cases, that forces me to adjust my position in the hypothetical case. I cannot consider the hypothetical in isolation.

So, even in the narrowest possible conception, it’s not true that DelRay’s purpose “is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that torture is never justified under any circumstances.” I started out with the position that I might be forced to torture. But DelRay’s behavior here is causing me to see the error of my ways!

If someone actually wanted to convince me that torture was a good idea in the TTB, their primary task would be to convince me that this position would not lead to increased torture in other, less pressing cases. They would have to draw bright lines between the cases in which torture would be excusable and those in which it was unacceptable. They would have to explain both ends of this position–why torture is necessary in the one yet forbidden in the other, and how we can make sure there is no spillover from the first to the second.

Note that DelRay frequently says “I never said that”, but doesn’t frequently say “I don’t think that”, and never explains why he doesn’t think that, even though it seems logically implied by his arguments.

This persistent, deliberate ambiguity on DelRay’s part is at the root of many of our suspicions about the TTB–that we cannot actually separate out the ticking-time-bomb case and consider it alone, if we change policy to suit that one scenario that cannot help but affect our policies in other, far more common and important scenarios.

But that’s why his presence is so useful. He’s the perfect illustration of the kind of person we’re dealing with–not the kind of person who’s beliefs differ from ours, but the kind of person who would end up deciding when torture is and isn’t okay as soon as we permit any torture at all.

For that we should thank him.

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Kaveh 03.04.12 at 1:59 am

No, I don’t think it ever is. And coming up with hypothetical TTB scenarios contrived so that it is justified isn’t any more useful than for me to ask you if you would go full Oedipus to prevent an act of genocide. In real life, there is never going to be that certainty about the effectiveness of torture to achieve useful ends (as opposed to getting someone to make politically useful but false confessions, such as that Saddam Hussein is in cahoots with al-Qaeda), or about the lack of other consequences, including but not limited to provoking acts of vengeance against the torturing side and making torture seem less bad and more likely to be repeated, for torture to be the right thing to do in any plausible situation. That is more or less my position.

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Kaveh 03.04.12 at 2:01 am

This: So, even in the narrowest possible conception, it’s not true that DelRay’s purpose “is to illustrate the absurdity of the position that torture is never justified under any circumstances.”

Yes.

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Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 2:11 am

The closest real-world instance of a ticking-nuke was the mutually-assured destruction of the Cold War. Two countries had nuclear missiles aimed straight at each other’s cities.

We relied on a combination of deterrence and negotiation to escape mass destruction. That is the method I would suggest in an actual TTB. Negotiate. Threaten. Make bribes. Find out what his goal was in planting the bomb, or find out who his commanding officer was. See to it that both he and the officer understand–if this bomb goes off their goals will become absolutely impossible to achieve.

This would be an open-ended process–it is typical for negotiations to go right up until just before it becomes too late, as both sides hold out for more. Assuring the terrorist and his boss that we wouldn’t go back on our word would be complicated–but there are ways of dealing with that. (Publicly announce deal on Al-Jazeera or whatever). Torture, however, would deeply if not irreparably damage this process–torturer and tortured can never trust each other.

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 2:31 am

@285
No, I don’t think it ever is. And coming up with hypothetical TTB scenarios contrived so that it is justified isn’t any more useful than for me to ask you if you would go full Oedipus to prevent an act of genocide. In real life, there is never going to be that certainty about the effectiveness of torture to achieve useful ends (as opposed to getting someone to make politically useful but false confessions, such as that Saddam Hussein is in cahoots with al-Qaeda), or about the lack of other consequences, including but not limited to provoking acts of vengeance against the torturing side and making torture seem less bad and more likely to be repeated, for torture to be the right thing to do in any plausible situation. That is more or less my position.

Why is “certainty” about those things necessary for torture to be justified? The benefits of wartime bombing are never certain, either. In fact, they are often very uncertain. If wartime bombing is sometimes justified despite its uncertainty, why is torture never justified despite its uncertainty?

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 2:47 am

@284,
I had earlier said “I guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law.” But then I see talk about torture for “broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering”, and it looks like I have to rethink my position.

Unlike Kaveh, you’ve conceded that there are situations in which torture may be justified. So now the question becomes why torture may be justified only in those situations and not others too. You haven’t offered any argument for your position.

I mentioned “broad anti-terrorism intelligence-gathering” because it was the justification for the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and possibly other terrorists, under the Bush Administration. As far as we know, there was no ticking time bomb. And yet there has been no significant public protest about the treatment of KSM. Just a few irate lefties that everyone else ignores. The Obama Administration has not only refused to prosecute anyone for Bush-era waterboarding, but has actively blocked efforts towards prosecution.

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 3:00 am

We relied on a combination of deterrence and negotiation to escape mass destruction. That is the method I would suggest in an actual TTB. Negotiate. Threaten. Make bribes. Find out what his goal was in planting the bomb, or find out who his commanding officer was. See to it that both he and the officer understand—if this bomb goes off their goals will become absolutely impossible to achieve.

Negotiation has been tried and failed. Conventional interrogation has been tried and failed. Conventional threats have been tried and failed. The terrorist still refuses to cooperate. The bomb is ticking. The deadline is approaching. A million lives are at stake. Now what? Just let it detonate?

But you’ve already admitted that you “might be forced to torture if it’s the only way to save millions” and that you “guess there might be a bomb big enough that would force me to undermine our system of law,” so I don’t know you keep trying to argue for the absolutist no-torture position that you have already repudiated. Just another illustration your cognitive dissonance.

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Substance McGravitas 03.04.12 at 3:07 am

What if the terrorist was DelRey?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.04.12 at 3:07 am

@282 TTB is a propaganda tool.

Interesting. I think the TTB and the trolley problems, they are all exactly the same, trying to find a point where consequentialism overcomes deontology. Should you murder one person to save 5? No? How about 50? No? 5000?

And I’m getting the impression that the TTB problem induces such an active protest exactly because it’s much more realistic than the trolley scenarios.

You know that you’ll never going to be in a situation where you need to decide whether you should push a fat guy off a bridge. Most definitely, you’ll never be sitting in a well with a phaser. But catching a guy who knows the bomb deactivation code (or where your child is held, or something) – this actually feels like a more or less realistic (albeit unlikely) scenario.

And suddenly it’s not an academic discussion anymore; cognitive dissonance sets in, you must reject the possibility or your head will explode.

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Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 3:12 am

Why is “certainty” about those things necessary for torture to be justified?

For any test you set up to decide whether use of torture would improve some situation, the false positive rate would be sufficiently high that, even getting a positive result, it’s more likely than not that that torture would still not be useful.

So now the question becomes why torture may be justified only in those situations and not others too. You haven’t offered any argument for your position.

The thread is full of such arguments. That’s why you’ve got this little two-step going on in which you justify torture in the TTB, then use that justification to torture elsewhere. If you were being honest, you wouldn’t use the TTB at all–you’d just argue for broad anti-terror intelligence gathering torture on its own terms.

So, like I said, I’ve rethought my position. I have realized that I don’t trust anyone to make the decision to torture. I don’t trust the military, the intelligence agencies, the police, the president, Congress, Republicans, Democrats, Bush or Obama. If I could make some kind of anti-torture robot that would absolutely ban all torture by anyone without exception, I would absolutely do this because, even if there are some instances in which torture is defensible, I never trust anyone to make that decision. I definitely wouldn’t trust myself.

@290, the parts you forgot to copy from 287 refute what you just said.

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Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 3:33 am

Henri V, I get that it’s a long thread and nobody should read it all, but you might want to look at Gotchaye@141 or my own @246 (not that those were the best but those are the ones I remember) considering how well TTB works as a trolley problem.

Furthermore, I think most of the people complaining about TTB also object to trolley problems, or misuse of them. Pointing out that TTB makes a shitty trolley problem is just “even if you were right about the thing you’re now wrong about, you’d still be wrong”. There’s a lot of that in arguments over torture, because there’s a lot of fractal wrongness among torture proponents.

Also, I think Jerry Vinokurov made a post that would function as an excellent answer to the earlier post you made @26.

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Merp 03.04.12 at 4:00 am

Kaveh, you’re right. Definitely right about Holbo/Salient’s terms being justified, and probably right about DelRey. When he(?) keeps railing about ticking time bombs, and then says “you haven’t offered any argument as to why torture should be limited to TTB cases only, anyway”, that’s pretty strong evidence to walk away. I just want to tidy up a few things.

Again, though: the TTB doesn’t mean anything, because even if it’s justified in that instance it can’t be used as a basis to make torture in TTB legal. That means you have to defend on its merits making torture legal in order to eg gather intelligence, not just sneak it in on the coattails of TTB torture.

I was less than clear when using terms, DelRey, you’re right, and I think the confusion stems from my first comment when I wrote “the law will be stretched into non-TTB scenarios”. I should have written “effectively stretched”, meaning that the behavior that was once putatively outlawed becomes regularly condoned. At this point the on-the-books law can change in order to reflect a new reality (NDAA has a bunch of provisions like this) or the on-the-books law can stay the same (like police brutality laws that prohibit the kind of stuff that’s been all over the news the last few months) and the regularly condoned outlawed behavior is . . . regularly condoned; the perpetrators are not prosecuted or held accountable, and the outlawed behavior might as well be legal for all the good the law prohibiting it does.

So: if TTB torture scenarios are legally sanctioned but non-TTB are not, then non-TTB torture will happen and the on-the-books law will either A) change to allow it or B) it won’t, but the non-TTB torture goes unprosecuted and continues apace. This is why TTB scenarios are a good example for Salient’s “taser” term, because whether they are justified or not doesn’t influence whether they should be illegal or not from a public policy perspective. The reason they’re used is for different purposes.

The death penalty thing: I gave reasons for why the death penalty is different from torture, and why a legal torture regime would result in abuses far more often than a legal death penalty regime. Regardless, even assuming they are exactly the same, they still prove my point. In states where there is no death penalty, there is no judicial killing of convicted prisoners. In states where there is a death penalty, there are all kinds of legal procedures and mechanisms to restrict the use of the death penalty, but the death penalty still gets used outside of those restrictions. Ricky Ray Rector, that innocent dude Rick Perry straight up murdered, etc. The fact that overall death penalty killings have declined has nothing to do with this logic, not only because the declines are due to those factors I outlined that apply to the death penalty and not to torture, but mainly because what we’re talking about is not about numbers. It’s about whether the legal apparatus restricting the death penalty allows violations of that apparatus to occur without reprisal. And it does. So will a legal torture regime, at much higher rates.

Also the death penalty is one of several examples I gave, and of dozens that are applicable.

Most importantly, the claim that I’m “making stuff up” when I claim that the Bush/Obama torture regime knowingly tortured people they knew to have no information/were innocent. You can get a lot more info than I’m about to give you by googling some combination of the words Bush, Obama, torture, innocent, false, confession and information, but in case you don’t want to do that work:

Fouad al-Rabiah was picked up in Afghanistan in Dec. 2001 while working on a humanitarian aid mission and was interrogated by the CIA into 2002. Though al-Rabiah had been tortured, the CIA interrogator determined that al-Rabiah was innocent of the allegations for which he was being held and contained no information at all about, well, anything. al-Rabiah was sent to Gitmo and tortured for the next eight years, during which interrogators knew he was innocent of the charges he was putatively being held on. (How do we know they knew he was innocent? They wrote it in their reports.) Interrogators got al-Rabiah to confess to evidence they knew was untrue, inventing plots out of whole cloth and getting al-Rabiah to acknowledge they were true. (He signed a confession stating that he lead a terrorist attack with his son in 1991. His son was one year old in 1991). When he tried to offer an official withdrawal of his confessions, they dissuaded him by providing comforts like better food, blankets etc. if he dropped the withdrawal.

He obtained a writ of habeas corpus to get tried in federal district court. A judge heard his case, the charges were dropped and he was sent back to his home country, Kuwait. He has not been given reparations, and no American personnel have faced consequences for their actions.

Again, google is awesome, but here’s a good overview: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/09/30/a-truly-shocking-guantanamo-story-judge-confirms-that-an-innocent-man-was-tortured-to-make-false-confessions/

I’ll just give a couple more names with brief summaries:

Murat Kurnaz, a nineteen year old who was studying Islam to get closer to his Turkish girlfriend, was picked up as he was leaving Pakistan shortly after 9/11. He was tortured at Gitmo for years and made to sign false confessions, including one that claimed he had convinced a friend to commit a successful suicide bombing. He was released, and saw his still-living friend when he got out.

Shaker Aamer has been in Gitmo the past ten years and the government has acknowledged his torture. The Bush administration also acknowledged that the charges it has been holding him on and had been pushing for trial for years were false, and cleared him for release. The Obama administration also cleared him for release. He’s still in Gitmo. (Speculation as to why revolves around the fact that he is an eloquent and charismatic speaker, gives a crap about the treatment of the prisoners (he has fought for humane treatment of his fellow prisoners even while in Gitmo), and would be a PR nightmare once out in the world. But this is speculation, and the only part of his story that is speculation).

Etc. More are out there. We can also add the cattle-call nature of rounding up prisoners (many of whom are innocent of anything and hold no information of value) in Afghanistan and Iraq and their subjection to the chaotic nature of the facilities and systematic use of torture at Bagram and Abu Ghraib for the past ten years as evidence that a legal regime which declares some torture legal effectively makes indiscriminate torture of innocents legal in practice.

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Cranky Observer 03.04.12 at 4:06 am

I’ll second Consumatopia’s 3:33: all Del Ray baiting aside, both the TTB and the trolley problem have taken some hard blows in this thread which their proponents have either failed or refused to counter. Not to say there aren’t thoughtful counters, but claiming that TTB critics “heads must explode” isn’t one of them.

And not saying that Del Ray is anywhere near Henry V’s league, but his reply to the “would you torture if it meant your own death” question was telling: suddenly the absolute certainty that is necessary for this type of thought experiment evaporated and was replaced with “I don’t know” – which brings us right back to Charles’ #1.

Cranky

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Kaveh 03.04.12 at 4:51 am

Henri @292 And I’m getting the impression that the TTB problem induces such an active protest exactly because it’s much more realistic than the trolley scenarios.

But it’s really not. If anything it’s less realistic than the trolley scenarios, at least in the sense that for the trolley and phaser scenarios we can probably find real-life counterparts with similar body counts and sets of choices. Not so for the TTB, and the contextual specifics tend to be distorted even more–the TTB posits a higher degree of certainty about all the relevant factors than would ever be the case in a real world situation like that. I’m inclined to go with the comment up-thread that if you ever think you are in that situation, you’re probably badly deluded, hallucinating, or something.

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 5:19 am

@293,
For any test you set up to decide whether use of torture would improve some situation, the false positive rate would be sufficiently high that, even getting a positive result, it’s more likely than not that that torture would still not be useful.

You obviously don’t know that. You’re just making up facts out of thin air again. And your claim here doesn’t address the question, anyway. Again, why is “certainty” about the things Kaveh listed necessary for torture to be justified? Not just “more likely than not,” but “certainty.” If “certainty” is required for torture to be justified, why is “certainty” not also required for wartime bombing to be justified?

The thread is full of such arguments.

This thread doesn’t contain a single such argument. Why may the use of torture be justified in the TTB scenario, but not in any other scenario?

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 5:56 am

@295,
Again, though: the TTB doesn’t mean anything, because even if it’s justified in that instance it can’t be used as a basis to make torture in TTB legal. That means you have to defend on its merits making torture legal in order to eg gather intelligence, not just sneak it in on the coattails of TTB torture.

Another confused set of statements. If torture is justified in the TTB, then the TTB obviously “means something,” and the TTB can be used as a basis for making torture legal. And the TTB is an example of the use of torture to “gather intelligence.” The intelligence needed to locate the bomb. So talking about torture in the TTB and torture to “gather intelligence” as if they are two different things is incoherent.

The death penalty thing: I gave reasons for why the death penalty is different from torture, and why a legal torture regime would result in abuses far more often than a legal death penalty regime

You wrote, “the death penalty has been justified numerous ways: to deter crime, give victims closure, etc. And these are rigorous justifications, codified in law.” That statement does not support either your initial claim that legalizing torture would create a slippery slope of expanded legalization, or your subsequent claim that legalizing torture would increase the unlawful use of torture. You simply asserted those claims, with no evidence or argument to support them. The fact that the death penalty has not only been contained but has become progressively more restricted is evidence that your claim about the effect of legalizing torture is false.

Also the death penalty is one of several examples I gave, and of dozens that are applicable.

What examples? As I already said, your claim about wiretapping is simply false. Like the death penalty, wiretapping has become more restricted. The Supreme Court ruling in the 1960s that requires the government to obtain a warrant for wiretapping restricted its use. Previously, the government had been able to wiretap without a warrant.

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Merp 03.04.12 at 6:10 am

You’re just refusing to engage in things now, huh? I have literally responded to everything in that comment except for the warrantless wiretap thing. Because it’s so obviously silly. If you think a 1960s court case has meant that the government has not been spying on people without warrants for the past few decades . . . whooboy. I’ve made my points, DelRey. I’m out.

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 6:34 am

TTB posits a higher degree of certainty about all the relevant factors than would ever be the case in a real world situation like that.

The TTB doesn’t “posit” any degree of certainty. It describes a particular kind of scenario in which the use of torture may thwart an attack. Different instances of the TTB scenario may involve different degrees of confidence regarding any of its variables.

I’m still waiting for you to explain why you think “certainty” is needed for torture to be justified, but not for wartime bombing to be justified. As you surely know, we dropped huge numbers of bombs on Germany and Japan in WWII, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, often in horrific, agonizing ways. There was nothing remotely close to “certainty” that the intelligence used to select bombing targets was accurate or that the bombing raids would achieve their military objectives. Similarly, there is no “certainty” that people we imprison or execute really are guilty of the crimes of which they are convicted. In the real world, there simply is no “certainty.”

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DelRey 03.04.12 at 6:45 am

You’re just refusing to engage in things now, huh? I have literally responded to everything in that comment except for the warrantless wiretap thing. Because it’s so obviously silly. If you think a 1960s court case has meant that the government has not been spying on people without warrants for the past few decades . . . whooboy.

No, you haven’t responded. You’ve just ignored every point I have made. You still haven’t explained why anyone should believe that legalizing torture would create a slippery slope of expanded legalization when our experience with the death penalty, wiretapping, and other government powers has been the exact opposite.

And to respond to your latest attempt at distraction, no, I do not believe “a 1960s court case has meant that the government has not been spying on people without warrants for the past few decades.” That’s not the complaint you made. Your complaint was not that the law would be abused, but that it would be expanded. You wrote “the law will be stretched into non-TTB scenarios.” You have provided no evidence to suggest that that would happen. Nor have you offered any argument as to why it would necessarily be a bad thing if it did happen.

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js. 03.04.12 at 7:27 am

Substance:

What if the terrorist was DelRey?

As Matt pointed out, a universe is destroyed when a solipsist dies. Well, you wouldn’t want to irreparably damage a universe either, would you? Would you?

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js. 03.04.12 at 7:52 am

Cranky:
his reply to the “would you torture if it meant your own death” question was telling: suddenly the absolute certainty that is necessary for this type of thought experiment evaporated and was replaced with “I don’t know”

It’s so much worse than this though, because the whole utilitarian calculus, which supposedly was the basis of the argument, got instantly thrown out (1 person tortured vs. thousand lives saved? Yeah! 1 person tortured + 1 person (=me) killed vs. thousand lives saved? Nooo :-( .)

(Although, again, maybe it really is the destroying of a universe vs. saving a thousand lives, and the calculus still works! [cheers or apologies to Matt at 278, as appropriate]).

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js. 03.04.12 at 7:56 am

Sorry, total format fail in last comment. (Ye gods of CT, could we please have comment preview back? Please?)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.04.12 at 10:27 am

Kaveh 297: the TTB posits a higher degree of certainty about all the relevant factors than would ever be the case in a real world situation like that

I don’t understand this. The degree of certainty? I’m pretty sure no one ever faced the choice of throwing a fat guy on the tracks (not to mention phasers), but torture is something that happens all the time. True, it’s often used as a means of terror, but also to extract information. I knew a (formerly) Russian businessman who was threatened by gangsters to have a small water heating element shoved into his ass and turned on, so of course he immediately gave them the combination to his safe.

I bet if I asked you – in abstract – if there is always a hypothetical point where consequentialist considerations outweigh deontological taboos, you’d just say yes. And that’s all there is to it.

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Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 1:43 pm

Given how many DelRay posts are refuted by the exact post they respond to, his posts actually make more sense read backwards.

I’ve seen a couple people cite instance of threats of torture working, but that’s not the same thing. We can already threaten plenty of things that are at least as bad as torture (including execution). Heck, the current system allows interrogators to make threats (lies) that would be illegal to carry out.

What makes torture most problematic is that it’s goal is to make you betray yourself–to do something that you would rather die than do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother to torture, we would make execution threats.

An obvious pragmatic problem is that the victim is sacrificing their long term goals to escape the immediate pain of a situation, so you can’t trust the supplied information. In particular, you can’t trust that this code is the right one (and that the bomb doesn’t just detonate with a wrong code.)

I bet if I asked you – in abstract – if there is always a hypothetical point where consequentialist considerations outweigh deontological taboos, you’d just say yes. And that’s all there is to it.

No, that’s not all there is to any significant policy question.

308

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 4:59 pm

Consumatopia described the problems I have with the TTB scenario. What if the wrong code makes the bomb go off? Stipulating things like this out of existence is what I meant by forcing certainty onto the situation.

Henry, I would actually concede what you said about the train problems being less problematic because they don’t map onto real-world problems (they are “less realistic”) as directly as TTB, but the real-world problems that trolley problems could be mapped onto are, well, actually real, whereas the TTB has a strong pretense of realism, but is actually (deliberately) deceptive about how the real world works. So I wouldn’t characterize TTB as more realistic than the trolley problems (is Birth of a Nation more realistic than Alice in Wonderland?), but you could say they are realistic in different ways. Maybe our signals got crossed on that point?

309

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.04.12 at 5:35 pm

you can’t trust the supplied information

But surely at least sometimes you can trust at least some of the information.

Hypothetically, and in the spirit of hypothetical scenarios: suppose you catch someone with a laptop in his hands, with the encrypted file titled ‘the location and the deactivation code of the bomb that will evaporate Paris 60 minutes from now.doc’, and you see that the file was accessed 2 minutes ago – certainly you could try to gotch-pull the guy till he gives you a password that actually works. It’s only a question of whether the information can be verified immediately, or quickly enough.

Or, if you don’t like hypothetical scenarios, you could get a clue from something like The Battle of Algiers, for example, which, I understand, is based on historical events.

In any case, why spend so much effort denying that torture can produce results? That’s silly. Let’s just bite the bullet and assume that it can. Surely the reason it’s banned is not that it doesn’t produce results, but that it’s barbaric.

310

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 6:25 pm

Let’s just bite the bullet and assume that it can. Surely the reason it’s banned is not that it doesn’t produce results, but that it’s barbaric.

I agree, and this was brought up a lot in the preceding discussion. Not just the ‘barbaric’ part in and of itself, but a lot of different issues apart from whether torture actually “works”.

Hypothetically, and in the spirit of hypothetical scenarios: suppose you catch someone with a laptop in his hands, with the encrypted file titled ‘the location and the deactivation code of the bomb that will evaporate Paris 60 minutes from now.doc’, and you see that the file was accessed 2 minutes ago

Suppose you saw this today, about an hour from now, on somebody’s computer at a cafe. I don’t believe that you would believe you were in any danger. You’re talking about a filename. Anybody can write anything they want in a filename, as long as it doesn’t use certain characters. Even if this laptop belonged to a guy just captured by the police, and he’s refusing to give up the password to the file, how do you know it’s not something he just put there to give himself some bargaining power? Or that it’s not a decoy? Once you start stipulating away these possibilities, you’re creating exactly the kind of artificially certain situation that folks have been objecting to all along.

But more on-topic, what is the point of actually trying to come up with these hypothetical scenarios? I don’t think it’s (yet) clarified the reason why we don’t think torture should ever be legal or permissible.

311

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 6:38 pm

AND right on cue:

The FCC is calling for public comment on the legality of the San Francisco transit agency’s interruption of cellular service in August 2011. Bay Area Rapid Transit had shut off cell phone service in its tunnels, anticipating a cell-phone-coordinated protest of the fatal shooting of passengers by the transit system’s police.
SF transit officials claimed they cut service to protect public safety by dispersing the protest, but critics of that justification said it violated free speech and put people who might need to make emergency calls at risk. The FCC claims that 70 percent of emergency calls now come from mobile phones.

But the FCC’s public notice also states that law enforcement personnel have raised concerns that, “wireless service could be used to trigger the detonation of an explosive device or to organize the activities of a violent flash mob,” suggesting local government authorities like BART should be allowed to retain some autonomy over service in its stations.
(emphasis added)

Shutting down cell-phone service isn’t as bad as torturing people, but like with TTB they’re using hypotheticals that haven’t actually happened (and probably never will) to justify a prerogative that they’ve already demonstrated they want to use for completely different and nefarious purposes than what they claim. They’re using the TTB scenario here to try and shut people up. They might have just said “violent flash-mob” and left out the bomb thing altogether, but they didn’t.

312

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 6:40 pm

(oops, formatting problem there, last para. was sposed to be in the cite, too.)

313

DelRey 03.04.12 at 8:24 pm

@308,
Consumatopia described the problems I have with the TTB scenario. What if the wrong code makes the bomb go off? Stipulating things like this out of existence is what I meant by forcing certainty onto the situation.

No one has “forced certainty onto the situation.” Obviously, the use of torture may not be successful. Just as a wartime bombing raid may not be successful. Just as people we imprison or execute may sometimes be innocent. The possibility that any of these actions may not produce the desired outcome does not mean they are never justified. Try again.

314

DelRey 03.04.12 at 8:48 pm

@307,
I’ve seen a couple people cite instance of threats of torture working, but that’s not the same thing. We can already threaten plenty of things that are at least as bad as torture (including execution). Heck, the current system allows interrogators to make threats (lies) that would be illegal to carry out.

No it doesn’t. The federal torture statute prohibits both actual torture and the threat of torture. It also prohibits “the threat of imminent death.”

What makes torture most problematic is that it’s goal is to make you betray yourself—to do something that you would rather die than do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t bother to torture, we would make execution threats.

No, the goal of interrogational torture is to acquire information. The goal of torture in the TTB is to acquire the information necessary to prevent a bomb from exploding and killing people.

An obvious pragmatic problem is that the victim is sacrificing their long term goals to escape the immediate pain of a situation, so you can’t trust the supplied information. In particular, you can’t trust that this code is the right one (and that the bomb doesn’t just detonate with a wrong code.)

We don’t need to “trust” the information. And no one said the information is a “code.” In the most common variant of the TTB, the desired information is the location of the bomb. The prisoner, under torture, provides a location. If the information is correct the bomb is disarmed or removed. If the information is incorrect the torture is continued.

No, that’s not all there is to any significant policy question.

He didn’t say it was. He said that’s all there is to the way you would ultimately resolve a conflict between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Kant famously said that lying is always wrong, regardless of consequences. For Kant, telling even a small lie to save a billion people from agonizing death is wrong. Are we to understand you feel the same way about torture?

315

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 8:51 pm

DelRey, your computer is trigger a bomb that will kill everyone in your house/workplace/wherever you are right now! If you smash it with a hammer, you *might* be able to stop the bomb (I’d say 90% likelihood of success)! Quick, smash your computer!

316

js. 03.04.12 at 9:33 pm

Kaveh:

I don’t think it’s (yet) clarified the reason why we don’t think torture should ever be legal or permissible.

Here’s one very good reason. And why all the certainty/uncertainty stuff is entirely besides the point.

317

DelRey 03.04.12 at 9:46 pm

Here’s one very good reason.

No that’s not a good reason. Klein’s premises are factually incorrect. We know that torture sometimes “works.” Even the threat of torture can work. In Germany, a man who kidnapped a child revealed where he had hidden the boy after the police threatened him with torture.

318

Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 9:55 pm

Prosecutors threatening the death penalty is standard. You can, indeed, threaten execution for refusal to give information–that’s what negotiating a plea bargain means. It would be in inevitable part of any negotiation over preventing the bomb’s detonation.

He said that’s all there is to the way you would ultimately resolve a conflict between consequentialist and deontological ethics.

That would be pointless. If someone believes in deontological ethics, they just say “no, don’t torture in the TTB case”, and that’s all there is to it. End of.

If someone has consequentialist reasons for opposing any policy authorizing or excusing torture, then the TTB doesn’t show anything. There is no sense in which “that’s all there is to it”–for deontologists the TTB accomplishes absolutely nothing, and for consequentialists it accomplishes very little.

In that light, David Luban’s “Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb” is worth reading, doing a decent job explaining both what distinguishes torture from other acts associated with war, and why torture must, even for a consequentialist, be considered as a practice, a set of traditions and institutions as well as the culture surrounding them, not just as an ad hoc, one-off decision.

319

Consumatopia 03.04.12 at 10:00 pm

We know that torture sometimes “works.”

Which proves absolutely nothing about the expected utility of using torture.

320

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 10:00 pm

js., My fault for lack of clarity, I wasn’t saying I don’t think there are clear reasons why torture should never be legal/permissible, I was saying that hypothetical TTB situations do not help us think about the issue. I didn’t get to read the whole Klein, article, does she mention TTB situations? I agree w/ Klein that the use of torture serves as a kind of social control. TTB “thought experiments”, at least all the ones I’ve heard from people who think they really are valuable, are weasely pro-torture propaganda.

321

Kaveh 03.04.12 at 10:05 pm

And of course, I doubt DelRey will take up any of the points in Klein’s article, because he probably approves of the kind of social control and dehumanization torture is being used for.

322

js. 03.04.12 at 11:02 pm

Kaveh,

That was pretty clear actually; I read it too fast and not well enough—sorry. And no, Klein doesn’t mention TTB type scenarios, but the article makes clear why all of this is really a distraction (as DelRey himself has amply, if unintentionally, demonstrated).

323

DelRey 03.04.12 at 11:26 pm

@318,
Prosecutors threatening the death penalty is standard.

We’re not talking about threats of penalties in a criminal prosecution. We’re talking about threats to torture and kill prisoners during an interrogation. Contrary to your claim, such threats are explicitly forbidden by federal law.

If someone has consequentialist reasons for opposing any policy authorizing or excusing torture, then the TTB doesn’t show anything.

Nonsense. Opposing “policy” authorizing torture is not at all the same thing as opposing the use of torture in all circumstances, such as a TTB scenario. Your comments have repeatedly demonstrated that you do not understand even this basic distinction. Opposing a “policy” that would authorize trespassing on private property does not mean opposing trespass in all circumstances, such as trespass to rescue a child from a burning building. The same principle may be applied to torture or any other kind of action.

Which proves absolutely nothing about the expected utility of using torture.

It proves that even merely the threat of torture can produce accurate information.

324

DelRey 03.04.12 at 11:40 pm

@320,
My fault for lack of clarity, I wasn’t saying I don’t think there are clear reasons why torture should never be legal/permissible, I was saying that hypothetical TTB situations do not help us think about the issue.

No, the problem is not that the TTB doesn’t help us think about the issue. The problem is that you’re simply refusing to think about the issue. I’m still waiting for you to explain why “certainty” is required for torture to be justified in a TTB scenario. I’m still waiting for you to explain why torture is never justified if wartime bombing sometimes is justified. You simply refuse to engage the argument raised by the TTB that actions that are generally prohibited may be justified in exceptional situations.

And of course, I doubt DelRey will take up any of the points in Klein’s article

I just told you: Klein’s premise in that article is false. We know that torture sometimes “works.”

325

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.04.12 at 11:47 pm

If someone has consequentialist reasons for opposing any policy authorizing or excusing torture, then the TTB doesn’t show anything.

Personally, I’m obviously against legalizing torture. Or any policies legalizing pushing people under trolleys. And yet I think these scenarios still do show something; something about the way we think and feel. That certainly is something, or else there wouldn’t be over 300 comments here.

326

DelRey 03.04.12 at 11:59 pm

In that light, David Luban’s “Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb” is worth reading, doing a decent job explaining both what distinguishes torture from other acts associated with war, and why torture must, even for a consequentialist, be considered as a practice, a set of traditions and institutions as well as the culture surrounding them, not just as an ad hoc, one-off decision.

No, Luban doesn’t “explain” that. He simply declares that “the real world … is a world of practices, not of ad hoc emergency measures.” This claim is demonstrably false. The real world is world of both “practises” and “ad hoc emergency measures.” In emergency situations, presidents and other government officials can and do take various “ad hoc emergency measures” in response to the situation. During 9/11, for example, President Bush took the “ad hoc emergency measures” of grounding of all commercial aircraft and ordering fighter jets to intercept United 93. In a TTB scenario, the president could take the “ad hoc emergency measure” of ordering torture.

327

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 12:11 am

We’re not talking about threats of penalties in a criminal prosecution.

I am. Certainly if you have good evidence that a terrorist planted a nuke, the threat of execution is very credible. You don’t need torture to scare detainees.

Opposing “policy” authorizing torture is not at all the same thing as opposing the use of torture in all circumstances, such as a TTB scenario. Your comments have repeatedly demonstrated that you do not understand even this basic distinction. Opposing a “policy” that would authorize trespassing on private property does not mean opposing trespass in all circumstances, such as trespass to rescue a child from a burning building.

The confusion, as always, is yours. Policy doesn’t just mean law. It also includes norms, precedents, and expectations. And, yes, there is an expectation that if you trespass to rescue a child from a burning building, you won’t be prosecuted.

And you’ve still proven absolutely nothing about the expected utility of using torture. Which is obviously required for any consequentialist case for torture. That it may work doesn’t prove shit–it also may backfire.

And this gets to the point about certainty. I have never seen, certainly not in this thread, any situation in which torture had expected positive utility that didn’t involve some unrealistic assumption or another–either certainty that we can confirm the deactivation code or location (tripwire) is real without detonating it, or certainty that no other method (including innumberable variations on methods) could possibly work (“We’ve tried conventional interrogation methods. They haven’t worked.”)

I’m still waiting for you to explain why torture is never justified if wartime bombing sometimes is justified. You simply refuse to engage the argument raised by the TTB that actions that are generally prohibited may be justified in exceptional situations.

Luban’s article (parts II and IV, respectively) covers exactly those points .

328

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 12:15 am

And yet I think these scenarios still do show something; something about the way we think and feel. That certainly is something, or else there wouldn’t be over 300 comments here.

In the case of TTB, it reveals quite a bit about the motivations of the people making or being deceived by the argument. And, as noted by many above, the TTB is poorly designed to distinguish exactly why we think or feel a certain way.

329

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 12:27 am

This claim is demonstrably false. The real world is world of both “practises” and “ad hoc emergency measures.” In emergency situations, presidents and other government officials can and do take various “ad hoc emergency measures” in response to the situation. During 9/11, for example, President Bush took the “ad hoc emergency measures” of grounding of all commercial aircraft and ordering fighter jets to intercept United 93. In a TTB scenario, the president could take the “ad hoc emergency measure” of ordering torture.

You just demonstrated that it’s true–that ad hoc emergency measures are themselves practices that have effects beyond single instance. You’re trying to cite the supposedly ad hoc decision by Bush to ground jets to support presidents ordering torture.

You have cited that Bush tortured and that Obama refused to prosecute this as further support for more torture. And you are by no means the only one to do this–there are now a wide collection of stakeholders who are eager to justify and normalize their use of torture. Situations cannot be isolated.

Of course, Luban’s article contains quite a bit of evidence and argument that ad hoc usage of torture leads to torture as a normalized practice. That’s what all of Part IV and V were dedicated to, and they both included citations to others arguing the same thing. It’s a really common, obvious point, and it’s not one that you’ve addressed at all. If you want to rebut them, you’ve got a lot of work to do–especially since most of your work in this thread is actually proving his point.

330

Salient 03.05.12 at 12:57 am

actions that are generally prohibited may be justified in exceptional situations

What an insight. I’m glad you chased everyone else away so that we could hear your insight better.

…seriously, if you’re investing time and energy into promoting a thesis statement that’s banal and lame enough to make your average high school kid cringe, you’re not arguing in good faith, you’re trolling. Simple as that. You know someone is trolling when their (alleged) thesis is something you’d readily assent to if they weren’t the one saying it. And when you’re trolling, people are naturally resistant to assenting to your thesis, usually not because the thesis statement contains something objectionable, but because it’s unnervingly obvious you’re acting in bad faith. Your goal is not to contribute some perspective or to solicit perspective from others, your goal is to gain control of the conversation.

Accordingly, once you’ve got everyone paying attention to you, you retreat further and further into banality, pulling the other participants in as far as you can get them to go.

You’re determined to either force your conversation partners to admit something you said is true (because then you win, bully; they did as you wanted; you were able to control them for a moment) or to look like utter idiots denying the obviously true things you said are true (in which case you also win–getting someone to say I will not under any circumstances say ‘unkle’ to you even if it’s the obvious simple and sensible thing to do to get myself out of your headlock is presumably not quite as satisfying an outcome as hearing them actually say ‘unkle,’ true, but at least you’ve punished your conversation partner properly, getting them to look like a fool in front of everyone…).

If you’re engaging in conversation and it seems like the people around you are insanely unwilling to assent to a basic and obvious fact about reality, you’re trolling. It’s not them that’s the problem. It’s not even your basic and obvious fact that’s the problem, whatever that fact might be. It’s you.

331

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 1:00 am

DelRey, if the German case you keep mentioning is that of Magnus Gäfgen, there is one crucial detail that should be mentioned.

No lives were saved.

332

DelRey 03.05.12 at 1:55 am

Certainly if you have good evidence that a terrorist planted a nuke, the threat of execution is very credible. You don’t need torture to scare detainees.

You tell the terrorist, “if you don’t cooperate, we’ll prosecute you and ask for the death penalty.” The terrorist, well aware of the vagaries of the U.S. legal system, and not afraid possible execution years in the future, laughs in your face. Now what?

Policy doesn’t just mean law. It also includes norms, precedents, and expectations. And, yes, there is an expectation that if you trespass to rescue a child from a burning building, you won’t be prosecuted.

So what? Your claim was, “if someone has consequentialist reasons for opposing any policy authorizing or excusing torture, then the TTB doesn’t show anything.” The TTB shows that there are emergency situations in which torture may be justified on consequentialist grounds regardless of “policy.” As for expectations of prosecution, the torturer in a TTB scenario is also likely to expect that he won’t be prosecuted, for the same reason we don’t prosecute trespassers in a burning building scenario.

And you’ve still proven absolutely nothing about the expected utility of using torture. Which is obviously required for any consequentialist case for torture.

You keep repeating this false claim. We know that torture can produce accurate information. Producing accurate information is “utility.”

And this gets to the point about certainty. I have never seen, certainly not in this thread, any situation in which torture had expected positive utility that didn’t involve some unrealistic assumption or another—either certainty that we can confirm the deactivation code or location (tripwire) is real without detonating it, or certainty that no other method (including innumberable variations on methods) could possibly work (“We’ve tried conventional interrogation methods. They haven’t worked.”)

No, you are completely wrong yet again. The TTB does not assume “certainty” about anything. It doesn’t require “certainty” that there is a bomb. It doesn’t assume “certainty” that the terrorist knows the location of the bomb. It doesn’t assume “certainty” that the torture will work. It doesn’t assume certainty about any of these things. The fact that you claim it does demonstrates that you don’t even understand the TTB scenario.

333

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 2:16 am

“And you’ve still proven absolutely nothing about the expected utility of using torture. Which is obviously required for any consequentialist case for torture.”

You keep repeating this false claim. We know that torture can produce accurate information. Producing accurate information is “utility.”

Do you know what expected value is, from probability theory? Hint: it’s not the same as value that could happen.

I guess if you’ve got this wrong it would explain a lot of what you’re saying. If all you think you have to show is that torture could produce accurate information, then it makes sense that you’d type everything that you just typed.

334

DelRey 03.05.12 at 2:24 am

You just demonstrated that it’s true—that ad hoc emergency measures are themselves practices that have effects beyond single instance.

More nonsense. The actions I mentioned in response to 9/11 were not and are not “practises.” As far as I’m aware, they had never been done before in the entire history of the country, and have never been done since. They were ad hoc, emergency responses to an emergency situation. Luban’s claim that in the real world there are only “practises,” and no ad hoc actions, is just absurd on its face.

You have cited that Bush tortured and that Obama refused to prosecute this as further support for more torture.

No, I’ve cited it as evidence that your position on torture is extreme and unpopular, as well as being irrational when it’s even coherent. That’s what tends to happen when you have no clear idea of what you believe and keep flailing around, saying something in one comment and then repudiating it in the next.

Of course, Luban’s article contains quite a bit of evidence and argument that ad hoc usage of torture leads to torture as a normalized practice.

No he doesn’t. Luban doesn’t cite a single example of “ad hoc usage leading to torture as a normalized practise.” He merely cites a couple of (very different) cases where torture was established as a practise. Even if it could be shown that there is a risk of ad hoc usage leading to “normalization,” that distant and abstract risk is not likely to outweigh the immediate risk of large-scale death and destruction in a TTB scenario.

335

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 2:28 am

The terrorist, well aware of the vagaries of the U.S. legal system

The conviction rate for terrorists for planned plots is high enough. If you have good enough evidence to torture, you definitely have good enough evidence to convict after the bomb detonates.

So what? Your claim was, “if someone has consequentialist reasons for opposing any policy authorizing or excusing torture, then the TTB doesn’t show anything.”

Yep, and it’s obviously true.

TB shows that there are emergency situations in which torture may be justified on consequentialist grounds regardless of “policy.”

You cannot decide individual situations without altering policy.

As for expectations of prosecution, the torturer in a TTB scenario is also likely to expect that he won’t be prosecuted, for the same reason we don’t prosecute trespassers in a burning building scenario.

Any time we choose not to prosecute torture weakens the norm against torture, as you yourself have demonstrated.

me: “And this gets to the point about certainty. I have never seen, certainly not in this thread, any situation in which torture had expected positive utility that didn’t involve some unrealistic assumption or another—either certainty that we can confirm the deactivation code or location (tripwire) is real without detonating it, or certainty that no other method (including innumberable variations on methods) could possibly work (‘We’ve tried conventional interrogation methods. They haven’t worked.’)”

Everything I’ve written here is still true. Though your confusion about expected value may explain that.

Every assertion you made in #334 is obviously false. Just re-read #324.

336

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 2:29 am

Sorry, that should have been 329, not 324.

337

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 2:32 am

I mean, this is incredible. DelRay, himself, incarnates an argument against any use of torture–he will use your usage of torture to promote more torture. If you use torture to stop a ticking bomb, you have to realize that you are promoting more widespread campaigns of torture. DelRey’s existence, alone, is sufficient to prove this.

338

DelRey 03.05.12 at 2:34 am

Do you know what expected value is, from probability theory? Hint: it’s not the same as value that could happen.

Yes. Do you know what a non-zero probability is?

What you seem to be struggling to try to claim, in your typically incoherent fashion, is that the probability that torture will work is just too low to justify its use even in a TTB scenario. If that is what you believe, then make your argument to that effect. Try to be as clear and concise and possible. Inchoate blabbering about “expected utility” isn’t going to help.

339

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 2:39 am

DelRay, of all your posts, 338 is my favorite.

Non-zero probability? That’s all you think you need? So I can kill to steal your wallet, if I use your wallet to buy a lottery ticket, which I might win, and then use the earnings to pay for organ transpants to save lives.

Consequentialism is the maximization of expected utility. If you don’t care about expected utility, you’re not a consequentialist.

340

Kaveh 03.05.12 at 2:47 am

DelRey @326 During 9/11, for example, President Bush took the “ad hoc emergency measures” of grounding of all commercial aircraft and ordering fighter jets to intercept United 93.

DelRey @334 The actions I mentioned in response to 9/11 were not and are not “practises.” As far as I’m aware, they had never been done before in the entire history of the country, and have never been done since.

Bravo, sir, you won the thread! Presidents have not grounded all commercial flights and scrambled fighter jets to intercept a hijacked commercial flight since 9/11. That proves that torture wasn’t normalized under Bush Jr.! It really speaks volumes about your staggering intellect and our rank stupidity that nobody else managed to draw that connection before! I guess torture is okay after all! Six minutes of torture before breakfast for everyone!

341

DelRey 03.05.12 at 2:52 am

The conviction rate for terrorists for planned plots is high enough.

“High enough” for what? Again, you’ve threatened the terrorist with prosecution and he’s laughed in your face. Now what?

You cannot decide individual situations without altering policy.

Of course you can decide individual situations without altering policy. You do know what the word “exception” means, right?

Any time we choose not to prosecute torture weakens the norm against torture, as you yourself have demonstrated.

Again, so what? We choose not to prosecute precisely because we think a norm that torture is never justified and should always be prosecuted would be wrong. The norm is and should be more flexible than that. That’s why we haven’t prosecuted anyone involved in the waterboarding of KSM and other terrorists, and it’s why the prosecution of an interrogator in a TTB scenario would be unlikely, even if the use of torture was unsuccessful and the bomb exploded.

I mean, this is incredible. DelRay, himself, incarnates an argument against any use of torture—he will use your usage of torture to promote more torture.

Your statements are just getting more and more incoherent. How is the “usage of torture to promote more torture” an argument against any use of torture?

342

DelRey 03.05.12 at 2:59 am

Presidents have not grounded all commercial flights and scrambled fighter jets to intercept a hijacked commercial flight since 9/11. That proves that torture wasn’t normalized under Bush Jr.!

No, as I said, it illustrates that David Luban’s claim that “the real world … is a world of practices, not of ad hoc emergency measures” is false.

343

DelRey 03.05.12 at 3:02 am

Consequentialism is the maximization of expected utility.

What you seem to be struggling to try to claim, in your typically incoherent fashion, is that the probability that torture will work is just too low to justify its use even in a TTB scenario. If that is what you believe, then make your argument to that effect. Try to be as clear and concise and possible. Inchoate blabbering about “expected utility” isn’t going to help.

344

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 3:07 am

“High enough” for what? Again, you’ve threatened the terrorist with prosecution and he’s laughed in your face. Now what?

Explain things again. Even let him call a lawyer, make sure this guy understands that if this bomb explodes, his chance of survival is low. Again, that’s assuming you have good enough evidence to torture.

Offer him bribes and incentives for undoing the bomb. Huge cash payouts for his family. Cushy minimum security prison. Suggest making this bargain on international television.

Find how what his agenda was, make sure he understands that agenda has no chance of success if the bomb detonates.

Of course, it’s fair to explain all this within in the city you expect to explode. So you have immediate access to the potential bomb should he start talking.

The rest of you email refutes itself, as per #337.

345

Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 3:13 am

I made many arguments that the utility of torture had negative expected value, throughout this thread.

But if you thought all you had to do was show “torture can produce accurate information.” (emphasis added), that explains your confusion. That you’re treating “expected value” like some weird esoteric spooky word I invented to confuse you explains even more.

346

Cranky Observer 03.05.12 at 3:17 am

Consumatopia,
My advice: let it go. Mr. Del Ray has clearly not heeded the basic advice about what to do when one finds oneself in a hole, much less any offered in this thread. His lack of cogent argument is clear; no need to keep pounding the cable.

Cranky

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 3:18 am

Explain things again. Even let him call a lawyer, make sure this guy understands that if this bomb explodes, his chance of survival is low. Offer him bribes and incentives for undoing the bomb. Huge cash payouts for his family. Cushy minimum security prison. Suggest making this bargain on international television. Find how what his agenda was, make sure he understands that agenda has no chance of success if the bomb detonates.

You’ve done all that. It hasn’t worked. The bomb is ticking. Time is running out. Now what?

Of course, it’s fair to explain all this within in the city you expect to explode. So you have immediate access to the potential bomb should he start talking.

The interrogator doesn’t need access to the bomb. He’s in radio contact with helicopter teams stationed around the city waiting to fly to the location of the bomb as soon as the terrorist reveals it.

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Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 3:22 am

You’ve done all that.

All of the processes I specified were of indefinite duration. Just like torture.

@Cranky–yeah, you’re right, but that tidbit about expected value was totally worth it.

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 3:24 am

I made many arguments that the utility of torture had negative expected value, throughout this thread.

No you haven’t. You’ve just described possible ways in which torture could have “negative value.” The same could be done for imprisoning convicted criminals (“maybe he’s innocent!”) or dropping bombs on enemy targets during a war (“maybe that’s a school, not a munitions factory!”). You have produced nothing to suggest that torture never has or never will produce “positive value.”

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 3:28 am

All of the processes I specified were of indefinite duration.

If they’re not working, at some point they’ll probably be abandoned and torture will be used, before it’s too late to even try.

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Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 3:31 am

You’ve just described possible ways in which torture could have “negative value.”

Ctrl-F disagrees.

You have produced nothing to suggest that torture never has or never will produce “positive value.”

Why would I claim that? People have won lotteries before.

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Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 3:34 am

If they’re not working, at some point they’ll probably be abandoned and torture will be used

That’s dumb, the terrorist is very likely to be holding out for a better deal. And in any event, people have been known to hold out against torture for a very long time. The 60 minute deadline Henri V mention is probably already too late.

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 3:42 am

Why would I claim that?

Because, after previously admitting that torture is sometimes justified, you’re now claiming it isn’t. Or, at least, I think that’s what you’re now claiming. Your comments are so haphazard and badly written it’s hard to really know.

That’s dumb, the terrorist is very likely to be holding out for a better deal.

How do you know what the terrorist is “very likely” to be doing? You don’t, of course. You’re just making up your own facts out of thin air again.

And in any event, people have been known to hold out against torture for a very long time.

Yes, and other people have been known to fold like a cheap suit after merely being threatened with torture. But you want to give the terrorist the benefit of the doubt instead of the million innocent people he’s trying to murder.

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Kaveh 03.05.12 at 4:11 am

Your comments are so haphazard and badly written it’s hard to really know.

You know, you’re acting like you’ve got the upper hand in this argument, “proving” all kinds of things, when mainly what you’ve demonstrated is that you don’t understand most of the arguments or even the terminology (and not esoteric terminology–”expected utility” is intro-level econ material). This is clear to literally every single other person in this thread, and threads on this blog tend to be characterized by a lot of contentiousness and disagreement. It’s not like everybody here agrees with each other all the time.

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 4:24 am

This is clear to literally every single other person in this thread

You obviously don’t know this to be true, but like so much of what you write it’s completely irrelevant anyway. “Every single other person in this thread” is a handful of people. In a nation of 300 million people. There’s rather strong evidence that the opinions of those handful of people on this issue are not remotely representative of the opinions of people in general. You really do appear to live in a bubble of left-wing orthodoxy that makes you think your views are much more common than they really are.

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Consumatopia 03.05.12 at 4:49 am

I wasn’t planning to take a poll on the meaning and significance of “expected value”.

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DelRey 03.05.12 at 5:09 am

One of your many problems, consumatopia, is that, like a number of others here, you seem to think that peppering your posts with the occasional bit of jargon is a substitute for an actual argument. If you seriously think there are no circumstances in which the use of torture can be justified on consequentialist grounds (or “have positive expected utility” or “produce a net expected benefit” or whatever other silly jargonish way you want to express the idea of a better outcome), then produce your argument to that effect.

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js. 03.05.12 at 5:45 am

Wow. The Del actually doesn’t know what the definition of consequentialism is! I guess that explains some things. (Although, he also seems to be blissfully unaware of the is/ought distinction, and this thing called inference.) In any case, I think he’s doing all of us a huge favor. Because he (as in, his quiddity, so to speak) raises, perhaps even answers, an important question: is there, after all, as many of us have long suspected, a necessary relation between (a) a willful ignorance of the basic terms of dispute and an inability or unwillingness to engage in rational discourse; and (b) the support of state-sanctioned terror?

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greg 03.05.12 at 6:39 am

js. Perhaps you should just produce the question for Mr. DelRey: Does the positive utility of torture, in its supposed usefulness in TTB scenarios, etc., outweigh the negative utility, to a purportedly free society, of “state-sanctioned terror,” ie the implied threat of torture against every member of that society, by the government of that society?

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Consumatopia 03.06.12 at 1:09 am

Might as well spell this out.

Employing torture in a given bomb scenario is only consequentially justified if you have shown that the following expected utility is positive:

([probability that torture allows you to stop the explosion] – [probability that torture prevents you from stopping the explosion])*[utility of stopping explosion] – [utility loss due to spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost of employing torture]

Also, it only makes consequential sense to declare, today, that you would torture in a given hypothetical scenario if you believe the following expected utility is positive:

[expected utility of torture in scenario as determined in above equation]*[probability that scenario will occur] – [utility loss due to spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost of admitting that you would torture in this scenario]

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DelRey 03.06.12 at 2:46 am

Perhaps you should just produce the question for Mr. DelRey: Does the positive utility of torture, in its supposed usefulness in TTB scenarios, etc., outweigh the negative utility, to a purportedly free society, of “state-sanctioned terror,”

No, that’s not the question. Torture may have “negative utility” as a general method of interrogation but “positive utility” in specific circumstances such as a TTB scenario. If you think you can show that torture never has “positive utility,” then do so.

Employing torture in a given bomb scenario is only consequentially justified if you have shown that the following expected utility is positive: ([probability that torture allows you to stop the explosion] – [probability that torture prevents you from stopping the explosion])*[utility of stopping explosion] – [utility loss due to spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost of employing torture]

In that case, imprisonment of a given convicted criminal is only “consequentially justified” if an equivalent demonstration of “positive expected utility” has been provided for that case. Since our criminal justice system requires no such demonstration of “expected utility,” I can only assume you seek the immediate release of all inmates currently held in American prisons.

Only of course, you don’t. Because that would be ridiculous, even for you. Because your demand for a formal demonstration of “positive expected utility” is ridiculous. It is especially ridiculous when applied to actions taken in emergency, time-critical situations such as a TTB scenario.

By the way, do please explain how you propose to calculate the “spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost” of imprisoning people, torturing people, or doing anything else to people.

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Consumatopia 03.06.12 at 12:58 pm

If you think you can show that torture never has “positive utility,” then do so.

You have failed to describe any scenario in which you’ve shown that torture would have expected positive utility. You’ve even failed to describe any scenario in which you can show that the probability that torture allows you to stop the explosion is greater than the probability that torture prevents you from stopping the explosion. In fact, you seem to be under the bizarre belief that if you’ve shown the first probability is non-zero than your work is done–which makes no consequentialist sense whatsoever, but that is unsurprising from someone who puts “utility” and “expected” in scare quotes.

Imprisonment of convicted criminals has non-consequentialist justifications (e.g. the prisoner deserves it).

By the way, do please explain how you propose to calculate the “spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost” of imprisoning people, torturing people, or doing anything else to people.

That’s a good argument against consequentialism generally. If you cannot show that performing an action that violates ordinary moral standards actually has positive expected utility in a given scenario, there isn’t any reason to do it–we might as well stick with ordinary moral standards.

Consequentialism is probably salvageable by making some kind of informal accounting of longer-term costs (psychological, cultural, etc.) but it can’t work just by ignoring those costs–they are still consequences, whether you find them easy to calculate or not, so the consequentialist is forced to account for them.

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DelRey 03.06.12 at 7:30 pm

Imprisonment of convicted criminals has non-consequentialist justifications (e.g. the prisoner deserves it).

So you’re now claiming that all imprisonment is justified on the grounds that “the prisoner deserves it,” regardless of consequences? Even the innocent prisoners? No matter how bad the consequences? If not, then by your own rule you need to show that each case of imprisonment has “positive expected utility” to justify it. You have failed to do that.

That’s a good argument against consequentialism generally.

Well, make up your mind. Do you believe acts are justified if they have “positive expected utility” or don’t you? If you don’t, why have you been demanding a demonstration of the “positive expected utility” of torture?

If you cannot show that performing an action that violates ordinary moral standards actually has positive expected utility in a given scenario, there isn’t any reason to do it

Imprisonment is an action the violates ordinary moral standards. It deprives people of their liberty. Since you haven’t shown that imprisoning someone has positive expected utility, according to you, “there isn’t any reason to do it.”

You’re not even following your own rule. You ignore it in all contexts except torture. That tells us you don’t really believe the rule. It’s just something you made up for the express purpose of rationalizing your irrational position on torture.

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Kaveh 03.06.12 at 7:43 pm

DelRey’s style of argumentation seems to be badly not understanding what other people say, then accusing them of either saying something they didn’t say, or being incoherent. DelRey, nobody is being incoherent, you just don’t understand the concepts and terms of this discussion, and you’re very conspicuously not making any effort to. Why waste your time? If you really were convincing anybody, somebody would have stepped in and agreed with you at some point.

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Matt 03.06.12 at 8:24 pm

Bart: Uh, say, are you guys crooks?
Tony: Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
Bart: No.
Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
Bart: Uh uh.
Tony: And, what if your family don’t like bread? They like… cigarettes?
Bart: I guess that’s okay.
Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?
Bart: Hell, no!

It doesn’t pay to treat Fat Tony as if his imagination game is offered in innocent good faith.

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Consumatopia 03.06.12 at 10:21 pm

Seriously, does anyone else think I claimed that “all imprisonment is justified”?

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js. 03.06.12 at 10:56 pm

Consumatopia, seriously, give up. Not only is our own Fat Tony arguing in bad faith, as Matt notes, he also appears to be fairly dim-witted.

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DelRey 03.07.12 at 1:45 am

Seriously, does anyone else think I claimed that “all imprisonment is justified”?

If you believe that any cases of imprisonment are justified on consequentialist grounds, then you need to produce the formal demonstration of “positive expected utility” for them that you keep demanding I produce for the use of torture in a TTB scenario. Either follow your own rule, or give up the rule.

If you believe that no cases of imprisonment are justified on consequentialist grounds, then you need to explain why you’re not seeking the immediate release of all prisoners. You just said, “if you cannot show that performing an action that violates ordinary moral standards actually has positive expected utility in a given scenario, there isn’t any reason to do it.”

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Salient 03.07.12 at 3:15 am

If you believe that any cases of imprisonment are justified on consequentialist grounds, then you need to produce the formal demonstration of “positive expected utility” for them

Another noteworthy sign of trolling: the author writes instructions about what other people need to do, together with the imputation that this is merely reciprocity logically derived from what those other people told the author to do. This is a good sign that the author is interpreting the entire conversation in terms of control, and acting accordingly: the author, having been told by someone else that they need to provide a certain clarification in order to make progress in the conversation, recognizes that actually providing that clarification would be letting the other person ‘control’ the flow of the conversation, if only for a moment; fluid exchange of control is of course normal in non-troll conversation, even contentious conversations, but for a troll any loss of control is anathema; so, in order to regain control, the author attempts to trap that other person with their own words, by building up a parallel scenario in which the other person could be called upon to provide the sort of information they just requested from the author.

Hence: Either follow your own rule, or give up the rule.

We know that DelRey the human being would not dispute that locking people up has expected positive utility reasonably often. The sentence just quoted is really rather incoherent if you give any thought to the content, but coherent if you ignore its content entirely and evaluate it entirely in terms of form, of how it manages to re-position DelRey as the person to whom a conversational contribution is owed.

The problem with this, from a non-troll person’s point of view, is that the ‘other person’ is making a good-faith effort to explain what information they need from the author, in order to better understand the source of disagreement.

But from the troll’s point of view, the particular disagreement is merely a coincidence, a convenient source of contention; what matters is control; achieving some degree of mutual understanding undermines the control dynamic by establishing sympathy for one another’s perspectives. What the troll wants is an endless back-and-forth in which the other people in the conversation are flustered, parrying, deflecting; defensive, trapped; resigned, bested.

You know someone is trolling when what they seem to want is stasis, when they’re far more interested in preventing your progress than in making any progress of their own.

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DelRey 03.07.12 at 3:48 am

We know that DelRey the human being would not dispute that locking people up has expected positive utility reasonably often. The sentence just quoted is really rather incoherent if you give any thought to the content,

No, the sentence “Either follow your own rule, or give up the rule” is perfectly coherent. You, however, are utterly confused.

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Salient 03.07.12 at 3:52 am

Accusing other people of being confused is also a quintessential troll tactic. Anything to put people on the defensive.

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Consumatopia 03.07.12 at 1:40 pm

And these two tactics make an interesting combination–he accuses me of misstating his views, but won’t clarify what his views actually are. It’s always “I didn’t say that”, never “that’s not true”.

To clarify my own, I am agnostic as to whether consequentialism is the correct moral theory. The other actions he’s talking about (imprisonment, killing, bombing) have justifications in moral systems other than consequentialism that permit torture under no circumstances. Which is all I mean by “ordinary moral standards”–that we don’t need consequentialism (and strange hypotheticals) to justify them.

I don’t demand a formal demonstration of anything. Consequentialism itself requires a reason to think your actions have positive expected utility before that action can be considered justified. If that requirement is unworkable–perhaps because one doesn’t know what an expected value is–then one should abandon consequentialism for some other moral systems.

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Consumatopia 03.07.12 at 2:22 pm

“Either follow your own rule, or give up the rule”

To put this even more simply, consequentialism isn’t my rule, it’s yours. Follow it or give it up.

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DelRey 03.07.12 at 7:18 pm

To clarify my own, I am agnostic as to whether consequentialism is the correct moral theory

Again, make up your mind. You claim that torture is always wrong. You have to defend that position somehow. If you’re not going to defend it on consequentialist grounds, how do you defend it?

Kant said that telling a lie is always wrong, regardless of consequences. Even if the lie saves a billion lives, it’s still wrong. Are you a Kantian on torture?

I don’t demand a formal demonstration of anything.

Yes you do. You demanded an absurd formal demonstration of “expected positive utility” for a consequentialist justification of torture.

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Consumatopia 03.07.12 at 9:06 pm

If you’re not going to defend it on consequentialist grounds, how do you defend it?

I take it as given that without consequentialism there is no sane defense of torture or rape. If you believe otherwise, you can make that case, but don’t expect me to spend time on it.

I’m also spending no time on your “if torture is forbidden than X must also be forbidden” line of argument. Get someone else to tutor you on Just War theory.

Here is the bottom line. Your TTB argument assumes consequentialism, but you have not provided what consequentialism requires to justify an action–an expectation that the action maximizes utility.

Yes you do. You demanded an absurd formal demonstration of “expected positive utility” for a consequentialist justification of torture.

Ctrl-F “formal” disagrees.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 12:38 am

I take it as given that without consequentialism there is no sane defense of torture or rape.

But you can’t “take it as given” that without consequentialism torture is always wrong. Unless you can make an argument for that position it’s just an arbitrary moral rule, like saying that gay sex or abortion are always wrong. Do please explain why you think anyone should believe, for reasons that have nothing to do with its consequences, that torture is always wrong.

And you haven’t rejected consequentialism, anyway. You just said that you’re “agnostic as to whether consequentialism is the correct moral theory.” If consequentialism may be the “correct moral theory” then torture may sometimes be moral, unless you can demonstrate that torture is never justified by consequentialism. You haven’t done that.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 2:46 am

Do please explain why you think anyone should believe, for reasons that have nothing to do with its consequences, that torture is always wrong.

Vocabulary lesson! “Consequentialism” doesn’t mean justification has something to do with the consequences, it means that it has everything to do with the consequences–that nothing BUT ends justifies means.

In any event, the fact that you would request such an explanation stands on its own.

If consequentialism may be the “correct moral theory” then torture may sometimes be moral, unless you can demonstrate that torture is never justified by consequentialism.

Consequentialism requires you to take the action that maximizes expected utility. If nobody can show that torture maximizes expected utility, than torture is never justified by consequentialism.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 3:08 am

“Consequentialism” doesn’t mean justification has something to do with the consequences, it means that it has everything to do with the consequences—that nothing BUT ends justifies means.

No, “without consequentialism” means “regardless of its consequences.” Why should anyone believe that torture is always wrong regardless of its consequences?

Consequentialism requires you to take the action that maximizes expected utility. If nobody can show that torture maximizes expected utility, than torture is never justified by consequentialism.

But you have not shown that nobody can show that. You have not shown that torture never “maximizes expected utility.” Unless you can show that, you can’t claim that torture is always wrong under a consequentialist analysis. You haven’t even shown that there are no TTB scenarios in which torture “maximizes expected utility.”

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 3:23 am

No, “without consequentialism” means “regardless of its consequences.”

Consequentialism is the assumption that consequences are the only thing that matter. “Without consequentialism” means that other things may also matter. Example: Just War Theory– probability of success is necessary but not sufficient to justify an action.

But you have not shown that nobody can show that.

You argued at 361 that showing positive expected utility is a burden that cannot be met.

If you want to withdraw your claims in that post, fine. It’s still the case that nobody has managed to describe a scenario in which they can show that torture maximizes expected utility. You have failed to disprove the claim that torture is always wrong. And if you want to torture, the burden of proof is on you.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 4:06 am

Consequentialism is the assumption that consequences are the only thing that matter.

Still evading the question. If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong? If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

You argued at 361 that showing positive expected utility is a burden that cannot be met.

No I didn’t. I said that your demand for a formal demonstration of “expected utility,” using a mathematical formula, including numbers for things like “spiritual cost,” is absurd. Your demand is especially absurd when applied to actions taken in emergency, time-critical situations like a TTB scenario.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 4:21 am

If consequentialism is false, things other than consequences matter.

If consequentialism is true, then ALL consequences matter.

I said that your demand for a formal demonstration of “expected utility,” using a mathematical formula, including numbers for things like “spiritual cost,” is absurd.

I didn’t demand “formal” anything. I didn’t demand anything consequentialism doesn’t demand. If you call my demand absurd, you’re calling consequentialism absurd.

If you’re measuring utility, you’re going to have measure ALL utility. That includes longer-term effects of choosing to employ torture. Or at least provide a rule for what kinds of utility you should measure in emergency situations,and an argument why this rule maximizes would typically maximize all kinds of utility.

Remember, the burden of proof is on the one who wants to torture.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 4:27 am

Heck, I’ll make it one easier for you. Let’s assume you only have to maximize the expected number of lives saved. Or minimize the expected number of lives lost.

You’ve still got no argument. You haven’t shown that torture decreases the probability the bomb explodes. And you still have to take into a account the longer-term instiutional/strategic/cultural issues, because those will cost lives in the future.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 4:31 am

If anyone else thinks DelRay has successfully pointed out any mistake I’ve made, let me know.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 4:32 am

It’s still the case that nobody has managed to describe a scenario in which they can show that torture maximizes expected utility.

The bomb is ticking. Time is running out. All your proposed non-torture interrogation methods have been tried and failed. A million innocent lives are at stake. Whatever you propose to do in this situation, including doing nothing, “show” (your word) that your proposal has higher “expected utility” than torture. If you can’t do that, you have no basis for opposing torture on the grounds of “expected utility.”

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 4:39 am

That scenario was discussed above. Also, unless you want torture just for the sake of torture, the burden of proof is on you to show that torture works better than the alternative. (“we tried it” doesn’t work–all interrogation methods can have indefinite length).

Again, anyone else?

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 4:43 am

If consequentialism is false, things other than consequences matter.

Still evading the question. If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong? If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

I didn’t demand “formal” anything.

Yes you did. You demanded a formal demonstration of “expected utility” using a mathematical formula with values for costs such as “spiritual cost” and “cultural cost.” How the hell do you propose to “show” the “spiritual cost” of torture, or the “spiritual cost” of anything? Your demand is utterly absurd.

Remember, the burden of proof is on the one who wants to torture.

No, you claimed that torture is never justified. That’s YOUR claim. The burden is on you to prove your claims, not on others to disprove them.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 4:54 am

Also, unless you want torture just for the sake of torture, the burden of proof is on you to show that torture works better than the alternative.

Nonsense. Your standard is “maximum expected utility,” remember? You can’t simply assume that “the alternative” has higher “expected utility” than torture and demand proof to the contrary. If you favor “the alternative” over torture, the burden is on you to “show” that “the alternative” has higher “expected utility” than torture. So do that.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 5:03 am

Still evading the question.

If somebody else thinks one of your questions was worth answering in any more detail, they can ask. But your terminology is too confused for the answers to mean anything.

Yes you did.

Ctrl-F “formal” disagrees. You are lying.

I did write an equation, but you don’t necessarily need math to argue that it’s positive. You DO have to understand what the equation MEANS, though. You could show that the the probability torture helps stop the bomb explode is much greater than the probability it hinders this, and that the longer term cost of torture is very low. You’d have to show both, but you haven’t argued either.

Ultimately, I didn’t demand anything that consequentialism doesn’t demand.

No, you claimed that torture is never justified.

And if you can’t show me a scenario in which it would be–even though you really, really want to–that’s pretty good evidence for my claim.

In any event, YOU made a claim that torture WOULD be justified in some situation that you were describing. (And not just any situation–you repeatedly insisted that you weren’t assuming “certainty”) You’ve failed to show that this is the case.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 5:05 am

Your standard is “maximum expected utility,” remember?

No, YOU assume that consequentialism is true. That’s not my standard, that’s YOURS.

Anyway, you’re now admitting that you want to torture even if you can’t show that it’s a good idea.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 5:26 am

But your terminology is too confused for the answers to mean anything.

Here’s the questions, for the umpteenth time. Let me know which words you don’t understand:
If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong?
If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

I did write an equation, but you don’t necessarily need math to argue that it’s positive.

You wrote a formula, not an equation, but we’ll ignore your mathematical illiteracy for now. Your formula includes arithmetical operations involving various kinds of positive or negative “utility,” such as “spiritual cost.” You offered no explanation of how these “utilities” can be measured, let alone quantified in a common unit. The whole thing is nonsensical.

In any event, YOU made a claim that torture WOULD be justified in some situation that you were describing.

Yes, I think in the kind of TTB scenario I have described it is overwhelmingly justified. Saving a million innocent lives is a much greater good than sparing a terrorist five minutes of pain.

No, YOU assume that consequentialism is true. That’s not my standard, that’s YOURS.

I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve contradicted yourself on this point. Once and for all, make up your mind. If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong? If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 5:43 am

Let me know which words you don’t understand:

The problem is that YOU don’t understand the words, and you will just misunderstand any answer I give you. You don’t know what expected value is, you don’t know what consequentialism is. You don’t want to learn. Answering any more of your questions is pointless.

You offered no explanation of how these “utilities” can be measured, let alone quantified in a common unit.

That’s a general problem with utilitarianism and consequentialism. If you don’t like it, you don’t like consequentialism.

But, fine, I will simplify the problem for you. Just count lives. You haven’t shown that torture would save lives, in the short term or the long term.

Yes, I think in the kind of TTB scenario I have described it is overwhelmingly justified. Saving a million innocent lives is a much greater good than sparing a terrorist five minutes of pain.

The TTB scenario you describe is one in which we choose different strategies for saving a million lives. You have not shown that torture is a better strategy. You just really want to torture.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 6:25 am

The problem is that YOU don’t understand the words

If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong?
If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

The longer you evade the questions, the more obvious it is that you have cannot answer them. Which isn’t surprising given that, as I told you long ago, you’re obviously at war with yourself on this issue and as a result you have no coherent position at all.

That’s a general problem with utilitarianism and consequentialism.

No, it’s a problem with your demand to “show” “expected utility.”

I will simplify the problem for you. Just count lives. You haven’t shown that torture would save lives, in the short term or the long term.

This nonsense again. You haven’t “shown” that imprisonment would save lives. You haven’t “shown” that military action would save lives. The real world doesn’t work like that. There are too many variables and unknowns. Do you therefore think that imprisonment and military action are always wrong? In addition to all your other problems, you don’t seem to have the slightest idea of how decisions have to be made in the real world.

The TTB scenario you describe is one in which we choose different strategies for saving a million lives. You have not shown that torture is a better strategy.

And you have not “shown” that any alternative to torture is a “better strategy.” Yet you claim that torture is always wrong. Your position is an incoherent, self-contradictory mess.

You just really want to torture.

Funny. You just really want a million innocent people to die to spare a terrorist a few minutes of pain.

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Substance McGravitas 03.08.12 at 6:36 am

You haven’t “shown” that imprisonment would save lives. You haven’t “shown” that military action would save lives. The real world doesn’t work like that. There are too many variables and unknowns.

And with that, DelRey defeats the TTB.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 6:45 am

So you don’t know what consequentialism, utilitarianism, or expected value is. You have successfully found no actual inconsistency or mistake on my part. (If anyone besides you disagrees, let them speak up.) You have now developed a weird tick of putting “show” in scare quotes. (Substitute “provide a good reason to believe” if you feel better about it).

The real world doesn’t work like that. There are too many variables and unknowns

Okay then. Consequentialism doesn’t work. If you can’t provide a good reason to expect one action to save more lives than another, consequentialism is unworkable.

I’ll gladly admit that if there are two strategies to stop a bomb from exploding, and I have no reason to think one saves more lives than other, I’ll take the strategy that doesn’t involve torture. You, on the other, would take the one with torture, even without any good reason to think it would save more lives. We both want to avoid death. You just want to have some fun torture along the way.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 6:46 am

@393, exactly

396

DelRey 03.08.12 at 6:48 am

And with that, DelRey defeats the TTB.

And with that, Substance demonstrates once again that he’s living in a fantasy world.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 7:01 am

You have successfully found no actual inconsistency or mistake on my part.

If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong?
If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

Okay then. Consequentialism doesn’t work.

No, consequentialism works very well. Consequentialist arguments dominate our moral thinking and public discourse.

If you can’t provide a good reason to expect one action to save more lives than another, consequentialism is unworkable.

I can certainly provide a good reason to expect one action to save more lives than another. You cannot provide any reason to justify your claim that torture is always wrong.

I’ll gladly admit that if there are two strategies to stop a bomb from exploding, and I have no reason to think one saves more lives than other, I’ll take the strategy that doesn’t involve torture

More incoherence. Do you think torture is always wrong or don’t you? If you do, it’s irrelevant whether you have “no reason to think one strategy saves more lives than other” or not. You keep making statements that conflict with your previous statements. You go round and round like this over and over again.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 7:08 am

I can certainly provide a good reason to expect one action to save more lives than another.

But I thought the real world didn’t work like that!

Anyway, so you can, it’s just that you haven’t, at least not in the case of torture. But you still really want to torture.

“incoherence”–I’m gonna have to add that one to the pile of words you don’t understand.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 7:33 am

But I thought the real world didn’t work like that!

That’s because you’re hopelessly confused. The real world doesn’t work such that you can “show” that imprisonment would save lives.

Anyway, so you can, it’s just that you haven’t, at least not in the case of torture.

I haven’t had any reason to. You haven’t provided a good reason to believe that torture is always wrong. Or any reason.

If consequences don’t matter, why is torture always wrong?
If consequences do matter, why is torture always wrong whatever the consequences?

But you still really want to torture.

You still really want a million innocent people to die to spare a terrorist a few minutes of pain.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 12:29 pm

I hate to think what “show” means in your private dictionary.

You don’t need to provide a good reason to believe that torture would save lives to support torture?

Other people’s inability to provide a plausible scenario in which torture would save lives is, itself, a good reason to believe torture is always wrong. My hypothesis that torture is always wrong has not yet been falsified.

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DelRey 03.08.12 at 8:00 pm

I hate to think what “show” means in your private dictionary.

I don’t have a private dictionary. I’m still waiting for you to explain how you think it is possible to “show” the “spiritual, psychological, strategic, institutional and cultural cost” of imprisonment, torture, wartime bombing or any other action.

You don’t need to provide a good reason to believe that torture would save lives to support torture?

The TTB scenario is a good reason to believe that torture may save lives. You have provided no reason to believe that torture is always wrong.

My hypothesis that torture is always wrong has not yet been falsified.

Moral beliefs cannot be “falsified.” Your confusion of values with facts is yet another illustration of how utterly befuddled you are on this issue.

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Consumatopia 03.08.12 at 9:36 pm

Moral beliefs cannot be “falsified.”

DelRay defeats the TTB a second time!

Look, you win. There is no way I will ever find an argument against torture as good as the display you’ve put on here. Your desperate need to believe in the 24 fantasy of torture for the greater good has twisted your mind into such a shape that your logic and even vocabulary are no longer recognizable. (Seriously, you do reductio ad absurdum under your own assumptions. You treat other people like evil trickster wizards if they mention “expected value”. You don’t know what “utilitarianism” or “consequentialism” are. And you have some personal vendetta against the word “show”.)

You’ve failed to offer any scenario in which we have good reason to think that torture is expected to save more lives than typical interrogation and negotiation methods. But you don’t actually think you need to find such a reason to support torture.

The fantasy that torture promises–the fantasy of taking absolute power over someone you despise for the greater good–has overwhelmed you. It’s a drug, and you’re a junkie. There’s nothing left here but you parroting back nonsense questions and already-refuted points at me.

After seeing what it’s done to you–I can’t trust anyone to make the decision to torture. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. You’ve proven that. Even just the desire for absolute power has corrupted you. You’ve made a better argument against torture than anyone else here.

You won. Take your bow.

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Salient 03.08.12 at 9:58 pm

The fantasy that torture trolling promises—the fantasy of taking absolute power over someone you despise for the greater good [...? the sheer thrill of doing so?]—has overwhelmed you.

Fixd for you; DelRey’s conversation tactics here aren’t an exception to the norm…

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DelRey 03.09.12 at 4:35 am

There is no way I will ever find an argument against torture as good as the display you’ve put on here.

That’s right. You’ll never “defeat” the TTB. There is no way you will ever find an argument that sparing a terrorist from a few minutes of pain is more important saving a million innocent people from being murdered.

You’ve failed to offer any scenario in which we have good reason to think that torture is expected to save more lives than typical interrogation and negotiation methods.

I’ve explained it to you repeatedly. “Typical interrogation and negotiation methods” have been tried and failed. The terrorist refuses to talk. The bomb is ticking. Time is running out. A million people will die if we don’t find out the location of the bomb. The use of torture is not only justified in such a scenario. It is virtually inevitable.

The fantasy that torture promises—the fantasy of taking absolute power over someone you despise for the greater good—has overwhelmed you. It’s a drug, and you’re a junkie.

One of the reasons you’re never going to win this argument — quite apart from the fact that you can barely write two consecutive comments without contradicting yourself — is that you simply refuse to engage it in any serious way. “I don’t need to come up with a reason why torture is always wrong because my opponent is an evil junkie. So there.”

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Consumatopia 03.09.12 at 10:16 pm

I’ve explained it to you repeatedly. “Typical interrogation and negotiation methods” have been tried and failed.

see 244 285 287 308 319 327 333 352 and others I surely missed

This further confirms everything in my previous post.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 1:01 am

see 244 285 287 308 319 327 333 352 and others I surely missed

I’ve already explained why the claims you make in those comments are either irrelevant or false. In 244, for example, you make the trivial observation that an act of torture may not work. Yes, it may not work. So what? Anything we try may not work. There is no certainty. Just as there is no certainty that convicted criminals whom we execute or imprison really are guilty. Just as there is no certainty that a wartime bombing raid that kills hundreds innocent civilians really will achieve its military objectives.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 1:56 am

That was not actually the observation I made at 244.

Anyone honest reading 244 285 287 308 319 327 333 and 352 will see why your objection doesn’t work. Several of them directly answered to it, as well as 362, 372, 394, 402, and who knows how many others.

146 addressed the bombing/torture distinction specifically, and the links at 372 and 318 should have all you need on that.

Honestly, for all the simplistic arguments you’ve given here, the Wikipedia entry on the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario should have you covered.

This further confirms everything in 402.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 3:26 am

Anyone honest reading 244 285 287 308 319 327 333 and 352 will see why your objection doesn’t work.

You have to actually come up with an argument as to why my “objection” doesn’t work. Not falsely claim that you have already done so by reeling off an irrelevant list of numbers.

146 addressed the bombing/torture distinction specifically,

In that comment, you wrote “wartime bombing at least increases the probability that an enemy dies.” As I told you in response at the time: then torture at least increases the probability that a ticking time bomb is found before it explodes.

But the whole premise of your comment is false anyway. The goal of wartime bombing is generally to destroy industrial capacity or achieve some other kind of military objective in order to defeat your enemy. Not to make him “die.” And there is nothing remotely close to “certainty” that a wartime bombing raid will achieve its military objective.

As I already told you, if we’re willing to drop bombs that kill and maim innocent civilians for uncertain military objectives, then we should be willing to inflict temporary pain on terrorist prisoners for uncertain prevention of catastrophic terrorist attacks.

And if we’re willing to send people to jail for the rest of their lives, or execute them, on the basis of uncertain findings of guilt, and for uncertain benefits like deterrence, then we should be willing to inflict temporary pain on terrorist prisoners for uncertain prevention of catastrophic terrorist attacks.

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Kaveh 03.10.12 at 3:37 am

Okay, DelRey, your TTB situation, bomb goes off in one hour, other negotiation methods haven’t worked. Why not torture?

1) Other negotiation methods might start working, as the clock counts down
2) Torture might not work, might firm up the guy’s resolve not to give in
3) There might not be a bomb in the first place
4) Torturing in one case leads to higher likelihood torture will be used in other cases

I think Consumatopia or somebody went through 1-4 up-thread, but never mind. There are your reasons not to torture. If the probability of 1) and 2) are low, then it might make sense to torture (still doesn’t answer the question of how you know there’s a bomb in the first place, if you don’t even know the location?), BUT, how would you know that the probability of 1) and 2) are low?

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 4:06 am

1) Other negotiation methods might start working, as the clock counts down

Well, yes, they might. It’s possible. But if we’ve already been trying these other methods for hours or days or weeks to no effect, then it would foolish to think they’re likely to start working in the short time remaining before the bomb explodes.

2) Torture might not work, might firm up the guy’s resolve not to give in

Again, yes, torture might not work. Just as people we put in prison and execute might be innocent. Just as wartime bombing raids that kill innocent civilians might fail to achieve their military objective. I’m not sure why you think the possibility that any of these actions might fail means they should never be taken.

3) There might not be a bomb in the first place

Same reply as above. That man you and your fellow jurors just found guilty might not have committed the crime. That enemy building we just dropped a bomb on might not be a chemical weapons factory. It might be a school.

4) Torturing in one case leads to higher likelihood torture will be used in other cases

Then life imprisonment in one case leads to higher likelihood of life imprisonment in other cases. Wartime bombing in one case leads to higher likelihood of life imprisonment in other cases. Does that mean life imprisonment and wartime bombing are never justified?

But, hey, kudos for actually trying to come up with rational defense of your position. It’s a refreshing change from your usual nonsense.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 4:18 am

If the probability of 1) and 2) are low, then it might make sense to torture (still doesn’t answer the question of how you know there’s a bomb in the first place, if you don’t even know the location?), BUT, how would you know that the probability of 1) and 2) are low?

I just mentioned a scenario in which the probability of 1 is low. We’ve already tried your other methods for a long period of time, and they haven’t worked. Time is running out.

As for 2, even if the probability that torture will work is low, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. If the stakes are high enough (say, the obliteration of New York City), then even a small chance of success is worth it.

But there are obviously scenarios in which we may reasonably judge the chance that torture will work to be high. Perhaps the terrorist has been tortured before, and he has always folded like a cheap suit after just a few minutes. He’s a coward with a low tolerance for pain. If we know from past experience that torture is likely to make him talk, then we would have even more reason to use it.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 4:44 am

All four of those points have been made over and over by Kaveh, myself, and others (see 407, and, well, the whole thread). It’s amusing that you find them refreshing.

1) It’s common for negotiations to go until the last minute. Did you pay attention to political brinkmanship last year? This point was previously made at 352. Again, not sure what you find “refreshing”. You have not provided a scenario in which 1 is low.

2) The problem isn’t what might happen, the problem is that we don’t have any good reason to think “torture firms up his resolve” is less likely than “torture breaks him and he spills guts”. Especially when it’s so ridiculously easy to mislead interrogators here. You don’t even need to posit a booby trap or a detonate code. Just make a decoy bomb. If you have the resources to build a real bomb, building a decoy doesn’t add much to the cost. Heck, sprinkle some radioactivity around it for good measure. Interrogators find fake bomb, stop torturing, cut red wire, high five each other, real bomb explodes.

Don’t forget this possibility: “torture drives detainee insane, forgets where bomb is”–it’s not unheard of for torture victims to become so disturbed (sometimes permanently) they aren’t even able to comply with the interrogators wishes if they wanted to. This is especially true of your “cheap suit” detainee–though it’s implausible that a terrorist network would trust such a person with a nuclear bomb, the holy grail of all terror.

3) The problem is that bomb hoaxes happen all the time. In fact, if we embraced an explicit “ticking time bomb” torture policy, sending out lost of fake bomb threats would be an easy way to get Americans to torture each other. Note that we don’t actually torture every time there’s a bomb hoax because the TTB doesn’t actually make sense even given our government’s revealed willingness to torture.

4) Merp went into this one thorougly at 295. I had a link at 318. Different slippery slopes have different probabilities. Torture regimes have a long, documented history of being more likely to get out of control, everywhere from the Inquisition to Algiers to Operation Phoenix to Abu Gharib. Do you need a reading list?

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 5:08 am

Aside: since Algiers was already mentioned here, Darius Rejali’s description of what really happened there is devastating.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 5:27 am

1) It’s common for negotiations to go until the last minute.

Not when there’s lives at stake and time is critical. Let alone a million lives. If negotiation fails then force will almost certainly be used.

You have not provided a scenario in which 1 is low.

You’ve been “negotiating” with the terrorist for a week. He still refuses to tell you the location of the bomb. The bomb will explode in one hour. You’re seriously claiming there’s a good chance he’ll suddenly start cooperating before the bomb explodes, are you? Your claims are becoming increasingly absurd.

2) The problem isn’t what might happen, the problem is that we don’t have any good reason to think “torture firms up his resolve” is less likely than “torture breaks him and he spills guts”.

Of course we do. Torture gives him an enormous incentive to cooperate. If he doesn’t, the interrogators will keep torturing him. How long do you think you’d be able to last? And if we know from past experience that he’s likely to start talking under torture, we have even more reason to use it.

Especially when it’s so ridiculously easy to mislead interrogators here. You don’t even need to posit a booby trap or a detonate code. Just make a decoy bomb. If you have the resources to build a real bomb, building a decoy doesn’t add much to the cost. Heck, sprinkle some radioactivity around it for good measure. Interrogators find fake bomb, stop torturing, cut red wire, high five each other, real bomb explodes.

No, it’s very difficult to fake a bomb, especially a large one. Explosive and nuclear material can easily be verified by their chemical and radiological signatures.

Don’t forget this possibility: “torture drives detainee insane, forgets where bomb is

Yes, he might go insane. It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that the wartime enemy target we’re about to bomb is a school rather than a weapons factory. The possibility that an action may fail does not mean the action should never be taken.

3) The problem is that bomb hoaxes happen all the time.

No, they’re pretty rare. But when a bomb threat is made, the usual response is to evacuate the area. Since we don’t have time to evacuate New York City before the TTB will explode, and we have strong evidence that the TTB is real, this is just another one of your endless parade of irrelevancies.

4) Merp went into this one thorougly at 295.

Yes, and I debunked it thoroughly at 299 and elsewhere.

Different slippery slopes have different probabilities. Torture regimes have a long, documented history of being more likely to get out of control, everywhere from the Inquisition to Algiers to Operation Phoenix to Abu Gharib. Do you need a reading list?

We’re not talking about “torture regimes.” We’re talking about the ad hoc use of torture in an emergency situation. Or are you now claiming, since you include Abu Ghraib in your list, that the United States is a “torture regime?” Like I said, your statements are becoming increasingly ridiculous.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 6:45 am

“You’ve been “negotiating” with the terrorist for a week. He still refuses to tell you the location of the bomb. The bomb will explode in one hour. You’re seriously claiming there’s a good chance he’ll suddenly start cooperating before the bomb explodes, are you?”

Scare quote “negotiation”? Hey, that’s what this is–a hostage negotiation with a million hostages. Sometimes to free the hostages you have to give up stuff. You might have to give up a lot of stuff. Israel gave up a whole lot of prisoners to free one hostage. You want to save a million hostages. He’s gonna demand a lot of stuff in exchange. You’ll probably both be bluffing to get the other guy to give up more. Except there’s a good chance he isn’t bluffing–if he built a nuke, he’s probably ready to see it through if he doesn’t get what he wants. In reality, it’s probably going to be you who waits until close to the deadline to give in.

Many false assumptions you just made about torture are refuted here.

Yes, he might go insane. It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that the wartime enemy target we’re about to bomb is a school rather than a weapons factory. The possibility that an action may fail does not mean the action should never be taken.

Again, the problem isn’t what might happen, the problem is that we don’t have any good reason to think “torture firms up his resolve or makes him pass out/lose mind” is less likely than “torture breaks him and he spills guts”. The more limited the time frame, the more likely the first one is. Again, see here.

No, it’s very difficult to fake a bomb, especially a large one

It’s not harder than building an actual bomb. Put some radioactive material in the dummy bomb. Or set the dummy bomb to broadcast a coded signal which stops broadcasting as soon as anyone starts investigating it. The real bomb hears the signal cut and detonates. Interrogators in an actual nuclear TTB should assume that the terrorists have done this and the only way to stop the detonation is to make a deal. Torture is worse than useless here–it will doom you.

Bomb hoaxes are rare? Google news search disagrees. If you don’t need to see the bomb, I can make the hoax as big as you need to be.

Let people judge for themselves whether 299 “thoroughly” responds to 295.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 7:06 am

Interrogators in an actual nuclear TTB should assume that the terrorists have done this

Clarification: because setting up fake “surrender” ploys that detonate the bomb is so much easier than actually building the bomb, interrogators should assume that several such ploys are in effect–that they cannot coerce the information without the terrorist being able to signal the detonation and end the game.

A really easy one: “the bomb location is at this URL”. The webserver detonates the bomb as soon as the URL is accessed. Or “The bomb is in this alley”–someone across the street sees people check the alley, detonates the bomb. Compared to the nuke itself, these ploys are incredibly low-tech–they could set up dozens of them.

If someone has a ticking nuke in the city, you’ll have to make a deal, find the nuke on your own, or start cleaning up fallout.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 7:41 am

Hey, that’s what this is—a hostage negotiation with a million hostages. Sometimes to free the hostages you have to give up stuff. You might have to give up a lot of stuff.

For the umpteenth time, “negotiation” with the terrorist has been tried and failed. He refuses to cooperate. The bomb will explode shortly. And yet you’re seriously claiming that we should just count on him suddenly revealing the location of the bomb, just in time. You’re delusional.

Many false assumptions you just made about torture are refuted here.

You already linked to that essay. It doesn’t even address the argument for the use of torture in a TTB scenario, let alone refute it. You keep referencing things that don’t even say what you claim they say.

Again, the problem isn’t what might happen, the problem is that we don’t have any good reason to think “torture firms up his resolve or makes him pass out/lose mind” is less likely than “torture breaks him and he spills guts”.

Repeating this nonsense isn’t going to make it any less absurd than the first time you said it. There is overwhelming evidence that human beings have a strong interest in avoiding pain. The more intense the pain, the greater the interest in avoiding it. If the pain is sufficiently intense, people can be expected to do anything possible to try and stop it. You have produced absolutely no evidence that torture is likely to make a terrorist “firm up his resolve or pass out/lose mind.” You’re just making up things out of thin air again.

It’s not harder than building an actual bomb. Put some radioactive material in the dummy bomb. Or set the dummy bomb to broadcast a coded signal which stops broadcasting as soon as anyone starts investigating it. The real bomb hears the signal cut and detonates. Interrogators in an actual nuclear TTB should assume that the terrorists have done this and the only way to stop the detonation is to make a deal.

Nuclear bombs are precision-engineered devices. You can’t fake a real nuclear bomb by “putting some radioactive material” in a dummy one. The possibility of fake bombs doesn’t mean that torture is never justified any more than the possibility of fake targets means that wartime bombing is never justified, or the possibility that a convicted murderer was framed means that he should never been imprisoned or excuted. Yet again, you’re arguing against torture on the basis of a “rule” that you ignore in all other contexts. You just invented it for the express purpose of trying to rationalize your irrational position that torture is always wrong.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 8:09 am

You already linked to that essay.

No, it was two different essays on the same site by the same (incredible, btw) author. The second one definitely addresses the ticking bomb argument. It utterly demolishes your case.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 8:32 am

You don’t have to build a fake bomb. Tell the interrogators that the bomb is some place you can see with a webcam. Park a suspicious U-Haul there–ta da, fake bomb. If your conspirator sees activity at the U-Haul or the webcam cuts out, stop sending the signal that prevents detonation. There’s every reason to think a terrorist with a nuke would have fail-deadly protocols in place. Just carry a transmitter, if the transmitter stops the bomb goes off. The terrorist might even pretend that they don’t have such mechanisms in place, so that interrogators won’t anticipate them. And the possibilities here are endless–they cannot be anticipated, anyway.

Just read Snow Crash.

Earlier someone was joking about “when a solipsist dies, the universe ends”. But that’s actually pretty close to what’s going on here–a terrorist with a nuke is a one-man superpower. Dr. Manhattan with a beard. When you are threatening to hurt or kill him, and he is threatening to set off the bomb, the terrorist and the city are in a state of Mutually Assured Destruction. You should assume the terrorist has “second-strike” capability. Like it or not, you will take him seriously or you will die. .It’s horrifying to think about a lone fanatic having that kind of power over us. That’s what shocked the hell out of everyone on 9/11.

I shouldn’t be so hard on DelRey. It’s amazing, now that I stop and think about it, how the TTB makes absolutely no sense at all–torture would be an incredibly stupid thing to do in actual ticking bomb scenarios, for so many reasons. How could any of us have ever taken this seriously?

There’s just a part of most people that wants to believe we could torture our way out of a anyone having power over us. Like we could defeat plutonium with a bucket and a rag down the throat. The torture regime is not just Bush and Abu Gharib. It’s “24″ and our whole culture. Not just culture. Human beings have loved to inflict suffering and exert control over people we hate throughout recorded history. We have developed religious and moral systems that tell us this is wrong–extremely wrong. So stories in which doing those things we naturally desire is somehow a necessary evil are deeply appealing to us. But the evil isn’t necessary–it’s fatal. In the ticking bomb scenario, it would destroy us.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 8:35 am

Clarification: because setting up fake “surrender” ploys that detonate the bomb is so much easier than actually building the bomb, interrogators should assume that several such ploys are in effect—that they cannot coerce the information without the terrorist being able to signal the detonation and end the game.

You can’t demand that interrogators assume that. You don’t get to set the conditions of the scenarios. You claim that torture is always wrong. That means you must produce an argument against torture that applies to all possible scenarios, not just scenarios you contrive involving fake bombs and “ploys.”

Not that your argument works even in your contrived cases. Again, there is an obvious analogy with wartime bombing. Bombing targets can also be faked. Empty buildings can be made to look like munitions factories or military command centers. Genuine targets can be disguised as schools, hospitals, housing or anything else. On your account, this possibility means that wartime bombing can never be effective and is therefore never justified. But we know that wartime bombing can be effective.

In fact, your premise could be used to justify greater use of torture. To deter the terrorist from providing false information about fake bombs and increase the chances of finding the real bomb before it explodes, the torture could be started earlier and made more intense.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 8:48 am

You can’t demand that interrogators assume that.

The hell I can’t. Their job is to protect me, and they’d better be prepared for the worst.

The comparable bombing example would be a first-strike on the Soviet Union to liberate Eastern Europe. Game theorists at our defense department had to assume that the Soviets had fail-deadly, second-strike capabilities–that destruction would be mutual. Thus, a first strike would be insane.

I mean, this is what it’s come down to. Torture probably increases the chance the city will blow up. You still want to torture. I understand it–the terrorist is scum, you want to hurt him, you want ultimate victory over him. But the reality is that people with nukes are hard to fuck with. That’s why people want nukes.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 8:57 am

You don’t have to build a fake bomb. Tell the interrogators that the bomb is some place you can see with a webcam.

There is no webcam. Even if there were, you can’t see it, because you’re a prisoner. Even if you could see it, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. The interrogators have started torturing you. The pain is excruciating, unbearable. You can’t stand it any more. You’ll do anything to stop it….

But you insist that, somehow, you would certainly be able to resist. You insist that there’s just no chance you would reveal the location of the bomb under torture. And you seriously expect people to believe that.

It’s amazing, now that I stop and think about it, how the TTB makes absolutely no sense at all—torture would be an incredibly stupid thing to do in actual ticking bomb scenarios, for so many reasons.

The problem is that you’re not thinking about it. You’re making up your own TTB scenario, ignoring all other possible TTB scenarios, and asserting that because torture wouldn’t work in your scenario it wouldn’t work in any scenario. Even your own scenario doesn’t make any sense, as I just explained.

There’s just a part of most people that wants to believe we could torture our way out of a anyone having power over us.

There’s just a part of you that wants to believe torture could never produce information that would save lives. Your desire to hold this belief is so overwhelmingly you cannot even see how utterly irrational it is.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 9:15 am

The hell I can’t. Their job is to protect me, and they’d better be prepared for the worst.

They are prepared for the worst. That’s why they cannot make your assumption. You can’t just make up a scenario and insist that it is the only possible scenario.

The comparable bombing example would be a first-strike on the Soviet Union to liberate Eastern Europe.

No, the comparable wartime bombing analogy is what I just described. Just as there can be fake bombs in a TTB scenario there can be (and often are) fake bombing targets in wars. That doesn’t mean wartime bombing is ineffective or unjustified. And the possibility of fake bombs doesn’t mean that torture is ineffective or unjustified.

The idea that an unprovoked nuclear attack against the Soviet Union is a meaningful analogy to the defensive use of torture to prevent a nuclear attack is absurd.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 9:30 am

They are prepared for the worst. That’s why they cannot make your assumption.

My assumption is the worst. Fail-deadly.

No, the comparable wartime bombing analogy is what I just described.

The comparable situation involves your target having devastating second-strike capability.

There is no webcam. Even if there were, you can’t see it, because you’re a prisoner.

No, you’re the prisoner’s conspirator. And I also proposed schemes involving no conspirators–the terrorist threatens to stop transmitting a cryptographically signed signal as soon as he’s about to be captured (or the signal stops as soon as his hand leaves the transmitter). There are so many possible schemes. So many ways to send signals, stop sending signals, trick interrogators into sending signals while investigating what I’m saying. These are just the ones I came up with tonight. The terrorist could spend as long as want on the planning stage coming up with as many as I wanted. A sane interrogator has to assume the nuke is ticking and fail-deadly.

Even if you could see it, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. The interrogators have started torturing you. The pain is excruciating, unbearable. You can’t stand it any more. You’ll do anything to stop it….

Somebody didn’t read the link.

DelRey, of the infinite number of things you are wrong about here, this is the one I most want to emphasize:

If you, DelRey, were the interrogator, the nuke would go off, and the people you were protecting would die. Your foolishness has made you weak, DelRey. You’re unable to protect others in the exact scenario that you’re obsessed with. Maybe that’s why you’re obsessed with it.

What part of “people with nukes are hard to fuck with” do you not get here?

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 9:38 am

You’re making up your own TTB scenario, ignoring all other possible TTB scenarios, and asserting that because torture wouldn’t work in your scenario it wouldn’t work in any scenario.

There’s good reason to think my scenario is more plausible than any other TTB (though all TTBs are somewhat implausible), because building a fail-deadly protocol is so much easier than building the nuke.

But if you are faced with what appears to be a ticking nuke hidden from you, you cannot know which scenario you are truly in. You cannot know what contingencies the terrorist has planned for you. You must plan for the worst. And the worst scenario is mine.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 10:07 am

My assumption is the worst.

No, your assumption is that certain “ploys are in effect.” That assumption may not be true. Acting as if it is true may produce a worse outcome. You keep pretending that your contrived scenario is the only possible scenario. It isn’t. It isn’t even a likely scenario.

The comparable situation involves your target having devastating second-strike capability.

No, the analogy to fake bombs in a TTB scenario is fake targets in a wartime bombing scenario. This is the third time I’ve had to explain this to you.

No, you’re the prisoner’s conspirator. And I also proposed schemes involving no conspirators—the terrorist threatens to stop transmitting a cryptographically signed signal as soon as he’s about to be captured (or the signal stops as soon as his hand leaves the transmitter).

No, I’m not the prisoner’s conspirator. No, the terrorist did not threaten to stop transmitting a signal. He didn’t even want to stop transmitting a signal. There wasn’t even anything to signal. He didn’t even have a signalling device. He was captured too quickly to do anything anyway. You keep pretending that your contrived scenario is the only possible scenario. It isn’t. It isn’t even a likely scenario.

Somebody didn’t read the link.

That link is irrelevant. Again, you expect people to believe that no matter how bad the pain you would somehow be able to resist and that there’s no chance you would reveal the location of the bomb. You have absolutely no basis for this claim. It doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

If you, DelRey, were the interrogator, the nuke would go off, and the people you were protecting would die.

The nuke may or may not go off whoever the interrogator is. If conventional interrogation methods had been tried and failed and time was running out, torture would almost certainly be used, and would increase the chance of preventing the explosion.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 10:29 am

There’s good reason to think my scenario is more plausible than any other TTB

No there isn’t. Your scenario adds a set of special conditions to the basic scenario. That makes it less plausible. But it doesn’t matter for your argument, anyway. You claim that torture is never justified, under any scenario. Therefore, your argument must apply to any scenario, not just your contrived scenario.

But if you are faced with what appears to be a ticking nuke hidden from you, you cannot know which scenario you are truly in. You cannot know what contingencies the terrorist has planned for you. You must plan for the worst. And the worst scenario is mine.

There is no “worst scenario.” If your assumptions are false but interrogators act as if they are true, their actions could cause the bomb to explode. If your assumptions are true and interrogators act as if they are true, their actions could cause the bomb to explode if other assumptions are also true. For the umpteenth time, you can’t just make up a scenario and pretend that it is the only possible scenario.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 1:19 pm

That link is irrelevant.

This link is irrelevant?!

What if time is short, as with a “ticking bomb”? Does torture offer a shortcut? Real torture — not the stuff of television — takes days, if not weeks. Even torturers know this. There are three things that limit torture’s value in this context.

First, there is the medical limit. Physical methods, like psychological methods, take time. In the face of extreme pain, human beings faint and, as one French resistance fighter said, this “gives you a reprieve between blows” and delays interrogation. As the interrogation proceeds, victims become less sensitive to pain. After undergoing four torture sessions, a Norwegian resistance fighter concluded that “pain had reached its limit — when it could hurt no more, what did it matter how it was inflicted?” In addition, as torturers push harder, they sometimes cause inadvertent death. And dead men, like unconscious men, don’t talk.

Second, there is the resource limit. For decades, guerrilla organizations have had “torture contracts” with their members: If you get arrested, keep the interrogators busy for 24 hours and let us change the passwords and locations. Give them false information mixed with half-truths. Make them waste their time and resources, and then after a day say whatever you want, since it will be useless then. Remember that you will become unconscious when the pain is extreme, and consider feigning unconsciousness.

Last, there’s the psychological limit. The CIA Kubark manual notes that coercive investigation requires compiling a psychological profile, which can take days to write. Without a psychological profile, the manual says, torture is a “hit or miss” practice and “a waste of time and energy.” Shot-in-the-dark torturing brings to mind the torturer’s paradox. If he tortures first, he may be unable to get information by gentler means later. But if he tortures at the end, the prisoner may conclude that he is getting desperate and hold out longer.

You’re not only claiming this is wrong, you claim it is irrelevant to ticking time bomb arguments.

And he’s right. If you check out that CIA manual he mentioned (summarized here) the techniques they suggest all take a long time.

The manuals advise that torture techniques can backfire and that the threat of pain is often more effective than pain itself. The manuals describe coercive techniques to be used “to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist.” These techniques include prolonged constraint, prolonged exertion, extremes of heat, cold, or moisture, deprivation of food or sleep, disrupting routines, solitary confinement, threats of pain, deprivation of sensory stimuli, hypnosis, and use of drugs or placebos.

Any of that takes more than an hour. Evacuating the city is faster. Searching the city manually and negotiating are probably faster.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 1:32 pm

No, I’m not the prisoner’s conspirator. No, the terrorist did not threaten to stop transmitting a signal. He didn’t even want to stop transmitting a signal. There wasn’t even anything to signal. He didn’t even have a signalling device. He was captured too quickly to do anything anyway.

If your assumptions are false but interrogators act as if they are true, their actions could cause the bomb to explode. If your assumptions are true and interrogators act as if they are true, their actions could cause the bomb to explode if other assumptions are also true.

You claim that torture is never justified, under any scenario.

I claim torture is never justified given that the interrogators don’t know which scenario they are in. They don’t know that there’s no fail-deadly plan–the idea is so obvious and easy to implement that there probably is. They don’t know that the terrorist is somehow strong enough not to pass out/lose his mind/die, but not strong enough to resist torture for an hour–especially since torture typically lasts much longer than an hour. They don’t know that the terrorist cannot be negotiated with or tricked if torture is avoided–especially since negotiations frequently last until the last minute. They don’t know what the long-term effects of choosing to engage in torture would be–there’s a lot of historical evidence that torture leads to more torture. They can’t even know that their desire to inflict suffering on the detainee has not clouded their judgment–though experience suggests that this is likely.

In short, there’s no reasonable scenario (sci-fi brain scanning might be a different story) in which interrogators, knowing what they know, would have a good reason to think torture would save lives. In all reasonable scenarios, they would have good reason not to torture.

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Kaveh 03.10.12 at 1:42 pm

DelRey, you’re just wishing away the objections raised in 1 – 4. Especially how you keep insisting that people don’t wait until the very last minute to settle in a negotiation process. Seriously? You can’t be that naive.

You’re making up your own TTB scenario, ignoring all other possible TTB scenarios,

That’s that positing false certainty thing again. In real life, you don’t know what scenario you’re in. You might be able to rule out some scenarios, but you can’t rule out all scenarios except one. So if Consumatopia’s scenario of fake bombs and fail-deadly surrender ploys is plausible, and it is, then how do you know you’re not in that scenario, rather than the one you describe? And as for whether it’s less plausible because it ‘adds additional conditions’, your scenario where there are no surrender ploys, &c., adds the additional condition that the terrorist is stupid and uses simplistic methods, which is no less arbitrary a condition than Consumatopia’s.

Maybe all this is beside the point–if the range of scenarios in which torture is justified is really that tiny, then what’s the difference between saying torture is never justified, and saying it’s sometimes but only very rarely justified? The latter still doesn’t apply to the vast majority of cases in which torture has actually been used or its use considered. Torturing people simply for being suspected members of al-Qaeda isn’t anything like the ticking time-bomb scenario you’ve described.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 7:50 pm

You’re not only claiming this is wrong, you claim it is irrelevant to ticking time bomb arguments.

It’s irrelevant because it’s wrong. It’s the usual “torture doesn’t work” nonsense. His claims are just factually incorrect. We know from real-world experience that torture, and even just the threat of torture, can produce accurate information after conventional interrogation methods have been tried and failed.

If you check out that CIA manual he mentioned (summarized here) the techniques they suggest all take a long time.

Your link says no such thing. And it doesn’t even mention techniques such as waterboarding. You keep citing documents that do not say what you claim they say.

Any of that takes more than an hour. Evacuating the city is faster. Searching the city manually and negotiating are probably faster

More nonsense. Inflicting pain does not take “more than an hour.” Administering electric shocks does not take “more than an hour.” Subjecting the prisoner to extreme heat or cold does not take “more than an hour.” Using drugs does not take “more than an hour.” Threatening any form of torture does not take “more than an hour.” And you can’t arbitrarily limit the torture to an hour anyway. For the umpteenth time, your argument has to work in all possible scenarios.

The idea that a major city could be evacuated in an hour is laughable. Attempting to evacuate a city quickly in a TTB scenario would almost certainly result in substantial loss of life and injury.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 8:19 pm

I claim torture is never justified given that the interrogators don’t know which scenario they are in. They don’t know that there’s no fail-deadly plan—the idea is so obvious and easy to implement that there probably is. They don’t know that the terrorist is somehow strong enough not to pass out/lose his mind/die, but not strong enough to resist torture for an hour—especially since torture typically lasts much longer than an hour. They don’t know that the terrorist cannot be negotiated with or tricked if torture is avoided—especially since negotiations frequently last until the last minute.

It is irrelevant that they don’t know which scenario they are in. You’re claiming that, in every possible scenario, “negotiation” is always more likely to work than torture, right up until the time the bomb will explode. That claim is ludicrous on its face. There is absolutely no evidence that it’s true, and a mountain of evidence that it’s false. You have no basis for assuming that the terrorist has any interest in “negotiation” at all. The 9/11 hijackers were not interested in “negotiation.” Tim McVeigh was not interested in “negotiation.” The 1993 World Trade Center bombers were not interested in “negotiation.” The U.S.S. Cole bombers were not interested in “negotiation.” The Pan Am flight 103 bombers were not interested in “negotiation.” The London subway bombers were not interested in “negotiation.” We have numerous real-world examples of major terrorist attacks. These attacks were not “negotiation” tactics. The attackers made no demands. The purpose of the attacks was to inflict death and destruction. They were acts of protest or vengeance, not “negotiation.”

So your claim that we should assume that “negotiation” is more likely to work than torture is absurd. It has absolutely no basis in reality. If there is time, interrogators can try conventional interrogation techniques. At some point, when time is running out and the terrorist is still not talking, torture becomes the only realistic option for thwarting the attack. That is why your anti-torture absolutism is not only completely irrational but deeply immoral. Your moral sense is so depraved that you think sparing a terrorist from a few minutes of pain is more important than saving a million innocent people from being murdered.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 8:43 pm

428&431: I guess we’re each satisfied that this pair of posts completely vindicates us.

432: Neither Al Qaeda nor McVeigh were captured with a ticking bomb. (Not that anyone has been captured with a ticking bomb.) They both certainly had agendas and demands on our government. If either of them had planted a nuke, we’d have to take some of those demands seriously. When scumbags have nukes, you have to take what they say seriously.

It is irrelevant that they don’t know which scenario they are in.

Whatever technique they choose can only be consequentially justified from their knowledge, not from some omniscient, future-predicting outsider’s point of view. I can say “murdering babies is always wrong”, even if some baby grows up to be Hitler, because nobody looking at babies can know which one is going to turn into Hitler.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 10:04 pm

428&431: I guess we’re each satisfied that this pair of posts completely vindicates us.

They certainly vindicate me. As usual, your factual claims about torture are patently false.

432: Neither Al Qaeda nor McVeigh were captured with a ticking bomb.

More irrelevance. The point is that Al Qaeda and McVeigh were not open to “negotiation.” No major terrorist attacks have been about “negotiation.” The terrorists weren’t trying to “make a deal.” They were trying to kill people and destroy things. Your claim that in every possible scenario “negotiation” is more likely to be successful at preventing the attack than torture is contradicted by decades of real-world experience with actual terrorists.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 10:17 pm

They both certainly had agendas and demands on our government.

Of course they had agendas. Their agendas were to blow things up and kill people in response to perceived wrongs by the United States. They made no offer to call off their attacks if the government met certain demands. They weren’t trying to “negotiate.” They weren’t trying to “make a deal.” And you have absolutely no basis for assuming that in every possible TTB scenario the terrorist would be willing to “negotiate” either. You don’t have any basis for assuming the terrorist is even likely to be willing to negotiate. That’s why your “fail-deadly” nonsense is just yet another irrelevant distraction.

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Josh G. 03.10.12 at 10:35 pm

Why are people wasting their time arguing with the troll Mixner? His purpose is to shut down discussion – remember what he did on Matthew Yglesias’s blog a while back, making the comment section almost unusable with sockpuppet spam. His writing style is very easy to spot regardless of which name he uses.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 10:40 pm

428&431, as well as the rest of our exchange speaks for itself.

For negotiation to make sense both sides have to have something the other wants. We have them in our custody, they have a ticking bomb out there we can’t find. That situation doesn’t apply to any of the examples you’re offering.

When we wanted to negotiate, to secure testimony against higher-value detainees, for example, sometimes we have successfully negotiated deals with terrorists.

And you have absolutely no basis for assuming that in every possible TTB scenario the terrorist would be willing to “negotiate” either.

I made absolutely no assumption of the kind. But the probability is definitely non-zero: terrorists have negotiated before. If we don’t think negotiation and ordinary interrogation tend to increase the chance of making a deal or finding information, then we should never negotiate or practice ordinary interrogation.

By the way, you’ve failed to address Kaveh at 430, or myself at 433 making the same point with my baby Hitler example.

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Consumatopia 03.10.12 at 10:45 pm

Yeah, it’s shut down discussion, but it’s a discussion from more than two weeks ago. I was just kind of playing this as a very easy video game. But, yeah, I should quit it now.

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DelRey 03.10.12 at 11:14 pm

I made absolutely no assumption of the kind.

Yes you did. Unless he is willing to negotiate, the probability that negotiation will work is zero.

For negotiation to make sense both sides have to have something the other wants.

Negotiation is useless in the scenarios I am discussing. For the umpteenth time, the terrorist has no interest in “negotiation.” He’s a religious fanatic. He explicitly tells you that nothing you could offer him will persuade him to call off the attack. He’s not trying to “make a deal.” He’s trying to kill people and destroy things in response to perceived wrongs by the United States. His plan isn’t a negotiating tactic. It’s an act of vengeance or protest. Just like the 9/11 hijackers, and Tim McVeigh, and the Pam Am 103 bombers, and all the other examples of major terrorist attacks I just gave you.

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Consumatopia 03.11.12 at 12:35 am

Unless he is willing to negotiate, the probability that negotiation will work is zero.

I see. Certainty. Good of you to close on that note.

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