Abnormative Ethics

by John Holbo on August 22, 2012

I see that the Philosophy and Popular Culture series has reached, as it must, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living through Chemistry [amazon].

I haven’t watched the show. I’m sure I will love it when I get around to it. Everyone does, apparently. (One has to ration one’s commitments to spend dozens of hours on any one thing.) But I really think they should have included, as a stand-alone piece in the book, a few lines from G. A. Cohen’s “Rescuing Conservatism” (which we’ve discussed before around here and is still available online in pdf draft form – click link for a link – but which was also published last year in an unfortunately overpriced form.)

When people say: “If you had cancer …,” one can sometimes reply: “Yes, of course, that might unbalance my judgment.” Making people imagine that they are in dire straits in order to cause them to agree with something is an attractive resort for those whose arguments are not (otherwise) strong.

A couple weeks ago I was asking my colleague, Neil – you know who you are, Neil! – what he was teaching, and he said ‘normative ethics’. And I said I was teaching ‘abnormative ethics’, namely, Wittgenstein. I tell my students: when Wittgenstein says ‘here one wants to say …’ and other things like that, it’s important to keep in mind that the ‘one’ in question was once a one who thought that ethics demanded that he do logic, in a trench, while being shelled by the Russians. He’s valuable to study, yes, but not because he was normal. (Yes, I realize that ‘normative ethics’ is not, officially, the study of ‘normal’ ethics. But, insofar as it is intuition-driven, there is some tension. Also: can’t you take a joke?)

You could separate works of ethics in two piles: those that say what Cohen says. You want balance. Those that say ethics is a matter of induced imbalance. Having unusual experiences that induce very abnormative intuitions about Life. Philosophy of crisis. There’s a lot of that, of course. I think most of it is philosophy of extreme experiences. Obviously you could just say: good old rationalism vs. irrationalism. But that’s not quite it. Who are the normative ethicists, and who the abnormative ethicists? Nietzsche, obviously.

What do you think of ‘if you had cancer …’? Is it just an invitation not to think straight? As Cohen says “There are all kinds of awful things that I would not otherwise dream of doing that I might do if …” Or is ethics properly all about all those things that you would not dream of doing unless [insert dire strait that induces odd intuition]?

{ 46 comments }

1

Christian Hiebaum 08.22.12 at 7:34 am

For those who don’t want to read the Cohen paper:

2

SEK 08.22.12 at 7:36 am

I’m sure you’ll find plenty of interest in the show. I just started watching it and, a week later, I’m up to date. And

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/08/breaking-bad-is-the-worst-show-in-the-history-of-television

as is my wont, I’ve

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/08/realism-and-bad-manners-in-breaking-bad

written about why. (There’s a Literary Wittgenstein crack to be made here, I just lack the philosophical chops to make it.)

[FIXED (albeit uglily). – the management]

3

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 8:25 am

Hey Scott, long time no see, but your links are broke, dude. Sorry, am out and about and can’t fix for the moment.

Those interested should cut and paste and delete the obviously wrong bits of the man’s URLs.

4

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 8:28 am

The post also crosses some wires. You can have a crisis, which gives you some strange experience or intuition. You can have an intuition that you need to experience a crisis, which is sort of of a strange intuition. Abnormative ethics is tough.

5

SusanC 08.22.12 at 9:46 am

“Let us suppose that the just and unjust have two rings, like that of Gyges in the well-known story, which make them invisible, and then no difference will appear in them, for every one will do evil if he can.” – Plato, Republic

Is the hypothetical “if you had cancer..” a variation on this, at least in part? (i.e. if you know you’re going to die anyway, and hence the expected punishment willl make little difference to you, you have little incentive to follow ethical rules)

There might be another aspect to it, better exemplified by “if you were hungry enough…” Thus, eating people is wrong (except in limited circumstances, such as ritual cannibalism if you’re in the kind of society that practises it), but if you’re hungry enough, then well… (i.e. your commitment to being seen as an ethical person being lower priority on your hierarchy of needs than not starving. See also: Wendigo psychosis).

====

Abnormative ethics sounds fun. Can we count Kierkegaard in? (e.g. “if you hear voices in your head telling you to slay Isaac…”)

6

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 10:06 am

“Let us suppose that the just and unjust have two rings …”

Clearly Plato is with Cohen. People will do wrong under pressure. But – perhaps I should have made this clear – I take it the interest in “Breaking Bad” is that we are brought to think that there is something more ‘authentic’ or ethically revelatory about Walter’s life. Plato would not have approved of five seasons of “Let Me Make Myself Clear”, about Gyges’ crazy life of crime, and how he ends up baring his soul in the process. Plato would have thought watching that was about as corrupting a cultural practice as you could imagine.

But Kierkegaard: he’s in for sure. Abnormative to the bone.

7

Clay Shirky 08.22.12 at 11:15 am

Isn’t all of Trolley-ology abnormative ethics? “You are stuck in a situation of such dire consequence, and armed with such a narrow set of options, that you will be forced to think like an undergraduate?”

8

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 11:28 am

“Isn’t all of Trolley-ology abnormative ethics?”

I suppose the sad thing is that it’s supposed to be normative. That is, the cases are supposed to be so HO scale train set astringent that your intuitions stay clear and clean. In fact, as I’ve said before, these cases are so whimsical, in effect, that they they induce – I wouldn’t call them undergraduate-type experiences; that’s a merely contingent association! They put you into a sort of sub-Rube Goldberg, sub-Lewis Carroll “Walrus and the Carpenter” poised-to-be-clever mood. A philosophy class mood, yes. So abnormative, when they were supposed to be normative.

Whimsy is an abiding vice of Anglo-American philosophy. There is just no reason to think that whimsical people are the most moral, so that getting people in that state will make clear what morality requires.

9

Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 11:54 am

The interest in BB is more to do with the effects of lies and deception, and with the procedural aspects of the criminal enterprise. The ethics of the thing are not the usual business of finding authenticity; Walt is not particularly diffident or henpecked at the beginning, except by his part-time employer, and while some personality change is present and once or twice we are rooting for his display of a newfound aggressiveness, this is just one tiny element (it would be odd if it did not occur at all). Also the most ‘Falling Down’-like sequences are mostly towards the beginning 0f the series; I suspect there may have been an intention to do the geek-becomes-real-man thing, but if so this was abandoned. In most of the series, his outbursts of aggression, for example, are presented as weakness and as mistakes. W is very clear throughout that he doesn’t like what he’s doing and once he’s achieved his original aim he wants to get out. His pushing too hard for faster income, with unpleasant results, is also presented as a failing.

Also it’s not that he suddenly starts acting up because he’s got nothing to lose and all constraints are thrown off: he is aiming to get money to provide for his family after he is dead. Of course, there is nothing at all unusual nor abnormal in otherwise law-abiding people turning to crime when they are desperate for money.

There’s also the other main character Jesse, who also doesn’t really undergo an improving transformation. All in all, the series has little moral message to push; it’s replete with morally-relevant content, but doesn’t pretend that any of it is simple and doesn’t have a particular slant to put on it. That was my impression anyway, and I’ve watched the whole thing twice, one of those in just about a single sitting.

10

Charles 08.22.12 at 12:04 pm

I was going to say that I smelled Occam’s Phaser in the background, but it seems we’ve already gone there. So I’ll part with the thought that Wittgenstein had it backwards: ethics demands that one be shelled by Russians, in a trench, when doing logic.

11

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 12:04 pm

“All in all, the series has little moral message to push; it’s replete with morally-relevant content, but doesn’t pretend that any of it is simple and doesn’t have a particular slant to put on it.”

Well, I stand corrected. I should probably watch it.

12

Clay Shirky 08.22.12 at 12:09 pm

“I wouldn’t call them undergraduate-type experiences; that’s a merely contingent association!”

I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the undergraduate mind so much as to note that the structure of the question puts the asker in the catbird seat. The design of a Trolley Problem (like an MBA case study) is that it seems complex to the hearer, but the poser of the problem will face no original reactions or solutions.

The tired prof looks at his syllabus for tomorrow, getting ready to prepare, sees “Week 4: Trolleys vs. Fat People” and heaves a sigh of relief — off to bed! That class always takes care of itself.

More generally (and closer to my area of interest), there is an enormous body of literature that wants the unit of analysis for humankind to be individual humans — Pascal’s notional dude sitting alone in his room, the variant on the two rings idea, daft even on first inspection, that you really are who you are when no one is watching, and so on.

All theorizing about human motives and behaviors that regard social life as an epiphenomenal botheration are abnormative (which means, of course, that most of neo-classical economics, at least in its prescriptive mode, is abnormative as well.) Lin Ostrom (pbuh) once noted that when you assume that you are designing a system whose principle objective is to constrain it’s most selfish members, you end up designing a system that rewards those very people.

13

Clay Shirky 08.22.12 at 12:11 pm

Also: Charles @ #10 wins the thread.

14

chris 08.22.12 at 12:18 pm

I haven’t seen the series either, but ISTM that if society is simultaneously decreeing that Walter, although he performs a crucial function to society, shall be paid a pittance AND that people with little money shall not receive treatment for their freaking life-threatening diseases, he is on pretty good grounds to give society a hearty F*** YOU and secure his survival by any means necessary.

Isn’t there a deeper point here about morality and law and how they are not the same thing?

15

John Holbo 08.22.12 at 12:31 pm

Not to toot my own horn about Occam’s Phaser, but here’s the link:

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/25/occams-phaser/

I am rather proud of that one.

16

mdc 08.22.12 at 12:45 pm

In the course of the show, a whole range of perfectly normal moral intuitions with all their subtleties are elicited. The character is in an unusual situation relative to his own experience, but the details of that situation and their effect on his character are mundane and plausible (and interesting!).

My impression is that writers use somewhat abnormative/whimsical hooks like ‘chemistry teacher turns meth cook’ out of a lack of imagination– even in good shows like this one. They can’t think of a way to animate all those moral intuitions without using extremity. That’s why a show like ‘the Wire’ is a superior form: no abstract whimsy punctures the poetic world of the work.

17

ajay 08.22.12 at 12:55 pm

That’s why a show like ‘the Wire’ is a superior form: no abstract whimsy punctures the poetic world of the work.

Hamsterdam?

18

bianca steele 08.22.12 at 1:29 pm

Coincidences abound. My husband wouldn’t watch it the first time around (he claims he was too busy) but just ordered the series on the underused AppleTV we got as a gift. We only watched the first episode so far. Not sure I’ll continue. I did notice Walter stops coughing at one point, which might have some significance, but do I really care?

Even more coincidentally, the first time I watched it I was pregnant, and the second time I had a seemingly unshakeable cough. Next time, will I have cerebral palsy? If so, does that mean this is my last go-around?

19

Chris Bertram 08.22.12 at 1:35 pm

It seems to me that two different kinds of thing are being conflated in the comments here, with significant loss of clarity.

Thing 1, the subject of the OP, is the case where we try to imagine ourselves in an extreme situation where someone’s (perhaps our own) life is in danger. To those cases, the Cohen response that such pressure might unbalance one’s judgement seems relevant, though to be offset, perhaps, by the thought that extreme moral clarity might descend in such cases (should you hide the Jew, with the Gestapo round the corner?).

Thing 2, is the case where we test the moral principles we’re inclined to affirm by seeing whether we would continue to affirm them in some counterfactual scenario, which might be very far-fetched. Parfit’s divided world is such a case (but we can imagine a further-from-reality interplanetary version with inequality between us and the aliens). Such cases don’t invite the same emotional engagement at all, so are quite different. But they are, I submit, an entirely legitimate tool of moral inquiry, though we should be suitably careful about how we use them.

20

Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 1:36 pm

JH – I would certainly recommend it as compelling viewing. As well as all the dramatic irony anyone could possibly wish for, it also has some splendid comic interludes which manage not to interfere with the grim desperation and criminal-procedural sides of things.

And the plot manages to, er, plot a middle course between rambling soap-operatic ad-hoccery and overly neat-structured predestination. IIRC there’s only one of those annoying stand-alone ‘special episodes’, which takes place in one room and concerns (a) a fly and (b) a lot of talking, but compared, say, to the Sopranos’s ‘Columbus Day’ special which was both incongruously farcical and irritatingly ishoo-based, it works well enough, and (again IIRC) is much more integral to the overarching narrative.

Chris @14 – yes, that is an implication, though it’s not laboured, and the character’s main motivation is not even paying for his own treatment, but providing for his family, notably including college fees. Insurance company ‘death panels’ do put in an appearance, in connection with two different cases.

(+ Just to receord that I’m always a little surprised by references to Rube Goldberg when Heath Robinson’s work was far superior as well as earlier.)

21

Charles 08.22.12 at 2:17 pm

Chris Bertram @19,

Are these two sorts of cases so different? We abstract from reality and put ourselves in imaginary situations to see what happens to our “moral reasoning” or something. In the first kind of case, distortion from emotional pressure is considered a bug. In the second kind of case, distortion from intellectual pressure is considered a feature. But that’s arbitrary.

22

bianca steele 08.22.12 at 2:19 pm

What I’m seeing so far in the first episode (which does seem like the kind of thing that won’t be continued past the pilot) is that Walter acts like, presumably, himself, only more clearly. He’s an awful pedant: the most joy he shows in the pilot is when he’s collecting lab equipment, and he goes on and ON about how to use it properly, which tool for which job. That’s all he seems to care about, but probably that’s not going to be his fatal flaw all by itself. I do get the impression that the switch from mild-mannered to criminal is not dwelt upon, and the point was already moving to what this kind of person might do in something like a drug trade. But, even assuming “is this enterprise criminal or immoral or both, or not?” is something you can ignore for dramatic purposes, some shows seem to use the premise as a hook to get people watching and don’t follow up, and I can’t tell whether BB will be one of those.

23

Josh G. 08.22.12 at 2:34 pm

I agree that postulating a particularly abnormal situation (trolley problems, the infamous “ticking bomb” scenario) is generally not the best way to go about moral or philosophical reasoning. But cancer doesn’t fall into that category! It is the second most common cause of death in the United States, after heart disease. Over half a million people die of cancer in the US each year. That’s about 23% of all deaths. Virtually everyone knows someone who has died of cancer. If a system of ethics can’t deal with a situation this common, it’s not of much use.

24

William Timberman 08.22.12 at 2:53 pm

Long before I was an undergraduate, I was now and then confronted by what you seem to be calling abnormative situations — not being shelled by the Russians, mind you, but just as confusing from my newbie point of view. I had Qualms. I went to the adults who’d been lecturing me on ethics for as long as I could remember. They listened, told me that things weren’t always what the rules said they were, and that I should suck it up. They had no qualms, even qualms with a lower-case q.

I also observed that many of my peers also had no qualms. Were they stupid? Was I unhealthy? I suppose that if I’d had the benefit of a Catholic Education this might all have been settled early — but then of course there was the Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man, so perhaps not. Anyway, still before I was an undergraduate, I decided that when it came to mediation between self and other, self had to be the mediator. How the hell else could one proceed?

Then I encountered Nietzsche — that part about the abyss looking back at you — and I had qualms again. Then a hard case I knew slipped me some Marx, who seemed to be saying that my precious self was a figment of the collective imagination. By the time I got to Wittgenstein, I was done. I went off and became an undergraduate in Chemical Engineering.

Here endeth Part the First….

25

ben w 08.22.12 at 3:29 pm

So who are those who are valuable to study because they are normal?

26

CJColucci 08.22.12 at 4:02 pm

I suspect that I would do all sorts of bad things under enough pressure, but I doubt I’d go on a major crime spree if I had the Ring of Gyges. I might lurk in a corner of the women’s locker room at the gym, perhaps, but I seriously doubt I’d do anything much worse. I might even take a stab at superhero-ism.

27

TheSophist 08.22.12 at 5:24 pm

Re:Abnormative ethics – at the risk of encountering the wrath of Holbo, Zizek?

28

Alison P 08.22.12 at 6:13 pm

A moral issue which I think is well dramatised in Breaking Bad – and not many other dramas – is that Love is not redemptive. That you act from love does not make your actions less evil. Walt is driven to most of his evil actions by his love of his family, and his love of Jesse. He is damned and rendered inhuman by that love. And that love is then swamped by his pride and greed, and his need to control all that he loves. To the extent that, by the current season, the moral corruption into which he he has fallen has made his love into an ugly and unhealthy thing. I think that’s what makes it most tragic. It’s not the story of a man released by immanent death to act out his evil fantasies. It’s the story of a man whose pride won’t let him submit.

29

Alison P 08.22.12 at 6:16 pm

if I had the Ring of Gyges, I might lurk in a corner of the women’s locker room at the gym

that’s the plot of my other most-favourite TV show, Misfits.

30

Salient 08.22.12 at 6:45 pm

Also: can’t you take a joke?

If I had cancer, probably not.

31

Derek Bowman 08.22.12 at 7:47 pm

I don’t understand this claim:

“Clearly Plato is with Cohen. People will do wrong under pressure.”

Plato (or at rate Plato’s Glaucon) certainly seems to agree that most people would do wrong under the temptation provided by Gyges ring. But the question is whether the just person would do so – indeed whether there would be any reason for a just person not to do whatever they wanted with such power. Here this conjecture is presented as a challenge to Socrates: If justice is valuable for it’s own sake, then it must be worthwhile even if we remove the benefits of reputation. In this sense, it operates similarly to the trolley cases – eliminating certain confounding factors so that moral judgment may be applied to the rest in isolation.

I guess the division is this (perhaps this is just another way of putting Chris Bartram’s (2) and (1) above): Cohen, and Plato, and the trolley cases all fit together under examining the logical consequences of our moral commitments in light of judgments we make about various cases. This is ‘normative ethics’ of the traditional sort. But what may be different, and what Cohen seems to be objecting to, is the suggestion that an important input into our considered judgments about difficult or unusual cases is to consider how we imagine we would react if we were actually in that situation. Notice that my judgment about how I would react can easily differ from my judgment about how I should react – the question then is how much such differences should cause me to adjust the ‘should’ judgment.

32

Adam Roberts 08.22.12 at 8:33 pm

I for one am looking forward to John’s monograph, Wittgenstein: Weirdo.

33

Watson Ladd 08.22.12 at 8:59 pm

Isn’t justice and morality most valuable when under pressure? It seems odd to say that one’s morality should be abandoned when inconvenient, or offers no guides to those facing real dilemmas. There really was a time when one did have to decide whether to hide a Jew from the Gestapo.

34

Patrick 08.22.12 at 9:21 pm

It seems to me that one of the major things going on in BB is how trapped people are by their circumstances and prior choices. First season Walter would have taken the buyout. Fifth season Walter can’t. Literally. It seems to me Walter’s pro/con list about killing Crazy 8 in Season 1 gives away the game: you can do all the ratiocination in the world but in the moment of choice, the situation determines what you do. (There are several qualifications that need to be made, but I’m typing on an iPad.)

35

PJW 08.22.12 at 10:11 pm

Anyone else think that was a stigmata (stigma) reference when Walter burned his wrist while trying (successfully) to escape that restraint? JJ Cohen’s book on monsters would surely be informative at this stage of Walter’s transformation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigmata

36

Tim Wilkinson 08.22.12 at 11:32 pm

Walter’s pro/con list about [spoiler] yes, that was well done.

37

David Moles 08.23.12 at 12:05 am

Rereading Occam’s Phaser:

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.

Maybe this is the problem. Maybe we need to develop a better understanding of the social roles of guys down the wells with phasers, brains in vats at the wheels of runaway trolleys on parallel earth, and so on. Maybe we need to hunt the abnormative down and normalize it till it has nowhere left to hide.

38

John Holbo 08.23.12 at 12:29 am

“Plato (or at rate Plato’s Glaucon) certainly seems to agree that most people would do wrong under the temptation provided by Gyges ring. But the question is whether the just person would do so …”

Just to be clear: I was only talking about the first bit. I agree that Plato thinks it is possible to resist temptation.

39

Andrew F. 08.23.12 at 2:10 am

Dire straits can render an ethical question particularly sharp by forcing us to choose between two or more radically incompatible options. In this respect, they may well pose a good test of the priority of certain principles or values.

Is it more important that the government not violate any rights, or that an asteroid be prevented from ending humanity? Does the value of self-preservation trump, at times, an innocent other person’s life, health, rights, etc? Should the welfare of one’s family come before that of all others in all circumstances, or only some (if so which) or none at all?

What Cohen seems to think is a perversion of good judgment may in fact simply be the turth of our “actual” values or priorities of principles outing themselves. And insofar as the role of ethics is to clarify our practical judgment of good and bad, right and wrong, surely dire straits may serve as a necessary path to that end.

40

rageahol 08.23.12 at 5:41 am

you know, based on what little philosophy i have in fact read, i tend to like cohen, but this youtube video linked above just had me scratching my head.

when people attempt to preserve the existing social order (and make incremental change, say) rather than participate in a coup, or fomenting revolution, it doesnt seem like that is because they value the existing social order for its own sake, but because there is a legitimate fear of things becoming worse overall. there is an uncertainty to make serious change. it seems like this applies to the conservative mind, and perhaps cohen addressed this but i simply wasnt able to sit through enough of it to get there.

i dont know that this is relevant to breaking bad, though i do like the series.

41

SusanC 08.23.12 at 9:37 am

The “ethics of crisis” seems to be everywhere at the moment, back in the real world, rather than counterfactual worlds where shepherds find magic rings and fat guys get pushed under trolley buses. (e.g. The government considers the existence of terror groups like Al Quaeda to be a sufficient threat to justify doing all sorts of dubious stuff; Groups like Wikikleaks then consider those aforementioned actions of the government to be a sufficient existential threat to justify doing all sorts of dubious stuff themselves, like inciting members of the armed forces to disobey orders and leak state secrets. Meanwhile, in parallel, the financial collapse leads to widespread calls for “the bankers” to be hanged, irrespective of judicial process). In short, lots of people are calling for the equivalent of throwing the fat guy under the trolley.

I hope this doesn’t derail the thread. One of the advantages of trolley problems is that the fat guy doesn’t have lots of supporters who will defend him in comment threads. Just to say that arguments along the lines of “if you were desparate enough…” are starting to have more bite, now that lots of people are publiclly declaring that they are that desparate.

=====

The notion that a crisis causes the protagonist to be corrupted and then redeemed (rather than just corrupted) seems quite prevalent in Christian authors. Compare Crime and Punishment, Inception etc. As far as I can recall, Plato’s Republic does not give us the ending where Gyges repents and becomes a better person. (Plato, of course, not being a Christian).

42

bianca steele 08.23.12 at 1:14 pm

I noticed the essay on “existential crisis” in the book linked in the OP, and that does seem to be a bit different from what Susan C is talking about. I mean, obviously, there’s a connection there: Dostoevsky is linked with existentialism, after all, even if Sartre is decidedly anti-religious.

I find it difficult to foreground, mentally, anything like an existential crisis in a TV show, for some reason. Maybe it has to do with the mass of realistic elements that pulls me in the direction of thinking this show is saying something specific about this kind of man. Maybe it’s an assumption that writers are more likely to have psychology in mind than theology.

I don’t remember Falling Down as being Nietzschean, either, but maybe I should watch it again.

43

bianca steele 08.23.12 at 3:59 pm

I also have a prejudice against books like that one. I liked the Star Wars book John H. recommended a little while ago, which is from a different series. What really annoys me is when a philosopher explains something from his own field and then claims that this is “the meaning” of the show, in other words that the writers and producers had this philosophy in mind and that most elements of the show are consistent with it (and should be read as consistent with it when there’s any doubt). That was the sense I got from the Mad Men volume I picked up in the store, and from the Colin McGinn book on “Shakespeare’s philosophy” not in the same series (which as far as I could tell explained that “Shakespeare’s philosophy” was the same as the typical circa-2000 Anglophone professor of philosophy’s).

The two essays I glanced at from this one (on medical ethics and on existential crisis) didn’t seem too bad, though.

44

Steven 08.23.12 at 4:11 pm

The best “cancer” scenarios are meant to compress a lot of work into a moment or two, by bracketing the work off. I could spend a long time in advance of asking certain ethical questions telling you that you shouldn’t spend too much time allowing your hatred for a bully from the fourth grade shade your life’s ambitions, and that money isn’t everything, and that there are good things you should so but that the habits of everyday life make it harder to do them. There would be a long conversation about human psychology, the virtues, what the good life means, etc. Then you might agree, and say that if you could get over certain obstacles in your personality and daily life, you would make ethical choices X, Y, Z accordingly.

Instead of doing all this, I can just tell you to imagine you had cancer. It’s physiology forcing the hand of psychology. You have no choice but to become a person, in your ethical imagination, who has to make important decisions about your priorities, and what your values and actions entail. Hopefully it will induce the right clarifications.

I would not, however, expect you to tell me you would become a murderous meth dealer in order to leave money for your family. Or maybe you would say that. Then I would tell you that your cancer has robbed you of your very dignity as a person, has put you in a bin that contains the rubbish that brings our world down. Then, you would try to hurt me, and in doing so, prove what I just said. It is an interesting question, whether or not a person ought to give away his dignity to protect what he loves the most, but it is always a tragic one.

45

Jonathan Mayhew 08.25.12 at 2:52 pm

Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family [does not equal] would you become a murderous gangster in order to insure that your children will go to college and not have to have work-study or Pell Grant.

It’s one thing to discuss a moral dilemma in the abstract, like would you push the fat man in the path of the trolley, and quite another to push the fat man onto the tracks in real life. My daughter was reading Crime and Punishment this week for her High School English, and pointed out that its protagonist takes those kind of moral conundra literally, rather than as hypotheticals.

46

Glen Tomkins 08.26.12 at 7:15 pm

This is a false dichotomy.

There is absolutely nothing at all abnormal or unexpected about having cancer, or being shelled by Russians, or things even worse. It’s a dead certainty that all of us will have at least one such experience, our deaths. To live as if such a catastrophe or catastrophes is foreign and exotic, to live as if death were abnormal and unexpected, is to live as a child, only without the innocence, since we all know better.

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