A non-violent, unfunny trolley problem

by John Quiggin on December 3, 2013

So, you’re a controller for a municipal trolley system with a perfect safety record. You’ve just been alerted that one of your tracks, serving a community of 5000 people has suffered unexpected damage which could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers. You have no budget allowance for this, so the only way of fixing the line is to abandon planned maintenance of another line, serving 1000 people, which would then have to be closed until more funds become available. Presumably, in these circumstances, most people will decide to fix the more important line.

Now, we change the situation. You no longer control the funds for the other line, which are within the jurisdiction of your colleague the Fat Controller, so named for obvious reasons. If you draw management attention to his obesity problem, HR will force him to take leave until he can get his weight within acceptable limits. You will then be given temporary control over his line and the associated budget, which you can divert to fixing the more important line.

What should you do?

More relevantly, has the absence of fatalities, and (IMO) the more plausible situation (you can take out the Fat Controller joke, and substitute some more routine bureaucratic manoeuvre if you want), weakened or improved the usefulness of the thought experiment? Over to you.

{ 102 comments }

1

Z 12.03.13 at 8:37 am

Has [...] the more plausible situation [...] weakened or improved the usefulness of the thought experiment?

What it achieved is making it sound exactly like the last ten department committees I have attended, but I am still agnostic on whether I consider that an improvement.

On the other hand, it turned out this story was considered very enjoyable for my two kids (age 3 and 5), what with all its relentless action-packed suspens of trains, lines, broken lines, fixed lines, trolleys, controllers and so on whereas I wouldn’t have told the original story considering that they refuse to watch Snow-White because it’s too scary, so there you go.

Bureaucratic philosophical dilemmas: good to teach analytic philosophy to preschoolers.

2

m 12.03.13 at 8:41 am

someone may have said this in one of the other hundred posts about trolleys, but a trolley to me is something you push around a supermarket and the idea of a system that drives them around automatically is inherently funny.

3

John Quiggin 12.03.13 at 8:51 am

@m I’d call them trams, but “trolley” is canonical

4

David S. 12.03.13 at 9:34 am

The controller should approach a Wall Street bank to fund a leveraged buyout of the trolley company, saddling it with vast debt while not fixing the damaged line and shutting down the other line “to realize business synergies” (or something). The new CEO should then lay off the Fat Controller and as many other staff as possible (particularly any of a philosophical bent like trolley drivers and safety and maintenance staff) to help juice the numbers for a quarter or two, then do a quickie-IPO and head for the hills with cash spilling from every pocket.

The death of several philosophers in the midst of all this excitement is regrettable certainly, but it was the trolley company’s understanding that they mostly walked to work as it gave them time to think.

5

MPAVictoria 12.03.13 at 11:39 am

Davis S. that was amazing.

6

David J. Littleboy 12.03.13 at 11:41 am

The problem as given is fairly easy, since getting his weight within reasonable limits will save the bloke’s life, or at least some number of years of it. A sleazy move that harmed him in some way would be more problematic.

The real (more interesting?) problem, though, is that what’s the cost to you of doing the right thing? Are you going to get fired, lose friends, make enemies? That’s also the problem whistleblowers face.

7

Squarely Rooted 12.03.13 at 12:05 pm

A few thoughts…

I’m fairly sure that, at least in the United States, forcing someone to take a leave of absence due to obesity would be illegal. That complicates the problem considerably. I might consider replacing obesity with alcoholism.

Secondly, I’m certain that, as you make the example more realistic, people will consider the more realistic consequences of the example. For example, does the Fat (or Alcoholic, as it were) Controller have a family? Are they a suicide risk? Will this damage my own career?

Thirdly, phrasing the potential accident as a probability rather than a certainty introduces a whole new element into the situation? What are the chances of an accident tomorrow? In a week? In a month? A year? And how does that affect the strategy with which one might pursue change within an institution? If the chances of an accident over a long time horizon are still relatively small, perhaps ruthlessly (albeit temporarily) excising a colleague is overkill, whereas if those chances are higher such a maneuver would be much more justifiable.

Fourthly, perhaps an even-more realistic scenario, in which nobody’s life is at stake, is a much more interesting moral conundrum that actually relates to people’s real lives? For example, what if the question was over two methods of expending taxpayer dollars to fix the trolley line, and the one selected or likely to be selected was an order of magnitude more expensive than the other without any known benefits? These are more the kinds of questions that real people face every day in their lives.

Fifthly, David S. is correct.

Sixthly, you could also take no action whatsoever, then when the trolley crashes go on a classless media campaign proclaiming your foresight and wisdom and how nobody would listen to you.

8

Andrew F. 12.03.13 at 12:24 pm

Fatalities in trolley problems tend to make clearer that one choice, considered by itself, would be thought of as wrong, but when placed in a context of worse consequences should the choice not be made, it becomes at least less clearly wrong, and possibly seems right.

I’m not sure pointing out FC’s health problem to the company is as clearly a deontological constraint as running over FC with a trolley car. That lack of clarity weakens the force of the thought experiment.

9

oldster 12.03.13 at 12:37 pm

“…could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers….”

“..has the absence of fatalities,…”

Do you mean, “the absence of actual fatalities”? Because it looks to me as though your story still depended on invoking possible fatalities.

Unless “among philosophers” there functions as an adjective alienans? I.e. the way that “a plastic cow” is not a kind of cow, so too “a fatality among philosophers” doesn’t harm any sentient beings?

If not, then don’t you need to re-write it, once again, without the reference to possible fatalities for philosophers, in order to meet the basic challenge of a “non-violent trolley problem”?

(Differently: if potential fatalities count as non-violent, then couldn’t you stick with the original, simple story and just rewrite to “down one line there are 5 potential fatalities, down the other line there is 1 potential fatality, etc.”?)

10

JW Mason 12.03.13 at 12:52 pm

How about this one?

11

oldster 12.03.13 at 12:56 pm

JW Mason,

Your link reminded me of why I loved Fafblog in 2004, and why I despaired of Fafblog after Obama came on the scene. Something about him drove them crazy–they really went right off the rails into the ugliest sort of quasi-racist Obama-hatred (see sidebar illustration). Very sad case.

12

Trader Joe 12.03.13 at 1:00 pm

As noted by Squarely Rooted, the lack of a time element tends to change the problem from a classic “trolley problem” where one has only an instant to make a choice which has moral implications to one where – if there were ample time, any number of Machiavillian schemes might potentially deliver safe travels on both lines, improve the health outlook of the Fat Controller and result in a bonus and promotion for the brilliant decider.

Even outsting the Fat Controller would take some time, so a snap decision to do so could still be undone by fatalities in the meantime if such were imminent. What resources does the Fat Controller have to prevent his ouster – the calculating Machiavillian decider would want to know. Maybe there’s a union that could strike. Maybe there are public funds that could be accessed. Maybe slower travel speeds could allow both lines to run safely. This isn’t so much a trolley morality play as it is a question of scruples – means, ends, personal gain, personal loss.

If the risks are such that immediate action need be taken – it seems like neither of the proposed solutions would really avoid shutting down one or both of the lines so another option might yet be best. Within the contraints of the problem though, I’d probably throw the Fat Controller under the bus (or trolley). The decider’s job is to keep the 5000 person line running and running safely and if that’s truly the only avenue by which to access funds, than it should be pursued.

13

QS 12.03.13 at 1:10 pm

Wow. David S. wins.

14

Random Lurker 12.03.13 at 1:13 pm

@Andrew F. 8

From my point of view, this lack of “emotional strenght” makes the dilemma clearer, not less clear (in the original trolley problem I would be all to trample on the fat man, given the unrealistic premises).

I think that those stilistic differences push readers toward one or the other choice, and one style is better or worse relative to the direction in which the writer wants to push the readers.

I think that this shows that the use of emotionally charged mind experiments is actually quite manipulative, uh?

15

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 12.03.13 at 1:41 pm

oldster,

We’ve almost 6 years of experience with this Administration. Obama’s critics on the left, such as fafblog, have been proven right many times over.
~

16

harry b 12.03.13 at 1:42 pm

I think it is weakened. The original trolley problem succeeds in doing two things. 1) showing you that your intuitions are all over the place, and thus not trustworthy without a lot of laundering and 2) showing both that the doctrine of double effect does well at explaining lots of people’s intuitions (the intuitions of those who don’t want to push the fat man onto the line) and that it is not something that you can just invoke without defense. The doctrine of double effect, by the way, although it can apply to any action which involves unintended but foreseen consequences, becomes really high stakes because it, or something like it, seems necessary in order to justify a great deal of killing of non-combatants in war (something that you are going to have to justify if you want to justify war, even a war of self-defense).

Even so, even if all this post had done was trigger david s’s comment, it would be well worth it!

17

Zamfir 12.03.13 at 2:11 pm

Utilitarianism is ethics for bureaucracies, sharing its strengths and flaws. Like reducing complicated realities to simple numbers to do accounting, because flawed accounting is the only way to get some grip on a big world.

That’s not bad, bureaucracies are important, flaws and all. But it grates when people tell you to run your personal life like a bureaucracy.

18

QS 12.03.13 at 2:45 pm

I think I’ve always implicitly related it to economistic cost-benefit analyses rather than bureaucratic rationality. If building a dam in Laos is going to displace 5000 people but supply power to Thai industries, increasing employment and wealth, shouldn’t we build it? Same type of thinking.

19

sanbikinoraion 12.03.13 at 2:54 pm

Isn’t the answer to belittle the very basis of the Fat Controller’s policy as poorly thought-through Marxist rubbish?

20

hix 12.03.13 at 3:28 pm

Ok, this made me think. Problem is just that im getting nowhere im not already today.
The last time i heard a preacher, he was argueing how it was best for homeless people to kick them out of a homeless shelter after the coldest winter days and shut the shelter down. Otherwise they would lose initiative with too much help beyond saving them from dying on the street while its to cold. So im wundering if all the philosophical reflection will get anyone anywhere where he is not already today.

21

Zamfir 12.03.13 at 6:08 pm

I think I’ve always implicitly related it to economistic cost-benefit analyses rather than bureaucratic rationality.
Those are not that far apart, I think. Like how a lot of marginal analysis was developed by french rail engineers trying to figure out whether to invest in stations or track, and where. There’s a close link between economic calculation, and the bureaucratic ability to collect data that might be turned into numbers. And might have to be turned into numbers, because you cannot possibly understand the facts otherwise. You’ll never understand, say, the usage patterns of a tramline except through numbers.

With the numbers comes the idea that you can optimize something, that organization should optimize, even if it’s a priori clear what. Utilitarianism seems historically related to that.

22

Zamfir 12.03.13 at 6:08 pm

NOT a priori clear what.

23

Haftime 12.03.13 at 6:37 pm

One thing that’s always puzzled me about the trolley problem – it seems to be designed to test our real feelings about an actual event, but relies on asserting so many things that are not at all obvious.
If you told me that a fat man would stop a trolley car, I’m not sure I’d believe you, whereas flipping a lever to change the trolley’s course, I’d be much more likely to. I can come up with plenty of other quibbles. Having said that, I’ve never read the ‘canonical’ statement or much of the real literature – I assume this problem has been dealt with.

24

dsquared 12.03.13 at 6:49 pm

The original trolley problem succeeds in doing two things. 1) showing you that your intuitions are all over the place, and thus not trustworthy without a lot of laundering

I don’t think it does (or rather, it “shows” this in the way that Paul Daniels can show you a card passing through a table). The original trolley problem relies on hitting you with a lot of stress – someone’s going to die! you have to make a decision right now! in order to distract you from the fact that the hypothetical situation is amazingly unrealistic in terms of both cutting out all uncertainty about the outcomes, but doing so in a way which distances you totally from regarding the answer you give as remotely relevant to any real-world decision you might have to make. And of course, if you say anything along the lines of “hang on this is unrealistic” or “tell me more about this alleged switching system”, the job of the philosophy professor is to ramp up the tension again by saying something like “No! You’re not allowed to question the assumptions! Those details are irrelevant! Give me an answer now! And you’re not allowed to say ‘either decision is defensible’ or anything like that!”

So you’re put in a situation which is almost perfectly oriented to produce unreliable decisions, and guess what, you make unreliable decisions. The Wittgensteinian conjuring-trick is then made – to ask “what is it about our moral intuitions that causes them to give such unreliable answers”, and distract attention from the fact that the unreliable answers are actually being caused by the epistemological far-out-ness of the hypothetical. It’s another example of the general habit that later Wittgenstein complained about – that of pushing concepts way outside the domain in which they’re usable, and then treating their failure to apply as a shortcoming of the concepts rather than a failure of extrapolation.

25

mattski 12.03.13 at 7:12 pm

@ 23

it seems to be designed to test our real feelings about an actual event, but relies on asserting so many things that are not at all obvious.

Yes. Similar to the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario: how do you know, in real life, that there is a bomb and it is ticking? How do you know a fat man stops a trolley? Rather, get up from your keyboard and go for a walk on an actual street. Imagine some horrific scenario and the mindset this would likely induce in you. Are you going to make calculations? Fuck no. You are going to look at the situation and react.

The correct answer is, I have no freaking idea how I would handle such-and-such first because what you are describing has never been known to happen in the history of the world, and second because your verbal description of this scenario doesn’t in any useful way convey the exigent chaos of actual events.

26

Frowner 12.03.13 at 7:24 pm

(I always wonder what it’s like to be a fat person reading these, where “ha ha a fat person falls off a bridge/ is kicked out of work” is the standard line that even nominally progressive people find kitschily funny.. I mean, I’m not thin, but I also know that I’m not the size where people feel justified in making fun of you, either – no one would think it was hiLARious for me to fall off a bridge or get forced out of work, they’d think it was tragic. Speaking of the stereotype threat under discussion in the other thread, I wonder how “ha ha fat people” thought problems play into creating discomfort for women in philosophy, given how much more body-policing and fat-shaming women experience.)

27

Billikin 12.03.13 at 7:59 pm

” You’ve just been alerted that one of your tracks, serving a community of 5000 people has suffered unexpected damage which could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers.”

Unfunny? Sorry, it’s already funny. ;)

28

Dragon-King Wangchuck 12.03.13 at 8:16 pm

Who knew Rob “Subways Subways Subways” Ford was such a crack philosopher!

29

derrida derider 12.04.13 at 12:28 am

What Daniel said; the presence of uncertainty profoundly changes our real-world moral calculus. I’ve always been perfectly confident in the trolley problem that I would pull the lever unhesitatingly, precisely because I am perfectly confident that I will never face a situation where inflicting such grave and certain harm would create a greater and just as certain good.

Being a bureaucrat by trade I find John’s version of the trolley problem more difficult as being more likely. Though the decision would, of course, actually be made by the responsible Minister on the basis of the known voting patterns of philosophers Whatever way she decided it would be sold as a huge improvement in services for everyone (any fatalities, of course, would be easily dealt with by a leak to the Murdoch media blaming them on those “freeriding” philosophers).

30

Ed Herdman 12.04.13 at 1:46 am

@ mattski and ticking time bombs:

After recently attending a grad student’s talk on the feasibility of ticking time bomb problems, it seems that a lot of the canonical literature was so far convinced it was impossible that they left the subject there. Anything to stop torture justifies the means! Poor, tortured common sense, though. That talk was also hilariously interrupted (well, I thought; definitely was a bit rude) by a Marxist from another department who didn’t have anything to say on the problem except “if I told my students in the Carribean what you were spending time on here, what would you think?” as he ate his ice cream. That guy is the best though, seriously, and the grad handled it well.

Arguably the issue is not out-of-control streetcars (or trolleys) but the relentless swing of the pendulum

31

Lee A. Arnold 12.04.13 at 1:59 am

It is UNFUNNY that he is called the Fat Controller?

In which municipality?

32

John Quiggin 12.04.13 at 2:51 am

Lee @31 Island of Sodor

33

mud man 12.04.13 at 7:25 am

The joke about the Fat Controller was excessively baroque and tends to divert attention from the main point, which was well taken. The joke about dead philosophers was sufficient.

34

sanbikinoraion 12.04.13 at 9:53 am

Isn’t the answer to Daniel’s entirely reasonable quibble for philosophers to get together and kickstarter a series of well-made short films that set up something like one of these ‘trolley problems’ in a naturalistic, 1st-person view, with constraints that actually make sense, that pauses at the critical moment so that the professor can then ask the class what they’d do? There’s no reason a more plausible scenario can’t be presented in a way that draws the audience in to the series of events.

35

Jim Buck 12.04.13 at 9:57 am

An off-his-trolley problem:

A student comes into class, produces an automatic weapon, and announces that he is going to shoot dead anyone from overseas. Everyone else may leave the room, unharmed. There are two overseas students present, and 9 natives–including yourself. Do you:

1) Exit, grateful that utilitarianism is favouring you , on this occasion ?

2) Refuse the gunman’s condition–displaying solidarity and courage ?

3) Other ?

36

Blissex 12.04.13 at 10:51 am

This blog post and “student comes into class, produces an automatic weapon, and announces that he is going to shoot dead anyone from overseas” seem to me weak and clumsy variants of what I think is the central problem in ethics/morality, one that in my limited excursions I have never seen mentioned.

The problem is the “lesser evil” issue, but the special and central case where the alternative is between a lesser evil committed by someone and a greater evil committed by someone else. That is in large part between a lesser evil by commission and a greater evil by omission.

If the “someone” commits the lesser evil he is guilty of evil and will “go to hell”; if he does not, the “someone else” is guilty of evil and will “go to hell”, but a greater evil will have been committed.

What should the “someone” do?

As soon as you put it into an example a lot of nasty details crop up. For example, imagine you are on the first floor of a shopping mall and you see a woman take out a machine gun from her satchel and aim it at the shoppers below. She is not threatening your own safety in any way. You have a gun, and no time do anything else than shoot. What do you do? Do you murder that woman in cold blood from behind, or do you go away and let her shoot the shoppers? What if you made a mistake and she was only taking out a camera, or a microphone boom, or something? Do you go “to hell” or do you

37

JamesP 12.04.13 at 12:02 pm

Daniel puts his finger on the problem with these hypotheticals; they ask people to assume perfect knowledge, but people’s moral intuitions are – unsurprisingly! – built around the assumption of imperfect knowledge, and they answer based on those principles, not on the bizarro-world nature of the questions.

38

reason 12.04.13 at 12:10 pm

Blissex @36

Very good, but isn’t going to hell here irrelevant? Going to hell, just means that the moral judgement is being made by a particular sort of God rather than human beings. It only changes the issue if you consider the God has precedence over other considerations. Not everybody does.

39

Blissex 12.04.13 at 1:10 pm

«but isn’t going to hell here irrelevant»

I put “go to hell” in quotes to indicate something like “be punished” or “feel guilty” or whatever else amounts to the “wages of sin” in your moral system.

But looking at it through literally, through say the eyes of someone who takes “sin” and “hell” seriously, shows that the stakes in the lesser-evil-by-me versus greater-evil-by-someone-else story could be regarded as very high: in the contrived example I make it is about the “someone”, if a believer, has to decide to commit a grave sin potentially leading to an infinite eternity of suffering in hell in order to prevent an arguably greater evil by someone else.

40

sanbikinoraion 12.04.13 at 2:34 pm

But even in this contrived example, is the woman down below reaching for her gun because she’s seen someone down the way reaching for their gun…?

41

Random Lurker 12.04.13 at 3:24 pm

@Jim Buck 35

“1) Exit, grateful that utilitarianism is favouring you , on this occasion ?”

Huh?
It seems to me that most variants of utilitarianism would require you to try to stop the aggressor, possibly violently, because:

a) “Utility” is defined usually as an abstract concept (utlity for everyone) and the two oversea guy would face a huge negative utility from being shot dead, and

b) Most utilitarianism, according to wikipedia, is “rule utilitarianism”, that is you have also to take in account the problem of “setting precedents”, so letting people shoot other people at random looks very bad.

Did I miss something?

42

Andrew F. 12.04.13 at 3:53 pm

Certain conditions are stipulated in order to prevent someone from avoiding the point of the question.

For example, one assumes perfect knowledge in the trolley problem to prevent someone from escaping the dilemma by claiming insufficient certainty as to the effects of different actions.

“Ah hah!” someone says, “But uncertainty is an essential part of our moral reasoning!”

Is it? Does it affect your answer to a trolley problem in a relevant way? Can you demonstrate it by altering the amount of certainty we have in the trolley problem?

“Okay, but who knows what we really would do in such a situation.”

So what? The point is to illuminate intuitions about what we should do, not what we would do.

“Trolley problems are just unrealistic dilemmas! They’re useless.”

I don’t think it’s relevant that an actual, as-described trolley problem is unlikely to occur in reality. And if adding details to the trolley problem changes intuitions, then that’s great; additional material for the process.

There is a degree to which style is important. If we get too gritty – too realistic – we may lose sight of the actual problem we’re focusing on (let’s say we simply want to examine whether there are moral absolutes); although, to render the dilemma sharply, we also may prefer to use causing-death in our hypothetical rather than informing our employer as to a fellow employee’s health. The latter is less clearly the subject of any claims of deontological constraint.

On the gritty side, for instance, here are two situations from reality (the second has not, to my knowledge, ever been confirmed beyond the anonymous source cited by the professor who wrote about it) analogous to trolley problems. The reality of the situations adds emotion and complications, but also adds so many different possible routes of argument that the situations are of little use in posing difficulties for any side of the initial problem.

1 – You are a police officer chasing an armed man who has just shot someone in the head in the middle of a crowded street. The man stops, and despite your demands that he lower his weapon, raises his gun towards the crowd around him, as if to begin firing. You can shoot him, but you’ve just sprinted 100 meters, he’s 25 meters away, there are innocent people behind him, and there are few objects to stop missed shots from ricocheting off the concrete into the crowd. What should you do? (The officers fired, killing the man, but wounding several bystanders in the process.)

2 – You are an intelligence officer in a small nation wracked by civil war. Terrorist attacks are a regular feature of this war. Captured and standing before you are three men, whom you know beyond any reasonable doubt, on the basis of intelligence gathered from their persons and other sources, have recently planted a bomb somewhere in the capital. If you do nothing, it is likely that the hidden bomb will detonate, killing a number of innocent people. It is unlikely that you have hours in which to pursue the interrogation. Institutionally, you are unfettered in your choice of action. What should you do? (As reported, the officer claims he shot one of them in the head, which he says promptly elicited information from the other two as to the location of the bomb, which was located in time.)

And there are many others. But the reality doesn’t clarify our intuitions – far from it. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that trolley problems are useless (one could make that argument, and it’s an interesting one). The factors that complicate our intuitions here may be extraneous to the actual question we wish to focus upon.

Or they may not be. Either way, it’s an important and illuminating problem to think through – which by itself shows the usefulness of trolley problems.

On the less gritty side, the saga of the Fat Controller and the Under-budgeted Commuter Line may offer too many easy avenues of rationale for either action, including the direct questioning of whether it’s wrong to inform upon the FC’s health regardless of the peril of the Commuter Line.

Finding the middle ground between too gritty and too bland, too complex and too simplistic, can be tough, but arguments about this are, to my mind, one of the most interesting aspects of “thought experiments” generally. They enrich the discussion.

43

Jim Buck 12.04.13 at 5:17 pm

letting people shoot other people at random looks very bad

Surely, the shooter has stated that his action is selective, rather than random ? That is a very useful circumstance, if what the shooter says is reliable. Whereas; acting courageously –as I presume the Random Lurker would act–may lead only to a general carnage, including the concrete deaths of the overseas students. First he came for the overseas students…but, hey, he may not come back.

44

mattski 12.04.13 at 5:23 pm

Thank you, Ed!

I think I was making essentially the same point as Daniel @ 24.

Andrew @ 42:

For example, one assumes perfect knowledge in the trolley problem to prevent someone from escaping the dilemma by claiming insufficient certainty as to the effects of different actions.

Yes, and that is why the dilemma is gratuitous and not especially applicable to experience. Additionally, it betrays an obtuseness about how decisions of this nature actually do get made in the real world. (Your two real-world examples are great illustrations of this.) We don’t use our intellect, at least (I think) not primarily. We use the old GWB thingy! And, realistically, it is probably just as well because the intellect doesn’t really care. It is not in the nature of the intellect to care, but it IS in the nature of the heart to care. So that is where the action comes from.

In your scenario 1 here is what struck me. If I’m the cop and I see the perp raise his gun then my decision basically boils down to: do I think I can hit my target from my current distance. If not, I continue to move forward until I feel I’m going to be accurate with my shot. This is what I believe I would do, and thinking about coldly it strikes me as pretty reasonable.

In you scenario 2, evidently a genuine ticking time bomb scenario, I think the officer handled it quite well. If we stipulate that for all practical purposes we “know” these guys are the perps, then we also know that they are intent of murder and mayhem. In that case, if we feel we have to commit mayhem on them, well, we’re going to do it to get a crack at a productive result.

45

Mao Cheng Ji 12.04.13 at 5:36 pm

If we want to reject unrealistic scenarios with the assumption of perfect knowledge, that will rule out pretty much any thought experiment. What, just because we don’t like the results of some of them?

46

mattski 12.04.13 at 5:41 pm

Jim Buck,

a) I leave the room
b) I tackle the bastard on my way out the room
c) I start reciting poetry as a delaying tactic
d) I shit my pants
e) all of the above mixed together in quantum foam salad

In “real life” something like the following MIGHT happen: Get up and head for the door. Walk as close to the perp as plausible. Make a knife edge decision whether to attempt a tackle based upon immediate sensory inputs: how close to him am I? what confidence do I have in my reflexes and strength? But I’m very skeptical that rational thought processes are going to play much of a part. (Even the decision, say, to try to delay by talking would probably be based on intuitions about the state of mind of the perp rather than rational calculations.)

47

Jim Buck 12.04.13 at 6:41 pm

In one real life situation, rational calculation, and duty of care, danced a Tango when the knife-wielder began banging his crazed head against the wall. I was able to overcome the learnt wisdom of “run from a knife” and isolate his wrist. Parsing duty of care, in my “off his trolley” scenario, may be more problematic. Perhaps, I would lead the natives to relative safety–then return to converse with the trolleyless man. Then: Fight? Flight? Fuck? Faint? You have to be there.

48

mattski 12.04.13 at 7:54 pm

Fair enough. And true!

You have to be there.

49

mattski 12.04.13 at 8:04 pm

I don’t know what I would do, but I aspire to This.

50

Harry 12.05.13 at 2:12 am

But, daniel — when you explore more realistic situations with students (situations that many of them will in fact face), their intuitions are still all over the place.

I think that JQ (and maybe you) think that philosophers think these examples are doing much more than what we, in fact, think they do. Go back to Thomson’s violinist: what does the case show? Certainly not that abortion is permissible. It shows two other things. One is that the following two claims do not hang together very well:

“abortion is impermissible” and
“we do not have extensive and enforceable duties to rescue strangers”

and the other is that it doesn’t follow from the (purported) facts that the fetus is a person and that persons have a right to life, that abortion is impermissible.

You might think both things are obvious (I think that the first is obvious, always did), but normal people seem perfectly happy not noticing them, and thought experiments bring them to notice. The work of identifying all the real moral complexity of real situations comes after the thought experiment brings certain things to our notice.

Think about Jim and the Indians: everybody (including Bernard Williams, maybe except Kant but too bad for him in that case) thinks it is obvious what Jim should do in the circumstances – -he should do what utilitarians say he should do. The example is used to bring out a moral feature of the situation that utilitarian cannot account for – to identify what valuable thing is lost when Jim does what he, indeed, ought to to –that is, Jim’s integrity. And then comes an independent story, that I admit I don’t understand very well, about what integrity actually is.

And — it is just much easier using life and death situations to get people to take seriously that they are making trade offs between different valuable things. Typically, they fall into the very natural tendency to discount the costs of whatever action that they end up pursuing.

Final thing. It is a good thing to get students to feel anxious when thinking about moral matters. I discuss what it is that is making them anxious, afterwards, and generally I affirm their anxiety — thinking about imposing costs on other people, which we do all the time, ought to make us anxious because it matters whether we get it right, and if you don’t feel anxious about that there’s something wrong with you; but we should learn how to think carefully and act well in the presence of our anxiety.

Plus everything Andrew F said in 42.

51

John Quiggin 12.05.13 at 7:15 am

Harry, it seems to me there’s a conflict here between “thought experiments show us that intuitions are all over the place” and “thought experiments show us something valuable about ethics”.

I’m willing to grant that experiments like this are useful in pedagogy – as you say, to shake students out of a complacent belief that they already know, or can easily intuit, the answer.

But I see the aim of ethics as formulating a reasonably coherent set of principles to guide individual and public policy choices (as Zamfir and others note, not necessarily the same principles for these very different cases). In that case, if you want to present particular cases that might illustrated weaknesses in one approach or strengths in another, it seems to me to be unhelpful to make absurd stipulations or to focus on life and death choices utterly remote from any we are likely to make.

52

John Quiggin 12.05.13 at 7:26 am

On the violinist, couldn’t you do better with something more realistic and closer to the case? For example, you are living an isolated life with a limited store of food and a baby is abandoned on your doorstep. You can either let the baby starve or share your food until your next supplies arrive at some point (say nine months) in the future.

That doesn’t include the physical connection or the violin playing. But the first of these isn’t at all helpful since it is so far-fetched and the second seems totally irrelevant.

53

Harry 12.05.13 at 2:20 pm

I agree about the violin playing! I don’t know where that came from. Having it be an adult is important, because the adult (unlike a baby) is a person on (just about) anybody’s definition of personhood (Kant, for example, wouldn’t admit babies as persons). The physical connection is important because part of what she is doing is investigating the distinction between killing and letting die, and its moral significance. Many students want to say that its ok to walk away from the violinist because you are letting him die, but not ok to abort the fetus because you are killing it — the physical connection makes that first thought harder to hold on to.

What these thought experiments are good for, mostly, in the process of discerning true principle, is exposing contradictions (violinist), and places where further thought is needed (Jim and the Indians). You might think that is a fairly trivial task, and maybe it should be, but I don’t think it is.

And: life and death decisions are not so unusual (how many abortions are there per year? and how many babies are born who’s parents decide for moral reasons not to abort? How many people die from the removal of life support?). And its not just students, but everyone, who finds it difficult to resist the urge to smooth things over.

And — there is lots and lots of work in ethics — the vast vast majority of it — which is not like this. Just read, eg, the analytical literature on friendship, or on partiality. Almost all the work in ethics that I know is of the kind you recommend that we do. Thinking of my own case, in the course of maybe 90 papers and 4 books I probably use mini-thought experiments, 3 or 4 times, all of them of the non-violent unfunny type, and refer to the violinist once, and probably 90% of my work is oriented to developing principles to guide real life personal and public policy choices.

54

bianca steele 12.05.13 at 2:53 pm

Jim Buck: There are two overseas students present, and 9 natives–including yourself.

I had to go back and check that that “including yourself” was there.

Arguably, even if you wanted, like Matt, to rush the gun man, throw things at him (I think that’s the currently advised course of action), etc., you should not. You may feel confident you could get away with it in this case, but you wouldn’t want to encourage others to take such a risky action.

55

Anderson 12.05.13 at 3:44 pm

The violinist works in case of rape or contraception failure, I guess, but other than that, rather than “a baby is mysteriously deposited on your doorstep,” it’s more like “you buy a ticket in a baby lottery and, against long odds, turn out to be a winner – do you then have any obligation to the baby?”

I mean, fucking does have a way of leading to pregnancy, right? This is known.

(I’m pro-choice & all that, but more faute de mieux than anything else. If a woman wants to have an abortion, what am I going to do – volunteer to bear the baby in my nonexistent uterus for her?)

56

Anderson 12.05.13 at 3:47 pm

Sorry, 55 was really responding to Quiggin’s reframing in 52, rather than the actual “violinist” analogy. Hence “doorstep.”

57

Mao Cheng Ji 12.05.13 at 4:13 pm

“The violinist works in case of rape or contraception failure, I guess”

Lines are blurry, and I imagine it’s almost always, in a sense, a case of rape and/or contraception failure. Because any instance of being taken advantage of (of any sort of weakness) can be internalized as rape, and any attempt to prevent the conception (even if just a prayer) internalized as contraception. And if it was neither, then something else must’ve happened later, something fairly serious.

58

Anderson 12.05.13 at 6:27 pm

Mao, in my own personal experience, the cost/benefit analysis gets a bit bent out of shape when the couple is horny. YMMV.

59

Mao Cheng Ji 12.05.13 at 7:09 pm

“the cost/benefit analysis gets a bit bent out of shape when the couple is horny”

Exactly. Her horniness was her weakness; she was not fully rational at the time. The man took advantage of it. I can see how she could interpret it as rape of a sort. Not in the legal sense, but sufficient enough, I think, to counter your particular objection to abortion.

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harry b 12.05.13 at 7:17 pm

The violinist case is only supposed to be analogous to rape — she has other imaginative thought experiments for other cases, and doesn’t give much of an argument for the case where sex is consensual and contraception is not used.

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Anderson 12.05.13 at 8:12 pm

60: thanks, Harry. I do support the right to an abortion without the need for an interrogation or a videotape, but I’m disappointed that she waves away the majority of cases.

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dsquared 12.05.13 at 9:27 pm

when you explore more realistic situations with students (situations that many of them will in fact face), their intuitions are still all over the place.

I think this is a good thing! The first move in the conjuring trick is the bit where we became convinced that “sharpening up” our intuitions was a desirable thing to do, and that considering simplified cases was going to provide us with information.

Considering simple two-body frictionless systems helps you understand things in physics. On the other hand, considering atoms to be little planets with electrons orbiting round them, or photons to be little bullets, can really mess up your understanding. If you are very very careful, you can use planet and bullet thinking to solve some problems, but this isn’t really a good way to advance in quantum theory.

And that’s just in physics. In economics, for example, thinking about a household budget, or a Robinson Crusoe one-good economy isn’t going to sharpen your intuitions about macroeconomics – it will often make them much worse. I agree with John; these examples might be useful as a way of teaching students what utilitarianism is, but that’s it.

“Jim and the Indians” is a particular bugbear of mine because it’s exactly this kind of conjuring trick. The emotional power it uses[1] comes entirely from the fact that in real life, Jim would never be sure he’d done the right thing, and there would always be a doubt. Williams exploits this totally – his whole argument is “but utilitarianism says that this is the obvious and only answer and Jim should have no complicated feelings, and yet reading it, we feel that it would be unnatural for Jim to feel that way, and therefore the something important that has been lost is …”. But utilitarianism only gives the single unequivocal answer because Williams has constructed a completely unrealistic full-information hypothetical! In any more realistic example, simple expected utility maximising act-utilitarianism would fail to give an answer at all[2], and so a utilitarian would probably have to say that Jim should make his decision based on some other, more robust decision rule, and should have previously cultivated the tendency to act on the decision rules which were most productive of good results. Basically, Williams is removing all of the epistemic ambiguity from his example, so that he can later pull it out of the hat, having dressed it up as a fundamental moral ambiguity.

Perhaps a shorter version of the same point – Andrew F says:

“Ah hah!” someone says, “But uncertainty is an essential part of our moral reasoning!”

Is it? Does it affect your answer to a trolley problem in a relevant way?

And the answer is no – but that shows that trolley problems aren’t part of our moral reasoning, not that uncertainty isn’t. Trolley problems aren’t the gold standard.

[1] I presume that the example is never used in its original form in universities these days, because it is, frankly, hella racist.

[2] because you can’t calculate the expectation of a distribution that doesn’t exist

63

Mao Cheng Ji 12.05.13 at 10:13 pm

If utilitarianism fails even in the total absence of epistemic ambiguity (where it should be the strongest), then utilitarianism can’t have much use at all. Except as an abstract concept.

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dsquared 12.05.13 at 11:20 pm

Not at all; quite apart from anything, it would still be an excellent principle for selecting between rival decision making principles. It’s more than seventy years since the idea of an irreducibly statistical or probabilistic fundamental principle should have been freaking anybody out.

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dsquared 12.05.13 at 11:23 pm

And in any case, as I should have made clearer, the fact that utilitarian answers seem unsatisfying in full-information cases like Williams’ is due to a problem with the cases, not with utilitarianism. It’s not a defect in a theory that it gives a silly answer when asked a silly question

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JW Mason 12.05.13 at 11:37 pm

It’s more than seventy years since the idea of an irreducibly statistical or probabilistic fundamental principle should have been freaking anybody out.

So, since the General Theory? since Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? Since … ok, since what?

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John Quiggin 12.06.13 at 12:16 am

I’d say de Finetti 1937, but then I’m a decision theorist

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John Quiggin 12.06.13 at 12:19 am

Very much for wonks, but you don’t need well-defined probabilities, or even a complete state-contingent description of the world to operationalise utilitarianism, or more generally consequentialism. Dropping the standard expected utility assumptions loses a bunch of appealing properties in your decisions, but gains a lot in realism and robustness.

69

geo 12.06.13 at 1:05 am

Much doubt expressed above, very plausibly, about the usefulness of unrealistic hypotheticals for elucidating ethics. Just as an exercise, could someone — perhaps one of the CT collective — propose a realistic hypothetical? We might learn a good deal from debating it. The OP is a good start, but surely we can do better?

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mattski 12.06.13 at 2:55 am

geo,

My lens is this, the highest expression of morality is the golden rule. How to apply it in real world situations where you can help some but not all can be–in unusual circumstances–very difficult. Maybe it is even difficult in ordinary circumstances in as much as we are limited in our capacities. But if our motivation is coming from such a place (and it is quite difficult to predict the strength of our courage at some unspecified future time) then chances are we will leave the scene with a clear conscience. We did all we could do and second guessing serves no purpose.

Of course it may be more commonplace to act from less exalted motives. And in that case we’re almost sure to act in ways we later regret. But talking about hypotheticals… seems awfully close to armchair quarterbacking to me.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.06.13 at 3:23 am

Does it mean that any dilemma, unambiguous to the extent where the ambiguity is so minimal that it can be neglected, is impossible in life? Of course the trolley or Jim/Indians situation is unrealistic, in the sense that it’s very-very unlikely, but I don’t think it means exactly ‘impossible’. And realistic situations (is it okay to steal a pencil from work?) are not very interesting, because they have already been considered and analyzed to death, and pure intuition doesn’t work there. Except for little children. That’s how they get their intuition.

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harry b 12.06.13 at 3:44 am

Well, I think we can learn a lot from realistic non-hypotheticals: ie real life cases — if we pick them well and think carefully about them. Eg, in an area I think about a lot, Mozert vs Hawkins gets used a lot, and thinking about sheds light (I think) on very practical questions such as (for, for example, a high school principal) — how should the social studies curriculum deal with religion? I’ve been thinking a lot about academic freedom lately (see some other post), using unmade up examples.

Daniel — I don’t know exactly what I agree with in your comment and what I disagree with. Are you suggesting that integrity (as Williams conceived it, however that is, and I’ve already said I don’t know) is not intrinsically valuable? Or that there was no need to go to Jim to identify its worth? (if so I agree with that) Or that utilitarianism can accommodate its value? (If so, that just seems wrong, but some variant of consequentialism might well accommodate its value, but if so it will be a pretty complicated variant, and me, I want to more about what it looks like. For what its worth, I believe some variant of consequentialism is, in fact, true, myself).

On intuitions: do you want your judgements about what actually people (including you) should do to be consistent across cases and contexts? When I say ‘all over the place” what I mean is that when faced with one context/decision they infer principles which, in fact, they want to break in other contexts/decisions. Of course, if there are many values (I think there are), then each principle is probably soft, and needs to be weighed against others. If you’re not interested in consistency, then you won’t find any use in a tool that is devised, mainly, just to expose inconsistency, so that other work can be done.

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matt 12.06.13 at 3:59 am

geo:

Realistic hypotheticals abound in good histories and in good novels. Just read Thucydides- there’s one every few pages.

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Mark J 12.06.13 at 4:29 am

The plot of Fail Safe presents a “Jim and the Indians” type of problem on a global scale: nuke one major American city or engage in an all-out nuclear war which will result in the destruction of every major city in the US and USSR. It might be right from a utilitarian perspective to take the option of nuking New York, but I don’t see why that means that utilitarians should not have “complicated feelings” about it. Regardless of which choice is taken, the consequences are horrible and consequentialists should be averse to horrible consequences that result from their actions/inactions. And if someone is traumatised by having to nuke New York to avoid the end of the world, wouldn’t you be accusing them of a preposterous degree of ego-centrism to say that their trauma comes from having violated their own moral integrity?

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Peter T 12.06.13 at 5:31 am

I’ve always wondered why philosophers do not consult soldiers on this sort of problem. It is, after all, their professional stock in trade. Sometimes you trade space or time for lives, sometimes lives for space or time, sometimes lives now for lives in the future, sometimes some lives for others, sometimes you refuse to trade at all.

76

Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 6:54 am

Mao Cheng Ji: “Lines are blurry, and I imagine it’s almost always, in a sense, a case of rape and/or contraception failure. Because any instance of being taken advantage of (of any sort of weakness) can be internalized as rape [ital. mine], and any attempt to prevent the conception (even if just a prayer) internalized as contraception. And if it was neither, then something else must’ve happened later, something fairly serious….Her horniness was her weakness; she was not fully rational at the time. The man took advantage of it. I can see how she could interpret it as rape of a sort. [ital. mine] Not in the legal sense, but sufficient enough, I think, to counter your particular objection to abortion.”

This is really rather an extraordinarily unpleasant thing to say, Mao Cheng Ji. Like, fucking amazingly awful. How have twenty people not jumped down your throat already, seriously? It appears you’re saying these things in the interests of upholding women’s rights to have an abortion to the fullest degree, which is a laudable aim, but does not justify these means in any way. I let your horrible comments in the other thread slide–’if chicks want guys to not be sexist douches they should reward nice guys with sex–it’s just like Freakonomics!’ That itself is odious, and women do not run a pussy cartel in which they control supply to reward friends and punish enemies, in an organized scheme to force men to conform to their new standards for acceptable behavior. I figured you were bummed out about your ex-GF so, whatever.

The italicized sections above are not how women get raped. You may be interested to learn that a different thing happens. They are forced to have sex with someone they don’t want to have sex with. Sometimes by main force and the threat of physical violence, sometimes because they are too incapacitated to defend themselves, sometimes because it’s their mom’s new boyfriend and they’re 16, or 13, or 11. It’s not a thing that occurs after the physical act has taken place. It’s not an interpretation of the thing that happened, like, ‘I just read this interesting book, and I’m going to write a paper about it for my English Lit. seminar, in which I offer my interpretation of the novel.’ ‘I’ve decided to interpret having to give my stepdad a blowjob as rape. I wasn’t really sure which direction to take it in, and at first I was kind of caught up in this authorial fallacy thing. Now I’m taking it in a more Derridean direction–so of course I’m not making an absolute claim it was rape, but, you know.’ See? That sounds really idiotic, right? Also, fuck you.

I’ve actually posted on the mainpage here before that I’m a rape survivor, so there’s no particular reason not to tell you; I know you weren’t a commenter then because it was ages ago. It’s possible that I’m unreasonably touchy on the subject, or it’s possible that I am an excellent person to ask about it due to my first-hand experience. It’s an article of faith among right-wingers and practitioners of ‘game’ (a set of tricks and techniques to convince multiple women to have sex with you) that rape is regret the woman feels for having sex with a man whom she doesn’t rate highly/makes her feel sluttly/is going to ruin her ‘reputation.’ The unbelievably horrible Christian libertarian blogger Vox Day has a ‘game’ blog also (god, why do I even know this) and AFAIK he never says the word rape in any other way than “rape” because he thinks “rape” is ex post facto regret. I hope you see that your line of thinking is identical to his, and that agreeing with him even that the sky is blue probably makes us all bad people.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.06.13 at 7:34 am

I was responding to comment 55, attempting to demonstrate that “rape or contraception failure” there could easily be interpreted to cover almost any unwanted pregnancy. I didn’t actually defend women’s rights, just felt, for some reason, like pointing out to the weak (imo) logic in 55′s. I know that the word “rape” is a wrong word here, and I apologize for using it. Poor phrasing.

As for “if chicks want guys to not be sexist douches they should reward nice guys with sex–it’s just like Freakonomics!” (which is a satirical paraphrase, of course), this actually came to mind quite naturally after reading your “dick-swinging” metaphor. So if the former is horrible, that’s just an unintended consequence of the latter.

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mattski 12.06.13 at 11:20 am

I didn’t actually defend women’s rights, just felt, for some reason, like pointing out to the weak (imo) logic in 55′s.

You make repellant statements because you don’t like yourself? Vicious circle, dude.

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Niall McAuley 12.06.13 at 12:07 pm

Belle writes: How have twenty people not jumped down your throat already, seriously?

It’s Mao. I don’t think the author of the Mao character (Lao She?) actually believes any of this stuff, so it’s only worth responding if it can be funny.

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Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 12:43 pm

Hmmmm. I fail to see how your comments, “[w]e all are affected by traditional gender roles; social being determines consciousness. If men are guilty of reenforcing stereotypes, women are just as guilty. Make sure nice guys don’t finish last, and you’ll see nicer guys….Whatever behavior women (in general) encourage is the behavior they are likely to see more of (in general). One of those ‘freakonomics’ things,” were a consequence of mine in any but the most deterministic, materialist sense of the word. They did occur afterwards, and in some sense because you had read my comments, possibly. I went through a period when I thought it was pointless to engage with you because you were trolling everyone for what feeble dregs of lulz can be wrung out of trolling Crooked Timberteers. Then more recently I began to think, “no, he’s abrasive, but he’s not just fucking with me on purpose.” Perhaps I should follow Niall McAuley’s advice and revert to my original belief about the character you play on my blog. “Also featuring Mao Cheng Ji as, a guy who says things he doesn’t actually believe, just to get a rise out of people, because he…is bored, probably.”

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Niall McAuley 12.06.13 at 12:58 pm

There seems to be some disagreement about whether the original Mao Cheng Ji is a satire or an allegory, but anything about cat people on Mars has to have something going for it!

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Sam Clark 12.06.13 at 1:27 pm

A partial defence of Jim and the Indians: I think it should be read as a satire of the hypotheticals which utilitarians like J.J.C. Smart – who wrote the other half of Utilitarianism: For & Against, in which Jim is found – tend to use to force their conclusions.

Relatedly, here’s a stab at saying what Williams was getting at with the integrity objection: humans are complex, reflexive, self-committing agents existing and changing over time; we partly make ourselves and choose our actions and projects, but also have to discover ourselves as creatures made by biology/history/culture, and accept that we bring about and own more and other than we intend.

But the Smart-type utilitarian’s philosophical anthropology is completely distorted: it pictures humans as mere loci for feeling and causal influence, and it invites us to take up the point of view of the universe on our own moral relation to the world. To try to act as a utilitarian is to try to stop being a human agent. That’s why the utilitarian take on Jim’s choice is ‘in the most literal sense, an attack on his integrity’: it threatens disintegration.

I don’t know if I buy this, but there’s at least something interesting there.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.06.13 at 1:38 pm

No, it’s just that I saw “dick-swinging”, and realized that “dick-swinging” is a good metaphor that captures the essence of the phenomenon in question. The rest follows. Anyway, it don’t matter. If this is offensive, I take it back.

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Belle Waring 12.06.13 at 3:00 pm

K

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bianca steele 12.06.13 at 5:10 pm

I’m with dsquared on this re. Jim and the Indians (having just refreshed my memory). There’s no way anyone would arrive in that situation and be able to think rationally, because the situation is pathological. It’s equivalent to “Jim has been taken prisoner and it’s explained to him that every new prisoner in his special, privileged cell block may choose one prisoner from the less privileged cell block to shoot, or else the warden chooses ten less privileged prisoners at random to shoot,” or even “Jim washes up on the shore of an island and finds a few dozen people who’ve been out of their mind on ergot-tainted grain for a few months.”

Compare it with, “Jim is a new student at an exclusive boarding school and is told he must choose a younger student to beat up, otherwise both he and nine other students will be beaten up by others.” What would Williams have said to that, I wonder?

To say this serves a rhetorical purpose blah blah blah you have to see what Williams is doing with this passage, is fine. To use it to show teenagers “what they really think”–whether that’s something more or less traditionally moral than what they’d thought they think–after forbidding them from asking questions, making further distinctions, or suggesting modifications to the problem–is not.

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geo 12.06.13 at 7:10 pm

Sam @82: How exactly is this: complex, reflexive, self-committing agents existing and changing over time; we partly make ourselves and choose our actions and projects [and also] creatures made by biology/history/culture

different from this:

mere loci for feeling and causal influence?

Are you sure that in opposing these, as you seem to, you’re not committing a kind of category error, on the order of: “Of course we have minds and not merely brains — after all, we think and abstract and do all kinds of things that a mere slab of meat like a brain couldn’t conceivably do” or “Of course we have free will and are not wholly determined — after all, we choose and decide, sometimes even agonize, as a mere bundle of instincts and genetic instructions couldn’t conceivably do”? I (along with about half the philosophers in the world) think that “mere” is out of place in all these formulations, that it’s a rhetorical catchword, doing no substantive work but merely begging the question. Why can’t a slab of meat reason? Why can’t a genetically programmed entity choose? Why can’t a locus be an agent, commit itself, and change over time?

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matt 12.06.13 at 7:16 pm

“Why can’t a slab of meat reason?”

Despite the self-hatred involved in that locution, it always makes me hungry.

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geo 12.06.13 at 7:35 pm

self-hatred

Mill disposed of that whole category of anti-reductionist objection in the second chapter of Utilitarianism:

“Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds, and among them in some of the most estimable in feeling and purpose [eg, you, Matt], inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they express it) no higher end than pleasure—no better and nobler object of desire and pursuit—they designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously likened; and modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.

“When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s conceptions of happiness.”

Likewise, maybe you should raise your opinion (or at least, expand your definition) of “meat.”

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geo 12.06.13 at 7:36 pm

PS – Don’t tell me an estimable person like you still eats meat?

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matt 12.07.13 at 7:14 pm

‘Slab’- that is, undifferentiated, unformed mass. No organic structure or powers.
‘Meat’- that is, dead, disembodied, and edible.

The phrase suggests some sort of gruesome death wish.

Pleasure is wonderful and sort of miraculous, whether in us or in the worm.

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Sam Clark 12.07.13 at 7:49 pm

Geo – I agree with you about ‘mere’, which I put in for rhetorical effect and shouldn’t have. I also agree with you that, if the sketch I offered were meant as metaphysics, it would be a mistake. But it was meant as moral psychology: Williams was a naturalist (as am I, for whatever that’s worth). The claim is that to be selves, we have to understand ourselves and our actions in a particular way which (crude, Smart-type) utilitarianism makes impossible. Hence, C,ST utilitarianism is a threat not to our moral or metaphysical integrity but to our selfhood. Williams argued something similar about free-will-libertarian deontological morality too, by the way: in the end, his claim is that both utilitarianism and Kantianism are reflections of ‘the morality system’, a way of understanding human life and action which we’d be better off without.

(I’ll again offer the caveat that I don’t necessarily agree with this. I’m probably a utilitarian myself, if there can be utilitarian value-pluralists. Harry B upthread makes me hopeful.)

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Andrew F. 12.08.13 at 2:54 am

But utilitarianism only gives the single unequivocal answer because Williams has constructed a completely unrealistic full-information hypothetical! In any more realistic example, simple expected utility maximising act-utilitarianism would fail to give an answer at all[2], and so a utilitarian would probably have to say that Jim should make his decision based on some other, more robust decision rule, and should have previously cultivated the tendency to act on the decision rules which were most productive of good results.

Hmmm… the problem is that substantive ethical theories attempt not only to give us decision rules, but also to explain and justify why we should do X rather than Y. The point of Williams’s hypothetical is that act-utilitarianism misses something important. We have an intuition here about the importance of who is committing an act that is completely lost in act-utilitarianism (or utilitarianism generally).

You seem to be saying that there’s only a problem here because we’re importing certainty as to consequence, whereas in reality there is none. But that is not where act-utilitarianism falls short here. It’s not that hey, an act-utilitarian would be uncertain about his actions if we imported realistic uncertainty as to outcomes but rather that act-utilitarianism cannot recognize the importance of what causes Jim to doubt the appropriate course of action (which is not difficulty foreseeing ultimate outcomes).

We could render a more realistic set of circumstances in which Jim is placed in a relevantly similar situation and has high confidence in his predictions of the outcome of different courses of action. But there’s no reason to do so. Williams’s story is sufficient to illuminate his point.

That said, I’m not fully persuaded by Williams’s argument, but even so, he’s touched on something deeply important and asked a question that forces me to further analyze (or perhaps synthesize) my ethical beliefs – not unlike what Philippa Foot did with her trolley problem, or Thomson with her violinist. The stories they tell provide the reader with enough information to access the intuitions they need to make their arguments, while also allowing enough detachment to enable us to analyze those intuitions without being overwhelmed.

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mdc 12.08.13 at 3:26 am

I meant to say: pleasure, on the other hand, is wonderful and sort of miraculous. Meat doesn’t feel pleasure; animals– bless their mysterious souls– do.

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geo 12.08.13 at 4:19 am

Sam: I still don’t quite understand why to “take up the point of view of the universe” is to “try to stop being a human agent.” Why can’t one try to imagine how all (or as many as possible of) those affected by an action would feel about it before one acts?

Matt: Is a slab necessarily undifferentiated and unformed? Is meat necessarily dead and disembodied? Meaty questions, but alas, I’m a vegetarian.

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Mao Cheng Ji 12.08.13 at 7:18 am

Suppose your boss tells you to cut the cost of your project by laying off several employees, or else the whole project is cancelled and they all have to go. That would be a de-dramatized scenario.

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Sam Clark 12.08.13 at 7:51 pm

Sam: I still don’t quite understand why to “take up the point of view of the universe” is to “try to stop being a human agent.”

I’m honestly not sure about that part of the argument either, but it comes out of Williams’s philosophy of action. Part of what’s going on is the idea of a self-defining commitment (a second-order project about what projects to adopt and how to develop oneself – one could adopt ‘be a consequentialist’ as one’s sole commitment, but no-one actually does). Part is Williams’s (Humean) rejection of the idea that anyone has a reason to do anything which isn’t part of, or reachable from, their actual motivations (internal vs external reasons). Part is the thought that our emotions and commitments are how we connect with the world as agents, and so we can’t take them only as weights to go on the expected-utility scales along with everything else. But I’m mostly just hand-waving rather than arguing now…

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matt 12.09.13 at 2:20 pm

geo, as a vegetarian, perhaps you are familiar with this famous turn of phrase?

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dsquared 12.09.13 at 9:38 pm

No, I don’t buy this.

rather that act-utilitarianism cannot recognize the importance of what causes Jim to doubt the appropriate course of action (which is not difficulty foreseeing ultimate outcomes).

Actually, what causes fictional Jim (and real us) to doubt the appropriate course of action is, simply, that the correct course of action is very doubtful. That’s why we doubt it!

The whole point here is that Williams is saying “but it cannot be the mere epistemological uncertainty, for in this case I have magicked it away! But the subjective feeling of doubt persists – so something else must be causing it!”.

But the correct utilitarian response is to say “you claim you’ve got rid of the merely epistemological uncertainty, but actually that can’t be done. You’ve constructed a fictional narrative which only makes sense if there is huge amounts of uncertainty, then stipulated that the uncertainty is gone, and you’re pretending that the fiction still makes moral or psychological sense, and that our intuitions can just be treated as if they referred to the fiction”. In other words, whether or not there is such a thing as “integrity in Williams’ sense”, his example doesn’t tell you anything about it, because the intuition it extracts is bogus.

And: life and death decisions are not so unusual (how many abortions are there per year? and how many babies are born who’s parents decide for moral reasons not to abort? How many people die from the removal of life support?). And its not just students, but everyone, who finds it difficult to resist the urge to smooth things over.

Yes, and philosophy professors try to stop them. But actually, smoothing things over and giving people the benefit of the doubt is pretty fundamental to the possibility of civilised life. You’re right, I am very sceptical about the desirability of consistency and universalisable principles, as opposed to general “rules of thumb” that can demonstrate that they lead to better outcomes.

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Niall McAuley 12.09.13 at 10:25 pm

Jim and the Indians (at least the online examples I have found), is the weakest of weak tea examples. I can’t imagine that even Dick Cheney would kill one of the Indians in that scenario (much as he would like to suck them all dry and then gnaw their jerky flesh.)

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dsquared 12.09.13 at 10:34 pm

Well in its real life, nonviolent, unfunny version as “Jim And The Nationalised Industry”, where he has to decide whether to shut down a couple of factories, causing large amounts of forseeable hardship to a few communities, in order to preserve the financial viability of the industry as a whole, I think a lot of people would make that choice. Except that in “Jim And The Nationalised Industry” (or for that matter, to bring in some of the ‘edginess’ which some philosophers love, “Jim And The University Departments”), it’s quite obvious that it’s a correct and sensible response to question the premis, ask how it got to that stage, and do all the things that philosophy bods want you not to do because they want to sharpen your intuitions.

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Niall McAuley 12.09.13 at 10:56 pm

Well fuckin’ duh! Murder someone on the orders of a maniac, vs. fire someone from a job.

One of these things is not like the others. Also, COOKIES!

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Niall McAuley 12.09.13 at 11:04 pm

I’ve been fired, with harshness and immediacy, from a permanent pensionable job, and it does not remotely resemble being killed by a Gringo whose arm is being twisted by some South American psychopathic rebe leader.

I know, I’m arguing theoretical whataboutery, but if an actual lecturer/tutor asked this, I would not think “Things that make you go hmmm”, I would throw my eyes to heaven in a gesture of “how do I get my tuition fees back?”.

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