Hypothetical questions

by Chris Bertram on May 17, 2004

I’ve just notices Julian Baggini’s “piece about hypothetical questions over at Butterflies and Wheels”:http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/badmovesprint.php?num=40 . Baggini observes the politicians often bat away questions they don’t want to answer by observing that the point is hypothetical. This is a disgraceful move by politicians, but its televisual ubiquity means that many people now seem to believe that hypothetical questions are, by their very nature, illegitimate. And bad though this belief is among the general public, it now seems to be spreading among philosophy undergraduates who don’t seem to appreciate that their subject would be _impossible_ without such questions. I first noticed this phenomenon a few years ago, when sitting-in on a lecture my then-colleague Patrick Greenough. Patrick was running through some “Gettier problems”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettier_problem and had reached a familiar example involving a dog cunningly disguised as a sheep in a field (a real sheep being just out of sight behind a fold in the land). When Patrick asked whether the observer of the dog knows there is a sheep in the field, a hand went up in the audience: “Excuse me, isn’t that a hypothetical question?” Doh!



ionfish 05.17.04 at 5:20 pm

Mental laziness is a rather common trait these days.

I blame TV.


Lee 05.17.04 at 5:50 pm

Developing a hypothetical can be a useful exercise in constructing an argument and exploring possible answers. But, from what I have seen, most hypotheticals used in political discourse are poorly formed and used for rhetorical and not logical purposes.

For example, I have seen a number of people conclude that torture is ok based on the hypothetical question of “If you had a terrorist in custody that would tell you of the impending 9/11 attack, would you use torture?”

But while such a hypothetical *seems* to support a case for torture, it does no such thing. Aside from presenting no formal proof of the need for torture, the hypothetical makes a number of simple moves that render it of questionable logical value – though its rhetorical impact is admitted.

First, it assumes that we know that the person in custody is, in fact, a terrorist – a conclusion that has not been sustained in the one real life case that is occupying so many of us right now – Abu Ghraib.

Second, the hypothetical grants us omniscience (“would tell you of the impending 9/11 attack”). Perhaps this maneuver is ok for purposes of exploring how far some would be wiling to go in very constrained situations, but ever since I lost my God-like powers, I find that assumptions of omnisicence tell me very little about those situations where my foreknowledge is less than perfect.

Third, this hypothetical, like many, ignores the messy blowback possibilities arising from the course of action that the hypothetical is intended to support.

Of course, rewriting the hypothetical to accommodate these concerns undercuts the rhetorical value of the hypothetical. That is, instead of asking the first hypothetical, ask whether you would torture a person where you don’t know if they are a terrorist or an innocent person feeding a family of 4, that even if they are a terrorist, they may not have any valuable information to give, and that, if the torture becomes known to the outside world, the costs to you and your country could be much greater than any possible benefits.

But this sort of response to the first hypothetical doesn’t lend itself to soundbites – so your criticism of politicians may have less to do with their belief that all hypothetical questions are illegitimate and more to do with the fact that a detailed and coherent response to silly hypotheticals is not TV-worthy.


rea 05.17.04 at 6:35 pm

Lee, your disagreement is not with hypothetical questions, but with BAD hypothetical questions.


armando 05.17.04 at 6:41 pm

I couldn’t help feeling when reading the piece that the whole argument was undermined by the blatant political stance of the writer. (And I’m about to argue from a different political stance, but thats unavoidable.)

Namely, the examples compared are the Mirror over Piers Morgan and the pictures and Blair over a second UN resolution in Iraq. The former is unacceptable, according to Baggini, because it is a dodge of a serious question. The second is acceptable because Blair could not be asked to predict the exact nature of the situation arising.

This seems backward. The Mirror had no way of knowing how Piers Morgan would deal the photos and how and whether a sufficiently convincing forgery could in every case warrant a resignation.

For Blair, it seems pretty clear given his rhetoric, that the war in Iraq was always more important than trifling concerns with International law. As such, he wanted to defer or completely avoid having to explicitly state that he would choose war over multilateralism. And, given how strongly he justifies that decision, this seems pretty dishonest. (Of course, maybe he dodged the question in order to garner support for the UN resolution, but I think it still counts as a dodge.)

This is, of course, far too long winded to make the simple point that one should be wary of those that advocate a straightforward logical approach to politics.


Ophelia Benson 05.17.04 at 7:32 pm

“When Patrick asked whether the observer of the dog knows there is a sheep in the field, a hand went up in the audience: “Excuse me, isn’t that a hypothetical question?” Doh!”

That’s hilarious! So what did then-colleague say? “Er – how have you been understanding everything I’ve said in the course of this lecture? What do you take these Gettier questions to be at all at all?” Inquiring minds want to know.


DJW 05.17.04 at 7:36 pm

Well, one of the reasons I decided to study political theory (from a Political Science dept) rather than political philosophy (from a Philosophy dept) was my frustration with what i perceived to be philosopher’s tendencies to retreat into cleaner hypotheticals when confronted with messy political situations. Not to say you’re not right here, hypotheticals are absolutely crucial (and I’ve had similar moments with students). But how, and how much, they ought to be used remain open questions.


Ophelia Benson 05.17.04 at 7:52 pm

Are hypotheticals always cleaner? That’s a serious question, a question from ignorance, as opposed to disagreement. I would think (knowing nothing about the subject) that they would at least sometimes be messier rather than cleaner. Like the hypotheticals we asked when we were children and told not to get out of bed again under any circumstances whatever. ‘Not even if the house catches fire and a tiger comes in the window and I have to throw up and – ?’ Do hypotheticals always simplify rather than elaborate? Is that what they’re for? Are they also used to complicate what seems simple in order to figure out what hidden complications might be lurking?

Oh shut up, go and look it up instead of asking silly questions.


Babel 5 05.17.04 at 8:03 pm

Michael Kinsley: In defense of hypothetical questions (It’s not valid to dismiss a question as hypothetical) [via]


DJW 05.17.04 at 9:06 pm

Ophelia, your questions aren’t silly and I’m not at all sure how you’d go about looking up the answers.

I’d say they needn’t necessarily be cleaner, but they tend to be. A persistent challenge of serious political problems is the plague of imperfect and incomplete information, which is frequently assumed away.

Let me try to clarify my position.

When hypotheticals are used to tease out the implications of particular position, and it’s done well, they’re both necessary and illuminating.

When hypotheticals are used to strip away the contingencies and particularities of hoary social and political problems in an attempt to render them fully amenable to existing ethical theories, then you’ve got to weigh what’s lost against what’s gained–they still may be quite useful, but they may be rather obfuscating as well.

This is the first time I’ve tried to articulate my bad attitude toward excessive reliance on hypotheticals, so I apologize if I’m being clumsy or incoherent. I’m open to the possibility that my objection to what I perceive as overreliance on hypotheticals is really a stylistic preference that I’m trying to substantively justify. Actually, if there is a good discussion on this published somewhere, I’d love to be pointed toward it.


Ophelia Benson 05.17.04 at 10:24 pm

DJW, not clumsy or incoherent at all. As for how I’d look it up, wellll, I suppose I was thinking I could look up hypothetical and counterfactual and thought experiment in various companions and encyclopedias and just see if there is any discussion of limitations and difficulties – since there usually is some such discussion in philosophical companions and encyclopedias. Not that that would be an ‘answer’ in that sense of ‘looking up’ but just that I might get some idea of what people had said.

It is an interesting issue, and I’ve run into it fairly often, I think. Either I object to a thought experiment that seems too easy, or someone else objects to mine – or sometimes both at once, in which case there’s a sharp crack and a flash of light and we disappear.

So if there isn’t much discussion of the subject, that seems quite interesting. One would think there would be.


WW 05.17.04 at 10:25 pm

Imagine a world with no hypotheticals.


harry 05.17.04 at 10:32 pm

djw and Ophelia; This might capture the diference between political philosophers and political theorists. Political philosophers are over-reliant on hypotheticals, too concerned to map out the conceptual space, not sufficiently concerned to think about how the principles apply in real world circumstances, fail to see how feasibility concerns might have real normative consequences. Also unscholarly so tend to reinvent the wheel.
Political theorists (in US political science departments, not UK ones)are overreliant on real world examples, blinded by them about what is actually feasible, under-sensitive to the different consequences of conflicting principles which happen to point the same way in the contingent circumstances they are focussed on; also bogged down by scholarship and the need to contextualise in ways that are normatively irrlevant at best.
Both prone to myopia. Could learn more from each other. Or, more sinisterly, can’t learn much from each ohter but could both learn more from each other’s colleagues (philosophers should read psephologists, not political theorists; theorists should read epistemologists, not political philosophers).
My random thought for the day.


ian 05.17.04 at 10:37 pm

There is a similar ignorance of the concept of hypothesis and theory in physical and biological sciences – ‘evolution is only a theory’


Jo Wolff 05.17.04 at 10:44 pm

I was told the following. I don’t know if it is true. UCL wanted Stuart Hampshire for the Grote Chair, but didn’t want to make him an offer if he wasn’t going to to accept. So the Provost sent him a letter asking whether, if he were offered the Chair, he would accept. It is said that Hampshire wrote back saying ‘For reasons of economy of thought, I would prefer not to consider this hypothetical.’

As he ended up with the Chair, presumably a non-hypothetical version followed.

Incidentally, I have been sitting on a committee preparing a report on animal experimentation. A draft went out to review. A senior scientist (non-academic) objected to the inclusion of the line ‘It would be a better world if we could achieve our scientific aims without experimenting on animals’ on the grounds that we will never be able to do this.


epist 05.17.04 at 10:46 pm


I’ve heard the complaint you voice before, and, as a political philosopher (in training, mind you), let me try and reply:

Firstly, let me say that of course some improper oversimplification occurs in the course of philosophical research. Philosophers are no more exempt from the temptation to ‘look where the light is good’ rather than looking at the entire hairy problem than anyone else.

That being said, many political theorists, especially those who do work on the basic concepts (equality, liberty, rights, etc) are engaged in a more, er, sophisticated form of simplification, awkward as that sounds.

By this I mean that these theorists are interested in ‘ideal’ models as fecund explanatory stories that serve as a basis for further sophistication. In this way, they are much like theoretical scientists. Physicists, for example, are (or were, at one point) interested in the ideal model of, say, objects in motion. They represented this with balls rolling down inclined planes, and they ignored (or abstracted away) all of the pesky details (friction, heat, quantum effects) that attend actual ball-rolling. These idealized conditions are used in a theory about objects in motion. This theory, in turn, helps us understand the actual complex events it is meant to explain.

Now, the jump from the ideal to the actual can be quite distant, and there are many points in the process where things might go wrong. But the method of idealized abstraction is very useful for the sort of theoretical work that philosophers (and scientists) do. And it needn’t be merely looking away from difficult aspects of the problem.


DJW 05.17.04 at 11:12 pm

Harry, a pessimistic but fair interpretation. One result of my blog-reading habit is that I’m reading much more political philosophy than I used to, in large part because the blogosphere as I encounter it contains more political philosophers than political theorists. As a consequence, I’m thinking more about how these different bodies of literature relate to each other and how they might better make each other richer. I’m not ready to give up yet.


thanks for the reply. I agree that one of the difficult issues we face is how we move from the actual to the ideal (and back), and hypotheticals certainly can highlight the key issue that can than be used to shed light on empirical phenomenon. I we all need to be careful to watch out for those cases in which it doesn’t do that, though.

I suppose one of the things I like about the general approach of political theory is that we’re* scavengers. We borrow and converse with pol philosophy types, but we also draw from political science (the rest of it), social theory, literary theory, geography, fiction, theology, and lots of other disciplines. To some, it makes us look like an incoherent and undisciplined bunch, and not without reason. I think what we’re looking for, though, is how to move from the ideal to the actual and back, and we’re not satisfied with being limited to a particular method.

*I really shouldn’t purport to speak for political theorists.


Jonathan Lundell 05.18.04 at 12:04 am

Vaguely similar: “I can’t comment, becasue there’s a lawsuit pending.”

Change “can’t” to “won’t” and it’s an entirely legitimate thing to say.


a different chris 05.18.04 at 12:18 am

>Mental laziness is a rather common trait these days.

I feel this to be true. Yet for some reason I just haven’t felt inclined to work out why…



Ophelia Benson 05.18.04 at 1:08 am

Imagine a world with no mental laziness. Nah, on second thought, don’t bother.


Tom Grey 05.18.04 at 1:30 am

No hypotheticals is pretty stupid — how can you learn any lesson of history without imagining a better decision? Like no Munich Betrayal in 38, or like regime change in Baghdad in 91? Or like continued support of Saddam in 03?


Lee 05.18.04 at 2:28 am

Rea, yes my objection is to bad hypotheticals and not to hypotheticals in general. But my other point is that in most political discussions, it seems to me that most of the hypotheticals are bad hypotheticals intended for brute persuasion, not enlightened discusion and discovery.


VJ 05.18.04 at 8:01 am

‘A familiar example’ [of] ‘A dog cunningly disguised as a sheep in a field’… Hypothetical Hell! This was the premise behind a whole series of Very funny WB (?) cartoons that probably predate the RoadRunner by some years. Further demonstrating that there’s lots of lost classical arts going on in those old cartoons! It was sort of staged like a work site too, with the coyote/wolf getting to the field in question right after Ralph the sheep dog clocked in. Both would take lunch breaks too, announced by a loud factory like whistle. One of Ralph’s many crafty disguises was a zipped up sheep’s suit he would use to lure Wiley E in for a pounce.


dsquared 05.18.04 at 10:47 am

Similar to Ophelia’s point, I have a half draft of an article which I may complete on what is particularly pernicious about philosophers’ hypotheticals; that they encourage habits of thought which are bad when thinking about choice under uncertainty. In particular, by ruling out of the question secondary effects and possibilities which the poser of the question believes to be incidental, it encourages people to think that they are incidental in real world applications.


Ginger Yellow 05.18.04 at 12:07 pm

Rumsfeld is the worst for this. He was quoted as saying (about pre-war planning), that there was no point in planning for anything because he couldn’t know exactly what would happen. He clearly doesn’t understand the concept of contingency then.


Ophelia Benson 05.18.04 at 6:11 pm

Really?! One of the Gettier questions is based on old (possibly WB) cartoons?? That’s so cool if it’s true. I don’t recall the cartoon myself, despite being a passionate fan of the WB oeuvre (hem hem).


Lawrence Krubner 05.19.04 at 6:41 pm

At a recent city council meeting here in Charlottesville, Virginia, a woman stood up at question time and directed her remarks at one of the Republicans on the council. She spoke for 5 minutes criticising every policy he had ever supported, and everything he’d done, and everything she even knew about him. When she stopped to draw a breath he said, “But what is your question?” and she replied, “Hypothetically, isn’t there something wrong with your personality?”

The whole crowd laughed.

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