As Harry mentioned, I’m sceptical of the value of artificial “thought experiments” in moral philosophy, without having a fully coherent basis for this scepticism. ne thing I don’t like about the term “thought experiment” is the implication that the results of such thought experiments constitute data, and therefore that an ethical theory is more satisfactory if it fits such data than if it does not. The way I’d prefer to approach such problems involves an iterative loop, with repeated stages of (i) consider reasonable general principles (ii) compare to intuitions about specific cases (iii) where appropriate, adjust judgements on specific cases (iv) revise general principles to give a better fit to adjusted intuitions. That is, I don’t think either general principles or specific intuitions are trumps.

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There is hope, after all

by Maria on January 28, 2010

The WaPo online has been given a good tongue-lashing by – so far – every single commenter on their ‘Is Elizabeth Edwards Right to Drop John?’ discussion.

The forum set-up goes; ‘Elizabeth Edwards and her longtime husband, former senator and Presidential hopeful John Edwards, have separated, according to People magazine, via Reliable Source. … Is Elizabeth Edwards, who is battling incurable cancer, doing the right thing by separating from John? Should she file for divorce? Weigh in below.”

Responses range from to “how in the world would I know whether two people I never met should stay together? Why would the Post have such an incredibly stupid discussion?” all the way to “When The Post would offer such an idiotic, shallow, voyeuristic question for discussion, it should surprise no one that the institution of the fourth estate has failed.” The obvious question, ‘is this TMZ?’, is asked along the way.

Shame on WaPo. This is cheap journalism in both senses of the word. Once more the newspaper is called on the carpet by readers who have no difficulty seeing the difference between public interest and voyeurism. How has WaPo fallen so low?

Any of us who’ve been around the block a few times work-wise know how strong the toxic effect of a few key people can be. A whole organisational culture can shift with shocking ease from collegiality to zero sum games by the simple failure to punish bad behaviour. As soon as a minority is rewarded for – let’s call it non-cooperation because there’s such a range of behaviours that can poison a workplace – then the rest look like chumps for not piling in. But you don’t need game theory to explain something most of us have experienced. The nasty effect of ‘a few bad apples’ is nothing new. (A striking example of a good place gone radically bad is HP. Anyone thinking of voting for Carly Fiorina for public office should read this).

I’ve no particular insight to what’s happened in the Washington Post. I suspect the unbearable commercial pressures have changed the balance of power between editorial and commercial people to the point where cheapo user-created content and page views trump journalistic merit. They should listen to their readers to whom that bright line is very clear.