Moral philosophy, casuistry and the ethics of organ donation

by John Quiggin on January 28, 2010

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.

I thought I’d throw some examples into the mix that might tempt some other CTers such as Kieran into the fray. Harry mentioned the Thomson violinist example as a thought experiment that clarifies reasoning about abortion and obligations to others. As I said, I prefer to avoid such implausible hypotheticals. That leads me to suggest looking at some related non-hypothetical choices.

As a real-life alternative to the violinist question, I’m interested question of whether there are circumstances under which it is morally obligatory to donate blood, or organs, in order to save the lives of others. And, if it is morally obligatory, is the obligation one that can justifiably be enforced by law? For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the first question is “Yes” and to the second is “Probably not”. But a positive answer to the first question would seem to justify a “presumed consent” answer to the second, as applied to organ donation after death (that is, people should be presumed to have consented to organ donation unless they explicitly opt out). Of course, that raises the question of whether such a presumption can be made effectual and whether it would in fact raise donation rates, issues on which Kieran has written quite a bit.

Answers to these questions do not translate directly into answers to the corresponding questions about issues like abortion or foreign aid. But they seem to me likely to give more insight than thought experiments about violinists. And, even if you do want to go hypothetical, it would seem to me to be preferable to stick as closely as possible to reality. For example, to go from a general responsibility to a specific responsibility, consider the following case that is only mildly hypothetical. Consider an organ transplant/blood donation technology that can be applied anywhere but is time-sensitive, so that, in the event of a car crash it must be used at the scene. In the case of a crash where someone is injured through the fault of another, should the person at fault be compelled to donate blood/organs to save the life of the innocent party?

{ 138 comments }

1

Neil 01.28.10 at 11:45 am

The method you describe – known as reflective equilibrium – is the standard one in moral philosophy.

2

John Quiggin 01.28.10 at 11:59 am

It should be no doubt, but I (and from the previous threads, others) view ‘thought experiments’ like the violinist example as conversation-stoppers, intended to compel a particular conclusion.

3

Neil 01.28.10 at 12:06 pm

Well, I guess you need to read some moral philosophy when you are concerned with criticizing the methods of moral philosophy, not the comments threads on this blog. Rawls, who named the method reflective equilibrium, is explicit that sometimes you need to revise your intuitions rather than your theory. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions”) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them

4

John Quiggin 01.28.10 at 12:15 pm

To be clear, Neil, I wasn’t claiming to have invented reflective equilibrium (with or without the name). I’m perfectly aware that philosophers have been doing this for a long time, though I’d read your Rawls quote as saying implicitly that some have not (otherwise, why bother to spell it out).

I was saying that this is the approach I like and that I find the typical thought experiment antithetical to this process, with the term “experiment” being part of the problem.

5

Neil 01.28.10 at 12:26 pm

You don’t like the word ‘experiment’ because it entails or implies a conversation stopper? Three words:
Duhem-Quine thesis

6

Bill Gardner 01.28.10 at 1:00 pm

I’ve heard a moral philosopher argue that thought experiments can provide counter-examples that disprove theories. That is, if it seems that theory X should handle the stylized facts in thought experiment Y, and it can’t, then we can reject theory X. This isn’t fitting data in a curve-fitting sense, but rather in the falsificationist understanding of empiricism. What’s hard to know, I think, is how we determine what counts as a case that a theory should handle. This is hard in science, and it can only get harder in science fiction. (Notwithstanding the fact that I find Parfit’s transporter story deeply compelling… )

I share your discomfort with “experiment”. Whatever this is, it’s not much like doing one. No getting crushed when you see the confidence interval around the parameter estimate, not to mention no, “Oh SHIT, I just spilled bromine on my hand!”

7

Bill Gardner 01.28.10 at 1:04 pm

Neil’s (@ 5) three words express my qualms about moral philosophical thought experiments quite effectively.

8

Josh G 01.28.10 at 1:34 pm

I partially agree that intuitions should not be used as ‘conversation stoppers’ in order to falsify an entire theory, for the point of a whole theory is that coherence between the various elements that make it up strengthen each one, giving each a higher general level of credence that we could accord to an intuition generated by a thought experiment alone (I take it that this comes from the Quine/ Goodman idea of coherentism that is the basis for Rawlsian wide reflective equilibrium). An intuition can, however, be important in theory alteration/ rejection if it fits into the theory and brings with it a higher level of coherence between the various elements than existed before the intuition was introduced. Thus, if we have two competing theories, and a thought experiment provides intuitive ‘evidence’ that coheres with one and not the other, this might provide the basis for rejection of the other theory.

9

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 1:58 pm

Another thing that’s always bothered me about these thought experiments is that they generally invoke rather extreme circumstances remote from ordinary experience. I realize that’s intended as a way of highlighting and clarifying specific issues that are more blurry in everyday moral decisions, yet as lawyers know, hard cases make bad law.

10

harry b 01.28.10 at 2:17 pm

Fortunately, these cases are not proposed to make law, just to help people figure out what the truth is, often about principles which, if they truly are principles, will cover hard cases as well as other cases. They are among a range of inputs into reflective equilibrium. I’ll do a post specifically on that soonish. (The purpose of spelling it out for Rawls is not entirely clear to those of us too young to remember those days — I’m not sure that he is implying that anyone does anything else, he may just be trying to be explicit about and codify a practice that he sees around him but has not been well articulated).

I taught the violinist yesterday, and spurred by JQ and the previous thread, and emboldened by the fact that the class is unusually big so that students might be willing to be more forthright under protection of anonymity, I probed the handful of students who thought it was NOT ok to unhook from the violinist. They gave interesting reasons, starting with the observation that they thought they couldn’t live with the guilt of killing another person and moving to a bedrock commitment to the idea that sometimes its just bad luck that you’re in a position where doing what you want will kill someone, and that’s not ok. What was interesting was that later on a couple of students who had NOT identified as people who thought they should stay hooked up, revealed in other comments that, in fact, they did think this.

I should have, and now JQ has reminded me I will, test them with the organ donation case.

I’m completely persuaded that “thought experiment” is a misleading term, and am happy to try and shift the language.

11

Chris Bertram 01.28.10 at 2:23 pm

_That is, I don’t think either general principles or specific intuitions are trumps._

But as others have said, nor does anyone else, ….. On the other hand, if your general principle has a really unacceptable implication then that’s a strong pro tanto reason to revise/abandon it. Moral philosophy isn’t special here, though, it’s in the same boat as epistemology, metaphysics etc. Gettier cases, for example, give us strong pro tanto reasons to reject the view that knowledge is justified true belief.

12

Matt 01.28.10 at 2:29 pm

Building on Chris’s point a bit, it’s worth noting both the terminology and the practice of “thought experiments” in science as well. That’s how Einstein’s “twins in a spaceship” is often presented (including, I think, by Einstein himself) and things that are pretty much like a philosophy thought experiment is common in the history of science all over the place. There are difference, of course, but they use and structure is similar enough that I don’t think much is gained, and something is lost, from insisting on different terminology. (For useful discussion on this, see Thomas Kuhn’s very interesting article “A Function for Thought Experiments” in his book of essays, _The Essential Tension_. )

It’s also useful to note that different philosophers put different amounts of weight on the intuitions gained from thought experiments and just how useful they are and how they should be used is controversial. How Francis Kamm, for example, uses these examples is rather different from how I would use them. (I think Thompson, methodologically, was closer to Kamm than I would be, but can’t say for sure.)

13

Witt 01.28.10 at 2:35 pm

Fortunately, these cases are not proposed to make law

Except when they are. One of the things that I think it’s easy to overlook when you’re trained as a specialist and you work within a set of professional norms is that most people in the world are not only not specialists in your field, they may use the trappings of your field in entirely unintended and/or unacceptable (to you) ways.

I remember having discussions about torture when I was in college. As exasperating as I sometimes found them, they had the benefit of being mostly contained within a sort of protected space. The framework of the discussion was more or less agreed-upon by the (demographically pretty homogeneous) teacher and students.* Fast-forward a decade-plus, and all of a sudden politicians and pundits everywhere are using similar hypotheticals to browbeat debate partners and advocate for specific, harmful public policies.

* I don’t want to overstate this; I was also disturbed by the way that “just a hypothetical” can be used as a bludgeon against people in minority groups. It takes an extraordinarily talented teacher to do hypotheticals on slavery or religious persecution without costing some participants more emotionally than they are gaining in insight.

14

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 2:39 pm

Gettier cases, for example, give us strong pro tanto reasons to reject the view that knowledge is justified true belief.

That kind of thing has also never struck me as quite the knock-down argument it purports to be. Real-life concepts, including “knowledge”, should be expected to have fuzzy edges. There may be no definition that does not fail in certain, highly artificial, pathological cases.

15

Witt 01.28.10 at 2:40 pm

(repost because I got stuck in moderation — I think I’ve figured out the offending word)

Fortunately, these cases are not proposed to make law

Except when they are. One of the things that I think it’s easy to overlook when you’re trained as a 5pecia!ist and you work within a set of professional norms is that most people in the world are not only not 5pecia!ists in your field, they may use the trappings of your field in entirely unintended and/or unacceptable (to you) ways.

I remember having discussions about torture when I was in college. As exasperating as I sometimes found them, they had the benefit of being mostly contained within a sort of protected space. The framework of the discussion was more or less agreed-upon by the (demographically pretty homogeneous) teacher and students.* Fast-forward a decade-plus, and all of a sudden politicians and pundits everywhere are using similar hypotheticals to browbeat debate partners and advocate for specific, harmful public policies.

* I don’t want to overstate this; I was also disturbed by the way that “just a hypothetical” can be used as a bludgeon against people in minority groups. It takes an extraordinarily talented teacher to do hypotheticals on slavery or religious persecution without costing some participants more emotionally than they are gaining in insight.

16

ajay 01.28.10 at 2:49 pm

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the first question is “Yes” and to the second is “Probably not”. But a positive answer to the first question would seem to justify a “presumed consent” answer to the second, as applied to organ donation after death

I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Morally speaking, I don’t see a difference between opt-in and opt-out donation systems. In either case, the individual has absolute freedom to express his pre-mortem wishes about post-mortem donation, and these wishes can’t be gainsaid in either direction.

A positive answer to the first question could be said to strengthen the argument for compulsory donation – if you think that the state should be in the business of enforcing moral obligations*. But I don’t think it does much for the opt-in/opt-out question.

*Which could be tricky with regard to, say, the moral obligation not to cheat on your husband.

17

Billikin 01.28.10 at 2:55 pm

Steve LaBonne (#8): “Another thing that’s always bothered me about these thought experiments is that they generally invoke rather extreme circumstances remote from ordinary experience. I realize that’s intended as a way of highlighting and clarifying specific issues that are more blurry in everyday moral decisions, yet as lawyers know, hard cases make bad law.”

I think that the intention is generally to make easy cases,– at least, easier than the everyday cases. The extreme and unusual circumstances are ways of focusing on some aspects of the general problem, by making ordinary factors less significant, even irrelevant. I think that this intention is what leads to the objection that a conclusion is being forced, because the author of the thought experiment believes (erroneously, perhaps) that the case is relatively easy, and the conclusion relatively obvious.

As every computer programmer knows, or should know, the consideration of extreme cases is very important. In a good program the bulk of the code goes to handle extreme and infrequent cases. The old brain teaser about the snail in the well who climbs up three feet per day, but slides back two feet at night provides an example. To answer the question of when it gets out of the well you have to consider the extreme case of the last day. You can think of extreme hypothetical cases as stress tests for ideas. Logicians like context freedom, but in real life ideas often have limited applicability. Where are the limits? It can be impractical, even dangerous, to test those limits in actuality, and that makes it important to test them in the imagination.

18

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 3:05 pm

Where are the limits? It can be impractical, even dangerous, to test those limits in actuality, and that makes it important to test them in the imagination.

Except that (as exemplified by the idea the the Gettier paradoxes have put paid to knowledge as justified true belief) that’s not generally how they’re used, or so it seems to me. Instead of being used to explore the limits of a definition or concept, they are often purported to have, in Chris’s words, given a strong pro tanto reason for rejecting one concept altogether and/or embracing an alternative. Even giving credit for the hedge embodied in that “pro tanto”- which it also seems to me is not always acknowledged as forthrightly as Chris did – I’m not sure enough effort gets put into justifying the legitimacy of that move. (And beyond that there’s the issue raised by Witt- it’s not only scientists who have a responsibility to be aware of possible misuse of well-intentioned professional work.)

19

Neil 01.28.10 at 3:10 pm

Steve, lots of philosophers think that Gettier cases don’t show that knowledge isn’t true justified belief (in fact some go further and think that knowledge is just true belief). As Chris says, the case give us strong pro tanto reasons to revise our theory. But defeasible reasons can be defeated. Once again, the practice of philosophy is a bit more complex than some of its critics seem to think.

20

Lemuel Pitkin 01.28.10 at 3:13 pm

It seems the procedure with the violinist example goes something like this:

1. Decide what are the morally relevant characteristics of abortion.
2. Set aside all the extraneous details about abortion, and create a new example that shares those characteristics and a different set of extraneous details.
3. See if people’s moral judgment of the new example is the same as it was of abortion.
4a. If their judgments are different, conclude you have not picked the right set of morally relevant characteristics. Look at how people talk about the morality of abortion to see what else they might be looking at. OR
4b. If their judgments are different, conclude that people are failing to apply their moral principles consistently.

I think one problem John Q. (and I, and lots of other people) have with the thought-experiment exercise is that it seems to involve 4b rather than 4a. These “experiments” seem to be intended to convict people who don’t use the moral framework of analytic philosophy of inconsistency, not to investigate the moral frameworks people actually do use.

Look at what Chris B. wrote:

First consider a combination of views that is widespread among American conservatives…: that there is no right to abortion, and that we do not have extensive and demanding enforceable obligations to strangers. People who hold that combination of views ought to be deeply discomforted by the violinist example … Neither example PROVES that this combination is inconsistent, but both examples press the person who adheres to it to give us more explanation of the differences between the cases.

Why is the burden of proof here on the person who doesn’t share the philosopher’s analysis? Surely it’s the responsibility of the philosopher to figure out what consistent principles lie behind people’s moral beliefs, not the responsibility of people to prove to the philosopher’s satisfaction that their beliefs are consistent. So instead of that last sentence, why not write, “both examples press the philosopher to figure out what are the important characteristics of abortion that the examples miss?”

21

Chris Bertram 01.28.10 at 3:15 pm

Lemuel, you mean Harry.B

22

Lemuel Pitkin 01.28.10 at 3:17 pm

You’re right. My bad.

23

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 3:19 pm

Once again, the practice of philosophy is a bit more complex than some of its critics seem to think.

I didn’t mean to imply that I was wiser than professional philosophers- I’m certainly nothing of the kind- but it’s also true that there appear to be some of that tribe who don’t belong to your “lots of”, and I still think that’s worth pointing out now and then.

By the way, Gettier-like cases are not necessarily even a reason for revising a theory if, as I said, a concept like “knowledge” has sufficiently fuzzy boundaries that there may be no possible theory of it for which one cannot construct pathological cases where the theory breaks down. Revising to take into account one domain of pathological behavior may merely expose the revised theory to a different one. This strikes me as a limitation of the entire approach of “testing to destruction”. I can fully accept that many in the profession recognize this limitation, while remaining sure that I have also read a good deal of stuff in which it does not seem to be recognized.

24

dsquared 01.28.10 at 3:27 pm

On the other hand, if your general principle has a really unacceptable implication then that’s a strong pro tanto reason to revise/abandon it

hmmm – if your general principle has a really unacceptable implication in a real-life or plausible hypothetical case, then IMO you have a stronger-than-pro-tanto reason to revise or abandon it. On the other hand, if it appears to have an unacceptable implication in a bizarre, sciencefictional or otherwise weird case, then surely to the extent that the principle appears plausible normally, you also have a strong pro tanto reason to say that the hypothetical case isn’t a relevant one, or (which is my usual objection to moral thought experiments) that the process of abstracting away “irrelevant” details has actually taken away entirely relevant details which would have needed to be provided in a more realistic hypothetical and which would have decided the case one way or another. The most common example of the second case is the tendency to assume things are known with certainty, in contexts where all of our common moral intuitions have been specifically developed to deal with a world in which things aren’t.

25

JoB 01.28.10 at 3:28 pm

lemuel says: Surely it’s the responsibility of the philosopher to figure out what consistent principles lie behind people’s moral beliefs, not the responsibility of people to prove to the philosopher’s satisfaction that their beliefs are consistent.

But if there are inconsistent principles behind people’s moral beliefs, I hope philophers may be pointing that out.

(by the way, isn’t there a difference between thought experimenting in moral philosophy and in philosophy as such? or is the thought experimenting in moral philosophy just lousy because it’s always a matter of finding a nice little dilemma that can sell the book?)

26

Neil 01.28.10 at 3:29 pm

Surely it’s the responsibility of the philosopher to figure out what consistent principles lie behind people’s moral beliefs, not the responsibility of people to prove to the philosopher’s satisfaction that their beliefs are consistent

Sounds like psychology to me. And when we do look, what we find is that people don’t have consistent principles (Marc Hauser’s work, for a start).

27

dsquared 01.28.10 at 3:30 pm

I totally agree with Steve L at 21 – as far as I can see, the Gettier-case is just a good reason for saying that the everyday concept of knowledge is a bit fuzzy, not necessarily consistently applied and that we might as well live with this (and with “justified true belief” as a perfectly reasonable working definition), being grateful to Gettier for having alerted us that the definition wasn’t rigorous, rather than starting a big new research project to hunt for a fully-rigorous, counterexample-proof definition.

28

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 3:34 pm

Dsquared said more or less what I’ve been trying to say but, not unexpectedly, said it far more clearly and succinctly.

29

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 3:35 pm

My last comment was in response to #22- it would be a bit unseemly for me to reply thus to #26. ;)

30

Witt 01.28.10 at 3:40 pm

These “experiments” seem to be intended to convict people who don’t use the moral framework of analytic philosophy of inconsistency, not to investigate the moral frameworks people actually do use.

I think this gets to the crux of it. In the context of practicing professional analytic philosophy it may be entirely appropriate to do just that: Ruthlessly identify and weed out inconsistencies, hold arguments up to the light and scrutinize them for holes, etc.

But many of these discussions take place outside of those professional boundaries. The participants often do not share the same ground rules, or expectations about why they are discussing something. We (okay, I) may feel that on a given issue, we have personally come to a workable compromise amongst several morally competing considerations, and there is nothing particularly to be gained by ruthlessly lifting up and passing judgment on our inconsistencies. We may even feel that the the process of scrutiny is itself harmful.

I think I’m starting to repeat myself. Off to work.

31

dsquared 01.28.10 at 3:44 pm

further to my #22:

On the other hand, if it appears to have an unacceptable implication in a bizarre, sciencefictional or otherwise weird case, then surely to the extent that the principle appears plausible normally, you also have a strong pro tanto reason to say that the hypothetical case isn’t a relevant one

… I would note that in general, although I am pretty sure that this argument is logically watertight, it seems to have a reputation for cowardliness and shiftiness or “avoiding the issue”. I can see why one would want to forbid it to undergraduates in the classroom because rejecting hypothetical cases as unrealistic is an easy way out that could be seriously overused. But in actual practical cases, rejecting poorly-formed hypotheticals is an absolutely vital thing to do – most obviously, that damnable ticking bomb.

32

ajay 01.28.10 at 4:08 pm

22: The most common example of the second case is the tendency to assume things are known with certainty, in contexts where all of our common moral intuitions have been specifically developed to deal with a world in which things aren’t.

This is a very good point. Because the trouble with thought experiments is that, when you’re running them, you know you’re in a thought experiment.

33

harry b 01.28.10 at 5:13 pm

lemuel: So instead of that last sentence, why not write, “both examples press the philosopher to figure out what are the important characteristics of abortion that the examples miss?”

sure. But that’s exactly what they do, in unbelievable detail. They generate extensive dialectical argument based on various alternative attempts (some based on what actual people say, and some derived from creative imagination) to render apparently inconcistent judgments consistent. That’s what I was doing in class yesterday. I suppose I think that learning how to identify inconsistencies in one’s own moral judgments and how to adjust them using some sort of reflective equilibrium in good faith is a valuable skill, and one that analytical philosophy has developed some intellectual resources to help people with. Teaching this stuff in good faith — not to tease and excite, or to ridicule, but to help — is what we try to do.

34

Chris Bertram 01.28.10 at 5:24 pm

_if it appears to have an unacceptable implication in a bizarre, sciencefictional or otherwise weird case, then surely to the extent that the principle appears plausible normally_

Well we’ve been here before in other threads, but it isn’t as if the drive to such cases isn’t often a natural outcome of the dialectic. If we have superficially plausible principles A and B which can’t both be true but which generate the same conclusion in a wide range of normal cases, then of course we’re going to start searching for examples where there’s a divergence in what they prescribe.

35

Sebastian H 01.28.10 at 6:05 pm

“Except that (as exemplified by the idea the the Gettier paradoxes have put paid to knowledge as justified true belief) that’s not generally how they’re used, or so it seems to me. Instead of being used to explore the limits of a definition or concept, they are often purported to have, in Chris’s words, given a strong pro tanto reason for rejecting one concept altogether and/or embracing an alternative. ”

I think this, and dsquared’s comments are why I have so much trouble with ‘thought experiments’. As Pitkin says about what you can do with the results:

“4a. If their judgments are different, conclude you have not picked the right set of morally relevant characteristics. Look at how people talk about the morality of abortion to see what else they might be looking at. OR
4b. If their judgments are different, conclude that people are failing to apply their moral principles consistently.”
is instructive

The presentation of the hypothetical is nearly always such that 4b is what is assumed, when it may very well be that 4a is what is required.

The problem is that in politics, such questions are nearly always used to validate unstated background assumptions rather than explore the deatils about how things actually work (as JQ showed about the lack of parent-child relationship in a a hypothetical which purports to be about abortion).

36

nm 01.28.10 at 6:23 pm

I am curious to know what the parameters are, in your view, of a thought experiment. Does your objection apply to literary or concocted examples or counterexamples that have no outlandish features?

37

engels 01.28.10 at 7:02 pm

Does it apply to events that have actually taken place but are highly unusual?

Are you confident that your distinction between ‘weird’ situations and normal ones-on which you place so much weight-is an objective one?

People are also making rather controversial assumptions about what philosophy is for eg that the purpose of philosophical inquiry into the concept of knowledge is just to come up with a ‘working definition’ which approximates how English speakers use the term, contradictions and all.

38

dsquared 01.28.10 at 7:05 pm

If we have superficially plausible principles A and B which can’t both be true but which generate the same conclusion in a wide range of normal cases, then of course we’re going to start searching for examples where there’s a divergence in what they prescribe.

there’s searching and there’s searching though. I’d tend to argue (in the course of my longstanding proxy war against Michael Walzer) that the world is a very big and very strange place, and that I don’t really think that people often make a particularly good-faith effort to find a real-world case where there’s divergence rather than inventing a fictitious one. I mean, if it really is the case that there’s no real-world or plausible-hypothetical case in which principles A and B give different answers, then is it not worth considering whether the quest for a defining experiment between them is really worth the effort, particularly when (as with me and Steve’s view on the Gettier case) it’s possible that the two principles are just not really logically sharp enough to bear the weight of extrapolation placed on them?

39

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 7:09 pm

Are you confident that your distinction between ‘weird’ situations and normal ones-on which you place so much weight-is an objective one?

In the case of what dsquared refers to as science-fictiony premises, like being tethered to a violinist, I don’t think there’s much room for sincere doubt about their lack of resemblance to real life, do you?

40

Matt 01.28.10 at 7:14 pm

D-squared, I’m confused by your response re Gettier cases. You respond to it by saying that “knowledge” is a fuzzy term w/o sharp boundaries. But isn’t that just one of the things one might _conclude_ from the Gettier case? If we thought before (as at least some people have) that “knowledge” was a term with necessary and sufficient conditions, and that those just were “justified true belief”, then one response to Gettier-type cases would be to decide that it’s a fuzzy term. That people went off on (what seems to me to be) a wild goose chase looking for a new set of necessary and sufficient conditions is perhaps interesting, but it wasn’t required by the nature of the case. But I don’t see how your response to the case is anything like a challenge to the use of thought experiments.

41

Steve LaBonne 01.28.10 at 7:21 pm

Matt, if you don’t mind my jumping in even though this was addressed to dsquared, I’m worried not so much about the use of though experiments as by their misuse as outlined in your penultimate sentence. It seems to me that they’re great for generating discussion but should be used with great care in terms of arriving at any particular conclusion. (And I’m well aware that many professional philosophers would heartily endorse such caution.)

42

Matt 01.28.10 at 7:29 pm

Steve- that’s a perfectly legitimate concern, and I think it’s reasonably put towards many philosophers. As I mentioned above, there are lots of different ways of using such tools, with some people using them as one step in a process of reflective equilibrium and others being willing to draw conclusions much more quickly from them. This is highly controversial even among philosophers. (Francis Kamm, as I mentioned, is perhaps the most highly developed practictioner of such examples and for drawing conclusions almost directly from them, and her work is extremely controversial, for example.)

43

dsquared 01.28.10 at 7:46 pm

Yes I agree with Steve again – except that what he calls “misuse” is what I think is the ordinary use in moral contexts. As I said, I think the correct response to the Gettier case is similar to the one outlined – to say thanks to Gettier for the interesting discovery about the word “knowledge”, but basically to continue as we were (particularly, say, in doing things like asserting statements like “I knew there weren’t any WMD in Iraq” by reference to the facts that I believed it, it was true and I was justified in believing it).

On the other hand, the main topic here is the violinist and people-seeds thought experiments, which are aimed to persuade people to change their mind on the subject of abortion (and furthermore, to do so by weakening their concept of a right to life, leading to all sorts of further possible extensions into euthanasia). That seems to me to be a much less conservative policy.

(Unrelatedly, I’d also bemoan that sociologically, it seems to me that philosophers who mainly reason from real-world cases are carrying out a lower-status activity than those who work from science-fiction examples. This seems about as bad a way of organising one’s profession than the similar pure-versus-applied distinction is in economics. To return to the Jarvis Thompson thought experiments, what is it about the question “but if you think abortion is murder then why do you allow the exception for cases of rape and incest?” which makes it a worse way to consider the underlying principles and start a process of reflective equilibrium than this stuff about violinists?)

44

Salient 01.28.10 at 8:03 pm

Since it hasn’t been mentioned yet (unless I missed it…), let me suggest that many students (like me) have their first experiences with thought experiments via exposure to Newton’s “it makes sense that stuff can remain in static orbit around the Earth indefinitely, and here’s why” thought experiment, and similar experiments (e.g. Diderot’s “every animal is made of tiny bees” dream/thought-experiment in biology^1^). One goal there is to extend one’s intuition smoothly from consensus cases to a case which, without the structure of the thought experiment, might strike some folks as implausible.

My first real experience with thought experiments outside science instruction/curriculum was reading Harry B’s book Justice as a freshman undergrad, but several thought experiments showed up in high school AP physics and biology. The transition in thinking required felt more jarring/disorienting than it would have if I’d never heard the term “thought experiment” before, and a lot of the expectations I had implicitly developed from thought experimentation like Newton’s needed to adjust for me to perceive the value. (Maybe this is off-topic, but one thing I liked about Justice is that it met me where I was at, acknowledged the potential difference in expectations, and clarified how to find value in philosophical thought experiments. Rereading chapter 2 a couple nights ago, one thing that surprised me was how it little it explicitly said about physicists’ thought experiments — it clarifies the distinction, and necessary mental reorientation, implicitly quite well.)

I’ve been trying to figure out some intelligent way to connect all this to the ongoing discussion and am failing at the moment. I guess thought experiments in the sciences tend to extend to positive results, whereas thought experiments in philosophy tend to negative results. (I don’t mean this as a value judgment, just that these latter sorts of thought experiments function by exposing or illuminating potential contradictions or inconsistencies, whereas the former sort of thought experiments function by making the potentially implausible seem more plausible).

Perhaps it’s not so clean/neat/clear/correct a distinction, especially given that the first modern philosophers and the first modern physicists tripped over each other’s feet on their way out the door.

I guess the reason this seems vaguely relevant to me is because it lets me soapbox against otherworldly hypotheticals, which (it seems to me) good physics thought experiments assiduously avoid. For example, with some rephrasing, it seems possible to avoid “assume things are known with certainty.” I have to confess, in some thought experiments, a few details seem thrown out there in the way I might have thrown in unexpected irrelevant details when pitching a sample problem to my high school students — hey! shiny! keep paying attention! Like, why a trolley running into n people, vs. a grenade thrown into a crowd of n people? Someone’s between you and the grenade: do you shove the person onto the grenade so they absorb the blast, or let them leap away with you, dooming the n others standing by the grenade? In the case of the trolley, we have to assert and reinforce the knowledge with probability 1 that the fat man will stop the trolley. In the case of the grenade, there’s no base implausibility to overcome (and irritating physics-major students won’t grumble about suspending conservation of momentum! :)

(The grenade situation happened to my grandfather in Korea, according to my father’s retelling of the events; the guy in front of him jumped on the grenade, rendering the question moot.)

What happens, in terms of general responses, if we first run the experiment with a woman to be pushed, and then switch to a man? Something different than if we first run the experiment with a man to be pushed, and then switch to a woman? Fat vs. thin? How sensitive is the result we get to these kinds of perturbations?

^1^Which still rankles for its arbitrary use of Mademoiselle as the airheaded Simpleton foil, but I guess that’s 1769 A.D. for you.

45

Chris Bertram 01.28.10 at 8:29 pm

Dsquared: _I don’t really think that people often make a particularly good-faith effort to find a real-world case where there’s divergence rather than inventing a fictitious one._

Well FWIW, Sandel’s _Justice_ is full of real-world cases.

46

praisegod barebones 01.28.10 at 8:45 pm

Isn’t Walzer’s ‘Just and Unjust Wars’? and, from what I remember ‘Spheres of Justice’ as well?

47

dsquared 01.28.10 at 8:48 pm

“Just and Unjust Wars” has lots of historical examples in it, but as I remember it, they’re nearly all used as illustrations of principles that Walzer has derived in other ways. Also, this is the book we had that big argument about a while earlier, in that the really mystifying thing about it is that Walzer doesn’t mention the 1977 Protocols to the Geneva Accord, despite the fact that they were agreed that year and had been the subjects of huge amounts of discussion internationally for years previously.

48

dsquared 01.28.10 at 8:52 pm

45: yes good point (he also tends to use plausible hypotheticals rather than science fictional ones). maybe there’s a distinction there between common practice in political philosophy versus moral philosophy – I remember reading Reasons and Persons and thinking that the Star Trek stuff was very interesting but you’d have real problems persuading anyone to actually adopt a different policy on climate change by appealing to their intuitions about what would happen in a matter transporter.

49

Chris Bertram 01.28.10 at 9:07 pm

47: but the really relevant stuff to climate change doesn’t have to do with teletransportation but rather with the combination of (a) some straightforward facts about human reproduction (b) a plausible real-world example involving toxic-waste disposal. (iirc).

50

John Quiggin 01.28.10 at 10:18 pm

@5 Neil, I’m perfectly aware of the Duhem-Quine thesis, and wrote my post with it in mind. To re-repeat myself it seems to me that the way these experiments are used a lot of the time is as if they were conclusive. Of course, that’s bad methodology, but that’s my point.

51

John Quiggin 01.28.10 at 10:44 pm

As regards Gettier, I agree with DD about the problems here. As I see it, the attempt is to match intuitions about the ordinary language meaning of the word “know” with a set of semi-technical terms such as “justified true belief”. Unsurprisingly, you reach the conclusion that this can’t be done satisfactorily because the terms are fuzzy round the edges (in this context, particularly “know” and “justified”).

It seems pretty clear, at least in retrospect, that if the definition of “justified belief” allows for justified false belief, then calling knowledge “justified true belief” is going to tangle you up in knots. The Gettier examples show this, and, I guess, if no one else had seen it before, they served a useful purpose.

52

John Quiggin 01.28.10 at 10:44 pm

Having gone thoroughly meta, I would welcome a bit more discussion of the actual examples in the post.

53

harry b 01.28.10 at 10:48 pm

Daniel’s point (which is really about philosophers’ laziness about learning enough about the real phenomena to find real world examples) is well taken: though I think moral and political philosophers are much better about this now than 20 years ago. But sometimes there are no real world examples that will do the work.

54

Jordan DeLange 01.28.10 at 10:49 pm

@Salient:

“I guess the reason this seems vaguely relevant to me is because it lets me soapbox against otherworldly hypotheticals, which (it seems to me) good physics thought experiments assiduously avoid”

But this isn’t really true, is it? Maxwell’s Demon is about as otherwordly as it gets.

More generally, most physics thought experiments involve a fair amount of idealization that make them somewhat otherwordly. Why should readily accept that our physical intuition smoothly extends to these idealized realms, while our moral intuition does not?

55

Kenny Easwaran 01.29.10 at 12:33 am

Not to mention all of Einstein’s hypotheticals about riding on a beam of light and such. I’m sure there are lots of thought experiments about frictionless planes too.

As for dsquared’s comment:
As I said, I think the correct response to the Gettier case is similar to the one outlined – to say thanks to Gettier for the interesting discovery about the word “knowledge”, but basically to continue as we were (particularly, say, in doing things like asserting statements like “I knew there weren’t any WMD in Iraq” by reference to the facts that I believed it, it was true and I was justified in believing it).
I think that’s the right response for most ordinary people. No philosopher expects Gettier’s thought experiment to be revisionary for our use of the word knowledge.

But the point of doing epistemology is to figure out what knowledge actually is, or why it’s valuable, or something in the general vicinity. We don’t just drop the investigation as soon as we’ve figured out that some proposed analysis fails. If we’re interested in what knowledge is, then we either ought to think of an alternative analysis, or come up with a reason for why any analysis must fail.

(The point several commenters have raised, that knowledge might just be a vague concept, doesn’t seem like a sufficient response to me. One might have thought that the concept of justification would be vague in exactly the same sense, but the example seems to be a clear case of justification and at best a bad case of knowledge.)

I think one might compare this to another scientific example. Fresnel proposed a wave theory of light to explain diffraction. Poisson thought this theory was absurd, and proposed a thought experiment – if you considered a small circular disc, Fresnel’s theory predicts that there should be a bright spot in the center of the shadow cast by the disc. Arago actually turned the thought experiment into a real experiment and showed that the spot exists.

Of course, none of this had any relevance to most people who actually used light in their everyday life. Similarly, the debates of epistemologists about some strange uses of the concept of knowledge don’t affect most people who actually use the concept of knowledge in their everyday life.

56

engels 01.29.10 at 1:06 am

Sorry but how are Gettier’s examples supposed to show that our concept of knowledge is ‘fuzzy’ (‘without clear boundaries’). The application of the concept to those cases is perfectly clear, isn’t it? — it just doesn’t coincide with the ‘justified true belief’ analysis.

57

dsquared 01.29.10 at 1:09 am

I don’t think that works, Kenny – as far as I can see, neither me, Steve nor John were just talking about what practical men might do; the assertion we were making is one that’s got a very good philosophical pedigree including Wittgenstein and Quine and which as far as I’m aware has never been refuted. It’s that when you say

“But the point of doing epistemology is to figure out what knowledge actually is”

you’re making an implicit assertion that there is some thing which is “knowledge”, that there is some way which that thing “actually is” and that it can be figured out what that way is. And that none of these assertions are either necessarily true or useful working assumptions. I also don’t think that your argument about the vagueness of justification works either – it certainly doesn’t seem necessary (and probably not even likely) that two related vague concepts would have vagueness closely correlated enough to give uncertain answers in all the same cases.

Taken in this way, the Gettier case is a successful thought experiment – in that it declared game over for one of the ostensible triumphs of analysis, providing weak support for the “give up and go home” school of thought (Quine, Wittgenstein etc) who believed that “knowledge” was neither susceptible of a rigorous logical definition nor a necessary entity to believe in the existence of.

58

The Fool 01.29.10 at 1:30 am

“One thing I don’t like about the term “thought experiment” is the implication that the results of such thought experiments constitute data.”

You completely fail to understand the point of thought experiments. They are a rationalist exercise, not an empiricist one. They don’t generate data points, they test logical consistency under the logic of the reductio ad absurdum.

“The way I’d prefer to approach such problems involves an iterative loop.”

Wow, that’s a great idea!. FYI: There was this guy named John Rawls who called it “reflective equilibrium.” There is no reason whatsoever that a thought experiment can’t be part of a process of reflective equilibrium.

59

engels 01.29.10 at 1:38 am

Also, ‘justified’, ‘true’ and ‘belief’ isn’t ‘a set of semi-technical terms’…

60

vivian 01.29.10 at 1:53 am

I’m amused that we have two economists slamming philosophy for its unreal examples, oversimplifications and counterfactuals that lead to bad policy in the real world.

(Yes, it’s rude for me to implicitly blame JQ and DD who engage the real world in realistic ways that would lead to quite good policies. But it’s no more rude than tagging Harry and Chris. The violinist problem is not like the “complete certainty, seconds to decide” trolley/wager-demon/episode of House examples, and one might think that the intuitive dislike of hypotheticals formed around the latter kind might not be relevant to the better, pedagogically useful kind.)

61

vivian 01.29.10 at 2:19 am

More seriously, I think the reason organ donation isn’t going to be a useful guide to reasoning about abortion is that the both provoke really strong ‘ick’ reactions but they’re different kinds of ick. Abortion ick is around sex-shaming, marking women for social punishments, and around the ‘omg i might not have been born’, et cetera. Carving-up-Grandma-with-a-butcher-knife pushes different emotional buttons. Now, in a world where organ donation was well understood, not feared, people didn’t think it was being done secretly for a profit (Alastair Cooke/babies in B’ham) and so forth, yes, it would have real possibilities as a teaching tool or reflective scenario.

Also, I don’t think moral positive obligation -> legal obligation is the general case. Usually you need something else – like agreeing to meet our individual-but-vague obligations collectively, or giving some privileges to people volunteering to meet our obligations (good samaritan laws), extreme martial rhetoric, etc. Not even obligations to children, there are extra justifications and you can get out of them.

62

unusually sensible 01.29.10 at 5:49 am

should the person at fault be compelled to donate blood/organs to save the life of the innocent party

No, just kill the wounded one and then there is no need to sacrifice a perfectly healthy human.

63

praisegod barebones 01.29.10 at 7:00 am

It’s a long time since I last read it, but I’d always thought that Thomson’s reason for introducing the plugged-in violinist wasn’t to give a knock-down argument for the permissibility of abortion, but to try to show that the issue didn’t turn on the (in her view intractable question) of whether the fetus was a person.

I should say that I don’t think its succesful even in that respect: I’m one of those people, that Harry mentioned, who is inclined to think that one has an obligation to stay plugged in, but still don’t think that abortion is wrong. So it’s very tempting for me to conclude that what things turn on here is precisely whether the fetus is a person.

In fact, though, that’s not the conclusion I draw (or at least, its not the conclusion that I drew twenty years or so ago). Instead, I find myself – or at least found myself – thinking that if waking up and finding yourself plugged into a violinist was a standing risk for a substantial part of our population, we’d no doubt have very different moral concepts. (I think there’s some Wittgensteinian thought here: our concepts are adapted to our form of life and so on).

The next thing I’d say is that, with respect to human reproduction, our ‘form of life’ has changed quite a lot in the last fifty years. (Or at least, the form of life of at least one fairly wide community). So its really not surprising that our cocnepts are showing some strain.

I think this means that IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE appeal to thought experiments is likely to be very unhelpful. Because that methodology, if it works at all, is supposed to work when we have some shared stable concepts about whose application we are fairly sure, and whose range we are trying to delineate. (Maybe it doesn’t even work there, but that’s another story.) And that’s not the kind of case we have here. Instead, it is – or it may be – a case where we have to decide what the best concepts to have here are.

If that’s right, then it seems rather unfortunate that we’ve ended up taking Thomson’s violinist, and not say Bernard Williams’ ‘Jim and the Indians’ or ‘George the research scientist’ as paradigms of the use of thought experiments in analytic philosophy. (And of course, now I’m wondering whether discussion of Thomson’s violinist is to some extent just a stalking horse for people whose real beef is with the use of thought experiments to argue against untilitarianism. If anything I’ve said here is right then it shouldn’t be.)

64

dsquared 01.29.10 at 7:38 am

pedagogically useful kind

whoa. how did the word “pedagogically” get in here? I am not necessarily wonderfully happy about the habits taught to students by the use of thought experiments for pedagocial purposes but that’s a vvv different debate isn’t it?

65

Praisegod Barebones 01.29.10 at 7:49 am

Well, hang on. This thread seems like it’s something of a follow-up and response to Harry B’s earlier thread. And some of Harry’s points seemed to relate to the use of thought examples in pedagogy. (I mean, he kicked off with a discussion of using Thomson’s example in a pedagogical setting.)

I mean – OK, maybe there are separable questions about the truth conduciveness and pedagaogical value of appeal to thought-experiments. But its not clear that they’ve been clearly separated in either of these two threads. (And I think you actually need to say what the distinct issues are and make a case for separating them). So it seems a bot unfair to jump in and accuse vivian of muddying the waters.

66

Praisegod Barebones 01.29.10 at 7:50 am

‘bit unfair’ obviously. Need to learn to use teh preview.

67

John Quiggin 01.29.10 at 8:06 am

‘Jim and the Indians’ suffers badly from unreasonable assumptions of certainty.

On the other hand, George the research scientist faces a reasonably common real-life dilemma.

So George seems to me to have some real bite, while Jim doesn’t.

68

daelm 01.29.10 at 8:15 am

dsquared@24 has nailed it.

the process of abstracting away details rests on artistry . the decision about which details to inlcude and which to exclude is much closer to a creative act – and is understood as such in the hard sciences, hence einstein and feynman’s (and many others’ ) reverence for that intuition – than to any rational process. inevitably, as in all art, the character, suppositions and values of the person doing the abstracting all have some definite but unquantifiable bearing on the outcome, making the outcome an easy target for accusations of cherry-picking and pre-determined conclusions.

i also think that most people realise this, either explictly or intuitively, and that recognition is the source of everyone’s (1) unease with the label ‘experiment’. experiment carries with it implicastions of clarity, quantifiability and repeatability that, in these contexts are inappropriate and inaccurate, specifically because the process of abstraction is so much an art and so little a science.

disclaimer: i’ve probably added nothing to the discussion that someone else already hasn’t. at best i’ve summarised what others said. i haven’t had a chance to read all the comments – i got (as you can see) as far as #24.

that said, there’s no guarantee that, having read them all i’d suddenly be inspired to original commentary.

d

(1) by ‘everyone’ in this sentence, i mean everyone who is uneasy with the use of ‘exeriment’ to lable these activities. :)

69

JoB 01.29.10 at 8:51 am

52,

Presumed organ donation after death is the law over here. Compulsory blood donation is not, I think it’s a harder case. Less respect for the corpse than for the living I guess. But if there would be a real shortage of blood, I don’t see there would be lots of opposition to the idea of saying it’s necessary for a certain group of people to donate. I don’t think it would come to coercion as it’s something where most people in that group would just show up on request.

Mixing any of this with guilt or innocence seems a very bad idea from the get-go. With only the smallest amount of creativity you can conceive of a situation where that would go all bad – and set a nasty precedent as well.

70

bad Jim 01.29.10 at 9:34 am

In the U.S. there is a continual shortage of blood and organs and donation is generally opt-in. In our host’s hypothetical, obligatory donation would be problematic. A blood-type mismatch is quite likely and, depending on the nature of the injury involved, an organ match would be highly unlikely.

Given the fungibility of body parts when the supply is scarce, and noting that most of us have a spare kidney and can live with half a liver, and that we can be comfortably milked of blood, compulsory compassionate donation after a collision isn’t inconceivable, though if a spleen or a gall bladder or only one kidney was damaged there wouldn’t be much point to a transplant.

Once upon a time, after reporting a minor accident to my insurance agent, I mentioned that I’d been donating blood, He recounted how, when he was in Vietnam, the medics directly transfused his blood into someone who’d been badly wounded. The patient died and their blood types turned out not to match, although it’s not clear that it made any difference.

71

ajay 01.29.10 at 10:05 am

Having gone thoroughly meta, I would welcome a bit more discussion of the actual examples in the post.

As you wish.

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the first question is “Yes” and to the second is “Probably not”. But a positive answer to the first question would seem to justify a “presumed consent” answer to the second, as applied to organ donation after death

I’m not quite sure why this is the case. Morally speaking, I don’t see a difference between opt-in and opt-out donation systems. In either case, the individual has absolute freedom to express his pre-mortem wishes about post-mortem donation, and these wishes can’t be gainsaid in either direction.

A positive answer to the first question could be said to strengthen the argument for compulsory donation – if you think that the state should be in the business of enforcing moral obligations*. But I don’t think it does much for the opt-in/opt-out question. What am I missing?

*Which could be tricky with regard to, say, the moral obligation not to cheat on your husband.

72

Benjamin Hippen 01.29.10 at 10:55 am

John,

I’m all for empirically plausible examples. Your example isn’t. As a practical matter, injuries sustained through severe blunt trauma are unlikely to be meaningfully alleviated by the injurer donating blood or an organ (or fraction of an organ), for several reasons. First, the blood and blood products required for life-sustaining/saving interventions would far outstrip the safely procured capacity of a single donor, and the time/effort required to fractionate, process and test the blood products (plasma, primarily) from the “donor” would be prohibitive. Second, (I’m a transplant physician) there are few plausible clinical scenario in which the life of the injured would be saved through the donation of an organ by the injurer. Certainly, if the injured suffered a blunt trauma which resulted in substantial damage to the liver or (vanishingly rare) both kidneys, the collateral damage in the injured would probably contraindicate immediate transplantation.

A more apropo scenario is whether isolated organ failure which emerged in the course of the hospitalization, but which was causally once-removed from the primary injury, still generates such a moral obligation to donate. The concerns described by Jim @ 69 are relevant, but even if surmountable (a vanishingly rare scenario), professional ethics intervene: As a group, transplant professionals try to be cognizant of and avoid cooperation with potential donors whose motives are manifestly conflicted. Transplant professionals have obligations to ensure optimal medical and psychological outcomes for donors. Donors haunted by guilt don’t tend to do well, psychologically, and donors are still our patients. The “right to donate” is a forebearance right, and therefore does not impose an obligation on transplant professionals to facilitate a donation in these circumstances.

Finally, I’m surprised, 60+ comments in, that no one has mentioned the literary parallel to the example:

PORTIA.
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’:
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.
GRATIANO. O upright judge! O learned judge!
SHYLOCK. Is that the law?
PORTIA.
Thyself shalt see the act;
For, as thou urgest justice, be assur’d
Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir’st.
The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, i

The history of medicine in the 20th C. certainly makes the case that organized medicine is an impoverished surrogate for either the scales or sword of justice in these situations. Instances where medicine does serve as such a surrogate invites the Whirlwind….more [justice] than thou desir’st.

73

Chris Bertram 01.29.10 at 10:58 am

On Praisegod’s “stalking horse” thought above. Indeed, I had the same suspicion. However, insofar as the pro-utilitarians (such as John Q) are now trying to deploy worries about uncertainty to undermine some thought experiments (such as Jim and the Indians) it is worth reminding them that consequentialism is the moral theory most vulnerable on that score, a point not lost on Zhou Enlai.

74

Matt 01.29.10 at 11:31 am

The next thing I’d say is that, with respect to human reproduction, our ‘form of life’ has changed quite a lot in the last fifty years.

This is perhaps so (I’m not completely sure, but it might be) but it’s always important to remember w/ the Thompson piece that it was published in 1971, almost 40 years ago, and in a time when abortion was illegal in many parts of the US. Given that, we should be a bit surprised if the assumptions and targets were exactly the same as they would be were it to be written now. That often seems to be ignored. (I know that it’s not something my own students thought about at first when I’ve taught it.)

75

Martin Bento 01.29.10 at 11:46 am

Well, the Violinist argument has one feature of a genuine experiment: one can tweak the parameters and see if the results change. For example, as Thomson concedes, the problem as stated is analogous chiefly to pregnancy resulting from rape. She insists that most abortion opponents do not distinguish between rape and consensual sex for the purpose of justifying abortion. I’m not sure that was true in her day, and it is certainly not true now. 57% of Americans oppose abortion simply to end pregnancy (with no other special considerations like health threat to the mother), but only 19% oppose it for rape – a 3-to-1 ratio (source). Therefore, at least 2/3 of abortion opponents distinguish between pregnancy from rape and from consensual sex. Which undermines a key claim of Thomson regarding the arguments of the other side: that they are based on the right-to-life of the fetus and nothing else. If this were true, they would not distinguish the case of rape. And it doesn’t seem to be true rhetorically either: Robertson and Warren go on and on about personal responsibility, which is obviously, among other things, about the responsibility of the woman for getting pregnant in the first place.

So let’s tweak the experiment to make it more like consensual sex. Suppose you decide to take place in a reverse lottery, set up by the Music Society. Everyone in the lottery gets some moderate reward – $100 say – just as people engage in consensual sex because they get something from it, be it physical, emotional, financial, whatever. You know, however, that there is a chance you will lose the lottery and end up with a violinist on your back for nine months. You lose. Do you have the right to saw him off now? I think most people would say not. Which is consistent with abortion, where most people agree it is justified if the sex was forced and not otherwise.

This is much more like consensual sex than Thomson’s human seeds business, as the latter still treats pregnancy as something that emerges without any active participation by the pregnant party, which, for consensual sex, is false. As for contraception, it is just an attempt to improve (dramatically) your odds in the lottery; it doesn’t change the moral equation.

And we do not have any problem in other (realistic) cases saying that people who take risks are responsible for the consequences if those risks go wrong. The drunk didn’t intend to run down granma; he may indeed have taken “every reasonable precaution” to prevent it, save, of course, not driving drunk. One can suppose the bankers did not intend to crash the system and tried to avoid doing so, but were still willing to take certain risks, for which they were rewarded, and, thus, they are responsible.

One thing some people said in the previous thread is that the usefulness of the thought experiment is that it abstracted out many features of the abortion situation that might trigger certain biases. Various people claimed that objections to abortion are “really” about one or more of: gender, sexuality, race, general reproductive capability of society, and authority. Fair enough: but as I restated it, the problem still does not involve any of those things, and the objection to abortion stands. At least to abortion following consensual sex, which is the real political controversy. Fewer than 1 in 5 would deny abortion to rape victims, and treating their position as definitive of the entire other side is like attacking Obama’s health care plan as socialized medicine.

I think most abortion opponents see that there are conflicting rights here: the mother has a right to control her own body; 2/3 of them would even say that right trumps the right of a fetus to live. Unless the woman has voluntarily taken risks with that body that created the situation. In that case, her moral claim is weakened while that of the fetus is not, since it clearly had no choice in the matter. I don’t see how people honestly conclude that the anti-abortionists have no argument.

76

Praisegod Barebones 01.29.10 at 12:00 pm

Ok – at the risk of picking fights with front-pagers – never a good thing on any blog – I feel I want to say:

a) I think my comment about Dsquared at 64 was unduly generous, since a quick review of the thread reminds me that Harry’s discussion of pedagogy was actually going on in this very thread.

More substantively: I think that in philosophy its quite hard to pull apart the probative and the pedagogical aspects of things in the way that Daniel seemed to be suggesting we should.

b) Can I just dissassociate myself from Chris’s 71. Just because he’s on my side doesn’t mean he’s on my side and so on. Again more substantively: I think that John’s response to Jim and the Indians is spot on (and his concessi0n on George the research scientist worth noting). And I think it points us to something which seems significant, and which Chris’ rejoinder runs the risk of obscuring: namely, that the sort of certainty that’s objectionable in some thought experiments in moral philosophy is certainty which is stipulatively introduced by the author of the example.

I reckon this is important for two reasons at least.

1) It explains why there’s a difference between using these kinds of cases and examples from history and fiction. Because in history and fiction there’s more often if not always a bit of recalcitrant real world data/interpretative looseness that allows an interlocutor to put a bit of a spin on the example

2) I think it’s this kind of stipulative certainty that gives rise to the idea that thought experiments are often used as conversation stoppers. (So, in particular, its not just or even partly because of the word experiment and ignorance of the Duhem/Quine thesis)

c) Since there’s been some mention of reflective equilibrium, I’m surprised that no-one’s mentioned the difference between ‘wide’ and ‘narrow’ reflective equilibrium.
‘Narrow’ is more or less the procedure John outlined a bit. ‘Wide’ allows you to seek a fit between not just moral principles and intuitions, but also a iwder range of beliefs. (I think Rawls may mention coherence with ones metaphysical beliefs).

Lots of people think that Wide RE is a more plausible methodology than Narrow RE. And I imagine that one reason for that is that it enables people to say ‘Well, I think that intuitions about cases like X are likely to be unreliable for the following reasons’ and then specify the reasons. Which NRE doesn’t.

4) In response to Matt. I think ‘fifty years’ was wrong in retrospect. The things I had in mind were a) massive reductions in perinatal mortality and concurrent reductions in family size b) widespread access to reliable and effective contraception. I don’t think changes in our moral beliefs count as ‘changes in a form of life’. So maybe 100 years would be better.

Apologies for the long post.

77

Praisegod Barebones 01.29.10 at 12:02 pm

‘Just because he’s on my side doesn’t mean he’s on my side and so on’. Completely incomprehensible. ‘Just because he’s on my side doesn’t mean I’m on his side’ was what I meant to say.

78

Alex 01.29.10 at 12:11 pm

To what extent is the Violinist/Fat man on the tracks/etc the firm in perfect competition of philosophy (or vice versa)?

79

Chris Bertram 01.29.10 at 12:40 pm

#74, Hey! I know where you live … slopes away, muttering dark threats ….

80

ajay 01.29.10 at 12:55 pm

68: But if there would be a real shortage of blood, I don’t see there would be lots of opposition to the idea of saying it’s necessary for a certain group of people to donate. I don’t think it would come to coercion as it’s something where most people in that group would just show up on request.

Something similar is actually happening in the UK at present with bone marrow. The frequency of different blood groups is different in different ethnic groups, but there’s no relevant difference for donation purposes between the blood of an A+ black man and an A+ white man. But bone marrow, unlike blood, contains compatibility marker proteins which are highly racially correlated.

So, if you need a bone marrow transplant for, say, leukaemia, you’ll probably need to get it from someone of the same broad ethnic group. And there is a real shortage of donors – both generally (it’s a more invasive process than blood donation) and especially in the Afro-Caribbean and Asian groups. So there are several charities targetting these groups specifically to try to get donation rates up – with fair success, and no opposition to this targetting that I’m aware of.

81

Praisegod Barebones 01.29.10 at 12:57 pm

Yes, but it’s a long way away from where you live…:-)

82

vivian 01.29.10 at 2:46 pm

DD@63, what 64 said. Or is that the confusion? Philosophers use these contrived stories in order to focus the mind of the audience on specific points. Kind of like camera angles in film. It’s not as if all they do is (1) imagine a contrived example (2) ?? (3) publish/profit. Remember, the way you present stuff in an article has little resemblance to the order in which you work it out, and most of the work doesn’t get mentioned.

I agree with you that there are people out there who never get past the artificial case, and unfortunately some of them write legislation. And a large number of the artificial cases are bad, and we probably agree on which ones. And Reasons and Persons does use some contrived examples to push the reader into accepting increasingly uncomfortable positions as utilitarian, when real-world analogues are available. But Parfitt goes deeper into the issues and doesn’t advocate for loony policies. It’s all about clarity of explanation and pedagogy, at least for the philosophers. What pundits and pubcrawlers do with the examples they kind of maybe recall from university days is their own responsibility.

83

engels 01.29.10 at 3:00 pm

Me: “Are you confident that your distinction between ‘weird’ situations and normal ones-on which you place so much weight-is an objective one?”

Steve: In the case of what dsquared refers to as science-fictiony premises, like being tethered to a violinist, I don’t think there’s much room for sincere doubt about their lack of resemblance to real life, do you?

Maybe, but that isn’t what I asked. Since so much hinges (ie. in general, according to Daniel’s previous comment, whether the example is to be dismissed or whether the generalisation is to be abandoned) on whether or not the example is ‘weird’, ‘odd’ or ‘science-fictiony’ you and Daniel need to be very confident that this is a rule, or set of rules, you can apply in an objective way, and not just subjectively or arbitrarily according to your own preferences regarding the outcome of the exercise. Pointing to a single example and saying ‘But that’s obviously weird’ doesn’t answer this.

84

ajay 01.29.10 at 3:17 pm

81: but isn’t it fairly easy to address this by asking “does this sort of situation ever actually occur in real life?” In real life, people do have brtns. They do have to decide whether or not murderers should be executed, or whether organ transplants should be compulsory, or whether it’s right to endanger innocent people in order to prevent a greater harm later on.

But real people don’t get stuck behind fat people in mineshafts (or at least I am unaware of any case in which this happens) or involuntarily tethered to critically ill violinists. Isn’t it enough to say “if these theoretically contradictory moral principles can only actually come into conflict in circumstances that never occur, then there’s no problem in regarding them both as moral and mutually compatible for everyday purposes”?

85

engels 01.29.10 at 3:19 pm

I’m also not sure why the fact that a thought experiment has a ‘science-fiction’ premise should rule it out of court. Consider these two thought experiments:

1) You come across a seriously injured person in the street and the only way to get him to hospital in time is to steal a car parked nearby with its keys in the ignition. Should you do so?

2) You come across a seriously injured person in the street and the only way to get him to hospital in time is to steal a Back-to-the-Future-style hoverboard that is left there unattended. Should you do so?

Are you prepared to say that the first is a situation that you are able to form an intuitive judgment about and so should inform your moral thinking whereas the second is not and can simply be ignored?

86

ajay 01.29.10 at 5:10 pm

84: that’s not an example of two moral principles which can only come into conflict in an unlikely or non-existent situation. You can bring the “don’t steal people’s stuff” and “take care of the sick and injured” principles into conflict in a realistic situation; the hoverboard isn’t a central part of the problem. But things like The Fat Man Problem are silly, because they’re unrealistic and there’s no more realistic situation that embodies the same conflict of principles.

Here’s a slight revision of the Violinist Problem which benefits from being a bit more feasible.

You are a military conscript, serving as a pilot. Your next mission is a raid on a heavily defended enemy position: your specific job is to attack the anti-aircraft guns protecting it from high altitude, allowing your fellow pilot to get past them and hit the target itself at low level. You’ll then fly on to neutral Spain, because you won’t have enough fuel to get home; you’ll be interned in a Spanish prison for a few months before being returned home.

As you approach the target and see the flak coming up at you, you consider the alternative option: simply abandon the mission and return home, claiming that you suffered from a mechanical problem.

The risk to you, if you continue the raid, is small (but not non-existent), since you’ll be high up and difficult to hit; your fellow pilot, thanks to your diversionary attack, will also have a very good chance of survival. But if you don’t carry out your part of the mission, your fellow pilot, a much easier target at low level, will certainly be shot down by the undistracted gunners and killed.

Do you have a moral obligation to fly the mission?

87

engels 01.29.10 at 6:13 pm

‘that’s not an example of two moral principles that can only come into conflict in an unlikely or non-existent situation…’

It wasn’t supposed to be: I was responding to Steve.

88

engels 01.29.10 at 6:22 pm

On your own point, I think like others here you misunderstand the point of there examples if you think it is to bring out a conflict in the implications of competing principles that would never be apparent in everyday life. I can’t see that’s true of any of the examples we have been discussing…

89

engels 01.29.10 at 6:25 pm

(In everyday life sometimes defensible competing principles prescribe the same action but equally clearly sometimes they don’t.)

90

engels 01.29.10 at 6:42 pm

I’m also not sure why it is more ‘science-fictiony’ for me _as a man_ to imagine being connected to the violinist then being pregnant with an unwanted child. Certainly neither are situations it is physically possible for me to ever be in.

91

Duncan 01.29.10 at 6:59 pm

Martin Bento writes that Thomson “insists that most abortion opponents do not distinguish between rape and consensual sex for the purpose of justifying abortion.” This is basically true, but might be misleading. Thomson writes: “Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of a rape. And in fact the people who oppose abortion on the ground I mentioned do not make this distinction, and hence do not make an exception in case of rape.” Her point need not be taken as merely about what people think (or thought in 1971) but as having to do with what people ought to think. (And if the opponents of abortion rights today speak less about the rights of fetuses qua persons then perhaps this is partly because of the influence or strength of Thomson’s argument. )

It is quite possible to be pro-choice without denying that “people who take risks are responsible for the consequences if those risks go wrong.” Taking responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy need not mean remaining pregnant. Victims of hunting accidents who seek medical help are not failing to take responsibility for their risky hobby. Unhappily pregnant women who seek a medical solution to their problem (in the form of abortion) are not (necessarily, just as such) failing to take proper responsibility. And it is not obvious that what one would owe to a violinist on one’s back after losing a lottery is the same as what one would owe to a fetus after getting pregnant. Sex is like a lottery in some ways but it is also unlike one in various ways. Violinists are like fetuses, but also unlike them.

It is not that anti-abortionists have no argument, surely, so much as that they do not have the kind of knockdown argument that some of them seem to think they have. Thomson’s argument, as I read it, shows this with regard to one particular kind of pro-life argument.

92

John Quiggin 01.30.10 at 12:32 am

@70 (ajay) To spell out my thought. Suppose there is a moral obligation to donate organs. The state has to specify a rule to apply if someone has died without making an explicit choice. A plausible claim would be that the person should be assigned the morally obligatory choice by default. It’s plausible rather than compelling, I think. You could say that the default choice should be consistent with the majority preference apparent from explicit choices, or should be left to relatives or chosen on consequentialist grounds.

@71 (Benjamin Hippen) Thanks, very enlightening

93

John Quiggin 01.30.10 at 12:52 am

I don’t think utilitarianism makes sense as an individual ethical philosophy, because the requirement to treat everybody equally is impossibly demanding. Utilitarianism (or more generally, egalitarian consequentialism) makes sense only as public philosophy as Bob Goodin says.

Looking at the realistic case research scientist, there are at least three possible choices
(a) Refuse the job, which I guess is the stipulated answer
(b) Take the job on the basis that feeding your family is more important than either your own scruples or the effects on unknown others
(c) Take the job and be actively half-assed, calculating that your reduction in the lab’s effectiveness outweighs the increase in the supply of evil scientists you have generated
(c) is the utilitarian answer, but (b) is also consequentialist and so is (a) if you regard your own unhappiness doing the job as a consequence (this is problematic, I know). That’s not to say individual ethics should necessarily be consequentialist, but any ethical system without a pretty big dose of consequentialism is unlikely to appeal to me, whatever examples might be given to support it.

Coming to Jim and the Indians, I would say the following. If I were in a situation like this, I would refuse to shoot, because I don’t trust murderers. But Jim is in the (un?)fortunate situation of having the absolute certainty that can only be provided by an expert philosopher, who assures him that the captain will keep his word. So, a refusal on his part would be morally indefensible, putting his own aesthetic preference to be removed from the action above the certainty of saving 19 lives. Our intuitive discomfort reflects the difference between the hypothetical and the closest possible real-life case.

94

engels 01.30.10 at 2:06 am

I realise I’m not winning any friends with this but I honestly don’t see what is so implausible about either JJT’s violinist or Jim and the Indians. I can easily imagine myself in either situation, reluctantly having to make a decision. Do others really find it impossible to imagine being in these situations?

95

vivian 01.30.10 at 2:25 am

Beyond the certainty thing, another way to distinguish the illuminating vs pat examples: the illuminating ones are discursively open as to means. The trolley switch has exactly two positions, and it can’t be derailed by debris, only by one particular fat man. With the violinist, there are two outcomes, but room for arguments, compensation, pleading. In Ajay’s example, likewise, room for deciding based on loyalty, contract, likelihood of retaliation, whether prison would be safer than flying another mission, etc. The George case has more options, including changing his mind after a month or two.

‘Jim and the Indians’ is a dilemma posed by a moral monster. By far the least interesting aspect of the problem is which unjust horn Jim stumbles onto on the spur of the moment. Life experience tells us that whatever choice, Jim will probably be haunted by what he did, and rightly so (also, what John said about trust). Rectifying it would involve, you know, war crimes charges against the captain, etc. The idea that philosophy ought to give us a clear conscience on a simple decision rule – desensitizing us to tragedy – how very uncompelling.

A pure-consequentialist likes such examples because the only thing that matters is the body count. Any nonconsequentialist reasons for choosing the lower number are irrelevant, the entire game is to see whether one can craft a plausible argument for picking the anticonsequentialist choice. Only interesting to them.

96

John Quiggin 01.30.10 at 3:07 am

“A pure-consequentialist likes such examples because the only thing that matters is the body count.”

I think I’ve already shown above that I’m less familiar with the philosophy literature than I should be, but weren’t “Jim and the Indians” and the fat man/trolley car examples put forward by anti-consequentialists? Or maybe I’ve misunderstood your comment.

97

Martin Bento 01.30.10 at 4:19 am

Duncan, first Thomson says she will stipulate the fetus’ right to live and show that, nonetheless, this right does not prevail over the woman’s right to avoid an imposition on her body. But the example she invents is coercive, and it is therefore not clear whether it applies beyond the case of rape. To expand its scope, she says abortion opponents would be inconsistent to attribute a right of life to a fetus produced by rape and not to one produced otherwise. But this is only a valid point if she claims to have eliminated the right to life in case of rape, when she has explicitly stipulated otherwise. What she argues in the rape case is that the woman’s right to control her own body prevails over the fetus’ (stipulated as extent) right to life. She grants a right to life and then tries to withdraw it to expand the scope of her argument. Obviously, which moral claim prevails will depend both on the strength of the fetus’ claim and that of the woman, and a variance in either could produce a different result. And there is no inconsistency in holding that the woman’s moral claim is influenced by her own culpability for the situation. The fetus’ claim is unaltered, but the woman’s is weakened.

She doesn’t really offer any substantive justification for this switch, but she claims that it is implicit in her claim that those she opposes do not distinguish between rape and consensual cases. First of all, she offers no citations to demonstrate this. Secondly, her obligation is to take the strongest argument of her opponents, not the weakest one. If she is describing what they “ought to think”, not what they do, she should not be assigning them arguments more refutable than their actual views. That’s a straw man argument. It’s possible that her assertions about her opponents’ positions were accurate in her time, but those who claim her views are relevant to the contemporary abortion debate have to respond to the prevailing, and best, contemporary arguments. It also seems highly unlikely to me that the current views are a response to Thomson – though it would make no logical difference to the argument if they were – given that probably less than 1% of the population has heard this argument, and most of those have probably forgotten it along with the bulk of their college educations.

The hunting accident is a very poor analogy for abortion because there are no competing moral claims. Treating abortion the same as any other medical procedure begs the most extreme version of the question. It can only be true if there are no moral claims to be made for the fetus at all, which is a position in the matter to be decided, and therefore does not belong in the premises of the argument. It also goes beyond what Thomson herself claims, at least before she gets slippery, because she grants the fetus a moral claim.

Simply saying any two things are alike in some ways and different in others is trivially true and therefore meaningless. Each two pregnant woman are alike in some ways and different in others; likewise, their situations; likewise their fetuses; and likewise abortion opponents. If we’re going to have any laws or general moral principles, we’re going to have to generalize. The trick, then, is to capture which details matter to the question at hand. The question at hand is a conflict of moral claims, so analogies that lack that element are beside the point.

You say it is not clear that the claims of the Violinist after losing a lottery would be the same as a fetus after consensual sex. But you also hold that Thomson’s argument is valid: that the claims of the violinist when imposed by force are akin to those of a fetus likewise imposed. So why would the claims of the violinist as a result of consciously-undertaken risk differ from those of a fetus resulting from such risk? If you accept the violinist premise at all – and many people here don’t, but that is Thomson’s problem, not mine – what about the lottery makes a morally relevant difference?

98

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.10 at 8:48 am

The analogy where having sex is like playing Russian roulette or driving drunk seems unfair; sex is much more ordinary, far less exotic than that. It’s not unreasonable to abstain from playing and driving drunk because of the rick involved, but it does seem unreasonable to abstain from sex to avoid getting pregnant.

I don’t think the difference between pregnancy by rape and any other unwanted pregnancy that significant.

99

Alison P 01.30.10 at 10:37 am

I was writing something along those lines Henry V but it grew to a huge rant so I deleted it unposted. Sexual relationships are basic to our society, that’s largely how we ensure children are raised, and provision for old age and emotional support etc. I don’t think a wholesale removal of sexual intercourse from society is a viable solution.

100

Sam C 01.30.10 at 10:51 am

Vivian at 95 said, apropos Jim and the Indians, ‘The idea that philosophy ought to give us a clear conscience on a simple decision rule – desensitizing us to tragedy – how very uncompelling.’

That’s exactly the point of the Jim and the Indians thought experiment, as invented by Bernard Williams in a piece called ‘A critique of utilitarianism’. Williams’ conclusion is that (1) utilitarianism perhaps gives the right answer in this particular case (Jim should kill one of the villagers); but (2) it gets that answer far too easily, by ignoring most of what matters in human life.

101

engels 01.30.10 at 1:36 pm

John’s response to Williams’ dilemma is to say he can set it aside on the grounds that in any ‘real-life’ situation he would be quite justified in refusing to cooperate simply on the grounds that he doubted the promise not to kill the 19 would be kept. I don’t think he would be and I think the response loses any plausibility it might have had if you imagine Jim has already witnessed the bargain being honoured with several previous victims…

102

engels 01.30.10 at 1:50 pm

Could it be possible that what is really going on here is that these examples make many people uncomfortable because they draw attention to genuine problems with views to which they are strongly committed? And an entirely natural (if not perhaps entirely admirable) reaction is to try to find ways to avoid having to think about such problems, by casting around for ‘factual’ grounds to rule them out? just thought I’d throw that out there…

103

praisegod barebones 01.30.10 at 2:02 pm

Its not the only thing going on. At least some of the thought experiments I have reservations about are aimed at positions I have little sympathy for. I reckon that’s true for many of the participants in this thread.

104

dsquared 01.30.10 at 2:10 pm

“Jim and the Indians” doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly egregious thought experiment in-the-pejorative-sense, as it’s not a particularly implausible hypothetical situation, it’s just that in similar real-world situations we specifically don’t actually make moral judgements of the Jim character at all (cf “Sophie’s Choice” – if someone came out of that film and their reaction to it was to make a definite assessment of whether Sophie had done the right or wrong thing, you’d actually consider that person to be a bit weird). The correct (as far as I can see) response to that thought experiment is to say that whatever Jim chooses, the blame and war crimes charges are assigned to the villain. But that’s the response that will lose you all your marks in the pedagogical situation, for “avoiding the issue”. As well as stipulating perfect knowledge here, the person setting up the thought experiment is also stipulating what the morally relevant judgement to make shall be, which is another little funky card-sharp’s move of the sort that Wittgenstein warned against.

105

engels 01.30.10 at 2:13 pm

I didn’t say it was the only thing going on. I think it is a possible motivation which might be considered and so far hasn’t been.

106

harry b 01.30.10 at 2:36 pm

I’ve never cared much for Jim and the Indians, but as vivian emphasizes the point of it is not to help us know what we should do, or to make determinations of where blame should be lodged, but to make vivid/illuminate/highlight a value consideration — personal integrity or something like that — that both consequentialism and Kantianism have quite a hard time making room for. Does this mean we should reject those theories or revise one or another of them, or not revise but explore to find resources that had previously been hidden from view? The final option is what people, mostly, have taken. Describing the example without discussing the context or the point is misleading and unhelpful to students (so the pedagogical stuff comes up over and over again).

107

Chris Bertram 01.30.10 at 2:40 pm

_As well as stipulating perfect knowledge here, the person setting up the thought experiment is also stipulating what the morally relevant judgement to make shall be, which is another little funky card-sharp’s move of the sort that Wittgenstein warned against._

I wonder whether you would have written that if you’d gone back to check on the original source.

108

Matt 01.30.10 at 3:13 pm

I’m a bit surprised to see Wittgenstein invoked the way that D-squared does here since Wittgenstein’s work is full of all sorts of cases that can only be called “thought experiments”, many of which involve unusual scenarios designed to push our intuitions in certain directions. I think they are perfectly legitimate, both in Wittgenstein’s work and in others, though of course I have my doubts about some and about how they are used by some philosophers. But a lot more care would be needed, I think, to invoke Wittgenstein in this fight than has been done so far.

109

Sam C 01.30.10 at 3:31 pm

‘The correct (as far as I can see) response to that thought experiment is to say that whatever Jim chooses, the blame and war crimes charges are assigned to the villain. But that’s the response that will lose you all your marks in the pedagogical situation, for “avoiding the issue”.’

Actually that response wouldn’t lose you any marks with me. But there are things to be said against it: for a start, it doesn’t do any of the work, which the example is asking us to do, to uncover the demands on us in tragic decisions. Presumably you don’t want to say that it doesn’t matter what Jim does? Or if you do want to say that, why?

‘As well as stipulating perfect knowledge here, the person setting up the thought experiment is also stipulating what the morally relevant judgement to make shall be’

Not so. I suggest going and reading what Williams actually does with this case: it’s in Williams’ bit of Smart & Williams, Utilitarianism: for and against.

110

dsquared 01.30.10 at 3:43 pm

I don’t think I’ve misremembered it; the point I was trying to make is that in lifelike situations, there’s actually no morally relevant judgement to be made about Jim’s actions.

111

dsquared 01.30.10 at 3:45 pm

(or actually, more specifically, that a consequentialist should sensibly say that in a real life situation, real life Jim would have to make the judgement about which course of action is going to be the best one, and nobody is ever going to be in a position to gainsay him. Williams’ argument – which I’ve just been to check – does seem to me to depend on the philosopher being, by stipulation, in a position to gainsay Jim’s judgement about whether the supposed good consequences of shooting the Indian would actually arise).

112

dsquared 01.30.10 at 3:48 pm

further to #108, I don’t think that it is at all odd or requiring of much care or justification to bring Wittgenstein in on the subject of the general proposal that appeals to intuitions in unusual cases outside ordinary experience shouldn’t be used (or should only be used diffidently and with care) to criticise common intuitions in ordinary cases.

113

dsquared 01.30.10 at 3:59 pm

and actually, since the triple-post = loon boat has actually sailed, the thing that rather disturbs me about that example actually reflects the real-life detail. As a consequentialist criticising Jim, I wouldn’t be bothering with talking about emotions or the role of integrity – I’d be mainly concerned with the fact that the Indians, who might be presumed to know Pedro better than Jim does, were taking a strong view on the subject. This just appears in the thought experiment as an ornamental detail, but it’s actually the source of the obviousness of the utilitarian answer which Williams goes on to criticise.

114

roac 01.30.10 at 4:43 pm

I am unequipped by both training and temperament to participate in this on a professional level. But I think that, people do, not uncommonly, make moral decisions by persuading themselves that they are in a Jim-and-the-Indians situation. To take an example from my own field of expertise:

As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow: and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order . . .

Jim-and-the-Indians is IMO just a special case of William-the-research-scientist. When I was young the argument was phrased “Work within the system for change!”

115

nm 01.30.10 at 5:06 pm

JQ: #93. Interesting. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do but I hope you’ll do a longer piece on this point and the ‘real life bite’ idea. I think you are going beyond what might be described as thought experiments into standards for any kinds of examples.

116

bianca steele 01.30.10 at 5:45 pm

What roac said.

As far as “working within the system for change” and the research scientist problem, why is the issue always set up as: choose between youthful idealism and adult responsibility (which is not, in fact, the dilemma that people encounter most frequently in the course of their lives)? And why is the responsibility involved only to family and dependents–what about responsibility to, for example, subordinates–the question, should I take a position of responsibility that will involve my demoralizing and exploiting a half-dozen people whom I previously cared about (or is that the only way to do the job)? Framing the issue in terms only as “you have a family and have to take care of them” has nothing to say when this is a more pressing question.

117

Chris Bertram 01.30.10 at 6:09 pm

I’m completely bemused by dsquared’s 110-114. The case isn’t outside of ordinary experience. It may be an unusual case, but it is one involving some utterly and depressingly familiar behaviour. Sadism, massacre etc are hardly outside our experience in the way that, say, teletransportation machines and universes comprising two perfect and identical spheres are. So there’s nothing weird about Jim’s situation. Nor are we being invited to judge Jim or to blame him. Jim has a decision to make and one proposed way for him to decide looks too slick and formulaic and, well, detached. Finally, it just isn’t the case that the fact that the Indians are begging Jim to accept the captain’s proposal is “the source of the obviousness of the utilitarian answer”.

118

dsquared 01.30.10 at 6:33 pm

I’ll try again then – I don’t think I was very clear. Williams’ point is (as I understand it) that a utilitarian a) has to give Jim the advice to kill the man and b) has to say that this is obviously the right answer and that any reluctance or regret on Jim’s part is just sentimentality or some other “irrational” emotion that needs to be discounted.

My response to the thought experiment[1] is that actually, consequentialists would probably not gainsay Jim and would more or less never make the criticism which Williams attributes to them. And that this is because real-life hostage situations are pretty much the epitome of a case in which it’s very difficult to work out what will actually happen and in which it’s both unfair and unproductive to gainsay the people who had to make the difficult decisions (even in cases like the storming of the Nord-Ost theatre, where it looks in retrospect to have been really definitely a bad decision). So, actual consequentialists in judging a real-life Jim who had demurred from shooting the sacrificial victim would not be to criticise him for squeamishness, but rather to defer to his judgement because he was there and they were not. In so far as you would criticise Jim from a consequentialist perspective, it would be for ignoring the requests of the other victims, who had both better information and more at stake.

So my point is that it’s true that the proposed way to decide “looks too slick and formulaic and detached”, but it only does so because Williams has, by stipulation, turned this from a situation of massive and (literally[2]) undecidable uncertainty, into one which is simply a choice between two certainties. So in other words, the thought experiment has the effect of making utilitarianism look like an unattractively simplistic decision rule precisely by removing all the uncertainty and complexity which exists in the real world and which consequentialism is meant to help deal with.

Or in other words, while sadism and massacres are entirely conceivable, subjective certainty about the intentions of the other player in a two-person ultimatum game is actually a lot less conceivable.

[1]I’m finding it really hard to avoid mentioning that there’s quite a lot of pretty casual racial stereotypes in it, by the way; I mean, I realise it was the 1970s and that Williams wasn’t actually a racist, but I pretty much cringe every time I type “the Indians” and “Pedro”.

[2] cf Barkley Rosser Jr “All I Have To Say Has Already Crossed Your Mind” – two-person games of this sort are very often logically equivalent to problems that are formally undecidable in the Godelian sense.

119

geo 01.30.10 at 6:46 pm

JQ @93: I don’t think utilitarianism makes sense as an individual ethical philosophy, because the requirement to treat everybody equally is impossibly demanding

Is that really a requirement? If I could save Rush Limbaugh’s or Jon Stewart’s life but not both, would utilitarianism really require me to flip a coin, or calculate how many dependents each has that would be devastated by his loss, or perform some other arithmetical calculation? How would a snap judgment that Limbaugh is polluting the polis while Stewart is refining it (or, if one is utterly mad, the opposite), ergo exit Limbaugh (or Stewart), be other than utilitarian?

120

Martin Bento 01.30.10 at 8:49 pm

Henri and Vivian, there is a difference between saying a woman who has voluntary sex has responsibility for the consequences and saying she should not have such sex, much less that sex should be removed from society (the latter is particularly bizarre, as not everyone seeks to avoid having children, and the ones who don’t are seeking to move into the situations Vivian describes or should be). After all, the standard we use for the man is that the fact that he engaged in voluntary sex creates a decades-long legally-enforced responsibility. The assertion that it would not be reasonable to expect him never to engage in sex is not considered to neutralize this.

But I’m reluctant to pursue this line of discussion further in this thread. We’re going from examination of Thomson’s violinist and what it says about thought experiments in philosophy to realistic argument. While I’m not adverse to this, I don’t want to be accused of threadjacking.

121

bianca steele 01.30.10 at 9:42 pm

geo@119
But this is just another implausible hypothetical. It makes students feel like they are on the verge of taking some very important step (I’m going to save Jon Stewart, just by answering this question in class, and take a significant part in moving the country in the right direction!), and as if the students who don’t think they’d (say) allow themselves to remain plugged in even to someone whose work they admire have really taken some active step in becoming evil. It’s a kind of fantasy that takes the place of harder, chancier work.

Moreover, if we did live in a world where we could wake up and find ourselves connected to random others and fearful of some action that might cause their deaths, or where we might discover there were cracks in the sidewalk that had to be avoided in certain hard-to-discover ways in order to prevent untold numbers dying, I don’t see the point of turning that into a moral obligation.

122

Martin Bento 01.31.10 at 12:21 am

In my previous comment, I meant Allison, not Vivian. Apologies.

123

Chris Bertram 01.31.10 at 11:31 am

Much that’s still strange about Dsquared’s comments, but I’ll confine myself to a bit of rambling meta-observation . It seems odd to have Wittgenstein wheeled on in defence of consequentialism here. Williams wants to tell us that moral deliberation and judgement just aren’t of the form (don’t have the feel) that the dominant conceptions (Kantian or consequentialist) suggest. Now I confess that I often find that there’s something irritatingly elusive about Williams’s writings to this effect, but the general style of move here is one I also associate with Wittgenstein (or Anscombe or Nietzsche for that matter). Generally, the thought that (analytical) philosophers force us into a particular mode of thinking about a real-world phenomenon, but only by denaturing that phenomenon is one that I associate with Williams, including in the paper under discussion here.

124

dsquared 01.31.10 at 12:00 pm

It seems odd to have Wittgenstein wheeled on in defence of consequentialism here

I really don’t think that bit was either weird or unclear. I wheeled Wittgenstein on in order to make a point about thought experiments. I would have brought him in on the same wheels whatever the thought experiment under discussion, including one aimed at defending consequentialism rather than attacking it.

125

Sam C 01.31.10 at 12:23 pm

(Expanding a bit on Chris Bertram’s comment, which seems to me to be dead on.)

Williams doesn’t really care much about what the ‘right answer’ for Jim is. He’s using the thought-experiment to dramatise two ideas which are central to his ethical thought:

(1) Action is much more complex than either consequentialists or Kantians make out. Consequentialists think of action as teleological: as aiming at a single end and using means, including one’s own life and powers, to bring that end about. Kantians think of action as expressing maxims which are subject to logical constraints on their form. Neither account catches what a human actually experiences in acting, and which great novelists, for instance, are much better at describing. (FWIW: I think consequentialists have some pretty good answers to this challenge.)

(2) Morality – the ‘morality system’ of obligations and permissions and forbiddings – is a much smaller and less important part of human life than moral philosophers have tended to imagine. We distort our understanding of our own lives if we suppose that moral demands trump other goals and forms of life – if we suppose that the only question for Jim is ‘what am I morally obliged to do now?’.

So, on the general issue of thought experiments: it’s true that there are other ways of dramatising these two points, and that those other ways are sometimes more effective. Williams also uses them, as for instance when he discusses real examples like Paul Gaugin’s decision to abandon his family and pursue painting (in ‘Moral Luck’), or fictional examples like Ajax’s madness in the Iliad (in Shame & Necessity). It’s also true that thought experiments are used for lots of other purposes than dramatisation, and that some of those purposes are dodgy – trying to force particular ‘intuitions’ on one’s audience, for instance. But true stories and fictions which don’t involve bizarre hypotheticals can be used – are used – in ways which are just as dodgy. I don’t see why we should be troubled by the method rather than the purposes it’s put to.

126

dsquared 01.31.10 at 12:48 pm

He’s using the thought-experiment to dramatise two ideas which are central to his ethical thought

yes but I think the way in which he achieves this dramatic effect is a bit of a cheat. The complexity is removed, by him, by stipulating a choice between two certainties. I’ll try a third time since I’m clearly not expressing this clearly:

1) in normal ethical situations, there’s almost always a huge amount of factual uncertainty about what the actual consequences of our actions will be.

2) Williams is trying to argue (among other things) that even if you remove this merely factual uncertainty, there’s a whole lot of extra ethical complexity which accounts for our lived experience not being really well described by consequentialism or Kantianism, as Sam C says.

3) But (this is the point I’m trying to make), can you really remove all the factual complexity? Isn’t it reasonable for either Kantians or consequentialists to say that their ethical systems were developed for a real world in which everything’s uncertain, and that the subjective feelings which are described by novelists are actually a result of the uncertain world we live in?

4) So IMO, Williams is actually doing exactly what John identifies as the problem with thought experiments – he is using them to drag out an intuition (the intuition being that there is something flat and unrealistic about the pat answers given by deontological or consequentialist ethics), but the intuition in question is being drawn out by an utterly unrealistic situation (ie, one in which the main character has perfect knowledge of the consequences of his actions).

5) just to reiterate, while it isn’t at all an unrealistic hypothetical to suppose that you might be in a hostage situation with a sadistic maniac, as John Q says above, it is very unrealistic to suppose that you could be in such a situation and able to trust that he would keep his promises.

127

Duncan 01.31.10 at 12:50 pm

Martin Bento writes: “She [Thomson] grants a right to life and then tries to withdraw it to expand the scope of her argument.” Does she try to withdraw it? Or does she try to show that it can be outweighed by other rights? I’m not saying that her argument works, but whether and, if so, how it works is, I think, less clear than you make out.

Also: “her obligation is to take the strongest argument of her opponents, not the weakest one.” But it depends who you take her opponents to be. If they are all pro-life people then you are quite right, but it is possible to read her argument as addressing one particular strand in pro-life thinking, and this need not be the strongest strand.

Then: “It also seems highly unlikely to me that the current views are a response to Thomson – though it would make no logical difference to the argument if they were – given that probably less than 1% of the population has heard this argument, and most of those have probably forgotten it along with the bulk of their college educations.” It seems possible to me, given that philosophical arguments can have a trickle down effect. Thomson has clearly influenced discussion of abortion amongst philosophers and at law schools. Why should its influence be confined to those who remember having read her paper themselves?

“Treating abortion the same as any other medical procedure begs the most extreme version of the question.” Of course, but it also begs the question if one argues that women who are pregnant as a result of consensual sex should “take responsibility for their actions” and then acts as if it were simply obvious that this means they must not have an abortion. And many people I have spoken to do just this.

“Simply saying any two things are alike in some ways and different in others is trivially true and therefore meaningless.” It is trivially true, I agree. I was doubting the relevance of the lottery analogy. Sex is like a lottery in some ways, as you say, but unlike it in important ways too, as others have tried to make clear. One key difference seems to me to be that in the lottery there is an implicit agreement not to cut the violinist off, whereas with sex there is no implicit agreement not to get an abortion later.

As for Wittgenstein, he objected to the excessive (as he saw it) use of unrealistic thought experiments in ethics. He obviously thought they were OK in other areas of philosophy, but then he did not consider ethics to be part of philosophy. He would have had no objection to cases like George, I think.

128

steven 01.31.10 at 2:37 pm

Are there in moral philosophy any canonical arguments that moral judgments must be founded on consistent “principles” applicable across a wide variety of cases, or is this just something that is routinely assumed?

129

Sam C 01.31.10 at 6:10 pm

Steven – here would be one place to start. I suppose the most basic argument is: it’s irrational to make a distinction without a difference. If two cases are identical (in the relevant respects), then we rationally ought to treat them in the same way. What count as ‘the relevant respects’ might be hard to say, though.

130

engels 01.31.10 at 6:36 pm

Without knowing much about this I think that the method of examples does tend to beg the question from the point of view of the issue Steven mentions, by assuming that one is in a position to form a judgment on the basis of these schematic descriptions.

131

Sam C 01.31.10 at 6:58 pm

Engels – I agree with you, if what the example is being used to do is to reveal and test general principles. But – and I know I keep banging on about this – that isn’t all that examples are used for (see discussion of Jim and the Indians above), and plenty of stories which aren’t schematic hypotheticals are used for that purpose. So I still don’t think that we’ve found a problem with thought experiments as such.

132

engels 01.31.10 at 7:07 pm

Okay, agreed.

133

steven 01.31.10 at 9:52 pm

Sam C, thanks very much for the direction to “moral particularism”.

What count as ‘the relevant respects’ might be hard to say, though.

Indeed!

134

Martin Bento 01.31.10 at 9:54 pm

Duncan, she does try to withdraw it, for example, specifically in the line you quoted before: “Surely the question of whether you have a right to life at all, or how much of it you have, shouldn’t turn on the question of whether or not you are the product of a rape.” Here, she has recast the question, not as whether the woman’s right to control her body trumps the right to life, but whether the right to life exists at all and how strong it is. She has gone from weighing competing moral claims to reducing the argument to a single moral claim (whether a fetus has a right to life and how strong it is), which she previously stipulated and now holds in question. This despite the fact that her central argument is designed to hold that the right to abortion exists regardless of such a right. Here is how she states her project at the outset: “I propose, then, that we grant that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception. How does the argument go from here? ” (elsewhere she grants that being a person entails a right to life). By changing the question, as we move away from rape, to whether or how strong a right to life the fetus has, she is able to avoid the status of the competing moral claim: is the right of the woman changed by the fact the sex is consensual? A true examination of the competing moral claims would have to address both claims, and Thomson does not. All of a sudden, the right to life of the fetus is the only question. This despite the fact that the strength of her argument is that it grants a very strong right to life and comes down in favor of abortion anyway.

As for who her opponents are, the article makes sweeping assertions about abortion opponents to the effect that the views she is attacking are the prevailing ones. For example, “Opponents of abortion commonly spend most of their time establishing that the fetus is a person, and hardly anytime explaining the step from there to the impermissibility of abortion.” In fact, there is one point where she does not do this: where she acknowledges that most abortion opponents do not oppose it in case of threat to the mother’s life. But that just makes more clear that in the other cases she intends her sweeping generalizations.

I disagree with you that Thomson’s influence is likely to be partly responsible for contemporary anti-abortion arguments, but this is unverifiable and of no consequence anyway. So what if it is?

I can’t be responsible for what “people you have spoken to” may have said. But saying taking responsibility means not having an abortion is a side in the debate. That is not the same as begging the question. You can still dispute it; they have not created a analogy where their conclusion is hidden in the premises.

I actually didn’t say that you agreed to have the violinist attached to you, though that may be a common assumption of how lotteries work, only that you knew this was a possible consequence. For the man, engaging in sex is sufficient to establish a responsibility so strong it is enforced by law. It makes no difference whether the man agrees to paternity. Engaging in sex is considered to entail responsibility by its nature. Many other commonly-accepted forms of responsibility do not entail express or even implicit consent.

But part of the nature of thought experiments like this is one can always reject both the analogy and the conclusion. Several have rejected the violinist example itself as too unrealistic, and it is certainly more unrealistic than a lottery. What I believe I have shown is that it does have the virtue that one can introduce variations and get different results, thereby isolating the factors that seem morally relevant. But one can always hold that you must keep the violinist on your back (in the original version, I mean) or that taking a known risk does not entail responsibility for the consequences if those consequences are not explicitly agreed to (though this would eliminate huge swathes of responsibility that we normally accept. I’m sure Wall Street bankers would love that moral standard). I think the fact that I am able to turn Thomson’s own metaphor against her case is an argument for the legitimacy of the thought experiment. It was intended polemically, but can survive its original polemical purpose.

135

praisegod barebones 02.01.10 at 7:15 am

‘For the man, engaging in sex is sufficient to establish a responsibility so strong it is enforced by law. It makes no difference whether the man agrees to paternity.’

I’d say that at least in the UK this bit (‘enforced by law’) wasn’t really true until things like the Child Suppport Agency came into existence – (1993 according to wikipedia). So this may be one place where the point Matt makes about the fact that JJT was writing in 1970 might make a difference.

136

Charlie 02.01.10 at 3:24 pm

126: Isn’t it reasonable for either Kantians or consequentialists to say that their ethical systems were developed for a real world in which everything’s uncertain, and that the subjective feelings which are described by novelists are actually a result of the uncertain world we live in?

You’ve been at the heterophenomenology again, haven’t you?

Anyway, I’m taking the gist of what you’re saying to be more or less as follows:

(1) We experience ‘moral discomfort’ (as “described by novelists”);
(2) We hypothesise that our moral discomfort has factual complexity as partial cause;
(3) We additionally hypothesise that our moral discomfort has faulty ethical theory as partial cause;
(4) We have the option of testing out alternate ethical theories to see if they reduce our moral discomfort.

So far, so good: we can apply something like Mill’s method of differences. And framed in this way, I think the question comes out like this: will any conceivable set of thought experiments / example cases help us arrive at the best possible ethical theory faster than the alternative: more lived experience? If so, what should that set of experiments / test cases look like?

137

Charlie 02.01.10 at 4:00 pm

Should add that by ‘moral discomfort’ I don’t mean the sense that something in the world is wrong that needs to be put right, but instead the sense that one’s ethical judgement is in some way inadequate.

138

kent 02.02.10 at 3:56 am

Very late to the party, but for the record:

Some thought experiments are good. Some are bad.

Use the good ones. Avoid the bad ones.

Which are which, though? It comes down, not to whether the situations are realistic or not, but to whether the tendency of the conclusion is to help or hinder good moral thinking.

This will be contextual, too, of course: probably almost any thought experiment can be helpful in the right conversation, but probably almost any thought experiment can also be detrimental (to a student pedagogically; to human life if taken literally by the wrong bureaucrat).

A boring answer, yes! But honestly I don’t see the fundamental difference between a “thought experiment” of the type that the original post encourages us to think of as inherently problematic, as compared to any other type of philosophical argument.

Is Rawls’ “original position” a thought experiment of the type to be avoided on principle? What about Plato’s cave? Or the classic about the Nazi asking you if there are any Jews in your attic? What about “How would you feel if you were a woman who was raped?” — posed to a man? Who decides among these cases? And why bother trying to find some general characteristic that will distinguish any or all of these from the plugged-in violinist?

Why not talk about philosophy, instead of talking about how one ought to talk about philosophy? The whole conversation is just too meta. IMO.

I’m tempted to try to come up with a thought experiment that would demonstrate the foolishness of trying to distinguish “bad” thought experiments from “good” philosophical arguments. But it’s late and my brain isn’t very creative right now. Anybody got any thoughts?

Comments on this entry are closed.