Laugh if you like, but death on the tracks is funny

by John Holbo on November 30, 2013

Every year or so we make jokes about trolleys. As an accomplished cartoonist of the subject, and a professional philosopher, I should probably weigh in to set you all straight. How not?

I really said it all (and more!) in this old post about Occam’s Phaser. Do not multiply zap-guns beyond necessity!

Philosophers aren’t bloodthirsty autists, you silly people. They are mildly whimsical. But that’s important. The genre of the analytic philosophy (Anglo-American, call it what you like) thought-experiment is a mildly humoristic one, in that it tends to Rube Goldbergism. Of course the point is always to solve for variables! You never tie another victim to the tracks, or fatten one up, for any other reason than that he/she is strictly needed in that place or shape. Nevertheless, the more outlandish the set-up gets, the funnier it gets. And I think it’s fair to say that philosophers quietly award themselves style points for (plausibly deniable!) whimsy, above and beyond conceptual substance.

The problem with that, I should think, is that mirth is an emotion that may affect our moral thinking. Specifically, it makes us more utilitarian. See this more recent article as well [sorry, Elsevier paywall]. The trolley scenarios are, or may be, used as intuition pumps for utilitarian purposes. (They may be used for other things, of course.) But it is an underdiscussed fact that they may inherently do so, in part, because trolley tragedies can’t help being a bit funny.

UPDATE: for those who can’t read the experiments, basically watching comedy clips makes you more utilitarian. But the experimenters don’t seem to have considered that the trolley cases themselves are short comedy clips, of a mild sort. I should publish this important finding of mine. Seriously. It’s actually important to think about.

Alleged Former Exalted

by John Holbo on November 30, 2013

You wouldn’t normally see those three adjectives in a line like that. And the noun they modify is an unusual one as well.

I suppose it’s fair to object that ‘exalted’ isn’t functioning as an adjective in this context. Fair enough.