You searched for:


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.

Some objective moral truths?

by Harry on April 3, 2013

Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:

Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

[click to continue…]

Occam’s Phaser?

by John Holbo on February 25, 2012

I’m rereading Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia because I got to thinking: what’s wrong with good old fashioned ‘force and fraud’ anyway? Isn’t the Night Watchman state just creeping Soft Tyranny, in Tocqueville’s sense? Plus it’s obviously a moral hazard and generally destructive to private virtue.

So Nozick seemed like relevant reading. Some unsystematic liveblogging:

First, Nozick is amusingly harsh, in passing, to fellow libertarians.

Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company.

The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.

Next, this classic bit:

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost everything sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed.

This is true!

Next, he spends a great deal of time answering my question. 150 pages. Why have even a minimal state that secures everyone against force and fraud? I know now that his answer is … really quite complicated and ultimately not altogether clear, despite the fact that Nozick is generally a clear writer. I’m not convinced Nozick really has any right, by his lights, to a full-fledged Night Watchman state. Something more minimal would be more respectful of the individual rights that we are, supposedly, respecting at all costs, seems to me.

But that’s more than I can put in a post, so let’s consider a different issue: [click to continue…]

So, what would your plan for Greece be?

by Daniel on February 16, 2012

Reading the media and blogs, it seems to me that left and right are united in the view that the Greek default is being handled appallingly, that the current attempts at a solution are childishly obviously wrong and that everything is the fault of someone, probably the Germans. My own view – that it is not at all clear what the direction of policy is, and that although I don’t agree with the troika plan, it’s recognizable as a good-faith plan made by conscientious international civil servants working under unimaginably difficult political constraints in an economic context that was irreparably broken before they got there – is, as always, unpopular.

I don’t have a solution myself – the more I end up discussing this with people, the more I am reminded of the London Business School proverb taught on some of the gnarlier case studies, which is “Not All Business Problems Have Solutions”. So, CT hivemind, what do you think the best outcome is? Below the fold, I note some talking points, aimed at preventing our commentariat from falling into some of the pitfalls and mistakes which appear to be dominating debate at present. Because the whole issue is a twisty turny maze which at times seems to consist of nothing but false moves, I am presenting it in the form of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. I would note at this stage that I could probably have presented it in a funky HTML way rather than making you scroll up and down, but I have convinced myself that this is a feature rather than a bug – the medium matches the message here, because international debt negotiations are cumbersome, inconvenient and irritating too. Also, it is probably easier than it needs to be for readers to end up at the wrong paragraph and get a confusing jumbled narrative which bears little resemblance to the decisions they thought they’d made. Again, this is a crucial part of giving you the authentic international financial diplomacy experience.

I will have another post on this in a few days (more realistically: in a week). But for the meantime, I’d be very interested if CT readers would play the game below and let me know, in comments, where they ended up. And also, if having ended up there, they were left with a strong feeling of having been bamboozled into something they didn’t really want to do.

Update: It is no longer literally impossible to reach #50 (and therefore #15 and #21). I don’t think this was a popular path, but sorry. Thanks to “M” and “Vasi” for noticing.

[click to continue…]

I’ve spent the day at a workshop on benefit-cost analysis where a lot of discussion is on valuing policies that reduce risks to life of various kinds.  US policy, for better or worse, is focused on  the idea of Value of a Statistical Life. Typically a policy that reduces  risks of death will be approved if the cost per life saved is below $5million, and not otherwise.  (There are similar numbers applied to publicly funded health care services, prescription  drugs and so on, usually per year of life saved).

A striking thing I found out is that anti-terrorism policies of the Department of Homeland Security are subject to  the same benefit-cost requirements as EPA  and Transport. But Homeland Security is only one way  the  US  government spends money with the aim of protecting Americans against attacks from terrorists and other enemies. Defense spending is far bigger and not subject to BCA, even though money spent on defense is money that can’t be spent on reducing terrorism risk through DHS or more reliably on reductions in environmental, health and transport risk

The numbers are quite striking. The ‘peacetime’ defense budget is around $500 billion a  year, and the  various wars of choice have cost around $250 billion a  year for  the last decade (very round  numbers here). Allocated to domestic risk reduction, that  money would save 150 000 American lives a year.

So, since 9/11, US defense spending has been chosen in preference to measures that would have saved 1.5 million American lives. That’s not a hypothetical number – it’s 1.5 million  people who are now dead but  who could have been saved. I think its fair to say that those people were killed by the Defense Department, or, more precisely, by the allocation of scarce life-saving resources to that Department.
[click to continue…]

Fair Play!

by John Holbo on February 27, 2011

Megan McArdle quotes James Joyner on player compensation, in sports, and draws a moral concerning unions. Let me summarize Joyner’s argument, which is pretty generic and familiar in broad outline: major league baseball, the NBA, and the NFL have different systems of caps and regulations limiting pay and restricting free agency. Plausibly, the system that is best for fans, overall, the NFL system, is worst for some players. (Joyner actually says ‘horribly unfair to the players’. We shall consider this sweeping thesis about social justice.) The NFL is not a free-market-style competition between autonomous business units but a profit-sharing cartel organized to ensure rough competitive equality between teams. Winning teams cannot just convert victory into extra profit and plow that back in, investing in team quality to entrench their winning position, which would be less exciting for fans. See also: major league baseball. The NBA is intermediate: you have salary caps, but players have more free agency. As a result, cities that are nice places to live in if you are really rich have an advantage. They have an informal way round the cap, in effect. Which is, again, good for (some) players, but not for fans overall.

McArdle doesn’t provide a link to the Joyner piece, but here it is. The title: “athletes are ruining sports!” The conclusion: “The bottom line is that players are human beings, who ought to have the right to take their talents to South Beach — or wherever they’re wanted. Just like fans can do.” This is, as Joyner is clearly aware, a bit of a paradox: athletes are making the game worse and they ought to have the right to do so. The ‘cure’ – namely, restrictions on pay and mobility – is ‘worse than the disease’, because it is manifestly grossly unjust.

McArdle seems inclined to draw the opposite conclusion: since the game is better if players are restricted in their bargaining power, and since the point is a good game, the proper, market-minded conclusion to draw is that employee bargaining power should, in principle, be restricted to ensure it does not conflict with productivity-minded management decisions. [click to continue…]

About being born

by Michael Bérubé on January 17, 2011

Well, things have been quiet around my house lately, except of course for the whole-house water filter that exploded two weeks ago while Janet and I were at the movies, drenching the basement with four inches of water (750 gallons, we learned from the nice young man whose powerful machines drained our house).  The water had just gotten within reach of the bottom of the spines of the books in one bookcase (does a book have a coccyx?), leaving a row of thinkers from Marshall Berman to Harold Bloom shrieking for help and drawing their knees up to their chests.  And of course Jamie lost a lot of stuff — Beatles books, art books, crayons, writing pads, pretty much anything that was on the floor (and there were many things on the floor).  But at least it was clean water, not like <a href=””>last time</a>.  So there’s that.

And now that I’ve spent the weekend putting together new shelving and storage devices and tidying up in general, it’s time to pick a fight!  This time I’m over at the National Humanities Center blog, <a href=””>On the Human</a>, complaining about bioethicists.  For example (from a discussion of Jonathan Glover’s book Choosing Children:  Genes, Disability, and Design):

This then is yet another version of the classic “trolley problem,” in which we are asked to decide whether it is better that people with X disability not be born at all (because the prospective mothers wait two months and have different children altogether) while some people with X disability go “uncured” in utero, or better that people with X disability be “cured” in utero while others are born with the disability because their mothers went untreated.I suppose this is the stuff of which bioethical debates are made, but may I be so rude as to point out that there is no such trolley? This thought experiment may be all well and good if the object is to ask people about the moral difference between foregoing a pregnancy that will result in a fetus with disabilities and treating a disabled fetus in utero (and miraculously “curing” it!). But it does not correspond to any imaginable scenario in the world we inhabit. (And there’s more: because, perhaps, “a disability is harder to bear if you know that people could have prevented it but chose not to do so,” [Derek] Parfit adds that “we assume that those born with the disability do not know they could have been spared it” [48]. Why not assume instead that those born with the disability are given a pony on their fifth birthday?) There simply are no known genetic conditions that present prospective parents with this kind of decision….

[click to continue…]

Philippa Foot Has Died

by John Holbo on October 7, 2010

Following up my Trolley post: I didn’t realize until just now that Philippa Foot died on October 3. So let’s have a separate, more serious thread for anyone with thoughts about that.

Notes on a Class

by Harry on December 18, 2009

I’ve just finished my most enjoyable sustained teaching experience so far. In Fall 2007 I taught a small freshman seminar (with 20 students) on Children, Marriage and the Family. This is part of a program my university has called the Freshman Interest Group (FIG) program (about which more here). 20 students all take a seminar together, and during the same semester they simultaneously take 2 other classes together, usually large lectures in which they are all in a single discussion section. The professor of the core seminar designates the associated classes, which usually, but not always, have some intellectual connection to the core seminar (in my case, they took Sociology of Marriage and the Family, also, unusually, in a 20-person class, and an Ed Psych course on child development in large lecture format). The point of it is not to give them a coherent intellectual experience, though that is a hoped-for component — but to provide them with a “natural” peer group, people with whom to identify in an otherwise large and anonymous campus. Ultimately the idea is to construct an element of their experience which matches the experiences they would normally have in a small undergraduate college. [That said, the integration between the classes was unusually good — even the timing worked out well, without much coordination (for several topics they covered the relevant sociological material just one or two weeks before they covered the corresponding material in the philosophy class).]

I did not do a brilliant job.

[click to continue…]

Consequentialism, compassion and confidence

by John Quiggin on November 21, 2009

I’m finally collecting my thoughts in response to Chris’ post on Consequentialism and Communism, particularly this remark imputing to consequentialists in general

the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals

that characterized the Bolsheviks and their successors.

As regards willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals, I think this is an unfair criticism of consequentialists. Look at any of the standard anti-consequentialist philosophical examples – trolley car, organ bank, survival lottery, violinist and so on. It’s always the hard-nosed consequentialist who is supposed to want to save as many lives as possible, and the noble anti-consequentialist who proposes to sacrifice individual lives for “valuable goals” such as clean hands, natural rights and bodily integrity.
[click to continue…]

Among the many sources of inequality, unequal access to books for residents of the Southern hemisphere is not among the most important. But it has delayed my entry into this event, so I hope I will be forgiven for writing about things that others have already looked at. In addition, I come to this complete uncontaminated with any previous knowledge of Cohen’s work on this topic, or of the existing criticisms and rejoinders or even of anything in Cohen’s book after Chapter 3. If that doesn’t worry you, read on.

[click to continue…]

Lewd and Prude

by John Holbo on February 9, 2009

We aren’t up to Part II of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, but I’m going to jump the gun. There’s this bit about something from Amartya Sen – ‘his celebrated Prude/Lewd example’ – which I had never heard tell of. I’ll quote Cohen’s narration of the case:

There exists a pornographic book that might be read by one or other, or neither (but not both), of Prude and Lewd.

Let’s pause to admire that sentence. I think that is a great first sentence for a novel, or at least a Donald Barthelme story. (But I’m getting ahead of the story.) [click to continue…]

My 4-year old iMac is on it’s last legs. The DVD drive no longer works and, although everything else is fine and functional, it’s just plain slow. I have the money, so what’s the problem?

It’s this: everyone was hoping for a new iMac to be announced at Macworld, but no dice. It’s been a long time since a new iMac appeared and it seems certain we’ll have something exciting by June at the latest. But I don’t really want to wait. I’m morally certain I could CAUSE something new and exciting to be announced and rapidly rolled out, by the simple act of buying one of the old ones. I doubt very much it would take more than a week. This would, of course, be intensely annoying to me. But everyone else would be very happy. They could buy whatever the happy shiny new thing turns out to be. (At the very least, they could buy the old thing that I just bought for significantly less than I paid.) So: should I let the knowledge that I will be bringing joy to millions of other mac users, in the form of a hot new iMac, tip the scales in favor of buying the old one right now? Should I buy altruistically, in effect? Bonus question: if I knew that by throwing a fat man off a bridge in front of an oncoming trolley I could make Apple release a new iMac, would it be ok to do it? So long as I didn’t get caught?

What do you think the odds are that Apple will 1) drop their prices or 2) roll out a new iMac in the next couple months?

Moral arbitrage

by John Quiggin on January 7, 2009

I’ve been planning for a while on a post motivated by the discussion of trolley problems a while back, but recent discussions have raised some more serious examples (the Iraq war, Gaza and so on).

Looking at the discussion, it seems as if nearly everyone is concerned about the (foreseeable) consequences of their actions, but there are a lot of claims that some consequences should be treated differently from others (intended vs unintended, direct vs intermediated by the predictable reactions of others, and so on).

To an economist, what this naturally suggests is the possibility of moral arbitrage.

[click to continue…]

Experimental Philosophy

by Brian on May 2, 2006

The BBC currently has a discussion of famous thought experiments in ethics, including Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case, and a few variants on runaway trolley cars. As of this writing, over 12000 people had sent in their votes on the moral status of actions in the examples, and it is interesting to see what this (self-selected, non-random) sample of the folk think. I’ve got some comments on the results below the fold, but I’d rather everyone here went and voted before seeing the votes, so I’ve put them below the fold.
[click to continue…]