thought experiments: good and bad
Philosophers are famous for thought experiments. You concoct a hypothetical situation in order to test a claim. Thought experiments are crucial because they force you think clearly about the limits of your claim. However, in practice, thought experiments leave people cold. They seem contrived and counter-intuitive. This post is about one way to help you evaluate whether a thought experiment is useful. I make no claims to originality, only usefulness.
Ethics motivates this discussion because ethicists are constantly cooking up thought experiments to test the limits of ethical theories. Let’s start with two examples:
- Trolley car problems (see the wiki for a history): In this situation, there is a runaway car. It is about to run over five people. If you pull a switch, it will run over one person. People die either way. Should you pull the switch?
- Wilt Chamberlain (from Nozick): Imagine that you live in a society with 100 people. Each person pays $1 to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Inequality is increased as Wilt becomes $100 wealthier and every one becomes $1 less wealthy. Is this a just state of affairs?
Independent of my ethical priors, I have always found trolley car problems to be bizarre and Wilt Chamberlain to be intuitive. It was only recently that I was able to articulate the difference. Trolley car problems, in my view, are rare, artificially constructed situations. Wilt Chamberlain is a crisp form of a common situation.
If you buy this comparison, then it points to an important distinction among thought experiments. Some thought experiments are about creating unusual situations that place ethical intuitions in conflict. The basic trolley problem forces the reader to decide between a utilitarian theory of ethics and other theories. In contrast, the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment is about making a common situation extremely clear. Every day, inequality increases because some people are luckier, smarter, or work harder.
Then, the question becomes – is the distinction meaningful? Are “trolley cars” better for thinking about ethics than “Wilt Chamberlains?” I submit that the answer is yes. Why? Pragmatic reasons. It is a very high bar to demand that a theory properly resolve all possible situations. I suspect that no ethical theory could be supported with such a standard. That’s probably why philosophers like “trolley cars.” It’s fun to cook up examples that are unrealistic or smuggle in unusual assumptions and make ethical claims come crashing down.
In contrast, an ethical theory can be satisfactory if it provides reasonable guidance over a broad range of every day concerns. Inequality is around us every day. Thus, an answer to the Wilt Chamberlain example will move you towards ethical questions that matter, like how much people should be taxed. In other word, you should move from axiomatic reasoning about ethics (take Rule X and see how far it goes) and instead use a statistical approach to ethics (does Rule X help me in an average case, or wide range of cases).
“Trolley car” examples are also bad from a sociological perspective because they tend to strip away all institutional context and draw your eye from bigger issues. For example, ethicists have spent a lot of time arguing about whether you need to save a drowning child. That’s a situation that is exceptionally rare. About 10 people (of all ages) drown per day compared to the roughly 6,700 who die each day, mainly from old age, cardiac disease, and cancer. And even among people who drown, the reaction most people have is to save the person, not stand around and do nothing.
Ethicists may argue that an obligation to save a drowning child, which may exist, automatically entails the obligation to save people in other situations, which was Singer’s point. That ignores the fact that when problems arise, people usually start coming up with institutions to deal with the problem that are better at fixing the problem than you diving into charity work (as Singer suggests).
For example, we can invent life guards to prevent drowning at swimming pools. People can fence off dangerous swimming areas. The Coast Guard can patrol the water ways. More broadly, there are lots of institutions that address poverty in various ways that are better than becoming a crusading philanthropist. Economic growth and property rights have pulled nations out of poverty. One can also argue about the effectiveness of state benefits, like poverty insurance, guaranteed income, income redistribution, or tax breaks. In other words, the “drowning child” example is a horrible way to think about social policy because it is an uncommon example that strips away all that we know about improving people’s live.
Instead of testing ethical theories with bizarre examples, I suggest you do the following instead. Come up with a list of common ethical issues. Should I pay my taxes? Should I cheat on this test? Should I buy goods from unethical people? Should I cheat on my spouse? Should I give to my local charity? Then, take your ethical theory and make sure it actually comes up with reasonable answers to a wide range of actual concerns that most people will encounter. You can do this by directly applying the theory or with “Wilt Chamberlain” examples that amplify common situations, not goofy situations. Only after the theory is robust enough to deal with every day life, then are you allowed to move to drowning children and trolley cars.