Communicator (communicator) wrote,

Hypothetical anecdotes

A major issue with hypothetical anecdotes like the economics problem I posted yesterday is that they are controlled 'thought experiments' where we have an unrealistic level of assurance that other factors do not come into play. Assume, for example, that you can not swap the ticket. Many academic disciplines use this type of over-controlled anecdote. Some people think that little stories are useful, because by controlling for extra factors you simplify the problem enough to demonstrate the basic principles at work. Other people (and I tend to this view) think that things we can't control or know are an unavoidable part of every human decision, so there's a limited amount to learn from such stories.

Thought experiments like this are used a lot in Philosophy of Ethics courses. There is a discussion on Crooked Timber about ethical thought experiments (Occam's Phaser) - why are the the thought experiments used in philosophy so whimsical, so cruel in their assumptions, so emotionally illiterate?

In my opinion the kind of analytical ethics favoured in Anglo philosophy departments can be inhuman and perverse. They pose us dilemmas ('You will not be rescued for ten days and you only have enough water for three people, do you kill one of your companions' etc.) which give us assurances of failure which we don't have in real life. In real life it makes sense to say 'We will share water and hope for rescue' or to say 'We will redouble our collective efforts to rescue ourselves'. That's a philosophy for real life.

And it seems to me that's what ethics actually is. You make a commitment to keep your hopes up, to keep trying, to seek compassionate solutions (for example 'don't torture terrorist suspects'). Now and again this commitment will fail, and people might even die, but that doesn't make the commitment wrong, because even when it is futile real life doesn't resemble a thought experiment.
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