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Hypothetical anecdotes - The Ex-Communicator

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March 6th, 2012


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02:35 pm - 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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From:del_c
Date:March 6th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
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My favourite is the runaway tram full of passengers, that you have to throw a fat man in front of to save. Why is he a *fat* man? Specifically to stop you solving the ethical dilemma by throwing yourself in front of the tram.

The famous science-fictional equivalent of the tram problem is Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations"; which is funny, because he was trying to tell a story about how the universe doesn't care about your ethical pain. But he had to create a wildly implausible universe in order to get it to work. In the real universe the girl would be fine.

Finally, the ticking bomb scenario, designed to get you to agree to torture, insists that if you torture the terrorist, a hundred thousand million people will be saved from the bomb, with 100% certainty, but if if you don't torture the terrorist, a hundred zillion people will be incinerated, also with 100% certainty. In the real world, there has never been such a bomb, there has never been such a conveniently-captured conspirator, and torture has never got such good results.
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From:communicator
Date:March 6th, 2012 06:04 pm (UTC)
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I'm going out on a limb a little but I think the choice of victim in these thought experiments is often an 'Other'. The fat man, sure because the idea is that his weight is crucial, but I think more because he is soft, 'fleshy' in contrast to our philosopher who is pure mental discipline and intellect.

The Cold Equations is a source of great fascination to me, and again I think we see the symbolic victim, the soft girl, her weight and fleshiness. Symbolic sacrifice.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:March 6th, 2012 04:56 pm (UTC)
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"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. "

This reminds me of an advert for the army where some men have to cross a ravine. The voice-over says: if you're thinking "how will they get across?" you're not suited to the army, but if you're thinking "how will we get across?" you are. My daughter remarked that she was thinking "how will you get across?", while personally I couldn't have cared less whether they did or not....

Also of a problem-solving exercise in the civil service, where we were put in a room with certain conditions laid down and a problem to solve. Periodically someone would come in and announce that the conditions had changed. One such message went "One of your team has become pregnant and is leaving". The guy who was playing leader wrote on the back of the message "I have persuaded her to have an abortion and she's staying".
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From:communicator
Date:March 6th, 2012 06:07 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, and for some reason figuring out a way to get round the problem is 'cheating'.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:34 pm (UTC)
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IIRC, the powers that be objected to his "flippancy". Twits.
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From:nineveh_uk
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:21 pm (UTC)
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That army advert principally made me think "Not that bloody advert again".
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From:muuranker
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
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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').

I wonder if it is that constant? I don't think I'm that constant. I know I'm not that constant - some times, for example, I will point out that I haven't been charged the right amount (in my favour), others, I won't. It might be related to the amount, or to the nature of the transaction. But in roughly comparable situations, sometimes I just pocket the money, and others I point out the mistake.
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From:communicator
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
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Yes, me too, actually. I suppose I am framing it in terms of a battle of principles - classical ethics says you must develop some kind of rule which applies in all situations, and I am saying no, you could have a principle 'try to be imaginative at finding solutions'. But you could also have a completely situational ethics, as you describe, which doesn't really work on the basis of principles at all. But is not completely chaotic either.

And now I think about it, that is the same problem I have with analytical philosophy and theories of meaning and truth - language is situational, not really based on principles. But not completely chaotic.
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From:nineveh_uk
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
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On thought experiments that are not actually to do with thinking about how ethics etc. work, but setting people up so you can crow over them, I still remember a PSE lesson at school in which we had a nuclear bunker scenario and were required to choose which characters to chuck out so the others would live. What was blindingly obvious to me even at 13 was that this was not in any way about considering the sort of decisions that people in desperate situations might have to make, but setting us up to chuck out particular characters so that we could then receive a lecture on how nasty and prejudiced we were to have done what we had been set up to do.
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From:communicator
Date:March 6th, 2012 09:44 pm (UTC)
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God that sort of thing drives me mad. Incidentally I hope I never am in a life or death situation because I don't know how I'd behave. Badly probably.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 6th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
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why are the the thought experiments used in philosophy so whimsical, so cruel in their assumptions, so emotionally illiterate?

Good question. Takes me back to my old bio-ethics classes about abortion and the one with the lady in the hospital bed with her kidneys hooked up to the world-class violinist. Because that would ever happen.

The fat guy being thrown in front of the tram is sizeist. And I suppose the reason the person in the violinist example is a violinist and not, say, a navvy or a miner due to class-based prejudice. Which TBH I never noticed at the time.

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.

Hear, hear. :)
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From:communicator
Date:March 7th, 2012 07:45 am (UTC)
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Yes, I think the violin and the fat man/tram problems do have subtext which is not irrelevant to the function those stories fulfil.

Though to be fair the violin one is to try to make men understand what pregnancy feels like - even if a foetus is a person it is a person which is dependent on you, feeding on you. Whereas thirty years ago when I studied philosophy pregnancy was portrayed by my male lecturers as 'doing nothing' as being no sacrifice at all.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:14 am (UTC)
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Though to be fair the violin one is to try to make men understand what pregnancy feels like - even if a foetus is a person it is a person which is dependent on you, feeding on you.

It doesn't work to make men understand that fact, if I remember correctly from some of my classmates' reaction to the idea. Mind you, this was in Ireland during the X case. I think I've been a bit cynical ever since.

Ah, no, who am I kidding? I've been cynical a lot longer than that. :)

Whereas thirty years ago when I studied philosophy pregnancy was portrayed by my male lecturers as 'doing nothing' as being no sacrifice at all.

JFC!
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From:steepholm
Date:March 7th, 2012 08:49 am (UTC)
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Not only is the fat man example sizeist, but that guy was on the brink of discovering a cure to cancer, and thanks to his death, millions are now doomed.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:15 am (UTC)
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Doooomed!
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From:gair
Date:March 7th, 2012 01:00 am (UTC)
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the kind of analytical ethics favoured in Anglo philosophy departments can be inhuman and perverse

Every time anyone in our philosophy department says anything I just find myself inwardly raging BUT THAT WOULD NOT HAPPEN. (I went to a paper there by mistake, b/c it had 'Frankfurt' in the title and I thought it would be about the Frankfurt school but it was about Harry Frankfurt, and I swear to GOD it was all about would a glass still have the property of 'breakability' if it was made of a substance that turned into rubber for the instant it hit the ground when it fell, or what about if a WIZARD followed it round and TURNED IT INTO RUBBER every time it fell, and I was just like God, and you are the people who think my work on Harry Potter fanfiction is worthless I HATE YOU.)
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From:communicator
Date:March 7th, 2012 07:41 am (UTC)
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I thought that sort of analytical stuff was all in the past. At least that little story isn't cruel or over-compensating in some way.
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From:gair
Date:March 8th, 2012 05:29 am (UTC)
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That is true: no hypothetical fat men harmed by the rubber wizards.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:16 am (UTC)
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LOL! (Sorry!)
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From:gair
Date:March 8th, 2012 05:29 am (UTC)
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This was like six years ago now and it still makes me furious every time I think about it.
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From:electricant
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:21 am (UTC)
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Hah, yes, this is why I crashed and burned out of graduate philosophy and am now studying science instead.
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From:communicator
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:47 am (UTC)
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I think academic philosophy could be so good. But the reality is such a disappointment. An extra problem nowadays is that only rich kids can afford to study such an impractcal subject.
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From:gair
Date:March 8th, 2012 05:29 am (UTC)
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Not so many rubber wizards in science, I hear.
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From:electricant
Date:March 7th, 2012 10:20 am (UTC)
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I wrote my thesis at uni on thought experiments like this.

And now I am so vehemently pissed off by such thought experiments that I can't engage in debates that involve them.

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