The importance of thought experiments

Thought experiments are crucial to the field of philosophy. They seek to reveal the principle(s) underlying the reasoning for a position so that such a principle(s) can either be applied ubiquitously in one’s life or thrown out all together. Or, if the thought experiment is really good and/or really precise, so that such principle(s) can be augmented for a given context. This process is so important I have a hard time imagining too many philosophers disagreeing with the usefulness of thought experiments (though many will reject the validity of various ones on varying grounds).

The reason I bring this up is because of Michael Hartwell’s post about utilitarianism from a couple of months ago. I have already responded to the bulk of what he had to say, so that can stand for itself where it is. However, I only briefly touched on one aspect of what he said and I want to address that now. Here is the relevant portion:

Of course, it’s never that simple in real life. These fables (thought experiments) assume godlike knowledge of the situation. What if the cave was only going to flood knee-deep levels and there were small holes to breath from? What if the five people on the train tracks weren’t oblivious to the train or were planting a bomb?

They also assume a dichotomy of actions. Do nothing, or kill. There’s no option to swim out of the cave, wait for rescuers or warn the people on the tracks.

There are two major issues with this. First, Michael is attempting to apply the idea of thought experiments specifically to utilitarianism. I have little doubt that he knows that there are plenty of other thought experiments which are used for other ethical theories, but none-the-less, he is applying certain ones solely to utilitarianism. That is, in his post he references the Trolley Problem as if it is a utilitarianism center-piece, a bit of logical exploration which is unique or primary to that ethical framework. He is wholly wrong to do this.

The Trolley Example is used by a number of ethical theories in order to arrive at particular moral answers. Libertarian Judith Jarvis Thomson famously extended the problem and concluded, as she often does, that there is a right to not be unjustly harmed. That had little to nothing to do with utilitarianism. There are dozens of other uber-famous thought experiments people of all ethical persuasions use. People may design their scenarios with a particular framework in mind, but nothing stops any other philosopher from applying entirely different ideas to them.

Second, the whole point of a thought experiment is to present a scenario with controlled parameters. The goal is to unveil a principle behind the reasoning for a position. (This is especially important when a given position is intuitive but has no good underlying principle from the viewpoint of the thinker.) It may be of interest to ask something like, Is it moral to take a risk when the negative consequence is significant? Does the positive consequence need to be equal? Bigger? But that is still searching for underlying principles – and it is still doing so with controlled parameters. That is, even if there is a factor of randomness thrown into a scenario in an effort to better mimic real life – “There is a 5% chance everything will be fine if you do X instead of Y” – it is still controlled.

A good thought experiment gives enough information to illicit a certain type of response. In the traditional trolley example, it’s you, a lever, and a few people scattered across a couple of tracks whilst unable to communicate with you and certain to die or live given your choices. That gets at particular principles of right and wrong. If we were to change the experiment to say that there was a small chance that the people on one track turn around in time and survive whereas there was no chance the person on the other track would turn around in time, we would shift the focus from principles to risk/reward analysis, getting into a much more subjective area of human psychology. That could help us in real life, but only insofar as we find ourselves in similar enough situations – which is unlikely. That’s fine if that’s the type of response one wants, but it doesn’t do much to illustrate principles – at least not in the way the original Trolley Problem does.

I’ve written a few times about thought experiments in philosophy. I’ve never been that extensive on their importance because I just sort of assumed people recognized how useful they are. But I guess I know what happens when I assume:

4 Responses

  1. I finally see why you got so unreasonably upset: You misunderstood my point.

    I do not oppose thought experiments. Infact, I find them useful as well. My qualm is that fringe people misuse thought experiments to justify violence. They take scenario X that would justify utilitarianist violence, then they take a warped view of the world and say the important details of a real situation is comparable to scenario x when infact it is not.

    For example, if someone asked if it would be justified to murder a nazi soldier to save some children from being tortured to death. A reasonable person would say yes. They then take a different scenario, like an animal researcher who is going to perform vivisection as part of an experiment on cancer, and try to twist the facts into saying the situations are identical in all important regards, so the conclusions must be the same.

    I am speaking against an abuse of thought experiments, not against using them correctly.

  2. You don’t get thought experiments. First, you still ascribed one particular experiment to utilitarians. One of the most extensive analyses of the Trolley Problem has been done by a libertarian. Even when I number the issues (and only with two numbers at that), you manage to address something else.

    Second, you’re still making the error of not understanding the entire point of thought experiments. Extending one to animal testing is not invalid because you don’t like the conclusion a person might draw from it. You’re dismissing an entire tool in philosophy when it becomes convenient for you because you aren’t willing to point out your perceived errors in the process. For instance, rather than saying that you don’t think human life and other animal life are equivalent on a moral level – the entire, glaring assumption being made in your example above – you just dismiss certain thought experiments as being “abused”. And then, just to throw an extra wrench into things, you randomly claim that any of this has to do with utilitarians. Read some philosophers, Michael. You’ll see the exact same thought experiments being analyzed from entirely different points of view.

    If you aren’t willing to take a real life scenario, something which has actually happened, and whine that it is used exclusively by X ethical theory and that is why we shouldn’t address it, then I don’t see why you’re so willing to do that with thought experiments. A hypothetical proposition of facts and parameters cannot be exclusive to any one ethical theory – and you do not understand that.

  3. You are arguing against a position I don’t hold and did not express. I am not saying people are wrong to find the truth in a hypothetical and then apply it to real life. I am saying people misapply real wisdom from a hypothetical to a completely different situation because their view of reality is warped and they mistakenly think they are similar.

    I did not mention libertarianism at any point of this discussion, and you’re trying to say I brought it up. I haven’t read anything from you that addresses my actual position.

  4. Michael, you don’t get it. You said certain thought experiments are invalid because they assume godlike knowledge of situations. That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the very point of most thought experiments. You have failed to address this in the least, instead choosing to misrepresent opinions you have already expressed. You can’t dance around direct quotes of yourself.

    I did not mention libertarianism at any point of this discussion, and you’re trying to say I brought it up.

    That was a mistake on my part. I meant to say you have randomly assigned particular thought experiments to utilitarians. Again, you were wrong to do this. The fact that one of the most extensive looks at the Trolley Problem has been carried out by Thomson shows 1) that you are wrong and 2) that you are ignorant.

    I haven’t read anything from you that addresses my actual position.

    In complete honesty, I think you have a reading comprehension problem. I could easily just mean that as a common Internet insult, but you make simple errors so often, I believe you have difficulty understanding what has been said.

    I have addressed your positions:

    1) You think the Trolley Problem is unique to utilitarianism. I have shown this to be false. You have ignored everything about it.

    2) You believe controlled parameters invalidates a thought experiment. You believe this because it is not representative of real life. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of thought experiments and what it is many of them are attempting to reveal.

    Your response so far has been to say you dislike the misuse of thought experiments. You gave an inept example where the issue wasn’t a misuse of the thought experiment, but rather a disagreement over the assumption of moral equivalency between humans and other animals.

    If you need me to summarize anything else for you, I’ll be here.

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