A thought experiment on Down Syndrome

I’ve written about thought experiments quite a few times on FTSOS. I think they’re one of the most powerful tools we have in philosophy, yet people unfortunately have a distaste for their occasional inconvenience. That is, thought experiments lay out a host of parameters, generally, and it is often difficult for people to accept them all. This tends to betray a misunderstanding of the entire point of a thought experiment.

I want to present a thought experiment on Down Syndrome, but I need to emphasize the importance of the parameters I’m going to lay out. They are not meant to be realistic at all. They are simply a method for isolating one or two factors in a situation. It’s like someone asking, “If we had flying cars, do you think we would have traffic signals like we do for the roads or would it all be radar?” There are many appropriate ways to answer this, however, one of those ways does not include saying, “Cars don’t fly.” Yes, we know cars don’t fly. This is a hypothetical thought experiment with the key parameter being that cars do fly. Noting that they do not, in fact, fly is the type of comment that should be saved for lazy sitcoms.

So here is my thought experiment. Suppose it is up to you to decide whether or not pregnant women with Down Syndrome fetuses will get abortions. This is your decision, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can say, “Yes, abort them all”, or you can say, “No, don’t abort any”, or you can say, “Abort some given percentage.” An explanation is needed for any answer, but the last one especially requires explaining.

Now, I want to be sure the parameters are clear. This is your decision. Whatever you choose, it will hurt no one. The women involved will take a pill that causes an abortion (provided that’s your choice). They will agree with your decision no matter what you choose. The same goes for the father of the fetus. And the sister. And brother. And cousin. And grandmother and grandfather. And everyone else in the world. Your decision will cause no financial hardship, no emotional or physical pain, and it will take place in a developed nation like the US. EDIT: I should be clear on this point: the lack of financial/emotional/physical hardship only applies during pregnancy, not after. That is, the hardship of pregnancy itself shouldn’t be considered a factor here. Assume all the women are of equal socioeconomic standing. You cannot ask them anything and you don’t know any of them. If you don’t make a choice, the entire planet will be destroyed immediately (and for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that you do no want that to happen). (Some philosophies argue that passive and active decisions are one and the same, but for this thought experiment, you must make an active decision. You cannot stand by idly and let nature take its course; if you stand by, Earth is immediately destroyed.) All the fetuses are no more than 4 weeks along.

Again, let me emphasize: This is your decision to make for every woman. Personal autonomy, liberty, freedom, etc are all irrelevant here. (And if it helps you to recognize that this isn’t an issue having anything to do with women’s rights, pretend this all takes place 100 million years into the future at a time when we’ve somehow evolved into an asexual species, so there are no males or females, but Down Syndrome or the asexual genetic equivalent still exists.)

Finally, if you’re of the position that abortion is always wrong in every situation, then your answer is already known and not especially interesting in this context.

So, what is it? Do you choose to abort (a decision with which everyone, including those taking the pill, will agree) or do you choose not to abort (a decision with which everyone will also agree)? Or do you choose some percentage between 0 and 100?

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:

The sort of response from theists

I’ve found a lot of theists who just hate thought experiments. If I’m to speculate, I see two reasons: 1) a lack of understanding fosters hostility and 2) they recognize they have no good response. This Doonesbury cartoon, while not about theists, encapsulates the sort of response theists give. (Click on it a couple of times to enlarge, if needed.)

In other words:

  • Here is a fact.
  • Take this fact and see how you view it from a new perspective.
  • Aaaaaand ignore the issue altogether and raise some cowardly and/or unintelligent red herring.

Hey, look at that

I’ve said in the past that one of the most powerful tools in philosophy is the thought experiment. As it so happens, even the U.S. military seems to agree with me, specifically teaching the classic trolley problem to West Point students.

These cadets are being taught to make moral decisions for themselves, not to follow rules blindly. There are risks in creating a generation of philosopher-­soldiers. One instructor I spoke to, Major Danny Cazier, acknowledged this but told me that “the pay-off is too high to pass on.” He says it is vital that when soldiers are in a terrifying battlefield situation, they don’t lose sight of “the fundamental principles that a person believes in, and which guide his actions. And those principles need to have been conditioned by considerations like the trolley problem.” The cadets agree. They’ll soon head off to perform their duty—the trolley problem is heading to Kandahar.

Thought experiments

It has come to my attention as of late that a surprising number of people have little grasp on how thought experiments work. They’ve all been theists, but I’m rather unwilling to extrapolate my anecdotal experience to that entire group. I suspect there are a number of underlying personal factors at work here, so I will forego the speculation as to the motive/reason behind the poor grasping and instead focusing on simply explaining a few key points about thought experiments. (I will focus on the areas where these people have had trouble.)

A thought experiment is not meant to be inherently realistic. It very well may reflect a real scenario, but often it’s a contrived situation that could never happen. Take for example Judith Jarvis Thompson’s violinist. She created a scenario where we might be tempted to agree that abortion is permissible.

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

Using libertarian principles, she argues that we have no responsibility to that violinist and are therefore justified in disconnecting ourselves from his circulatory system. Her argument isn’t without its problems, but it is powerful. And why? Because a lot of people are going to agree that we lack responsibility in this situation and people are going to see the situation as analogous to the abortion debate.

Rather than focus on the merits of Thompson’s argument, I want to focus on the form of her argument. That situation is unlikely to ever happen; it presumes there are no alternatives when there probably are, it assumes the violinist wouldn’t simply detach himself or die beforehand anyway, absolving us of the responsibility of carrying on with the full nine months, etc, etc. But that isn’t the point. Thought experiments are often very restricted. When we enter in variables we offer people too much wiggle room. The whole point is to find a principle and see if we hold it consistently. To do that, it is necessary to limit the conditions.

The other point on which I’ve found people have confusion is – and this one is, frankly, bizarre – when someone uses a point in which that person does not actually believe. In the above explanation, I used a different example than the one that caused someone confusion. For this explanation, I will be using the experiment that is being confused.

First, let us go over another way thought experiments are used. Rather than being a contrived analogy created with purposeful restrictions, thought experiments can take the form of an if/then scenario. Generally this isn’t referred to as a thought experiment, but the relation is close enough where I feel comfortable including it in this post. Take for example an example provided by Peter Singer. (I’m at a loss for the book where this is included, so I will be paraphrasing.) In making an argument for the rights of animals, he begins by pointing out that we’ve long held assumptions that are easily abused when used in arguments. Specifically, he references an argument made in the 1800’s where a politically strong man argues that giving women the vote would be like giving gorillas the vote. He assumes that everyone else has the assumption that giving gorillas any sort of human rights is ridiculous; he doesn’t offer an argument as to why it would be ridiculous to give them the vote (or any other right). With this assumption he is able to allow his reader to follow the consequences: if it’s ridiculous to give gorillas the right to vote, then it is ridiculous to give women the right to vote for the same (unmentioned) reason(s).

Now on to my specific example. The Problem of Evil is something theists have been unable to resolve without violating certain principles. To refresh everyone’s memory, here is the Problem:

1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
Evil exists.
5. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
6. Therefore, God does not exist [as we know him]

The primary answer given to this is that evil is necessary for the existence of free will, but this fails because creating free will (a) creates evil and (b) is not necessary to God’s existence. The “if” portions of the argument which detail God’s properties (1-4), clearly show that God desires the elimination of evil. Everyone agrees that without that property he is a very different God (and therefore not the God in which so many people believe). No one, however, agrees that he needs to create free will in order to exist. The Problem remains.

Now here is the bizarre part I mentioned. I have heard it argued that it is dishonest (on some level – there was squirming around this issue) for an atheist to use the Problem of Evil as an argument against God. The reason is that an atheist does not believe in objective evil as derived from God. (An atheist may argue for an objective evil, but the one in question – not myself – did and does not believe in that argument – nor, incidentally, do I.) This, of course, is bunk. It is entirely unnecessary for anyone presenting the Problem of Evil to believe in any part of it. It is enough that the person to whom the Problem is being presented accepts the “if” portions. (Or that person can draw an issue with one of the premises and resolve the Problem that way, i.e., the person could say God doesn’t desire the elimination of evil. That would take care of any internal contradictions for that person, but the point that the God in which most people believe does not exist remains.)

I want to use my own thought experiment to help draw out and do away with the confusion. And remember – it need not be realistic.

Let’s say we have an individual named Sam. He believes in both the Christian god and the Muslim god. He says he fully accepts them both as entirely real and they both hold all of the characteristics listed in the above quote (omnipotence, moral perfection, etc). Immediately, Tom, a Christian theist, says to Sam, “But these two Gods say things which are in conflict with each other. If the Christian god says one thing, but the Muslim god says another, then how do you resolve the issue?” Rather than answer the question, Sam looks at Tom and says, “Ah, but Tom, you only believe in the Christian god. Since you reject the existence of the Muslim god, it is dishonest of you to use him as a part of your argument.”

I hope we all see how ridiculous Sam is in this scenario. Of course Tom can ask Sam how he resolves the obvious conflict. It isn’t necessary that Tom believes in both gods (or either). The conflict is independent of Tom and his beliefs. Anyone can ask Sam about the obvious problems that arise from holding contradictory beliefs.

Now I want to break it down. In the first scenario we have two important beliefs: (a) God exists and (b) evil exists. If someone believes (a), then a belief in (b) poses a Problem. That’s the Problem of Evil at its most basic level. But take a look at the discussion between Sam and Tom; there are two important beliefs there, too: (a) the Christian god exists and (b) the Muslim god exists. If Sam believes in (a), then a belief in (b) poses a problem.

This isn’t that hard.

I find it difficult to imagine someone calling a Christian or Jew or Muslim or atheist or Buddhist or agnostic or Scientologist dishonest for pointing out to Sam that he has a contradiction in his beliefs. I really hope it’s obvious to everyone that it is unnecessary for anyone to accept any premise of Sam’s beliefs in order to tell him that there is a conflict in believing that, say, it is necessary to accept Jesus Christ while at the same time it is unnecessary to accept Jesus Christ. We can all see that contradiction and we can all point it out. And we can do it with complete and utter integrity and honesty.

Finally, here are a few links which explain thought experiments in more detail than I have.