Sunday, September 16, 2007

Esoteric examples in ethics?

Over on Ethics Etc, there is an ongoing discussion of F. Kamm’s Intricate Ethics. Recently I posted a comment regarding some of her claims and ended with a criticism of her utilizing certain types of thought experiments or cases that were so esoteric that they seem to me to be irrelevant. I thought that the issues I raised might be of interest to people who read this blog so I am posting my concluding remarks here for your consideration and comments. This issues deal with methodological and pedagogical concerns that I have with the role of philosophy and philosophers in contemporary society. I do want to make it clear that although I am focusing on examples taken solely from Kamm, that I think that the issues are systemic in contemporary philosophy.

I want to conclude by commenting on some of the examples that Kamm raises in order to make distinctions/points. Many of examples used by Kamm seem to me to be problematically esoteric—that is, they deviate too much from our common ethical experiences. In fact, I think that provided that they deviate so much from our more garden-variety ethical scenarios that some justification for utilizing them needs to be presented. For example, in chapter 11 she gives the example of putting $500.00 into a machine the will mechanically save a child. This example, and others, are so far fetched that it does not have any normative value for me—I simply don’t have the relevant intuitions at this stage because I cannot relate to these types of examples. I can relate to ruining a suit or sending some money to save a life. Many of Kamm’s examples are like so many thought experiments that philosophers find interesting, but the important question is how will the general public react to them. It seems to me that if the study of ethics is to be of value it ought to help us to live better lives from a defensible moral point of view. If this is correct then the examples used should reflect the lives that people are actually living and the options/ choices that are really available to us. The problem with more esoteric thought-experiments is that they serve only to make philosophers and philosophy seem to be ‘in the clouds’ to borrow a famous metaphor. This type of doing philosophy seems to me to create a serious disconnect between philosophy/philosophers and the actual lives people are living which we should be serving. If we are engaged in doing ethics then I think we need to be able to demonstrate how what we are doing is applicable and relevant to the average reasonably intelligent person’s ethical deliberations. How can what we are doing positively impact lives actually being lived? We should all remember that as we are reading this people are dying of preventable diseases and starvation, women and children are being raped and abused, and people are dying in wars that seem to be unjust, etc. The type of doing philosophy exhibited by Kamm (and others) may play well in professional academic circles, but please explain to me how you think it will play to the reasonably intelligent prson trying to find out what it means to live a moral life? Here is my challenge: how can we make our ideas clear so that they resonate with people of average intelligence and understanding? Do we not have an obligation, as philosophers, to try and make our theories and arguments accessible to the reasonably intelligent person? I am sure that Kamm has important points to make, but they are obscured by the way they are presented. Am I the only person who feels this way?


  1. John,

    I share your general concern with approaches like Kamm's, but let me start out with a partial defense of philosophy-by-outlandish-thought-experiment.

    The motivation for this approach, as I understand it, is to examine cases that are conceptually "cleaner" than normal cases so that we can see the outlines of our concepts in greater detail. I've seen cases in which this really seems helpful: Imagining meeting a race of intelligent extraterrestrials vividly illustrates that our notion of a 'person', in the moral sense, is not the same as the notion of a homo sapiens. This is a crucial point for a number of issues, e.g., abortion and animal rights.

    If this procedure is fruitful, then it shouldn't matter that non-specialists don't understand the importance of some such thought experiments. Compare these experiments to neuroscientific experiments that study the biomolecular mechanisms of blink reflex conditioning in rabbits in order to understand how learning processes occur at the neuronal level. The fact that most non-specialists don't see the use in figuring out how rabbits learn to blink does not undermine the value of this research.

    That said, I see at least two responses to this defense. First, as you say, it's not clear that many people have intuitions about these outlandish cases, or that those intuitions are important. I agree. Second, this defense relies on a particular conception of philosophy, which puts philosophers in a position to make expert pronouncements on certain moral issues, even if our students cannot grasp the nature of the reasons behind them.

    I've never seen anyone teach philosophy with that conception in mind: "You can't understand it, but you must accept it, for Professor Kamm has proven that..." Can we really embrace this approach as philosophers if we refuse to embrace it as teachers? Why don't we embrace it as teachers?

  2. John,

    I sense that your post expresses two slightly different worries about the use of highly contrived examples like those put forth by Kamm.

    One worry is that these examples are so far from our ordinary ethical experience that any 'intuitions' we have about such examples seem tenuous or unreliable at best. In other words, the outlandishness of these examples raises the prospect that they are epistemologically infirm.

    Your other worry is that the use of such examples makes philosophy appear irrelevant, even laughable, to those outside the discipline. You seem to hint that there's something a bit irresponsible about philosophers entertaining and scrutinizing these hypothetical examples when actual ethical challenges exist.

    Now I think there are pedagogical concerns associated with both worries. What concerns me pedagogically about examples of the kind Kamm utilizes is not their distance from students' experience but the level of artifice and intricacy they involve. In many of these examples, we're asked to consider a situation with features a, b, c, and d and then to consult our intuitions about it; then to consider a situation with a, b, c, and e but not d and then to consult our intuitions about it; etc. So in addition to worries about the reliability of our intuitions, the examples simply become too difficult to keep track of, especially for students.

    However, I actually think that some measure of outlandishness or distance can be a good thing when teaching. Like anyone else, students may have strong views about some ethical issue, and it can be useful to get them to think about a hypothetical example in order to dial down the intensity. The best examples are those that clarify an ethical issue by way of analogy (Singer's drowning child and McGinn's vampires strike me as excellent in this regard). The best thing that can happen is that a hypothetical example of something extremely mundane can cast light on a controversial issue.

  3. I don't quite know what Kamm is using this example for, but I agree that the public would not initially react well to this example.

    BUT, I think they -- and students -- can pretty easily be shown what kind of point could be made with such a case.

    First, simply ask them how much the life of a (normal) child is worth. Most will say things like, "Priceless", "much more than any material thing," "the value can't be compared to any replaceable thing," and so forth.

    Then ask them if they'd spend 5 cents to save a child, say with such a machine that scoops children out of a fountain in China.

    Most will say yes, but then ask them if they'd spend $500 to save that child.

    Most will balk, so we can then ask them if they really meant what they said earlier. And then we might be off to lots of interesting discussions.

    Now, some bizarre thought experiments are not very fruitful, I suspect. But I think this one is.

    BTW, here's a neat book that compiles many interesting thought experiments:
    Peg Tittle’s
    What If....Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy

  4. Thanks for your comments
    David: I agree that philosophers do not take the approach that even if you do not understand it; you must accept it, etc. That is not my point. I am concerned about the use of esoteric thought experiments that do not seem to have any connection with what one could reasonably expect to happen in real life and trying to draw normative conclusions from these experiments. I do not think that Singer uses esoteric thought experiments to elicite an intuition while Kamm certainly does. Kamm then uses the intuitions she has from these experiments to try and demonstrate a problem with Singer’s. She may well have some legitimate concerns, but I think the use of these esoteric experiments makes them less accessible then if she had constructed a more realistic example.
    Michael: I agree with most of what you say. The only exception is with the outlandishness of the examples being used. I do not think that Singer’s examples of a drowning child or a child suffering from starvation in a distant land are outlandish. I do think that Kamm’s example of putting $5000.00 into a machine that will electronically activated a machine that will remove a child some distance from us from harm is outlandish. It is the outlandishness of this type of example that creates the disconnect I am concerned about. I cannot take this example seriously because I cannot imagine such a machine actually existing in reality. I can imagine myself having an extra amount of money that I can choose to spend on something I do not really need or sending it to save the life of a child.
    Nathan: Other then using the machine example, I do use a similar approach. I simply ask people to go home and count up the change they have laying around and to put into a jar and start saving up one’s change at the end of each day. Once the jar is full take the money and use it to help someone who is suffering. Or simply reduce one’s daily intake of one particular item that they use more then one of each day and would not harm them if they reduced their intake by one per day. Example: If one purchases 5 sodas a day, would that person be harmed if he or she purchased only four and put the money that would have been spent on the 5th into a jar, etc. The sad thing is that most students realize that doing either of these things would impose no harm on them, but most still will not do it. The troubling ethical issue is, Why?

  5. I don't know hwo irrelevant such thought experiments are. Philosophy typically traffics in necessary truths. If so, then it is relevant if one can think of a logically possible case according to which a philosophical claim is false -- even if it's *merely* logically possible.

    Also, what about Plato's famous Ring of Gyges thought experiment in the Republic? That one is pretty far-fetched (a ring that can make one invisible?), and yet it succeeds in making a relevant point -- indeed a central point -- about the moral life in the real world.

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