Thought Experiments

Among the many ways to construct arguments in ethical reflection, a prominent one is the use of thought experiments.  These are customarily imaginative scenarios that have us identify principles or judgments that we can then use to shed light on actual cases.  Sometimes these can be devastatingly effective, but other times they can be so abstract that they mislead us in our inquiry.  Among the more prominent thought experiments that have been used, consider the following:

The Ring of Gyges:  Thisring thought experiment from Plato’s Republic considers the question of whether or not humans are naturally inclined toward justice.  By contemplating what we would choose to do if we came into possession of a ring that could make us invisible, we are forced to question how sincere our commitments to morality and justice really are.

The Trolley Problem:  Philippatrolley Foot formulated the trolley problem in a 1967 article titled “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect.”  This thought experiment gets at questions involving the value of individual human lives.  A Google search of the trolley problem will yield many variations of this famous problem, including the “fat man in the cave” and the “famous violinist.”

The Drowning Child:  This thought experiment, proposed by Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, is designed to demonstrate that individuals have an obligation to help the those in need, both in the immediate, local sense and in the case of international development.

The Last Man:  Richard Routley (later Richard Sylvan) invites the reader to consider whether it would be wrong for the last living man on earth to destroy each remaining species.  While Routley believes this is not ethically permissible, he is concerned as to why it would not be an acceptable action.

A clash of thought experiments that is as intelligent as it is instructive may be seen in the debate between Harvard colleagues John Rawls and Robert Nozick that played out in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) and Nozick’s 1974 response Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  The debate centers on the issue of justice.

John Rawls proposed a thought experiment in which individuals are asked to draw up a new social contract for society from what he called the “original position.”  From behind this “veil of ignorance” that conceals each person’s race, gender, socio-economic status, and so on, individuals will construct their society using only their rationality.  And Rawls argues that the most rational social contract–the outcome that will be chosen–is the one that distributes and redistributes resources such that the lot of the worst-off members of society is maximized.  For more on Rawls’ argument, follow this link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In his response to Rawls, Robert Nozick offers a thought experiment featuring basketball
legend Wilt Chamberlain.  Nozick begins by assuming that society’s resources have been distributed in the fashion advocated by Rawls, D1.  With their money, 1 million people happily pay $1.00 for a ticket to watch their favorite athlete, Wilt Chamberlain; Wilt’s contract entitles him to $0.25 of the revenue for each ticket, so he winds up with $250,000, which is far more money than anyone else.  Nozick argues that this distribution, D2, is just because the fans freely paid the ticket price.  However, D2 violates the Rawlsian principle that established D1.  Thus, the government must intervene to restore distributive justice.  At this point, Nozick concludes that by negating the free choices and exchanges of individuals, the Rawlsian model undermines persons’ liberty.  More on Nozick’s political philosophy is available here.

The Smell Test: Some have proposed that one way to assess ethical arguments is to consider which arguments or positions do you find disgusting.  We believe that it is important to acknowledge the ways in which our sense of ugliness and beauty can be a part of ethical reflection.  One simply needs to be aware of whether these reactions are truly in response to perceived goods and ills or if they are based on prejudice or ignorance.  For example, one might think an act is disgusting until one discovers that it is an essential step in a morally acceptable and even brave surgical operation that saves someone’s life.

Reversability:  This is essentially a variation of the Golden Rule.  An important way of testing one’s commitment to one’s judgement of another person’s position on an issue is to consider whether one would reach the same conclusion if the roles were reversed.