Chad Perrin: SOB

16 January 2009

6 jillion will die. You get lawn chairs, I’ll get popcorn.

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 04:28

A few days ago, fellow free-thinker Mina pondered the the question: To push or not to push.

She describes a variation on a common thought experiment:

You are standing at a switching station. There are two trains, both barreling out of control. One has six jillion people on it, and the other has one person on it. There are two tracks. One track heads to safety, and one track heads to a break in the tracks on a bridge over a huge canyon. Which train do you direct to the track with the broken bridge?

This is where you say that you’ll choose to direct the train with one person in it to the bridge of doom, because it’s better one person die than six jillion.

Then the next thought problem is given, and it goes something like

There is a train barreling out of control, heading for a break in the tracks on a bridge over a huge canyon. There are six jillion people on this train. You are near the tracks with one other person. If you push this person onto the tracks, the train will hit him and stop. If you don’t push this person, the train will fall into the canyon and all six jillion people will die. Do you push the man?

Basically, what it boils down to is this:

Is it better to sacrifice a smaller number of people to save a larger number, or to fail to save a larger number to avoid taking a personal hand in killing a smaller number? Predictably, the variations on how it’s presented tend to involve trying to invoke a particular mindset in the person being asked. In the case of Mina’s example, that’s the purpose of the first of two questions.

Mina examines the inherent problems with a question like that posed by the thought experiment as they relate to mitigating factors, matters of certainty, and so on. Even that, however, fails the test of principles — which lays bare the real “value” of a thought experiment like this: it is a trap laid to catch the unwary, getting them to essentially admit to an unprincipled view of ethics. It is, in short, postmodern morality at its worst and most pure, where the only right answer is a bleeding heart. Intellect need not apply.

Of course, Mina followed that up with a strong statement to the effect that these thought experiments are nothing more than emotional blackmail, which neatly defuses the whole thing. It’s true — they’re nothing more than emotional blackmail, and that’s how the trap is sprung.

The trap does prove something, but not what it’s really intended to prove. It is a fallacious argument, a false dichotomy, where (except in cases where the questioner doesn’t even understand the most basic implications of the thought experiment) the person enacting this entrapment ends up trying to force people to choose between an untenable principled stance and a bleeding-heart, fuzzy-minded, postmodern position. In a false dichotomy fallacy, it is implied that only two options exist when, in fact, there are others. In this case, there are many others, as many different principled approaches to ethics have been developed over the years. The fact that many people think they operate on an unshakable set of ethical principles when, in fact, they haven’t really thought things through clearly, doesn’t mean there aren’t workable principles.

Basically, my answer is that I might just get some popcorn and watch, if my only options were to either kill my poor companion or watch those people die — all else being equal.

  1. It’s not my responsibility. I may act to save someone if I so choose, but that’s my choice.
  2. There are obvious negative consequences to either course of action, and someone might hold me responsible for either. C’est la vie.
  3. Ends do not justify means — though coercive circumstances may excuse them. Ethically, I’m excused in either case.
  4. Ultimate responsibility lies with whoever set up this mess in the first place. Maybe we should push him in front of a train, if only to ensure he doesn’t do something like that again.
  5. Collectives are not inherently more valuable than individuals.

So . . . if you get the lawn chairs, I’ll get the popcorn and beer, and we can watch the end of six “jillion” people’s world. Maybe while we’re there, we can engage in a real philosophical discussion, and leave this amateurish nonsense to the people who think emotional blackmail proves anything. How does that sound to you, Mina?

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License