Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Far-fetched examples in applied ethics

Not many philosophy papers could be called lovely, but I felt like writing a fan letter to Timothy Chappell after reading his review of Derek Parfit's On What Matters this lunchtime (maybe it was the sunshine and the carrot cake). Not only does he quote this from Simone Weil:
The distinctive method of philosophy consists in getting a clear conception of insoluble problems in their insolubility, then in contemplating those problems without anything else; fixedly, tirelessly, for years, without the least hope, in a state of waiting.
He also says this:

What M'Choakumchild [in Dickens' Hard Times] finds in the child Sissy Jupe – and labours, indeed, to choke – is a natural propensity for open rather than closed deliberation. In analytic moral philosophy classes all over the world right now, that same propensity is being carefully drilled out of students by their tutors' expositions of trolley problems, cave problems, transplant problems, rescue problems and the rest of the usual applied-ethics diet of hard-case thought experiments. Few philosophers are explicit or self-conscious about this, but Peter Unger is:

Toward having the puzzle be instructive, I'll make two stipulations for understanding the examples. The first is this: Beyond what's explicitly stated in each case's presentation, or what's clearly implied by it, there aren't ever any bad consequences of your conduct for anyone and, what's more, there's nothing else that's morally objectionable about it. In effect, this means we're to understand a proposed scenario so that it is as boring as possible. Easily applied by all, in short the stipulation is: Be boring! [Peter Unger,(Oxford UP 1996, pp. 25–26].

Is this a good thing that we who teach philosophy are doing to our students? There seems to be a danger that what we are offering them is a training in the failure of their imaginations and of their natural human sympathies. The typical philosophical use of the “thought experiment” in ethics is not just not to take students of ethics in the same direction as they go in when they read fictional narratives, towards wide-ranging, lateral-thinking, unpredictable, creative explorations of the indefinite possibilities of human life and action. It is to take them in exactly the opposite direction: to channel them down an ever-narrowing modal funnel within which all possible readings of a schematically described situation except for one or two are remorselessly eliminated. This is indeed a training to which the injunction “Be boring!” is apposite. And the normal penalty for failing to be boring in the required way is the same for our students as it was for Sissy: it is a Fail.

There is much more besides this. All books should be reviewed so well.

I haven't read it yet, but Jakob Elster's "How Outlandish Can Imaginary Cases Be?" also looks worth reading. Here's the abstract:
It is common in moral philosophy to test the validity of moral principles by proposing counter-examples in the form of cases where the application of the principle does not give the conclusion we intuitively find valid. These cases are often imaginary and sometimes rather ‘outlandish’, involving ray guns, non-existent creatures, etc. I discuss whether we can test moral principles with the help of outlandish cases, or if only realistic cases are admissible. I consider two types of argument against outlandish cases: 1) Since moral principles are meant for guiding action in this world, cases drawn from other worlds are irrelevant. 2) We lack the capacity to apply our intuitive moral competence to outlandish cases. I argue that while the first approach is importantly flawed, the second approach is plausible, not because our moral competence is limited to cases from this world, but because we lack the capacity to imagine outlandish cases, and we cannot apply our moral competence to a case we fail to imagine properly.


  1. I cannot recall having read anything by Tim Chappell before. But I like his take on moral philosophy. As I write this I am leafing through his Ethics and Experience. Looks one for the Easter holiday bag, alongside Malcolm Pryce and perhaps Houellebecq.

  2. I had heard of him, but I don't think I've ever read anything by him. It looks as though he's written several books that would be worth reading. Ethics and Experience is probably at the top of my list too.

  3. I read the Elster paper awhile back. I remember not being entirely in agreement with his criticism of (1)--the first reason for rejecting "outlandish" cases--but I also found myself thinking about (2) that: isn't this what exceptional fiction and science fiction writers (Philip K. Dick) do? Could it be, as with Coleridge, that too much philosophy (of a certain sort) kills the imaginative capacity?

  4. Yes, that's what Chappell suggests, and I'm very much inclined to agree. It takes a certain sort of imagination to come up with outlandish cases, but if we then insist on taking them as given in some very narrowly specified way what we're actually doing is stifling the imagination. Science fiction writers often have the ability to dream up outlandish situations, but the good ones also bring those situations to life. They make them real, not merely thought experiments. So maybe the problem is not so much that we cannot apply our intuitions to strange cases, although I think that's sometimes the case, but that we are forbidden by the terms of the exercise to apply our intuitions (or to explore the example enough to find our intuitions, perhaps).

  5. Ah, I just read Chappell's review, and I'm glad I did. (I'll leave at that for now.)

  6. That sounds intriguing (perhaps more than you mean it to). I agree that it's certainly worth reading (but I suppose that goes without saying).

  7. Oh, I just found it refreshing. I should read some of Chappell's work. I did send him an e-mail, inquiring about the Weil quote (the reference for it), and so I'll pass along his response. The translation is his own; the original is in: Simone Weil, Oeuvres Complètes edd. André Devaux, Florence de Lussy (Paris: Gallimard 2006), Vol VI, p.362.

    Here's the French (of the whole passage in the review): "La méthode propre de la philosophie consiste à concevoir clairement les problèmes insolubles dans leur insolubilité, puis à les contempler sans plus, fixement, inlassablement, pendant des années, sans aucun espoir, dans l’attente.
    D’ après ce critère, il y a peu de philosophes."

  8. Yes, it is refreshing. I mean to read some his work too, although I haven't managed to yet.

    Thanks for the Weil quote. There are few philosophers indeed by this standard.