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Three Day Weekend

with 2 comments

And I’m doing it again, with the spelling of weekend.

But it is a three day weekend for me, three days when I have no need to get up at any particular time.

These days, that’s how I tend to define “time off.”  There isn’t any day when I do no work at all, except when I’m very sick.  I haven’t been on an actual vacation in–well, okay, it depends on how you define vacation.  But if you mean going somewhere else from home and not working right through your stay, I haven’t done it in years.

Maybe ever.

I got up late this morning, or at least late for me, and found that John Oliver had been to Arts and Letters Daily before me, and been struck by the same article I was to be struck by.

I don’t know if any of you remember a series of posts I did on reading a book by a Peter Singer disciple.  I can’t remember his name any more, but he was taken with Singer’s call that all people in rich countries are morally to blame if they do not strip themselves down to absolutely the bare minimum required for existence and send everything else to the poor countries.

I said at the time that I didn’t think he actually expected anybody to do this.  Instead, he was in search of a way to make people in rich countries feel morally illegitimate, a mental state that makes them much more malleable when other issues come up that might not be to their advantage.

Of course, my younger son knew what was wrong with this idea the first time he heard it:  the rich countries are rich because they have active economies, if everybody stopped buying luxury cars or houses over six hundred square feet or any kind of electronic fun gadget at all, the rich countries would take very little time to become poor countries themselves and then there would be no “resources” for anybody.

I bring all this up because the guy who wrote the book was completely enthralled by an academic philosophical exercise called “the trolley problem,” and it was an article on the trolley problem that was up on A and L Daily this morning.

If you want to know more about the trolley problem in detail, you can go over to


and read the article, which makes some interesting points, although not nearly enough of them.

My issue with all this is more general–it’s with the use of hypotheticals at all.

I do understand that hypotheticals do have a use.  They can be helpful in sorting out issues when you’re not sure what to do next.

But if you take them beyond that narrow function, they’ve got all kinds of problems.  And no matter what some of the people in this article would say, I think Thomas Aquinas–unlike Singer and his Apostles–would have seen what those were.

The problems with hypotheticals are these:

First, obviously, they are not true.  They are not only not situations we would not actually face in the real world, they are situations we could not actually face in the real world. 

In order to devise a hypothetical clear enough to be useful for discussion, it is always necessary to strip away the vast majority of conditions that would prevail if the situation did arise in real time.

Consider one of Michael Levin’s hypotheticals in his essay “The Case for Torture”:  a terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in the city of New York.  If you don’t get him to tell you where that bomb is, thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of innocent people will die.  Only by torturing him can you hope to have the information in time.  Do you torture him?

Almost everybody on the planet would answer yes to the question at the end of that hypothetical.  In fact, I would answer yes to that question at the end of that hypothetical–if I knew that the conditions on the ground were what the hypothetical said they were.

But although you might find a scenario approximately like this in the real world, you would find one exactly like it, and for more reasons than one.   The most obvious kink is that statement that “the only way” you could get the information on time was torture. 

There was a guy who tried to plant a bomb–not a nuclear one, but still–in New York City, and not only was torture not the only way to get information out of him, they barely had to arrest him.  He’s been talking damned near nonstop ever since.

But the real problem with Levin’s hypothetical is in its assumptions, and especially its main assumption–that torture could get the truth out of your man at all.

There are all kinds of moral and philosophical objections to torture, but the practical objection is that it tends to make the victim willing to say anything his interrogators want to hear, true or not.   While your guy is making up anything he thinks will satisfy you, you’ll be using valuable time that could have been spent looking for that bomb in other ways, or even interrogating the prisoner in ways less likely to throw up false positives.

The trolley problem, and all its variations, have similar kinks in them, but to me their biggest difficulties are two fold:

First is in the fact that the situations they present are wholly artificial in a way that really matters in real life.  They assume that it is possible for the actor to know and comprehend a wide variety of crises all happening at the same time.

For most of us, seeing a trolley rushing down the track to kill six children tied to the rails, the chances are good that we won’t even notice the single guy tied to the siding who isn’t in danger yet.   Anybody who has ever been in a situation of acute danger (and who hasn’t been trained by something like the Marines) knows that the tendency is to concentrate on the immediate fact, often to the exclusion of everything and anything else.

The world goes still.  Your mind goes completely clear.  You focus on this one point until it is solved.

Then you look up and–oops, the other guy on the other track.

That’s how that would play out in real life. And there may be some serious moral questions here–to what extent should we all be trained to be able to see the larger picture?–but they aren’t the ones the trolley problem throws up.

The bigger issue, for me, is the one Aquinas would have understood from off–the trolley problem, as stated, is not an exercise in moral philosophy, but in values clarification.

It assumes that what we need to do is to find out what we already think about the morality of acting within the hypothetical, not that we might need to change what we already think. 

Or that what we already think is wrong.

There is, however, a bigger issue still:  let’s assume the validity of the trolley problem as a method of moral reasoning.

Now let’s apply it to the issue of what we (or Europe, or the UN, or Israel) should do about the  Iranian nuclear program.

Except that nobody will, because the people who run around worrying about the trolley problem are, in fact, desperately trying to avoid real questions of real morality in real life.

It’s not the point of their exercise.

Written by janeh

October 9th, 2010 at 7:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Three Day Weekend'

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  1. It’s true. Thinking about how we feel about the morality of a situation is not the same as thinking through what the moral solution is. And the whole point of hypotheticals is that reality is (usually) more complex. But if you’re doing it right, the hypothetical sorts out the moral question from the various ways of avoiding the dilema.

    And part of doing it right is thinking clearly. If someone wants to object that the infliction of pain is uniquely evil, and no benefit can justify it, well and good–though I’d like to see the reasoning. But the argument that “torture doesn’t work” is just sloppy thinking.
    Yes, many people, in pain or threatened with pain, will say anything that will make the pain stop–which is why such “confessions” aren’t worth much as evidence of guilt. But it’s also true that many people, offered money, will tell you anything which might cause them to give it to them. But we don’t say “offering rewards doesn’t work” because we seek outside confirmation. If Sam says Joe robbed a bunch of parking meters, this does not by itself get Sam a dime. If we then stop by Joe’s place with a search warrant and find five grand in nickels, dimes and quarters and a parking meter key, Sam gets his reward money. Likewise, if Abdul can make the loud rock music stop by saying “I am a member of al Qaeda” we have learned nothing. But if Abdul can only make the loud music stop by showing someone the atomic bomb, he is, as they say, “strongly incentivised” to say “it’s in the lobby of the Empire State Building, disguised as an out of order Coke machine” which can then be confirmed. Nor can I see any reason why such physical evidence ought not to be regarded as proof of guilt==but then I have the same problem with throwing out physical evidence because of problems with the search warrant.

    Moral dilemas are what they are, and not what we could like them to be. It would be helpful if distasteful means never led to good ends, but that’s not how the world is. This doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t avoid such situations–but let’s not pretend they don’t exist.


    9 Oct 10 at 9:07 am

  2. I encountered the trolley problem in a philosophy class a few years after it was publihshed. We were discussing two points of views about moraity. One is that there are moral rules such as “It is always wrong to deliberately kill an innocent human being.” The other is Utiliarian “Act so as to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.”

    The students who liked utiliarianism had no trouble with the idea of throwing the switch but bulked at throwing the fat man off the bridge.

    The students who liked rules refused to throw the fat man off the bridge but wanted to throw the switch even though that would be a deliberate action which resulted in killing an innocent human being.

    The problem forces people to think deeply about their moral beliefs. The lesson seems to be that there are no simple rules.


    9 Oct 10 at 3:56 pm

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