Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The world would be fun if I were God

One of the pleasures of being a philosopher is the construction of thought experiments. It's a powerful feeling, to be able to dictate every detail of every situation and participant. I've never written fiction, but my suspicion is that this particular thrill is greater for the philosopher -- a thought experiment is goal-driven, and I get to tweak each detail however I want, until my thought experiment is complete, and successful. In my less mature days, I was a champion smart-ass of what-if's. Today, I can turn that power against my own experiments and build in safeguards. I just wrote one that I think I'm rather proud of (it's late and I'm tired and I've been writing for a long time, so I reserve the right to not be proud of it the next time I read it). The point is to illustrate how a utilitarian can consistently hold that an act could be right but blameworthy. Here's the passage (from a very rough draft of an ethics term paper):
Remember, while first-order moral judgments depend only on the consequences of an action, second-order judgments take many more things into account -- they consider everything that bears on what the consequences of our second-order judgments would be. This includes some considerations which do not depend on the first-order moral status of the action at all. Consider the following thought experiment. In the spirit of debates about consequentialism, my story will involve a trolley, but against that spirit, it will not involve any harms so bad as death. William, who is wheel-chair-bound, is near a trolley track. He knows that the afternoon trolley contains a quantity of baked goods, intended for the enjoyment of a group of children this, their last afternoon of school for the year. However, just as he sees the trolley approaching, he notices that the track switch is in the wrong position; unless something is done immediately, several seconds from now, when the trolley reaches the juncture, it will follow the wrong path and fail to deliver the cookies and cake to the children. William happens to be sitting with Alisha, a ten-year-old girl. He considers quickly explaining the situation and instructing her to turn the switch, but he realizes that he doesn't have enough time to get the message across. (Alisha doesn't speak English.) So, William pushes Alisha toward the switch. He throws her with enough force to cover the distance to the switch and still have enough momentum to push the switch into the correct position, but with a small enough amount of force such that he was reasonably sure she wouldn't be seriously injured, although the whole ordeal was likely to be somewhat physically painful for her. (The switch is not near the track, so there's no danger Allisha's falling in front of the trolley.) William's plan succeeds, and the trolley delivers the sweets to the kids. Alisha does not suffer any serious injury, and five minutes later, no pain remains. If the happiness brought to the children by the sweets outweighed the pain suffered by Alisha (and that suffered by the over-sugared children's' parents), and there was no other way to solve the problem, then William's action satisfied the utilitarian formula and maximized happiness in the world. But it would probably not be praiseworthy -- William demonstrated a lack of a protective instinct against harm to children. We might criticize William, admonishing him for his ready willingness to hurt a child, even for the greater good. We could reason, what if everyone were as willing as William to hurt children? This would surely result in more hurting of children, which is first-order bad! Even if we were assured that William acted out of the best utilitarian intentions, calculating probabilities of variously-valued outcomes, and were careful to specifically praise his calm, moral deliberation, this would still be likely to have a bad result. Suppose that many others were encouraged by William's example, and were careful always to be ready to hurt children in situations were such that doing so would maximize utility. This would also be undesirable, because it would also inevitably lead to more child-harm than good. People are not reliable judges of when it's best to ignore rules of thumb. That's why utilitarians encourage character traits and dispositions in the first place.
Comments welcome -- particularly smart-ass ones. My favorite part of the thought experiment is the first parenthetical.

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