Guest post: The purpose of the thought experiment

Originally a comment by Nullius in Verba on Just going with what a lot of other people have said.

The purpose of the thought experiment, indeed any thought experiment, is to force you to confront the intersection of your intuition and your reason. It is not to stack the deck and make one choice seem absurd.

It is exactly the thing that we do when we work in idealized frictionless environments of perfect elasticity. If you, as a physics student, refuse to answer the exam question because the real world is messy and not frictionless, you’re missing the point. We idealize the situation in full knowledge that it’s unrealistic. Why? Because it allows us to focus on the interactions and consequences of specific theoretical frameworks. Extracting value from the idealization requires playing along with it.

We construct idealized philosophical thought experiments the same way, in full knowledge that they’re unrealistic and that there are many interesting, relevant things left not captured. The question posed by the Trolley Problem is not, “What ought you do when there’s a trolley hurtling toward civilians?” If that’s how you approach it, you’re doing it wrong. Rather, the experiment asks, “Consequentialist, how far does your imperative to maximize aggregate good go? Are numbers really sufficient to decide? Deontologist, how far does your injunction against treating people as ends go? Can you really never take numbers into account? Virtuist, what happens when there’s no Aristotelian mean? Is one extreme preferable to another? All of you, how does this square with your intuition? If it doesn’t, how so, and what would need to change to make it jibe?” Refusal to engage with the problem is a refusal to engage with these questions. If you, as an ethics student, instead object that the fat man is too massive for you to move, you’re missing the point. Extracting value from the idealization requires paying along with it.

We use imaginative thought experiments rather than just asking the questions directly (even though we often do that, too) because imagination elicits more of our intuition. Things we’re fine with saying in the abstract (e.g., never ever lie!) suddenly collide with sentiments we might not have expected (e.g., a Nazi knocks on your door asking about Jews, and you have a Jewish family hiding in your attic.) This confrontation between conviction and intuition, between conviction and conviction, or between intuition and intuition forces us to see their limits.

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