Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Big Kahuna of philosophical thought experiments.

This post from Tyson over at Travel is Fatal reminded me of something that only philosophy geeks would get.

There is a standard tool of philosophy, or rather a family related set of tools; the so called "trolley problems", a series of hypotheticals that are intended to poke and prod our moral intuitions, as well as serve as touchstones or tests of ethical theories. Here's one variation:

You are a switch man at a two pronged fork in some railroad track. A runaway trolley is hurtling down the feeder track, toward your switch. There is no way to stop the damn thing. Now, on the left hand side of the fork are five oblivious people, who for some reason or another are cavorting on the track. They are probably college age kids listening to their freaking I-pods or MP3 players, and have them turned up wayyyy too loud. On the right hand branch there is one oblivious individual. You look at your switch, and see it is oriented toward the left branch. You cannot stop the trolley, and you cannot warn the oblivious college kids. The thing is very near your switch. Do you hit the switch sending the car to the right hand track?

This raises various questions. Here are a few:

Is it morally permissible or obligatory to hit the switch, because 5 would live and 1 will die?

Is there a morally relevant distinction between letting die and actively taking action that leads to death?

Are you in some sense of the word "using" the one to save the five?



Well, that's but one variation on the trolley case. Other variations involve fat men and bridges.

This case is often used in concert with other cases where the "numbers" are the same, yet intuitions typically run counter to the "save the five" intuitions that normally are in evidence in this trolley case. One such case involves a doctor who could remove vital organs from one patient killing him (without his knowledge or consent) and transplant them to five terminally ill patients, saving them. Intuitions typically say he should not do this, even though he can get away with it.

A great deal of time is spent in ethics courses puzzling out why it is we have different responses to these cases. This is not simply a psychological question, but also an ethical question when it leads us to ask what our guiding moral principle(s) is/are in cases like this, and whether or not they conflict, or should conflict.

If you take enough philosophy, you quickly learn that there are thought experiments all over the place, not just in the corner labeled "ethics". There are some having to do with epistemology (philosophy of knowledge and belief), philosophy of religion, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, & etc..

So, reading Tyson's post made me think back to all those courses I've been through, both undergrad and grad, and brought to mind the BIG KAHUNA of all philosophical thought experiments. This one will reduce the survivor of philosophy grad school to near hysterics, and garner puzzled looks from everyone else as they watch these breakdowns. BEHOLD and stand back in awe at it's rational majesty:

Consider the following case:
On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

QUESTION: What should the brain do?

[ALTERNATIVE EXAMPLE: Same as above, except the brain has had a commisurotomy, and the left half of the brain is a consequentialist and the right side is an absolutist.]