Philosophy and Ethics

This blog follows up issues and ideas from my website: Philosophy and Ethics.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Off your trolley? Why I'm seldom persuaded by thought experiments

I know they are popular and great at engaging people’s interest in ethical issues, but I’m getting rather fed up with trolleys, railway lines, fat men, famous violinists and animals that want to be eaten. In my view, there is a danger that thought experiments will diminish rather than expand our ability to think creatively. Let me explain why…

In science, experiments are constructed in order to eliminate all but a very small number of variables, so that they can be measured and compared. The more subtle the variables to be measured, the more important it is to eliminate anything that could produce a false reading.  If I’m interested in the size of apples related to the conditions under which they are grown, I ignore their colour; if colour interests me, I ignore their size. But each apple has both colour and size; each apple is unique. The uniqueness of that apple has to be set aside if experiments are to yield scientific theories about apple growth.

An experiment is therefore, by its very nature, unnatural. And this applies especially to human choices and moral dilemmas.  In real life with have what Heidegger called the ‘infinite background’ problem; at any one time, the number of influences upon us, along with the influences that influence the things that influence us (!) stretch out infinitely.  What is more, we are thrown into a set of circumstances not of our own choosing, and need to make sense of our world on that basis.

We never encounter the kind of situation that is presented in a thought experiment, simply because – in order that the thought experiment could be realistic in reflecting actual life choices – it would need to have an infinite number of personal circumstances attached to it.  Thought experiments therefore yield general principles (I’d rather kill one person than five), never explain or guide any one individual to make his or her choice on that particular occasion.  There is an additional danger that, once the results of a thought experiment are tabulated, philosophy starts to descend into statistics and merely relates that, give the choice, 60% opt for one thing and 40% for the other – statistics that simply point to how people respond to being asked a particular question in a particular way. I’m far from persuaded that statistics of this sort contribute much to ethical debate.

At the time of writing, the news is filled with the responses to an inquest into the shooting of a young black man by police on the streets of North London. The inquest came to the conclusion that he was lawfully killed.  But the situation was extremely complicated. The young man was black, raising issues of racism. Would the police have been equally ready to shoot if here were white? He was a known criminal and was in possession of a firearm at the time. To what extent does the fact that the police had reason to believe he was armed influence the actually pulling of the trigger in the moment of confrontation? Did he point the gun towards police, or did he throw it away as he stepped from the taxi? Is raising a gun to throw it an action that could be misinterpreted as raising it to fire?  I need not go into details – they are complex and have involved months of investigation and weeks of inquest hearings. Can you imagine the thought experiment that might be constructed from such an incident? It would suggest that the decision to shoot was binary. In situation ‘X’ do you or do you not shoot? What principle should apply in that situation?

Now it is clear that there are principles involved: the police are only permitted to shoot if their lives or those of others are directly threatened; the colour of the suspect should be irrelevant.  And such general moral and legal principles can be illustrated by means of thought experiments. But principles, however valid in themselves, never fully explain, justify or account for specific actions. Before ‘casuistry’ became a dirty word, it was simply the recognition that all laws needed to take into account particular circumstances. Casuistry has always been needed if laws and moral principles are to be applied fairly. In dealing with the particular, we always need to be flexible.

So what do I have against thought experiments?

In themselves, they provide a service in highlighting general moral principles, and – by examining just a single variable extracted from the complexities of life – can prevent us from getting too bogged down in the details. But my fear is that, if taken in isolation, they can give the impression that moral questions are clear cut, and thus incline people towards an absolutism that does not reflect reality.

Simplification also tends to favour utilitarianism – the view that, in any situation, we should strive to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people involved. Now, I’m not against utilitarian arguments, they have their place, but they do tend to reinforce a narrowing and simplification of moral focus. Thus, if one course of action kills fewer people than another, an act utilitarian argument will tend to favour it. The problem is that a quantitative assessment of ‘good’ operates on just one level, whereas life operates on many.  A hierarchy of goods complicates any numerical calculation.  Hence the problems with all those old ‘raft’ debates about who should be most worthy of survival.  Once you start unpacking the background, decisions become more and more complicated.

Just as with artificial intelligence, it would only be possible to construct a realistic, working human brain if it could also be provided with a human body, a human set of relationships, a human history from conception onwards and a human world with which to interact and develop (in other words, the whole of reality would have to be constructed for its benefit), so a thought experiment would only work properly if it were as complex as the real world. And that, of course, is both impossible and self-defeating.

We also know – thanks to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow – that our beliefs about the world are shaped to a remarkable extent by our personal likes, dislikes and intuitive responses to what life presents to us. They are not the same as the conclusions we reach through logical analysis.  Now, you could argue that thought experiments are valuable just because they force us to examine our moral principles rationally, stripping away the intuitive personal valuation that colours the moment of decision.  My argument against them would be that this strips out the very basis of morality, certainly if you examine it is an evolutionary context. A good case can be made for saying that morality, however subtle and principled it might now be, originated in the need for social cooperation in order to survive in a dangerous world. Protection of vulnerable offspring, preferential treatment of close family members or simply of those who are like ourselves, is a deeply engrained trait, experienced now in terms of emotion and intuition. It may in itself be inadequate as a basis for morality, it may be too narrow for the altruism we need in the modern world, but it cannot be denied as a factor influences the ‘thinking fast’ that takes place in the moral moment.

Eliminating the emotional may give a clearer, more justifiable ethic, but there is a danger that such an ethic may float free from the reality of engaged human values – launching us into a crudely utilitarian world where numbers count and feelings don’t.

The essence of human creativity is the ability to go beyond evidence and principle, to get an intuitive grasp of a situation and act within it. A genuinely creative action is only (at best, or if ever) explicable in retrospect. At the time, it requires a leap of cognitive and personal faith – exploring and backing a hunch, going with the intuitive, setting aside the expected principles and doing the extraordinary. Sometimes people act creatively and get it wrong; that’s human. But the alternative – to stick with the known and established, to follow the rules to the letter, to weigh and measure anticipated results – may be more easily justified, but is hardly the stuff of creative intelligence.

So let’s by all means enjoy reading and puzzling out the implications of thought experiments, but we need to remember that the moral principles we frame from them will only be as realistic as the experiment itself, they will never account for what does happen (or give adequate guidance for what should happen) in the real world.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Can philosophy avoid the personal?

 Questions about the meaning of existence and general metaphysical issues about the nature of reality are common to humankind, but the way in which they are articulated and the emphasis given to them will depend to a considerable extent on culture and language. That much is clear from a general perusal within the history of thought – the same questions come round again and again, to be explored afresh in each generation. We may follow Plato’s arguments, or admire the logic of Anselm, struggle with Kant’s language  because we know he has been hugely influential, or enjoy the frisson of reading Nietzsche, but still recognise that their approach would not necessarily be the most natural one for us to take today. They write out of their own time and circumstances.

But I think there’s more to it than that.  The personal situation, upbringing and emotional outlook of each individual thinker colours his or her thought.  I’ve just been reading a selection of Schopenhaur’s essays and aphorisms, and his fundamental pessimism influences everything, even if his cynical eye and wit can amuse.  You can agree with the points he makes and yet you also see that they are made in response to his whole approach to life. (Only someone who has failed to get people to buy any of his books can be quite as scathing as Schopenhaur about copyright and the tawdry business of writing for money!)  Nigel Rodgers and I explored this personal angle on philosophy in Philosophers Behaving Badly (a misleading title, perhaps, better rendered in the German edition as Philosophen wie vir – since we explored the influence of their personal life on the thought of some of the greatest thinkers without seeking to debunk their work).

However, in the attempt to present a reasoned, coherent argument and be ‘objective’, each thinker tends to bracket out his or her subjective preferences or emotional needs, and it is this bracketing that makes their influence all the more insidious.

This is especially so in the case of the Philosophy of Religion. Let me give you a personal example. My early flirtations with atheism and radical theology and my later interest in Buddhism were exciting because – although at the time I saw them as entirely logical responses to the religious questions – they seemed to offer freedom from what had been a childhood dominated by religious restraint and authority.  I was embarrassed to be identified with the unbelievable, and rather than try to compromise and interpret religious ideas in order to stay within the fold, it was far more emotionally attractive to rebel and assert my freedom, adulthood and what I liked to think of as intellectual superiority.  But what I presented as the quest for intellectual integrity was to a large extent a quest for emotional integrity.  That does not invalidate the arguments I gave for my changed beliefs; it simply accounts for the emotional force that drove my thinking, and the ‘tingle’ I felt when I encountered radical ideas.

Does this matter, if philosophy is primarily about examining the validity of arguments? No. Does it matter if philosophy is primarily about a ‘love of wisdom’ and that wisdom is defined and expressed in terms of the relationship of people to one another, to the world in which they find themselves, and to the sense of their own identity? Yes, it most certainly does.

Each person grapples with questions, or chooses to ignore them, in their own particular way.  Problems occur when they fail to acknowledge the impulse that drives their thought. It is not unknown for a scientist, who – within his own field – can be enthusiastic and wax lyrical about nature, to dump even the most basic tenets of scientific objectivity when confronted with questions of religion, just as some thinkers who are personally religious have an instinctive recoil from materialist arguments and (unwisely, in my view) take refuge in some form of Cartesian dualism, in order to keep open the possibility of a non-physical, ‘spiritual’ world. 

The assertion that, in the interests of objectivity, we should examine philosophical arguments but ignore the underlying emotional impulse that energises them is no more sensible than concentrating on the harmonic structures of a symphony while attempting to bracket out the emotions expressed through the music.  If a national anthem can bring tears to the eyes, it’s not just an appreciation of a particular sequence of notes.

Hence, I think it is important to recognise that philosophy engages us at two different levels, the intellectual and the personal, and we should take that into account when interpreting any original philosophical text.

With the exception (I assume, you may disagree) of mathematics and pure logic, the reading of a philosophical (or any other) text involves, in addition to the words and arguments on the page or screen, both the personal intentions of the author and also those of you, as reader. Why did he or she want to write this? Why do I want to read it?  (And if, with a wry smile, those of you in academe mutter something connected with your quota of research articles to stave off threats of funding cuts to your department as a prime motive for writing, or undergraduates hoping for a good degree, job and the ability to pay off student debts as the reason for reading, we are already in personal realms far removed from the philosophical arguments themselves.)

If human thought developed in response to the challenges of a hostile world and the need for social interaction to aid survival (and I know that’s a big ‘If’), thought is at its most real when it is also most relevant to life and the problems that we confront. It should therefore be perfectly valid to ask of any thinker presenting an idea ‘Why are you particularly interested in that question?’ or ‘What do you see as the value in having an answer to that question?’ This being so, what follows?  That being the case, how should we respond? The development of highly structured, abstract thought, may be interesting and solve complex questions, but our engagement with it says something about our own personal values.  Have you ever experienced boredom or frustration when reading philosophy? Or felt the tingle of excitement as ideas suddenly clarify your former confusions?  

From time to time, I escape from the serious work of thinking by opening the ‘Games’ folder and trying my luck at Solitaire; pure displacement activity. I enjoy playing the cards quickly, wondering what I can make of an unpromising initial sequence of cards not of my own choosing, make decisions, adopt strategies, and feel satisfied when the came comes out. It’s pure disengaged mental activity, clean, precise and giving immediate feedback, so unlike the messy jumble of ideas, emotions and circumstances that constitute a human life.  And then I just wonder whether some of the most precise, abstract and academic philosophy, along with the elaborately honed disagreements on relatively minor points,  is not also a form of displacement activity; deliberately (if unconsciously) avoiding the quest for a ‘love of wisdom’ that is practical and personally challenging.