Thursday, August 22, 2013

Clockmakers and Thought Experiments

Last time I wrote about a category of thought experiments in ethics where you are presented with a choice between performing some kind of ethical transgression or not, with the consequences of not performing the transgression being incredibly dire. There are a few things someone could be trying to argue for with this sort of setup--utilitarianism, intuitionism, or merely an alternate deontological ethics that doesn't forbid the act in question.

The thing I always want to know when someone brings up one of these situations is this: where's Snidley Whiplash?

Not to be confused with Dick Dastardly.

A bunch of people got tied to the traintracks, and the only way for me to save them is to kill an innocent bystander. Suppose also that no one else is in a position to save the people. Well, how the hell did they get there? Who's the clockmaker, so to speak? Because if Snidely Whiplash tied them to the tracks, then it seems like he's the one at fault if they die, and my refusal to murder an innocent doesn't make me the murderer of the tied-up people, even though I could have prevented their deaths by not refusing.

This is even more clear if we imagine that instead of setting up a situation that somehow mechanically requires me to commit murder, Snidely Whiplash retains control of the fate of the tied-up group. "Strangle this toddler, philosopher, or I'll kill everyone here!"

Look, Snidely: I'll do me, you do you. I'm not responsible for Snidely Whiplash's choices. If he want's to kill a boatload of people, that's on him. What I have under my control is whether or not I strangle the toddler, so I don't.

Just beneath the surface here is the fact that once Snidely has set up the trolley problem, we've entered upon a second-order problem of what to do about puzzles that only arise once the rules have already been broken (Set aside the possibility of some kind of trolley-problem natural disaster). So how can we reconcile our first order duty to "keep our hands clean" so to speak with this second-order problem?

I don't think we can, really, at least with respect to our behavior to bystanders. Someone might argue that because my set of permissible acts with respect to Snidely Whiplash changes once he's broken the rules, it is plausible that my set of permissible acts might change with respect to other people. I don't buy it. We might say that it would be noble for a bystander to "take one for the team," so to speak, but to require this of them because someone else has broken the rules would be to inflict an undeserved punishment on them.

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