Not Just Any Fat Man, Not Just Any Trolley
September 16, 2010

23/365: Trolley wheels
Image by Sarah and Mike …probably via Flickr

Via Twitter, here’s a fascinating article on how variations on the classic “fat man on the trolley tracks” thought experiment produce lead people with different political leanings to different conclusions. Namely: conservatives seem more willing to sacrifice one black man to save a train full of white people, while liberals are more willing to sacrifice a white man to save a train full of black people.

My guess is that both the liberals and the conservatives involved in this experiment would tell you that the race of those involved is morally irrelevant, and been appalled if you suggested that they’re unconsciously weighting the life of a member of one race over the life of someone of a different race, controlling for all other factors. But of course, that’s why thought experiments generally operate at a high level abstraction in the first place; why the fat man is usuallly known only as “the fat man,” not Tyron Payton or Chip Ellsworth III. The idea is to bypass corrupting personal prejudices and get to deeper moral intuitions.

If the liberals and conservatives had focused on the abstract question at the heart of the thought experiment instead of morally irrelevant details, they would not necessarily have making a more moral decision as we judge it, but they would have made one either consistent with their professed moral intuitions, or which caused them to reconsider those intuitions. They also would have learned something useful about their own innate biases.

So while this study didn’t have much in the way of surprises, it did confirm one of my own biases: it demonstrated yet again why I think everyone could benefit from making a serious study of ethical philosophy.

“Philosophy is Dead”
September 8, 2010

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.
Image via Wikipedia

So says Stephen Hawking, apparently, in his latest book. I wish I knew the full context for this claim, but right now I can only speculate based on the range of responses he’s received. I suppose the argument he’s making here is that empirical science can answer or make irrelevant all of the questions we typically associate with philosophy.

Bold statements like this are evidence, I think, of why scientists should stick to science and philosophers should stick to philosophy (and philosophers of science and experimental philosophers should, well, keep doing their thing). But I think it’s worth making two not-at-all-novel observations: that philosophy is the mother of science, and in fact that the English term for science used to be “natural philosophy.”

Even if you take a strictly empirical view of the nature of the universe, that is a philosophical position—one closely associated with the British empiricists of the Enlightenment and best expressed in the modern era, I think, by Alfred Ayer. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer took the position that all metaphysical claims were incoherent, full stop.

Let’s take a charitable view of Hawking’s remarks, and assume that this is what he meant. What does that do to ethics? Epistemology? Well, Language, Truth and Logic is a work of epistemology and philosophy of language, so suffice to say those two disciplines remain intact. And while Ayer argues that ethics is only slightly less incoherent than metaphysics—that moral claims tell us about the disposition and emotional states of the speaker, not a true or false fact about the universe—that matter is by no means settled.

There’s a lot in empiricism I’m sympathetic to, but I’d caution Hawking and other scientific triumphalists like Sam Harris to learn a little intellectual humility and recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry. Speculating on matters that lie outside of science’s explanatory power doesn’t mean we need to abandon logic and reason entirely, but it does mean recognizing that empirical models are not the only tools in our cognitive toolbox.

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