Monday 27 December 2021

Can Thought Experiments Solve Ethical Dilemmas?

In ethics, the appeal to expand the “moral circle” typically requires moving from consideration of yourself to that of all of nature.

By Keith Tidman

What, in ethical terms, do we owe others, especially when lives are at stake? This is the crux of the ‘Drowning Child’ thought experiment posed by the contemporary philosopher, Peter Singer.

Singer illustrates the question to his students in this way:

You are walking to class when you spot a child drowning in a campus pond. You know nothing of the child’s life; and there is no personal affiliation. The pond is shallow, so it would be easy to wade in and rescue her. You would not endanger yourself, or anyone else, by going into the water and pulling the child out.
But, he adds, there are two catches. One is that your clothes will become saturated, caked in mud, and possibly ruined. The other is that taking the time to go back to your dorm to dry off and change clothes will mean missing the class you were crossing the campus for.

Singer then asks his students, ‘Do you have an obligation to rescue the child?’

The students, without exception and as one might expect, think that they do. The circumstances seem simple. Including that events are just yards away. The students, unprompted, recognise their direct responsibility to save the flailing child. The students’ moral, and even pragmatic, calculus is that the life of the child outweighs the possibility of ruined clothes and a missed class. And, for that matter, possibly the sheer ‘nuisance’ of it all. To the students, there is no ambiguity; the moral obligation is obvious; the costs, even to the cash-strapped students, are trivial.

The students’ answer to the hypothetical about saving a drowning child, as framed above, is straightforward — a one-off situation, perhaps, whose altruistic consequences end upon saving the drowning child who is then safe with family. But ought the situation be so narrowly prescribed? After all, as the stakes are raised, the moral issues, including the range of consequences, arguably become more ambiguous, nuanced, and soul-searching.

At this point, let’s pivot away from Singer’s students and toward the rest of us more generally. In pivoting, let’s also switch situations.

Suppose you are walking on the grounds of a ritzy hotel, to celebrate your fiftieth anniversary in a lavish rented ballroom, where many guests gleefully await you. Because of the once-in-a-lifetime situation, you’re wearing an expensive suit, have a wallet filled with several one-hundred-dollar bills, and are wearing a family legacy watch that you rarely wear.
Plainly, the stakes, at least in terms of potential material sacrifices, are much higher than in the first scenario.

If, then, you spot a child drowning in the hotel’s shallow pond nearby, would you wade in and save the child? Even if the expensive suit will be ruined, the paper money will fall apart from saturation, the family antique watch will not be repairable, and the long-planned event will have to be canceled, disappointing the many guests who expectantly flew in at significant expense?


The answer to ‘Do you have an obligation to rescue the child?’ is probably still a resounding yes — at least, let’s hope, for most of us. The moral calculus arguably doesn’t change, even if what materially is at risk for you and others does intensify. Sure, there may be momentary hesitation because of the costlier circumstances. Self-interests may marginally intrude, perhaps causing a pause to see if someone else might jump in instead. But hesitation is likely quickly set aside as altruistic and humanitarian instincts kick in.

To ratchet up the circumstances further, Singer turns to a child starving in an impoverished village, in a faraway country whose resources are insufficient to sustain its population, many of whom live in wretched conditions. Taking moral action to give that child a chance to survive, through a donation, would still be within most people’s finances in the developed world, including the person about to celebrate his anniversary. However, there are two obvious catches: one is that the child is far off, in an unfamiliar land; the other is that remoteness makes it easier to avert eyes and ears, in an effort at psychological detachment.

We might further equivocate based on other grounds, as we search for differentiators that may morally justify not donating to save the starving child abroad, after all. Platitudinous rationales might enter our thinking, such as the presence of local government corruption, the excessive administrative costs of charities, or the bigger, systemic problem of over-population needing to be solved first. Intended to trick and assuage our consciences, and repress urges to help.

Strapped for money and consumed by tuition debt, Singer’s students likely won’t be able to afford donating much, if anything, toward the welfare of the faraway starving child. Circumstances matter, like the inaccessibility; there’s therefore seemingly less of a moral imperative. However, the wealthier individual celebrating his anniversary arguably has a commensurately higher moral obligation to donate, despite the remoteness. A donation equal, let’s say, to the expense of the suit, money, and watch that would be ruined in saving the child in the hotel pond.

So, ought we donate? Would we donate? Even if there might appear to be a gnawing conflict between the morality of altruism and the hard-to-ignore sense of ostensible pointlessness in light of the systemic conditions in the country that perpetuate widespread childhood starvation? Under those circumstances, how might we calculate ‘effective altruism’, combining the empathy felt and the odds of meaningful utilitarian outcomes?

After all, what we ought to do and how we act based on what’s morally right not infrequently diverge. Even when we are confronted with stark images on television, social media, and newspapers of the distended stomachs of toddlers, with flies hovering around their eyes.

For most people, the cost of a donation to save the starving child far away is reasonable and socially just. But the concept of social justice might seem nebulous as we hurry on in the clamour of our daily lives. We don’t necessarily equate, in our minds, saving the drowning child with saving the starving child; moral dissonance might influence choices.

To summarise, Singer presented the ethical calculus in all these situations this way: ‘If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it’. Including saving the life of a stranger to avoid a child’s preventable death.

For someone like the financially comfortable anniversary celebrator — if not for the financially struggling college students, who would nevertheless feel morally responsible for saving the child drowning on campus — there’s an equally direct line of responsibility in donating to support the starving child far away. Both situations entail moral imperatives in their own fashion, though again circumstances matter.

The important core of these ethical expectations is the idea of ‘cosmopolitanism’: simply, to value everyone equally, as citizens of the world. Idealistic, yes; but in the context of personal moral responsibility, there’s an obligation to the welfare of others, even strangers, and to treat human life reverentially. Humanitarianism and the ‘common good’ writ large, we suppose.

To this critical point, Singer directs us to the political theorist William Lecky, who wrote of an ‘expanding circle of concern’. It is a circle that starts with the individual and family, and then widens to encompass ‘a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity’. A circle that is a reflection of our rapid globalisation.

Perhaps, the ‘Drowning Child’ thought experiment exposes divides between how we hypothesize about doing right and actually doing right, and the ambiguity surrounding the consistency of moral decision-making.


docmartincohen said...

It's good to rise these kinds of questions but I myself think these thought experiments mislead rather than enlighten. For one thing, there are so many factors actually at play. With a child about to die in some remote foreign country, compared to the child you walk past "drowning" in the pond on the way to your lecture, there are so many significant differences:

• you have direct responsiblity in one case, but not the other: only you can rescue the child in the pond, the whole world shares the responsiblity in the other case - by definition

• we are supposed to accept the child will drown (though if it is possible for you to walk in and rescue the child safely a bit of doubt seems there, while the abstract far-away child does seem to be painted as absolutely reliant on your action, even, though, as I say, in the real world so many other things - nieghbors, NGOs? - could intervene.

• More generally, IF the child in th remote village can be saved, so too can the one in the next village, and so on and so on all over the world. We cannot possibly save everyone. Our duty to each worthy cause would be both infinite and intolerable. So the reasonable course is to privilege those people nd causes who are nearest and dearest.

Any attempt to generalise and anonymise ethical duty does not so much make our duties universal, as to make our duties non-existent. Unfortunately, I think we see this attitude playing out very much in the world today, where people refuse to take the little actions that they could in their immediate domain while imagining themselves to be highly virutous, for example, by driving an electric car or paying for schools and hospitals through taxes.

Keith said...

Thank you, Martin, for your observations, as well as different ways to turn the thought experiment around. Let me respond, if I may …

First off, I disagree that ‘only you can rescue the child in the pond’. In the campus scenario laid out, there are likely at least tens of other students who are in the position at that dire moment to react and intervene on behalf of the drowning child. You still, therefore, have the option to hesitate, hoping to be unseen and deferring to those other students’ sense of altruism or moral rectitude or common human decency rather than step up and take the task upon yourself.

As to the ‘whole world shar[ing] the responsibility’ to save the child starving in some faraway impoverished land, much of the world is itself likewise suffering from food insecurity, comprising a population equally vulnerable and unable to climb out of its crippling financial hole. Moral responsibility in such matters isn’t, therefore, equal for everyone. The fact that NGOs and other public/private aid organizations can and do help doesn’t in any way diminish the responsibility of individuals living in the relative comfort of the developed world to contribute toward that distant child’s welfare. Even if one at a time.

And, yes, for the sake of the hypothetical, ‘we are supposed to accept the child will drown’ if left unattended in shallow water. That’s a reasonable assumption, as young children can panic and do flail and drown in shallow pool water all the time. Water that an adult is capable of wading in can still pose realistic risks to children. That a child might need saving in such a scenario is quite credible and, to my mind, doesn’t undermine the reasonableness of the thought experiment.

Lastly, acknowledgment that ‘we cannot possibly save everyone’ doesn’t, in my mind, lessen the moral, humanitarian responsibility to try to ‘save someone’. If individuals, organizations, and governments were to sit on their hands and do nothing in matters of life, simply because doing something will, of course, predictably fall short of fixing everything, then we have willingly neutered ourselves. We have expediently given ourselves a pass, which may be a lot too convenient for ducking one's moral responsibility. We wouldn’t accept that all-or-nothing mindset in other areas of our lives that might take effort and dedication. When it comes to trying to mitigate suffering, surely even modest gains are better than no gains.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks, Keith. Yes, this sort of to-and-fro is part of the value of thought experiments. I'm not convinced yet. Take the "onlookers" aspect. You're allowing the experiment to now run:

"You are walking to class when you spot a child drowning in a campus pond. You know nothing of the child’s life; and there is no personal affiliation. There are tens of other students who are in the position to react and intervene on behalf of the drowning child. The pond is shallow, so it would be easy to wade in and rescue her. You would not endanger yourself, or anyone else, by going into the water and pulling the child out.
But, he adds, there are two catches. One is that your clothes will become saturated, caked in mud, and possibly ruined. The other is that taking the time to go back to your dorm to dry off and change clothes will mean missing the class you were crossing the campus for."

The question here would be, does the additional detail on onlookers affect your reaction?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It depends a great deal on what one attributes value to. It also depends a great deal on one’s attitude and frame of mind. In fact, on how one perceives one’s role on earth.

I am a little concerned about such thought experiments. Firstly because a real situation is so much fuller and richer than a brief description, which I think is what Martin picks up here. Secondly because it is all narrated from the point of view of the privileged, the benefactor, the saviour.

When one enters a real situation, one discovers what the thought experiments—mere pastimes about children living and dying—really look like. I have been in such situations here described, and think that Singer has lost the plot.

Keith said...

Germane to this point, pulled from the immediately preceding comment: “I am a little concerned about such thought experiments. Firstly, because a real situation is so much fuller and richer than a brief description.”

And yet, think how Einstein famously imagining chasing a beam of light, his imagining lightning striking a passing train, his imagining having a twin in a rocket, his imagining a person falling off a roof, his imagining dropping in an elevator, and his blind beetles crawling on curved surfaces served as groundwork for Einstein’s theories of special relativity and general relativity.

Simple situations? Sure, deceptively so. Incomplete situations? Sure, deceptively so. Yet Einstein wasn't deterred. His imaginings being thought experiments at their best, to solve some of the world’s most complex problems. To get from simple what-ifs to profound insights. Just as scientists, philosophers, and other keen thinkers have successfully done over and over again, through history.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Now I think we may be conflating thought experiments in physics with thought experiments in ethics. Stephen Hawking wrote, 'While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behaviour, because there are far too many equations to solve.'

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for your observations.

As to the Hawking quote, I suggest that “predicting human behavior” is different than discussing ethical behavior. Hawking is likely right as to the former, predicting human behavior, which is arguably more the shaky province of psychology. Unless there’s more to the Hawking quote, here, at least, it doesn’t seem to delve into moral behavior as such.

No matter. The Hawking quote aside for a moment, you suggest that I “may be conflating thought experiments in physics with thought experiments in ethics.” Yet, in my opinion, there’s a rich tradition, too, of using deceptively simple, visual, philosophically framed thought experiments to tackle knotty matters of ethics. Singer, with his “drowning child” and other thought experiments, is not alone in this practice.

For example, Plato’s “the ring of Gyges,” Philippa Foot’s and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “trolley problem,” the “lifeboat problem,” Robert Nozick’s “experience machine,” Nozick’s “utility monster,” John Rawls’s “original position,” Philippa Foot’s “transplant surgeon,” Immanuel Kant’s “axe murderer,” Henry Shue’s “ticking time bomb,” Richard Routley’s “last man,” and Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “violinist.”

Of course, there are many other illustrations of philosophers effectively using wide-ranging, imaginative thought experiments, beyond issues of ethical behavior. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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