Philosophical Multicore

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Archive for the ‘Moral Dilemmas’ Category

Useless Thought Experiments

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 12, 2013

Philosophers often use thought experiments in an attempt to refute some theory. In the particular case of ethical thought experiments, philosophers’ arguments tend to take this form:

1. Consider some unlikely situation.

2. In this situation, moral philosophy X says you should do Y.

3. Y is clearly immoral.

4. Therefore, X cannot be true.

In response, people who believe X often try to refute (2)—the idea that Y follows from X. In many cases, this is a mistake. Typically, the weakest point here is (3)—the assumption that Y is immoral. Even if we intuitively feel that Y must be immoral, our intuitions often misguide us; if we want to think clearly, we must apply rationality to our judgments whenever possible. We cannot reject a moral philosophy because of a thought experiment.

Intuitional and Rational Judgments

When making ethical judgments, people tend to rely heavily on intuition. An ethical system must contain some sort of intuition as the basis for a first principle; but it is important to select the right intuition. Most people who have not studied ethics (and even many who have) tend to act on whatever intuition they happen to feel in the moment, even if it contradicts some previous feeling.

When establishing an ethical theory, one should choose a few basic intuitions and then use rational principles to develop a consistent philosophy.

Once one selects some ethical framework, one can no longer make statements such as “Y is clearly immoral.” It must be proven immoral within the framework, not by our limited and often-inconsistent [1] instincts.

Below, I discuss three thought experiments that have been used to reject utilitarianism, and why they fail at this purpose.

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Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, Utilitarianism | 3 Comments »

The Google-Trolley Problem

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 30, 2012

Before reading this essay, read about the Google-Trolley problem here.

As a utilitarian, I’d say you should of course run into the fat man. That’s not very interesting. But what other reasons might one give to make one choice or the other?

As far as I can see, only two factors distinguish the trolley case from the fat man case. The first is that you are killing the fat man with your own hands, whereas you only indirectly kill the man on the track. [1] If one believes that this is the relevant distinction, it would be acceptable to program a computer to kill the fat man since you are not killing him yourself.

The second factor is that you use the fat man as a means stop the train—it would not stop without pushing him—whereas the man on the track only just happens to be in the way. In Kantian terms, you treat the fat man as a means to an end and not as an end in himself. Kant would say that you should program the machine not to kill the fat man.

But the real answer is that you should kill the fat man because doing so increases utility.


[1] I think this is the reason why most people switch sides between the trolley problem and the fat man problem—an aversion to direct killing, not actual moral reasoning.

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 4 Comments »

Moral Dilemmas with Dogs

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 25, 2011

You are standing on a bridge overlooking a track where five dogs are sitting. Suddenly, you see a trolley coming down the track. The dogs are not paying attention, and if the trolley hits them, they will surely all die. You start to panic, but then you see that next to you is a very fat dog. You could push the dog off the bridge, killing him and stopping the trolley. Should you do it?

You are a private veterinarian who takes care of stray dogs. You currently have five dogs who all need a different organ to survive, and you have no doggy organ donors. You are about to give up hope when a healthy dog walks in for a doggy check-up. You could kill him, harvest his organs and give them to the other five dogs. Should you do it?

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 4 Comments »

The Suitcase Dilemma

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 27, 2010

I heard a rather interesting dilemma from a rather surprising source: it was in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. It goes something like this: (paraphrased)

You are walking down the street when you come across a suitcase full of money. No one is around; no one will know what you do with it. Do you:

a) keep the money,
b) buy gifts for your loved ones,
c) give it to the poor, or
d) turn it over to the police?

Edward, being the amoral monster that he is, chose (b). Everyone else said that the answer was (d). I noticed, though, that any option is arguable.

A Utilitarian would say that the money should be given to the poor, as they are the ones who most need it. A Libertarian, on the other hand, would say that the money should be turned over to the police so that it can be returned to its owner. By Libertarian morality, property ownership is very important, and it would be theft to give the money to the poor.

Choice (b), although seemingly altruistic, is actually completely selfish. The poor need the money a lot more than your loved ones do, so as long as you’re giving away the money you should give it to the poor. But if you give it to your loved ones, this will increase your personal standing and will help the people who help you. True altruism is helping strangers.

And choice (a) is just selfish. Everybody knows that.

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, Utilitarianism | 1 Comment »

Heinz Dilemma

Posted by Michael Dickens on March 24, 2010

A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

Should Heinz have broken into the store to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?

What do you think about this, and what is your reasoning?

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas, Utilitarianism | 9 Comments »

Kohlberg Dilemmas, Part I

Posted by Michael Dickens on October 2, 2009

From this page.

Joe is a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to go to camp very much. His father promised him he could go if he saved up the money for it himself. So Joe worked hard at his paper route and saved up the forty dollars it cost to go to camp, and a little more besides. But just before camp was going to start, his father changed his mind. Some of his friends decided to go on a special fishing trip, and Joe’s father was short of the money it would cost. So he told Joe to give him the money he had saved from the paper route. Joe didn’t want to give up going to camp, so he thinks of refusing to give his father the money.


1. Should Joe refuse to give his father the money?

Joe can do whatever he wants. It’s Joe’s money.

2. Does the father have the right to tell Joe to give him the money?

Yes. And Joe has the right to refuse. Joe’s father can say pretty much whatever he wants, but it’s still Joe’s money.

3. Does giving the money have anything to do with being a good son?

It depends on the meaning of “good”. Joe is not obligated to give his father the money, but it would be a nice thing to do.

4. Is the fact that Joe earned the money himself important in this situation?

YES!!!! Joe worked hard to earn that money. If Joe’s father can just take it, then that is simply slavery. Everyone knows that slavery is immoral, right?

5. The father promised Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money. Is the fact that the father promised the most important thing in the situation?

I can’t say that it is the most important, since “important” depends on perspective. But it is important. The father should keep his word.

6. In general, why should a promise kept?

Good question. If a promise is not kept, it puts the person on the other end at a disadvantage. Also, people have a selfish interest to keep their promises. If I do not keep a promise to you, then you will not trust me as much and I will not be able to get as much out of our relationship.

7. Is it important to keep a promise to someone you don’t know well and probably won’t see again?

Yes. Although it is not how we evolved, I believe that pure altruism is a virtue. That other person’s life will be enriched if the promise is kept, and will be hurt if the promise is broken. Maybe from a selfish perspective I don’t care about that, but the selfish perspective is very limiting. True morality is greater than any one person.

8. What do you think is the most important thing a father should be concerned about in his relationship to his son?

Keeping his son’s quality of life as high as possible. This is about as important as it gets. Notice that if someone is dead, their quality of life is very poor.

9. In general, what should be the authority of a father over his son?

It depends on how much the father contributes to his son. A father has no inherent power over his son: the power comes from the social contract that is implicitly signed by the son when he lives in his father’s house and eats his father’s food. Since it is a contract and not some universal ideal, the terms of the contract are not universal. There are certain things which are very common and could be considered “good”, though: the father gets to prevent the son from tearing down the house, for instance.

10. What do you think is the most important thing a son should be concerned about in his relationship to his father?

Uh . . . connection?

11. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Joe to do in this situation?

Keeping the money and giving it to his father are equally responsible. It might be actually more responsible to keep it, since it doesn’t encourage his father’s immoral behavior.

Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 11 Comments »

Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 2

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 14, 2009

From this site. A continuation from part 1.

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Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 4 Comments »

Some Moral Dilemmas, Part 1

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 11, 2009

I’ve found some fun moral dilemmas on this page. The situations here remind me of a post I did a while back, Assessing Blame.

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Posted in Ethics, Moral Dilemmas | 9 Comments »

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