HANG AROUND WITH philosophers long enough and you’ll realize that philosophers think about some strange things.
I was going to say strange shit but I’m not sure about the parental settings on my blog.
Now, you can drop acid and open the doors of perception but as much as I enjoy “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, I ain’t ever seen anyone tripping on LSD think up something as far out as transcendental idealism or logical positivism.
Philosophers think up this kind of stuff sober.
There’s a little thing that some philosophers do called ethics.
These ethics-practicing philosophers (or ethicists, if you prefer) sometimes engage in a game of “what if?”
An ethical “what if?” is pretty much about thinking up the most f’ed up situation one can think of (with moral implications, of course) and then asking, now, what would you do?
Folks on the outside call those kind of what ifs hypothetical situations.
If you’re a philosopher, you call those f’ed up situations a thought experiment.
If you don’t know already, thought experiments, as defined philosophically:
Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things…
The primary philosophical challenge of thought experiments is simple: How can we learn about reality (if we can at all), just by thinking?
In ethics, thought experiments allow us to test ethical theories and by examining the principles or consequences of an act, we can determine whether an act is morally right or wrong.
Hypothetical situations like thought experiments allow us to be prepared for when a similar situation (or moral dilemma) confronts us in the real world.
There are many famous thought experiments:
The Trolley Problem
Brain in Vat
The Chinese Room
The Ticking Time Bomb
The Experience Machine
The Drowning Man
Funny thing about that drowning man thought experiment…
For those who are unfamiliar with the scenario, The Drowning Man goes as follows:
You’re walking along (alone) by a lake when you see a man in the lake flailing his arms and yelling for help. It is clear that the man is drowning. Do you jump in the lake to save the man?
At first glance the answer is obvious: jump in the lake and save the man.
Most of us would jump into the lake to save the drowning man without hesitation.
But because this is a question cooked up by philosophers, it ain’t that easy.
A philosopher might throw in another “what if” like, what if getting to the lake requires you to cross a patch of grass and there’s a sign that says “Stay Off The Grass” or what if you can’t swim?
or, what if you’re in Germany in 1920 and the drowning man is ADOLF HITLER????
The goal of the “what ifs” in The Drowning Man thought experiment (and any variable in any thought experiment) is to put a moral obstacle in front of you.
Most people would step on the grass to save a drowning man. But what if the sign read TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT? What if the sign read DO NOT STEP ON GRASS BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT?
Would you risk your own life to do save a drowning man?
Would you violate a rule or a law (and what kind of rule or law would you violate?) to save a drowning man?
For a deontologist, this question is more complicated than you think.
Thinking about The Drowning Man Scenario also kinda makes us ask another, less pleasant question of ethics: Are there some people not worth saving?
Is a drowning Adolf Hitler worth saving?
If you’re a deontologist, this question is more complicated than you think.
Asking if there are some people not worth saving can get us to asking and even more unpleasant question, are there some people not worth allowing to live?
“Allowing to live” as in letting someone live in the first place.
For instance, would you kill baby Hitler?
Before we all answer a resounding “yes”, let’s figure out why the question is more complicated than we think.
Most of us would agree that Adolf Hitler was one of the worst, if not THE worst human being that ever lived. Its arguable that the world would be a better place if he hadn’t been born.
… Or at least the world would be a better place if Hitler was prevented from joining the National Socialist Party and becoming chancellor of Germany.
Although we aren’t capable of actual time travel, a thought experiment allows us to imagine what if we could? If we could travel back in time to April 20, 1889, what would we do?
More importantly, what would be the morally right thing to do?**
Let’s look at the question of killing baby Hitler from the perspective of the two leading ethical schools of thought: Deontological ethics and the consequentialist ethical theory, utilitarianism.
Deontological ethics is defined as:
…the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on rules. (Wikipedia)
Deontologists act from Duty.
It is our duty to respect the (moral) law.
Immanuel Kant writes
…to have genuine moral worth, an action must be done from duty… An action done from duty does not have as its moral worth in the purpose which is to be achieved through it but in the maxim where by it is determined.
Duty is the necessity to do an action from respect of law.
That means, damn the consequences, obey the law.
Let’s say a deontologist has a (moral) law, THOU SHALL NOT KILL.
*Maybe we should refine the rule: Thou Shall Not Murder (as defined as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another”).
The law is to be obeyed – no exceptions.
If the deontologist believes that a rule is a rule and we must follow the rules, regardless of its consequences, even if his future self deserves it, we can’t exempt baby Hitler.
Because murder is always wrong.
The deontologist is bound by duty to let baby Hitler live.
Since we can’t obtain moral justification for killing the infant Hitler (presuming that is what we are trying to justify), we’ll look to consequentialist ethics (specifically utilitarianism) to tell us what is the morally right thing to do.
Enjoying this thought experiment yet?
For the utilitarian, it’s the consequences that matter.
In Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill writes
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.
If utilitarian ethics is based on the increase of pleasure and the decrease of pain, and we know that an individual is or going to be responsible for the destruction of over sixty million lives, we may be morally obligated not just to let an adult Hitler drown but also to kill baby Hitler.
However, there’s a hitch…
Utilitarianism (and other consequentialist ethical theories) judge and action right or wrong based on its consequences.
At the time that we perform an act, we don’t know the consequences. We only know what we think might happen or what we want or expect to happen.
Right now, we have the benefit of hindsight; we know what Hitler and the Nazis did. But in 1889, when Hitler was an infant, no one could have foreseen what the newborn infant would do as an adult.
If we traveled back in time we would have to weigh the act of (preemptively) killing a child for something that the child hasn’t yet done against the death and destruction we know adult Hitler did.
It might be easy to walk away from a drowning man, especially if that man is responsible for the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, but even those who could walk away from a drowning Hitler in the lake may find it hard, if not impossible to purposefully kill a child, no matter how evil that child may become.
Another hitch with utilitarianism is that we have to consider possible consequences – multiple consequences. If we had some way to travel back in time or to see the possible futures of baby Adolf Hitler, we may also see future where he could be prevented from becoming the most evil man in history.
We discourage killing children, even children who have engaged in “evil” acts, because we believe those children can be rehabilitated.
If it’s possible to rehabilitate an potentially evil child, is this then, another option that we have for baby Hitler?
And if that’s a viable option (i.e., one that will produce good consequences), we can’t justify killing baby Hitler.
So… what would we do with baby Hitler?
What should we do?
A thought experiment can only ask…
** Don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way defending Hitler or suggesting that we should minimize Hitler’s and the Nazi’s atrocities for the sake of a thought experiment, nor am I suggesting that Hitler’s one life is worth more than sixty million lives world wide, including the nine million lives lost (including six million Jews) in Nazi concentration camps.
Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 2nd Edition. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 1997 . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 15-16.
John Stuart Mill. Utilitarianism. 2005 . NY: Barnes & Noble Books. 8.