Sunday, August 27, 2006

And People Laugh at Aristotelian Final Cause! (Don)

Analytic ethics? Or neurotic ethics? Happily, I say, Both.

Sean's question (not here posted) concerning the Newcomb Problem brought this to mind. As most things tend to do for me.


Michael F. Patton, Jr.
Syracuse University

Consider the following case:

On Twin Earth, a brain in a vat is at the wheel of a runaway trolley. There are only two options that the brain can take: the right side of the fork in the track or the left side of the fork. There is no way in sight of derailing or stopping the trolley and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows trolleys. The brain is causally hooked up to the trolley such that the brain can determine the course which the trolley will take.

On the right side of the track there is a single railroad worker, Jones, who will definitely be killed if the brain steers the trolley to the right. If the railman on the right lives, he will go on to kill five men for the sake of killing them, but in doing so will inadvertently save the lives of thirty orphans (one of the five men he will kill is planning to destroy a bridge that the orphans' bus will be crossing later that night). One of the orphans that will be killed would have grown up to become a tyrant who would make good utilitarian men do bad things. Another of the orphans would grow up to become G.E.M. Anscombe, while a third would invent the pop-top can.

If the brain in the vat chooses the left side of the track, the trolley will definitely hit and kill a railman on the left side of the track, "Leftie" and will hit and destroy ten beating hearts on the track that could (and would) have been transplanted into ten patients in the local hospital that will die without donor hearts. These are the only hearts available, and the brain is aware of this, for the brain knows hearts. If the railman on the left side of the track lives, he too will kill five men, in fact the same five that the railman on the right would kill. However, "Leftie" will kill the five as an unintended consequence of saving ten men: he will inadvertently kill the five men rushing the ten hearts to the local hospital for transplantation. A further result of "Leftie's" act would be that the busload of orphans will be spared. Among the five men killed by "Leftie" are both the man responsible for putting the brain at the controls of the trolley, and the author of this example. If the ten hearts and "Leftie" are killed by the trolley, the ten prospective heart-transplant patients will die and their kidneys will be used to save the lives of twenty kidney-transplant patients, one of whom will grow up to cure cancer, and one of whom will grow up to be Hitler. There are other kidneys and dialysis machines available, however the brain does not know kidneys, and this is not a factor.

Assume that the brain's choice, whatever it turns out to be, will serve as an example to other brains-in-vats and so the effects of his decision will be amplified. Also assume that if the brain chooses the right side of the fork, an unjust war free of war crimes will ensue, while if the brain chooses the left fork, a just war fraught with war crimes will result. Furthermore, there is an intermittently active Cartesian demon deceiving the brain in such a manner that the brain is never sure if it is being deceived.

QUESTION: What should the brain do?

[ALTERNATIVE EXAMPLE: Same as above, except the brain has had a commisurotomy, and the left half of the brain is a consequentialist and the right side is an absolutist.]

Copyright, 1988, by the American Philosophical Association.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Emotion, Cognition, and Double Effect; or, Hume, Kant -- and modern psychology (Josh C)

This article may be of interest to some of the bloggers here -- it suggests, if nothing else, that some of the issues that some of us have been batting-around over the last year are of interest (and are being worked on, along very different lines) in modern psychology as well.
As for the conclusions of the studies discussed -- my own view is that it provides evidence for the contention that watching Saturday Night Live is conducive to making one a callous killer of fat people, but I grant that the implications are ambiguous.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Political Theory Necrology (Josh C)

It's been a very, very bad week fora lot of people; it's also been a sad week in the smaller world of political theory. On Tuesday Iris Marion Young died (see also here); she had been ill with cancer over the last year, but seemed to be on the mend -- so it's something of a surprise, for me at least, and a distressing one. It's a loss for the field, of course, and must be particularly terrible for her students and colleagues at Chicago. And the day before Robert Wokler also died, also of cancer. This, too, is a great loss for the field, and to his colleagues and students at Yale, and many friends. It's also a great loss for me: Robert was a dear friend, a fount of knowledge, insight and encouragement whenever we met, as well as wonderfully entertaining and gracious (and endearingly, maddeningly disorganised) -- and I'm very, very sorry that I won't see or speak to him again.
There's a nice obituary/article on Young from U Chicago, , which effectively gives some indication of just how great her colleagues' and students'loss is; and a very good, informative obituary of Wokler in the Times; I'll try to link to other obituaries as they appear.
Update: there's a brief, but very nice, appreciation of Robert Wokler by his fellow-Rousseau scholar Chris Bertram, at Crooked Timber; and another, lovely one of Iris Young by her former UChicago colleague Dan Drezner.
UPDATE: Another obit has appeared, in the Guardian; the prose style is strangely familiar (ditto the byline...) Better latish than never, I suppose.