Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 1

In Abortion, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on December 1, 2012 at 7:39 PM

I have an interest in bizarre thought experiments that philosophers invent in the ivory tower. This blog is named after such a thought experiment, one whereby people are not born with eyes but obtain them when they walk under an ocular tree.  Two favourites of mine of those of which I am aware were used by Judith Jarvis Thomson  in her seminal 1971 essay, “A Defense of Abortion.” One of them involved someone being kidnapped and a famous unconscious violinist being plugged into their body for the rest of their life. The other involves “people-seeds” that drift into someone’s house through an opened window, attach to the carpet and grow into a “person-plant.” While these thought experiments are created to provide a point, the sheer bizarreness of them makes one wonder what was going through the philosopher’s head at the time.

I have just come across some more thought experiments, these ones written by Jonathan Bennett and published in his book, The Act Itself, (Oxford University Press, 1995), pp.209-211. Bennett is discussing the distinction between the foreseeable and intended consequences of an act. Using a thought experiment relative to the debate on abortion, he says the following:

it does not stop us from thinking that the surgeon intends the child’s head to be crushed but does not intend it to die, for the crushing does not absolutely, conceptually entail the dying: there are worlds where God steps in and restores the ruined head to its former condition, and others where crushing a head is the first step in a helpful curative procedure.

So much for crushing heads, how about killing people by terror bombing?

I said that the [terror bombing] raid leader intended to kill civilians so as to lower enemy morale, but the truth is finer grained than that. Really, he intended only that the people’s bodies should be in a state that would cause a general belief that they were dead, this lasting long enough to shorten the war: nothing in that scheme requires that the dismaying condition of the bodies be permanent; so nothing in it requires that the people become downright dead rather than merely seemingly dead for a year or two.

Bennett is now is full absurdity mode:

…the arsonist who does not intend the building to be permanently destroyed, just that it be reduced to ashes long enough for the insurance company to pay up.

This, dear reader, is the sort of thing that is discussed in philosophy departments of some of the world’s leading universities.

  1. I am not certain that the old thinking about terrorism lowering morale applies. In modern situations an extreme attack like a 9-11 produces a swift unintended counter reaction. You might lower morale with smaller daily attacks like Hamas is attempting.

    Unfortunately, in the modern age terrorism seems more about brand awareness then causes. You can point to about 30 or so global conflicts but the ones with the most global awareness are the ones with the largest scale senseless deaths. It is about raising brand awareness abroad and sympathy when the recipient reacts.

    Mayhem mixed with public relations and advertising.

  2. Beakerkin,

    In this instance, the author was using terror bombing in the context of Hiroshima, Nagasaki style bombing – to bring an end to a war, not terrorist bombing 9/11 style that sparked the so-called Global War on Terror.

  3. Talk about moral rot.

    One oddity never discussed that with the possible exception of the Iran Iraq war no nation has used WMD on an opponent with similar abilities. The claim Iran used chemical weapons is not well established.

    In the modern world a WMD attack merely invites an escalated response.

    There is a hypothesis that long term wars are just too expensive. What are your views on that. Small arms are cheap but high tech ordinance is prohibitively expensive.

  4. [...] have previously commented on my interest in thought experiments. Michael Huemer has posed an compelling one in his recent [...]

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