Posts Tagged ‘ Philosophy ’

Critical Analogies and Dis-Analogies Between the Trolley Car and Emergency Organ Harvest Experiments

I, like almost everyone else in the world, am not a utilitarian. More surprisingly, I reject utilitarianism for almost the same reasons as everyone else, almost. Is pleasure preferable to pain? Of course. Should maximizing net pleasure be the sole concern of our moral inquiries? probably not. ¬†Utilitarianism, like almost all absolutist moral philosophies, is subject to damning counter examples, one of which I’ll focus on here.

Judith Jarvis Thomson:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

On its face, it’s identical to a trolley car experiment: kill one to save five. The difference is, here, no one regards the decision to be as easy as flipping the switch on the trolley car. I think I can safely put the variance in responses up to people simply not understanding thought experiments, but some elaboration is in order.

In the trolley car experiment, the probability of the five being killed in lieu of a track switch is 1, the probability of the one being killed and five being saved with a switch is 1. The experiment’s beauty is in its simplicity; people understand that there really are only two possible outcomes here. When hearing the emergency transplant scenario, however, people implicitly reject these probabilities even though they assent to them, their real-world knowledge weighs too heavily on them: the patients are old and sick, their donor is young and healthy, no surgeon is perfect.

The other side of the coin is viscerality: The traveler is completely innocent and you’re going to strap him to a table and carve him open with your own hands. The man tied to the rails must have found himself there somehow and he’s probably expecting a trolley to come barreling down any minute; it will never look like anyone intentionally killed him. All moot, the parameters of the experiment are such that both these men were completely safe and free from any danger until an agent’s utilitarian calculation worked against them. Each life in the experiments will be equally long and happy after they’re conducted, all there is to do is for your intuition to dictate whether five go on or one does.

The interesting thing is, when fully appreciated, these experiments tell us precisely nothing. When utility is the only value at stake, of course you maximize it. However, loosening the constraints of either experiment and actually allowing other values a stake in the decision does illustrate why people who do and don’t fully understand the experiments ultimately reject utilitarianism.

Naturally, the more easily adaptable experiment is the emergency transplant. Adding a combination of uncertainty and a reasonable person standard with regard to choices immediately engenders huge and justified sympathies for the traveler. Yes, his life still likely represents a new lease on five others (or, make it seven so we can say the expected value stays the same), but our general experience of the world tells us that a person making his sequence of choices to end up in the hospital should expect no harm to come to him and indeed deserves no harm to come to him. Of course, the same could be said of the patients, none of whom may have any behaviorally caused ailments.

It seems as though a bullet must be bitten either way. My very narrow contention is that, while the patients may not have merited their conditions, the forces of history have nevertheless placed them here at deaths door. Now, the surgeon does have the option of taking history into his own hands and establishing a principle that allows moral agents to make their mark on the procession of existence to a degree rivaling fate, The question is: need we favor the will of many to exercise their liberty over fate over one whose liberty was granted by fate?

I worry about the consequences.

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Regress of Authority: My Theory on The Foundation of Noetic Structures

While beginning to draft a post offering my theory on why I write what I write, think what I think, and do what I do, I found it essential to explain my theory of the origin of noetic structures. Another thing I found is that a cursory search will not turn up a satisfactory explanation of what a noetic structure even is; allow me. A noetic structure is a web of all an individual’s beliefs, the vast majority of which depend on other beliefs. A noetic structure, if drawn out, would show all the ways in which beliefs depend on each other for validation in the mind. In order to believe that you’re sitting in front of a screen, you need to believe that your senses give accurate representations of the external world, the existence of which you must also hold true. If you’ve ever entertained a child who asked you a simple question and followed it up with an endless string of “whys,” you’ve taken that child on a tour of your noetic structure.

Any non-self-referential (circular) noetic structure would have to contain some foundational, or ‘basic,’ beliefs that are not justified with reference to other beliefs. Strictly speaking, the only beliefs of this nature that stand up to philosophical scrutiny cannot be used as justification for others, but as a matter of convention, we accept the existence of the external world and other minds along with all that they imply. Beyond those two, most seem to take as given the reliability of ‘experts.’ You believe protons exist, but you’ve never seen the evidence for yourself; you take it on faith that the chain of claimants from the community of people directly observing subatomic particles to the person who told you they exist have been reasonably prudent in their assessments of the claim. From whence comes this faith on which modern humans’ world views rely? My claim is that it comes from Mom.

My theory assumes that infants regard their most immediate care-givers as essentially gods, capable of manipulating the whole of reality (as the infant sees it) on a whim; They can remove, fear, discomfort, and hunger with ease and right when its needed. Some anecdotal evidence for the continuance of this view into early childhood can be seen when toddlers run to mom to save them from a monster, something they seem not to know mom is woefully ill-equipped to handle. As they grow up, children only assent to the claims of others with mom’s blessing. “Listen to what Ms. Vicky has to say, she’s very good and has a lot to teach you,” “My mom says Billy only says Santa isn’t real because he got coal in his stocking this year.” Consistent reinforcement of the epistemic authority of teachers, books, and other knowledgeable adults is what weens children off of absolute deference toward their parents and ultimately empowers these other sources of knowledge with the ability to imbue new claimants with epistemic import.

I find the anomalous cases in which parents refuse to relinquish some measure of epistemic control the most compelling evidence for their place at the base of almost everyone’s noetic structures. Family-centric cults are probably the most glaring example of children discrediting sources for lack of their parents approval, but everyday religion provides ample evidence of otherwise intelligent people who’ve been through no special religious education foregoing their normal criteria for belief in favor of deferring to their parents’ beliefs. Of course the mechanism doesn’t remain the same as a child with any sort of freedom grows and thence comes the market for pseudo-academics and social niches for any crazy belief you can imagine. Once parents let children engage with society and its customary populist mode of argument, they need to defer to sources beyond themselves to repel the counter-current provided by outsiders.

My claim is ultimately that parents have the requisite tools to control which sources their children will take as credible, although control over content will scale with either the parents ability to exercise direct and absolute control over their child or the relative popularity of the desired content in society. Once you’ve ceded ground to schoolteachers or neighbors, it’s very easy to have sewn the seeds of your own incredulity. In principle though, the absence of any parental concession seems to guarantee a very shallow noetic structure, while liberal concession leads to many layers of differently weighted authorities whose claims are more susceptible to an informed sense of judgement.