Can thought experiments harm people?

[This post is the tenth in our series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September. The first post in the series is here and the posts run Tuesdays and Fridays. Transcript of clip beneath the fold.]

A common tool of the philosophical trade is the thought experiment, an imagined scenario that evokes certain kinds of reactions and responses. Imagine that none of the objects that you take yourself to see, hear, or feel in your daily life–water flowing from a tap, a car driving by, other people chatting at a nearby table–actually exist, and that all the experiences you have of them are generated by–take your pick–an evil demon, scientists who have “envatted” your brain, or The Matrix. Is that coherent? If not, why not? If it is a coherent thing to imagine, what does it tell us about our knowledge? our minds? ourselves?


Thought experiments play a central role not only in philosophical thinking in general but in thinking about morality and ethics in particular. Some philosophers have been critical of this kind of reliance, sometimes on the ground that such thought experiments are contrived, artificial, and unrealistic–they don’t have enough connection to the REAL WORLD to tell us much about anything. And surely if ethics and moral philosophy are to be of any use it all they should, at the end of the day, guide our actions. Others think that this simply misses the point of thought experiments, which is to help tease out common sense views of morality that tell us something about the structure and order to moral thinking, the principles that underly, or perhaps even should underlie, moral thinking and so, eventually, moral action.


There’s a different kind of worry that one might have about thought experiments, one that Sophia Wong articulates in a question that she posed to Peter Singer at the Cognitive Disability conference. In some ways, it’s just the opposite to the concern about thought experiments being too far removed from everyday life to usefully inform us about what to do, and it raises the sorts of questions about “the ethics of exclusion” that I’ve blogged on before–see the link beneath the fold for this:


There are a couple of things I found of interest here. (Singer’s response was not amongst these, which is why I’m not playing it, though those interested in it can click here; it’s at 11.33 in the podcast itself, if you already have that.)


The first is the analogy between thought experiments and actual experiments. Initially, one might be inclined to think that this is little more than wordplay, since thought experiments do not involve actively intervening in the lives of the subject of those “experiments”. We can conduct a thought experiment (to take an example made well-known by Gilbert Harman) that involves teenagers setting a cat on fire just for the fun of it. Unlike actually setting a cat on fire just for the fun of it, no particular cat is harmed through this act of thought. Moreover, we don’t even need to put “No cat was harmed in the performances of this thought experiment” at the end of the thought experiment, as we might at the end of a film depicting this scene–a disclaimer there to assure viewers that the difference between visually-fuelled imagination and reality. Unlike films and some other forms of artistic expression, thought experiments are not designed to create the illusion that certain (bad) things happened when they did not.


The second is the question I’ve used in the title of this post: can thought experiments harm people? Above I’ve implied that the answer to this question is “No”, that being one of the sources of difference that limit the scope of the analogy between thought experiments and actual experiments. But I don’t think that this answer will do. Thought experiments, like any provocation to further thought, don’t come into a blank slate world. A thought experiment that begins “Suppose that women really enjoyed being raped , …” or “Imagine a world in which black people really are only 2/3 as smart as white people …”. Such thought experiments are likely to harm particular people through their interaction with existing negative stereotypes and stigmatization, no matter how good the intentions of those introducing the thought experiments. While this doesn’t imply that we need the Karma Police to patrol our experiments in thought, it does suggest that, as with actual experimentation on actual people, thought experimentation on actual people carries with it certain kinds of moral responsibility. “I didn’t mean any harm” is not a sufficient excuse, in either case. (There is an affinity between this point and one I have made previously about the exchange between Adrienne Asch and Jeff McMahan here.)


I’m not sure exactly what thought experiments Wong herself has in mind here, though the ones that come to my mind imagine animals with just the level of cognitive ability that some human beings are reported as having, or ask people to imagine themselves as “being a vegetable” or suffering “extreme cognitive limitation”, and then asking questions about whether those lives are lives worth living.


The third is the question, reiterated at the end of the clip, that asks not about the harm but of the benefit to the profoundly cognitively disabled of thought experiments, and talks like Singer’s, about them. This raises the idea that certain lines of thought, including the thought experiments that contribute to them, involve not just conceptual but actual exploitation of the subject of that thought, something that Licia Carlson elaborated on (go to 7.45 in her talk for this). For the idea is that if there is some kind of benefit (e.g., to animals) of that thought, but with not simply no benefit but a cost to others (e.g., to the cognitively disabled), then we have the conditions for exploitation in place, even if these are mediated through thought and words, and not other physical actions. Is this a sane thought to think?


Transcript of clip

My name is Sophia Wong, and I’d like to start by thanking you for the body of work in which you have written on world hunger, global poverty, as well as rights for non-human animals, because I think that those writings have done a lot to reduce suffering and oppression in the world. And in connection with that I would like to ask you about your use of philosophical thought experiments. And I’d like to draw an analogy with medical experimentation because in the history of bioethics we know that some people were infected with syphilis for example in order for the higher end of getting medical knowledge that would benefit other people. And we say that in that case there is an ethical problem, because the people being experimented on were harmed, and they were not benefiting from that medical experimentation. So if we turn to the case of philosophical thought experiments, if we talk about Martians or aliens or entities that, so far as we know, we have not had any contact with, we don’t know whether they exist, we’re not able to determine whether we’re harming or benefiting those entities. Because they are hypothetical, so far as we know. But in the case of those who have been diagnosed as profoundly retarded–I think we saw in the two talks just before yours that the diagnosis is not always correct–I’d like to ask: We can see clearly the benefit to non-human animals as a result of your talk today, but what is the benefit to humans who are diagnosed with what you call profound disabilities?

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3 thoughts on “Can thought experiments harm people?

  1. I would like to suggest that the medical experiment that Wong refers to in her question to Singer is not very accurately represented. I think it is safe to assume that she is referring to the US Government’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study which ran over a 40 year period (early 30s – 1970s) in one of the poorest counties in the US, Macon County, Alabama. The “study” involved 400 African American men who were known to have syphilis and 200 control subjects who did not have syphilis. While the men with syphilis (and their families) received medical treatment over the period of the study, none of this was aimed at treating the syphilis or even its symptoms, nor were the men informed of the nature of the disease they had. When in 1943 it became known that penicillin was an effective treatment for syphilis, this information was withheld from the men, and government officials even required local and state hospitals and clinics to deny this treatment to men in the study who sought it out so that the study could continue unhampered. In other words, no one was infected with syphilis for the purposes of the study. To be sure, many of the women who were involved with the men in the subject group at some point before, after, or throughout the study became infected (as were future generations), but they were no part of the study itself. (Indeed, since most of these women were African American, their health was even less a concern to local and state government and health officials than was the health of their male counterparts.) Most importantly, I think Wong’s claim that the experiment was engaged “in order for the higher end of getting medical knowledge that would benefit other people” needs to be corrected. While it might simply seem that these 400 African American men were used as guinea pigs to acquire medical knowledge that would benefit others, in fact, the purpose and rationale for the experiment were even more unethical, insidious, and overtly racist than Wong suggests. This may have been the rationale for a related study in the Netherlands which preceded the Tuskegee Study (late 1920s) and initially for the study of syphilis in Macon County itself, but this research design was altered after early funding for the latter study was cut off. What has become known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was conducted for the sole purpose of tracing the life of the disease (i.e., to postmortem) in order to chart whether and how it progressed differently in black people than it did in white people. In short, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study not only did not benefit the men, their partners and their families, but was no part of finding a cure for anyone.

  2. Pingback: Some ableism coverage on the net « Ableism and Ability Ethics and Governance

  3. Licia Carlson raises two criticisms of thought experiments in her talk from the conference, which Rob mentions above. First, she worries that using people with cognitive disabilities in abstract thought experiments harms people with cognitive disabilities because those people lose their own face, which is to say, they do not get to speak or even stand for themselves in the experiments. Second, using people with cognitive disabilities in thought experiments does not involve taking a genuine interest in people with cognitive disabilities, particularly if the thought experiments are rooted in fear. Both of these criticisms point to the idea in Rob’s post that the thought experiments amount to a kind of exploitation, since they involve using people with cognitive disabilities for others’ purposes. That seems to be the idea that Sophia Wong is getting at, though her reference to the Tuskegee experiment, as Shelley Tremain points out, might not be a good example.

    Jackie Leach Scully’s criticisms of moral imagination (in Disability Bioethics: Moral Bodies, Moral Difference (2008)) might also be used to cast doubt on the usefulness and morality of using people with disabilities in thought experiments in philosophy, particularly where those experiments involve making judgments about quality of life. Scully argues that moral imagination is limited. Making judgments about the quality of another’s life requires (1) an adequate grasp of the features of the life, (2) a background theory about what constitutes “quality” in life, and (3) a way of measuring those features against some kind of standard. She argues that, regarding (1), it is unlikely that most people have an adequate knowledge about the lives of people with impairments, (2) without the knowledge, we cannot be sure what features are relevant, and (3), since the criteria are generally set by people without impairments, there is a risk that they will be inappropriate to the lives of people with impairments (p. 52).

    Indeed, Scully argues, although moral imagination is generally portrayed as a disembodied capacity, having a particular kind of body places limits on our capacities to imagine ourselves in the lives of others, or to put ourselves in others’ shoes (p. 55). Scully cites as evidence the paradox that disabled people tend to rank the quality of their lives after impairment much higher than those without impairment tend to rank the quality of lives of people with impairments. The upshot is, Scully says, that “the experiences of impairment and disability may contribute, in ways that are still largely unexplored, to differences in the interpretation of morally relevant features of life. These differences may be enough to generate significantly different moral understandings of life events and choices” (p. 56).

    Scully’s arguments give us even more reason to think that the uses of disabled people in the abstract thought experiments of philosophers are not likely to have the genuine points of view or interests of disabled people in mind, and hence are likely to be exploitative. As Adrienne Asch pointed out in the “Question and Answer” session to Carlson’s talk, while it is only people at the margins who are generally forced to tell their stories in philosophy, every philosopher has a story. Or, as Nietzsche put it, the seeing eye is always somewhere.

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