Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Trolleys and Roadmaps

Via Crooked Timber, I see that the BBC has posed a number of 'philosophy 101' thought experiments, where you can vote on what you would do when faced with a moral dilemma (presumably they've been reading this book).

One of the more controversial thought experiments is contained in Judith Thompson's 1971 essay 'A Defense of Abortion,' where she introduces the following thought experiment:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you—we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?
Essentially, Thompson argues that, though you would be very nice to accede to the situation, you're under no obligation to do so. By analogy, if you find yourself pregnant you're under no obligation to maintain the pregnancy to term.

This argument has had a number of detractors in the academy, but her important contribution to the debate is that she separates rights from interests (ie., you may have profound interests but that might not translate into a right) and the abortion debate from the 'what constitutes a person' debate.

Anyway, the BBC's essay is fun, but - as I said before - I have a problem with the idea of philosophy being approached like this.

Voting on these issues - forcing the binary yes/no decision - detracts from the really interesting thing about imaginary dilemmas. Simply opting for one conclusion or other is not the point of these hypotheticals. Why the answer is difficult and what that says about our moral thoughts is the important thing. That you arrived at your destination is far less intersting than the map you used.

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