Imaginary Cases: Can They Help Us? Limitations?

  • August 8, 2012 · 7:00 PM

Members of the group have participated in several meetups that used imaginary cases (aka dilemmas or thought experiments) to explore moral issues. Usually, the summations included a couple complaints that the exploration was worthless because the approach was viewed as just a pragmatic or relativist construction, and did not lead to any universal principles. Kant proponents would probably also call in the problem of “conditioned” principles, and therefore, insufficient as legitimate categorical imperatives. In case you are becoming alarmed that your morality will once again be put on trial, you can relax. Our objective is to put the process of using imaginary cases on trial. The intent is to abstract out the moral principles that might be addressed in a particular case, and then assess the case’s value and limits in a discourse on the moral principle. We will not be asking you to put forth your position on the moral issue, only to critique the case as a tool.

For those not familiar with the construction being examined and the critique we hope to conduct the following definition and example may help…

An imaginary case is “a proxy for some state of affairs, event, sequence of events, or other fact. A case may be as short as a phrase … or … longer than War and Peace. A case may consist of words … or have a more dramatic form, such as a movie, stage performance, or computer simulation.” – “Imaginary Cases in Ethics: A Critique” (International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 26:1, Spring 2012) <abstract:>

One of the most widely discussed cases is the Trolley Dilemma. In this case a run-a-way trolley is careening down a hill out of control toward a Y in the tracks. On the left leg of the Y here are 5 persons working on the track and they will not be able to get off the track before the trolley hits them. On the other leg, there is one person in a similar condition. You are standing next to a manual switch that is set to the left (5 persons). You can throw the switch to divert the trolley so that it only hits one person. Issues often explored with this scenario are:
---- a. Killing: Are there ever any conditions that justify killing?
---- b. Greater good: Is killing one to save five justified? Always?
---- c. Insulating oneself from moral involvement: Can the decision to not throw the switch represent noninvolvement?
---- d. Does uncertainty about outcomes change the discussion?
---- e. Other issues or factors?

What can, or cannot be achieved, by a critique of this scenario? For example:
---- a. Realism: Is the scenario sufficiently realistic for the purpose intended?
---- b. Application: Would the decision one formulates in the leisurely, intellectual environment of a meetup group actually be realized in a tense reality?
---- b. Optimum: Would exploration of the first issue be better explored with a different scenario?
---- c. Universality: Can any universals be derived from this case? Why, or why not? Nominations?

We will explore a couple variations to see if the issues and critique change.

To help in the critique the following material from the Michael Davis article is summarized. Hopefully these will serve as analytic tools for assessing cases.

Kinds of cases:
---- a. Rhetorical – merely intended to capture attention, or motivate discussion.
---- b. Probative – intended to help prove something; also can be put forth to serve as counter examples in an effort to disprove something.
---- c. Heuristic – intended to help us recall, understand, or discover.

Role of Imagination:
---- a. Realism: Cases based on realistic situations are more likely to be understood because the images needed to create a physical/psychological sense of the conditions must be within the reach of the individual. Shared experiences add to the communication.
---- b. Abstraction: Abstraction is required in the name of efficiency in communication and to allow focus on the particular issue at hand. It cannot be avoided if one subscribes to the theory that all human memory represents an abstraction from an infinite reality.
---- c. Fantasy: In some cases, such as satire, cartoons, fables, and fairy tales, the fantasy can provide a fuzzy backdrop that allows the important realistic elements stand out.
---- d. Imagination: Imagination is needed to bridge between the description and one’s internal images in order to fill in the missing pieces. Legitimacy of imagination is acknowledged by the fact that almost [all?] decisions to act require some imagining about the future.
---- e. Limits: However, the imagination has its limits and when it strays too much from reality it can result in GIGO. “Fiddling” with a case by introducing more and more variations without recognizing that the original purpose is being changed can confuse the discussion and undermine the value.

Uses of Probative Cases:
---- a. Counter-example to a general claim. Imaginary counter-examples are more effective in claims of necessity than in contingent claims. The latter cases usually require more sense of reality, as opposed to possibility, to counter the original proposition.
---- b. Proof of mere possibility. Cases must be constructed to play to the audiences.
---- c. Proof of a pattern. Plausible imaginary cases can extend the list of examples in a way that reliance on limited experience may not.

The author notes that Probative Use c (pattern) could be referred to as inductive use of cases with attendant uncertainty associated with such terms as probably, usually, most, etc. and the whole bank of literature dismissing the value of induction as a logical process.

Uses of Heuristic Cases:
---- a. Illustrative.
---- b. Aid understanding.
---- c. Sharpen insight or distinctions.
---- d. Help map commitments.
---- e. Explore options or process for reaching decisions.

The author notes that Heuristic Use d (mapping commitments) is especially problematic because formulating options, assessing impacts, and choosing an action with less than full information under leisurely, intellectual environment may bear no resemblance to the process followed when one is smelling the lion’s breath. At best, the arguments considered in the process are arguments from analogy. Moral commitments may waver. Results of an empirical study illustrating actual choices in the face of moral positions that usually are considered absolute are shown below.

The Shopping List: The list from which we will draw cases, or at list the base cases which to vary, can be found at <>. You are encouraged to nominate cases for discussion.

Topical Application: In case all this sterile abstraction and theorizing becomes boring, later in the session we will open the floor to allow some wallowing in the mud. You will be encouraged to introduce some topical scenarios for discussion. We ask that you abstract sufficiently to avoid terms such as Democratic and Republican.


Empirical Case (from Fritz Allhoff’s book, Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture, 2012, as described in Michael Davis article):

“Allhoff conducted several surveys of students….Those surveyed were asked to choose from seven options when presented with a bomb case. At one extreme was 7 (“strong agreement” with the proposition that torturing the prisoner is morally permissible); at the other extreme was 1 (“strong disagreement” …); in the middle is 4 (not sure). In cases where the prisoner is (supposedly) known to be “guilty” (that is, to be the one who planted the bomb), the average in favor of torture was 4.9 if it is certain that the information from torturing would ensure defusing the bomb in time but somewhat less (4.6) if there is only a one percent chance that the torture-derived information would do that.” Although results were reversed, the results for torturing the bomber’s daughter were about the same.

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  • suzanne b.

    this was another 5 star meetup......everyone has so many wonderful perspectives and we all feel so comfortable to contribute. this is kudos to gene and john, event hosts.

    August 9, 2012

  • Gene R.

    August 7, 2012

  • Gene R.

    While this article on analyzing the process for decision making under stress has relevance to only one small area of the current topic, I'm adding it because there is a likelihood that it is relevant to both a recent topic on error management theory and a coming topic questioning Kant's morality principles. Probably the first couple [long] paragraphs are sufficient to get the message. The references may be interesting just to show the extent that decision making under stress is studied. <

    August 7, 2012

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