Saturday, February 23, 2008

Costs to Future People: A Thought Experiment

50th post! Hooray!

So I've been talking a lot about the implications of the Non-Identity Problem for dealing with issues like climate change, and I've come up with a thought experiment to help think about it.

Vlad is a mad scientist, and knows that his neighbors, the Crosbys, have been planning to have a child. He constructs a sophisticated robot in his laboratory (pronounced luh-bor-uh-tory), which he mounts atop a rocket. Vlad then waits at his window with his binoculars until he sees Mr. and Mrs. Crosby walk outside their house to have dinner on the porch. As the Crosbys sit down to eat, Vlad launches his rocket right out of his roof, filling his neighbors with awe and wonder. Inevitably, the fact that the Crosbys watched the rocket fly into space introduces tiny differences in the rest of their lives. Instead of eating at 6:03, they eat at 6:05; instead of talking to her friend Janet for 4 minutes and 35 seconds the next day, Mrs. Crosby talks for 4 minutes and 57 seconds. The differences are so tiny that they aren't really noticeable, but two days later, when the Crosbys get into bed to conceive their child, a different spermatozoon fertilizes Mrs. Crosby's egg than would have done so otherwise. The child developing inside of Mrs. Crosby would not have existed but for Vlad's rocket launch. Programmed to watch for this development, Vlad's robot detects the growing fetus and watches from space as the child is born and grows older.

Sidney Crosby, the Crosbys' son, is now thirteen, and has developed a crush on a girl in his class. One day at recess, he finally musters the courage to go talk to her. This is exactly what Vlad's robot has been waiting for. It turns on a cloaking device (which renders it invisible) and silently descends from space, coming up right behind Sidney as he approaches the girl. Right as the two begin to talk, Vlad's robot grabs hold of Sidney's pants and jerks them to the ground. As the playground erupts with laughter, Vlad's robot silently slips away, leaving Sidney to wallow in his humiliation.

Now, because the robot is only mechanically doing as it was programmed, it should be clear that the sole responsibility for Sidney's de-pantsing lies with Vlad. And assuming that neither Vlad nor anyone else can stop the robot once it's been launched, Sidney's de-pantsing is a necessary condition for Sidney's existence. If Vlad hadn't launched the robot, the Crosbys would have simply had a different child. So Sidney is no worse off than he could possibly have been.

But I don't think it's difficult to see why we might nevertheless want to say that a cost is imposed on Sidney when Vlad's robot pulls his pants down. But what does it mean to say this? And what ethical significance could such a cost have?


Anonymous said...

I think you have a serious problem with thought experiments.

By your logic that the launch of the robot created the boy and thus the pantsing is inevitable, a parent can kill his child.

Danny Shahar said...

I don't think those two things are analogous at all. A parent must engage in a further action in order to kill her child. That is, it is possible for a parent to bring a child into existence without killing it. Vlad's robot, on the other hand, cannot avoid de-pantsing Sidney. The robot does not choose. And Sidney cannot exist unless the robot de-pantses him.

In order to make your counterexample analogous, we'd need to say that a parent does not harm a child if, in bringing about the child's existence, the parent sets into motion a sequence of events which will result in the child's death. This seems right to me; the sequence of events is a necessary condition of the child's existence, and the child could not exist without being killed. Accordingly, it seems odd to say the child is harmed.

But I didn't say that there was nothing wrong with what Vlad did. It is my view that Vlad does act badly by launching the rocket. It's just that the wrongness of his actions cannot be explained by reference to harm inflicted upon Sidney.

Anonymous said...

I realize my last post sounded rude. Sorry about that. But I still think you have thought-experimentiphilia.

"But I didn't say that there was nothing wrong with what Vlad did. It is my view that Vlad does act badly by launching the rocket. It's just that the wrongness of his actions cannot be explained by reference to harm inflicted upon Sidney."

This assessment is false because it assumes benefits and harms are additive to one another and themselves. That is not true.

The wrongness of an action can be explained only by the action itself and not what led up to it. Here is a thought experiment to illustrate this:

Entity A is 300% more productive than anything a human can think of. Government C extracts taxes by force to fund entity A. The profits of entity A's actions are split among those who were taxed.

So an outside observer would note that everybody is richer (and the opportunity costs are all less profitable). However, that does not make the taxing link in this chain moral.

Similarly, the creation link (e.g. splitting profits) in the robot experiment, is irrelevant to the pantsing link (e.g. extracting taxes).

I think the thought experiment I just mentioned is very similar to the utility monster that Robert Nozick came up with to discredit utilitarianism except in his experiment, the profits are kept by the monster.

Danny Shahar said...

No worries about the last comment, I'm thick skinned. But thought experiments are my bread and butter. In a world of conflicting moral theories, a thought experiment is a great way to bring people from different paradigms under the same tent. There are certainly risks with using them, but I personally think they're one of the best tools philosophers have available.

I'm a little foggy on exactly what your objection is to what I said. Part of what you said is that we should separate the "action" of bringing Sidney into existence from the "action" of pulling Sidney's pants down. But as far as an action requires a choosing entity, we would want to say that the only action was Vlad's launching of the rocket. That's the reason I said that my example was different from a parent murdering a child. Either Vlad's single action, which has the compound consequence of bringing Sidney into existence and making Sidney get his pants pulled down, is unjust, or it is permissible. A parent killing her child on the other hand, seems to permissibly bring the child into existence, and then unjustly kill it. Hopefully the difference seems clear.

Another part of your point seemed to be that I was talking as if the only relevant factor in the discussion about Sidney were the overall wellbeing he would experience through his entire life. I actually just came across a really great example of this kind of argument in James Woodward's essay, "The Non-Identity Problem." He wrote about a guy who had been put in a concentration camp by the Nazis, and who after the war lived a fantastic life, appreciating everything so much more as a result of his terrible treatment early in life. Woodward suggests that even if we wanted to say that this guy lived, overall, a way better life than he ever would have lived without being imprisoned, we would still think that the Nazis had done something wrong to him. The reason seems to be that people have certain interests that you simply can't violate, even for their own good. That's kind of what you're saying, right?

If so, then we agree completely. Remember, I'm trying to demonstrate that Vlad acts badly, and the reason he acts badly is that Sidney's pants get pulled down. I'm on your side here. My objection is to the claim that Sidney is harmed. I've actually written quite a bit on this subject here, so rather than trying to rehash it all, I'll just direct you to the "The Non-Identity Problem" tag on the list of subjects on the right-hand side of the main blog window.

I'm not sure if that addresses everything you were trying to say, but hopefully it helps somewhat.

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