Thursday, March 11, 2010

trolly problems and literature examples

I've heard it suggested that moral philosophers should consider examples from literature rather than simplified cases as in trolley problems. Here's a theory of why examples from literature might be particularly bad for moral philosophy purposes.

Kant says (as I understand him) that the experience of beauty happens when observing an object provokes the "free play" of the conceptual faculties, producing a harmonious volley between the intellect and the imagination. This works most naturally for novels and poems, where reading a line can set off a chain of thoughts which aren't logical deductions, but are still somehow naturally suggested by the line.

In contrast, in much moral philosophy you are looking for (relatively) general principles [it's an interesting question why this is], that different people might agree to and be guided by even when particular interest leads them in different directions. So you want something like "all actions of X kind are impermissable", For these purposes, you want to show that your general principle is acceptable even in, as it were, the worst case scenario, even in the most perverse instances. You also want to avoid features that would be distracting, from the question of whether the given action is permissible, and also unclarity about what the descriptive scenario is supposed to be.

Now, if we buy the kantian idea about beauty we get a quick explanation for why literature examples will tend to be bad for the purposes of moral philosophy. Beautiful cases will be ones that promote the free play of the intellect, considering all kinds of different aspects of what's being described, and reaching out into all sorts of other questions. Hence they are particularly likely to involve a) simulatious application of multiple apparent moral reasons for and against b) interesting factual questions about what the situation really is (do we really know that soldier is unpersuadable?) c) other different but related moral/philosophical issues - that one might easily confused with the issue of unpersuadability.

So literature examples may be good a suggesting questions, but there's some reason to think they are - so to speak- actively engineered to be distracting when consider as examples in debate about some particular moral principle.

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