Ethical Edge Cases So Sharp You’ll Cut Yourself

Ethical Edge Cases So Sharp You’ll Cut Yourself January 6, 2015


I’ve run into three considerations of hypotheticals (two of them in the last week) that all seem to fall into a pattern.  First up. there’s this dialogue, related to me by a friend who teaches a second grade catechism class. (They were discussing how the disciples of Christ spread the gospel).

Teacher: If you had to spread a message today, how would you do it?
Second Grader: I’d capture a mountain lion and tame him and ride him so fast.
Teacher: Hmmm… That might not work if the mountain lion decided to eat you.
Second Grader: Well, obviously, if you were paying attention to me, I said that the mountain lion was TAMED.


Then there’s this scenario, concocted by Jonathan Haidt (of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics) and often used as evidence in studies that people have non-rational reasons to hold to their moral convictions:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Objections to the incest scenario are deemed non-rational because the hypothetical is tailor-made to avoid any reason to disapprove that the subject in the study will raise.

Worried about setting a bad example?  It’s a secret.  Worried about precedent for the two people?  Nope, it never happens again, and they never feel awkward.  Birth defects?  Here, the response is the double contraception, but I’ve also seen a version where Julie has already had an unrelated hysterectomy.

(The least convenient possible world is a fairly popular sex tourism destination in debates).


Finally, there’s this section of Slate Star Codex’s consideration of ethical offsets.  (They’re like carbon offsets, but for acts of moral pollution, rather than physical pollution).

Let us be excruciatingly cautious and include a two-order-of-magnitude margin of error. At $334,000, we are super duper sure we are saving at least one life.

So. Say I’m a millionaire with a spare $334,000, and there’s a guy I really don’t like…

Okay, fine. Get the irrelevant objections out of the way first and establish the least convenient possible world. I’m a criminal mastermind, it’ll be the perfect crime, and there’s zero chance I’ll go to jail. I can make it look completely natural, like a heart attack or something, so I’m not going to terrorize the city or waste police time and resources. The guy’s not supporting a family and doesn’t have any friends who will be heartbroken at his death. There’s no political aspect to my grudge, so this isn’t going to silence the enemies of the rich or anything like that. I myself have a terminal disease, and so the damage that I inflict upon my own soul with the act – or however it is Leah always phrases it – will perish with me immediately afterwards. There is no God, or if there is one He respects ethics offsets when you get to the Pearly Gates.


There’s a point at which my interlocutor has larded on so many caveats, dei ex machina, and other kludges, that I think it’s reasonable to begin to suspect that they’ve found a very long-winded way of saying “Consider a married bachelor…” or some other paradoxical thing.

I like weird counterfactuals as much (probably more) than the next gal, and I do find them a useful tool for plumbing my beliefs (cf our discussion of marriage and sexual complementarity in a species with seven sexes).  But it’s pretty important to differentiate between what you know about our world and what you might conclude in a different world, and to check, on your way back, whether any of the components of the hypothetical you’re c0nsidering rendered your conclusions basically non-Euclidean, and not related to the world you actually live in.

That’s basically how I feel about the clause tucked into Slate Star Codex’s hypothetical above.  Once he posits ” I myself have a terminal disease, and so the damage that I inflict upon my own soul with the act – or however it is Leah always phrases it – will perish with me immediately afterwards” I don’t actually know what kind of moral beings I’m supposed to reason about — it’s not humans as I understand them (where “moral damage” is a bad in and of itself, regardless of whether you die in the next moment, and thus no one but you tastes the fruits of that corruption).

I’m game to wander out and try to imagine how this society of alien beings would function, and what ethical rules would be impled by their natures, but I’m not going to be reasoning about a scenario that could only occur rarely in our world, but one that would be paradoxical.


At that point, we have two options.  My friend and I can slide up one level of meta, and shift the topic of our argument to why I think the hypothetical is self-contradictory.  Or we can go on, acknowledging that I’m exploring an implication of how my friend understands the world, but, since I disagree at the premise-level, the outcome of our exploration is only interesting to me as a curiosity.

All that is relatively easy to navigate in an argument between friends.  The major rhetorical peril I want to warn against is when you impose straining-credulity hypotheticals on yourself, and keep looking for the flaw in your philosophy, rather than the paradox in your premise that led you into confusion.  It’s trivial to say, “Imagine an easily tamable mountain lion L…  an immune to long-term disturbance from incest couple C… a perfect murder subject M…  a hairy ball combed perfectly flat B” without checking whether such a creature still carries the normal traits of a mountain lion, a set of lovers, a human being at all.

The world is large enough to contain many rare things, but no contradictory ones.  There’s no point in contorting your beliefs to make them accommodate the wholly imaginary.



ETA: Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry offers another reason to be leery of constructed dilemmas.

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