Philosophers Index Abstract
- To what extent can philosophical thought experiments1 reveal norms?
- Some ethicists have argued that certain thought experiments2 reveal that people draw a morally significant distinction between "doing" and "allowing".
- I examine one such thought experiment3 in detail and argue that the intuitions it elicits can be explained by prospect theory, a psychological theory about the way people reason. The extent to which such alternative explanations of the results of thought experiments4 in philosophy are generally available is an empirical question.
- Questions to what extent philosophical thought experiments5 can reveal norms.
- Information on Warren Quinn's thought experiments6;
- Detailed information on prospect theory;
- Conclusion reached.
- Some philosophers, particularly ethicists and epistemologists, see as one of their tasks the discovery of norms, ethical or epistemological, that we more or less live by.
- Reflection on naturally occurring moral or epistemological dilemmas will reveal these norms to some extent just as observation of the physical world will reveal the laws of physics to some extent.
- But just as physicists must perform controlled experiments to decide among rival hypotheses that they cannot distinguish by observing naturally occurring events, philosophers must perform thought experiments7 to illuminate norms that naturally occurring dilemmas don’t reveal. This is not to say that ethics is like physics in other respects. Physicists see themselves as discovering physical laws, whereas philosophers often take themselves to be exploring the structure of our concepts, or, in the case of ethicists, uncovering moral norms. It is an open question to what extent philosophical thought experiments8 can reveal norms.
- Only case studies can answer the question or at least answer it in part. This article is such a case study.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)