Trolley Problems

The so-called trolley problems form a set of ethical thought experiments meant to delve into our intuitions about killing, letting die, rights, and obligations.

Driver’s Two Options

The problems come in many forms, but here is the original version. There is a train (or trolley, but who the hell thinks about trolleys anymore) with failed brakes, about to barrel down upon and kill five unsuspecting rail workers. The driver can continue down this track, or steer to the right onto a spur where there is one unsuspecting rail worker awaiting certain doom. What should the driver do?

Trolley - Driver's Two Options

The intuition that is generally thought to be prompted by this is: the driver should steer to the right, killing one but saving five. It’s a numbers game wherein, other things being equal, one should kill as few people as possible. Killing one person, it is thought, is better (or less horrible) than killing five.

Of course, one may take issue with this intuition in any number of ways. For instance, there’s the “other things being equal” clause, which we’ll address shortly. (As a preview, imagine that the one worker is close to discovering a cure for cancer, and the five are shiftless hooligans. Perhaps in such a case the numbers game changes, and the utility of the one outweighs the utility of the five. More on this soon.) But to get at a more subtle problem with the case, let’s examine another trolley problem — one without any trolleys.

Judge’s Two Options

This time, imagine a judge faced with the following dilemma. A serial killer has been killing people for months, and everyone is getting understandably nervous. A vigilante group takes five innocent people hostage, and says to the judge: “if you don’t catch the killer and sentence him immediately to be executed, we will kill all five hostages.” The judge, not knowing who the killer is, has the following choice: do nothing and let the five innocent people die, or sacrifice an innocent person as a scapegoat to appease the vigilantes, thus killing one but saving five.

The intuition meant to be provoked here is that the judge has no moral right to sacrifice an innocent person’s life, regardless of any good consequences that act might have. So, in this case, as opposed to the initial trolley problem, the supposed moral is that it is not acceptable to save five by killing one.

So now we have two cases where killing one person would save five other lives, but in one case the killing of the one seems to be morally acceptable, and in the other the killing of the one seems to be morally unacceptable. What is the morally significant difference between these cases?

Killing versus Letting Die

Perhaps the difference is between killing and letting-die. In the case of the judge, she is not actually killing the five hostages (the vigilantes will do the killing), she is letting them die. If she were to sentence the one innocent person to execution, that would be much more of a case of direct killing. In the original trolley case, the driver has the choice between directly killing five or directly killing one. You might argue that faced with such a choice, the only morally significant factor is the numbers. But the judge is faced with a different situation, wherein she can either kill one or let five die. The numbers add up differently here, perhaps.

But perhaps not.

What happens if we eliminate the driver in the trolley case? Our train is driverless and brakeless, and barreling towards our five workers. A bystander is standing by a switch in the tracks, and can either do nothing, letting the five workers die, or throw the switch and send the train to the right, killing the one worker on the spur. What should the bystander do?

Trolley - Bystander's Two Options

The intuition here is generally that the bystander should throw the switch and kill the one, saving the other five. But wait — our judge was supposed to let the five hostages die, so as to avoid killing one. Why is our bystander obligated to kill one in order to save five, when the circumstances seem so similar?

Well, you could argue that bystander’s case isn’t different at all from the judge’s case, and that, therefore he should not throw the switch. What if the bystander had three options: throw the switch one way and kill the one, do nothing and let the five die, or throw the switch the other way and kill himself.

Trolley Bystander's 3 Options

Is the bystander morally obligated to throw the switch and kill himself? It would certainly be nice of him, but it would generally be regarded that this would be an act of a Super Samaritan, and that it would go above and beyond the normal obligations of morality. But if our bystander is not obligated to save five lives by sacrificing his own life, then perhaps he is not obligated to pay this price with someone else’s life. That is, perhaps the bystander in the two-options case should indeed, like the judge, let the five die, rather than sacrifice one in order to save five.

The Medicine

We’re getting further away from our initial reasoning in the first trolley case, in which we thought numbers were the primary factor. (I.e., if you have a choice between saving one life and saving five, you should generally choose to save five.) But now we’ve seen some cases in which we should choose to save one instead of five. Could it be that in general the numbers aren’t the relevant moral factor?

Here’s another trolley case to consider (another one without any trolley). Six people all need a special drug in order to live. You have enough to treat either one of the five (who needs all of the medicine you have), or to treat the other five (who each need a fifth or the medicine you have). What should you do?

This is another case that, on the face of it, harkens back to our original trolley case. It seems as if, everything else being equal, you should probably save the five instead of the one (let’s call the one “David”), because surely the numbers matter here. Of course, there could be special circumstances involved, and here we have to return to the “everything else being equal” clause that I promised to talk about earlier. Perhaps David has a far greater utility than the five — perhaps he is a cancer researcher, while the five are ne’er-do-wells. Or perhaps the five are all evil — murderers or nazis or CEOs or what have you — while David is a relatively good person. Or perhaps the five are all old and otherwise sick and fairly near death, while David is young and vibrant. Or perhaps there is a more hybrid socio-moral reason to choose to save David over the five: perhaps you are David’s parent, or David’s doctor, or you have signed a binding legal contract to give your medicine to David. These are all justifiable moral factors that break the “everything else being equal” clause here, and would morally allow you to give the medicine to David.

But what if you were simply David’s friend, and had no other reason to give him the medicine than that you want to. Would this make it into the list of justifiable moral reasons to save David instead of saving the five? Well, generally the intuition is that it is indeed not such a reason. You have no moral or contractual obligation to save David, you just want to save him. And generally this isn’t thought to be a good moral reason to act.

But maybe this is wrong. Suppose now that the drug is owned by David, not you. Would you try to persuade him to give his medicine to the five others? Should you? I should think not. David values his life more than the five strangers’ lives, and no amount of utilitarian mathematics would convince him otherwise (“come on, David — five lives are worth five times the value of your life, and so you should give the five your medicine…”). And David is certainly not violating anyone’s rights by keeping his own medicine — none of the five has any claim to the drug. It would be an act of supreme Samaritanism to give up his own medicine to save others.

But given this new analysis, perhaps in our previous case we were too hasty in throwing “I want to give David my medicine” into the category of morally unacceptable reasons. Perhaps valuing David’s life is a morally acceptable reason for saving his life to the detriment of five others. It is still the case that none of the five has any claim to the drug. (Nor does David, of course.) It’s my drug. But perhaps my valuing David’s life is enough to eclipse the concern about the numbers here.

Weighing human lives

What, then, about the original case where you have no special concerns for any of the parties involved? Perhaps the numbers still aren’t an important concern here. John Taurek (from whom I took this example) claims just this, and says we should simply flip a coin. Heads: we save David. Tails: we save the other five. This way, each of the five has a 50-50 chance of living. Taurek’s point is that we can’t measure the value of human lives — at least not in the way that we can measure the value of, say, jewelry. And so, left without this sort of measure, and without any other factors that would count towards breaking the “everything else being equal” deadlock (such as friendship), we should fall back to a random choice. Of course, like many philosophers, he goes a bit too far with his zealotry. He says there’s no difference in a case where you’d be weighing 50 lives against one; I suppose he’d go to the extent of saying there’s no difference in a case where you’d be weighing 5,000,000 lives against one, or 5,000,000,000 against one. But clearly this is just insanity. Just because you can’t weigh a human life’s value in the same way as a necklace’s doesn’t mean there’s no way to measure its value at all. And it certainly doesn’t mean that 5,000,000,000 lives can’t be seen as more valuable than one.

Avoidability

Perhaps the correct account of trolley cases must examine avoidability. Take for instance a new non-trolley trolley case: The Surgeon’s Two Options. A surgeon has six patients, five of whom will die very soon without various organ transplants, and one of whom has a broken toe but is otherwise vital and healthy. By an extreme coincidence, the patient with the broken toe has the exactly right blood and tissue types to match all of the five other patients, and thus would be as perfect a transplant match as could be without being a relative. The surgeon is thus presented with two choices: harvest the organs of the patient with the broken toe, and thus save the lives of the other five patients; or merely fix the patient’s toe and let the other five patients die.

In this case, if the surgeon harvests the organs, she has avoidably violated the rights of the patient with the broken toe. That is, she could have not taken the organs, and thus not violated the patient’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of metabolism.

In the original trolley case, whichever decision is made, someone will die. But it will be unavoidable. There’s nothing the driver could do to stop the killing. And if he decides to take the spur and kill the one worker instead of the five, there’s nothing about his decision that could have been impacted by the worker’s wishes. In the surgeon’s case, she could simply have asked the toe patient if he minded having his organs harvested, and the matter would have been perfectly clear.

On one reading of the surgeon’s case, the numbers don’t count, simply because rights are being avoidably violated. On a similar reading of the trolley case, the numbers do count, simply because there are no other morally relevant factors. (And, despite what Taurek claims, the numbers are indeed morally relevant.)

Killing versus Letting Die versus Withdrawing Aid

There’s one more thing we should look at regarding the killing versus letting-die discussion: namely, we have to consider a grey-area between them. Withdrawing aid. It will take us to an interesting place, in the end.

One take on the difference between killing and letting-die is that killing is an act of doing, and letting-die is an act of allowing. (You might have picked up on the strangeness of an act of allowing. That is, you might think these things reside in different metaphysical categories; i.e., you don’t act in order to allow something to happen — in fact, you have to not act in order to allow something to happen. But I think there’s an implicit action in deciding not to act. More on this, soon.) And if this is the proper analysis, then we can apply a similar analysis to the original trolley case and the surgeon’s two options. The driver could just stay on the main track, allowing the train to do what it would have done on its own; and this could be seen as an act of letting-die. If letting-die is a less serious moral offense than actively killing, then perhaps letting five die is still less egregious than killing one. In the case of the surgeon, we have the same issue: letting five die might be less morally egregious than killing one, and thus you’d have your moral decision.

But what about murkier cases of withdrawing aid? Take for example, this: You are swimming with a friend, and she starts to drown. You start to rescue her, but she is so scared and disoriented that she begins to pull you down with her. You realize that you will both die if you don’t disengage from your rescue attempt. You abort the attempt, and she dies. Did you kill your friend, or allow her to die? Well, you have certainly acted, by pushing your friend off of you, but is this really rising to the level of killing? Perhaps you want to say that your action was one of withdrawing aid, which you might well argue is less morally egregious than an act of killing.

We can fruitfully look here to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous thought experiment of the violinist. You have been kidnapped by a radical music-lovers group, and you wake up in a hospital bed next to a world-famous violinist. You are told that the violinist needs your kidneys in order to survive, and so has been hooked up to you while you were unconscious. The question is whether or not unhooking yourself from the violinist is murder. (The original case is meant to show us something about the ethics of abortion.) You might argue, as in the last example, that this is a case of withdrawing aid rather than that of outright killing the violinist.

What if, in a similar scenario, while you ponder what to do, the violinist’s arch-enemy sneaks into the room and disconnects you. This is withdrawing aid as much as the last case, but may strike you differently somehow. Is seems more like killing somehow than when you disconnect the violinist yourself.

My take is that these cases are both acts of killing. But when you disconnect yourself, it’s a justified killing. That is, you have rights that have been violated, and it is thus a right you have to disconnect yourself. That said, I think it’s still an act of killing — justified or not, we should call it what it is. The violinist’s enemy does not have the right to kill him, and so this is not a justified killing, though a killing it obviously still is.

The Proper Analysis

Is the trolley problem solvable in every variation via the same reasoning? I doubt it. Hundreds have tried, of course, and perusing the literature is a fascinating pastime for those who are curious. But I do think that, as in many of the cases above, the proper analysis will usually involve an examination of the rights involved, and that this will often take the moral high-ground above any arguments regarding killing, letting-die, or anything similar. We’ll take a closer look at rights-based systems of ethics in future posts.

Bibliography

McMahan, Jeff. (1993) “Killing, Letting Die, and Withdrawing Aid”. Ethics 103.

Naylor, Margery Bedford. (1988) “The Moral of the Trolley Problem”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 48.

Taurek, John. (1977) “Should the Numbers Count?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 6.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. (1971) “A Defense of Abortion”. Philosophy & Public Affairs 1.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. (2008) “Turning the Trolley”. Philosophy & Public Affairs 36.

Materialism and Doubt

A student emailed me asking me about the role of doubt in a materialist/science dominated culture. It was an excellent question. What role would doubt play in someone who believed that science could find all the answers? We do doubt, but the materialist is often portrayed as a person with a particular sort of confidence in her worldview. The materialist not only believes that everything that exists or could exist is physical, or physically based, but that all such things can be given fully physical explanations as well. While not all materialists do believe such a strong claim, enough do to lend strength to the stereotype.

I suggested to the student that doubt is what drives materialism, and that it is doubt that the materialist uses to suggest it is superior to dualism. What follows is how I tried to portray this to my student.

Doubt

I think that most materialists would accept the description of them as ‘big bang until now’ kind of believers. There was the beginning, whatever that was (and whatever that was, it was entirely physical), and, given the laws of physics, everything has turned out as it has. That we are able to peer into the earliest times of the universe with our telescopes backs up this materialist perspective. It is, of course, possible that there are places or parts of the universe that are not bound by the laws of physics, but that seems less and less likely the more we learn about the universe.

What of doubt though, you ask? Is it evolutionarily beneficial? I have not read much on that issue specifically, but I have read quite a bit about it in a roundabout fashion. Here is what I think a materialist/scientist would suggest as the role and purpose, naturalistically speaking, of doubt. We are born not as blank slates, but as probability machines. What that means is that while we are not born with knowledge of how the world works, nor are we born with no rules or inclinations at all. Rather, we are born with a set of ingrained tools that allow us to figure out how the world seemingly works. Babies and children (and some adults), rarely take things at face value, despite appearances to the contrary. A child does not know how gravity works until it has seen many things fall (and many things, such as balloons and planes, not fall). The child is constantly touching and tasting and probing its way about and through the world to learn what the world is made of and how it works. But, one might say, that is curiosity, not doubt. I think that is right — at least, partially right.

Curiosity is the drive to learn, but the truly curious, which children are, do not merely accept what they encounter. They seek out not just new experiences, but the commonality that exists between and within those experiences. That means that, along with the curiosity, there is doubt present. There is doubt that what the child has just experienced is enough to understand, is correct, is the right sort of standard by which other experiences can be judged. We doubt, though not always (or even often) in the philosophical sense, because of its survival benefits. Should I trust that sound, just because it was trustworthy the first time I heard it? Should I believe that all red fruits are healthy and all blue breads are bad? Doubt drives curiosity drives doubt. If we did not doubt, the first suspected causal unions would have been good enough for us. A virgin in the volcano seems to have forestalled an eruption, therefore, the gods have been appeased. What need would we have of science if we had no doubt?

Curiosity is the desire to learn, but doubt is the tempering of what we have learned into knowledge. A creature that does not doubt will not survive long. And it is doubt that is built into science itself. The idea of falsifiability is based on doubt. If there is no way in which a theory could be shown to be false, it is not considered to be a good or strong theory. That is doubt.

While we are or can be 100% certain of how things seem to us on a sensory basis (I seem to be seeing green; I seem to be tasting an apple; I seem to be hearing crunching; etc.), often what we sense does not fit with what we have previously sensed or with what we currently believe. That is where the doubt comes in. Suppose I hear a voice telling me it is Volthoon and that I must kill my neighbors. I cannot doubt that it seems to me that I am hearing such a voice and that I am hearing it say such a thing, but I can doubt whether there is such a voice saying such things. Maybe I won’t question it (there are many who do not), or maybe I will not think to question it (there are many in this group as well), but I can certainly accept what I am sensing as something that I seem to be sensing without also accepting that it is a real and genuine thing that has not been concocted by my mind alone.

If I were to see a cat bark like a dog, it would confuse the hell out of me, not because I would doubt what I sensed, but because what I seemingly sensed did not fit in with any of my previous sensory experiences. Now I wonder which belief or set of beliefs I will have to drop or alter (and there comes doubt again). Now I wonder if I can trust my eyes or my ears (see the McGurk effect for a cool example of this), or neither or both. This doubt leads to the “why” question, I think, though you are entirely correct that it is a question that I may never be able to answer.

Final Thoughts

Doubt, unsurprisingly, is the philosopher’s bread and butter and beer and pillow. We all want to know what is going on, but we all want to be right. Those are desires that are at unfortunate odds with one another, but they are so because we doubt. I am not sure that the world is a better place because we doubt, but I am reasonably sure that we have survived as a species, and, less importantly, philosophy has thrived as a discipline, because we do.

What is True Depends on What is the Truth

This is a follow-up to Alec’s nicely written post on realism and its varieties. I put forth in the comments section the idea that what one believes to be the case with regards to realism v. anti-realism is going to color what one takes to be true in the world. Or, at the very least, what one considers to be a candidate of truth in the world. Here is why that is (and note that this is not merely my opinion, but is an established line of argument and belief among metaphysicians).

Realism, as Alec eloquently stated, is the view that the world is a particular way in a mind-independent fashion. Anti-realism is the view that the world is mind-dependent, and so derives many, perhaps all, of its features because of how it is perceived. Those are very quick takes on the two views and should not be satisfactory in and of themselves to anyone. Again, I refer you to Alec’s post.

Depending on which of the views you hold, your idea of what is true (or at least what you believe to be true) need not change, but what makes something true (its truth conditions) does change. Why might this be? First, let’s talk about the common sense view of truth.

Suppose a person makes the following utterance, “snow is white.” That utterance has a truth value. It is true if snow is white, and it is false if snow is any color other than white. How do we go about determining if it is true? Well, we go and look at snow. “Look”, you might say, if you live somewhere other than NYC or Chicago, “there is some snow, and it is white.” Hurray! We have verified its truth status. Or, dum dum dum, have we?

If you are a realist, you think that there are properties in the world that we can discover. This does not just mean that we can encounter snow, but that when we encounter snow, we can learn something about it, such as it being cold, malleable, crunchy, and white. If those are characteristics that we cannot discover or encounter, there is no way we can determine the truth value of any statements that make reference to such characteristics. The utterance, “snow is white”, is true only if snow is actually white. We laugh at a child who says, “snow is brown” because we know that snow is not brown (even in NYC, snow is white until it hits the dirty, dirty ground there). This is called the correspondence theory of truth. An utterance is true if it corresponds with what is actually the case in reality. “My keys are in the bowl by the door” is only true if my keys are in the bowl that is by the door. If they are in a dish, if they are in the kitchen, if I have no keys at all, the utterance is false because it does not correspond with how things actually are in reality. Hopefully you can see why a realist is drawn to the correspondence theory (though the two are not necessarily conjoined).

But I suspect you can also see why the anti-realist is not going to favor a correspondence theory of truth. For the anti-realist, most of what we believe to be the case about the world is due to how our minds project or create certain features or characteristics of what we perceive. For the anti-realist, the utterance of “snow is white” is expressing an opinion since there is no objective characteristic of ‘white’ in the world; there is only the experience that I refer to as ‘being white’. Whiteness, then, is a mind-dependent characteristic. It exists only because our minds create it. What does that do to the truth value of the utterance then? Well, as there is no objective reality to compare the utterance to, we cannot rely on the correspondence theory. Even if there were an actual characteristic of being white in the world, how could we ever know what that characteristic was like when our perceptions are so unreliable? And yet, the anti-realist does not want to say that there is no such thing as truth. Instead, what determines truth is something different from correspondence. It is called the coherence theory of truth. For the anti-realist (for many of them, at least), our mind-dependent experiences build up a large collection of beliefs about what we think the world is like. Since we cannot say what the world is actually like, we judge truth based on how well an utterance coheres (fits in) with our collection of beliefs. We want our collection of beliefs to be as coherent as possible. Note that coherence here does not merely mean understandable or rational, it means something larger: that our collection of beliefs not contain contradictions. We do not want to believe that we are both standing in the rain and we are not standing in the rain. We do not want to believe that snow is white together with snow is not white. (Of course, we can believe variations of those, but the contradictions are smoothed away by adding unspoken caveats to the utterance. For example, “snow is white” need not contradict “snow is not white” if we have the unspoken belief that the second utterance is about NYC snow which is changed or altered snow. “I am standing the rain” need not contradict “I am not standing in the rain” so long as we have the unspoken belief that I am standing beneath an umbrella which means that I am in the rain without being rained upon.)

Truth and Language
This can quickly become an issue of semantics or philosophy of language and so worth another, different post. Briefly, though, we know what we mean when we say what we do. When I point at snow and say, “snow is brown”, I do not literally mean that I believe snow is brown. Instead, I mean that snow, in such and such a state or condition (whatever condition is present, perhaps), is brown. If someone, maybe Alec, who knows, were to ask me, “do you mean to say that you think snow is brown?” I can honestly and reasonably say, “That is not what I meant when I said, ‘snow is brown.’ I meant that the snow here is brown, by which I meant to say, this is some really dirty snow.’” There is the demonstratrive sense of the utterance, by which I point and so indicate a particular batch of snow. Think of the old example about eskimos having eighteen different words for snow. That is a ridiculous example, I think, meant to suggest that eskimos like snow so much they talk about it a lot. But guess what? We non-eskimos have lots of different words for snow too: snow, wet snow, dry snow, soft snow, heavy snow, light snow, sleet, hail, etc. Wait a minute, you might exclaim, those are just the word ‘snow’ with an adjective in front of it. Yep — many of our words are like that. In fact, many words are like that: compound concepts captured in one word. What does ‘slush’ mean, if not icy rain? What is ‘beautiful’ aside from ‘pretty’ preceded by some number of ‘very’s?

Back to the topics at hand though, for an utterance to be true for the anti-realist, then, just means that the utterance fits in with my already accepted beliefs. “Snow is white” is true if what I call ‘snow’ is associated with the characteristic that I call ‘white’, and it means nothing beyond that. So, which theory of truth is correct? The realist theory is not correct, as there is no way to verify if what we have said actually corresponds with what is actually the case in the world. There is the experience I have whenever I come across a sensation that I label ‘white’, but why think that particular experience matches up with the way the world truly is? Perhaps I am color blind. Perhaps I am hallucinating. But you are not, the realist might contend. But how do you know that I am not? Can you prove that you are sensing the world as it actually is? If you could, there would be no anti-realist camp.

The anti-realist theory is not true either though, at least not obviously so. Coherence is an important attribute for any system of beliefs. For any system of beliefs, we want there to be as few outright contradictions as possible. Yet, why think that coherence alone is enough to establish truth? Someone who is schizophrenic or just simply insane might have a very coherent view of their experiences, but it only seems coherent to them because they are crazy. The schizophrenic person believes he hears voices separate from his own; he may even believe he sees people talking to him. We consider him sick though, because he is experiencing what no one else is or can. We say that the schizophrenic is wrong, not because his beliefs are not coherent, since many of them are (perhaps even as many of his beliefs cohere as do our own), but because he has beliefs that do not correspond to reality, to what we think is actually true. A claim, by the way, the schizophrenic will agree with once he is on successful medication.

What is the upshot of all this? Well, the realist maintains that our intuitive conception of truth is based on correspondence, not coherence, and the anti-realist maintains that we can never know whether our beliefs correspond with anything external to the mind, but that we can determine if our beliefs cohere with one another. Which you favor seemingly depends on what you think is real (though, to be fair, some suggest that what you think is real depends on what you think makes something true). However, it more often depends on what you think you justify as being true. That, however, has to do with straight up epistemology, and so must wait for another post.

The Athletes-on-Steroids Debate

Arguing Over Nothing:A regular feature on the blog where we argue over something of little consequence, as if it were of major consequence. Arguing is philosophy’s raison d’être, and the beauty of an argument is often as much in its form as its content.Today, we argue about the acceptability of professional athletes using performance-enhancing steroids. Sides have been randomly assigned. Jim argues here for a pro-steroid position, while I take the con.

Each philosopher is granted up to a 500-750 words to state his/her case as well as up to 250-500 words for rebuttal. The winner will be decided by a poll of the readers (or whoever happens to have admin privileges at the appropriate time).


Jim: Arguing for the Use of Steroids

Really? I’ve been assigned the pro position? Dammit. Fine.

Before I present my arguments in favor of this very fine topic, I want to first lay out the purpose of the athlete, showing what I think the athletic endeavor is meant to display or do and what it is not meant for. Once that groundwork has been properly lain, my actual arguments will be easily to see and agree to.

Sports itself is merely a kind of communal physical activity, the doing of which I need not bother defending, as it is patently clear that nearly everyone (and my claim is not affected if ‘nearly everyone’ only picks out a bare majority) desires the company of others (while not every possible ‘other’, at least some people who are not oneself), and it is physically beneficial to take part in physical activities. Watching sports is another matter entirely, and it is here that the role of the professional athlete needs to be made clear.

One claim about athletes is that they show to the rest of us what the human body can do, what an object of grace and strength and fortitude can accomplish. I will not dispute that (though if the topic comes up later, I will be more than happy to give it a shot). I will claim that such displays are well handled by the amateur athletes — those who play college sports or in the olympics, or even in minor league sports. Such athletes are the ones who are competing for, among other things, the glory of the game or to personify the strength of the human spirit, and other such claims. The important aspect to note about such athletes (for the most part) is that they are not payed to play. They compete because of the joy and sense of accomplishment and what have you that they receive from the mere fact of competition. Our being allowed to watch such activities is enjoyable, but their purpose is not solely, I suggest, for our entertainment. Our entertainment is a by-product of their true purpose. Such is not so for the professional athlete.

The professional athlete exists to entertain us, the non-professional (perhaps even non-) athletes. The pro achieves remarkable things, often moreso than does the amateur, but professional accomplishments are the by-product of their athleticism — their purpose is to entertain, and any crossover into the realm of ‘attaining human perfection’ and the display thereof is but icing on the cake. We watch professional sports, if we do, because it entertains us. It entertains us with its athleticism, its drafting us into particular communities of comrades and opponents (our city/division/league is better than yours). We are happiest when our team wins, when we see events that we could not imagine happening otherwise, when we see records broken (records that mean nothing when not used to compare our team to that of another), when we see impressive feats of scoring or the prevention of which — we are happiest when we are entertained.

Professional athletes who take steroids are better capable of amazing physical performances than are those who do not. We watch professional sports because we want to be entertained by amazing physical performances. In fact, professional sports exists solely to provide such a venue. Therefore, athletes should be allowed to take steroids. They should be monitored to ensure they are as safe as possible, of course, but if steroids makes them better serve their purpose, then take them they should.


Alec: Arguing Against Steroid Use

First things first, the line between amateur and professional athlete is quickly evaporating, and we should reframe the argument appropriately. The Olympics, once the exclusive domain of amateur athletes, now allow professional athletes into the mix, because Olympic officials decided to let the best athletes in the world compete, not merely the poorest. There is also more parity than ever between professional and amateur athletes, in that college athletes are not only closer to professional level than ever before, but are also as equally involved in the entertainment aspect of the athletic industry. College football ad revenues in 2010 — for just the top 15 programs in the U.S. — topped a billion dollars.

So let’s dispense with the pro/amateur distinction. The bottom line is that athletes of any sort have two concerns: being the best they can be, and entertaining others. Even a middle-aged weekend warrior worries about looking good in front of the twenty people watching him play a very mediocre third base. The same warrior revels in the glory of an unusually graceful moment in the field. Alternately, the most jaded professional athlete can still revel in his athleticism even in the face of the realization that he is just there to make money. And obviously the professional has to worry about his entertainment value, even as he might be conflicted about it.

Now that the metaphysics are out of the way, we can analyze things more easily. The goals of being an athlete are two-fold (at least): being the best human specimen, and being the best entertainer. And this impacts the steroid debate in two ways.

Being the best human specimen. The key word here is, of course, “human”. What we (and the athletes in question) should be concerned with is developing the human body to its greatest potential. Once we start adding manufactured chemicals into the mix, we are getting into the realm of superhuman, or, perhaps more aptly hyperhuman. You will argue, no doubt, that athletes should be able to take, say, ibuprofen without being considered enhanced to an unnatural degree. And I agree. But surely also there is a line past which we cannot cross. By the time we get to adding bionic body parts to an athlete, we have certainly crossed that line. I argue that steroids have crossed that line as well.

Being the best entertainer. To some degree, it strikes me, no one cares (nor should they) what an entertainer does to enhance themselves for the benefit of the performance. But if we think about it for a moment, we might change our tune. Take, for instance, the extreme case of the singer who lip-syncs in concert. This is the ultimate enhancement to the singer’s biology. (Never mind that the enhancement is external to the singer. Picture a bodily embedded vocal track if it helps you.) But when we discover such an enhancement in practice, we become upset, and rightly so. We want to see live vocal feats — the human body stretched to its limits in a beautiful performance. We don’t want to hear prerecorded “perfection”, just because it’s possible. Similarly with athletes. When we find one cheating (corking a bat, taking steroids, doping), we are rightly dismayed. And this dismay is founded on the same basis of the previous paragraph. We want to see human-ness developed; not hyperhuman-ness.


Jim’s Reply to Alec

I will grant you the pro/amateur distinction is not a large one for this topic, but my so granting is due more to lack of space than to agreement. I will say this before moving on to the bulk of my reply: That various countries (America included) are now including professional athletes in the Olympics does not show a change in the inherent status of what an athlete is or is meant to be, it is instead a very successful attempt to move the Olympics from a showcase of Athletic achievement into something very much like a “our team is better than yours, so nah nah nah” mentality. The athletes that competed in the games were, for the most part, professional in the sense that they often only ever trained for the Olympics to the exclusion of anything else. Be that as it may, let’s move on.

Being the Best Human: This, I think, is, or is traditionally thought to be, the main purpose of the athlete. When we tend to think of the classical athlete, it is the Greek ideal we think of, and their supposed desire to reach perfection with the body. That desire was steeped in the idea of natural perfection, but why must we be trapped in such a conception? You mention a line we should not cross, but where we draw that line is arbitrary. Ibuprofen is allowed, but why? Because it is commonly used? That was not always the case — it only became so over time. Reconstructive knee surgery is not natural, is it? And yet it is quite common among athletes. Apparently taking steroids is the norm among bicyclists. Does that make it natural now? Otherwise, what is your definition of natural? It cannot be, or I suspect you do not want it to be, just whatever naturally (without our intervention) occurs in nature, so what else is it besides what is commonly accepted? Steroids in that latter sense were once unnatural, but are no longer so. Is constant excercise natural? Not in America. Does that disqualify athletes who work out in order to be better? You tell me.

Being the Best Entertainer: I wholeheartedly agree with you about singers being given false aid through the use of auto-tune or whatever the new audio enhancement is going to be called. Those are not biological enhancements though. There is nothing about that which I believe can properly be labeled as a human improvement. Steroids work on the muscles themselves, or so I gather; at the very least, they work on the body directly, and amplify its abilities to do more than what it can presently do. Auto-tune modifies a feature of the body that is separate from biology itself. It takes what the body does and works on it as a separate entity, treating it no differently than one might hair that one donates to a charity. Studio work modifies an entertainer no more than CGI does. Most of us know that we are not being entertained by a person, but by a computer’s rendering of some aspect of a person. Steroids do not make the body work differently — they make it work better (leaving open the meaning of ‘better’ here as something that is common sensical in the realm of sports).


Alec’s Reply to Jim

You have hoisted me by my own metaphysical petard! Well played! Indeed, the line to be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable performance aids is arbitrary. I was sort of hoping you’d miss that. Maybe, however, there’s a slender non-arbitrary thread at which to grasp here.

Ibuprofen doesn’t enhance one’s performance; it merely lets one perform through some minor discomfort. Reconstructive knee surgery doesn’t create a better knee than one originally had; it merely gets a knee back into useable form. These, I claim, fall safely on the acceptable side of the line separating acceptable from unacceptable. Steroids are meant not as an ameliorative nor as a repair, but explicitly as an enhancement to one’s otherwise natural ability. With steroids, one can be a better athlete. With, e.g., knee surgery, one can at best resume one’s career at the same level as previously.

Your example of constant exercise throws an undeniable wrench in my theory, however. Exercise is, clearly, meant to be something that improves one’s athleticism, and therefore could be seen as falling on the unacceptable side of my fine line. Yet obviously this is at best unintuitive and at worst a crushing blow to my theory. I admit that I have no unassailable defense against this. However, let me try one last maneuver. Let’s call “natural exercise” any form of exercise that one could undertake without advanced technology. Any form of running, stretching, weight-lifting, etc., would fall under this umbrella. (Never mind that most, e.g., modern weight machines are obviously technologically enhanced — someone with the appropriate set of rocks and sticks could emulate the majority of this technology.) Now let’s call “enhanced exercise” any form of exercise that relies inherently on technology. For instance, I’m imagining some sort of computer-aided analysis of muscle fibers during a workout, with an algorithm that instantaneously guides the athlete through electrical feedback into better postures. I claim that natural exercise is always acceptable, and enhanced exercise always unacceptable. And with this arguable line drawn anew, I rest my case. Tenuously.

What Is Realism?

Do you believe in the existence of stones, trees, cats, and the other everyday objects around us? It’s not a rhetorical question — there are actually philosophers who don’t believe in the existence of this sort of thing. What about the objects of mathematics? — numbers, abstract triangles, infinite quantities? How about the entities and laws of science? Or moral and aesthetic properties? What sorts of furniture are you willing to stow in the universe’s metaphysical attic?

Realism and Language
There is a school of thought that categorizes realism as a doctrine about truth and language instead of existence — the idea being that talking about the existence of sorts of things, and what it means for our talking to correspond to some sort of truth, is the real job of this branch of philosophy. This school of thought will be blatantly ignored by me in this piece, though those who are interested in finding out more can get lots of great references from Michael Devitt’s Realism and Truth.

Realism in philosophy is, broadly, a belief in the existence of some sorts of things. If you believe in the existence of numbers, you are a mathematical realist. If you believe in the existence of unobservable subatomic particles, you are a scientific realist. And so on, through the rest of the disciplines into which philosophy delves — ethics, aesthetics, language, and logic, to name a few.

Of course, just as there are realists about each of these sorts of things, there are also anti-realists — self-proclaimed disbelievers in the existence of those types of objects — and many a heated battle has been waged between the two camps in just about every arena.

Common-Sense Realism

What I’d like to talk about initially is realism (and anti-realism) about a sort of object that many of us take for granted as having an uncontroversial existence: stones, trees, and cats; the everyday objects of the external world. Let’s call this doctrine common-sense realism.

I said “external world” in the previous paragraph as a hat-tip to the debate that pretty much gave birth to the very notion of realism in the modern era: Cartesian skepticism. Rene Descartes, in his Meditations, pondered the objects about the existence of which he could be absolutely certain. In the end, he cast considerable and powerful doubt on the existence of even such mundane and seemingly certain things as stones, trees, and cats, saving his indubitable belief solely for the existence of his own mind. Descartes’ skepticism was so powerful, in fact, that it spawned an incredible genealogy of philosophers arguing about it for centuries to come. In the end, Descartes himself, with the generous and dubious help of his God, wound up believing in stones, trees, and cats, but other philosophers would not so easily shake off the doubts Descartes had raised. George Berkeley, for one, posited that, post-Descartes, it only made sense to believe in the existence of minds — not in the existence of stones, trees, and cats at all. (Stones, trees, and cats, on Berkeley’s take, are actually collections of ideas, which are, as ideas, completely dependent on minds for their existence.) So, thanks in part to Descartes, we have a divide that persists in our thinking about these things to this very day: there is the internal world (our minds) and the external world (stones, trees, and cats). Thanks to the certainty Descartes uncovered, almost no one until recently has been an anti-realist about minds; but many have been anti-realists about the external world.

So there are two facets to being a common-sense realist. It means, for one thing, that you believe in the existence of things like stones, trees, and cats; but for another thing, it means that you don’t think such things are dependent on minds for their existence. A tree, for a common-sense realist, is a real object in the real world, and would exist whether or not humans ever thought about it.

Mind Dependence
What sorts of things would be dependent for their existence on minds? Unless you are a disciple of Berkeley, this might be an odd question. But ponder things like dreams, emotions, and ideas. Clearly these sorts of things are mind-dependent. A stone, on the contrary, if you’re a common-sense realist, exists whether or not any minds exist. The fact that, e.g., dreams are mind-dependent puts them in an odd metaphysical category based on our criteria here. But we can put this to one side for the time being, noting that the fact that mind-dependent entities are mind-dependent is more of a boring truism than an earth-shaking metaphysical revelation.

So if you believe that stones, trees, and cats exist even when you’re not thinking about them, you are a common-sense realist. You might, naturally, be wondering why anyone would be an anti-realist about this sort of thing, or bout anything, for that matter. Well, actually, not a lot of philosophers since Berkeley are common-sense anti-realists. But anti-realism becomes a lot more attractive in other realms.

What other sorts of realism or anti-realism might you buy into?

Scientific Realism

If you’re a common-sense realist, you are also likely to be a scientific realist. Scientific realism is the doctrine that not only do stones, trees, and cats exist, but so do the objects that science posits. If you’re a scientific realist, you include amongst the furniture of your universe such so-called “unobservable” subatomic particles as electron, bosons, and quarks, as well as objects and phenomena on the other end of the magnitude spectrum such as black holes, gravity, and an expanding universe. One problem with scientific realism is that scientific theories are sometimes wrong, and so the objects that these theories posit can be fictional in the end. One favorite example in the literature is a 17th century theory of combustion that posited the existence of a substance called phlogiston. The theory, while scientifically accepted at the time, turned out to be wrong, and phlogiston was shown not to exist. So a 17th century scientific realist would have been put in the awkward position of believing in the reality of something that didn’t in fact exist.

How does a scientific realist come to grips with such uncertainty? Well, the general response from scientific realists is that this is the best we can do. Sure, science is sometimes wrong, but it’s still our best bet for uncovering the true nature of the universe. There is no non-scientific, privileged position from which we will ever be able to see the entire truth about the world — there is no window into the room that holds all of the furniture of the universe. Our current scientific theories provide the best view we can get.

Mathematical Realism

If you are a scientific realist, you might also be a mathematical realist, seeing how science and math seem to be so tightly bound together.

Actually, though I am a common-sense and scientific realist, my favorite brand of anti-realism is mathematical anti-realism. I have a hard time stomaching the idea of numbers and similar abstract objects existing independently of minds. I’m not alone in my distaste of mathematical realism, but those of us so disposed do face many issues — chief among them the seeming indispensability of math to science. If one is a scientific realist, and science relies indispensably on math, then on the face of it it seems as if one is committed to the existence of mathematical entities, whether or not one likes it. This indispensability argument has kept philosophers of math very busy over the last few decades.

For many of us on the anti-realist side of the mathematics debate, the big problem is that of causal inertness. Mathematical objects are, by consensus at any rate, abstract — that is, they take up no space and have no causal powers whatsoever. You can’t throw the number 8 through a window, for instance. And yet for a mathematical realist the number 8 still exists, somehow, and is indispensable to science. This sort of existence, for many of us, is just a completely different sort of thing from trees and quarks, which are just the sorts of things that can be thrown through windows. (Though you have to be pretty skilled to throw a quark anywhere.) For a mathematical anti-realist, it makes more sense to think of the number eight as a useful fiction; like Holden Caulfield with an advanced degree in particle physics.

Moral Realism

I’m probably the worst person to be writing about moral realism, because I never really understood what it was supposed to accomplish to posit actual entities/properties (philosophers talk more about moral properties than entities) of ethics. And yet, on certain takes, this is exactly what moral realism posits. At least mathematical entities are tightly bound to the entities of physics. Moral properties, if they were to exist, would be tightly bound to human psychology and systems of justice — both clearly dependent on human minds for their existence.

Mostly, the case for moral realism is stated in terms of semantics instead of existence — moral realists say that moral statements can be taken to be objectively true or false, in opposition to some common-sense intuitions that moral statements are subjective and/or dependent for their validity on the cultures in which they are uttered. But if “that cat is black” is a true statement because there is indeed a black cat in front of you, then “that person is virtuous” could be held to be true in the same way: there is indeed a virtuous person in front of you. This would, on a naively reasonable take, put virtuousness on a par with blackness; but while one is easily cashed out in terms of low-grade, mind-independent physics, the other is all bundled up with arguably less objective mind-dependent concepts. That’s why I am a moral anti-realist.

What Kind of Realist Are You?

Chat us up in the comments!

Kantian Ethics in a Nutshell

One of my students just wrote the following brilliant observation of Kantian Ethics:

“In my opinion, to be moral in Kant’s eyes is to be miserable.”

Brilliant.