Let’s Do a Thought Crime

One more time, plus a  little more…

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.

Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.

Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car?

Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian?

If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?

Imagine that none of this actually happened, but that Andy and Brian each dreamed the same dream, in which they behaved as they behaved. Each wakes with a sense of satisfaction about his own behavior in the dream, and goes on to live an impeccable life thereafter, never harming a fly. Is there still a moral distinction to be drawn between the two men?

When we speak of morality, are we describing a fact with inherent causal efficacy – like a runaway Coupe DeVille – or are we describing an attitude (or the formation of an attitude)?

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8 thoughts on “Let’s Do a Thought Crime

  1. violetwisp says:

    Do you not have to believe in gods to think that morality is anything other than a convenient label to encapsulate how empathy impacts on emotions and drives our actions? You’ve got random tragedy in the first scenario, guilt that the person might have found a way to stop it in the second, and hateful that the person tried to do it in the third. Bet I’ve missed the point. 🙂

  2. keithnoback says:

    Empathy would be an attitude. But don’t we say we ‘ought’ to do things when we moralize? I think that is hard to account for by saying that we are simply expressing an attitude. Besides. don’t we invoke morality when we talk about, say, our treatment of the environment? Can we attribute that to an expression of empathy?
    Yet moral evaluations don’t seem to be about stuff that’s factual – at least in the same way that a sliding car is factual…

    • violetwisp says:

      We say ‘ought’ but I find it meaningless. It just emcompasses an assessment of likely outcomes (or random and maybe illogical social conditioning if you’re unlucky enough not to get off that path). We ought to take care of the planet because we empathise with future generations of people and animals, and maybe even trees if we’re total hippies. Everthing’s factual, it’s just that some labels we use to express things are misleading. In my opinion.

      • keithnoback says:

        You’ve caught me equivocating on ‘facts’. My excuse is: it’s hard not to because of the weirdness of moral qualities.
        I mean to say that we can make moral qualities sound real, but at a cost. You can tell an outcome assessment story about Brian’s attitude to the dream, e.g. we disapprove because he’s expressing a potentially dangerous attitude which might result in his hurting someone someday. But you can tell that kind of story about almost anything. At the end of the outcome assessment you still end up asking, “Why should I pay attention to this outcome?”
        If you say that you should pay attention because your actions on that outcome affect your likelihood of survival, then why should you value survival? You can say you just do, of course, and that sounds very straight forward and simple.
        It over-reaches though, doesn’t it? There is an inherent assumption about what it is that survives – that it is somehow remarkable. It is remarkable because we experience it. Survival seems to be merely a means to an end, in that case.
        Then we’re back to asking those how and why moral questions about the value of our experience.

      • violetwisp says:

        We value survival because it’s a ‘successful’ instinct, necessarily in terms of evolution. Then we empathise with the urge to survive that others have. Besides, there are obviously many aspects to life that most of us can find lovely, making the experience itself enjoyable. Happy chemicals. I don’t personally angst any further, given the wasted hours millions of humans have spent on these questions, only to despair or invent a religion. If there are answers, we personally are exceedingly unlikely to find them. All the evidence suggests that this is it, and I’m happy to experience it for what it is. Our sense of morality, being a combination of both base instinct and programming, doesn’t need to project any further than what it is, and how it helps us survive. It matters because we do experience and we can’t do anything else.

      • keithnoback says:

        Chuang Tzu would be pleased. 🙂

  3. Gordon Hawkes says:

    Hi Keith. This is a clever little thought experiment. First, many philosophers disagree with me on this, but I think it’s obvious on reflection that INTENTION (perhaps equivalent to what you’re calling “attitude”) is an essential feature in the moral evaluation of any action. In Andy’s case, he has no intention whatsoever to hurt Suzy. Brian, on the other hand, intends to kill her–whether he can causally influence the outcome or not. I think the intention is the relevant moral distinction between the two cases.

    Regarding the dream case, I think your example demonstrates that a person can be internally corrupt despite performing external actions we would consider to be morally right. Imagine Brian and Andy watched a documentary on the killing fields of Cambodia, and both expressed disgust and anger, but inside Brian actually laughed to himself and was secretly amused by the mass murder. Wouldn’t we condemn him for having such an attitude, even though there was no external action that we would judge to be wrong?

    Since I think that circumstances and the nature of the action itself are also relevant features in the moral evaluation an of action, I would quibble with the (I would say, false) dichotomy you set up at the end. I think there are some actions whose very nature make them always wrong (such as rape)–no matter the circumstances or the intention (I’m not a utilitarian, for this reason). And certain circumstances could make an otherwise acceptable action morally wrong–for example, if Andy knew parking his car on the hill during winter would make it a potential danger to schoolchildren. You can see, then, that I think it is both the “facts” and the “attitude” that are morally relevant.

    Great posts, by the way!

    • keithnoback says:

      Thanks Gordon,
      I tend to agree. We say something morally wrong happened to the victim of rape, regardless of the rapist’s attitude. We also say that Brian’s sentiment (maybe that’s the word?) is morally wrong regardless of events related to it. The events and the sentiments are in some sort of bad, co-dependent marriage; they can’t be divorced, but they can never be fully reconciled.
      It leads me to believe that we’ve got it wrong when we talk about the moral content of this or that. The box full of properties and objects seems to be the wrong box for moral evaluations, but so does the box full of attitudes and expressions.

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