Please Don’t Fight the Hypothetical

It is a com­mon part of moral rea­son­ing to pro­pose hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nar­ios. Whether it is our own Tor­ture v. Specks or the more fa­mous Trol­ley prob­lem, ask­ing these types of ques­tions helps the par­ti­ci­pants for­mal­ize and un­der­stand their moral po­si­tions. Yet one com­mon re­sponse to hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nar­ios is to challenge some ax­iom of the prob­lem. This ar­ti­cle is a re­quest that peo­ple stop do­ing that, and an ex­pla­na­tion of why this is an er­ror.

First, a brief di­gres­sion into law, which is fre­quently taught us­ing hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion­ing. Un­der the Model Pe­nal Code:

A per­son acts know­ingly with re­spect to a ma­te­rial el­e­ment of an offense when:
(i) if the el­e­ment in­volves the na­ture of his con­duct or the at­ten­dant­
cir­cum­stances, he is aware that his con­duct is of that na­ture or that such­
cir­cum­stances ex­ist; and
(ii) if the el­e­ment in­volves a re­sult of his con­duct, he is aware that it is
prac­ti­cally cer­tain that his con­duct will cause such a re­sult.

Hy­po­thet­i­cal: If Bob sets fire to a house with Char­lie in­side, kil­ling Char­lie, is Bob guilty of know­ing kil­ling of Char­lie? Bob gen­uinely be­lieves throw­ing salt over one’s shoulder when one sets a build­ing on fire pro­tects all the in­hab­itants and en­sures that they will not be harmed—and did throw salt over his shoulder in this in­stance.

Let us take it as a given that set­ting some­one on fire is prac­ti­cally cer­tain to kill them. Nonethe­less, Bob did not know­ingly kill Char­lie be­cause Bob was not aware of the con­se­quence of his ac­tion. Bob had a false be­lief that pre­vented him from hav­ing the be­lief re­quired un­der the MPC to show knowl­edge.

The ob­vi­ous re­sponse here is that, in prac­tice, the known facts will lead to Bob’s con­vic­tion of the crime at trial. This is ir­rele­vant. Bob will be con­victed at trial be­cause the jury will not be­lieve Bob’s as­serted be­lief was true. Un­less Bob is in­sane or men­tally defi­cient, the jury would be right to dis­be­lieve Bob. But that missed the point of the hy­po­thet­i­cal.

The pur­pose of the hy­po­thet­i­cal is to dis­t­in­guish be­tween one type of men­tal state and a differ­ent type of men­tal state. If you don’t un­der­stand that Bob is in­no­cent of know­ing kil­ling if he truly be­lieved that Char­lie was safe, then you don’t un­der­stand the MPC defi­ni­tion of know­ing. Dis­cus­sion of how men­tal states are proven at real tri­als, or whether know­ing kil­ling should be the only crim­i­nal statute about kil­ling are differ­ent top­ics. Talk­ing about those top­ics will not help you un­der­stand the MPC defi­ni­tion of know­ing. Talk­ing about those other top­ics is func­tion­ally iden­ti­cal to say­ing that you don’t care about un­der­stand­ing the MPC defi­ni­tion of know­ing.

Like­wise, peo­ple who re­sponds to the Trol­ley prob­lem by say­ing that they would call the po­lice are not talk­ing about the moral in­tu­itions that the Trol­ley prob­lem in­tends to ex­plore. There’s noth­ing wrong with you if those prob­lems are not in­ter­est­ing to you. But fight­ing the hy­po­thet­i­cal by challeng­ing the premises of the sce­nario is ex­actly the same as say­ing, “I don’t find this topic in­ter­est­ing for what­ever rea­son, and wish to talk about some­thing I am in­ter­ested in.”

In short, fight­ing the premises of a hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nario is chang­ing the topic to fo­cus on some­thing differ­ent than topic of con­ver­sa­tion in­tended by the pre­sen­ter of the hy­po­thet­i­cal ques­tion. When chang­ing the topic is ap­pro­pri­ate is a differ­ent dis­cus­sion, but it is ob­tuse to fail to no­tice that one is chang­ing the sub­ject.

Edit: My the­sis “No­tice and Jus­tify chang­ing the sub­ject,” not “Don’t change the sub­ject.”