Don’t turn up the heat

“So you’re saying that there’s nothing wrong with raping and murdering people?”

I recently got a response something like this in a discussion about moral philosophy. It’s something that people say a lot when they first encounter the idea of moral anti-realism, and I hope to address it in a future post, but first I want to say this: there’s no need to use the most emotive example you can think of to make this argument. For most meta-ethical arguments, if it’s a valid argument when you use rape and murder as an example, it’ll be just as valid if you use pushing your way onto the train before the other passengers have got off, and vice versa. Using the more emotive example here serves only to turn up the heat, which can result in people thinking less clearly.

I thought of this recently in a discussion of the de Finetti way of looking at probability as a choice between gambles. Given a choice between two hypothetical gambles for money, a lot of people are tempted by the grand gesture of turning down both gambles, even if that means wishing a way a zero-risk chance at free money. So it can be good to reframe it as a chance to prevent some harm happening to other people – that way it seems more obvious that the good thing to do is to go for some chance of preventing the harm over allowing it to happen with certainty. And of course as is standard in these philosophical discussions, my first thought was to let the hypothetical stakes be something like “a thousand people die horribly”. But I remembered the admonition above, and we worked out another example – something just bad enough that you’d feel like a heel if you just let it happen with certainty when you could have taken a chance to prevent it, but not so bad that its awfulness could seriously distract from the topic at hand, which was probability theory.

And so we imagined a man in a Florida retirement home, whose fate was not going to be critical to the fate of the world in a way that could make our hypotheticals more confusing, who was at risk of a painful burn on his left little finger that would annoy him for a week. And that was enough – enough to seem more important that this man not get a burn than that we follow one ritual or other in choosing our actions, without the side order of “and you’re a TERRIBLE PERSON if you don’t take my position on this” that seems to come with piling up the stakes as high as your imagination can go before posing your hypothetical.

Heat is sometimes necessary. If a weaker example doesn’t work, a stronger one can sometimes make the difference. But please don’t start at the highest temperature you can reach – more heat doesn’t usually mean more light.

Published by Paul Crowley

I'm Paul Crowley aka "ciphergoth", a cryptographer and programmer living in Mountain View, California. See also my Twitter feed, my webpages, my blogs on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and my previous proper blog. Or mail me: paul at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s