Anarchy, Utopia, and Lifeboat Ethics

Sasha Volokh has an excellent response to the utopian criticism of libertarianism, which Jonathan and I have already discussed. Sasha writes,

The main argument for utopianism is similar to the argument in favor of thought experiments and hypotheticals in philosophy, along the lines of what do you do if you have no food in a lifeboat, or what if you sell yourself into slavery, or what if you find yourself on a runaway train that's about to run over five people but you can switch the tracks and only run over one person. These hypotheticals are totally unrealistic, but if you don't have an answer for them, it's unclear how coherent your answers are going to be in all the realistic cases. Thought experiments and hypotheticals are unrealistic because they strip away all the realistic elements which are, in fact, irrelevant to the case at hand.

One of the reasons why I've always enjoyed reading the writings of the late philosopher Robert Nozick, even though I often disagree with his conclusions, is that he loved to create fascinating thought experiments. Of course, these thought experiments were often outlandish, but that was precisely the point. In order to get to the heart of the matter, Nozick had to, as Sasha put it, "strip away all the realistic elements which are, in fact, irrelevant to the case at hand."

This kind of theorizing makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Their objection is usually something along the lines of, "Well, your example is so farfetched that it doesn't even deserve a response."

I think this is a bit dishonest. Usually, when people say something like this, they are objecting to the thought experiment because it demonstrates why their own personal beliefs are lacking. Instead of showing why this thought experiment does not challenge their deeply-held beliefs, or creating a thought experiment of their own to show why their beliefs are justified, they simply ignore the question all together.

This lack of intellectual curiousity is surprisingly most evident in libertarians themselves; many orthodox Objectivists and natural rights libertarians refuse to deal with "lifeboat situations." These "lifeboat situations" are constructed for the purpose of being difficult, of pitting one value against another to test whether our values are truly absolute. But just because such situations rarely if ever occur in reality does not mean that we should ignore them. They cut to the heart of why we believe what we believe and whether we have good reasons for doing so.

This is not to say that all Objectivists or libertarians are guilty of this. But I encourage those who are to reconsider, and embrace thought experiments as a way of focusing on the important elements of an ethical dilemma.

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A lot of people are guilty

A lot of people are guilty of this, beyond thought exercises. I deal with this from a technical standpoint all the time when it comes to scaling. "What happens when we have 100,00 widgets going through this?" "We are only going to do 100." "We are doing 100 now, what about next year?" Next year, you hit 100,000 and it explodes.

"What if you sell yourself into slavery" is one that we must address. People will take any system to the extreme. That is what draws me to libertarianism, in that it does tend to have answers for those questions, where the other ideologies tend to rely on the "hit them with a stick until they make it easier on us" solution.

Plus, one should always be

Plus, one should always be careful not to overestimate the distance between thought experiment and reality, in a world in which "what if A is a cannibal, and B clearly consents to be killed and eaten by him?" is no longer a thought experiment.