You are loitering by the railyard when you see an out-of-control trolley hurtling toward five innocent orphans who’ve been lashed to the track by a mustachioed villain. There is a switch nearby, which would activate an enormous fan and disrupt the air above you. There is a very fat man hang-gliding over the tracks. Since (like most ethicists) you are an expert in the aerodynamics of obesity, you know that the fan would force him to swoop down right into the path of the trolley; the collision would save the five orphans, though the very fat hang-glider would die.
There is another option. You happen to be carrying one of those t-shirt cannons they use to fire souvenir t-shirts into the stands at sporting events. And the tracks are right next to a nursey for babies born without developed brains, who will surely die within hours in any case. Since (like most ethicists) you are an expert in infant ballistics, you know that you could use the t-shirt cannon to fire ten anencephalic infants at the trolley, and that would be just enough to derail it, saving the orphans, though killing the projectile babies.
What should you do? Do nothing and let the five orphans die? Flip the switch and blow the very fat hang-glider into the trolley? Or use the t-shirt cannon to fire the ten anencephalic infants at the trolley?
Actually, don’t answer that. My story is only a parody, though it is not far off from many stories you will find in professional philosophy journals. Moral philosophers have a penchant for inventing goofy thought experiments in which numerous people are oddly imperiled. These stories have a purpose: they are meant to isolate and test some purported moral principle. The absurd details are often unnecessary, though they keep the writing from becoming dull. But we might ask: should we really be amusing ourselves with ethics?
One possible worry is that amusingly absurd thought experiments can make our moral intuitions less reliable. Some have thought that the frequent use of unrealistic scenarios might make for bad philosophy. Others might point out that being put in a humorous mood changes how people react to moral dilemmas. But I will leave that sort of objection to the side. My question is this: is there something morally inappropriate about constructing amusing moral dilemmas?
It’s important to keep in mind that these scenarios are often intended to provide simplified models of very troubling moral issues: killing in war, abortion, euthanasia. Even when justified, killing is killing, and it would obviously never be appropriate to laugh at a person wracked by guilt over a justifiable homicide. If our thought experiments are meant to inform reflective moral deliberation, or to model the features of real-world moral dilemma, then should we really be so irreverent toward our ultimate subject matter? The worry is that our practice of constructing funny thought experiments has caused us to become desensitized to the real human suffering we claim to be studying.
One response to this worry is that we are simply engaged in gallows humors. Emergency room physicians talk about this phenomenon often. When you are confronted with pain and death every day, and when inevitably people will die in your care, some levity may be necessary to keep yourself functioning. Physicians make jokes about their patients, sometimes even about their patients’ suffering, and perhaps this is just a psychological necessity (though extreme instances give pause to even the most hardened medics [WARNING: this link may be triggering to victims of sexual assault]).
But this can’t be the right justification for moral philosophers. We don’t actually watch people suffer and die right in front of us, and certainly not under our care. Our professional experience of dying is a pale imitation of what physicians experience.
However, there may be something to the parallel with medical gallows humor. What moral philosophers are intimately familiar with is the absurdity of human life and choice. It is absurd, the existentialists will remind us, that we imbue so much meaning in the lives and the deaths of tiny beings dangling from a vast chain of eternal galactic causation. Yet we do, of course, see our lives as meaningful – and so it is absurd that our meaningful lives can be ended by things that do not matter. People are killed by trolleys. People die hang-gliding. Human pain and mortality are not produced exclusively by wrenching sacrificial choice. Sometimes a three-cent bolt comes loose, sometimes the insulation peels off the wires, sometimes a pebble is in just the wrong place on the bike path – and then a meaningful human life ends with no meaning at all.
The moral philosopher is responsible for being reflectively aware of the ultimate limits of human life. We do not face concrete instances of death and suffering as physicians must, but we do confront the abstract reality of human limitation, with its inevitable implication of our own personal vulnerability. Perhaps this is a professional hazard of moral philosophy; we are not in a business that allows us to simply look away from unpleasant ultimate realities. Perhaps all philosophers must find some way to sublimate their necessary awareness of life’s fragility. Some bury it under anodyne logical formalism. Others lean into the absurd, mocking death’s dominion over their thought experiment characters – and so, over themselves. Perhaps the laughter of ethicists is not irreverence, but the unyielding desire to find human joy even in the contemplation of human misery.