Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

In my social science course, we’re reading Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development. Kohlberg uses longitudinal interviews based on moral dilemmas to measure moral development, which for him moves essentially through self-interest to social conformity to something like a liberal respect for human rights. The only problem with his system is that it doesn’t appear to work for women’s development, and Gilligan points out that in many of Kohlberg’s interviews with women, the problem seems to be that they resist the simplistic set-up of the scenarios and refuse to accept the implied either/or of the dilemma.

For instance, one of the dilemmas features a man who has to choose between stealing medicine and letting his wife die. This is perfectly calibrated to measure Kohlberg’s stages, because it poses a sharp contrast between legal and moral obligations. It also makes no fucking sense, and the women tend to pick up on that, essentially asking, “Are you sure these are the only two options?”

It strikes me that what Kohlberg regards as “retrograde” answers are actually more useful as concrete moral reflection. His dilemmas are meant to measure moral deliberation, but as Gilligan points out, they are really meant to produce a certain type of answer (in this case, the one correlated with one’s developmental stage).

As I reflected on my experience, it seems that that has always been my experience with the moral hypotheticals that populate Anglo-American philosophy as well as political punditry. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is not meant to produce any real insight into torture, for instance, but to shut down any actual reflection and force one’s interlocutor to say that torture is permitted. It’s similar with discussions of drone warfare: the moral dilemma posed is always that between land invasion and drone warfare, and what kind of monster would prefer a land invasion? Yet I daresay those aren’t the only two options. Or we could even take the example of voting for Obama: yes, I prefer Obama over Romney, Democrats over Republicans — but is that really where the discussion has to end?

This is the dark side of reasoned argument, where debate itself becomes a form of violence. Who hasn’t laboriously constructed a bulletproof argument and been blinded by rage and frustration when one’s interlocutor could not be forced to agree? “But surely,” you sputter, “you have to admit that…” And at this point, only one response is possible: “I don’t have to admit anything!”

18 thoughts on “Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

  1. This is the same logic that has been used over and over again to defend dropping the atomic bombs on Japan during WWII. Would you rather us decimate two cities or literally destroy all of Japan (including American soldiers)? The American History Museum at the Smithsonian in DC does a great job of providing this false choice.

  2. I think there’s a big difference between how artificial moral dilemmas are used in politics and how they’re used in anglo-american philosophy. The ‘ticking time bomb’ is a case in point: used by pundits to try to force the conclusion that torture is sometimes justified (and I completely agree with you that this is just intellectual bullying); used in philosophy to try to identity and distinguish the relevant moral issues and concepts, and criticised in philosophy (e.g. by Henry Shue) for failing to do so.

  3. Obviously there’s a big difference between the two situations — but I think there’s a similar “forcing” at work in the philosophical examples. For instance, one will customarily set up scenarios designed to trip certain philosophical positions and force their adherents to take seemingly incoherent or insupportable conclusions. How can a genuine dialogue — i.e., a discussion that is also a moral encounter — occur when that’s the preferred methodology? It’s a weirdly immoral way to conduct moral discourse.

  4. I mean, isn’t this one of the ways in which logic does its bodybuilding? That it’s sculpted into a tool that can quickly and efficiently resolve ambiguities or solve paradoxes?

  5. To put it differently, when it’s a shared project pursued for its own sake, the game of logic is great. But the way it gets deployed interpersonally can be pretty toxic, and I extend that to attempts to reduce moral situations to logical games.

  6. I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m just gadflying you here. My question was meant more in jest. I’ve got respect for logic as well… but I don’t necessarily think that the efficient evisceration of ambiguity and paradox is an inherent good. I agree with you: I think that when logic gets muscular just for the sake of being muscular, there’s something about moral deliberation (as we actually live, and experience it) that’s obscured. Perhaps violently. Learning how to take moral and ethical issues into account, while still actively maintaining an awareness of the ambiguity and irresolvability of the issue is much more difficult. Does it help to think of the moral dilemmas as a kind of game? Something that’s meant to build a certain kind of skill, or capacity that might – in some limited way – be useful down the road? You know, to be vulgar: like doing push-ups and squats for moral deliberation, or something?

  7. Sorry if I misread your tone. I think a more useful exercise for moral deliberation would be to talk through a moral decision of your own, one that has actually happened.

    The thing with these contrived situations is that they’re so obvious that the decision hardly counts as a decision — if I really was in this situation such that it came down to stealing the medicine or letting my wife die, obviously I’m going to steal the medicine. Similarly, I’d imagine that if I was in a situation as desperate as the “ticking time bomb” scenario, I’d likely resort to desperate measures like trying to beat the information out of the guy. Not only are such situations unlikely to arise, they are also not the kind of thing you really need to be “practicing” for. They are almost perfectly calibrated to be totally useless for actual moral practice.

  8. Dialog may well be used in some cases to “take the measure of” a person’s moral character, but it sounds like Kohlberg is using his hypothetical dilemmas to force his subjects into objectively categorical developmental stages. “It’s a weirdly immoral way to conduct moral discourse”, yes, but is that really what Kohlberg is trying to do or is he trying to analyze the variety of moral judgements in terms of morally neutral features of the various judges?

  9. “I am a fan of Allen Wood’s critique of such trolley-problem-esque dilemmas.”

    I misread this as “Woody Allen’s critique…” before clicking through. Disappointed now. Also, how have I never noticed that about their names before?

  10. Paradox and Otherness

    Within one mind, paradoxes exist and are real. A thing can be, and be not. But in the world, apart from that one mind … in that world which includes that mind as well as all that is not that mind …. in that world there can be no such paradox.

    Must we not make at least that one assumption?

  11. An issue that’s specific to the “fat man and trolley car” type problems is that they short circuit people’s normal moral reasoning and/or intuition by being so blatantly cartoonish. You just don’t think about Wile E. Coyote and the road runner in the same way that you think about the consequences of actual car crashes for actual people.

    Maybe that’s deliberate, but the further you get from the way people actually approach moral dilemmas in their lives, the more you need to ask what, exactly, you’re trying to understand through these exercises.

  12. To quote Anscombe: “A third point of method which I would recommend to the corrupter [of youth] would be this: concentrate on examples which are either banal: you have promised to return a book, but … and so on; or fantastic: what you ought to do if you had to move forward and stepping with your right foot meant killing twenty-five fine young men while stepping with your left foot would kill fifty drooling old ones. (Obviously the right thing to do would be to jump and polish off the lot.)”

  13. Thank you for pointing out something I’ve often thought, but never put into words as well as this. “Intellectual bullying” is exactly correct. The function of these dilemmas is more rhetorical and dramatic than intellectually substantive.

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