I don’t know what’s right any more – my first intuition pump

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional philosopher, I’m just some guy who enjoys reading philosophy in his free time. I am likely far too under-read to fully appreciate the context of some of the issues I’m talking about  in this post. If that’s the case, then perhaps some of my more well-read friends and readers can point me in the direction of what to learn next.

Not as if I ever knew what was right. Rather, as time goes on I continue learning that “right” is a far more elusive grey area concept than I envisaged earlier in my life. There is no black and white when it comes to moral questions, and perhaps the best we can do is use critical reasoning to move ever forward, step by step, in our understanding of the world and apply this knowledge to the way things “ought” to be. We will disagree, we will likely make mistakes (yes, there are moral “mistakes” – look no further than slavery for an example), but we can all set off from the outset with an open mind and willingness to be wrong publicly, then perhaps we can edge closer towards some better concept of “right.”

In this sense, perhaps it is a good thing I don’t know what’s right any more, at least when it comes to certain issues. I’ve crossed a threshold where I realize that simple intuition and cultural constructs of moral certitudes can be (but are not necessarily) incorrect. You may have the impulse to call me infantile for needing to cross this threshold in the first place, but ultimately we are all brought up with perceptions of right and wrong, and many of us proceed through life with knowledge that was not critically and repeatedly tested by us, but rather inculcated in our minds during youth – our most vulnerable and influence-prone developmental period.

Perhaps what I really mean when I say “I don’t know what’s right any more” is “I realize that I never knew what was right to begin with.” While re-evaluating individual and societal responsibilities is a rewarding endeavour, it can also raise uncomfortable moral quandaries.  I’d like to share with you one of those.


But first, what is an “Intuition Pump”?

I would like to present this moral quandary to you through a thinking tool called an intuition pump. I learned about this concept from a book I read this summer called “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking”  by Daniel Dennett.  Dennett is a philosopher who gets a lot of grief from other academic philosophers. In the spirit of objectivity – I am not well versed enough in philosophic literature to fully understand these criticisms and agree or disagree with them. I’m not a professional or academic philosopher. However, I think that in this book Dennett provides some useful approaches to critical thinking, especially for the lay or hobbyist philosopher such as myself (who may one day know enough to understand critiques on Dennett’s work with appropriate context!).

What is an intuition pump? It is a way of thinking critically about a certain topic by “pumping your intuition.” One way to pump your intuition is to take a concept that seems exceedingly obvious, then gradually change the details of that concept to the point where your intuition can no longer guide you in an obvious direction.

In the beginning of his book, Dennett gives the example of the Whimsical Jailor in order to lightly probe the concept of freedom: “Every night he [the Whimsical Jailor] waits until all the prisoners are sound asleep and then he goes around unlocking all the doors, leaving them open for hours on end. Question: Are the prisoners free? Do they have an opportunity to leave? Not really. Why not?” (p. 6)

Dennett goes on to “’turn all the knobs’ [on the Whimsical Jailor situation] and see if the same intuitions still get pumped” (p. 7) when other variations are considered. He does this by breaking up the Whimsical Jailor situation into parts:

  1. Every night
  2. he waits
  3. until all the prisoners
  4. are sound asleep
  5. and then he goes around unlocking
  6. all the doors,
  7. leaving them open for hours on end”

Each of these numbered bullet points represents a portion of the Whimsical Jailor situation that can be altered, slightly. Dennett gives one variation with commentary that I will replicate below as I think it provides a good sense for how an intuition pump is supposed to work:

“One night he ordered his guards to drug one of the prisoners and after they had done this they accidentally left the door of that prisoner’s cell unlocked for an hour. It changes the flavor of the scenario quite a lot, doesn’t it? How? It still makes the main point (doesn’t it?) but not as effectively. The big difference seems to be between being naturally asleep – you might [italics original] wake up any minute – and being drugged or comatose. Another difference – “accidentally” – highlights the role of the intention or inadvertence on the part of the jailor or the guards. The repetition “every night” seems to change the odds, in favor of the prisoners. When and why do the odds matter? How much would you pay not to have to participate in a lottery in which a million people have tickets and the ‘winner’ is shot? How much would you pay not to have to play Russian roulette with a six-shooter?” (p. 8)

Other knobs to turn are less obvious: The Diabolical Host secretly locks the bedroom doors of his houseguests while they sleep. The Hospital Manager, worried about the prospect of a fire, keeps the doors of all the rooms and wards unlocked at night, but she doesn’t inform the patients, thinking they will sleep more soundly if they don’t know. Or what if the prison is somewhat larger than usual, say, the size of Australia? You can’t lock or unlock all the doors to Australia. What difference does that make?” (p. 8)

The idea is to take a situation or concept that may seem to have obvious implications at first glance, and then tweak the details ever so slightly until you are no longer really sure if your original conclusions hold salt.

As another example, a simple intuition pump could be on the concept of depth. Imagine a children’s swimming pool that is 2 feet deep. For an adult, this would be a shallow depth. Now, imagine the great barrier reef, the deepest underwater point on the planet. This would to be an obviously deep point.

However, now imagine walking from one end of a giant pool that begins at 2 feet long and every 100 feet becomes 1 foot deeper. On the far end of the pool it is 7 miles deep, just like the great barrier reef. At what point does the pool go from being “shallow” to “deep?” The first question that comes to my mind when I ask myself this question is “What does deep mean in this context?” Or, how about, “What does deep mean detached from this or any context, in a more universal way?” Is there such a universal meaning for depth, or does it change based on the situation? Is it when an average adult can no longer stand without having to swim? Or is it when the average adult cannot dive to the bottom and back up with a single breath? All of a sudden the concept of depth seems more elusive than it did with our initial examples.

To my understanding, this is one of the points of intuition pumps. They are meant to make you seriously re-evaluate what may at first glance seem obvious but that, with additional reflection, is not at all clear.


My First Intuition Pump
So, for my first intuition pump, I’m going to break what seems to be a simple concept into several bullets (similar to what Dennett did with the Whimsical Jailor situation). Then I will gradually tweak some of the premises and add a few as well, and see where that leads us.

Example A:

  1. Ally,
  2. who knows Constanza,
  3. murdered
  4. Constanza
  5. in cold blood and without cause.

Most would agree that murdering another human being without cause is wrong, at least if it was within that individual’s power to prevent the killing (maybe if the person was severely mentally disturbed they could not, but for the sake of argument I am assuming that Ally is not insane). So in this example, it seems pretty obvious that Ally has committed an immoral act. Let’s tweak this a bit:

Example B:

  1. Ally,
  2. who knows Constanza,
  3. murdered
  4. Constanza
  5. in self defense.

This changes the sense of culpability, doesn’t it? It seems more likely that Ally had to take action to defend herself from Constanza, and in this defense Constanza was killed. Another variation:

Example C:

  1. Ally,
  2. who knows Constanza,
  3. paid Bob
  4. to murder
  5. Constanza
  6. in cold blood and without cause.

Now it seems like Bob is obviously at least somewhat culpable for the murder of Constanza, as is Ally, who paid for the hit. But what if we mix Examples B and C?

Example D:

  1. Ally,
  2. who knows Constanza,
  3. paid Bob
  4. to murder
  5. Constanza
  6. in self defense.

To me, this is a murkier situation. Presumably, if Ally had to pre-empt Constanza’s murder, then the claim of self defense is not as strong as in Example B, where it seemed that Constanza may have posed an immediate danger to Ally. Even if Constanza were posing a truly existential threat to Ally, would it be okay for Ally to hire someone pre-emptively to eliminate this threat? Or would she be obligated to pursue other methods (law enforcement, fleeing, etc.,) in order to contain or evade Constanza? If these methods all fail and Constanza still posed a serious threat to Ally (although not an immediate one), would it be okay for Ally to hire someone to kill Constanza? Let’s make another switch:

Example E:

  1. Ally,
  2. who knows Constanza
  3. but does not know Debbie,
  4. hired Bob
  5. to murder
  6. Constanza
  7. in self defense,
  8. but Bob also accidentally killed Debbie,
  9. who was innocent
  10. but was standing near Constanza during the hit.

Now, on top of all the moral implications of hiring a hit man, that hit man has screwed up and accidentally killed someone who posed no threat to Ally. Is Bob responsible for this collateral damage? Does his failure as a hit man implicate him in the death of someone he didn’t mean to kill? Or does the fact that it was sloppy work and not an intentional mistake excuse Bob from Debbie’s death? What about Ally? Does Bob’s failure implicate her in the murder of Debbie, who seemingly posed no threat whatsoever and was just standing nearby? Let’s keep going:

Example F:

  1. Ally,
  2. who does not know Constanza,
  3. hires Bob for all self defense needs,
  4. and Bob,
  5. who determines that Constanza poses an existential risk to Ally,
  6. decides to kill Constanza to defend Ally.

How about now? This is an important switch, because in all prior examples Ally was deciding who the kill target would be, and now Bob is, even though he is doing so in the name of Ally’s safety. Is it okay for Bob, who was hired to defend Ally, to kill someone who he judges to be a threat? Would it matter if Ally knew that Bob were killing Constanza or not? Would that knowledge somehow incriminate or exonerate Ally?

Example G:

  1. Ally,
  2. who does not know Constanza or Debbie,
  3. hires Bob for all self-defense needs,
  4. and Bob,
  5. who determines that Constanza poses an existential risk to Ally,
  6. decides to kill everyone who looks like Constanza,
  7. and in the process kills both Constanza
  8. and Debbie, who looks like Constanza.

The switch from killing everyone who poses a threat to everyone who looks like someone who can pose a threat seems like an obvious deviation from the Example F. However, in real life, Example G may be a more realistic scenario. After all, what if Bob doesn’t know what Constanza looks like, only that someone named Constanza poses a threat to Ally? Bob has a general idea of what Constanza looks like, but doesn’t know who she is specifically. Is it still his responsibility to defend Ally at all costs, even if it means killing innocent people along the way? What if he fails to kill everyone who looks like Constanza because he deems it morally wrong but, after making this decision, Debbie lives, and Constanza actually does murder Ally? Would Bob be responsible? Would he be more culpable if he tried to kill Constanza and also accidentally killed Debbie, or if he didn’t kill Constanza or Debbie but Constanza ends up killing Ally? What if he were wrong about Constanza, Constanza didn’t pose an existential threat to Ally, but decided to kill him and, accidentally in the process, Debbie as well? Another variation:

Example H:

  1. Ally,
  2. who does not know Bob, Constanza or Debbie,
  3. is forced by Bob
  4. to pay Bob to protect Ally.
  5. Bob determines that Constanza poses an existential risk to Ally,
  6. and decides to kill everyone who looks like Constanza,
  7. and in the process kills Constanza
  8. and Debbie, who looks like Constanza.
  9. Debbie does not pose any threat to Ally.

Let’s work under the assumption that it’s possible for Ally to not know Bob but to also be forced by him to pay for her protection. He can be a community defender, for example, where perhaps Ally knows that Bob’s role exists but doesn’t know Bob personally. Does being forced by Bob to pay for defense, as opposed to hiring him as in all prior examples, exonerate Ally from all guilt related to either Constanza’s or Debbie’s deaths? Or does the fact that it is in the name of Ally’s self defense that Debbie, an innocent bystander, is killed in the process of killing Constanza still hold her on the moral hook for Debbie’s murder? Would it make a difference whether or not Ally knew about Debbie’s killing matter? If it did, how would it change the situation? Let’s create one more example that gives Ally a little more flexibility in the matter and see what happens:

Example I:

  1. Ally and everyone who lives near her,
  2. who does not know Bob, Constanza, or Debbie,
  3. is forced by Bob
  4. to pay Bob to protect Ally and her neighbors.
  5. Bob determines that Constanza poses an existential risk to Ally,
  6. and decides to kill everyone who looks like Constanza,
  7. and in the process kills Constanza
  8. and Debbie, who looks like Constanza.
  9. Debbie does not pose any threat to Ally,
  10. but Ally knows that Debbie was killed.
  11. Ally cannot replace Bob
  12. but has the option to go somewhere
  13. where Bob is not responsible for defending.

Now, Ally knows that Bob has killed an innocent Debbie in the name of her defense. She cannot replace Bob, but, upon learning of Bob’s potentially unscrupulous method of defense, does have the option to move to a neighborhood where Bob is no longer responsible for defending her. Is she morally required move? If she does not, she is still being forced by Bob to pay for what could result in the killing of additional innocent people (maybe Elizabeth or Fred), and she knows that this is a distinct possibility giving Debbie’s death. If Ally is aware of Debbie’s death, but choose not to move, and Elizabeth and Fred are killed by Bob, is Ally responsible for their deaths? Or is she innocent because she is being forced by Bob to pay for such methods of defense, even though she passed on the option to go somewhere where she is no longer obligated to pay Bob? Let’s take Example I and replace these actors with some other characters:

Example J:

  1. US citizens,
  2. who do not personally know either the members of the American government or Al Qaeda terrorists or innocent rural Afghani civilians,
  3. are forced by the US government
  4. to pay the American government to protect US citizens.
  5. The US government determines that Al Qaeda terrorists pose an existential risk to US citizens
  6. and decides to kill everyone who looks like Al Qaeda terrorists[1]
  7. and in the process kills some Al Qaeda terrorists
  8. but also a number of innocent rural Afghani civilians.
  9. Innocent rural Afghani civilians do not pose any threat to US citizens,
  10. but US citizens know that innocent rural Afghani civilians were killed.
  11. US citizens cannot practically replace the US government[2]
  12. but have the option to move to another country
  13. where the US government is no longer responsible for defending them.

This may seem like a roundabout way to get to this example, and I wouldn’t blame you if your initial thought was “This was so circuitous that this dude must obviously be trying to mislead me.” But, honestly, this is how the thought progressed in my head. If you can separate a situation from realistic examples by using hypothetical players (Ally, Bob, Constanza, Debbie) and draw moral inferences, why wouldn’t those moral inferences work with real entities?

Even if it is a bit roundabout, I think this line of thinking raises a lot of interesting questions. Is it acceptable to allow innocent civilian deaths in the pursuit of our own national security, or does that bring us closer to the level of immorality of those who we claim to be fighting? Is it less moral if we lower the threshold of identifying an “enemy combatant?” In other words, if instead of careful vetting of potential enemies on the field of battle, we now consider all military-age males as enemies, does that make the resulting deaths of innocents less right? Because that is exactly the threshold that the United States drone program currently uses in identifying a target as an enemy combatant. If we try harder to identify people as enemies before killing them, does that make the accidental death of a civilian more or less okay? Or does it not change the moral culpability at all?

I, personally, can’t seem to justify the rationale that the drone program currently uses in identifying enemies (“military-age males”). If that’s the case, do we have a moral obligation to change the composition of our government to prevent what we see as immoral actions being done on our behalf and with our [tax] money? What if we can’t? Extreme Gerrymandering has resulting in a situation where, despite historically low Congressional approval rates, incumbency rates for both the House and Senate are above 90%. Are we more or less responsible for immoral actions carried out by our government on our behalf with our tax dollars if we are powerless to change its composition?

This is a question that is deeply disturbing to me. If my money is being used by either a known entity (the US Government) or an imaginary entity (Bob) to kill innocent people around the world, even if it is in the name of my security, and I know about these actions but cannot prevent them, then do I have a moral responsibility to move out of the country to prevent my tax dollars from being used for these programs? It is a chilling question to me, because it has built into it a sense of nihilism that our political system has become so entrenched that, even in an environment where the country no longer trusts its leaders, they cannot and will not be replaced. If there is no longer realistic pressure to be placed upon our leaders in the country to act in a way that we see as more moral, are we responsible as individuals to become increasingly active in speaking out? If this fails, would we be responsible for leaving the society that has allowed these moral wrongs to occur, and move to another country? I don’t really have an answer to that. However, it seems that my answer to that question, when viewed from the perspective of Ally and Bob, would lean towards yes. So why would it be any different when viewed from the perspective of citizens and their representative government?

The problem is, I don’t think I could be an expat. Certainly not permanently. I like living in this country too much – it has provided a lot for me and I feel lucky to have been born into a wealthy country with a variety of opportunities. I have built a life here and I don’t want to leave it. But if I don’t, and I recognize that my tax dollars continue to fund programs that are potentially morally suspect, am I partly responsible for them? Are you? Or is some immorality inevitable in a complex society, and tolerating it must be outweighed by the good that that society engenders?

I don’t know what’s right any more.

[1]The United States drone strike program counts “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Source: New York Times

[2]Bloomberg cited a study showing that “90 percent of House members and 91 percent of senators who sought re-election in 2012 were successful, exceeding the incumbent re-election rates of 2010, when 85 percent of House members and 84 percent of senators seeking re-election were successful.” This is in stark juxtaposition to the fact that “Congress had a 21 percent approval rating on Oct. 15-16 after reaching all-time lows of 10 percent in February and August, according to Gallup polls. Just 10 percent of Americans said that members of Congress have high or very high honesty and ethical standards, according to Gallup data for Nov. 26-29.” Source: Bloomberg.