Experimenting with Thought Experiments
18 December 2010
Yesterday in Risk Management: A Personal View I asked the question, in relation to John Rawls’ thought experiment involving choosing a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, “How would Aristotle’s Great Souled Man judge a society from behind a veil of ignorance?” Here is Rawls’ original formulation of his thought experiment:
“…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”
And here is Aristotle’s description of the Great Souled Man:
“Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most. Therefore the truly proud man must be good. And greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man. And it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another; for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great? If we consider him point by point we shall see the utter absurdity of a proud man who is not good. Nor, again, would he be worthy of honour if he were bad; for honour is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. Pride, then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them. Therefore it is hard to be truly proud; for it is impossible without nobility and goodness of character. It is chiefly with honours and dishonours, then, that the proud man is concerned; and at honours that are great and conferred by good men he will be moderately Pleased, thinking that he is coming by his own or even less than his own; for there can be no honour that is worthy of perfect virtue, yet he will at any rate accept it since they have nothing greater to bestow on him; but honour from casual people and on trifling grounds he will utterly despise, since it is not this that he deserves, and dishonour too, since in his case it cannot be just. In the first place, then, as has been said, the proud man is concerned with honours; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil. For not even towards honour does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honour (at least those who have them wish to get honour by means of them); and for him to whom even honour is a little thing the others must be so too. Hence proud men are thought to be disdainful.”
This translation of Aristotle uses “pride” in place of “great souled” or “great minded,” but whatever the language, the idea comes through. Aristotle did not present the great souled man as a thought experiment, but he is an ideal of Aristotelian ethics, and we can treat him as a thought experiment in exemplification of Aristotelian virtue.
What struck me later after I wrote that post about Aristotle’s Great Souled Man in relation to risk is that I had combined two distinct thought experiments into one. This in turn suggests further thought experiments. One of my favorite sections of Plato’s Republic is the description of the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man in Book II:
“Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skillful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honored and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honors and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two.”
I find this passage almost frightening in its unflinching portrayal of corruption masquerading as virtue, and virtue mistaken for vice, but while few of us would qualify as perfectly just or perfectly unjust, I think most people will have had experiences in their life that reflect Plato’s point and give it the ring of truth. In any case, we can take Plato’s perfectly just man and his perfectly unjust man and make another thought experiment by asking how a perfectly just man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, and how a perfectly unjust man would choose from behind a veil of ignorance.
We can go beyond this and ask how Nietzsche’s Übermensch would choose from behind a veil of ignorance, or how Machiavelli’s Prince would so choose, or how homo economicus might so choose.
We might also take these various philosophical characters and substitute them in other thought experiments, like that of Buridan’s Ass: a jackass is positioned equidistant from two piles of hay, and in the classic version of the thought experiment, the ass starves to death, unable to choose between identical options. We might similarly present the perfectly just man, the perfectly unjust man, the great souled man, Machiavelli’s Prince, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or homo economicus with a similar dilemma and ask how each would fare.
By the time we come to inserting one philosophical thought experiment inside another, we have reached a pitch of abstraction that may prevent us from thinking coherently. Of what value is such an exercise? What I have suggested might seem a little ridiculous, if not outright silly, but it suggests an increase in the order of magnitude of the difficulty of our thought experiments. This might be a profitable exercise if it helps us to pick out intrinsic weaknesses in thought experiments, and allows us to go back to the original thought experiments with a clearer idea of what exactly is involved in them.
If we could submit our thought experiments to controlled conditions, we might pursue them more profitably. This is precisely what logic seeks to do. With the appropriate formalized language, all our philosophical thought experiments could be formulated in a rigorous language, and we could be pretty clear about the consequences. However, in this case we have simply displaced the problem from the intuitive difficulty of working through the problem on its own problematic merits into the difficulty of finding or formulating the appropriate formalism.
If we are honest with ourselves, nothing can spare us from the difficulty of thinking clearly about things that are themselves not clear. Thought experiments are the Zen Koans of Western thought, and their contemplation yields for us the Western equivalent of enlightenment. To put one thought experiment inside another is to raise the stakes, making an already difficult exercise all the more difficult. But this is good for us. As Spinoza wrote at the end of his Ethics, “All noble things are as difficult as they are rare.”
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