Objection! Why you should fight the hypothetical

The folks over at lesswrong.com reckon you shouldn’t fight hypothetical scenarios. I think they’re wrong. Hypothetical scenarios can be used by people representing points of view dishonestly to promote their own perspective point of view, by proposing ‘loaded’ hypotheticals that rely on premise(s) that you don’t agree with. The idea that you should just accept the opposing representative’s premise(s) is a poor suggestion as that can falsely undermine your position in an argument.

It is a common part of moral reasoning to propose hypothetical scenarios. (…) Yet one common response to hypothetical scenarios is to challenge some axiom of the problem. This article is a request that people stop doing that, and an explanation of why this is an error.

This is what the issue is all about. Alice and Bob are arguing. Bob supports methodology X. Alice creates a scenario where using methodology X would result in a unambiguously negative outcome. However Alice’s scenario relies on premise Y which Bob doesn’t agree with. Should Bob back down and acknowledge the ‘flaw’, or should he challenge validity of Alice’s scenario.

The author at one point argues against fighting the hypothetical in the context of morality, using the example of the ‘Trolley Dilemma’, a theoretical scenario which a train is hurtling towards some number of people tied to the tracks, and you have the power to switch the tracks, where another, smaller number of people are also trapped.

The point of the Trolley Dilemma is to investigate whether it is moral to condemn people to death if it means saving a larger number of people. It is on these grounds, that the author argues that ‘fighting the hypothetical’ is bad because it avoids the purpose of the thought experiment.

Likewise, people who responds to the Trolley problem by saying that they would call the police are not talking about the moral intuitions that the Trolley problem intends to explore. There’s nothing wrong with you if those problems are not interesting to you. But fighting the hypothetical by challenging the premises of the scenario is exactly the same as saying, “I don’t find this topic interesting for whatever reason, and wish to talk about something I am interested in.”

This specific example of the Trolley Dilemma is accurate since the Trolley Dilemma, when you generalize it as a decisionmaking problem, is not impossible. It is a very real moral problem and the Generalized Trolley Dilemma is something thinkers can use to examine morality in depth. Similarly, the author also argues that hypothetical scenarios are important through teaching with the Socratic Method, as challenging hypotheticals, such as in the context of law school, is counterproductive and misses the point of these hypotheticals.

The Problem

These however, are relatively simple and quite general hypotheticals. They are designed in such a way to be inquisitive and represent a more holistic understanding of the issue. As has been stated, the Trolley Problem really has nothing to do with Trolleys specifically, it is a more generalized morality problem.

Far more importantly the hypotheticals presented in the article, or at least the generalized problems they represent, are all possible, as in, it is very realistic to expect that we will in actuality encounter these issues.

But what about hypotheticals that don’t match that criterion?

In general conversation, it is common for one party to propose a hypothetical to the other in an attempt to invalidate their views. This is done by manufacturing a scenario in which the opponents’ views will perform poorly. This in it of itself is a legitimate argumentative technique, however it can be misused.

The Issue of Relevance

For example, let’s say that Alice and Bob are discussing the Presidential Election. Alice in in favor of voting for Trump because she thinks that Trump is less evil than Hillary, and Bob is in favor of not voting at all as endorsing evil is immoral. To prove his point, Bob presents a hypothetical scenario where you instead had to choose between voting for a president who promises to exterminate two million people, or voting for a president who promises to exterminate one million people.

The point of Bob’s hypothetical is to expose the issue of voting for the lesser of two evils by getting the opposing representative, Alice, to admit that her method would result her in voting for somebody who literally promises to exterminate people.

So what’s the problem? Well there is an assumption Bob makes when he proposes such a hypothetical with the intent of changing Alice’s mind. In this specific case, Bob would be assuming that Alice’s belief is axiomatic as opposed to pragmatic (ie, an idealist). If this were true, it would expose that Alice’s belief could result in her doing unfavorable things.

However, let us suppose that Alice is pragmatic and doesn’t support voting for a killer, but nevertheless supports Trump because she believes he’s better. So how does she respond to Bob’s hypothetical? Does she double down and accept the consequence of always choosing the lesser of two evils, or does she admit that her method is flawed? Well, neither is true in the case of Alice, so her only choice is to fight the hypothetical.

Note here that there really wasn’t anything wrong with the hypothetical itself. It was a real dilemma, however the reason Alice would have had to fight the hypothetical is because it wasn’t relevant to her position. Ie, her answer to the hypothetical has no bearing on her position regarding the current election in the here and now.

The Issue of Premise

Relevance isn’t the only reason one can have to fight a hypothetical. What if the entire premise of a given hypothetical is insincere?

For example, say a libertarian and a libertarian socialist are having an argument. The libertarian is advocating for the private ownership of property and the libertarian socialist is arguing against.

To that end, the libertarian proposes a hypothetical scenerio where a person in a libertarian-socialist society somehow acquires a relatively large amount of resources and attempts to defend private ownership of said property. The purpose of this hypothetical is to get the libertarian socialist to admit that force is required to prevent the formation of private enterprise.

However, there is a problem with this hypothetical. It assumes that somebody could acquire said resources. The libertarian socialist, however, stipulates that in a libertarian-socialist society that would be impossible.

So what should the libertarian socialist do? Should they admit that force must be used to resolve the situation? No, they should fight the hypothetical. So what if your ideology collapses upon an impossible scenario, it’s, well, impossible.


Funnily enough, I may have made one of my own errors in this article. By assuming that the author of “Please Don’t Fight the Hypothetical” means that you shouldn’t ever fight hypotheticals, then I run the risk of my Hypothetical Scenarios being irrelevant to their views.

Regardless, if you’re arguing with somebody and they present a hypothetical scenario, be careful and confirm that it is both possible, and that it is relevant to your position. If it isn’t, fight it. However, don’t be silly and give stupid answers to inquisitive hypothetical scenarios that are designed to make you look inwards.

In a sentence: don’t miss the point!


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