Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Philosophy

Philosophical Thought Experiments

Many of the below examples where taken from or inspired by the following book...

The Trolley Problem

Trolley Problem -- Image from Wikipedia

--Trolley Problem Image from Wikipedia

Thomson's Trolley & Transplant Problems

Original:  You notice five individuals tied to some train (trolley) tracks.  A train is coming right at them and you do not have the ability to untie them in time.  However, you could pull a lever diverting the train to another set of tracks, but in so doing you would kill an innocent bystander who is tied to those tracks.  

Variation #1:  Your close relative that you love dearly is the individual on the other set of tracks and by diverting the train, you would kill them.

Variation #2:  There is only one set of tracks bound to run over the five people.  However, you notice a very large individual whom you can push in front of the train in order to stop it from running over the five people.  This would kill the large individual.

Variation #3:  You are a surgeon.  You have a patient on your surgical table in for a routine surgery.  However, you notice that the patient has organs compatible to several individuals needing transplants within your own hospital.  If you harvest this person's organs, you can save five individuals needing transplants, but kill the patient on your operating table.

Real World Variation #4:  You are programming a self-driving car.  If five people run out onto the highway, do you program it to swerve off the road and kill the driver or run down the five individuals crossing the road? 

What is the ethical choice in these situations?  Take no action, or kill the individual to save the group?  In these examples, we gave the example of five people.  Would it matter if it was only two people, or was as many as twenty or twenty million?

 

Sources for Research:

The Ship of Theseus

Ship of Theseus Image

Hobbes' The Ship of Theseus
& Parfit's Teletransportation Problem

Original:  There is a very well-used boat.  During the life of a ship, parts break down and are replaced.  The mast, for instance, is lost in a storm and so they get a new one, some of the wood rots and is replaced with fresh timber, and the bolts and nails holding it together rust away and replaced with fresh nails.  Eventually, none of the original materials that made up the ship are there.  Yet, the boat still sails, same as ever.  Is this the same boat or a different boat now?

Parfit Teletransportation Variation: A person steps into a transportation machine.  The first part of the transportation machine scans the persons body and the vaporizes it, destroying it completely.  The second part of the transportation machine then prints out an identical version of the person, using some bio-inks they had on hand.  The copy has all the same mental and physical attributes of the original along with all the memories of their original.  Is this person the same person, or a new and different person?

 

Sources for Research:

A Simple Surgery

Doctor Looking Contemplative

A Simple Surgery

You are a doctor in the future.  A patient comes into your office with a number of symptoms, and you quickly identify their ailment-- a failing heart.  They will surely die without treatment.  In fact, they pass out in your office.  Luckily, you know all that is required is a simple surgery in which you can give your patient a synthetic heart and they will be good as new.  Yet, as you are preparing to take the patient to surgery, a small medical card falls out of their pocket indicating that for religious reasons, they do not want any synthetic organs.  If you do not install the synthetic heart, the patient will die.  But, if you do, you will be violating the patient's wishes.  Do you pretent you didn't see the card and install the synthetic heart?  Or do you respect the patient's wishes and let them die?

Child Variation:  Let us say the patient is a child with the same condition.  The parents tell you that they do not want to give them a synthetic heart for religious reasons.  You tell the parents the child will die without the surgery.  They are not swayed.  Let us say that in this example, you have the legal authority to do whatever you want.  Do you perform the surgery anyway?  Or do you respect the parent's wishes and let their child die?

Additional Variation: What if there was only a chance the person would die?  Would it matter if it was a small chance or a large chance?

 

Sources for Research:

Drowning Child

No Swimming

The Drowning Child (Peter Singer)

A man wearing a thousand dollar suit sees a child drowning in the ocean and being pulled away by the currents.  He doesn't have time to take off his suit and save the child.  Is the man morally obligated to jump in the ocean and ruin his suit to save the drowning child?

Now, if you answered "yes" to that first question, consider this...  A person is up late watching television, and an ad comes on stating that with a $1000 dollar donation, you can save a child's life in a poverty stricken village.  The person researches the charity and it appears to be legit.  Is this person morally obligated to donate $1000 to save the child in a poverty stricken village if they have the money to do so?  If not, how are the two examples different?

 

Sources for Research:

Vaccine Distribution

Vaccine Image

Ethical Vaccine Distribution

A terrible pandemic is raging across the globe.  A vaccine has finally been developed.  However, production of this vaccine is slow and it will be some time before there are enough vaccines for everyone.  However, each week new vaccines become available for distribution.  In this scenario, you are in charge of distributing vaccines for your country.  What is the most ethical approach to vaccine distribution in your country where there are not initially enough vaccines for everyone?  How do you prioritize who will get the vaccine first?  What factors do you consider and which do you not?  How will you work to ensure vaccine distribution is fair, equitable, and reaches the maximum amount of people? 

 

Sources for Research:

Nozick's Experience Machine

Nozick's Experience Machine

A mad scientist invents a machine that would allow you to live in a personalized simulation, similar to a video game or the Matrix.  The scientist can guarantee that you will be happy in this machine as it caters to your every whim and fantasy, and while you are in the machine, you won't even know it is a simulation.  All that said, every person and thing you encounter within the machine is simply a programmed simulation and nothing and no one you encounter will be real.  The catch is this... if you choose to live in the simulation, you can never go back to the real world.  What would you do?  Spend the rest of your life where you are happy in a fantasy world?  Or choose to live your life in the real world?  Why?

 

Sources for Research:

Land Redistribution

Colonized Land Problem

There was a country invaded by a more technologically advanced population.  The Invaders conquered this country and took the land and resources from the Original Population that lived there.  For several decades, the Invaders continued to control the country and established a government ruled by a small minority of them, while the majority Original Population remained oppressed.  Eventually, due to mounting international pressure and internal unrest, the tyrannical government was replaced with a democracy, allowing the Original Population to elect representatives that fought for their interests.  After this democracy was established, it was discovered that the small minority Invader population still owned the vast majority of the land and resources in the country.  What should the country do?  Should they redistribute the land, taken unjustly, back to the Original Population?  If so, should they reimburse the Invader owners for the land they take-- many of whom were born after the period of unjust rule?  Or does the minority Invader population have a right to the land in which they claim ownership?

 

Sources for Research:

Warren's Space Traveler

Astronaut Image

Warren's Space Traveler

You are an astronaut traveling to distant worlds and cataloging whatever life you find on these distant planets.  That said, you discover a planet with a wide variety of flora and fauna.  You have a responsibility to catalog those species either as an advanced "people-like" species with full moral rights and protections, a mid-level species that should be protected from destruction but not placed at the level of "people", or as species that can be used as resources and food.  How do you make this decision?  Upon what qualities do you base this decision upon?

Earthly Variation:  Is it ethical to eat all non-human species (plants, animals, etc.) on earth?  If so, how is this behavior justified?  If not, upon which criteria would you base the eating of one species over another?

 

Sources for Research:

Social Media Misinformation

Social Media CEO

Social Media Misinformation

You have just successfully launched a social media company that allows users to debate, discuss, and share information about a variety of issues.  Initially, this seemed to go great and a lot genuine dialogue was generated.  However, recently you noticed that a lot of people and even some organizations are either intentionally or unwittingly sharing information that is false or misleading.  Moreover, these false posts seem to be generating a lot of interest on your platform.  Some of these false posts are even being made by prominent politicians.  Do you have a moral obligation to flag or censor this false information?  Do you have a free-speech obligation to allow users to freely voice their views even if they are spreading misinformation?  What should you do as a the owner of this social media platform?

Sources for Research:

The Merchant Vessel

The Merchant Vessel

The last merchant vessel of the trading season is bound for home.  During their voyage home, the ship encounters an unexpected storm and four of the crew members are thrown overboard and assumed drowned.  Later though, these crew members all wash to the shore of an island in which crews frequently make pit stops during the trading season.  Alongside the crew, several crates of food and other supplies, also thrown overboard, wash up beside them.  After taking an inventory of the crates, it is discovered that only enough food exists for three of the crew to survive until the next trading season when help will finally arrive back at the island.  If they attempt to stretch out the food for all four of them, every one of them will surely die.  Should the crew accept the fact that one should die to save all four or hope for an unlikely miracle?  If the crew decides to accept this fact...  How should the crew decide who dies?  Should it be upon age, merit, or some other factor?  Or should they draw straws to make it random?  Finally, if the person selected to die attempts to fight the other three or steal their food, would the three be justified in killing the condemned man?  And would the condemned man be justified in fighting back against his would-be murderers?

 

Sources for Research:

The Immortality Pill

The Immortality Pill

The Immortality Pill

You are an independent scientist doing some research on the process of aging.  During your research, you discover a means to create a pill capable of preventing aging for anyone who takes it.  Moreover, those that take the pill grow physically no older than 25, and if they are older than that when they take the pill, it will revert the person to the physical body of a 25 year old.  If you are not killed or do not die in accident, you will be effectively immortal.  What do you do?  Would you take it yourself?  Would you destroy it?  Would you make it available to others?  If so, everyone or just a select few?  Would it be ethical to make a profit off of it?  Consider ethical, religious, societal, and ecological factors in your answer.

 

Sources for Research:

Pascal's Wager

Image of a Priest

Pascal's Wager

You are not religious.  However, you meet a local priest who says you should be.  His argument is as follows:  "If you are a believer in God, and God exists, you will go to heaven.  If you do not believe, you risk the possibly going to hell.  Your earthly life is rather short.  At the most, you will live a century.  However, the afterlife is long, an eternity in fact.  Therefore, you might as well invest your short earthly life as a believer, because if there is no God, you don't lose much time, but if there is a God, you gain an eternity in heaven."  Is the priest's gamble worth it?  Does it convince you to become a believer?

 

Sources for Research:

Donaldson's Equim

Photo of a Community of People

Donaldson's Equim

Equim is a world in which everyone is completed impartial.  In Equim, everyone treats everyone else with equal concern.  Therefore, if a parent had the choice of saving their child or another child from drowning, they would make an impartial decision, possibly flipping a coin or simply choosing the child that is closest.  For the purpose of this thought experiment, let us say that the world of Equim is happier than our society, both on a societal level and an individual level.  If you could give the people of Equim a pill to make them more like the people of Earth, would or should you?  Contrarily, would or should you give a pill to make the people of Earth more like the people of Equim?

 

Sources for Research:

Wittgenstein's Game

Wittgenstein's Game

"Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games.” I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called games’ ”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat:don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all “amusing”? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games int he same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear." -(From What if... Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy)  Given this analysis, is there such a thing as a "game"?  What does this say about language and its ability to convey meaning?

 

Sources for Research:

The Fisherman

A Fisherman with a net

The Fisherman

You nation has a large lake filled with fish.  This lake can support 900 fisherman.  However, there is 1000 fisherman.  If the lake is overfished, then all the fish may die out over the next few decades.  You are a fisherman by trade and do not have a great deal of political power.  Nor do you have a lot of other marketable skills.  Plus you have a large family to feed.  There is no organized effort to address this problem, and few, if any, fishers you know are curbing the amount of fish they are catching.  Should you, as an individual, catch less fish at the cost of your family income?  Or should you, as an individual, catch as many fish as you can to feed your family for as long as you are able?

Country Variation #1:  Let us say, you are the ruler of this country of fisherman.  Your country has gotten extremely wealthy off the fish caught in your lake and you take steps to curb the number of fishers in your country to prevent overfishing.  Now, however, several other countries bordering the same lake begin to fish on their sides of the lake.  These countries are poorer than your own and are attempting to use fishing to boost their economies the same way you had done.  Regardless, if every country is fishing at their normal levels, the lake will eventually run out of fish.  This is especially problematic, because your nation already halved the fish supply from several years of overfishing.  Do you as the wealthy nation have a moral obligation to curb the amount you fish in greater proportion to the others?  Do you have a right to prevent the other countries from overfishing your common lake as the wealthy nation who already halved the fish population?

 

Sources for Research:

The Chinese Room

Robot

Searle's Chinese Room

Imagine yourself alone in a room following a computer program for responding to Chinese characters slipped under the door. You do not understand Chinese, and yet, by following the program for manipulating symbols and numerals just as a computer does, you send appropriate strings of Chinese characters back out under the door, and this leads those outside to mistakenly suppose there is a Chinese speaker in the room.  (Thought Experiment taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Does the person in the room along with the computer program understand Chinese? 

This thought experiment is a metaphor for Artificial Intelligence.  Given this example, do you think it is possible for an Artificial Intelligence to be conscious and aware of their actions if they are simply following a computer program?  

 

Sources for Research:

 

The Unmoved Mover

Image of the universe

Aristotle's The Unmoved Mover

Think of the world as a series of causes and effects, with one thing causing another thing, which in turn causes something else, which in turn causes yet another thing.  Similarly, you can look at the universe as a series of causes and effects.  However, if you go all the way back, you seem to come to a first thing, which itself has no cause.  What was this first thing, this effect that has no cause, this mover of things who has itself never been moved?  Is it God?  And how does the universe exists?

 

Sources for Research:

Russell's Five Minute Hyphothesis

A Person Looks Deep in Thought, Besides them sits a stack of books.

Russell's Five Minute Hypothesis

"There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that “remembered” a wholly unreal past." -- From What if... Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy

Do you agree with this statement?  Is any knowledge possible?  Can our sense experiences and memories be trusted to find truth?

 

Sources for Research: