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I apologize if this question has already been asked, however, after searching through several posts, I didn't find anything that was a duplicate.


I'm currently taking biomedical ethics (my first ethics course) in university, and for the past week we discussed Heinz's dilemma. Through the process of analyzing the situation & developing my own opinion, I've begun to grow curious of any relationship(s) that may exist between the plausibility of the actions committed by actors in a thought experiment, and, consequently, whether or not the thought experiment is even able to be subjected to moral scrutiny.

For example, if Heinz knew ahead of time that he would almost certainly be caught and that his wife will never get the drug, or, that there's an extremely, extremely low chance that the drug will even work, or, if Heinz was aware of both of the aforementioned, I would think that one could argue that Heinz simply isn't acting logically should he attempt to steal the drug, even if his remaining options are so limited.

With that in mind, if the behavior(s) of an actor are so extreme that they could be considered illogical, or "crazy", then can the actor still be subjected to moral scrutiny? Would moral considerations still be applicable, or, would the scenario instead be restricted solely to logical analysis, which would perhaps involve the process of trying to determine the threshold for which actions are considered logical or not, given a circumstance & a set of conditions.

So, ultimately: do the behaviors of actors in a thought experiment need to be [widely agreed upon as] logical, in order to then apply moral scrutiny?

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I want to answer this both yes and no.

From an important point of view, ethics is a modal logic. One reason we feel we can share moral perspectives at all is that they appear to combine according to logical rules somewhat similar to the rules in more abstract logical situation. There are rules like 'should implies can' -- that we cannot ethically demand someone to do the impossible. There is an expectation of limited transitivity -- that what is morally worse than something already immoral should not be moral. Etc., etc., etc.

I would claim that in order to be subject to moral scrutiny any actor should be able to process that logic, either intuitively or formally, and that those who cannot do so are beyond our ability to judge. No toddler is immoral. We must assume our imaginary actors are not insane in the moral sense -- that they can know right from wrong on a basic level and it matters to them. So yes, they have to be logical in a given sense.

But no. None of the examples you give fall in that category. Even if I am bound to get caught, if it gives me a sliver of hope in a bleak enough time, I am tempted to do quite dangerous things. That is not crazy, it just serves motives other than survival: true love, religious fervor, abject desperation, consuming hatred, or some other emotion that cannot be put aside with the full force of real fear. Consequences are compared individually, by all sorts of different people -- and the consequence of forgoing an option that would reduce the chance the wife's risk of death by 0.1% may be more severe for Heinz personally than the 99.9% risk of his own death.

Those kinds of people, subject to such broad controlling passions do have to fit into whatever solution you want to give. This inability to really read another person's mind and do the math on their emotional comparisons is one of the reasons people have often tried to devise ethical systems that are not directly tied to predicting consequences -- every individual perceives consequences through the lens of their emotional constitution. So comparisons between them are never objective.

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The answer depends largely on the thought experiment. It is a common flaw in thought experiments (see Atkinson and Peijnenburg) to consider that one can simply say "What if..." and then expect our intuition and reason to deliver an intelligible answer, but our reason and intuition have developed in the world we inhabit, not in any other fictitious one and this can lead to wide misunderstandings of their applicability.

In your example, the relevant question is - by what mechanism does "Heinz [know] ahead of time that he would almost certainly be caught and that his wife will never get the drug, or, that there's an extremely, extremely low chance that the drug will even work"? If by normal means (the statistical likelihood of getting caught, the current success rate of the drug), then you have no different an ethical dilemma (the Heinz dilemma doesn't have an answer, it's intended to highlight the different ways in which alternate pairs of justifications can be raised by examining different ethical motivations). If, however, you are suggesting the Heinz has somehow become become aware of the likelihoods by some irrefutable means, then Heinz clearly is in possession of some supernatural ability, not available to us. How, then could we possibly say anything about how someone with such an ability would proceed to think, or indeed what morality a world inhabited by such people would contain, maybe even the laws of physics and the fundamental nature of time would have to change to make such an ability possible, and so our whole concept of cause and effect might have to be thrown out of the window.

So, to address the query in your first paragraph about "any relationship(s) that may exist between the plausibility of the actions committed by actors in a thought experiment, and, consequently, whether or not the thought experiment is even able to be subjected to moral scrutiny." . You will find disagreement among philosophers, but there is certainly a school of thought which raises this very concern with thought experiments in general, that by invoking implausible circumstances, they lose the ability to yield any useful information under scrutiny at all.

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