Thought Experiments: I’m a Fan, But…

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 71 min.

1. Thought Experiments

On the Philosophy Bites podcast episode, “James Wilson on Real World Ethics” (9/21/19), Wilson argues that even if a thought experiment has a solution we like, it doesn’t mean we’ve learned about the range of real-world situations the experiment is meant to illuminate. Rather, thought experiments should be seen, at best, as highly controlled experiments focused on a relatively narrow set of circumstances, from which general inferences should be made very carefully, if at all; just as with scientific experiments.

Fair enough. Our world is messy and complex. Thought experiments, in their aim to tidy up that world for the benefit of human minds and intuitions, may fail to make room for varying contexts and difficult-to-imagine, but critical, details.

The discussion is short and covers a lot of ground, so I’m left with some questions about the full scope of Wilson’s view. For example, his answers about whether we, or at least moral philosophers, should abandon thought experiments strike me as vague. He seems to think thought experiments sometimes have value, and would have more value if treated with appropriate caution, but that whatever value we can wring from them can be found aplenty in richer sources, like novels, which include far more detail and involve us with characters we come to know and care about. I have some worries that arise precisely from these features of literature, but I’ll set those aside for the moment and will again say: fair enough.

I, as I’m sure most people do, certainly take Wilson’s basic point that we should be cautious about the countless real-world details that a thought experiment discards. In fact, I take myself to be a moral particularist, which is roughly the idea that adults generally should not rely on blanket principles for their moral decisions (e.g., ‘never lie’). So, producing such principles should not be the goal of thought experiments. This observations seems to apply for fields outside of ethics as well (see below for an example from philosophy of mind).

Still, I remain convinced that thought experiments can be powerful tools, especially when used as a starting point for an involved discussion that duly acknowledges the dangers of being misled. As for being misled, I’ve often been troubled by this question: If the world is so difficult to understand that we need a thought experiment to understand it, how do we know the thought experiment is a good model of that world?

Two examples spring to mind.

2. What Mary Didn’t Know (Philosophy of Mind)

The first is Daniel Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s famous thought experiment about Mary—“What Mary Didn’t Know” (Journal of Philosophy, Vol 83, No 5, May 1986: 291–295)—who grows up never seeing the color red, but does learn everything there is to know about human neurophysiology (and thus about the human perception of the color red).

One day, Mary sees a red tomato, thereby learning what it’s like to experience the color red and acquiring new skills, such as being able to imagine red dragons, and to imagine what it might be like for others when they experience the color red. Given this, the stuff of experience (i.e., consciousness) must be distinct from the stuff of brains in themselves, something other than interacting brain parts—something altogether immaterial, in fact. Or so goes the argument (which Jackson himself eventually rejected, as discussed in this Philosophy Bites episode: “Frank Jackson on What Mary Knew” [8/26/2011]).

Here’s Dennett’s response, cited from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “Thought Experiment” (accessed 11/19/19):

…Daniel Dennett is convinced that Frank Jackson’s Mary thought experiment is poor evidence to oppose physicalism in philosophy of mind. … Instead of a red tomato, Dennett, in his version of the thought experiment, presents Mary with a bright blue banana. In his version of the story (which seems just as plausible as Jackson’s), Mary balks and says she is being tricked, since she knows that bananas are yellow, and this, says Mary, is a consequence of knowing everything physical about colour perception. Mary does not learn anything new when she sees coloured objects for the first time, so there is no case against physicalism after all. Jackson’s initial thought experiment was very persuasive, but Dennett’s was equally so, thus, undermining Jackson’s argument.

Dennett’s counter-experiment suggests that for a thought experiment to work as intended—assuming the intention is not to mislead—it must reasonably map the world it aims to map. We often can’t know that it does. But maybe mapping the world isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the point. I think that wondering whether a thought experiment succeeds or fails in this particular way often is what makes the thought experiment valuable. In fact, when I encountered the Mary example in college, what we principally discussed was what it could possibly mean to learn everything about neuroscience, and whether ‘what it’s like to experience red’ would have to be included in that (a secondary question being whether our conclusions there settle anything in the physicalism vs. dualism argument).

3. Factory Floors and Office Buildings (Standpoint Epistemology)

The second example comes from a 2018 blog post on standpoint epistemology at The Sooty Empiric: “Empiricism Is a Standpoint Epistemology.” The author doesn’t share their name at the blog, so I’ll just use ‘the Author’ here (though if you read through the posts there you’ll eventually run into the name, and can then find and follow the Author on Twitter).
The topic is standpoint epistemology, a broad definition for which is cited by the Author from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “Feminist Standpoint Theory” (and will be referenced in the thought experiment I’m about to share; I most recently accessed it on 11/19/19):

Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.

The Author’s post is equal parts defense of standpoint epistemology and defense of standpoint epistemology as an empiricist position, with the central thesis being, to quote: “Every well informed empiricist should be a standpoint epistemologist.”

Above, when sharing the Jackson example, I didn’t weigh in with any opinions about philosophy of mind. I won’t weigh in on empiricism either, and would prefer to do the same for standpoint epistemology; but it strikes me as impossible (in particular) for a member of my social group to say something critical about an argument supporting standpoint epistemology, without at least indirectly saying, or appearing to say, something critical about standpoint epistemology itself. So, I will offer a few brief clarifying thoughts in a moment.

Now to the thought experiment:

First a silly thought experiment. Suppose we had a caste system that sent 50% of people to factory floors every day and 50% to office buildings, and never the twain shall mix or visit the other’s place of work. (What do they eat in this world, you ask? Fuck you, I reply.) Call the first the blue collars and the second the white collars. An empiricist informed of this arrangement should immediately conclude that the blue collars much much more likely to know about factory floors and what they are like when compared with white collars, and vice versa for office blocks. There’s thus a clear sense in which knowledge would be socially situated – who knew what would depend heavily on caste. What is more, for at least some things (let us suppose that the blue collars have a genuinely worse standard of life) the marginalised are clearly in a better position to know what’s going on and ask pertinent questions, for just the same reason as above. And if you wanted to find out about life on the factory floors (say, how people responded to the orders telegraphed in from the office blocks, which they have every reason to pay attention to lest the food rations cease) and one was not a blue collar oneself then a pretty good strategy for finding out, at least for an empiricist, would be to (breaking the thought experiment a bit) ask the blue collars what’s up and record their answers –  of course doing your best to get a representative sample and etc. Even if you had other ways of finding out what’s up (perhaps you could put on some jeans, Dick van Dyke your accent, and clock in for a day) it’d probably still be a good idea to check with a representative sample of actual blue collars before drawing any firm conclusions. So that’s (1), (2) and (3).

I recommend reading the entire post, most of which is, to paraphrase the Author, really about why it is that people argue about the Author’s central claim connecting empiricism and standpoint epistemology. The thought experiment, though, also seems to serve as support for standpoint epistemology itself. (I’m less concerned about whether the experiment supports the Author’s claims about empiricism, but such concerns will arise here as, just as the Author claims, there does seem to be an unavoidable, intimate connection between them!) Also note the succinct comments addressed at those who might nitpick this “silly” thought experiment’s missing details (e.g., about what the people eat).

Again, I will in a moment say more about my views on standpoint epistemology. For now, please know that I’m on board with the basic idea.

As for the Author’s thought experiment, I worry that it would be easy for those who reject standpoint epistemology to argue that the example does not accurately map the world it claims to map. Such a person might produce a counter thought experiment that they and other opponents would agree more accurately maps the real world (even while agreeing with the Author’s claims about empiricism). For example, someone might say that the folks who work and live in the ‘lower levels’ of society do not occupy a factory, but rather a maze full of complex turns, hidden passages, inviting dead ends—a complex system that can only be understood by those who can see it from above, and that could be conquered if only those inside the maze would listen to those above them.

Yet others might say that, even if the world is like a factory and an office building, the thought experiment doesn’t handle the hardest questions raised by standpoint epistemology. For example, what to do if those in the factory give conflicting reports about their experience there. With empirical questions like, ‘how many widgets are produced each day?,’ this might not be of concern as far as the facts goes (no matter what the factory workers or any else happens to report), but with more difficult questions like, ‘how many widgets are you responsible for producing each day?,” hearing wildly varying answers from people working the same position should merit concern.

Even tougher is when the question becomes, ‘here’s a random person from the office building; what are their attitudes, beliefs, opinions, dispositions?’ I take this and similar criticisms to be a straw man of the standpoint theoretic view, but it is where opponents usually go, more about which below, when I briefly flesh out my thoughts on this topic. For now, I’ll say that this particular thought experiment does not fall prey to that worry, because it has built into it the premise that the office workers know the office, the factory workers know the factory, such that there’s no principled reason to think either group privy to the mental states of the other.

Alternatively, someone else might (claim to) intuit that an even better analogy lies somewhere between the factory and the maze, so we need a two-way communication between all involved: those higher up can see the big picture, but have never experienced it on the ground, are too far away to touch and smell the poison-lined walls of an open-ended pathway, to sense who’d make a trustworthy ally and who wouldn’t, to see the faintly printed, encoded instructions that enable those in the maze to trigger mechanisms that shift walls and create wider pathways, to feel which walls are weak and can be knocked down by sheer force (how did the maze come to be, anyway?). Even worse, many of the highest above may be separated from the maze and even from the overseers by opaque floors, and are only getting reports about production volume, performance, injury, and poorly implemented ’employee satisfaction’ questionnaires (remember, both the factory and the offices have their own local hierarchies).

By now I’ve pushed the limits of what we expect of thought experiments, which are meant to simplify. The Author is aware that the world is not so simple as the one described in the thought experiment. So, to be clear, it would be misguided to reject it on grounds of simplification or what we might call ‘over-modeling’—e.g., we don’t have a caste system, people aren’t ‘sent,’ but rather choose what jobs they do (or are ‘meant’ by nature to do), and so on.

Such rejections, aside from missing the point miss the point that the experiment is meant to illustrate the connection between empiricism and standpoint epistemology, nitpick irrelevant details and fail to charitably engage the thought experiment in its own terms; that is, as the Author puts it: “just an abstract and extreme example of what is got at in standpoint epistemology,” wherein, “in reality things are more probabilistic and varied. We have more divisions of labour, we communicate with each other more, we travel between lifeworlds more.” The Author also claims that…

…in essence our social division of labour does achieve something like this. There are clearly ways in which our global division of labour allots us tasks in something like this way, provides us with different incentives and information to learn from, and for questions of great social import the perspective of the socially marginalised will often be the perspective which an empiricist would bet has more relevant knowledge.

I agree with this, and find the thought experiment an effective entryway to talking about important features of our actual world, provided, again, that we engage the thought experiment charitably. (I’ll revisit these points in the closing section of this post).

But again, I have worries. Opponents of, or skeptics about, standpoint epistemology might say that if the Author’s example maps the real world, then it would be an effective one. But that it does not, and therefore is irrelevant at best, misleading at worst. The more resolved among them might then produce what many will consider to be an at least equally compelling counter thought experiment, such as the maze example above.

Which of these thought experiments one gets on board with will depend on one’s existing presumptions and intuitions about the world. Maybe that’s the most we can hope for: that those who agree with the Author’s (empiricist) picture of the world will, in addition, take on board the key ideas of standpoint epistemology. Maybe that’s actually a lot to hope for and a great goal in itself, a sub-goal in the larger project of bringing into clearer focus a unified vision for the Left. Fair enough.

4. Digression on Standpoint Epistemology

Before turning to some closing thoughts on thought experiments, I’d like to say a few words about my views on standpoint epistemology (around 6,200, it turns out). As I understand it, standpoint theory begins with Karl Marx in a class context; is adapted into a feminist context in the 1980s (which, as is often noted these days, seemed to especially privilege middle- and upperclass white women); and in more recent years is gaining increased awareness as it is extended to provide an epistemic account of intersectional group membership and identity.

That’s quite a rich and dynamic history and landscape. For a better overview than I can possibly provide here, see:

Standpoint Theory” (Wikipedia); “Feminist Standpoint Theory” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy); “Feminist Social Epistemology” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy); “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

In fact, my comments here won’t be centered on standpoint epistemology proper—i.e., as a well-developed area of academic discourse—so much as on my commitment to the basic idea that a necessary condition for learning about an individual’s experience is to pay close attention to what that individual has to say about their experience. The most appealing standpoint theoretic ideas I’ve encountered have as their starting place this core idea, which is an anchoring theme that I’ll return to repeatedly here. So, much of what follows is a confounding push and pull between that unwavering commitment and what to do with the core idea as a basis for understanding groups.

I should also acknowledge that I’m motivated to comment because I don’t want readers to take my claims about the Author’s thought experiment for claims about standpoint epistemology proper. I’m especially sensitive to the fact that members of my social group (middled-aged white cis man) are the ones who are (by stereotype) most likely to dismiss or oppose standpoint epistemology.*

[*Though the most vocal opponents I’ve personally encountered have been from other social groups; namely, white cis women. This is just a hunch, but I imagine those in my social group who are aware of standpoint epistemology are reluctant to comment, either because they’ve resigned themselves to safer spaces like metaphysics and logic; or because they’re largely on board with the idea and would prefer to leave the discussion to those whom standpoint theory aims to privilege; or due to other social-group-related epistemic concerns that have recently been illuminated, such as by Miranda Fricker in her 2009 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Or maybe I just don’t pay attention to the sorts of people in my most salient social group(s) who’d vehemently oppose standpoint epistemology; this poses an irony that will find its way into what for me are the most confusing aspects of contemporary standpoint epistemology.]

Here goes.

I’m strongly dedicated to what I conceive of as standpoint epistemology’s core idea: nobody knows an individual’s first-person experience as well as that individual does. This strikes me as obviously true, so I consider the main project of standpoint epistemology not to be the vindication of that idea, but rather one of properly expanding the idea to apply to groups so that it may inform (say) social policy. In other words, to figure out how to make the move from individual experiences to notions about social groups (a topic about about which I have far more to say than I’ll get into here; in a longer writing, I’d want to go deeper into questions about social group ontology, group personhood, and group/social epistemology).

How to make this move, I’m not sure. I have questions, like about what to do when folks in a marginalized group are split on not only how to fix the problems they face, but on how those problems should be fundamentally viewed (e.g., as part of a clearly conceptualized causal network and history), including by people who are outside the group. This becomes even more difficult in an era in which we’re meant to choose sides, not just in the voting booth but within our souls. Yet further difficulties arise when the view my moral peers (a social group of its own sort) expect me to endorse as ‘obviously correct’ constitutes a minority view among those in the group we’re supposed to be turning to for their perspective—where that perspective is assumed, a priori, to be the most accurate picture of the world.*

[*Are we actually trying to get an accurate picture? Or are we looking for the picture that will result in the best outcome (for all involved)? How often are these one and the same?

Given how easy it is to get lost in such difficulties (more about which shortly), I try to never lose sight of the core concept: I know my own experience best; this has two viable meanings: I’m the one who best knows my experienceI know my own experience better than I know your experience. I might be wrong about the source of my experience or about what it means, and my interpretations may be environment-dependent (the pain felt in the dentist’s chair may be experienced as emotionally scarring suffering in the torturer’s chair); but the sensations themselves, however interpreted, are mine.

And your sensations are your own: the person who best knows what your life is like—knows what it feels like to walk a lifetime in your shoes—is you.

In vivider terms, what it’s like to live with insomnia, migraines, depression, poverty, addiction, insecurity, perverse proclivities, untamable idea blizzards (see insomnia), tics, disinhibiting brain tumors, tinnitus, chronic itching, fatigue, guilt, existential angst, perseveration, misophonia, photophobia, {insert prefix}-phobia, fantastical convictions, otherworldly insights, or whatever idiosyncratic bundle of subtler, but cumulatively burdensome, conditions you happen to find yourself living with in a particular place and era—can only really be known by the experiencer.

For more on this, see a long blog post I published last year called “Attention: Mind the Mind Gap,” in which I argue that “one of humanity’s greatest sources of conflict [is] our inability to really know—directly, firsthand—what one another is thinking.”

I still believe that claim, even in the face of mounting evidence that we should be suspicious of our own memories and that faulty, though sincere, eye-witness testimony contributes greatly to wrongful convictions; and despite psychologists growing evermore skilled at priming and manipulating our experiences and inducing false memories*; and at a time when, the more data we have, the more we recognize our models of the world to be limited, deficient.

[*A recent book on this topic that I enjoyed is Julia Shaw’s 2016 The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory. Also see work by Elizabeth Loftus.]

We’re constantly constructing such models, whether formally (with rigorous math, fancy algorithms, high-powered computers) or informally (with our own sense organs, brains, intuitions)—and, though we have no choice but to rely on one or more (formal and/or informal) model at any given instant, it’s difficult to know what those models get right and what they get wrong. Difficult due not only to insufficient data and computing power, but also to the fact that the same data run through different models (or sequences of [in]formal models) will output different interpretations.

And I still believe that claim even while well aware that North Americans have seen group delusions grow into widespread and costly panic, as with (say) the Satanic Ritual Abusive scare of the 1980s, during which it was widely believed and reported that, among other horrors, thousands or millions of people all over the U.S. were being sacrificed by a network of satanists who were our otherwise friendly seeming neighbors, community leaders, family members; a belief that grew with the help of law enforcement, the media, psychologists, social workers, and old fashioned word of mouth (there were also plenty of skeptics, though skepticism was in many circles considered naive at best, taboo at worst).

Errors abound. But we can get to the bottom of them only by listening to what people believe, and by crediting them as actually believing what they claim to believe—while acknowledging that, while believing doesn’t make the belief true, there must be some source for the belief. And don’t forget the very real emotional effects of the belief, which are personal, subjective, internal.

I don’t view the errors, harmful as they may be, as evidence against standpoint epistemology, so much as against the infallibility of the human mind. Human fallibility is present in—and thus should be an acknowledged feature of—whatever aggregating model(s) we adopt. All reasonable accounts of standpoint epistemology I’ve encountered are well aware of this.

And so, while I’m emphatically dedicated to the idea that, for you to know what it’s like to be me, you have to be me*; to know what it’s like to be in my family, you have to be in my family; to know what it’s like to be… and so on—I also know that, on different days, I will tell a different story (will rely on different models) when describing what it’s like to be me; and my models and stories will differ from those relied on by others in my family; and so on. I know what it’s like to be me right now, but I know less of what it was like to be me forty years ago and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be a group; nor does the group itself: groups don’t have minds. It is this latter difficulty—which I touch on in the posts “Attention: Mind the Mind Gap” and “Do Groups Believe?“—that compels me to return again and again to the core idea of standpoint epistemology. I’ll so so here while gradually attempting to turn the discussion towards the problem of aggregating individual reports into meaningful lessons about groups.

[*Actually, this should go more like this. For me to know what it’s like to be you, I’d have to attain the metaphysically impossible status of actually being you while still being me—impossible because the entity indexed there by the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ would no longer exist in order to know what it’s like to be the entity indexed by the word ‘you’; the next best thing is for you to tell me what it’s like to be you, and for me to do my best to match up my own experiences with the ones you describe, while recognizing the limitations of this effort. For more on such difficulties, see again my aforementioned blog post, “Attention: Mind the Mind Gap.”]

And so, I try to remain wide open to the possibility that the sources of my own experience—and hence my interpretation of those experiences—may be more mysterious than I can know (an effort that must be balanced against nurturing a skepticism that intensifies into self-gaslighting). This pushes me more towards standpoint epistemology, as my experiences will, on balance, be even more mysterious to those around me than they are to myself (which, in theory, should also protect me against gaslighting from others). And, as always, this self-reflection reminds me that the experiences of others are fundamentally mysterious to me, no matter what I know of their sources (reasonably understood: I of course realize that the vast majority of people will feel pain on touching fire; were it that the only sorts of real-world stimuli we have to worry about were so simple! And even examples such at that one may not be as simple as they seem.).

The upshot of this is that there is absolutely no way to get anywhere close to fully understanding the experience of another human being without having that experience. The next best thing is to listen attentively. I extend this principle to all individuals.

Whatever the best solution may be for relating those individual inputs to—or for aggregating individual self-reports into—our larger models of society, I can only imagine that it will involve more inputs, not fewer—done with the understanding that there will be noise arising from biases*; faulty memory; differing internal scales for rating the intensity of one’s experiences; miscalculations about the nature of the systems contributing to those experiences (not to mention differing ideas, based on varying degrees of credulity in the face of differing information, about how to improve those systems); and the plain fact of differing perspectives.

[*Talk of biases reminds me of the point psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes in his classic 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow: he at first assumed his misgivings about economics would be well understood and have answers among existing economists; he eventually realized they did not, and that he was seeing things perhaps only an outsider could see. Kahneman went on to win the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. What to do with this example?]

That noise clouds around the bounds within which we’ll find the natural undulations—of acceptable and reasonable and (counter)productive variance—that course through the interpretive structure of our shared reality, and, to the extent to which that structure is well founded, within the Actual World that shared reality is thought to model.

And so there are at least three kinds of models between us and the Actual World: the personal one given to us by our senses and meaning-and-sense-making organs; the ‘shared reality’ that is formed by collaborative, give-and-take exchanges of many personal models; the formal models used to filter out the noise, to correct the inherently fraught process of meaning and sense making. But the formal models, too, have their roots in the personal, and can only end with the personal: it is human meaning-and-sense-making organs that both construct the inputs and interpret the outputs of formal models.

It is precisely due to such worries that first-person reports about first-person experience are precious, and is why the construction of such models must be approached in good faith by all involved. This includes a good-faith approach to the very real and perplexing and often intractable difficulties attending social group ontology and, more broadly, complexity (which our models, including thought experiments, are meant to deal with by eliminating as many variables as possible without sacrificing the information from which relevant real-world inferences may be drawn; good luck!).

It’s as easy to see the danger of a misapplied or over-extended aggregation model as it is to reflect on the frustration we feel when someone assumes what we think, believe, or feel based on some widespread notion of what the ‘typical’ person who looks and sounds like us thinks, believes, and feels—more specifically, when those looks and sounds are thought to imply something important about our essential, situation-dependent character. This seems a special case of a broader phenomenon psychologists call the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ in which we tend to attribute someone’s questionable behavior to their character rather than their situation, about which we know little to nothing (while viewing our own worst behavior as a matter of our own ‘complicated’ situation). A rather mundane and common example would be for me to criticize someone’s performance in a job I know nothing about, while complaining about others doing the same to me.

As with jobs goes life. So, again, it would be silly to think that a conversation can be had about the stress experienced by the most vulnerable and least privileged in our society without asking—and, just as importantly, actively listening—to what those people have to say about their experiences. And this may mean making efforts to provide a platform for such voices: many of the most vulnerable in our society have neither the time, resources, nor energy to speak.*

[*And some, or many, may not have the motivation or desire. Another wrinkle here, and possibly one that could lead some to take issue with the Author’s thought experiment: ‘it’s not the job of the factory worker to educate the office worker (or whoever it is who’s doing the asking in the Author’s scenario).’ I don’t think this a fair criticism of the thought experiment, because that claim can be true while it’s also true that the best way to learn about factory conditions would be to ask, and listen to, the factory workers.

That said, my hunch, based on personal experience and what I’ve seen in what I’ll loosely call the ‘social science and journalistic literature,’ is that plenty of people are ready and willing to talk about their experience when asked in good faith and in a safe context, even if they aren’t particularly politically active or otherwise motivated or enabled to get on a soapbox. An unsafe context, would be something like: asking a low-wage employee to discuss their job satisfaction in front of their boss.

For an excellent account of the challenges that can surround efforts to learn firsthand—via observation and dialog—about the struggles of some of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable south- and north-side citizens, see the “About This Project” chapter at the end of sociologist and urban ethnographer Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. (I’m finishing it up as I write this.) It’s a riveting, heart-wrenching, and eye-opening glimpse into the large role evictions (and wretched home conditions in general) play in perpetuating ever-expanding cycles of poverty, crime, substance abuse, discrimination, mental health problems, and all manner of (often banally quotidian) injustice in the United States. The upshot is a persuasive argument for a more efficiently and fairly run housing-voucher system that benefits renters, landlords, cities, and our country more broadly.

Getting reliable firsthand accounts is hard, as the above-noted chapter shows; but without at least trying to get some on-the-ground testimonies, the project of fixing our broken housing system would be dead in the water. Which is to say that, as Desmond himself puts it, the book is not about him, but about the landlords and (desperate-to-be) renters represented in the book (not to mention the moving company employees, social services caseworkers, church leaders, police, children, extended family members, courtroom staff, and you get the picture).

While I’m at it, I’ll give a shoutout to voice artist Dion Graham, whose vivid narration of the audio book brought the characters to life for me without rendering them overly piteous; the result is a well-measured balancing of the book’s ethos, pathos, logos. Fantastic.]

Similarly, I don’t believe anything like a good-faith discussion can be had in this regard without asking for self-reports by those, to extend the Author’s metaphor, on the upper-suites of the office building; as the Author puts it: “an empiricist informed of this arrangement should immediately conclude that the blue collars much much more likely to know about factory floors and what they are like when compared with white collars, and vice versa for office blocks.”

Good-faith attention to one another’s reports about the world we take ourselves to inhabit—to share—is the first step towards understanding one another’s worlds; that is, towards understanding, or at least coming close to understanding, one another’s experience. Notice that, unsurprisingly, I view aggregation as a complicated substitute for receiving firsthand reports from every member of a group (however a group is defined), rather than as some kind of unearthing of a greater, emergent truth that transcends all of the individual experiences upon which that truth supervenes.

I think most reasonable people will agree with much of what I’ve said so far. Insomuch as this is the basis for standpoint epistemology, I think it’s solid. Where things get tricky and contentious and possibly dangerous for some or all involved is when the discussion turns to when and how the perspective of one group should be privileged over that of another group. (Some might say that this is actually where the discussion actually becomes one about standpoint epistemology proper. This must be true in some sense, but I think the core idea still grounds that discussion.)

A further complication is when the perspectives of certain individuals are designated as emblematic or representative of said group, with or without the endorsement of the group (even worse, in the face of protest from the group). Not to mention when individual group members—whether or not they are members by choice—are expected to share the perspectives of those individuals. I won’t get into this and many related topics here, such as when group membership is denied, rightly or wrongly, to those who’d like to be counted as a member.

Just as I have questions about aggregation overall (which I’ve only barely touched here), I have questions about the finer details of aggregation—such as how to weigh types of input or data (i.e., how to assign epistemic privileges) within the aggregation, something that is sometimes unavoidably necessary. Again, only I really know what I feel, but the source of what I feel (is it acid reflux or cancer?) is not exactly up to me; but what I believe that source to be (which also isn’t up to me, whether or not I’m exposed to the truth) will have drastic repercussions for how I interpret the feeling, which itself can lead to new potentially powerful salutary or harmful experiences (e.g., relief or fear).

A lot of this has to do with the meaning we assign to our interpretations of what we feel, and that too can be something we can use help with, such as from a trusted friend, clergy member, or well-qualified therapist (hopefully, that is, one mindful of iatrogenic artifacts rather than one who says, ‘you’re exhibiting the behavior of someone with repressed memories of satanic rituals; let’s work hard to coax out those memories so we can get to the true source of the pain you didn’t know you have’). At the very least, self-reflection is recommendable for better self-understanding.

This introduces the possibility that a given input (i.e., report from an individual perspective at a given moment) could be viewed multidimensionally, and different weights could be assigned to those various dimensions. This would mean some sort of synchronic (or short time differential) aggregation for the individual at a given moment, before anything is input into the greater aggregation model. I suppose how this is done could vary from individual to individual (perhaps even at different times for the same individual), but ideally it would be the same for all individuals, the effects being an appropriate weighting overall. Enough about these complexities.

Somewhere within this hazy, intractable space is where legitimate debates arise among standpoint theorists and mutual group members, as well as where straw men and slippery slopes are most effectively erected by dissenters—bolstered, for example, by the notion held by some (not all) that standpoint epistemology implies that some groups, by the very fact of their existing as a group*, endows its members with the power to have more direct access to the mental states of individual members of other groups. This would mean that, counter to what the Author intends, the factory worker knows the experience of the office workers better than the office workers themselves do; so, if you want to know what the office workers really think and feel and believe, you best ask the factory workers.

[*A small but important point about social group ontology: deciding what counts as a significant group in a given context isn’t easy. Everyone who blinked 28,806 times on January 1, 2019 is a group, but not one with any special epistemic privileges by virtue of being in that group.]

This radical view robustly maintains that a member of an oppressed group, where ‘group’ is vaguely defined, not only better understands the effects of oppression (and perhaps the on-the-ground mechanisms* of oppression), but also has direct access—maybe even the best access—to the first-person mental states of members of the dominant group. I doubt this view exists nearly to the extent that dissenters would have us believe, if at all, at least in a robust or explicit form.

[*This claim leads to some logical difficulties I’ll leave unexplored here, namely having to do with navigating the lines between oppressors being aware or unaware of their mechanisms of oppression, even when they are the executors of those mechanisms. Another way to put this is that lines may be blurry between being the conscious designers of those mechanism and being unaware puppets (either to those designers or to something like the tides of history)—and thus also victims, if in some ways simultaneous benefactors—of those mechanisms. The uneducated, inexperienced (i.e., children), or poorer members of a dominant group may, for example, find themselves in this situation; in some cases, so might those at or near the top of the dominant group’s internal hierarchy.]

Though I have encountered less robust, less explicit, less rigorously defended sentiments of this sort from some folks, a relatively small proportion of them have done so under the auspices of standpoint epistemology. This idea is nothing new or special—that is, the idea that ‘you uttered the sounds “ABC” but what you actually said was “XYZ”,’ where what is ‘actually said’ is a true representation and expression of the person’s feelings, whether the person knows it or not (e.g., whether it represents ‘explicit’ or ‘implicit’ bias, respectively; this, too, is a fraught topic for another day).

But it does seem to be particularly problematic at the dawn of an era permeated by social media and in our attention economy in which complicated views are reduced to short sentences, thus leaving them open to interpretation.* Willful and accidental misinterpretations happen in all domains of discourse, so it shouldn’t be surprising if it happens among people who endorse (or whose goals align with) standpoint epistemology, and it may very well at times find itself built into some versions of such theories—along with other all-too-human missteps, like assuming that with God-given epistemic privilege comes moral superiority and historical omniscience (as when the young tell the old, ‘You don’t know as well as I do what it was like back in your day’).

[*This isn’t to suggest that folks never intentionally engage in double-speak, the most systematic and nefarious example of which involves language that, on the surface, seems reasonable and defensible, but is coded in order to ‘dog whistle’ hateful ideas to a receptive, mass audience; especially rotten is when bold-faced, dog-whistling haters brazenly count on the hated knowing the code.

It’s also fraught, because it’s not hard to find dog whistles where they aren’t. I surely don’t have to convince you that, once we’ve diagnose someone as carrier of foul vapors, we can interpret their behavior to bear out that diagnosis.

What I’ve been surprised to notice and to learn, however, is how pervasive (sincere!) false positives are. The famous Rosenhan experiments are an all-too-literal example from recent history, but I hesitate to discuss those until I’ve read Susannah Cahalan’s new book The Great Pretender (released on 11/9/2019), which apparently raises charges of experimental chicanery. First the Stanford Prison Experiment, now this.]

It should be clear by now that I find uncharitable the characterization of standpoint epistemology as a philosophy for telepaths. Or, at least, I take that approach to be an atypically extreme one (you can find disconcertingly extreme versions of any system of thought you otherwise agree with; and such views may get outsized attention, as discussions between reasonably moderate minds don’t make for sexy marketing). I take the Author’s (reasonably measured) thought experiment to be more in the ballpark of what I’m used to encountering. It’s possible, though, that some—I hope small—number of less nuanced standpoint theorists may take issue with the thought experiment for giving too much credit to the epistemic powers of the office workers.

So, how does standpoint epistemology handle some of the tougher concerns I’ve touched on? What does feminist standpoint theory have to say about women who oppose feminist standpoint theory? Or, more particularly, who oppose the (usually left-leaning) conclusions drawn from said theory? Even more difficult is the question of what to do when the majority of a traditionally marginalized or oppressed group seems to disagree with the conclusions drawn by those appealing to standpoint epistemology about what’s best for that group, particularly when those (self-appointed) spokespersons or representatives are themselves largely of an elite, educated class (even when they are members of the group in question).* For a discussion headed more or less in the direction of these and similar concerns, see the points addressed under Section 7 (“Controversies“) of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article I linked to above.

[*For instance, I today happened upon this November 4, 2019 article by Katie Herzog at The Stranger: “Poll Finds Latinx People Don’t Like to Be Called Latinx,” regarding a recent poll suggesting that only 2% of those in the U.S. we’re meant to call ‘Latinx’ actually prefer to be called ‘Latinx.’ I haven’t looked into the details of the poll nor into the organization that ran it (ThinkNow). Maybe it’s not to be trusted. But let’s suppose the poll is at least superficially accurate.

I’m left, then, with the question of whose injunctions to follow: those who say ‘Latinx’ should be applied only to those who request it, or those who say it should be applied to everyone. To be clear, I don’t know how many in the 2% fell that it should be applied to everyone. Nor do I know how strongly the 98% care about this issue; for example: do they feel harmed when called ‘Latinx’? (If so, why?) As I said, I’m supposing the poll is superficially accurate.

That in mind, I’m generally inclined to agree with the following from Giancarlo Sopo in a October 25, 2019 USA Today op-ed subtly titled “Progressives, Hispanics Are Not ‘Latinx.’ Stop Trying to Anglicize Our Spanish Language“:

Gender-nonconforming Americans should be treated with compassion and respect. If someone wants to be called Latinx, that is fine, but the label should not be forced upon all Latinos. Hispanic Americans face plenty of challenges. The last thing we need are progressives “wokesplaining” how to speak Spanish.

It strikes me—a self-identified progressive—that this must be in line with any reasonable standpoint-epistemic account.

At the same time, Sopo’s sentiments points us yet again to difficulties in extending individual preferences to group-level policies. Once reliable polls show that 51% of polled members of the relevant group prefer ‘Latinx,’ is that when it becomes morally required to use the term for everyone in the poll (or, more broadly, in the population from which the poll sample was drawn)? (I say “morally” here in order to emphasize that this isn’t just a semantic concern centered on descriptivist and prescriptivist language usage.)

Or, even less democratically (none of this seems pro-democracy, certain not in a ‘direct’ sense), is it the most vulnerable—the most prone to harm—within that group whose vote should be given the most weight? Should such voices, in fact, be the only ones consulted? Would this in itself amount to a kind of power over those not consulted? And what about when folks within that group disagree? Does the most weight go to those who perceive themselves to be the worst off should a policy go a certain way? Or simply to whoever seems the most progressive? Seems the most progressive to whom? How would any of this be established?

We (who endorse standpoint epistemology) are also faced here with challenges surrounding social group ontology. The poll doesn’t include gender-nonconforming people who are non-Latinx, but it certainly could be argued that that is the real group that is most vulnerable in this context.

In the same vein, there is the question of what would be revealed by such surveys were they conducted among the relevant global group (however that may be established), and whether this should matter to sub-groups of Latinx people living in the U.S. and/or elsewhere.

Finally, this isn’t just about the term ‘Latinx’ or about the Spanish language—it also applies to ‘Mexicanx,’ ‘Brasileirx,’ and so on. Are we to determine preferences for each group both in the U.S. and abroad? And who is indexed by the word ‘we’ here? Et cetera, et cetera. (And consider these questions in the context of English: ‘humxn’ and ‘womxn.’)

And so, I take Sopo’s quote to capture something of the essence of standpoint epistemology. But I can’t accept it unquestioningly, nor do I think standpoint epistemologists would want me to. And so it goes for all epistemic business. My evaluation of these questions always comes down to my own moral sentiments, not those I’m told I should have, even when I’m being told by those I think must know better than I: in the worst case, the members of a group I tend to believe will probably be the ones saying things that already ‘make sense’ to me; in milder cases, I’d remain open-minded but agnostic (though agnosticism, as with skepticism, is often frowned upon).

Here’s a November 5, 2019 New York Times op-ed on the same topic: “Liberalism’s Latinx Problem.”

There are of course plenty of other real-world cases where such questions arise. Should it only be black Virginians who weigh in on (or decide) whether Democratic governer Ralph Northam should step down after a photo surfaced of him wearing black face as a young man? According to a February 2019 Quinnipiac University poll, 56% of black Virginian voters said Northam should not step down. I personally find the figure unsurprising, given the way I’ve heard black folks talk about these sorts of incidents. That said, it seems to me that white Americans have plenty invested in emphatically condemning such behavior among their own group members, and for a variety of easily imagined reasons, some reasonable some not, many of which involve perceived harm to the members of the group ‘white Americans.’

Emphasis above on ‘the way I’ve heard.’ I’m reminded of a thought-provoking conversation I heard on The Ezra Klein Show podcast last September, between guest-host Jane Coaston and guest John McWhorter: “John McWhorter Thinks We’re Getting Racism Wrong” (9/5/19). Early on, Coaston points out that:

I think it’s kind of strange when we—and it happens on a bipartisan basis—to think about the idea of the ‘black community,’ because it always gives me this mental image that it’s, like, me and LaBron and Alan Keyes all at one giant table having sweet potato pie and arguing.

Later, after McWhorter has aired some of his worries that what counts in the current moment as progressive anti-racist policy may cause more harm than good, or at least may perpetuate already existing harms, Coaston asks:

How much is this white people talking around black people? Because, it seems to be that part of this is—with the implication that the people generally making some of these arguments, who have absorbed, how you termed it, ‘woke’ arguments—are white people who believe that they’re doing this, in a sense, to benefit black people, but without having conversed with black people in the first place. Because when you brought up the point about African Americans and taking tests, I was thinking of my own experiences. I’m a really good test taker, it’s one of my few skills. But it’s interesting to see—how much of this, in your view, is white people talking to other white people about black people without talking to black people?

McWhorter responds (note that I’ve omitted parts):

Oh, quite a lot [chuckles] … about four out of five things I write about that are taken as me being different [i.e., not representative of the way black people think] are things where… most black people that I know would get what I meant. … A lot of what white people think is the proper black point of view—especially the white people that you and I know—is a highly educated perspective that it’s easy to think is default if you live in the college-town-slash-media atmosphere. But once you get away from that—i.e., once you get into the real world—no. And so, I can be at a family get-together and talk about something that I think, and maybe one person will disagree but they won’t think of me as the Devil, and a lot of people say, “yeah, yeah, that’s right,” and that will include this business about Stuyvesant* and admissions.

{*Stuyvesant is an elite New York City public high school, admission to which is determined by a standardized test called the SHSAT. Of the eight ‘specialized’ high schools that use that test, Stuyvesant requires the highest score by far. Think of it as LaGuardia, but instead of a singing audition, you’re tested on math and verbal skills. The SHSAT schools, and the test itself, are often criticized due to the schools’ lack of racial diversity. For example, Stuyvesant, for its 2017–2018 enrollment, had only 24 black students, but 2,466 Asian students and 617 white students:

AMERICAN INDIAN OR ALASKA NATIVE: 13 students (accounting for 0% of student body)
WHITE: 617 (19%)


My job requires me to be informed on this topic, so I have a lot to say about it. I just wrote several hundred words doing so, but decided to save those thoughts for another day.}

As always, I recommend listening to the whole discussion. I’ll resist the temptation to opine on the above excerpts and likewise for dipping deep into the banks of my podcast obsession to produce a long list of conversations surrounding many of the same topics as those touched on by Coaston and McWhorter, where similar or contrary conclusions are reached. I read and listen and watch and ponder and read and listen and watch and ponder some more. I’m sure it’s not enough to understand anything about the world. But it feels necessary. At the very least, it keeps me confused.]

To close this section, I’ll again note that my worry is not about whether the core of standpoint epistemology is correct, but about what we are to do with that core. How we answer the questions I’ve raised here matters a lot: how we distribute epistemic privilege, such that our credences are formed as a function of that distribution, will inform policy, resource allocation, our systems of social capital, and on and on. I can’t imagine this working without going to the source of experience as our primary mode of input: the individual.

Another way to put this is that I favor privileging the perspective of individuals when it comes to understanding the perspectives of those individuals, while simultaneously advocating for an ethos of viewpoint and cognitive diversity when upscaling those perspectives into a whole-world picture. To use the Author’s example, our most complete picture of the world is one in which not only the factory and offices are featured, but also their dynamical relationship, wherever there is one.

This can only work if all involved agree with the principles that underlie the system of epistemic distribution—that is, they must agree with the basic principles of standpoint epistemology in order for that system of thought to be productive.

For example, some folks might say the worries I’ve expressed about the Author’s thought experiment might in themselves constitute or imply an argument against standpoint epistemology, despite my claims of supporting the idea (I can’t stop people from thinking this). However, suppose the thought experiment is meant, at least in part, to persuade folks (perhaps empiricists in particular) of the truth of standpoint epistemology. To accomplish this, anyone contemplating the thought experiment must evaluate it to be a more or less correct picture of the world, and must do so before having come around to standpoint epistemology. This may be especially difficult for someone in the dominant groups in which standpoint epistemology calls (rightly) for a reduction of epistemic privilege, so that we may enjoy a more reasonable, just, fair, equitable, pick your adjective, distribution in that regard.

In other words, motivating the standpoint theoretic project—insomuch as it wishes to be a largely peaceful one that doesn’t just oxymoronically create a new dominant class to replace the old ones—may require epistemic powers of a sort one might think particularly lacking among those most in need of convincing: members of the dominant class. Including members of that class who are empiricists.

Such folks might say, for instance, that they agree you’d have to learn about the offices from the office workers, but that the office workers are also the ones to ask about the factory, at least when it comes to important things, due to the office workers having greater access to relevant information (particularly those in elevated positions: the maze-dwellers my know their experience best, but this says nothing about the maze itself). Some empiricists from the factory floor might say the same about learning about what really matters with regards to the offices (i.e., their trickle-down mechanisms of oppression and dominance).*

In other words, some might argue, empiricists included, that one of those groups should be given epistemic privilege in relation to the entire world made up of factory workers and office workers.

[*I’ve been assuming that a hierarchical class structure separates the factory and the offices. This not only matches how the Author intends the example, but also obviously aligns with the usual understanding of the aims of standpoint epistemology, which, again, has its roots in a Marxian context. There are alternate realities in which all workers coexist in, for example, a cooperative in which social disparity is universally shunned.]

My own view is that, whatever the best metaphor, collaboration between all involved is critical. From quarks to universes and everything in between, not to mention the ethereal content of minds and souls (wherever that may exist), nobody sees it all at once. But collaboration will be inherently fraught in a world in which the primary goal is to achieve dominance rather than equity.

And so, after all this, here’s what I can say. Individual experiences should be privileged for gaining certain kinds of knowledge about that individual and their environment. If a group can somehow be robustly formed in such a way that such experiences, as some kind of average, become a salient feature of that group, then there must be some way to extend this principle to the group. The many challenges of that project account for both my support and worries about standpoint epistemology. Vague, but there you have it.

This returns me to a final worry about standpoint epistemology (as expressed in the above ‘Latinx’ example): which members of a group one chooses to privilege will be the one saying the things that align with one’s existing moral intuitions. Or put it this way. The decision to abide by the principles of standpoint epistemology, and how to go about that abiding, is a personal matter involving one’s own moral beliefs and intuitions. (This encourages a detour into the territory of moral testimony, but I won’t go there.)

I’m also reminded of the worry that thought experiments only convince the already convinced. Unless, that is, they aren’t meant to convince, but rather to start a conversation—one that includes the question of whether the thought experiment is in fact the right starting place. This in mind, I’ll wrap this post up with some closing thoughts.

5. Closing Thoughts on Thought Experiments: Charitableness, Why I Prefer Them to Literature in This Context, Sub-Digression on Abortion

Above, I shared two thought experiments that may be reasonably responded to with counter thought experiments. The factory-offices example, for instance, might be persuasively countered by someone saying, ‘That’s all fine and well if the world is structured that way, but maybe it’s more like a maze.’ But such moves are only worrisome insomuch as we need our thought experiments to be self-sustaining or self-justifying.

I think this asks too much of thought experiments, which are, I believe, best seen as conversation starters (or perhaps as ‘intuition pumps,’ to use Dennett’s term, lengthily expounded on in his 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking). Full consideration of a thought experiment may very well include investigating the strength of its analogical correspondence to the real world.

Don’t confuse this with uncharitably refusing to engage a thought experiment. See again the Author’s disdain for the silliness of asking what people eat in the factory-offices world. In the Mary case, one might refuse this way: ‘You’re going to tell me she’s never seen her own blood? A paper cut? Bloodshot eyes?’ The terms of the experiment are that she’s never seen red; if the given scenario doesn’t work for you, have the philosophical courage to make one that does (e.g., posit Mary as highly color blind). But by refusing those terms you dodge the question!

If a thought experiment is to be interrogated properly, it must be done with appropriate treatment of its terms. Dennett’s counter-experiment accepts the terms of Jackson’s thought experiment while suggesting that its ending begs the question. Someone might say the same of the Author’s factory-offices example, which may be no more compatible with empiricism than is the maze example, while each example has different implications for standpoint epistemology. In either case, support for a given experiment requires a (deep) dive into the ideas that ground the experiment and into the relevant literature—which, in the factory-offices case, may include history, political science, political philosophy, sociology, various sub-fields of critical theory, psychology, literature, legal theory, statistics, medicine, and on and on, not to mention personal experience and self-reflection.

A cynical view of thought experiments is that they exist to (intentionally or accidentally) mislead people who haven’t (yet) done such heavy lifting towards a certain viewpoint, and, more importantly, to discourage them from thinking too deeply about the Actual World as they focus on facile and oversimplified, but appealing, fantasies. Maybe some folks use thought experiments in this way, but, in my experience, they usually don’t—not even accidentally.*

[*Or maybe they do, and we all do, and none of us realizes it, because that’s just how powerfully and seamlessly misled we are; in which case the entire project of trying to understand ourselves and the world we interact in is doomed. But this thought doesn’t end the discussion so much as it re-centers it as one about degrees of being misled (where we aim for being less rather than more so, subtly rather than brazenly so, sincerely rather than disingenuously so, interestingly rather than unproductively so, etc.)—instead of attempting to avoid that state altogether. That’s probably for the best.]

For instance, in my college ethics courses, including a graduate seminar on moral epistemology, thought experiments, even when apparently meant by their author to clinch a win for their argument, were often used by our professors to coax out our deepest intuitions so that they may be vigorously exercised. Which is to say that thought experiments, some of them quite farfetched, served as the start of most or all of our discussions. Except maybe that one week when we discussed the value of thought experiments, particularly in comparison to literature and other media, like photos.

(I assume it’d be question-begging to use a thought experiment about thought experiments to argue in favor of thought experiments. Even worse would be to use such a thought experiment to argue against thought experiments. I’m reminded here of my idea of crafting a Ted Talk on how the Ted Talk format doesn’t permit persuasive arguments. If it’s persuasive it succeeds, and so it fails, and so it succeeds, and so it fails, and…)

This in mind, the value of (say) the trolley problem might not be what it tells us about what unwavering rules to adopt, but rather to force us to ask questions like, ‘Who’s on the tracks? The next Hitler? Someone close to perfecting the ultimate muffin mix?’; and to debate the degrees of real-world correspondence that can be captured by trolly problems—which seem, by the way, to exercise some of the same intuitions as those involving emergency protocols in self-driving cars.

Thought experiments are also useful for getting a better sense of how our interlocutors understand the world. Suppose we share the exact same goals for society, but our differing conceptions of the world lead us to support opposing policies for achieving our shared goals (assuming the goals aren’t too broad*: the broadness of ‘to end human suffering’ is the stuff of sci-fi nightmares and enraptured eschatological daydreams). Making an effort to understand how each other views the world may go a long way in our mutually understanding why each of us endorses the policies we endorse. Thought experiments provide a tidy way to not only learn about how one another sees world, but are also open-ended and detail-sparse enough to invite revision (e.g., I see ‘factory-offices,’ you see ‘maze’). Sadly, a popular alternative to this is for each of us to simply assume the other is lying about their goals.

[*It’s easy for two people to share the same conclusions for deeply opposed reasons. Two people might oppose the death penalty, one because they think it amounts to murder, but the other because they think those prisoners could be put to work. Or, to cite an example from recent news (though I won’t name names): A certain well-known, anti-capitalist, leftist climate change activist has vocally opposed the same carbon tax plans opposed by certain big-named, wealthy, conservative capitalists, but for ideologically opposed reasons.]

Thought experiments may also force us to bring into focus or come to more concrete terms with how we ourselves see the world. One of my worries about fiction is precisely the illusion that it captures the real world, even when it captures anything but. That is, novels and movies and plays and so on supply too many details to provide a sufficiently open-ended starting place for discussion; this makes them powerful propaganda for bad or good ideas. I’m speaking in generalities. Maybe some writers manage to avoid this (at what cost or gain?). But it strikes me as being more likely true of well-developed fiction, or at least harder to guard against, than it is of thought experiments, which are by nature flexible and open-ended.

This doesn’t just apply to fiction. Any media conceived of as capturing the real world can be misleading precisely due to that misconception: photos mislead not only when doctored, but because of their aptitude for authoritatively capturing instants and angles and frames that misrepresent the event under scrutiny; same goes for video (a medium that not only captures a view from a certain perspective, has that also has a physical and temporal frame, and that may be edited) and for other forms of ‘documentation.’ To be sure, these can be invaluable and have stirred change (as with the photos that helped ignite calls for child labor laws in the U.S., and when security camera footage exonerates the presumed guilty), but also misleading. The point, as always, is to handle with care.

Compared to longer forms, thought experiments allow for working through a greater number of scenarios, a process that, if it doesn’t exactly prepare us for any particular real-world situation, gives us practice with exhaustively surveying situations for their hidden variables, their surprises, their apparent internal contradictions. Though this must be done, of course, while registering the real-world gravity that thought experiments lack; one hopes that practice with thought experiments makes it easier to avoid being weighed down by that gravity, while simultaneously being appropriately sensitive to it (insomuch as this can be accomplished from the armchair).

My favorite thought experiments are ones that reveal our world to be harder to understand than I initially thought. Another way to put this is that they recalibrate my epistemic sensors, moving the needle to ‘Appropriately Confused.’ This need not amount to inaction: I can be confused by social group ontology while being committed to ending social-group-based discrimination. The thought experiment, rather, is a way to prepare oneself for the harder cases, the nuances. I often put this as: policies exist in order to free us up to think about the situations to which our policies don’t obviously apply. We can indulge outlandish thought experiments while accepting adequate policies—this might even help us focus and sharpen our intuitions so that we may improve the policies we have, or at least to recognize the places at which arbitrary lines have been drawn within those policies, so we better recognize when those lines are unimportant.

Talk of policy reminds me of how models designed in one context may fail in other, similar-appearing, contexts. For an interesting discussion of this, see this fascinating episode of the Flash Forward podcast: “CRIME: Can You Sue An Algorithm?” (8/27/2019).

Thought experiments are a kind of model for running one’s intuition through a simulation, and to do it productively would seem to require multiple thought experiments, perhaps opposing ones. If the appropriate state from which to emerge from this process is one of confusion, so be it. I’m reminded of the game in which I say we can’t judge a book by its cover and you respond that a picture’s worth a thousand words.

And so, I remain committed to thought experiments as a great way to stoke, challenge, explore intuitions. I spend a lot of time devising and contemplating them. And I’ve enjoyed every episode of the new Dilemma podcast, which is essentially a chain of such explorations chained together into a podcast.*

[*Here’s a topic for them. As an emphatic pro-choicer, I’m not sure how to deal with this simple scenario: Someone is pregnant with twins. Assume it possible to abort just one fetus at any stage of the pregnancy. Is this procedure precisely as morally permissible in all the same scenarios in which it is permissible in a singleton pregnancy?


The discussion should perhaps start with consideration of selective reduction, in which the number of fetuses in a multifetal pregnancy is reduced to no smaller than one. Why doesn’t this practice receive more mention from anti-abortionists? (I won’t characterize anti-abortionists as ‘pro-life,’ just as I won’t characterize pro-choicers as ‘pro-abortion.’)

For starters, it seems to be more common among people who likely required technological and medical assistance in order to get pregnant, and so might not have become pregnant otherwise; that is, it’s a net gain for life creation. It also seems significant that such assistance is often required in older people who might be especially vulnerable to the hardships of pregnancy, the threats of which are increased both for the pregnant and all fetuses involved in a multifetal pregnancy. This framework may obscure the procedure within a greater technical and medical, rather than ethical, air; I’d say this is especially true as the women in question are usually older, and less impressionable or less viewed as ‘youngsters in need of or open to moral guidance/correction.’

Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, it’s a relatively rare and understudied phenomenon, which suggests that it’s uncommon among those wishing to go from twins to a single fetus (rather than, say, from triplets to twins). (Note use here of “wishing” rather than “medically required” here; as will become apparent, my pro-choice stance on abortion has nothing to do with whether it is ever medically required—I view that consideration as largely irrelevant to the broader and more critical question of ‘the right to choose.’)

I imagine if selective reduction—particular in its twin-to-singleton form—became common practice, we’d hear more about it from anti-abortionists.

As for why the pro-choicers—emphasizing ‘choice‘—might find the topic difficult, it has built into it that the person choosing the procedure is interested in producing offspring and is in a position to do so. This might also help account for why the public discussions I’ve come across on this topic have been squarely framed within questions about medical concerns. This, too, turns out to be prickly moral territory, however. Such discussions, for example, often center on increased risk for intellectual disabilities, something many are vehemently opposed to as grounds for abortion. See, for example, the way the discussion about selective discussion is framed in this Telegraph article (that explicitly states that it’s not meant to refer to singleton pregnancies): “Abortion Risk Warning to Women Pregnant with Twins” (9/28/11).

Mention of the practice of screening for cognitive disabilities raises yet more questions, far more than I can invoke here—for example, what difference there could possibly be in DNA screening for IVF treatment, including probabilities related to cognitive faculties, and learning about the accomplishments and educational history of a mate or sperm donor (a commonplace television show trope). For a discussion of DNA screenings in this context, though there is no mention of doing the same when choosing a mate or sperm donor, see this Radiolab episode: “G: Unnatural Selection” (7/25/2019). It’s part of a nicely produced six-part series on IQ. I recommend the whole thing, but particularly enjoyed the first two episodes, in which they explore the events leading to, and the unjust and often infuriating consequences of, a law passed in the 1970s making it illegal in California to give IQ tests to black children.

There are also instances that go in the other direction: choosing in favor of disability. Back in 2014, I published a post about a deaf lesbian couple that decided “they’d like to have a deaf baby, and manage[d] to do so—twice, in fact—by enlisting a sperm donor with five generations of congenital deafness”: “Designer Babies: Reproduction Rights and (So-Called) Disability.”

This returns me to the idea that the root of my pro-choice sentiments is, well, the right to choose whether or not to gestate a fetus: reasons for declining to gestate need not be remotely medical. I maintain this position despite it being easy to produce reasons that would make most progressive pro-choicers uncomfortable or apoplectic (e.g., to go on a cruise; the fetus isn’t the right gender; the sperm donor, it is learned, is of a race the pregnant person considers inferior); in particular, I’ve seen self-declared radical pro-choicers realize they aren’t as radical as they thought once confronted with thought experiments in which such reasons, or non-reasons, are posited at the moment just before the fetus enters the birth canal*. Not to mention when such reasons are produced in conjunction with arguments in favor of after-birth abortion: e.g., if the right to choose is in effect right up to the moment before the fetus enters the birth canal, then it’s arbitrary to say that moving the fetus a small distance from that region of space, and switching to the term ‘infant,’ suddenly revokes the right to choose (in fact, the safest way to perform such an abortion might be to first go through with the birth).

[*I heard in college that this is the ‘radical feminist’ position on abortion, but I don’t know of anyone who endorses it without qualification. Sometimes in philosophy, one encounters made-up extremists, introduced with varying degrees of acknowledgement that the entity is a pedagogical phantom, invented as a starting place for student discussion or, worse, to provide a philosopher’s otherwise obvious argument with an apparent reason to exist (it’s not uncommon to hear philosophy students asking, ‘Ok, but who are these people this philosopher keeps saying are wrong?’).  Maybe this is one of those instances.]

While I think being exposed to such arguments—along with the usual questions, such as about how to define ‘viability’—is useful for getting us to realize that these debates are fueled by a variety of often unconsidered, unexplored, and under-developed intuitions, so that we might want to be more sympathetic to those who don’t happen to draw their lines in the same places we do, I’m also inclined agree with with those who’d call introducing these extreme examples a distraction, particularly at a time when abortion rights are under serious threat. I’m very tempted to agree, but in the end I disagree.

My problem with willfully unsubtle arguments is that they are unconvincing and counterproductive, because they not only ignore real-world complications that many people find important, but because the disingenuousness with which they are delivered is often obvious. Among other things, this makes it difficult for people on opposing sides of these debates to find their common ground, which in many cases is large (frustratingly so, given how easily overlooked it is).

I can’t stress enough here that my concern is not principally with making anti-abortionists seem like backwards and insincere moral deviants—but rather with securing the right to choose for those among us who can get pregnant. I happen to believe that, in the short and long run, the best arguments are genuine and subtle enough to take on whatever the opponents have to offer (though I do draw the line at engaging brazenly bad-faith actors who just make everyone involved look bad).

This may even be true of those examples as outrageous as that of after-birth abortion. (accessed 11/19/19) points out that the idea of Lefties debating after-birth abortion is a fabrication meant to stir controversy, following a radical academic article published in 2012 by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva: “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” I’m certain it is a fabrication. I’ve only discussed these topics with one person (a white cis woman, if it matters) who supported the right to choose ‘right up to the due date for any reason at all,’ and that person then clarified that if it were on (or near) the day the infant is due, then birth should be followed through (or induced) and the infant should be made available for adoption. Notice that this breaks down to the fine, but important, distinction between the ‘right to choose to terminate the pregnancy,’ which may or may not include the right to terminate the life of the fetus or infant (see again the notion of viability, which is central to legal questions about abortion, as discussed in this Wikipedia article: “Late Termination of Pregnancy” [accessed 11/19/19]).

But proponents for after-birth abortion, in the sense of terminating the life of the infant, might not be as rare as we’d assume or hope, particularly among utilitarian bio-ethicists, though the opinions I’ve encountered have not applied to unrestricted choice, but instead to scenarios involving newborns with severe disabilities. (As such, this strongly works against any narrative positing pro-choicers as extending the right to choose to after birth.) In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Peter Singer makes a case for this: “Peter Singer on Life and Death Decision-Making” (4/29/2012). Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend listening to the entire episode to get a better sense of where Singer—a famously sincere, practice-what-he-preaches philosopher—is coming from (notice that this excerpt ends with a thought experiment):

Nigel Warburton: Some people believe that if a fetus is shown to be severely disabled, that is sufficient justification for terminating that potential child’s life? Would you agree with that?

Peter Singer: Yes I do. Sufficient justification, assuming that is what the couple, or perhaps the pregnant woman, feel that they want to do. But I do think that they should be able to make that decision.

NW: And if they make that decision, some disability groups feel that is a decision that somehow makes them lesser people in the world, because society is prepared to tolerate the termination of people with this particular disability.

PS: Well, what society is prepared to tolerate is the termination of a pregnancy of a fetus that will develop into a child that will have this particular disability. So I think it’s important that the termination of the pregnancy—or even, since we were talking about euthanasia, ending the life of the newborn infant—that that is not a person who is capable of expressing a view on it yet. It’s a decision to end a life before it’s fully begun.

And I can understand that some disability groups do feel that in some way this is a judgment that their lives are less worth living than those of others. But after all, that judgement is not one that we can fully avoid. It’s as if somebody said, “Suppose that you’re hit by a car as you leave the building now and you break both legs. So you go to the hospital and you say”—you probably wouldn’t have to say it, it would be assumed, right?—”can you please repair my legs so I can walk again?” Now you imagine somebody who’s in a wheelchair and has a condition that they’ll never be able to walk again saying, “Hey, you just made a judgement that my life is less worth living than yours, because you don’t want to be in a wheelchair the rest of your life.” I think I’d have to say, “Yes, that is a judgment I make. It’s not that I don’t think that you should go on living, of course; it’s not that I don’t want to give you equal respect; it’s not that I don’t want the state to put resources into making your life as good as it possibly can be; but I do think, other things being equal, it’s better to be able to walk and not to be in a wheelchair.”

Given the public nature of this discussion among two relatively well-publicized philosophers, maybe pro-choicers need to at least be prepared to seriously respond to anti-abortionists who raise good-faith concerns about such radical views. At the very least, we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist, at least in some form.

I admit that, as a hopelessly philosophically minded person, I think an honest pursuit of confusion is a good in itself—amounts to something like a principle of falsifiability for everyday human existence. But I also do want the (current) Left to win, and I recognize that few of us are willing to pursue confusion and will use any sign of it to win an argument. When only one side values confusion, that side risks losing against the side that makes claims to clarity, however sincere or insincere. Still, for reasons I’ve already mentioned, I think a willfulness towards subtlety is the least of the discursive and political virtues to which we can aspire.

That in mind, I’ll emphasize that the awkward or infuriating reasons (see above) someone might choose to have an abortion should have absolutely no bearing on the right of others to choose. In other words, the reasons for the choice don’t matter, strictly speaking. But I must concede that my intuitions grow prickly as the pregnancy develops. I support termination of the pregnancy at any point, include the day before the due date, in the sense of ending the pregnancy—which, again, may mean inducing labor a day earlier (note, again, that this doesn’t mean terminating the life of the infant). I support this on moral grounds, at least: we cannot force a person to remain pregnant; there may be practical limitations to fulfilling the person’s wishes, however.

And I support the right of a pregnant person to terminate the pregnancy by any means necessary a day before the due date if there is a medical emergency that threatens the pregnant person’s life, though I don’t think this should be allowed for just any personal reasons, which may range from ‘I’ve decided to wait another year to have a child’ to, more horrifyingly, ‘I’ve learned my sperm donor’s grandfather is of a race I hate’ (we might worry about the child being raised by such a person, but that’s another matter).

I seriously doubt such personal requests would happen much, if ever, on the day before giving birth, but if pro-choicers are against such a thing, it might go a long way towards reassuring anti-abortionists that their most feared slipper slopes are not on the progressive horizon—that, just like them, many pro-choicers view such scenarios as obviously wrong. (Maybe more challenging thought experiments suggest themselves here, however: Replace learning about the sperm donor’s background with learning that the child’s actual father is the rapist, not the partner, where the rape was incestuous.)

Now for a final look at the point of this digression: Does or should our intuitions (as pro-choicers or anti-abortionists) about singleton-pregancy abortions align with our intuitions about aborting a single twin?

Now that I’ve given it more thought, I don’t think my intuitions are any different in the twin case. I’m just as pro-choice in both cases. In fact, I wonder now if it’s even an interesting question. Again, what it comes down to for me is that we cannot force a human to gestate any given fetus. (Notice the distinction between this and an argument having to do with what one does with one’s ‘own body’: I dislike metaphors that involve owning a body, as it brings to mind the idea that bodies can be owned; furthermore, it’s metaphysically fraught: what entity is doing the owning?).

This explains my differing intuitions about an abortion well after viability, in particular just before the infant enters the birth canal: the gestation is clearly finished. From there, it’s a question about where to draw lines, something that is as difficult for me to do as it is for most people. But I am sure of the general rule that it is morally impermissible to force a person to gestate a fetus against that person’s will. Actually, ‘gestate’ might be too narrow. Replace that with ‘to carry in their body.’ I firmly maintain this to be true even if the fetus is developed to the point of clearly being a person.

For a famous thought experiment exploring this perspective, see Judith Jarvis Thomson’s influential paper “A Defense of Abortion” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1971), in which you’re asked to imagine yourself waking up physically attached to, and serving as life-support for, an unconscious famous (don’t forget famous!) violinist. To adjust it to a multi-fetal situation, throw in a famous conductor, I guess.

End of Sub-Digression]

Perhaps the final lesson here is simply that some thought experiments are more appropriate than others for starting productive conversations. In other words: we should only use good thought experiments and should only use them in the right way, and let’s hope we can tell when they’re good and when we’re using them in the right way. Likewise goes for literature, photographs, probability models, roadmaps, or whatever tools we’re using to make the world more intelligible to human minds.

I’ll close with two thought experiments.

(1) You suddenly find yourself 10, 20, 30, 100, or 300 years in the past. You recognize yourself to be within the legacy of your own culture (though at some point it will clearly be another culture entirely), while you are also confronted with pressure from the groups whose socio-political identities you most identify with to express very different—often perfectly opposed—moral beliefs than those you hold right now. I’ll resist the temptation to list examples, and will instead as you to do that as part of the experiment.

Would you maintain your moral beliefs and, just as importantly, would you continue to behave precisely as (in)consistently with them as you do today? This might mean aligning yourself with groups you don’t identify with today. Or, rather, would you try to adjust your beliefs and behaviors in order to align yourself with the same groups with which you’re currently aligned? If you don’t go back very far, you might find your past self as a member of the opposition.

Now run the same experiment going 10, 20, 30, 100, or 300 years into the future. Interestingly, you can sort of run this experiment, if you live long enough. You can reflect on how your beliefs have or haven’t changed. More interestingly: In 20 years, do you believe you’ll hold the same moral beliefs you hold today? If expect not, it likely means you think you must be getting something wrong now. If so, what?

Is there a significant difference between, on the one hand, suddenly finding yourself 20 years hence and being expected to reverse many of your beliefs (which would surely be the case), and, on the other hand, gradually changing your beliefs over 20 years?

Let me be clear about something. The sort of thing you might be expected to change your beliefs about would, in some important instances, entail accepting that the moral beliefs you held in 2019 were the wrong moral beliefs to hold in 2019, given the understanding that people had about the facts on the ground in 2019. In other words, it will require saying, ‘I should have known better in 2019,’ or even, ‘I did know better in 2019, but still behaved as though I believed what nearly everyone among my socio-political peers not on claimed to believe, but loudly declared to be an absolute, clear necessity for any moral, right-thinking person to believe.’

So, I’m not talking about things like changes in what words are preferred for referring to certain social groups (e.g., due to an earlier term having accumulated too many negative connotations), or, especially, attitudes that may seem to have changed but actually haven’t. Here, I will give an example. In 2000, when Gloria Steinem married David Bale (yes, father of Christian Bale, and in the same year the movie American Psycho was released, after Steinem had protested the film’s production on grounds of misogyny, and, apparently, after she had urged Leonardo DiCaprio not to take the role on those grounds, making it possible for director Mary Herron to cast her first choice, Christian Bale, Steinam’s soon-to-be step son… more on that later, maybe)… Steinem, some apparently felt, had some explaining to do after getting married. I’ll here quote David Bale’s Wikipedia entry (accessed 11/19/19):

Steinem had in the past been critical of the institution of marriage, saying that “marriage was the model for slavery law in this country”1. “She said of her change in attitude toward marriage, ‘I didn’t change. Marriage changed. We spent 30 years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true any more. It’s possible to make an equal marriage”2.

That’s an example of what not to do, though discovery of such illuminating artifacts is among the hoped-for outcomes of the experiment. (Again, I’ll resist the very strong temptation to fill in details that do satisfy the conditions of the thought experiment. Thinking about what those details might be part of the exercise.)

Another way to run this experiment is to read through magazine and newspaper archives from 10, 20, 30… years ago. Maybe pay particular attention to what people you now view as political heroes and villains are saying, and notice when, in the current climate, the former sounds obviously wrong and the latter obviously correct. (For this one, I’m really fighting myself not to start listing examples, particularly as seen from my own Leftist perspective.)

(2) This one deals in moral testimony and is at least in the ballpark of standpoint epistemology. It’s from a paper by Karen Jones called “Second-Hand Moral Knowledge” (The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 2 [Feb., 1999], pp. 55–78). This is a lengthy excerpt, but I fear my attempts to summarize it wouldn’t do it justice. I recommend reading the whole article in order to get the full benefits of the discussion.

Peter had lived in a fourteen-person cooperative house for two years and was deeply committed to the ideal of cooperative living. His first year there, he had felt uneasy about the cooperative’s membership decisions, but the second year he found them intolerable. Membership decisions were made on the basis of quite lengthy interviews, and decisions to accept someone had to be unanimous. Any member could exercise a veto over a potential member for any reason, though in practice such vetoes were rarely necessary, as support for a potential member who might have incurred a veto generally evaporated. Peter came to believe that the threat of veto was making membership decisions arbitrary and unjust. White women and women of color had advocated rejecting three white men on the basis of their perceived sexism, and, in one case, racism.Peter had a settled and serious commitment to the elimination of racism and sexism, but he was not very good at pickingout instances of sexism and racism. Thus, his commitment often remained theoretical and he saw fewer occasions as calling for antisexist or antiracist response than he might have seen. Such blindness can sometimes indicate insincerity, but in Peter’s case it did not. He genuinely did want to understand the perspective of the women and he wanted to be able to share it, if indeed it turned out to be correct. He could pick out egregious instances of sexism and racism, and could sometimes see that “sexist” or “racist” applied to more subtle instances when the reason for their application was explained to him, but he seemed bad at working out how to go on to apply the words to nonegregious new cases. Problems arose for Peter when he could not grasp the reasons why the women were calling someone sexist, when he either could not see, or could not see as evidence, the considerations that the women thought supported viewing the would-be members as sexist. Discussion tended to trail off: 

“No, it wasn’t anything he said, it was the way he looked at me when I asked him a question.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, it wasn’t that he didn’t look at me and he didn’t stare at my breasts, it was just a way of looking a way of not quite being present as he answered me.”

“What way? I do not understand what way you mean.”

“Well, it was just a feeling I got. A feeling that he didn’t think tne important.”

“But you can’t reject someone for a feeling.”

“I’m not, I’m rejecting him because he’s sexist.” 

Peter decided to leave the co-op. His reason for leaving was that, as a member, he felt he had to be able to endorse the decisions that the group was making—they had to be decisions that were “his” in the sense that he could identify with them, even if they were the result of compromise and negotiation.

The women in the house wanted to say, and did say: “Look, just trust us, we know about this.” But to Peter, such trusting was an abdication of moral responsibility. Even worse, from Peter’s point of view, the decisions about which men to accept were arbitrary and discriminated against the men rejected. Nor could such discrimination be justified on the basis of some goal it might achieve; it was not, for instance, a matter of increasing the presence of women and people of color in the co-op. It was, from his point of view, prejudice, pure and simple.

I think that in this case Peter should have been willing to accept the women’s testimony that these men were sexist. But for him to have done so would have been to accept and act upon a moral judgment on someone else’s say-so. It would have been to borrow moral knowledge.

It’s also worth sharing Jones’s comments here on standpoint theory, which, again, her thought experiment is not necessarily meant to endorse (keep in mind that this is 1999; also, I’ve omitted footnotes, including one that lists recommended readings on standpoint theory):

One way to find out about the value of respect is to ask those who have always been respected; a better way is to ask those who have struggled to win respect and tried to live without it. Saying that such political experience can contribute to moral knowledge commits us to nothing stronger than the view that one’s knowledge about moral matters, like one’s knowledge about other matters, can deepen with experience. In particular, the suggestion that, for example, women actively engaged in feminist movement, might have acquired some expertise about the kind of disvalue sexism is, and the often subtle forms it can take, not require us to defend a notion of epistemic privilege of the kind fended by standpoint theorists. It is enough if, through social or choice, individuals come to have richer experiences with types of moral problems. We need not follow standpoint theorists suppose in addition that the marginalized are always, or even generally, in the best position to understand the truth about social relations. (pp 65–66)

If you decide to engage Jones’s experiment, I’d be interested to know how you’d deal with: What range of cases does the experiment tell us about? What happens in the same scenario, but half the women disagree? What about when Peter is a woman? What lesson are we meant to draw about the extent to which we should borrow moral belief when it conflicts with our actual moral beliefs? What if the conflict is so powerful that it feels like an explicit moral betrayal? That’s a big ask. Note the importance of his insensitivity. What if Peter thought himself sensitive? What if he usually is sensitive? What if the women were telling Peter that Donald Trump is the best president for real feminists (as I  have heard some women say; a lot of women voted for him, after all). What to do when you might weight one woman’s opinion more than that of others?*

Linger a moment on that last question.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the films of Pedro Almodovar were considered by all my female friends to empower women. But then I found myself with a girlfriend who found his films horrifyingly misogynistic and was shocked and disappointed that I’d entertained the possibility of us watching them together (and not just Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!; she hadn’t seen that one). She declared misogynistic any woman who’d like Almodóvar’s films.

From whom am I to borrow moral knowledge here? That, I must emphasize, is a meta-question that can only be answered by my existing moral knowledge (lest we decide that I should borrow moral knowledge about which moral knowledge I should borrow). And should I be held accountable for having borrowed the wrong moral knowledge in 1999, or, alternative, for having replaced that knowledge with a newly borrowed set of contrasting moral propositions in 2009? Even if this is all correctly done according to the idea that I’m in no position to develop my own trustworthy moral sentiments about these things? Et cetera.

Or consider these comments by Tessa Hadley on the New Yorker: Fiction podcast, in reference to John Updike’s 1996 short story, “New York Girl”:

I chose this story deliberately to (sort of) test myself and push myself with this thing, where I have heard much criticism—I’ve heard people say he hates women. And everything in me doesn’t recognize that, doesn’t see that. But I chose one deliberately where, on the one hand, I think this is a story about the love of women, but I can read it with another bit in my head and imagine somebody else finding it deeply offensive. So it should be really interesting to talk about for that reason. (From “Tessa Hadley Reads John Updike” [9/3/18].)

Hadley then proceeds to read some of the most beautifully assembled English I’ve ever heard. Then Hadley and show-host (and New Yorker fiction editor) Deborah Treisman do talk about it and it is really interesting. I’m naturally inclined to weight Hadley’s opinion more than that of the many women who disagree with her. After all, I’m a middle-aged guy who is thankful for any permission I can get for guilt-free enjoyment of Updike’s beautiful words—and, let’s face it, for those moments when I discover myself recognizing his point of view.

Though I should point out that I have yet to get through an Updike novel (I’ve been a few chapters into the first Rabbit book for decades). Perhaps I’ll come to agree with Hadley when she says, “I’m a huge fan, I love his short stories. I think I love his short stories just a bit better than I love his novels, actually. Some of them I have been fascinated by, but there’s something about the concentration of the short form with him that brings out all the things he’s brilliant at.”

Speaking of which, maybe before letting myself get too cozy with the collection of early Updike stories I just now so easily acquired, one-click, for my Kindle (The Early Stories: 1953–1975 [2003]), I’ll re-read the fantastic Margaret Atwood story “Stone Mattress” (you have to read it to get the wicked brilliance of this title!), which is in another collection I carry around, Atwood’s Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales (2014). That should keep my head on straight.

This isn’t to suggest that Atwood loathes Updike. I’m not sure what she thinks of him, though the reviews of hers I’ve seen of his books are mostly positive (her 1984 New York Times review of Witches of Eastwick describes the book as “a strange and marvelous organism,” and her 1997 New York Times review of Toward the End of Time calls that book “deplorably good”) and in 2017 she apparently didn’t reject the John Updike Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

I’ll turn, too, then to a younger (than I) writer, Patricia Lockwood, whose virtuosic and funny retrospective of Updike I read last October in the London Review of Books: “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.” It begins:

I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.

One woman, informed of my project, visibly retched over her quail.

I can’t justly summarize the complexity of Lockwood’s 7,086-word exploration, so won’t try. It’s meant to be a review of Library of America’s four-novel collection John Updike Novels 1959–1965. But it’s so very much more than that. Read it for yourself. With the question in mind, perhaps, of whether the beauty one might find in Updike’s prose—at any given point in his long career—survives whatever criticisms one might have about how he writes about sex and women (at any given point in his long career). Or does the latter twist that beauty into something ugly? And then there’s the question of, if you find it beautiful despite yourself, and perhaps even find yourself agreeing with Hadley, either as a man or as a women, is it your own or someone else’s moral sentiments according to which you should in fact behave?

And we all know where these discussions end up these days (i.e., How does this affect our behavior towards other artists, should we wish to be morally consistent?). I’ll resist that path’s call and instead will note that mention of Hadley calls to mind another place I might seek moral coverage for my interest in Updike’s work, and the Rabbit books in particular (if I ever get through them). This time in the form of words from Anatole Broyard, as noted in Lockwood’s Updike review:

‘Can I ask you something?’ I asked the members of my Updike Support Group one by one. ‘Do you remember Rabbit Redux? Like, at all?’ What I really meant was: ‘Am I insane?’ Had I alone been entrusted with the burden of this book’s contents? Had we forgotten, as a society, that the 1971 sequel to Rabbit, Run contains a scene of Rabbit reading The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass out loud while a black man rapes a hippy girl who, earlier, spent several pages speaking entirely in rhyme? Don’t worry: she likes it, and then dies in a fire at the end. …

Rabbit Redux was once heralded as a masterpiece and the fulfillment of his promise—most complexly by Anatole Broyard, who at the time was passing for white. (Updike’s loving and thorough biographer Adam Begley offers the following hedge: ‘His judgment is complicated by that experience but not necessarily invalidated; few critics can have devoted more thought to what it means to be black in America.’ No further questions.) Broyard reserves special praise for the characterisation of Skeeter, who ‘goes beyond the familiar anger and rhetoric into the wild humour blacks no longer seem to allow themselves’. In practical terms, this means that he spends a lot of time pumping Jill full of drugs while looking like a lizard, and masturbating evilly to slave narratives with an arm ‘long as an eel, feeding’. ‘Daring to make a black man not just a villain but a would-be Antichrist; daring to stage the rape of a white girl by a black man; or simply daring to dip into a black man’s point of view—in the morally strident 1960s, in the heyday of the Black Power movement, Updike was taking a risk,’ Begley writes. ‘A load of coercive self-righteousness (what today we would call political correctness),’ he adds, ‘could easily have landed on Updike had Skeeter, and the graphic descriptions of Skeeter having sex with Jill, been misconstrued.’

Whose moral intuitions shall I borrow, particularly among those competing intuitions that my own intuitions think have a point? All of them!

Examples such as those above long ago led me to the conclusion that, after millennia of human civilization amounting to a competition for the title of Oppressor, it’s asking too much of anyone to know what the right answers are for justly and equitably re-ordering our current world in short order: thus the urgent need for that urgent project to be undertaken in good faith by all involved.

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Further Reading


  1. citation: Delves Broughton, Philip (7 November 2001). “How the fish found her bicycle”The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 30 June 2008.
  2. citation: Mustafa, Zubeida (25 March 2007). “Still talking, writing and connecting”Dawn. Karachi. Archived from the original on 27 May 2012. Retrieved 30 June 2008.

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