Although philosophers don’t often talk about this, it would appear that they assume that the interpretation of thought experiments should be subject to a convention of authoritative authorial ethical framing. In other words, the experiments are about what the author intends them to be and nothing else, much like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, who used words to mean whatever he wanted them to mean. To further spell out the implied convention, the author of the thought experiment has, by definition, specified all the ethically relevant elements of the case.
Thought-experiment designers often attempt to finesse the problem through an omniscient authorial voice that, at a glance, takes in and relates events in their essentials. The voice is able to say clearly and concisely what each of the thought experiment’s actors is able to do, their psychological states and intentions. The authorial voice will often stipulate that choices must be made from a short predefined menu, with no ability to alter the terms of the problem. For example, the reader might be presented with only two choices, as in the classic trolley problem: pull a lever, or don’t pull it.
All this makes reasoning about thought experiments strikingly unlike good ethical reasoning about real-life cases. In real life, the skill and creativity in ethical thinking about complex cases are in finding the right way of framing the problem. Imaginative ethical thinkers look beyond the small menu of obvious options to uncover novel approaches that better allow competing values to be reconciled. The more contextual knowledge and experience a thinker has, the more they have to draw on in coming to a wise decision.
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