Take the hypothetical seriously

“What if this happens?”, “What would you do in this case?”, “Imagine this happens…”, “Let’s say this happened…”, “What could have been in case this had happened?”, “Suppose you were in this situation…”. These are all examples of how we use language to describe hypothetical situations, and according to professor James Flynn, those statements are central to any moral debate, as it is practically impossible to formulate any moral argument without using such language.

Another key aspect implied in the use of those sentences, is that when they are used the listener must take the hypothetical seriously in order to understand what the speaker is trying to say, failure to do so will result in a complete misalignment between the interlocutors, and no progress is going to be achieved. Flynn’s example illustrates this perfectly, let’s look at this conversation between a morally worried person and his “racially biased” friend:

Person A: “Imagine you woke up tomorrow, and the skin of your colour changed to black, wouldn’t you feel bad being judged by other people only because of that?”
Person B: “This argument makes no sense! When was the last time you saw a person waking up the other day with a different skin colour?!”

In this case, Person B failed to take the hypothetical seriously, either by unwillingness to imagine the situation, or as Flynn argues, by sheer incapacity to do so. In this talk he explains why with each generation comes great improvement in IQ scores, and what are the skills that drive this progress. Taking the hypothetical seriously, according to his research, is only one of the factors that explain why we are becoming more intelligent, and why we are capable of having increasingly complex debates.

This strikes a really big chord with me as a libertarian, I can’t count the amount of times my arguments were met with similar responses as the one in the example above, and it is so frustrating because after all libertarianism is about imagining a better world, and criticising the current understanding about politics and morals. With time people become used to the way things work, and sometimes it is hard to imagine a different world, where things are radically different. I know all libertarians have experienced this problem to a higher or lesser degree in their conversations, and I know it is easy to just judge people as unable to understand what is evident to you, however it is not that obvious, as your ‘opponent’ might not have spent that much time thinking about the specific scenario you have so clear in your mind, and you may also fall short of imagination, so I suggest that next time when making these kinds of arguments, try to express the scenarios as clear as possible, and to persuade the listener to imagine the world of your dreams, let’s not allow the failure of imagination to stand on liberty’s way.

  7 comments for “Take the hypothetical seriously

  1. Paul Marks
    Mar 5, 2018 at 11:27 am

    These days, with the power of the Frankfurt School of Marxism and French Post Modernism (the “exploitation” and “oppression” myths) in the education system, the media, and wider society (such as Corporations – falling over themselves to be P.C. and follow “Critical Theory”) it is white people (especially white straight men) who are under societal attack. As part of the left’s effort to discredit “capitalism” and thereby destroy Western Civilisation.

    So the example should read “you are a black woman – you wake up morning and find you have turned into a white man, does this automatically make you a sexist-racist exploiter and oppressor?”

    • Bruno Nardi
      Mar 5, 2018 at 6:30 pm

      Your example makes sense as well, this kind of ‘dumbness’ affects people in all parts of the political spectrum, the only difference is that now people use post modernism to disguise the stupidity of their arguments, while in the old times people were ‘just’ racist. We should lead the conversation to show that both are equally wrong and equally morally reprehensible.

      • Paul Marks
        Mar 7, 2018 at 10:53 pm

        Agreed Bruno Nardi – agreed.

  2. Paul Marks
    Mar 5, 2018 at 11:33 am

    As for ethics – ethics (morality) depends on the existence of Free Will, the ability to make moral choices (to do other than we do). Determinism exterminated ethics – and “Compatiblism” is a lie (it pretends that incompatible things are compatible).

    On politics – it is useful to have examples that show that the policy one is suggesting would work. In strict logic examples are not necessary – if one’s reasoning contains no logical flaws, however in normal conversation (and to guard against making errors of reasoning) examples are useful.

    If one can find no examples in any part of the world, or at any point in history, of the policy one is suggesting working – that is a mark (a very severe mark) against the proposed policy.

  3. Mar 5, 2018 at 9:01 pm

    The ability to suspend reality for a brief moment, without straying too far into fantasy land is certainly important. It is also a good way to try and overcome some of the accepted dogmas of modern politics.

    It is a fine balancing act between keeping things interesting and practical. I used to get very interested by ‘politics’ in it’s purest form that is: who is in this cabinet position and so on…

    But now when trying to watch a show like Question Time I struggle to stay awake.

  4. Paul Marks
    Mar 7, 2018 at 11:02 pm

    Jordan Lee – why would anyone watch “Question Time”? I have seen these programmes enough times to know that they are both leftist propaganda (filmed before an audience that appears to be made up of lunatics). As well, as you say, being very boring.

    One does not learn things from such television shows. The last television show that even tried to teach the public about political matters was Brian Walden’s “Weekend World” (I expect this was before you time) – before the “talking heads” of the interview, half the programme was made up of actually giving the views basic information, via simple (but accurate) bar charts and pie charts and so on – actually giving people knowledge of (for example) how much government spends, and on what.

    Modern television programmes are basically like radio shows – all talk, no factual presentation. Even the pictures are too often just random dead people (if it is a war) – one learns nothing from television news or current affairs programmes.

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