“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.