Suitcases, Deontology, and Wishing Well to All
Hare's brilliant paper
After I published one of my more recent articles about suitcases, Richard informed me that all of the suitcase papers originate from a paper called Should We Wish Well to All? by Casper Hare. It’s been cited about 30 times, and, while I have not investigated in detail, none seem to provide rebuttals to it. Most cite it in the traditional way philosophy papers do—just to show that the author is aware that they’ve been written, but not to refute.
This is, while not unprecedented, surprising. My sense, though I could be wrong, is that nearly all philosophy papers with 30 citations will have a paper dedicated to arguing that they’re wrong. Thus, the fact that there’s no response paper called “No Silly, We Should Not Wish Well to All, We Should Actually Wish Badly to All” is surprising. One explanation though is that there just isn’t much to say in response, given how decisive the original paper is. Here, I’ll explain that paper and some other related ideas.
Wishing well to all
Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy
Not me, if you ever cared to ask
Good for you, you're doing great out there without me, baby
God, I wish that I could do that
I've lost my mind, I've spent the night crying on the floor of my bathroom
But you're so unaffected, I really don't get it
But I guess good for you
Well, good for you, I guess you're getting everything you want (ah)
You bought a new car and your career's really taking off (ah)
—Olivia Rodrigo, summarizing the correct attitudes to have to all.
Casper Hare really kicked off the genre of papers arguing that reflecting on people in suitcases poses problems for deontology. The way these arguments play out is that they first imagine 6 people in suitcases, such that they have no idea whether they’re at the top of the bridge or on the bottom of the bridge. 5 are on the bottom of the bridge, 1 is atop the bridge. A train will run over the 5 unless the person atop the bridge is pushed, to stop the train.
This case is exactly like the ordinary bridge case, generally provided as a counterexample to consequentialism, in which a person atop the bridge can be pushed to stop the people on tracks from being run over, except the identities of the people are unknown. Thus, the suitcase style of arguments generally proceed by way of showing first that one should push the person off the bridge in the suitcase case, and second that our judgment shouldn’t be different between the suitcase case and the ordinary case.
Let’s first explain why you should push the person in the suitcase case. The paper gets its name from the idea that you should push the people in suitcases if you wish well to all these people. Suppose that you only care about one of the people; Fred, and you have no idea where he is. No one else matters. Well, in this case, you should want the person to be pushed—this means Fred will have a lower risk of dying, and that’s all you carry about. For any person who is in any suitcase, a person who cares about them and only them would want the person to be pushed. Thus, in this case, pushing the person is better in expectation—it reduces everyone’s risk of dying from 5/6 to 1/6.
We can make this more specific. Suppose that there are six people—Immanuel, Judith, Lily, Nathaniel, Ayn, and Jon. They’re each in suitcases; one is atop the bridge, the other five are at the bottom of the bridge. This is on the left track. A train is heading towards the people—it will run over all five at the bottom of the bridge.
On the right track, there are six suitcases, each full of sand. One is at the top of the bridge, the other five are at the bottom of the bridge. A train will run over the five suitcases full of sand at the bottom of the tracks. However, if the suitcase that was at the top of the tracks was pushed, then it would stop the five other suitcases from being run over, though it would get crushed.
However, there are six buttons. The first one is labeled ‘switch Immanuel’ the second ‘switch Judith’ the third ‘Switch Lily’ and so on. Each button will switch out the person whose name it is labeled with for a random suitcase full of sand. However, if any of the buttons are pushed, on the right track, the suitcase atop the track will fall down, and thus it will stop the train from running over and crushing the five people.
It seems clear that one should push the Switch Immanuel button. After all, this reduces Immanuel’s risk of death from 5/6 to 1/6. Really, imagine that Immanuel is your best friend, you care about him greatly. Surely you should press a button that would reduce his risk of dying from 5/6 to 1/6, something that will probably save your friend from death. Similarly, they should push the switch Judith button and the switch Lily button, and so on. But together, if all these buttons are pushed, this will cause one person to be run over by a train to stop the train from running over five.
The following principle is plausible
If one should push the first button, and the second one if they’re pushed the first, and the third if they’ve pushed the first two… they should press a single button that pushes all the buttons.
But it’s also obvious enough that the first button should be pushed. This has no effect on anyone except it reduces Immanuel’s risk of death. It’s very obvious that, like a surgeon administering a risky drug, one should risk causing someone’s death if that will reduces their net risk of death. But these together entail that one should press a single button which, in the suitcase case, move the six people to the right, and also push the one atop the bridge off the bridge.
There’s more on this in the paper, but this is relatively conclusive—one should push the people in suitcases off the bridge. To deny this, one has to deny that one should just reduce people’s risks of dying if it harms no one else. This is implausible.
Now onto part two of the argument, which demonstrates that there is a symmetry between ordinary pushing and pushing when all six are suitcase bound. In the most recent article, we saw two reasons to think that, if one should push the people in suitcases off the bridge, one should also push the actual people off the bridge: denying this makes one have strong reasons to remain ignorant and violates various plausible Pareto principles. Hare has his own reason, and it’s very clever. The basic thought is that whether one knows who is atop the bridge comes in degrees—and setting a discrete boundary is objectionably arbitrary.
To see this, the deontologist says, if the previous reasoning is correct, that one should push the person off the bridge if they don’t know who they are, but if they know that they are Ayn, then they should not. Thus, one should only push the person to save five if they don’t know who the person is. But we can think of the person atop the bridge as a specific person. We can call them Bridgie. Now, we don’t know everything about Bridgie—but we’ve made up a nickname for them. It seems clear that the deontologist would say that, just because you called them Bridgie, you still should push them, at least, if the previous piece of reasoning is correct.
But what if you gain some more information—for example, you can see their ear: should you push them then? What if you can see half of their head? What if you can see half their head and know that their name is Jimmy, but know nothing else about them? What if you only know their grandfather used to call them some yiddish phrase, but know nothing else.
Any way of identifying the significant conditions for figuring them out will just seem objectionably arbitrary. You shouldn’t push them if you just see their arms, but if you also see their legs and torso, you should? What would be the principled basis for a distinction? There just seems to have to be a totally arbitrary, unprincipled cutoff, with no further explanation, but this seems very strange. Morality shouldn’t think that whether one should be pushed off a bridge depends on the shape of their left ear, or whether you have learned the last letter of their name.
Here’s one other case that I thought about: suppose you have six identical twins. You don’t know their names, but they all look the same. None are in suitcases. Should you push them in that case? Either answer will seem strange.
First, one could say you shouldn’t. But based on the previous reasoning, you should push them if they were in suitcases, even if you know they look the same. Thus, this requires holding that, if they looked the same, then as a result of being able to see them, despite this giving you no information, it would change what you should do. But gaining no information should not change what you should do. Therefore, this route is wrong.
Second, one could say that you should push them. But this just seems to run afoul of the deontological intuitions and is also utterly bizarre. Suppose you see a person atop a bridge, and you can push them off to stop five other people from being run over. The other five are covered in darkness. However, as you walk closer, you can see they all look the same. It seems bizarre that this would make the difference between whether or not they should be pushed.
So, that’s the paper. And it really solidifies the case against deontology—it shows that, not only does the deontologist have to deny various weak Pareto principles and support ignorance, they also have to support wholly arbitrary restrictions on killing.
Now, one way to try to get around this is by just biting the bullet in the footbridge case. The deontologist may not like this solution, but maybe to maintain the organ harvesting intuitions and various other intuitions, it’s just best to give up on this one. But all the other cases can be suitcaseified (this is a technical term).
For example, suppose that there are six people in a hospital—one is healthy, and their organs can, if harvested, save the other five. No one knows who it is. There are also six mannequins on the other side of the hospital that contain organs. The people are John, Fred, Immanuel, Ayn, Nathaniel, and Jo.
The mannequins are in places 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. In one of the six places, the being in it—human or mannequin—will be cut up and its organs will be placed in the other humans or mannequins; human and mannequin organs are interchangeable.
One can press a button that would switch out John for one random mannequin, and another that will switch out Fred for a mannequin, and so on. It seems one should press each button—the Fred button reduces Fred’s risk of death from 5/6 to 1/6 and affects no one else. But together, these buttons cause one person to be chopped up to save the other five. And we can, by the same procedure described to argue for the moral parallel between ordinary pushing and pushing suitcases, argue that there’s a parallel between this and regular organ harvesting.
I don’t have a proof that this can be applied to every possible case of deontological harms, but I have the intuition that it can if we’re sufficiently creative, and once we’ve proved that one should push people off bridges and harvest organs, deontology is toast.