When I think about challenging ethical issues, I sometimes simplify matters by using a thought experiment. I consider what decision I would make if I lived with a limited number of people on a desert island. This is similar to the “state of nature” hypothesis of philosophers like John Locke. How would we act, he suggests, without all the trappings of modern society, living in a natural setting.
How does this approach work? Let’s consider an example. I oppose capital punishment. Why? One reason is that we have convicted innocent people, and capital punishment ends the possibility of correcting the mistake. Well, you may reply, what if the convicted person is guilty for sure? I’m still opposed. Why? I think that the State taking a life is contradictory, since we are trying to prevent people from killing each other. But, you may ask, how firmly do you hold that principle?
Here’s where the desert island and the state of nature scenario come in handy. Consider the case where I am on that desert island and food is in limited supply. Suppose further that there was a killer among us. I know the person committed the crime. He admitted it. He also says he will kill again. Everyone on the island is afraid for their lives. What would I do?
I could arm everyone with sharpened sticks and hope they could defend themselves. If the killer were killed in self-defense, then I could consistently maintain my opposition to capital punishment. However, I would worry about the killer winning the confrontation. As Rouseau tells us, after he claimed that life was short and brutish, sleep is the great equalizer. Everyone is at risk from others while they sleep. The killer could kill again even if we were well-prepared for the murderer.
I could lock the killer up, but if I did, my fellow islanders would have to guard him, feed him, and take care of him. Keeping him imprisoned is a risky job. Besides, if we spent time providing for the killer, we may not be able to gather enough food or build sufficient shelter for everyone else to survive. So jail, which seems to work in our society, doesn’t solve the problem when it occurs on a smaller scale.
The killer can’t be banished from the island, since setting him adrift would amount to a death sentence. If we cut off his arms, he would probably be less dangerous, but then he would still require the assistance we may not be able to provide if we wanted to go on living.
So, given the thought experiment, I would say, under some circumstances, the greater good outweighs the death of one guilty individual. You remember Mill’s utilitarianism, don’t you?
Even after conducting this thought experiment, I still don’t believe in capital punishment. But, principles may conflict with each other. Although I am opposed to capital punishment, I also believe that we must help prevent harm from coming to innocents. On the desert island, these two principles clashed. Doing the thought experiment gave me a better sense of the criteria I use for evaluating my principles. Thought experiments, ironically, can also be used to tell us what we believe is right according to our gut.
The same kind of thought experiment can be used to get at our feelings about people’s leadership skills. If you are asked to choose a good leader, think about how they would interact with a small group of people. Lots of leaders are chosen because they have good interviewing skills or have developed good resumes, not because they have been seen in action first-hand as a leader. The best we can do, sometimes, is to imagine how they would act when leading others.
On Tuesday, Super Tuesday, people in eleven states are asked to choose a candidate to represent one of the two parties. We do not really know any of the candidates. We’ve never seen them at work when the cameras aren’t rolling. But, we have to make a decision. Maybe the thought experiment would help. The desert island scenario sound too much like Survivor. How about baseball? What if our presidential candidates signed up to play baseball on our little league team? Where would we play them? Who would be the team captain? My picks undoubtedly will differ from yours since our perceptions aren’t the same, but I’ll give you my scouting report and invite you to make your own picks.
Donald Trump. He’s a trash talker. He’d make a good catcher. He’d make the opposing team’s batters nervous. Donald wants to win. But, I worry that he is more concerned about his ego than what’s good for the team.
Bernie Sanders. I would not describe him as frail, but I would not have him as a regular player. Pinch hitter? Maybe he would make a good cheerleader, yelling at refs for making bad calls. He would let everyone know the game is rigged if we were losing. Would he be able to go so far as to change the rules of the game to make it fairer for all?
Ted Cruz. He’s my pitcher. I suspect he would try to throw spit balls. He wants to be in the spotlight and doesn’t seem to care about playing by anyone’s rules but his own. If things weren’t going his way, I suspect he would try to stop the game by taking “his” ball home.
Marco Rubio. I’d put him on first base. He doesn’t want to get his uniform dirty. He won’t be diving for the ball like a shortstop should. He’s too worried about looking good.
Ben Carson. I’d put him out in right field. That position gets little action. I have no idea if he can catch a fly ball or not. He may be a good athlete, but he’s never played the game.
John Kasich. I’d ask him to be the umpire. He says he wants a fair game. He says he can make the tough calls. But, I remember before he became governor he could only see out of his right eye.
Hillary Clinton. She’d be my utility player. Few really want her on the team, but she has a wide range of skills. I would expect the opposing team to question repeatedly whether she meets the legal qualifications to play in the league. What a hassle.
The big question is who would make the best team captain. Who would you pick first if you were choosing sides? Who would be the natural leader in the state of nature? Which player would you want to mentor to take over your coaching job when you retire? Who would you like to be at bat when the team is behind and under pressure? Who would play solid defense and make few errors?
The answers to these baseball questions may not be the same as the answer to the question of who would make the best president, since a game of baseball is not the same as leading the country, but thinking about how you expect these candidates to behave in the simplified context of a baseball game may provide insights into how you believe they would function as the country’s most important leader. We need someone who can help his or her team hit some home runs and play good defense. We need someone who thinks about the greater good. We need someone who can inspire others. We need someone who thinks about ethical principles.
So, who is your pick? Whose team would you like to be a part of? Vote!