Never ask me ‘do you think this is fence electrified? Are these berries poisonous? Is this knife super-sharp?’ Or somesuch. I know only one path to knowledge and am the sort of person who likes to find out what something is by jabbing it with my finger/licking or eating it or otherwise interacting in the way most likely to lead to immediate and non reversible consequences. An empiricist. We need to be governed by the research ethics process because we are very murky people indeed.
Research ethics is frequently presented as evolving due to a sequence of errors, cruelties and catastrophic misjudgements. Social researchers look with wistful envy … er, abject horror, back to a time when you could lock a bunch of students up, tell some of them they were ‘warders’ and some ‘prisoners’ and see if the former decided to beat the daylights out of the latter. Ethics is frequently and effectively taught as of a series of pitfalls to avoid which are wholly tied to questions of empirical research because that is where the pain is.
However, there is another kind of scholar. These people, wordcels and shape rotators both, stare unblinking at the sun of pure thought. They can work effects out from first principles. They use the British Library. They are theorists, and research ethics does not touch them. We seldom ask if you need ethical approval for a non-empirical study. Indeed how very dare you, sir, for proposing that question. Only vulgar empiricists who would gull their subjects into pretend electric shock experiments given half a chance need the stern oversight of the ethics board. Theory takes place in the realm of pure ideas, each one as unsullied as a summer’s day of childhood memory. The thought experiment is their realm. These are imaginative stories which you will often see philosophers, scientists and theorists deploy to work out some problem or illustrate an argument. They are often mocked as the ‘we have chosen to assume that each horse is a perfect circle’ response to some real world problem. Thought experiments get a bad name but they have their uses.
Types of thought experiment, of varying usefulness:
- Let’s see if we can break our theory, or someone else’s. Maxwell’s Demon and that quantum-cat box thing that does not mean what everyone thinks.
- Explain how we got here. The tragedy of the commons, most origin stories in mainstream economics – it’s worse than the MCU for multiple competing origin stories.
- This is how humans work, other things being equal. Malthusian resource dilemma (we are pretty much screwed). Habermas’ social configurations and communicative rationality (no we are not). People who don’t play enough Civilization.
The ones about resource competition are often rhetorically persuasive but ineffective because they are about how we think things work rather than how they really work. The tragedy of the commons is the claim that if you have any communal property, it becomes over fished, over grazed, or over used to depletion because everyone has an incentive to maximise what they take from it. Hence, private property and land enclosure to the rescue. A scan of the historical record shows it does not work like that at all. Enclosure of common land was a state-driven process enacted in order to serve the interests of landowners. It was not some naturally occurring event. Overexploitation was regulated because other people would notice if it was happening. The malthusian population growth crisis never happened. Communicative rationality turns out to be a cover for serving our interests while feeling smug about it. Useless thought experiments have become real world common sense and they have damaging real world consequences.
On the other hand, some of these thought experiments show the power of thinking where some observations might take you. Free thought is dangerous to power, which is why in the current environment several governments are trying so hard to regulate it and punish people for erring, usually in the name of something nice. Perhaps thought experiments should also be governed. Theorists could be required to submit an ethical review before starting any thinking. The danger is that ideas could easily leak from the University’s containment field into real life where they can cause untold harm. The University could become liable if any of this thinking has damaging effects, such as causing people to act in unpredictable ways, question their social roles or despair at the futility of existence. A simple form would suffice. We could ask: will you be thinking about vulnerable groups and sensitive topics? E.g. University vice chancellors and principals and government policies. What steps have you taken to ensure they are not harmed by your thinking? That should tie up the pesky cogitators and leave the field open to us morlocks.