Bernard Williams on Case Studies

From “A critique of utilitarianism” (in Utilitarianism: For and Against, pp 96-96):

For a lot of the time so far we have been operating at an exceeding abstract level. This  has been necessary in order to get clearer in general terms about the differences between consequentialist and other outlooks, an aim which is important if we want to know what features of them lead to what results for our thought.

I found this a bit confusing, but I think the point here is conceptual clarity. Somehow, being clear in general terms helps us understand causal (or conceptual) relationships. I’m not convinced (or even convinced I understand it), but ok. Clear formulation of the manipulations or treatments we are comparing is a good idea. Whether we need to do this in general terms or not isn’t critical. We want to know exactly how each moral theory works in the cases under examination. At least, enough to “run the simulation”.

Now, hover, let us look more concretely at two examples, to see what utilitarianism might say about them, what me might say about utilitarianism and, most importantly of all, what would be implied by certain ways of thinking about the situation.

At this point, I don’t know that it matters whether the cases are experiments are case studies. There are uses for either with these specific goals.

The examples are inevitably schematized, and they are open to the objection that they beg as many questions as they illuminate. There are two ways in particular in which examples in moral philosophy tend to beg important questions. One is that, as presented, they arbitrarily cut off and restrict the range of alternative courses of action…The second is that they inevitably present one with the situation as a going concern, and cut off questions about how the agent got into it, and correspondingly about moral considerations which might flow from that…

I’m not sure that these are quite matters of question begging. In general, moral reasoning (like most normal reasoning) is heavily non-monotonic: that is, the conclusion might change as you add new information (and change back as you add still more). And, with respect to the first, it’s clear that if we add a new possibility to a scenario that might change what’s right! (A moral dilemma is solved by finding a third, permitted, option, after all.) With respect to the second, obviously, backstory can matter quite a lot to our judgment: If a child takes a toy that another child is playing with, we might chide them, but it is a reasonable defense if the first child says, “This is my toy. I brought it here. They took it and won’t let me or anyone else play with it.”

These are threats to external and ecological validity if there is never a reasonable attenuation of factors to consider. (Williams makes this point later, sort of, as I will quote.) We never know all the backstory or are aware of all the options, so the mere fact that a scenario necessarily elides some option or backstory details it not itself a reasonable point. These specific ones might fail because, say, no conclusion can be drawn with out some backstory (who’s toy is it?) or because there’s an obvious possible action not mentioned. But that’s a different problem.

I think these are different worries than the one’s Nussbaum raised. To requote:

This task cannot be easily accomplished by texts which speak in universal terms—for one of the difficulties of deliberation stressed by this view is that of grasping the uniqueness of the new particular.  Nor can it easily be done by texts which speak with the hardness or plainness which moral philosophy has traditionally chosen for its style—for how can this style at all convey the way in which the “matter of the practical” appears before the agent in all of its bewildering complexity, without its morally salient features stamped on its face?

The second problem (hardness and plainness) is clearly not a matter of missing propositions (as with Williams’ problems), but of richness of form. (In a future post, I’ll use Suzanne Langer to articulate this a bit more.) Obviously, Nussbaum can live with finite presentations, but she thinks that philosophical writing fails in some ways when compared to novelistic writing.

These difficulties, however, just have to be accepted, and if anyone finds these examples cripplingly defective in this sort of respect, then he must in his own thought rework them in richer and less question-begging form.

I kinda agree and am kinda annoyed by this. In one sense, Williams is correct. If these examples don’t suit, one response is to enrich them. On the other, there’s no justification of his examples. Are they sufficiently rich as not to be cripplingly defective? And there are other respects in which they may be problematic (e.g., are they typical? representative? do they cover problems in non-utilitarian theories?) Philosophy of this era isn’t stylised in the way many scientific papers have become, but I kinda want a “materials” section that discusses the corpus of examples!

If he feels that no presentations of any imagined situation can ever be other than misleading in morality, and that there an be never be any substitute for the concrete experienced complexity of actual moral situations

Note! Nussbaum thinks there is a substitute! But Williams isn’t writing no novel and his examples are pretty abstract and weird so he can still fail in Nussbaumian terms.

then this discussion, with him, must certainly grind to a halt: button one may legitimately wonder whether every discussion with him about conduct will not grind to a halt, including any discussion about the actual situations, since discussion about how one would think and feel about situations somewhat different from the actual (that is to say, situations to that extent imaginary) plays an important role in discussion of the actual.

One may legitimately wonder whether anyone would or has held such a silly position! Williams spends much more time defending against an extreme position that is so implausible he says that there is no talking to people who hold it than actually defending his actual examples. Indeed, he spends zero time defending his actual examples.

I, in general, love this essay. But whenever I dig in I really hate it. This is not good form. It gives the impression of giving due consideration as to whether the examples are useful and legit without even starting to do so.

I mean, consider that the imaginariness bit is just a red herring: We never have full knowledge of a situation. So we’re always working with an incomplete description even “in the moment”. So the real question is are we dealing with case descriptions of sufficient detail to allow for reasonably accurate simulation of moral deliberation. And I think we can answer that question, fallibly, partially, with the expectation that we can always do better. The Williams examples are not the worst ever, but they are much closer to thought experiments than thought case studies for all that he gives actors cute names (the wife and older friend don’t get names, nor does the captain or Indians, but Pedro does).

(I find the universal “he” pretty damn distracting, fwiw! I’m glad we’re past that.)