Why unlikely hypothetical scenarios are often analytically useful

June 18

Philosophers and legal scholars are often accused of unnecessarily torturing people with hypothetical scenarios that are unlikely to occur. “Who cares,” critics say, “what we should do if X were to happen, if there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that X will actually occur? The eggheads should climb down from their ivory towers and try focusing on some real-world problems for a change.” There is a kernel of truth to such criticisms. Some unlikely hypotheticals really are useless. But as economist Bryan Caplan explains in this excellent post, others have great value:

I habitually propose remote hypotheticals. If you could save either one American or x foreigners, how big would x have to be before you’d save the foreigners? If a million farmers were stuck in Antarctica, would allowing them to migrate to a more favorable climate enrich non-Antarcticans? If six trillion Nazis were sadistically savoring the Holocaust on interstellar television, would the Holocaust still be wrong?

When thinkers refuse to engage such hypotheticals, I tend to see them as evasive or anti-intellectual. But couldn’t they just as easily be prudent people who value their time too much to devise contingency plans for these extraordinarily remote contingencies?

No. Hypotheticals serve two radically different functions. Devising practical contingency plans is one such function. The other function, however, is to achieve intellectual clarity in a complex world. Pondering a hypothetical is fruitful as long as it serves one of these two functions…..

[E]ach [of the above scenarios] shines a spotlight on a big question. “If you could save either one American or x foreigners, how big would x have to be before you’d save the foreigners?” provides a clean measure of the respondent’s nationalism. “If a million farmers were stuck in Antarctica, would allowing them to migrate to a more favorable climate enrich non-Antarcticans?” shows how immigration can enrich non-immigrants. “If six trillion Nazis were sadistically favoring the Holocaust on interstellar television, would the Holocaust still be wrong?” exposes the moral absurdity of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency maximization.

Each of these topics is important. Why not stay close to the real world when we analyze them? We typically do. Unfortunately, the real world is so complicated that thinkers who stay close to the real world keep getting bogged down in side issues. Quality hypotheticals push the debate forward by stripping side issues away and getting to the heart of the matter.

I don’t entirely agree with Bryan’s point about the Nazi hypothetical and Kaldor-Hicks maximization. The hypothetical proves that K-H maximization should not always trump all other values, but not that it is inherently absurd. This hypothetical – and others like it – do, however, reveal some potential weaknesses of pure utilitarian moral reasoning.

Regardless of whether we agree on Bryan’s specific examples, however, his general point is right. Unlikely hypotheticals are often analytically useful, even though it would be foolish to prepare for them as if they were likely to occur in the real world.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" (forthcoming) and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."
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