I listened to Rob Wiblin’s interview with Andreas Mogensen earlier in the week and have been mulling over this “electrocuted at the World Cup final” thought experiment. 

In the context of the interview, the experiment seems to be illustrating separate but perhaps related points: one about human psychology in relation to large numbers; the other about consequentialist moral theory.

I largely agree with Rob’s intuitions about human psychology, but I don’t share the intuition that Jones should be allowed to die for the sake of the broadcast, and was hoping to hear further arguments supporting that view. I read Omnizoid’s post about utilitarianism, and don’t feel that transitivity obtains here -- have we simply reached a deontological divide? 

 

My reason for pushing back against the “let Jones die / continue the broadcast” conclusion is first based on believing that the quality of harm that is Jones’s death and the grief of his relations is in a different category of the quality of harm that is an interrupted pleasure. There might even be further arguments that interrupting a pleasure can lead to longer-term benefits in the form of personal development, if, for example, it increases will power or puts one’s priorities in perspective.

Extending this to putting the event in its social context: if I were a fan watching the match, my aggravation at the interruption would be more than compensated for by a feeling of relief and rightness-with-the-world upon learning of the reason for it later, and my enjoyment of the match would be subsequently diminished if I learned than someone died to ensure its broadcast.

Similarly, for all the pleasure a sports fan might derive from this pastime, I also have the sense that we understand these parts of our lives (i.e. entertainment, hobbies, pastimes) as important -- even extremely important and identity-defining for some -- yet nevertheless bracketed, existing on a separate moral plane from something like fatal work-related accidents. In a sports match the overall moral stakes are lower and the consequences steeply discounted because we’ve created a space called “play” or “game” for it to exist in. I feel like this distinction is actually important to the enjoyment of the game itself, allowing the fan to become wrapped up in a form of virtual emotion and excitement while protecting some inner emotional stability with the knowledge that this is not the fundamental source of moral value in the world.

I also recognize that I’m now wandering into speculation on sports sociology, and the examples of own-goal scorers murdered by their home fans suggests I might not be correct about this.

 

I’ve been imagining variations on the experiment to try and pick apart some of the effects, such as:

The Coliseum Effect:

Would it change anything if at the moment of the accident, Jones’s body completed a circuit which connected the outgoing televised broadcast to the footage from a security camera which was recording his slow and painful death, so that everyone watching the match was now watching him die?

Naturally, if this causes widespread outrage and trauma among viewers then the scenario likely becomes a lose-lose and the obvious choice is to turn it off. But what if it turns out that audience interest, excitement and pleasure (as measured by our handy LiveWire audience emotional tracking app) is actually significantly greater than when watching the slow, low-scoring match? Do we have an obligation to allow Jones’s suffering to continue so that others might enjoy it?

Or what if everything described above is true, but the prevailing belief among viewers is that this is some sort of staged slapstick routine inserted by mischievous producers to alleviate the boredom of watching an actual football match and the audience highly enjoys it without realizing at the time what is actually happening.

 

Thanks for reading. Any thoughts or clarifications would be greatly appreciated!


 

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I've always found Parfit's response to be pretty compelling.  As I summarize it here:

Rather than discounting smaller benefits (or refusing to aggregate them), Parfit suggests that we do better to simply weight harms and benefits in a way that gives priority to the worse-off. Two appealing implications of this view are that: (1) We generally should not allow huge harms to befall a single person, if that leaves them much worse off than the others with competing interests. (2) But we should allow (sufficient) small benefits to the worse-off to (in sum) outweigh a single large benefit to someone better-off.

Since we need aggregation in order to secure verdict (2), and we can secure verdict (1) without having to reject aggregation, it looks like our intuitions are overall best served by accepting an aggregative moral theory.

I'll just add that it's a mistake to see the Transmitter Room case as an objection to consequentialism per se.  Nobody (afaict) has the intuition that it would be better for the guy to be electrocuted, but we're just not allowed to let that happen.  Rather, the standard intuition is that it wouldn't even be a good result.  But that's to call for an axiological refinement, not to reject the claim that we should bring about the better outcome.

Thank you! Your article on Parfit  is very helpful -- I'm looking forward to reading the rest in the series.