The trouble with thought experiments

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What are thought experiments? What uses can they be put to and what problems do they face? In this paper I argue that thought experiments are hard to define and that they face significant problems when used as a tool to draw out our moral or conceptual intuitions. The role of the intuition in our philosophical and ethical lives is also problematic. I go on to argue that the more far-fetched thought experiments – and especially those that assume some kind of impossibility – face particular problems, and that here bioethics can learn from the effects of the prolific use of modally problematic thought experiments in other areas of philosophy, such as the personal identity debate. I argue that, as the personal identity debate can best be approached by testing our conceptual intuitions against real-life cases, so the same may be true of bioethics. But, whether we use thought experiments or real cases, we ought not to expect too much when seeking to apply concepts outside their standard range of application.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-12
Number of pages6
JournalTheoretical and Applied Ethics
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2011

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