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Philosophers discover new moral principle

with 22 comments

Members of the Moral Philosophy Research Group hard at work

A previously unrecognized moral principle was discovered last week after ethicists at the University of Mesa realized that they would rather kill an old lady’s cat than a young girl’s puppy. The principle of moral naivete, as it is being called, justifies this preference by holding that the wrongness of inflicting a given harm can depend in part on the degree to which the victim has previously been exposed to such a harm.

The breakthrough came late Thursday as several members of the Moral Philosophy Research Group analyzed the results of a thought experiment they had run earlier in the night. “We were messing around, getting pretty sloshed,” explains Anthony Vega, the group’s principal investigator. “Basically it was just another night at The Lab,” a local bar and the group’s favorite venue for conducting research. Vega and several graduate students were playing Would You Rather, a party game and the standard research tool in normative ethics. Before long the group hit upon the question that has since sparked a firestorm of scholarly interest: Would you rather kill an old lady’s cat or a young girl’s puppy?

“We were unanimous in our preference to kill the old lady’s cat,” says Amy Fletcher, a graduate student and member of the research group. “Naturally, we then asked ourselves what morally relevant difference between the killings could justify that preference. Then we asked ourselves if we’d rather have an opportunity to play the St. Petersburg game or Newcomb’s problem, but later some of us remembered about killing the cat and got down to business on it.”

As news of the discovery spread, philosophers swung into action to justify the preference for killing the old lady’s cat. It appears that most accept the principle of moral naivete, but the justification of the principle is itself controversial. “To kill a young child’s pet is to introduce that child to death, an event of great moral gravity,” Cynthia Lu writes in a blog post discussing the issue. Albert Montag disagrees, focusing instead on the effect of killing on the agent herself. “We are naturally inclined to protect and shelter those who are naive to loss, such as children. To kill a girl’s puppy is to do violence to one’s better nature and thus to brutalize oneself.”

Discovery of the principle of moral naivete has sparked a flurry of related research. Just three days after the original discovery philosophers from Sloan University hit upon “the lolly problem,” a dilemma in which the subject must choose between stealing candy from one baby or from five grown men. Preliminary analysis of the lolly problem and a number of variants is expected in the coming weeks, with philosophers hopeful that the problem will shed light on the hotly contested issue of confectionary theft.


Written by fauxphilnews

February 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm

22 Responses

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  1. […] Philosophers discover new moral principle. […]

  2. This is fantastic.

    Andrés Cthulu Ruiz

    February 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm

  3. Hi Ben. Well, you know your Principle of Moral Naivete (PMN) could be seen flirting at the outer limits with marginal plausibility. Choosing the malum minus is an important moral principle, and the PMN might be seen as an instantiation of it PROVIDED we can come up with a reason why I must choose between killing the old lady’s cat or the young girl’s puppy. Wait, here’s a scenario. Suppose I take all the drunken ethicists at the Lab hostage and credibly threaten to execute them unless you either kill the cat or the puppy. I’m going to assume you regard killing cat or puppy as the malum minus to allowing me to execute the ethicists. PETA people will of course disagree, and they are probably right to do so, but let’s push through this quibble. Given that you ought to act to save the drunken ethicists, the butchering of which innocent animal is the lesser evil? Well, like a good consequentialist you are reasoning that the killing the cat causes less harm, so the PMV points to the right choice.


    February 6, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    • indeed, i think that the principle of moral naivete is more than merely flirting at the outer limits of plausibility. as philosophers we are very good at finding plausible principles to justify our preferences — and similarly good at finding stories to explain why we might face outlandish dilemmas.


      February 6, 2013 at 6:25 pm

  4. Somewhat predictably, I disagree with their intuitions entirely. An old woman’s cat might be the only source of companionship and love in her world, whereas a girl is probably going to have another puppy that she loves just as much at some point in her life.


    February 6, 2013 at 5:02 pm

  5. OR it just means that we like more dogs(specially puppies) than cats 🙂

    If the question was between an old man’s dog, his only companion in his final days, or a girl’s puppy, her first pet from many to come, I believe people would tend more to the old man’s dog instead the puppy.

    Another point: We may also think that, since we cathegorize people, when we say “old lady with a cat” we imagine a grumpy lady, with LOTS of other cats and maybe a little bit crazy already (remember the simpsons cat lady ? I did). She won’t miss it as much since she probably (in our mind) has more cats and quite frankly I think she is a little complaining bitch of a neighbour that is always asking me to low my music down and must deserve it (again, in our mental visualization of an old lady as that bitchy old neighbour of our building).

    The girl, in another hand, we imagine blond with pig tails, big eyes, oh so cute and nice, and totally in love with her ONLY pet. It’s not really a fair competition. It MAY not be necesseraly because the old lady has probably experienced death before and will be used to it already whilst the girl won’t. It may be because of the stereotyphes we like to form in our head of the two.

    If I say “choose between kill the only cat of an old and nice lady and the only cat of a young and nice girl” the answers may change a bit already just by destroying / changing how we picture each person and defining the importance of the animal to both (by explicit saying they both only have one).

    Rodrigo Castilhos Furtado

    February 7, 2013 at 8:17 am

  6. Love this! 🙂

    Eilif Verney-Elliott

    February 7, 2013 at 8:55 am

    • Why not kill the old lady along with the cat, so that they can happily share the afterlife together?

      The little girl would simply get a replacement dog, and, if she is smart, it would be a pit bull.

      The Carioca Kid

      Edward F. Thiery

      February 13, 2013 at 7:06 am

  7. How do I get a job like this? Sounds like fun and lots less strenuous than what I do for a living. G Gipson

    Gen Gipson

    February 12, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    • if i knew i wouldn’t tell you! the job market is hard enough as it is…


      February 26, 2013 at 6:42 pm

  8. I hope you controlled for whether the members of the Moral Philosophy Research Group are “cat people” or “dog people.” Otherwise your data could be skewed.

    Tucker Lieberman

    February 17, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  9. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:

    Keith Wayne Brown

    February 18, 2013 at 7:11 am

  10. […] A previously unrecognized moral principle was discovered last week after ethicists at the University of Mesa realized that they would rather kill an old lady's cat than a young girl's puppy. The pr…  […]

  11. Moral principles are not discovered, as long they are invented. And frankly, I prefer to kill the girl’s puppy. Since she can be quite easily deceived about what happened.


    March 5, 2013 at 3:49 am

  12. Does it make a difference HOW they are killed?
    I think hat the “little girl will be traumatized and scarred for life” camp is correct if killing means “decapitate the animal, right in front of the owner.” On the other hand, if it is a remote “Fluffy has gone to heaven” scenario, the little girl may recover faster than the old woman, who may be more emotionally dependent on her pet.

    (A moderate scenario would probably tip in the direction of killing the old lady’s cat being worse. Death of a pet can be a growth and learning experience, preparing one for the death of human loved ones. This is a benefit much more likely to be of use in the little girl’s life. The old woman has likely had family and friends die and gains no more benefit through the death of a pet.)


    March 18, 2013 at 10:57 am

  13. Reblogged this on Vibrant Bliss and commented:
    I am ambivalent about publicising the fact that the chief research tool of us philosophers, the thought experiment, is little more than a game of ‘would you rather’ (you know, like Peter Griffin’s friends play on Family Guy), but I must register my dissent from this supposed new principle. I would definitely rather kill a little girl’s puppy because it would teach her a valuable lesson about mortality, and she can get many more puppies. While killing and old lady’s cat might be killing her only source of happiness in life, as well as her oldest and last remaining friend.

    Peter Hardy

    May 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm

  14. So, given this new principle, it would be better to kill a 90 year old holocaust survivor than a regular 90 year old?


    May 5, 2013 at 10:39 am

    • Guess I discovered the moral trauma principle.


      May 5, 2013 at 10:41 am

  15. “Vega and several graduate students were playing Would You Rather, a party game and the standard research tool in normative ethics.”

    So sad and so true.


    June 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm

  16. […] report released by the Moral Philosophy Research Group this week confirms what many have long suspected: Sean Hannity’s commentary is entirely […]

  17. […] animals. We aren’t going to be holding press conferences announcing new findings (again, FauxPhilNews already did it). But we do have a lot of things to say about just about […]

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