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Applications of Thought Experiments

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2254 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Thought experiments have a long, complex history, dating back to ancient Greek and Roman empires. Even in ancient times thought experiments were a necessary part of Philosophy- due in part to subjective philosophical hypotheses. Thought experiments, in an organized way, allow us to challenge intellectual norms, understand history, make logical decisions, promote and encourage new, unconventional ideas, and expand our point of reference. One benefit of thought experiments is their structure. Philosophers also use thought experiments to convey theories in an accessible, relatable manner. With the main goal of illustrating a concept, philosophers explore scenarios that are imagined. The goal isn’t to find out the ‘correct’ answer, but to spark new ideas instead.

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Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher who currently teaches at New York University. Born in England and raised in Ghana, Africa, Appiah later received an undergraduate degree in Philosophy at Cambridge in 1975. After completing his undergraduate career, Appiah taught at the University of Ghana, Legon, which inspired him to continue his educational career- eventually achieving a PhD from Cambridge University in Philosophy in 1982. The professor has spoke about public issues of importance on the radio, is an active critic of social and political issues, and is an author to multiple written novels and journals.

 The primary philosophical challenge of thought experiments is simple: How can we learn about reality, just by thinking? Anthony Appiah conducts his thought experiment by asking, “What will future generations condemn us for?” Appiah also questioned, “What were people thinking?”, and explains the “three signs that a practice is destined for future condemnation,” as well as expressing four contenders for future moral condemnation. The thought experiment conducted by Appiah invokes deep examination of our lives, the societies we live in, and the decisions we make.

Appiah expresses what he believes are the signs a practice is destined for future condemnation. He states, “First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.” An example of this includes a case regarding unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. The National Research Council’s 1979 review of the issue concluded the following:

“In this case, the panel concluded that the potential damage from greenhouse gases was real and should not be ignored…. Warming from doubled CO2 of 1.5°-4.5°C was possible, the panel reported. While there were huge uncertainties, Verner Suomi, chairman of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Board, wrote in the report’s foreword that he believed there was enough evidence to support action: “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late” (Charney et al. 1979).”

In his second suggestion, Appiah states, “Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, ‘We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?’)” In today’s society- the standard argument against strong action is that humans are simply incapable of doing what is necessary. Unchecked and unrestricted burning of fossil fuels are portrayed as being necessary for continued economic growth. But in fact, we are almost entirely, scientifically capable of converting to green energy and stopping burning fossil fuels altogether. (Ute Kehse, Max Planck Society, 2017) Israel intends to completely eliminate burning fossil fuels by 2030. (Solomon, et al., 2018

The last suggestion Anthony Appiah makes is this: “And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.”

Appiah believed four present-day practices were contenders for future moral condemnation. First, our prison system. He brings to light the huge number of adults currently incarcerated and expresses the immorality of the conditions in which the prisoners live. This is an every growing and concerning issue. The American criminal justice system retains almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. (Wagner & Sawyer, 2018)

The second contender is Industrial meat production. Appiah mentions the inhumanity and cruelty of factory farming. Of the 10 million biogenetically engineered dairy cows in the U.S., more than half spend their entire lives in crowded milking pens or barns with concrete floors. They are artificially inseminated, and their male calves are sold to veal producers within two days of birth, who chain them for 12 to 16 weeks inside dark, tiny crates. They are denied mother’s milk in order to produce the pale veal color. Factory-farmed dairy cows, like beef cows, are sprayed with pesticides and doused with antibiotics, hormones, and tranquilizers. The chemical residue is passed on to all those who consume their milk. (Baxter, 2018)

 The institutionalized and isolated elderly is the third contender for future condemnation. Appiah references personal experiences and summarizes the immoral ways elderly people are treated. An estimated 2 million American elderly persons experience abuse and neglect each year, usually occurring multiple times and in multiple forms. It’s estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse is brought to the attention of authorities. (Dong, 2005)

The fourth contender, the environment. Not only does Appiah talk about the physical harm we are inflicting on Earth, he hints towards our refusal to acknowledge the crisis. Reality starts to set in and fear and uncertainty flood the mind when we begin to throw around the words, climate change, unsustainable population growth and water wars.

Appiah argues future generations will look back in horror on our prisons, factory farms, and nursing homes, as well as our casual abuse of the planet. Here is one of my additions: Future generations will condemn us for legalizing bribery through our campaign finance system. It will be obvious to them, that billionaires and corporations corrupted the First Amendment by convincing us that money is speech. Money influences, alters and twists politics at every level- and has continued to do so throughout history. The fact that this isn’t a new idea, and people have heard prior arguments- means this addition fits the Professor’s first criteria for a practice to be destined for future condemnation.

American politicians don’t only hold office because they’re good leaders, but because their fundraising abilities were superior, and their network was more prestige. Politicians that accept huge contributions, in exchange for supporting certain agendas, are rarely seen in a negative way, and the consequences of such agendas are frequently shrugged off or dismissed. Tradition is invoked, and moral counterarguments are neglected- the second criteria is met.

 Appiah’s third criteria is met, due to the ignorance and sheer unwillingness to acknowledge problems on a world-wide scale. From issues relating to political corruption- to issues involving climate change. Future generations won’t wonder how close our predictions were, they will look back and ask why, no matter what conclusions and solutions we arrived at, no one with enough power to make a difference, acted. Future generations will despise us for Apathy, as well as our greed, and our belief that we are more intelligent than reality suggests. They’ll wonder why, in the middle of an energy crisis, metals were used to make televisions rather than being used to make tools to serve a purpose. Our children’s children won’t have the luxury of pondering such questions however. Their world will likely be one with issues so severe, if reported today- we wouldn’t believe them. We all seem to be blinded by an ignorance that hangs in front of our faces, when believing our current actions are ensuring a better future, or in fact any future at all.

 It’s with utmost certainty, the Afghanistan War will be condemned by future generations. Politics still attempt to mask the truthful agenda behind the war and conflict in the Middle East, as well as the purpose, length and progression of the War. There were only two credible reasons for invading Iraq: control over oil and preservation of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Yet the government has kept silent on these factors. By invading Iraq, Bush took over the Iraqi oil fields, and persuaded the UN to lift production limits imposed after the Kuwait war.

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 As of 2015, the U.S. dedicated over $685 billion to funding the war in Afghanistan. Together with the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War has been the most expensive in U.S. history. (Peyton Jacobsen, 2017) The total number of deaths in the Afghanistan War, from 2001-2016, is above 110,000. Almost 4,000 contractors, humanitarian workers, and journalists alone contributed to the death toll- that’s nearly 1,500 more deaths than that of U.S. Troops, during that time frame.

 The war in Afghanistan meets Appiah’s criteria for being an act that will most likely be condemned by future generations. Although little has been done about a plan of action to entirely withdraw troops, support and patriotism are still engulfed in the hearts of most Americans. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been talked about by many people since they began in 2003. The war effects roughly 6 million Americans. Between 4.3 million and 6.5 million Americans are likely to know someone who has been killed or injured in the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to new estimates by a Duke University sociologist.

 Thinking only of the present moment, we have little thought of tomorrow. That fact may well be the reason for humans’ ultimate demise. Kwame’s article points us in the direction of thinking more fully about the world we will leave our children, and, while we may not agree with him fully about either the major areas that we presently take for granted but will someday pass away, or even the criteria by which we can discern what those areas may be, we can thank him for raising the question.


1)     Global warming doesn’t stop when the emissions stop. (n.d.). Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://phys.org/news/2017-10-global-doesnt-emissions.html

2)     Solomon, S., Prince, C. J., Rasgon, A., Knowlton, B., Kampeas, R., Pileggi, T. AFP. (n.d.). Israel aims to eliminate use of coal, gasoline and diesel by 2030. Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-aims-to-eliminate-use-of-coal-gasoline-and-diesel-by-2030/

3)     Full Report BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018. (2018). Retrieved November 15, 2018, from https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/en/corporate/pdf/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2018-full-report.pdf

4)     Wagner, J., & Sawyer, W. (2018, March 14). Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018.html

5)     Baxter, A. (2018). Sobering Statistics About Factory Farming An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org. Retrieved November 17, 2018, from https://www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-sobering.html

6)     Dong, X., M.D. (2005, May). Medical Implications of Elder Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved November 17, 2018, from https://www.geriatric.theclinics.com/article/S0749-0690(04)00125-9/abstract

7)        Ten Facts About the Afghanistan War: Toppling Terrorist Groups. (2017, November 30). Retrieved November 19, 2018, from https://borgenproject.org/ten-facts-about-the-afghanistan-war


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