"Mary, Mungo, and Midge. You stand accused of a grievous crime. What do you have to say for yourselves?
"Yes, I did it," said Mary. "But it wasn't my fault. I consulted an expert and she told me that was what I ought to do. So don't blame me, blame her."
"I too did it," said Mungo. "But it wasn't my fault. I consulted my therapist and she told me that was what I ought to do. So don't blame me, blame her."
"I won't deny I did it," said Midge. "But it wasn't my fault. I consulted an astrologer and she told me that since Neptune was in Aries, that's what I should have done. So don't blame me, blame him."
The judge sighed and issued his verdict. "Since this case is without precedent, I have had to discuss it with my senior colleagues. And I'm afraid to say that your arguments did not persuade them. I sentence you all to the maximum term. But, please remember that I consulted my peers and they told me to deliver this sentence. So don't blame me, blame them."
Source: Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1948.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 100.
This little story doesn't ask a specific question of us, but it does allow us to go in several different directions for discussion depending on which aspects of the experiment you want to focus on. Unfortunately, I've already gone down each of those paths. Let's run through them:
You could focus on the fact that Mary, Mungo, and Midge all agreed with someone else's opinion to justify their actions, which begs the question if they committed the confirmation bias fallacy - the tendency to favor information that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses and to ignore information that disagrees with one's point of view. I discussed this during a review of the lengthy list of fallacies one could consider in response to thought experiment 3: The Indian and the Ice.
You could focus on the fact that Mary, Mungo, and Midge all claimed blamelessness because they intended to do the right thing based on advice they got from people they trusted, which brings up what I wrote in my post on justice (and in response to thought experiment 7: When No One Wins): Intention and causation are not necessary for an action to be judged good or evil. Those judgments are based on objective reality and whether or not the actions promote or hinder the long-term survival of life. Praise or blame for these actions is tied to intention or neglect of intention. The magnitude of reward or punishment doled out from society should be proportional to the intention or the neglect.
You could focus on the fact that Mary, Mungo, and Midge all made a choice, which brings up the whole free will vs. determinism debate. I've already discussed my compatibilism at length though and in response to thought experiment 9: Bigger Brother.
You could focus on the fact that Mary, Mungo, and Midge each relied on people with varying levels of expertise, which brings up the question of what is reasonably required to do due diligence on a subject, which I also discussed in response to thought experiment 27: Duties Done.
Or finally, you could focus on the fact that this experiment comes from Existentialism and Humanism, a little 70-page book from Jean-Paul Sartre who "later rejected some of the views he expressed...and regretted its publication." Nonetheless, it was the source of the term "existence precedes essence", which "subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. Put simply, this means that there is nothing to dictate a person's character, goals in life, and so on; that only the individual can define his or her essence. According to Sartre, 'man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards'. Thus, Sartre rejects what he calls 'deterministic excuses' and claims that people must take responsibility for their behaviour." All of this, I responded to in my review of Sartre.
So, that's all I'd like to write this week. I think I've done a little better job of responding to this than the smart aleck judge who used the same excuse that Mary, Mungo, and Midge did. At least I referred to the existence of *my own* writings, which have already answered the essence of this thought experiment. Don't blame me if you haven't read them before.