Imagining civil rights: A thought experiment to defend thought experiments

Non-Violence, Peace, Transformation, Leadership

A common objection against the use of thought experiments, whether they be in ethics, metaphysics or science, is that they are only imaginary. That they are not of the real world. That they are completely distant from the world that we understand. A. Walsh (2010) calls this objection to thought experiments as “objection from modality”. This objection is that we cannot apply the imagined cases to moral questions because they are so ‘modally bizarre’ or ‘distant from the world as we know it’. Walsh explains that in cases where we are making cases about general moral principles, the distinction between real and imagined cases are irrelevant, where he says (2010):

“While applied ethics deals with ‘real world’ cases, if an argument regarding such a case relies centrally on a general moral principle, then it is warranted to test its generality against a range of possible scenarios, which may or may not be modally bizarre.”

To assist in Walsh’s point. I will give an example of a moral general principle that ‘we are always morally obligated to obey the law’. In my primary school ethics classes, I have used the example of Rosa Parks to prompt discussion among the students about whether we are always morally obligated to obey the law. However, some will argue that considering Rosa Parks is a real example, thus distinct from thought experiments that involve imagined situations. But consider this thought experiment:

Imagine a world just like our own. However, there never existed segregation based on skin colour. There never was a civil rights movement in the US. No bus boycott. No Rosa Parks. No MLK Jr. After all, there was never a need for a civil rights movement. In this world, two philosophers are discussing whether we are always morally obligated to obey the law. One of the philosophers comes up with this thought experiment: “Imagine a world where African Americans must, by law, sit at the back of the bus or stand when a white person needs the seat. In this world, an African American woman refuses to leave her seat for a white woman, thus breaking the law”.

In our world, this is not imaginary. In a discussion about obeying the law, all we need to ask is: “Did Rosa Parks do the wrong thing when she broke the law?”. However, in the other world it is an imagined situation, but nonetheless has the same event with the same question (that anticipates an answer that refutes the proposition “we are always morally obligated to obey the law”). So, in this case there appears to be no relevant differences between the real case and the imagined case. I argue that since there are no apparent relevant differences, appealing to the real or imaginary aspects of a thought experiment says nothing about their legitimacy.


Walsh, A. (2010). A moderate defence of the use of thought experiments. Ethical theory and moral practice. 14(1). 467-481.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

3 thoughts on “Imagining civil rights: A thought experiment to defend thought experiments”

  1. greetings Mr Tulloch,
    great to read you again, yet I would have to ask the purpose of thought experiments? Is it conjecture, to stimulate debate, glean information/opinion, polemical?
    Regarding the obedience of the law, i feel that is very shaky ground. Individuals are not at liberty to decide which laws they are obliged to obey; moral or otherwise. As citizens in democracy ,we are free to petition changes in laws we deem unjust/unethical/ immoral/out dated. As we have seen, religious zealots who disregard the law will argue they have done nothing wrong.
    thank you for your time and consideration

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Simon,

      Regarding the purpose of thought experiments, there are many. Some are used to clarify concepts, or in academic philosophy known as ‘conceptual analysis’. Others are to appeal to an assumed intuition held by the target audience, what Daniel Dennett calls ‘intuition pumps’. Others will operate as counterexamples by revealing contradictions. In science, Galileo’s ‘falling bodies’ thought experiment of a heavy and light ball tied together is a famous example. And some assume the truth of particular ethical theories and test how it would handle moral dilemmas. For example, how would a utilitarian deal with the trolley problem?

      Regarding your point about always obeying the law, yes we can utilise democratic means to change the law. However, is deliberately breaking it help change it? For instance, civil disobedience endorsed by MLK Jr was part of the political process that enforced change. That said, MLK Jr also believed that getting arrested and jailed for this was also necessary, because going to jail for unjust laws is also a demonstration of the injustice. To return to the Rosa Parks thought experiment, we can say in MLK Jr’s terms that Parks was fine with being arrested, but morally did the right thing.

      A side note, I typically find that universal generalisable moral principles will almost always contain counterexamples. Which is why I have grown skeptical of their use. There is potential in virtue ethics but that is also imperfect.




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