The Most Important Choice of All

Suppose there is a genie with the power to turn back time to before you were born. She gives you the opportunity to decide who you want to be. Would you choose to be you? If so, does this show that you have a healthy self-esteem, or does it show that you think too highly of yourself? Suppose you have to choose to be somebody or something else. Who or what would you choose to be and why? In the Republic, Plato raises the question of reincarnation, the view that when you die you are reborn again as someone or something else. When he asks one hero of Greek mythology, Odysseus, what he would like to be in his next life, Odysseus replies that he would like to be a swan. Plato praises Odysseus’ choice, while criticizing people who choose to be rich, or famous, or powerful. Why do you suppose Odysseus chooses to be a swan, and why do you think Plato criticizes the other choices?

The Next Dr. Frankenstein

Suppose you are going to make a monster out of body parts robbed from graves. For the monster’s brain, you will use the brain of a dead criminal. Little did you know that this criminal’s last thought before dying was his intention to kill his partner, Hans. Because this thought is still in the brain that you put into your monster, it is the first thought that the monster has when you bring him to life. So, naturally, the first thing your monster does is kill Hans. Are you responsible for Hans’ death? Would it make a difference if you knew this would happen? In this thought experiment you have brought a future killer to life. If God exists, he brings future killers to life every day. Is he responsible for the resulting deaths? Why or why not?

An Island of Your Very Own

For your birthday, your best friend gives you a lottery ticket. “It may only have cost a dollar,” he says, “but if you win, you will become the sole owner of a beautiful tropic island, along with 1 billion dollars to develop it as you see fit!” And, lucky for you, the ticket wins! As it turns out, the island is the size of Florida and has not been claimed by any country. So, suddenly, you are a king with a vast kingdom. As you set off for your island, you begin to think about what you will do with the billion dollars. How will you develop your island? Who else will you allow to live there? Will you need safeguards against possible violence and other forms of crime? Will you rule the island or will you let the inhabitants elect someone else to rule? What kind of rules would you like to see in place?

The Grandchildren That Never Where

It is the year 2100. In the year 2090, World War III began. In the year 2095, a biological weapon that destroys the human immune system only was released and used by both sides in the war. As a result, human beings have become extinct. The beautiful parks that the people of the early 21st century worked so hard to build and protect are now enjoyed by no one but the squirrels and birds that live there. At the entrance of the biggest, most beautiful park of all, there is a golden plaque that reads as follows: “This park is dedicated with love to our future grandchildren. We worked very hard and made many sacrifices, knowing that you would one day appreciate having this green space to enjoy.” Of course, the “future grandchildren” referred to in this plaque were never born, because there parents all died in World War III. Was it still worth the effort? Should the people of the 21st century have put there effort toward preventing WWIII instead? Should we be thinking about our future grandchildren now?

Desert Dessert

Imagine that you are babysitting a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. The parents have left some treats for dessert: two bananas, a lollipop, and an ice cream bar. The parents instructions were to allow each child to choose one treat. Unfortunately, both kids want the ice cream bar. How can you distribute the goods fairly? The easiest way would be to give them each a banana. But, neither wants a banana. Or, perhaps the older child should have first pick because she has more responsibilities. Or, perhaps the younger child should have first pick because he has less opportunities. Perhaps they should compete for first pick. But, that seems to give the older child an automatic advantage again. Perhaps you could split the ice cream bar in half, but then they should be allowed to split something else, and the only other thing they want is the lollipop, which is hard to split. As you can see, this is a complicated problem. How would you solve it?

The Pleasure Centers

Imagine scientists have mapped out the pleasure centers of the brain, so they know exactly which brain cells “fire” when you experience the pleasure associated with eating and drinking, exercise, sex, etc. Suppose further that the scientists can insert electrodes into your brain and stimulate those brain cells in such a way that it feels exactly like you were experiencing the real thing. They tell you that you can stay attached to electrodes as long as you want. Do you think this would be a desirable life? (This experiment has actually been done with rats, and the rats consistently choose electrode stimulation, even if it means forgoing food.)

Time Traveling Yourself Out of Existence

Imagine you’ve been studying the history of warfare in the 20th century. Then you travel back in time to 1939 and tell someone how the Nazis could win World War II. Suppose your information is overheard by someone else who becomes a Nazi general and uses it to actually win World War II for the Nazis. Suppose further that your mother dies as a result of the Nazi victory before giving birth to you. Well, if you are never born then you could never have traveled back in time to give away the information that causes you not to be born. Here we have another version of the time travel paradox.

The Mob and the Scapegoat

On a hot summer evening, Thomas is driving through a central Alberta city where two racially motivated murders have just occurred. Mobs have formed, and it looks as if there will be riots with severe loss of life if nothing is done. The local RCMP sergeant knows the mobs will disperse if they have a scapegoat — anyone will do. He has just stopped Thomas for running a red light. If he turns Thomas over to the mob as the scapegoat, they will kill him, but then disperse. If he lets Thomas go, there will be a riot causing dozens of deaths. If we think just in terms of results, it seems we should require the RCMP sergeant to sacrifice Thomas for the greater good. Does this seem right?

Just the Way You Are

Imagine that it is the year 2050 and it has become popular to select children that are tall and have clear skin. Your parents, however, could not afford genetic selection, and you are short and have acne. Imagine further that you are the only person in your neighborhood who is short and has acne. How would you feel? When you ask your parents why you are the only person like you on the whole block, they respond that the neighbors had their fetuses tested. If the fetuses had genes that would cause the resulting child to grow up short with acne, they were aborted. Would this make you feel unwanted? Why or why not?

The Nature of Art

Suppose you find a beautiful rock formation while out in the woods. Experts study it and declare that it is a statue made by a primitive and now extinct group of people. So, you donate it to an art museum, where it sits for many years and is admired by many people. Then new evidence is uncovered that shows that it is a natural rock formation, made by rain dropping from a cave wall. Can the rock formation still be art? Should it be moved from the Museum of Art to the Museum of Natural History? What do you think you will say when you look at it again? Do you think it will look any different to you than it did when you first saw it?