Thought Experiment: The Spider in the Urinal – Learn Liberty
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Thought Experiment: The Spider in the Urinal – Learn Liberty

January 17, 2020


Warning, the following program is
a philosophical thought experiment. Do not attempt at home. A few months ago, in the men’s
room in the philosophy department, a large spider appeared in the urinal. I saw him in the same spot for
a week straight. I noticed that whenever
the urinal was in use, he would try to scramble out of
the way as fast as humanly possible. Often, he would get caught,
tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent of Princeton’s city water and
the urine of aspiring philosophers. The worst part was, that there was no
way for the spider to get out, and no way to tell if he even wanted to. None of the other students or professors
did anything to alter the situation. As the months wore on,
I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision
to liberate him. He just sat there, not moving a muscle. The next day,
I found him in the same place. His legs shriveled in that way
characteristics of dead spiders. His corpse stayed there for
a week until they finally swept the floor. No! For weeks after, I had recurring
nightmares, giant spiders, teeth, webs, me, your humble narrator, charged with
manslaughter in the high spider court. Your honor, my client was acting
with the best of intentions when he rescued Mister Spider
from the urinal. Mister Spider was forcibly
removed from his home. Objection! Sustained. Please proceed. Your client without fully considering
the potential consequences of his actions proceeded to interfere in and
ultimately, end Mister Spider’s life. We find the defendant guilty! This thought experiment forces us to
question the morality of intervention. Good intentions do not
always yield good results. You gotta let these people think for
themselves. If you were in my position,
would you move the spider or let him be? What do you think? I’m not that bad of a guy. Am I? Am I? Am I?

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  1. intervention that directly affects only one life is much different than intervention that affects the lives of millions. I'd kill the Spider.

  2. The spider decided to take up residence in a human waste disposal site. Just as birds flying into the concentrated beam of sun light reflected by hundreds of solar reflectors only to perish in flame. The spider is going to die by drowning whether with or without being flushed. Animals die because of their inability to recognize the danger of human made objects. A better metaphor was the frog and the scorpion.

  3. Helping sometimes leads to a worse outcome than no help; but I'd ask another question because there certainly are ways to effectively help people (a basic income would be one).

    I think the real moral question is if it's moral to force other people to help if they don't want to?

    Do you have any moral obligation to aid someone else in need, and if so, how far does it stretch? I could help a whole bunch of poor starving kids in Africa right now, but I don't. There are homeless in my very city I could help, but I don't. Many don't. People would rather use the money they earned themselves, on themselves (for the most part). Is this wrong?

  4. I do not care about the spider but some humans are trying to personify everything so the question is good for asking the question; "Why should we personify things that do not have a language?" .

    When we find an alien specie or make a specie smart enough to have a language and culture they will form their own protective groups. They will decide what is acceptable plus we will be able to communicate or at least know we should avoid them because they are smart enough to know they are able to communicate.

    I step on spider.

  5. The government bureaucracy would decide to not only relocate the spider, but to subsidize it's reproduction, and provide it with Fly Stamps. It would linger a bit longer, and reproduce a bit more, but eventually it would die, and it's many baby spiderlings would return to their native urinals, prompting perpetual intervention for an ever growing spider problem.

    Of course the humane thing to do is piss directly on the spider, and then ensure that it has been flushed entirely.

  6. Morality is all about intention. If I try to save someone's life in a way that results in them dying (i.e. giving a dehydrated person water that unknowingly was poisoned), then I have acted morally. Nonetheless, there has to be crimes for reckless endangerment due to bad judgement because morality is not everything.

    But with particular regard to the spider, just drape a piece toilet paper over the side (to give extra grip) so that the spider can choose.

  7. I would've left the spider there because I don't care about one urinal among a few that I don't even own. But if it was in my toilet at home, I would've removed him. Possibly violently, because spiders scare me.

  8. I'll probably have to re-watch the video to get the deeper meanings..

    It depends on what kind of spider it was… so would I have let it die? I'd probably purposely try to kill it. It already invaded the building.. your telling me after a million years of evolution they can't tell the difference between the outside and inside? Oh it earned its killing. Plus I hate most spiders #GallowHumor

  9. well if you are not hurt by the spider i dont think its moral to move it. but if the fear, uncomfort, and the fear of being stung by it compels you to move it, it makes sense. Hey if you dont educate your kids, dont be hurt by their actions

  10. Blacks are the spider, racism is the urinal, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the professor who thinks he is helping the spider but is really sabotaging its ability to survive.

  11. I would not presume to know what is best for the spider. The spider has will enough and what I think is best is irrelevant unless the spider in the urinal is harming me.

  12. I routinely rescue spiders from my bathroom sink. I don't haul them out, however. I've found that if you lay a strip of paper towel along the bottom of the sink and up the side, the spiders crawl out on their own.

  13. Move or let it be? Why would any sane human save a spider? Even my 2 year old son knows to stomp indoor spiders into oblivion.

  14. This Halloween, we bring you an exercise in the creepy, crawly consequences of intervention. Spider in the Urinal is based off of Professor Thomas Nagel’s philosophical thought experiment in his book “The View From Nowhere.”

    What do you think the verdict should be?

  15. did the spider ask for your help? No then you are a meddling douche bag acting on your own inner feelings without a thought to how anyone else wants or feels about it. it's better to leave the spider alone.

  16. If I were in your position, I would complain to the university about the lack of cleaning in their bathrooms. At least they sweep once a week, but that was months without the urinals getting cleaned.

    I would also not move the spider if he could live for months in a urinal. How many bugs did he keep from coming out of the urinal and into your food?

  17. I think the spider represents small, eight-legged creatures and the urinal represents a place where complex primates deposit bodily waste for sanitary disposal. The philosopher represents a person who thinks a lot and the dream was a manifestation of his propensity to abstract excessively and anthropomorphize.

  18. I would have moved the spider the first day before it was weakened by starvation.  It was the intrusion of the urinal into the natural world that caused the problem in the first place.  The spider thought it could catch insects attracted to the water by the ceiling light reflecting off of it.  Since the room was enclosed, the odds of getting enough to eat that way were small, even without the continual contributions of the philosphers.Of course, I would have liberated it outdoors where it could be self-sufficient and free.

  19. Well it is an interesting analogy. You could say this is how America currently deals with foreign policy. We insert ourselves into a situation we only understand through our filters, and in reality we do not see all of the variables. Once you go into a situation to change it – you need to have a follow through plan. Do we invade a country and just let the locals rebuild out of the rubble? It is kind of like taking the spider out of the toilet and just leaving it on the floor. The spider only knows the toilet… The people in the invaded land know no better either.
    So dont take the spider out of the toilet unless you are prepared to give it a new home somehow. Dont invade a land unless you are totally prepared to take it over.

  20. I usually "learn" something from "Learn Liberty"…but it was certainly missing here. Thumb's down for a waste of time for me…

  21. No dilemma here. Just a spider that needs to be put down.These dilemmas are the result of people neglecting their circumstances and letting them fester until they're left in a situation where they have to make questionable decisions. Even in such cases, one must measure the consequence behind such actions and determine whether it is acceptable or not. Make your choice, and move on. http://io9.com/9-philosophical-thought-experiments-that-will-keep-you-1340952809

  22. Provide the spider with an opportunity to move itself. If it wants out of the urinal, it will leave, otherwise it will stay.

  23. lol I would move the spider, my sister would kill it, my brother would scream and back into the wall, and my mom would avoid it, and my dad would just sit back and laugh at everybody else's reactions.

  24. I'd kill the spider. I'm cool with spiders if they stick to their corner of a room out of my way. Sometimes if I find an ant, or any other insect bothering me I'll even drop those bugs in their webs, but as soon as they start venturing out and set up shop in my path well that Spider is probably ending up in the toilet.

  25. I have a dilemma just like that. So, you can choose to donate clothes to Africa. Most good people would say yes. But, if you do, then you and others will put clothes shops out of business and cause Africa's economy to go down.

  26. I would have moved the spider on the second day. And I wouldn't have forced the paper towel under him; I would've put it next to him and let him crawl onto it himself so he didn't get hurt. and I would have placed the paper towel outside on a bush. Your attempt to help the spider was half ass. Of course if you forcibly remove a soaking wet spider after it's been living in a urinal for over a week and put it on the floor it's going to die.

  27. I'm guessing most people will either say "I would help the spider because _" "I wouldn't help the the spider because _" "OH THAT POOR SPIDER!" "Kill that damn thing" or other similar answers.
    The only thing I'm concerned about is how stupid this metaphor is. I mean I get it, the question you are trying to get across, whether or not it is right to intervene or not, is already a broad moral question. But the way you presented that question was too broad and honestly too silly for something that can be taken as a serious thing. People have already brought up different things to try and answer the question such as Welfare, Africa, religion, charity, etc etc. I'm not saying these things aren't important to discuss, but they're all different situations that each deserve their own videos. Instead they got bunched up here. Also people have mixed (negative) feelings about spiders and feces so that only complicates the responses.
    Idk, am I the only one who thought this or am I alone here?

  28. We make decisions based on knowledge. If that knowledge is knowingly incomplete, then acting on that incomplete knowledge makes us responsible for any resulting harm. If one is unaware of one's insufficient knowledge then the act was moral. However, such judgements rest solely on the agent's critical thinking ability. If one's mind has been insufficiently trained to be aware of one's deficiencies, then how can one be judged with the intention of guiding others?

  29. In reality, I'd pee on the spider until I was either dry or the spider found himself curled up in the hole at the bottom, drowning. Then I'd flush a few times to make sure. I know that sounds cruel, but it's a spider, and I'm not above attempting to kill a spider. It's not a human, and all it has in its little head is enough synapses for instinct – that's it. No soul, no higher functions, nothing.

    Now, as a thought experiment, it really depends on how the analogy is applied. Let's try a different one – also a straw man, just like the spider:

    You have the ability to sense how any creature is feeling. You can sense pain, elation, anger, etc. All emotions, from any creature, if you simply focus on it. You're out for a walk, and you see what appears to by a chrysalis or a cocoon. It's changing shape a little, as if whatever's inside is moving. Curious, you focus on the feelings of the insect within. You feel confusion, pain, and little else. So much pain! You understand that it's trying to break free from its envelopment, but it just can't seem to do it. It's just so painful! So you attempt to help it by gently tearing away the outer layers of the cocoon, almost like peeling the dead skin from an aged sunburn. The insect wriggles a little, dries some, and struggles to unfold its wings. Still focusing, you feel its pain and exhaustion. Soon, you feel hunger, confusion, and desperation. You watch as it continues to struggle until, at last, it dies. As it turns out, you robbed that insect of the process it needed to undergo – a process which would've strengthened its wings enough to allow it to survive. The struggle to escape the cocoon would've provided that insect the strength to unfurl its wings and fly. Essentially, your involvement killed it.

    Now, in my straw man (lifted from an old Star Wars EU novel), through a combination of pure compassion, pure empathy, and a total lack of understanding, your actions doomed that creature. You gave it no choice, though if you had, it would likely have chosen for you to help it. Instinctively, like any creature, it would've preferred to not be in pain. It was unaware of its own best interests, just as you were.

    Now let's apply the analogy: Someone is in pain. They believe they need another to come along and remove whatever's causing them pain. Do you simply remove it, or do you examine the situation to determine if your actions will end up hurting him or her in the long run? What if that person doesn't ask? What if they do? What if you know, with little doubt, that helping that person too much will create a dependency and stifle growth? Are you playing God by helping? Are you playing God by refusing to help? If you can help, shouldn't you?

    If it's a poor person with no food, do you give them food? Do you continue to give them food? How long do you continue to give them food? Or, instead, do you help them find a way to feed themselves? What if they refuse that extra help, and simply want the food?

    If it's a nation of people with a leader that squanders resources so badly that the populace is crying for help, then what? Do you help them overthrow their leader? Do you attempt to teach the leader how to better lead? Do you just air-drop more resources?

    In both cases, we have history to teach us. We've seen the results of each of these choices. The thought experiment ceases to be a philosophical one when we have all of history to show us which choices were the right ones.

    Allow the spider to struggle, but provide a way for it if it chooses to use it. Allow the moth to escape its cocoon on its own. Teach the man to fish. Teach the country to sustain itself. When any of those fail, re-examine the cause of the failure, adjust, adapt, and continue.

    Sometimes, compassion can kill. Compassion is useless without context. Compassion combined with ignorance is dangerous if acted upon. Gain some context. Research. Plan. Seek to understand the consequences before intervening. That said, if a dying man cries "help", immediate action may be required. Don't be afraid to help if help is required to save a life. Just be ready for what happens next.

  30. the main difference is that you can't ask the spider if it wants intervention
    so this is only a valid point for people that cannot be communicated with

  31. in a similar situation i put a piece of paper next to the spider and told it to go on the paper and i would bring it outside, it proceeded to walk toward and onto the paper and stayed there, then i went outside and put the paper next to a pant and it walked onto the plant. Talking to spiders has resulted in weird results like this 2/3 times lol.

  32. Philosophical questions often try to over simplify something to make it seem like a thought experiment. The reality here is he knew nothing about the spider other than it chose to make a home in the urinal. He doesn't know what the spider eats, what its natural environment is like, what kind of conditions it thrives in.
    Without that basic information any choice you make to help the spider will have unpredictable results.

  33. Do you want the world to be a better place instantly?

    Demand explicit consent in all manner of transactions, associations, and exchanges.

    Even altruism lacking explicit consent is wrong. Certainly, no one asked the spider.

    And if in some Universe the spider agreed to the relocation, the consequences would be solely on the spider.

    There is no good to be had at the forced expense of others, period.

  34. If you actively take away their agency, and the outcome is bad, it's your responsibility, and you're a bad person who abuses their power and causes harm to others.

    If you act to increase their agency, and they pursue their best interests but fail to achieve their goals and the outcome is bad, it's not your responsibility, and you're a good person who helps others.

    Edit: He should have dropped a twig in the urinal.

  35. The flaw in this thought experiment is that it's a single instance. Run this experiment a million times and I bet the spider only dies in a small fraction of instances

  36. Somebody watched The Gods Must be Crazy and decided to write a redundant essay, thinking nobody would notice.

  37. Terrible metaphor because the spider cannot communicate it's preferences. While that means it could seem to be an analog to some situations (Euthanasia of a coma patient for example), it's not generally useful.

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