[content warning: brief discussion of thought experiments involving infanticide, rape, incest, etc.; extensive discussion of thought experiments involving torture]

Scott Alexander wrote an essay a while back arguing that:

Moral dilemmas are extreme and disgusting precisely because those are the only cases in which we can make our intuitions strong enough to be clearly detectable. If the question was just “Which is worse, a thousand people stubbing their toe or one person breaking their leg?” neither side would have been obviously worse than the other and our true intutition wouldn’t have come into sharp relief. So a good moral philosopher will always be talking about things like murder, torture, organ-stealing, Hitler, incest, drowning children,the death of four billion humans, et cetera.

This is totally, completely, flat-out wrong.

Let’s take the Torture vs. Dust Specks thought experiment. Scott praises it as “beautiful in its simplicity; it just takes this assumption [that utility aggregates linearly] and creates the most extreme case imaginable.” He criticizes people who say that philosophers are crappy people for even considering it.

But the thing is that there is actually an alternate formulation of Torture vs. Dust Specks! It’s Alicorn’s essay, Sublimity vs. YouTube:

Suppose the impending existence of some person who is going to live to be fifty years old whatever you do2.  She is liable to live a life that zeroes out on a utility scale: mediocre ups and less than shattering downs, overall an unremarkable span.  But if you choose “sublimity”, she’s instead going to live a life that is truly sublime.  She will have a warm and happy childhood enriched by loving relationships, full of learning and wonder and growth; she will mature into a merrily successful adult, pursuing meaningful projects and having varied, challenging fun.  (For the sake of argument, suppose that the ripple effects of her sublime life as it affects others still lead to the math tallying up as +(1 sublime life), instead of +(1 sublime life)+(various lovely consequences).)

Or you can choose “Youtube”, and 3^^^3 people who weren’t doing much with some one-second period of their lives instead get to spend that second watching a brief, grainy, yet droll recording of a cat jumping into a box, which they find mildly entertaining.

Sublimity or Youtube?

Sublimity vs. YouTube gets at the same utility aggregation problem as Torture vs. Dust Specks. It elicits the same emotional response of “how can a single moment outweigh an entire life?” It shows the same fact that people cannot emotionally understand very very large numbers. It does feature pleasure instead of pain, but torture vs. dust specks presupposes utilitarianism, which traditionally treats the two as interchangeable. Literally the only difference is that no one will think you are a terrible person who supports torture.

And yet I predict most of the people reading this have never heard of it.

Taking torture out of the thought experiment has two advantages. First, a certain percentage of the population’s brains shut down as soon as they see words like “torture” and “rape”, and you will not get any arguments out of them other than TORTURE IS BAD RAPE IS BAD HOW DARE YOU SUGGEST THAT TORTURE AND RAPE ARE GOOD THEY ARE BAD. Indeed, that’s what Scott’s post is complaining about. Now, you can argue that these people should not do that thing. I might even agree! But as long as they continue to exist, including torture in your thought experiment is basically saying “It is my belief that everyone in the category ‘people who are totally, irrationally averse to torture’– which, anecdotally, seems to be at least half of the population– has absolutely nothing interesting or important to say about utility aggregation, such that I am willing to entirely shut them out of the discussion.”

(Compare: Everyone should have basic statistical literacy, enough so they can read even misleading graphs. It is still wrong to make misleading graphs.)

Now, some thought experiments are deliberately intended to get at those people’s TORTURE IS BAD RAPE IS BAD sense. “Is there anything wrong with consensual, protected incest that is kept secret and that everyone involved thought was a wonderful experience that brought them closer?” is supposed to contrast our instinctive INCEST IS BAD with the observable fact that that incest had no negative consequences. Pat Robertson’s “atheists would think that someone raping their daughters in front of them is morally wrong” observation is supposed to contrast the idea that there’s no such thing as morality with people’s instinctive moral sense. Fine.

But, first, that is a relatively narrow category. It doesn’t even include things like Peter Singer’s advocacy for infanticide: the question of whether babies have a right to life could be just as easily discussed with the framing “was it okay for classical Athenians to leave unwanted babies to die?” as “is it okay to kill disabled babies?”, but the former is much less emotionally laden. Second, there’s no justification for making it more upsetting than necessary. “Do atheists think rape is wrong?” gets at the issue, you don’t need to include the brutal raping of daughters in front of people.

Furthermore: how confident are you that “TORTURE IS BAD TORTURE IS BAD” is actually an incorrect thing to feel about torture? The correct utilitarian rule about torture is “don’t torture people, even if it’s the right thing to do; it is more likely you are mistaken than that torture is morally right.” Being repelled by torture to the extent that you can’t even consider that it’s correct in a thought experiment seems to me like the way that your emotions and intuition internalize that rule. By developing your capacity to be okay with torture in thought experiments, you are practicing being okay with torture. Even if your rational mind still endorses the rule “don’t torture people, even if it’s the right thing to do”, your intuition has shifted to “don’t torture people, unless it’s right– and since we keep thinking about times when it’s right, there are a lot of those times accessible by our availability heuristic.”

(Remember that your intuition doesn’t understand big numbers. That’s part of the purpose of torture vs. dust specks to begin with.)

I think a lot of torture vs. dust specks arguers aren’t really interested in the paradoxes of utility aggregation. They’re interested in signaling that they are hard-headed people who bite bullets and come to counterintuitive ethical conclusions. And, you know, if you want to optimize your thought experiments for signaling hard-headed contrarianism, that’s your business. But you really shouldn’t pretend that it’s just a product of the tragic constraints of moral philosophy and there’s nothing you can do about it.