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Is Enjoyment of Torture Wrong? :: Problems in Ethics

Is it “wrong” or “bad” to enjoy torturing other people?  Listen to a philosopher try to convince a reader that there is no such thing as a wrong desire, only we call things “wrong” or “bad” when they have consequences that we don’t prefer.  This would mean that a desire to torture people or an enjoyment at the thought of people being tortured is not necessarily “bad” or “wrong.”  In a word, this is the philosophical insanity that a godless theory of ethics (i.e. pure utilitarianism) leads to. 

Could a pleasurable state of mind have no intrinsic value at all, or perhaps even a negative intrinsic value?  Are there pleasurable states of mind towards which we have an unfavourable attitude, even though we disregard their consequences?  In order to decide this question let us imagine a universe consisting of one sentient being only, who falsely believes that there are other sentient beings and that they are undergoing exquisite torment.  

So far from being distressed by the thought, he takes a great delight in these imagined sufferings.  Is this better or worse than a universe containing no sentient being at all?  Is it worse, again, than a universe containing only one sentient being with the same beliefs as before but who sorrows at the imagined tortures of his fellow creatures?  I suggest, as against Moore, that the universe containing the deluded sadist is the preferable one.

… It is difficult, I admit, not to feel an immediate repugnance at the thought of the deluded sadist.  … Our repugnance to the sadist arises, naturally enough because in our universe sadists invariably do harm. … language might make it difficult for us to distinguish an extrinsic distaste for sadism, founded on our distaste for the consequences of sadism, from an immediate distaste for sadism as such.  

Normally when we call a thing “bad” we mean indifferently to express a dislike for it in itself or to express a dislike for what it leads to.  … when a state of mind is always, or almost always, extrinsically bad, it is easy for us to confuse an extrinsic distaste for it with an intrinsic one.  If we allow for this, it does not seem so absurd to hold that there are no pleasures which are intrinsically bad. 

:::::::Source: J.J.C. Smart, “An Outline of a System of Utilitarian Ethics,” in Readings in the Problems of Ethics, ed. Rosalind Ekman (New York, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 22-23.

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3 Comments

  1. […] actions are not good or bad, but are widely believed to have good or bad consequences.  (NOTE: In a previous post, I showed how one utilitarian took on the ambitious task of convincing his readers that the desire […]

  2. Arturo says:

    Why should I care about another person’s desires as long as they don’t let it affect their behavior? Saying they are wrong even if they don’t hurt other people will just send a message out to society to people who have these desires that: “you’re already a bad person so you might as well just behave evily as well.”

  3. Because it’s wrong. Wanting to punch someone in the face just because he is homosexual (for example) or because of her race (another example) or having a desire to molest a child can be wrong in and of itself, even if one might have the self-control to know better not to actually act out those desires. Actually punching or molesting in these cases, however, is even worse. We are talking about a gradation of evil here (there are different levels of vices or evils).

    I don’t think telling people “Bad desires are bad” necessarily sends the message “So since you are already thinking bad thoughts or having bad desires you might as well go ahead and act on them.” Instead, it should send the opposite message—–since they are bad desires you shouldn’t act on them.

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