Boundary case on the morality of torture


Most everyone would agree that "cold-blooded" torture is morally wrong. We agree so much so that many assume it's objectively wrong.

That being said, imagine this thought experiment:

A criminal has a track record so tremendous that he is sentenced to solitary confinement for life. We don't really care what he does inside his confinement cell, because he is unable to harm any living thing or really interact with the outside world in any way. Now imagine this criminal is somehow able to create a conscious entity out of the atoms in the room and decides to torture it. At what level would this still be considered morally wrong?

On one hand, the criminal is simply playing with a configuration of atoms. But on the other hand, this configuration shares a common property with us: consciousness.

Cam White

Posted 2020-07-16T20:31:32.513

Reputation: 111

Question was closed 2020-07-24T08:36:41.890

1"We don't really care what he does" does not work in ethics, people do not stop being people when they are incarcerated, they retain their human rights and responsibilities. Your sci-fi scenario is hard to take seriously, but it is morally wrong, say, to torture a rat for entertainment (despite the fact that rats are considered pests), and it remains so when a criminal is doing it in a prison cell. And rats, or even humans, are also configurations of atoms. – Conifold – 2020-07-16T20:42:22.810

@Conifold What I mean by "we don't really care what he does" is exactly what human rights are. What I meant is he is free to do literally anything that he wants, i.e. the epitome of freedom. In the scenario I presented, I was inquiring on the morality of affecting a conscious entity versus a non-conscious one. This is just a thought experiment. No need to take it further than that. – Cam White – 2020-07-16T21:24:31.937

In ethics, no one is literally "free to do whatever", and it is immoral to torture any suffering being, even an animal, whether they are "conscious" or not. – Conifold – 2020-07-16T21:56:01.560

@Conifold If he's in an empty room by himself, why isn't he free to do whatever he wants? And in order for a being to suffer it has to be conscious. E.g. a tree is not conscious. – Cam White – 2020-07-16T23:53:08.860

I don't think you have to be conscious to suffer and trees can suffer. Trees have a thick protective layer, produce numerous compounds to deter and kill predators and keep themselves alive in addition to more sophisticated defenses. If those are breached the tree becomes stressed; not emotional, but stressed nonetheless as a result of being subjected to harmful things. – Cell – 2020-07-17T01:08:56.140

Because morality is about what is done, not whether somebody is watching. He could be the only human in the universe, and it won't make a difference morally. It is controversial whether animals have consciousness but few doubt that they can suffer. – Conifold – 2020-07-17T02:44:38.350

Does "simply playing with a configuration of atoms" mean you are tacitly assuming that biological organisms such as ourselves are not simply configurations of atoms that arose via the laws of physics acting on prebiotic configurations of atoms? – Hypnosifl – 2020-07-17T03:56:16.500

So your question is, if a sentient being is tortured alone in the woods where no one except the torturer hears it, is it wrong? I'd imagine the near-universal response from ethicists of all stripes would be yes. – J D – 2020-07-17T15:00:27.047

@JD no my question was if a sentient being was created (e.g. we developed a computer that was "conscious" whatever that means) is it morally wrong to inflict pain on it? My thought was no one really cares what a chemist does to chemicals in his lab, but if those chemicals produced something living then we think of it differently. It has nothing to do with who's watching. I just asked a specific version of this thought. – Cam White – 2020-07-17T20:08:28.770

@Conifold but I'm not even talking about animals; I'm talking about a theoretical configuration of atoms that somehow came into being. And my question has nothing to do with who's watching; it's about the value we assign to certain configurations over others. – Cam White – 2020-07-17T20:18:51.190

@Cell it turns out one of the main sources of disagreement comes from alternative definitions. If I could define my use of "suffer" and "consciousness" then it would be a scientific and philosophical revolution. Intuitively, I'm using the definition of consciousness that is relatable to us and probably every other animal to varying degrees, and the notion of suffering that is experienced by every animal. You could say "the sky is suffering from pollution," but that's just not the definition I'm using. – Cam White – 2020-07-17T20:26:13.927

@Hypnosifl No I realize that we are configurations of atoms as well, but imagine if you had a "blob" and it was just one adjustment away from being conscious; before the adjustment it's just a blob, but after the adjustment it suddenly has tremendous moral value. – Cam White – 2020-07-17T20:33:11.030

I did a google search on "define suffering" and I got the following definition: the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship. Additionally wikipedia states: "Suffering, or pain in a broad sense, may be an experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with the perception of harm or threat of harm in an individual." I don't know precisely what you think suffering means, but it can be demonstrated that trees can be in states of distress and have an aversion to harm thus it can be argued that trees suffer. The same does not apply to the sky. – Cell – 2020-07-18T01:10:08.277

@Cell but there's a big difference between conscious suffering and non-conscious suffering. For example, doing drugs harms your body even though it feels good. The consciousness isn't being tortured and doesn't suffer when doing drugs even if the body does. Similarly, how can you say that a tree dislikes the harm being done to it? You can't because it doesn't have a brain or any type of neural connections. When you smoke, it may seem like your body dislikes it because you cough and have other "defense mechanisms" against it, but it turns out that people (their consciousness) actually like it. – Cam White – 2020-07-18T08:05:41.313

The key phrase was "aversion to harm" not just subjected to it. I know trees dislike the harm being done to them because they respond to it. Just like you'd swat away a bee on your arm or quickly pull back your hand from a hot surface trees respond to threats too. They can't run or cry, but they can wall off infected tissue in their highly connected cells. They increase production of antimicrobial activity and other immune like responses. A tree that was "indifferent" would take no such actions. – Cell – 2020-07-18T12:29:01.190

The tree only has defense mechanisms against it because of evolution by natural selection. These defense mechanisms appear sophisticated and even driven by what the tree "wants," but it's simply the fact that trees with more defense mechanisms were more likely to survive. Even single-celled organisms have plenty of defense mechanisms but it's pretty clear that they don't suffer (it's simply predictable chemical reactions between the cell and its environment). – Cam White – 2020-07-18T16:58:48.760

What applies to animals applies all the more to your conscious configurations. And if it makes no difference who is watching why should being in an empty room by himself provide extra "freedom" from morality? – Conifold – 2020-07-19T08:02:35.920

@Conifold it doesn't I just wanted to isolate the factors that we consider while thinking about it. – Cam White – 2020-07-19T19:31:38.097

@Conifold: I have heard it suggested moral or immoral action is impossible for a lone individual, in relation only to themselves. What do you think of that stance? – CriglCragl – 2020-07-24T08:02:26.337

1@CriglCragl Depends on what "lone individual" and "in relation only to themselves" mean. In one sense, it might be impossible for such an individual to develop reasoning or speech either. But if they carry the spoils of humanization into their loneliness why should morality be excluded? Don't they say of some things that they are between you and your conscience, or between you and God? – Conifold – 2020-07-24T09:08:32.563



This is absolutely a philosophical question.

Nick Bostrom identifies the 3 malignant failure modes for Artificial General Intelligence:

perverse instantiation; infrastructure profusion; and mind crime.

The first two are physical, the third is virtual, which is essentially what you are talking about.

In principle, anything can be simulated by even very simple systems given enough time. The limit is quantum systems cannot be simulated by classical systems, so if there are intrinsically quantum features required for consciousness that's an issue.

What is the threshold for consciousness? Integrated Information Theory is one approach to trying to picture one, and it's likely to be a spectrum.

We provide almost no protections for some beings, like cock roaches. In animal experimentation a lot more protections are granted to mammals like mice, which though they can be killed as pests, can't be allowed to face suffering considered unnecessary, eg fed live to a pet snake. Animals we consider ourselves to ve able to form deeper emotional interactions with like cats and dogs, we protect above and beyond a criteria related to their cognitive abilities - many pet owners consider them equal in value to themselves or other humans (although probably a large majority don't). Chimpanzees and dolphins are being granted extended rights, eg through the work of The Nonhuman Rights Project supported by philosopher Peter Singer.

So, being simulated, or synthetic, is definitely not a bar to moral concern. However, exactly what kind of complexity or subjective experience is involved for a being, is key to how we treat that.

A fully simulated human, we would have a clear framework for. A synthetic mind might both not feel psychological suffering when a human mind would, and might suffer in ways that are invisible or unintelligible to us. As the complexity of what we can make/simulate increases this will be an open question. The transition between non-conscious and conscious matter is one of the areas of greatest interest and contention in all of philosophy.


Posted 2020-07-16T20:31:32.513

Reputation: 5 272


If the criminal is in a cell with another sentient being then he is not by himself. Whether he created it or not is immaterial.

His world now constitutes a microcosm with the same moral issues as anywhere else.

Guy Inchbald

Posted 2020-07-16T20:31:32.513

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