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cw comments on Torture vs. Dust Specks - Less Wrong

41 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 30 October 2007 02:50AM

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Comment author: cw 30 October 2007 01:38:23PM 8 points [-]

Robin is absolutely wrong, because different instances of human suffering cannot be added together in any meaningful way. The cumulative effect when placed on one person is far greater than the sum of many tiny nuisances experienced by many. Whereas small irritants such as a dust mote do not cause "suffering" in any standard sense of the word, the sum total of those motes concentrated at one time and placed into one person's eye could cause serious injury or even blindness. Dispersing the dust (either over time or across many people) mitigates the effect. If the dispersion is sufficient, there is actually no suffering at all. To extend the example, you could divide the dust mote into even smaller particles, until each individual would not even be aware of the impact.

So the question becomes, would you rather live in a world with little or no suffering (caused by this particular event) or a world where one person suffers badly, and those around him or her sit idly by, even though they reap very little or no benefit from the situation?

The notion of shifting human suffering onto one unlucky individual so that the rest of society can avoid minor inconveniences is morally reprehensible. That (I hope) is why no one has stood up and shouted yeay for torture.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 12 August 2014 07:47:18PM *  0 points [-]

Robin is absolutely wrong, because different instances of human suffering cannot be added together in any meaningful way.

The problem with this claim is that you can construct a series of overlapping comparisons involving experiences that differ but slightly in how painful they are. Then, provided that the series has sufficiently many elements, you'll reach the conclusion that an experience of pain, no matter how intense, is preferable to arbitrarily many instances of the mildest pain imaginable.

(Strictly speaking, you could actually avoid this conclusion by assuming that painful experiences of a given intensity have diminishing marginal value and that this value converges to a finite quantity. Then if the limiting value of a very mild pain is less than the value of a single extremely painful experience, the continuity argument wouldn't work. However, I see no independent motivation for embracing a theory of value of this sort. Moreover, such a theory would have incredible implications, e.g., that to determine how bad someone's pain is one needs to consider whether sentient beings have already experienced pains of that intensity in remote regions of spacetime.)

Comment author: shminux 12 August 2014 09:45:14PM 0 points [-]

you could actually avoid this conclusion by assuming that painful experiences of a given intensity have diminishing marginal value and that this value converges to a finite quantity.

Yeah, this is a common attempt to avoid this particular repugnant conclusion. This approach leads to conclusions like that a 3^^^3 mildly stabbed toes are better than a single moderately stabbed one. (Because if not, we can construct an unbroken chain of comparable pain experiences from specks to torture.)

However, I see no independent motivation for embracing a theory of value of this sort.

The motivation is there, to make dust specks and torture incomparable. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't work, as it results in infinitely many arbitrarily defined discontinuities.