By The Power of Stipulation: I Have The Power!

by Belle Waring on June 18, 2004

I am sick and tired of hearing about that ticking nuclear bomb in Manhattan. You know the one. Why? Because, if you let me put my thumb on the utilitarian scales, I can get you to agree that you have an affirmative moral duty to torture a three-year-old child to death.

I will utilitze my mighty powers of stipulation, thusly: the earth is invaded by a race of super-intelligent, but malevolent beings. They subscribe to a xenocidal religion under which they have ravaged the galaxy, exterminating all life when they find it. In the last million years or so, however, they’ve had some sort of reformation, and are now content with a single sacrifice. For occult alien reasons involving astrology, you alone can satisfactorily perform this sacrifice. So, you are given a choice: you can torture one child to death, or the aliens will exterminate all life on earth, over a painful period of time, and wrap the whole thing up by nudging the earth from its orbit into a death spiral terminating in the heart of the sun. Because of your unique religious status, even if you choose not to perform the sacrifice, you will still be forced to kill children, around the clock, in awful ways, for the rest of your artificially extended life. The aliens will keep enough humans alive to serve this terrible purpose, and they will turn a mind-controlling ray on you, under the influence of which your body will commit these acts as your rebellious consciousness looks on in horror. If you agree to perform the sacrifice, by contrast, the earth will be spared, and we will get lots of alien technology which we can use to solve all problems of illness and material want for all humankind. It’s up to you.

Now, does anyone think you shouldn’t torture that one child to death, under the circumstances? No. Does anyone think this scenario helps cast even the feeblest single photon of illumination onto the moral question of whether it is ever appropriate to torture children to death? No.

The ticking nuclear bomb scenario is more plausible, of course. We capture some Al Quaeda guy, and though we don’t torture him, as we don’t know about the bomb, he folds like a cheap suit anyway, destroying his life’s ambition, by telling us that there is a nuclear bomb set to go off in Manhattan, but that he doesn’t know where it is. Then Bruce Willis and the FBI rappel into Osama Bin Laden’s secret hideout, and arrest him, and he’s all “you didn’t read me my rights”, and this one straight-laced FBI agent starts to Mirandize him, but then Bruce Willis is all: “you have the right…to get your ass kicked!”, and he goes buck wild on Osama, and he totally caves and tells them where the bomb is and what the disarm code is. So then, Bruce Willis is racing through the streets of New York, and maybe some funny things happen like a hot dog vendor gets in his way, and he has to drive up on the sidewalk. I was thinking he could maybe be in a taxi with a driver who has a humorous subcontinental accent, but that’s optional. And then Bruce Willis gets to the bomb, and it has a big red digital readout that’s counting down under one minute, but first Bruce Willis has to fight this one super-strong Al Quaeda guy who knows Islamic martial arts, and at the start of the fight Bruce Willis is totally getting schooled, and blood is coming out of his nose and stuff, but at the absolute last second he hits the guy with a tire iron, and then he enters the code right as the digital display ticks down to 0. We’ll all wipe our collective foreheads and say “phew” when that happens, I can tell you!

Now, you may object to the aliens in my example above, but of course you can just replace them with a genocidal tyrant and his henchmen, and the whole world with your entire ethnic group, and mind-control rays with hideous torture under which you will beg for death but it will be denied. See? All tidy. So, basically what I’m saying is, shut the fuck up about that bomb.

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Kieran Healy 06.18.04 at 4:48 am

Like herding cats, organizing these Timberteers. Stay in line there!

I’m afraid you’ll have to repost this at the new site soon, Belle. See previous post for context…

Comments left here won’t be imported to the new server.


belle 06.18.04 at 4:58 am

D’oh! I wrote this in advance and then transferred it over without checking the blog. Sorry about that.


q 06.18.04 at 5:01 am

There’s always one…!


Kieran Healy 06.18.04 at 5:02 am

No worries — the import is nearly finished but the DNS propagation hasn’t happened yet and will take a little while. But then repost it, because I want people to STFU about the bomb as well.


Ted Barlow 06.18.04 at 6:17 am

As one of the few resident non-PhDs, I’m glad that someone else broke the “fuck” barrier on this site first.


me2i81 06.18.04 at 9:30 am

But…tough guy Jack Bauer tortured that guy on 24, and I read this stupid spy novel once where the sweet old guy who was actually a super-secret uber-agent ended up sliding a knife under the bad guy’s eyeball, because deep down he was a tough guy too.


akaike 06.18.04 at 11:44 am

This is all just one big passion play anyway, but with the roles reversed…


Matt McIrvin 06.18.04 at 1:46 pm

You just saved me the trouble of having to write that essay. Mine wasn’t going to be as funny.


SCOTT FANETTI 06.18.04 at 1:47 pm

Of course, anyone that is willing to die for their religious beliefs might not be all that well persuaded by torture. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with an iron fist, but he still never slept in the same bed twice because his administration was under constant siege by rebels. He would kill whole families to get information, but the rebellion persisted. People with rabidly strong beliefs only become more strident when they are faced with such a moral and ethical dilemmas.

This is what scares me about the moral absolutists on the right. These people are just a few steps away from rounding up the nonbelievers, liberals, and gays for some ‘ol timey justice.


asg 06.18.04 at 1:53 pm

And what scares you about the moral absolutists on the left, just out of curiosity?


paul 06.18.04 at 3:09 pm

I didn’t realize there were any moral absolutists on the left: I hear they’re all squishy relativists, not a shred of moral fiber in the bunch.


BigMacAttack 06.18.04 at 4:00 pm

So you admit we all basically subscribe to utilitarianism.

We just might have a hard time measuring utility and expected utlility.

Anyway. It is obviously a trick. Like in that Star Trek episode. If I torture the girl they will destroy us. If I refuse they will give us the technology.


Peter 06.18.04 at 5:01 pm

So, why don’t amateur philosophers ever consider the alternative scenario:

The cops think there is a ticking bomb. Maybe there is maybe there is not.
They are positive that YOU know where it is, and the disarm code (but you do not).
They torture you to get the information out of you (which you do not have).
What do you do?
Should the guy who tortured you be “excused” for making a mistake? Was he “justified” in torturing you because he really believed that YOU knew where it was? Will that get your teeth and fingernails put back in your body?

If you tell them (the torturers) the truth (that you don’t know where it is), they will believe you are holding out, and knock you around some more. Eventually, they will kill you and blame it on you being a fanatic, who held out till the very end. I don’t think they will ever consider that they made a mistake.

There is a reason we have the Miranda decision. And why police are no longer allowed to use rubber hoses and lead lined gloves to facilitate investigations. I wonder just how civilized we really are, if one little scratch will make us roll over and turn back into the savages we used to be.


Old Ranger 06.20.04 at 5:24 pm

You are 100% right. However, you didn’t mention the pleasure that comes from feeling superior to others, torturing and kicking them around. Do it once and you’re likely to do it again and again, for lesser and lesser stakes. Naturally, you will focus on non-whites if you are white, and vice-versa. Would that Alan Dershowitz would ponder your point.


chris 06.21.04 at 9:39 am

Ursula LeGuin wrote The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in 1973. It seemed to sum it up fairly well at the time. Has anything changed?


yabonn 06.21.04 at 10:18 pm

“Why won’t the reader pick up the new feed? The address hasn’t changed!”

I just love that parallel universe feeling. :-)

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