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.