Friday, October 12, 2007

Intuition Test: Self-Destruction

Suppose you will soon be subject to torture and degradation, such that you would prefer to die beforehand. Suicide is not allowed, but you are offered the opportunity to have all traces of your psychological self purged from your brain -- memories, character, talents, etc. Would that help? Would you fear the upcoming torture any less, perhaps believing that it would now be someone else rather than you who endures it?

How about if your psychological traces are completely transferred into the brain of another person, who goes on to live a happy, torture-free life?

Suppose now that the psychological transfer is compulsory, but beforehand you get to choose which body will be subsequently tortured. What would you choose?

(Cases from Bernard Williams, 'The Self and the Future'.)


  1. It's not clear what would be left once the psychological trace had been removed. It would be nice to meet someone who had already been detraced before making the decision.

    But assuming I got over ethical qualms about fobbing the torture off onto someone else, then yes I'd like to be detraced. If I couldn't get over the qualms then it would depend on what capacity to suffer I expected the detraced remainder of me to have.

  2. "How about if your psychological traces are completely transferred into the brain of another person, who goes on to live a happy, torture-free life?"

    Having read Parfitt's "Reasons and Persons", I would say that this scenario is actually a scenario where I avoid the torture and survive completely unscathed, and someone else gets tortured.
    Perhaps that was the point of the post...

  3. Yup, that's the question.

    Ben - let's stipulate that the quality of the suffering is identical in either case. (If necessary, suppose false memories and such are implanted in place of yours.)

    The ethical question is curious, in that it strikes me as less bad to construct a new self for your tortured body than it would be to "fob the torture off onto someone else" in the ordinary manner -- or even compared to force-growing a whole new human to suffer in your place. I'm not sure if this intuition is justified, though!

    The original questions should be answered from an egoistic perspective though. We may capture this by instead asking how much you fear for your future in each case.

    My own intuition is that the mind-purge would help, but I would still have some fears. It would help even more if my psychological traces were transferred into another body. (To make these comparative judgments, think about how much prior additional torture you would be willing to endure in order to 'buy' these options. Or what balance of extra torture would make the various options seem equally scary.)

  4. My thought was,
    that would be terribly un-utilitarian to somehow feel ok about torturing the "new you". You cant even use the argument that you are more valuable than the other people - in fact if anything it implies you are less vlauable than this new person (since you are willing to replace yourself with them).

    From an egotistical perspective I guess it depends on what you think identity is. I of course think it is pattern - so yes if I still thought that AND I ceased to care about anyone else and I 'would prefer to die' then yes the erasing is good.

    If you are uncomfortable with it then I guess you don't think it is pattern (in which case what is it?).

  5. and if you are ok with torturing the new you then er I guess that relates to whether you are a utilitarian - since surely you should be entirely neutral regarding the distribution once the torture (e.g. negative utils) itself was decided. Unless you are implying that some wider issue is also at play. e.g. if you are looking at your tortured other self and feeling better or worse about yourself because of it. maybe there is something to that and it might be very slightly better NOT to swap.

    To me in a hypothetical (rather like when I consider the death penalty or whatever) intuition and personal examples are not referenced at all. So someone asks me "what if you were wrongly convicted" and I say "huh? what has that to do with what should happen?"

    "Should I die if it is good for humanity? you betcha. Would I try to stop you? Dunno, maybe, we would have to see."

  6. Would having my personal traces removed help? Not at all; in fact, it would make it worse: I'd still be me but I'd've lost all my psychological defences, so that I'd be like a vulnerable baby before the torture.

    If the traces are transferred? That would add a new worry, because this other person would then be able to pretend to be me, very effectively (and that is worrying because the process is presumably being carried out by my torturers).

    If the transfer is compulsory who would I choose? Nobody, if those asking me to choose are also those who are about to torture what I'd regard as me (and otherwise, someone who'd lost their own mind).

  7. Why introduce torture to think about these issues?

    I think the usual setting of 'teletransportation' is a bit nicer :)

    We have some kind of scanner which records a total physchological state, transmits it, and loads it onto a new brain - and the question is 'would you prefer the orginal or the copy be destroyed?' or perhaps 'if both survive, is one or the other one you?'

    Destruction was suffcient before, but now we need to torture the original/copy too?!?


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