Thursday, June 10, 2021

Conscientious Sadism

I've previously argued that sadistic pleasure (in oppressing the innocent) lacks value. But consider a complication.  Suppose this time that the sadistic majority are all conscientious utilitarians who would never willingly increase net suffering in the world.  They all appreciate that their victim's suffering is a bad thing in itself, and so would genuinely prefer to realize the same amount of pleasure without any suffering at all, if possible.  But alas, this just isn't possible in the circumstances.  We may further suppose that they would each be willing to themselves be tortured in order to generate greater net pleasure for their companions.  But alas, this isn't possible, either.  Their only options are to torture an unwilling innocent person, generating population-wide sadistic pleasure, or do nothing and have uniformly neutral experiences throughout the population.

In this revised case, many will of course still think it would be wrong to torture the innocent.  But I wonder whether this assimilates it to a standard sort of rights-violation scenario (e.g. involving non-sadistic pleasure), or whether we should still regard the sadistic pleasure itself as entirely lacking in value?

One possible test: suppose that, while the torture is ongoing, you're able to temporarily disable the pleasure-centers in all the sadists' brains.  Would disabling their sadistic pleasure in this way be good, bad, or neutral?  In the original (malicious sadists) case, I'm inclined to think good, whereas in this new case I'm more inclined to think that this intervention would be bad.  So that would seem to suggest that what's really driving my intuitions here is not the sadism per se but rather the malice (which seems missing in the new case).

Though perhaps the case remains under-described.  Compare:

(1) The conscientious sadists just really want to experience pleasure, and -- due to some weird quirk of their psychology that they don't understand -- it just so happens that observing others suffer serves to trigger such pleasure for them.  But they don't have any non-instrumental desire that others suffer.  The suffering has purely instrumental value for them.  Call this population incidental sadists.

(2) The conscientious sadists are morally constrained in their pursuit of sadism, and intellectually appreciate that their victims' interests matter, but nonetheless they retain a strong (non-instrumental) desire that others suffer.  As a result, they get a rush of illicit pleasure when they see others suffering, as this suffering is something that they personally value, even while they regard themselves as duty-bound to not impose such suffering unless it yields greater net pleasure overall.  Call this population duty-constrained sadists.

Intuitively, I react very differently to these two cases.  The incidental sadists strike me as genuinely good-willed people who suffer from a weird psychological quirk.  Given that they don't actually value (non-instrumentally desire) others' suffering, it's arguable that they're not even properly considered sadists at all: perhaps what they experience is better conceived of as regular, non-sadistic pleasure, that just happens to be somehow caused by others' suffering -- but such a bare causal connection is surely not the same thing as taking pleasure in another's suffering.  The crucial point, I guess, is that simply experiencing a certain tone of pleasure is not bad in itself (whatever the cause), the way that pro-attitudes towards suffering are inherently inappropriate. 

The duty-constrained sadists, by contrast, are ill-willed in that they really want others to suffer, even if they work to constrain this bad desire through moral willpower or the motive of duty.  Because the desire is itself bad, satisfying it plausibly lacks value.  Tricky further question: can we separate the raw phenomenal feel of their sadistic pleasure from the evil attitudes that underlie it?  If so, perhaps that raw pleasure component could still count as an intrinsic good?  But it's not entirely clear to me that such a metaphysical separation is possible.  The intentional content may be an essential component of the overall experience, such that were it subtracted, a different phenomenal pleasure would result.

None of this is necessarily to deny that the sadist benefits from their sadism.  It may well boost their welfare.  But we may yet deny that welfare-boosts from such illicit interests carry moral weight. Or, on a desert-adjusted view, we may even regard virtue-welfare mismatches (as when good things happen to bad people) as a positively bad thing.  (Though the duty-constrained sadist may be an overall decent person, or at least much less vicious than the unconstrained sadist!)

What do you think?


  1. Hi Richard,

    For what is worth, my intuitions on the matter are different. Intuitively, I think if one could temporarily disable the pleasure-centers in all the sadists' brains, doing so would be good, and in fact obligatory all other things equal.

    Additionally, that the sadists would be willing to follow their moral theory even if that made them suffer is no excuse, and the sadists are guilty and deserve to be least, if they are the sort of agents capable of moral blameworthiness. Then again, I find the sadists in this example considerably alien, so I'm not sure they'd be that sort of agents.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I've been following a similar train of thought in regards to milder, more realistic forms of sadism, such as pranking one's friends. That has some similarities to the sadist case, such as taking joy in inflicting some sort of discomfort on a person, but doesn't strike me as bad in the same way that true sadism is. Is it because it also serves the purpose of bonding with friends? Because friends implicitly consent to it? (A prank that "goes too far" might be framed as one that violates that implicit consent). Is the lack of true malice what is important?

    What about the joy people take in thwarting evil-doers? That is in some sense malicious, if one takes actual joy in the frustration the evil-doer feels, rather than joy that an evil deed has been thwarted. But I am not sure it is the same kind of malice the duty-constrained sadist feels.

    One thing I wonder about your example is how important the actual fact of the suffering is. Suppose there was some way to deceive the sadists so they thought an actor pretending to be tortured was being tortured for real. Would it still be good to disable their pleasure centers, since the emotion of malice is still present in them? Or would it now be bad, since their pleasure is no longer derived from an actual person suffering?

    I am also wondering exactly how good it is to prevent the pleasure of the malicious sadists. Suppose the only way to disable their pleasure centers was to torture a second innocent person? Even if there was a truly colossal number of sadists feeling pleasure, doing that seems perverse.


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