Torture versus dust specks, pollution, and natural law

In Overcoming Bias, Eliezer writes:

Now here's the moral dilemma. If neither event is going to happen to you personally, but you still had to choose one or the other:

Would you prefer that one person be horribly tortured for fifty years without hope or rest, or that 3^^^3 people get dust specks in their eyes?

I think the answer is obvious. How about you?

Read the whole post if you don't immediately get what Eliezer is getting at here. His intention is to create a puzzle that challenges certain utilitarian assumptions. He doesn't mention utilitarianism explicitly, but it is so dominant in today's ethical thinking, and so obviously implied by the puzzle, that this is how I take it. To lay my cards on the table, my intuition is that the horrible torture is more wrong even if it does not, in some key sense, amount to the total suffering experienced when sufficiently many people get a speck in their eye. I think that most people would have a similar intuition. If they had any other intuition, then the example wouldn't be the interesting example it is, but would simply be yet another straightforward application of utilitarianism. [Edit: I don't mean to imply that Eliezer rejects the assumptions; he may accept the assumptions and reject an intuition if it goes against them.]

I'll try to explain this intuition by using a concept of natural law: What is against natural law (and, also, what is immoral, what is wrong, what is unjust) is what would tend to receive punishment (e.g., retaliation) under certain paradigmatic conditions (which will remain undescribed, but let us briefly call it "the state of nature", a condition that often comes up in discussions about natural law). Nothing more, nothing less.

The concept's application to minuscule harms: Annoying a very large number of people sufficiently slightly would receive no punishment in a state of nature, because it would be too costly for any individual annoyed person to deliver punishment. It would be even more costly (in the paradigmatic condition, the state of nature) for all the annoyed people to find each other, coordinate, identify the culprit, and deliver punishment (a public goods problem; I recognize that the state "solves" certain public goods problems, and so under a state the offender may be punished - but I am talking about how things would work out in a state of nature, without such an entity to facilitate retaliation). However you slice it, there is a per-person threshold of offense below which the offended person will not retaliate because it is too costly, and even if you multiply the harm by a large number of people, each offended person will not retaliate and so the offender will get away with the offense.

To recap, a wrong is what, under certain conditions, would be punished. A harm that is sufficiently small to each victim would not be punished, regardless of how many victims there were, and therefore regardless of the total size of the harm. Therefore, as we are defining "wrong" here, a sufficiently small per-person harm is not wrong, no matter how great the total harm is when all the harmed people are added up. This is in contrast to the severe torture of an individual victim, which is wrong even if its magnitude is much smaller than the total magnitude of a harm that is sufficiently small per person. This victim of torture would, in the paradigmatic condition, retaliate.

An example: pollution seems to fall into this category. An automobile throws out enough exhaust to kill a person many times over, but the exhaust is dissipated and the total harm it causes is shared by a very large number of people. Considering the costs of retaliation, it is not worthwhile for the victims to retaliate against the car owner. People are killed by pollution, but there are so many polluters that it would be astronomically costly for a killed person's family to track down each individual polluter and retaliate against him in an amount commensurate with his role in the death.

Utilitarians are committed by their philosophy to weighing the harms, the lost utiles or the disutility of the different afflictions (speck versus torture), and at some point the sheer numerical weight of a sufficiently large number of specks forces them (unless, of course, they manage to squirm out of it by some clever means) to conclude that barely noticeable specks in the eyes of sufficiently many people outweigh severe torture. And yet intuition says otherwise. I maintain that our actual moral intuitions are not really utilitarian calculations, but have their origin in our sense (evolved and learned) about what would receive punishment under certain paradigmatic conditions. Over long-enough stretches of time, those paradigmatic conditions re-assert themselves, in part or in whole. For example, for the most part, in their day to day interactions individuals deal with other individuals far away from the purview of the state. So in large part, something close to a state of nature exists between most people most of the time, and so natural law re-asserts itself as a guiding force regulating human interaction.

To sum up, something that is a puzzle for utilitarian morality is no puzzle for natural law.

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Other puzzle

If someone was going to be tortured for 50 years by a madman and you could prevent that by pushing a button... however doing so would also put a speck of dust in the eye of 6 billion people, would you do it?