Torturing others for fun would be morally wrong, even if we all thought it was perfectly acceptable. Allan Gibbard, Thomas Nagel, and Christine Korsgaard all agree with this statement. I’ll first explain what each philosopher would say about the matter and then evaluate.
Gibbard is an Expressivist. For Gibbard, when we call an act wrong, we express our acceptance of norms that would sanction guilt on the agent and anger on the part of others. When expressivism is coupled with quasi-realism, which means ethical sentences don’t express propositions but they project emotional attitudes as if they’re real properties, expressivism explains the state of mind being expressed when we say “torturing others for fun is wrong and an independent moral truth even if everybody approves of it.”
Nagel holds the Non-Naturalist Realism view. It’s a realist view, meaning there are mind-independent moral truths. He tells us to think objectively and ask whether torture is (a) not bad at all, (b) bad only for the possessor, or (c) bad. By thinking objectively, Nagel means detaching from our individual perspectives, values, and reasons. He responds by saying (c) is obvious; thus, avoidance of suffering from torture has an agent-neutral value. Anyone has a reason to want any suffering from torture to stop, regardless of the recipient. Nagel says it’s self-evident, and most people would agree. There’s no need to argue for this, and if someone thinks torturing others for fun is morally good, they should argue. Nagel points out that we can’t argue for realism, but we can refute objections.
Korsgaard derives her main inspiration from Kant and subscribes to Kantian Constructivism. She thinks ethical standards are normative, so they command and oblige. Our autonomies as self-conscious beings are the source of our obligations, for example, our obligation to humanity. We can make our perceptions and desires objects of our attention, which we then can reflect on. Our minds need a reason to act. The reflective mind forces us to have conceptions of ourselves, and mainly our identity as human beings. We have to value our humanity to value anything. By valuing my humanity, I’m valuing humanity in general, and thus we are morally obliged to stop torture for fun, and we deem it as morally wrong.
I first liked the non-naturalist realism because I believed there should be mind-independent truths. In Nagel’s argument, I thought seeking objectivity was attractive, and the agent-neutral and agent-relative values made sense as it provides a logical path for us to check objectivity. However, after learning about more views, I feel less strongly about realism, and I might be an anti-realist (there are no mind-independent moral truths). I care about acknowledging everybody’s pain and suffering, and I think out of the three theories, Kantian Constructivism is the best option. As we recognize we value anything because we value our humanity, we can value everybody’s humanity. Moral judgment is capable of being true or false, and we reach such truths by asking whether it would be good if everybody on earth did the same thing. Even though Kant’s categorical imperatives have been judged over the years, I still believe there’s a great potential in understanding others through this theory.
Reading List of Works Mentioned:
Gibbard — “Wise Choices, Apt Feelings”
Nagel — “Value”
Korsgaard — “The Sources of Normativity”