Torturing someone is gravely wrong because it causes grave harm to the victim, and the wickedness evinced in the act is typically proportional to the harm (as well as depending on many other factors).
But there are some wrongdoings which are wicked to a degree disproportionate to the harm. In fact, torture can be such a case. Suppose that Alice is caught by an evildoer who in a week will torture Alice by one second for every person who requests this by email. About a hundred thousand people make requests, and Alice gets over a day of torture. Each requester’s harm to Alice is real but may be quite small. But each requester’s deed is very wicked, disproportionately to the harm. The case is similar to a conspiracy where each conspirator contributes only a small amount of torment but collectively the conspirators cause great torture—the law would be just in holding all the conspirators guilty of the whole torture.
Here’s another way to see the disproportion. Suppose that someone is deciding whether to request torture for Alice or to steal $100 from her. Alice might actually self-interestedly prefer an extra second of torture to having $100 stolen. Nonetheless, requesting the torture seems much more wicked than stealing $100 from Alice (unless Alice is destitute).
Similarly, the evildoer could kill Alice with probability 1 − (1/2)n where n is the number of requesters. Given sad facts about humanity, everyone might know that the probability that Alice will die is going to be nearly certain, and no one requester makes any significant difference to that probability. So the harm to Alice from any one requester is pretty small, but the wickedness of making the request is great.
Another case. It is wicked to fantasize about torturing someone. And to be thought of badly is indeed a kind of harm. But if one can be sure that that the fantasy stays in the mind—think, maybe, of the sad case of a dying woman who spends her last twenty minutes fantasizing about torturing Bob—one might self-interestedly prefer the fantasy to, say, a theft of $100. Hence, the harm is relatively small. Yet the wickedness in fantasizing about torture is great, in disproportion to the harm.
Yet another case. Suppose that with science-fictional technology, someone destroys my heart, while at the same time beaming into my chest a pump of titanium that is in every respect better functioning than my natural heart. I think I have been harmed in one respect: a bodily function, that of pumping blood by my heart, is no longer being fulfilled. But blood is still being pumped, and better. So overall, I may not be harmed. (I may even be benefited.) Yet it seems that to destroy someone’s heart is to do them a grave harm. I am least confident about this case. (I am confident that the deed is wrong, but not of how wrong it is.)
In all these cases, there is a dignitary harm to the victim. And even if it is self-interestedly rational for the victim to prefer this dignitary harm to a modest monetary harm, imposing the dignitary harm is much more wicked. This is puzzling.
Solution 1: Imposing the dignitary harm causes much greater harm to the wrongdoer, and that’s what makes it so much more wicked.
But that seems to get wrong who the victim is.
Solution 2: Alice and Bob are mistaken in preferring not to be robbed of $100. The dignitary harm in fact is much, much worse.
Maybe. But I am not sure. Is it really much, much worse to have ten thousand people request one’s death rather than five thousand? It seems that dignitary harm drops off with the numbers, too, and each individual harmer’s anti-dignitary contribution is small.
Solution 4: Wrongdoings are not a function of harm, but of irrationality (Kant).
I fear, though, that this has the same problem of dislocating the victim from the center of the wrong, just as Solution 1 did.
Solution 3: Dignitary harms to people additionally harm God’s extended well-being, by imposing an indignity on the imago Dei that each human being constitutes. Dignitary harms to people are dignitary harms to God, but they are either much greater when they are done to God (because God’s dignity is so much greater?) or else they are much more unjust when they are done to God (because God deserves our love so much more?).
Like Solution 1, this may seem to get wrong who the victim is. But if we see the imago Dei as something intrinsic to the person (as it will be in the case of a Thomistic theology on which all our positive properties are participations in God) rather than as an external feature, this worry is, I think, alleviated.
I am not extremely happy with Solution 4, either, but it seems like it might be the best on offer.