The Sociopath Thought Experiment

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes an action wrong. I think we would all agree murder is wrong since it deprives someone of their life and deprives the people around that person as well. Theft deprives a person of property they worked to obtain; assault causes them physical and emotional pain. There is a clear moral basis to say these are wrong.

Consider a thought experiment for a minute. Imagine there is a sociopath who lures a person into his house, restrains him and injects him with a cocktail of drugs that cause him excruciating physical pain and mental agony. Then, at the end of the day he gives him another drug that completely erases the memory of that day and lets him go. All the drugs are designed to be gone from his system within twelve hours. For good measure, the sociopath gives himself the same drug, completely erasing his own memory of that day as well.

Did the sociopath do anything wrong?

The immediate answer that comes to mind is, yes, of course. Clearly torture is wrong. But why is it wrong in this situation? The man has absolutely no lasting effects from the torture, no memory or psychological scars from it and no one else knows about it, including the person who inflicted it. It was wrong while it was happening, since the prisoner was suffering intensely, but afterwards it has been totally erased from the collective minds of the human race, as if it had never existed. You could argue the sociopath did wrong by depriving the victim of his freedom for a day, but that would be true even if he kidnapped him and made him play Uno for a day. I’m talking specifically of the torture aspect.

The point I’m try to get at is if morality is dependent on an observer having knowledge of it or if it is an absolute, outside of any observation (by observer, I mean someone with knowledge, either directly or indirectly.) It’s kind of the equivalent of the question of if a tree falling in the forest makes a noise when no one is around to hear it.

My belief is that morality has to be dependent on an observer because morality outside of sentient minds has no meaning. However, I believe it is also an absolute since God is the prime observer of all reality. He sees everything and even if no one else sees something or remembers it, God sees it and can judge it on its merits. He is outside of time and so has access to the past, present and future at once.

I think every normal person, no matter what their beliefs, would agree that torture is wrong. What I’ve been pondering is if there is a basis for saying something is wrong if there is no observer or memory of it, in a belief system without God, a prime observer.

What do you think about this? I’d be happy to hear your thoughts.