I can see myself spending too much time here, so I'm going to finish-up and ya'll can have the last word. I'll admit that it's possible that one or more of you actually would sacrifice yourself to save others from a dust speck. Needless to say, I think it would be a huge mistake on your part. I definitely wouldn't want you to do it on my behalf, if for nothing more than selfish reasons: I don't want it weighing on my conscience. Hopefully this is a moot point anyway, since it should be possible to avoid both unwanted dust specks and unwanted torture (eg. via a Friendly AI). We should hope that torture dies-away with the other tragedies of our past, and isn't perpetuated into our not-yet-tarnished future.
"Suppose the question were: Which is better, for one person to be tortured for 50 years or for everyone on earth to be tortured for 49 years? Would you really choose the latter? Would you not, in fact, jump at the chance to be the single person for 50 years if that were the only way to get that outcome rather than the other one?"
My criticism was for this specific initial example, which yes did seem "obvious" to me. Very few, if any, ethical opinions can be generalized over any situation and still seem reasonable. At least by my definition of "reasonable".
Notice that I didn't single anyone out as being "bad". Morality is subjective and I don't dispute that. "Every man is right by his own mind". I cautioned that we shouldn't allow a desire to stand-out factor into a decision such as this. I know well that theatrics isn't an uncommon element on mailing lists/blogs. This example shocked me because toy decisions can become real decisions. I have a hunch that I wouldn't be the only person shocked by this. If this specific example were put before all of humanity, I imagine that the people who were not shocked by it, would be the minority. I don't think that I'm being unreasonable.
"Following your heart and not your head - refusing to multiply - has also wrought plenty of havoc on the world, historically speaking. It's a questionable assertion (to say the least) that condoning irrationality has less damaging side effects than condoning torture."
I'm not really convinced that multiplication of the dust-speck effect is relevant. Subjective experience is restricted to individuals, not collectives. To me, this specific exercise reduces to a simpler question: Would it be better (more ethical) to torture individual A for 50 years, or inflict a dust speck on individual B?
If the goal is to be a utilitarian ethicist with the well-being of humanity as your highest priority; then something may be wrong with your model when the vast majority of humans would choose the option that you wouldn't. (As I suspect they would). Utility isn't all that matters to most people. Is utilitarianism the only "real" ethics?
My criticisms can sometimes come across the wrong way. (And I know that you actually do care about humanity, Eli.) I don't mean to judge here, just strongly disagree. Not that I retract what I wrote; I don't.
I know that this is only a hypothetical example, but I must admit that I'm fairly shocked at the number of people indicating that they would select the torture option (as long as it wasn't them being tortured). We should be wary of the temptation to support something unorthodox for the effect of: "Hey, look at what a hardcore rationalist I can be." Real decisions have real effects on real people.