Is there a ‘scale’ of suffering?

by Robert Johnson

 

In modern ethics this question is asked more often in the context of animal ethics than anywhere else. Our inability to share the perceptions of any non-human animal means that our activities involving those animals must be subject to moral debate. We ask, for instance, whether there are ways we might adapt our behaviour to better accommodate the animals’ welfare, which in turns leads us to the question ‘which kind of suffering is worse?’

It’s an important question in human society, too, although the capacity of humans to say to each other “I am suffering” means that in some ways determining the level of suffering has become secondary, and in many developed nations we now consider any suffering at all to be unacceptable.

The question ‘which kind of suffering is worse?’ is a difficult and provocative one. To ask whether one sort of suffering is worse than another is to risk the wrath of many who feel that all suffering should be held, in principle, equally bad, and the question is often dismissed before discussion can really begin. Yet the reality that there are differences in levels of suffering is an important concept, and one all of us accept tacitly most of the time.  The legal process of dealing with crime would be meaningless and rapidly defunct without the understanding that some forms of suffering can be worse than others. It is entirely rational to suggest that if suffering exists, and if pricking one’s finger on a thorn is generally preferable to being tortured in a POW camp, there must then be a ‘scale of suffering’ in some way. To say so is not to say that pricking a finger isn’t painful, but only that some things can reasonably be considered worse. It also doesn’t rule out the existence of anomalies to the general rule.

So far so simple; the difficulties arise with the acknowledgement of human subjectivity. Suffering is not a phenomenon that can be precisely measured; while we can devise laws to account for generalities and obvious disparities (that being tortured is worse than pricking one’s finger on a thorn, to return to our earlier example) we find when we try to look closer that in fact it is not possible to create a scale of suffering that can cope with any great degree of specificity. A modest push is not in all cases preferable to a violent attack; psychological factors can influence the suffering experienced – in either direction – and often the cultural baggage attached to certain acts and events can become the primary source of suffering.  When we look at specific cases it quickly becomes apparent that suffering can be judged accurately only by the person experiencing it.  Any attempt at a specific scale will run into difficulties, arising out of differences in subjective experience that can, for some people, make the most modest forms of aggression experientially worse than extremely violent ones.

Every person is a unique combination of genetic and experiential circumstances, meaning we all experience stimuli differently on a mental level. As suffering is an intensely mental experience, and as mental experience is highly subjective, any attempt to devise a scale of suffering offering any specificity is on shaky rational ground. Each person undoubtedly has a scale of suffering particular to themselves – though even that is likely to change over time in response to experience – but discovering that scale from the outside is almost impossible. It is possible for one person to have an opinion on which kind of suffering would be worse for them, and for that opinion to be reasonably well informed, but this opinion cannot then be taken to be a universal rule.

We should (and, usually, do) feel comfortable making obvious and general judgments about extreme forms of suffering relative to the comparatively trivial.  Our function as a society depends upon this ability; we need to lock away rapists and murderers, but we also recognise that less brutal acts deserve less harsh punishment.  However, we should exercise caution when attempting to scale anything that causes significant suffering, as we cannot be sure of exactly how it is experienced; the most horrific torture you can imagine is not necessarily the most horrific that someone else can. There are many practical problems in trying to scale suffering, but it is absolutely necessary that we discuss these issues in society, or we risk moral stagnation; the loss of potential progress.

 


 

Rob Johnson is a philosopher of morality and science, specialising in practical ethics and the scientific method. He graduated from the University of Aberdeen and currently works as a healthcare manager within General Practice in the UK. He is author of the book Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong. Follow his work on facebook.

 

36 COMMENTS

  1. “Is there a ‘scale’ of suffering?”
    Effectively the article answers ‘no’ or at least discusses the impossibility of deriving one.

    “It is absolutely necessary that we discuss these issues in society, though, otherwise we reach a moral stagnation which lacks the potential for progress.”
    Subjective phenomena have no doubt been discussed to death right since language first appeared. Do we really think more discussion is going to remove the ‘no’ just mentioned? Such questions simply illustrate the inability of humankind to achieve certain ends through abstract thought.

    The author’s closing argument – that not discussing such issues lacks the potential for progress – is not substantiated. It is just an appeal to emotion. Has humankind as a whole made much tangible progress in this department? That can be hard to believe. Wherever we see warfare – e.g. Middle East right now – we hear endless talk of the ‘scale of suffering’, but see little if any ‘progress’.

    It is perfectly arguable that a lot of debate around suffering is emotionally hypocritical in that it does not make any attempt to address its origins, but is more concerned with assigning blame and punishment. The munitions manufacturer, the politician wanting to introduce new legal measures, the judge seeking to impose the ‘correct’ punishment, and even the medic treating the injured, are all assimilating the existence of suffering into society. They all accommodate it and act to make us feel it is inevitable rather than tackle it head on. This author is doing the same: arguing that, impossible though it may be to derive any objective scale, we need to make an effort because – my words here – we sort of need to pretend that we have a scale because we need to function as a society. His use of the word ‘progress’ emotionally cements the appeal of his argument but have we seen anything worthy of that word, as opposed to mere change, in this department at all?

    As mentioned, these sorts of debates go back to the year dot. Do we really think some breakthrough is going to come now? Rather than assume that suffering or the cruelty that causes it are inherent in humankind, we would do better to begin to address causes rather than struggle philosophically with managing effects.

    • Subjective phenomena have no doubt been discussed to death right since language first appeared. Do we really think more discussion is going to remove the ‘no’ just mentioned? Such questions simply illustrate the inability of humankind to achieve certain ends through abstract thought.

      Ah yes, the “give up and wallow in mystery” approach to intellectual problems. Because it’s legit. to suggest a girl stubbing her toe is as important as a multinational terrorist operation. Haven’t law enforcement heard that a scale of suffering is completely impossible, and that they can solve all problems, so should pick any problem at random and proceed to solve them all? After all, all suffering is the same.

      Has humankind as a whole made much tangible progress in this department?

      Actually, yes. I understand Steven Pinker wrote a book on the subject, which contains the relevant sources and data for making comparisons across time concerning our ethical progress. Of course, key to understanding this is not in thinking today is good, necessarily, but that we forget just how bad the past really was.

      It is perfectly arguable that a lot of debate around suffering is emotionally hypocritical in that it does not make any attempt to address its origins, but is more concerned with assigning blame and punishment… all assimilating the existence of suffering into society. They all accommodate it and act to make us feel it is inevitable rather than tackle it head on.

      I daresay some, possibly most, groups take the attitude of pointing fingers rather than solving the problem, but to what extent are you pointing fingers and not acknowledging when some people, collectively or individually, are making progress? Your last sentence suggests we’re denying ourselves some magic solution that’ll wipe out any and all suffering. Unless it’s total obliteration of all life forms, you’re entertaining a fantasy. On sheer practical grounds, prioritizing is going to occur at some point, and that requires at least one way of comparing options. In other words, a scale of suffering.

      But, of course, those don’t exist, so one decision is as good as any other. Painlessly kill all doctors who fail to wipe out all diseases, if that’ll stop them from throwing blame and punishment around and from assimilating suffering instead of tackling it head on.

      This author is doing the same: arguing that, impossible though it may be to derive any objective scale, we need to make an effort because – my words here – we sort of need to pretend that we have a scale because we need to function as a society.

      Er, no. His argument is that, practically highly difficult as it is, assigning a scale for anything other than the extremely obvious cases involves largely practical problems about how to make it any more fine-grained, especially with regards to different rankings across individuals, even within one individual. The existence of the scale isn’t in doubt, but the specific content and how to approach individual differences is, hence the need for discussion to avoid cluelessness.

      Rather than assume that suffering or the cruelty that causes it are inherent in humankind, we would do better to begin to address causes rather than struggle philosophically with managing effects.

      Alright. But first, you’ll need a way to prioritize which causes to tackle that won’t be arbitrary. How about, say, a scale of suffering to determine which causes, when tackled, will bring about the best effects? Or is that too “progressive” and in defiance of a long history of cluelessness?

      Or, of course, we could make that miracle cure-all that would eliminate suffering from existence, thus rendering such discussions moot.

      • “Ah yes, the “give up and wallow in mystery” approach to intellectual problems. ”
        You would do well to learn not to put words into the mouths of others. If that’s your take on my post, that’s fine… but I never suggested any such position. This view that you characterise my post with is a figment of your own mind.

        That is also true of this statement which I assume you wrote ironically, “After all, all suffering is the same.” To say that there is no scale is absolutely not to say that all suffering is the same. That would be like inferring that all noises were equally loud prior to the invention of the decibel scale.

        “Actually, yes. I understand Steven Pinker wrote a book on the subject… ” Ah well you’ve heard or read a book about it so that’s the case closed. Wow! But again, I did not say there had been no change… I questioned the idea of ‘progress’. Probably WW 1 was the bloodiest war ever and the holocaust was probably the most inhumane exercise ever carried out. There are currently various others locations of ongoing bloodbaths around the world and we now have drones from the good old USA – the world’s ‘policeman’ – in which Obama has just declared ‘We tortured some folks’ after the CIA head lied about illegally spying on the investigation into the fact that the States had indeed tortured people. This is your ethical progress?

        “Unless it’s total obliteration of all life forms, you’re entertaining a fantasy” Effectively you seem to be almost saying that the status quo ‘is it’. We humans are powerless.
        “Your last sentence suggests we’re denying ourselves some magic solution that’ll wipe out any and all suffering.” I think you are guilty of laying down an all-or-nothing demand on what I have written. I am only saying that I think the general emphasis is based on ‘societal expediency’ rather than actually alleviating the sources of suffering. For example, the US has more prisoners in jail now than any other nation and its prison system is increasingly privatised. Effectively crime and punishment is big business and consequently there seems to be less and less interest from TPTB to stop the crimes from happening. The situation is paralleled by the profits derived from the US war machine – as can be seen around the globe today, the US profits massively from war and is easily the most aggressive nation on the planet. Look at what its ally, Israel is doing and neither country even has the dignity to be members of the ICC of war crimes. Again… this is your ethical progress?

        I was certainly not pointing fingers at any one. You even quoted me in saying “It is perfectly arguable that a lot of debate around suffering is emotionally hypocritical in that it … is more concerned with assigning blame and punishment”

        I agree with you that it is for political purposes that some way of assessing (we can’t call it a ‘scale’ on a science site) suffering exists. The problem I am highlighting is that the politicians are themselves involved in inflicting a lot of suffering – as are we tax payers that fund their war machines. The fact that some of us are not actually in the field of battle with guns and tanks makes it only too easy to pretend that we are wholly innocent.

        “Painlessly kill all doctors who fail to wipe out all diseases” You should not waste time ridiculing views that the other has not expressed.

        “The existence of the scale isn’t in doubt”. I think a lot of the article questions your idea as do I. Just because society wants a scale for certain political or judicial purposes does not mean that one actually exists anymore than time travel exists because it would be convenient. Consequently what happens as regards a ‘scale of suffering’ is that one is fabricated in written law. But that is just an abstract idea. Move to a different culture and you’ll find ‘your’ scale has no credibility but another one has been invented to suit what people want in that culture. It’s like religion in that respect… just made up stuff to suit circumstances.

        “Alright. But first, you’ll need a way to prioritize which causes to tackle that won’t be arbitrary.”
        Some suffering is just bad luck. Fatal illnesses for example. I mention that to highlight that what we are tacitly limiting this whole debate to is human-inflicted suffering. Above, I have argued that – and most people baulk at this – we are all more or less involved in the creation of human-inflicted suffering. We demonise the bad guys as ‘the problem’ but the reality of the situation is that crime stats show over and over again that these ‘bad guys’ are not people who decided one day to ‘be bad’. They come from marginalised, less well-off parts of society – often broken homes etc. – not situations and lifestyles that they ever consciously chose. So unless you hold them guilty for the background into which they were born, you have no moral right to judge them or any one else for that matter. Now I am not saying therefore we need to scrap the entire judiciary and crime and punishment system. Rather it is about realising that those social institutions act to treat symptoms and not causes. They are bandages, not cures. As regards treating the causes, there is of course no magic wand. But the little you, me or anyone else can do is to be less self-righteous about the blame and punishment of the ‘guilty’ and realise that, ‘but for the grace of god, there go I’.

        • To say that there is no scale is absolutely not to say that all suffering is the same. That would be like inferring that all noises were equally loud prior to the invention of the decibel scale.

          And yet, your analogy would suggest a scale does exist, we just don’t know its details yet. At the same time, you think such a scale does not exist when it comes to suffering. So which is it? You can’t say suffering is not the same one minute, and then deny the existence of a scale the next. That’s like saying sounds aren’t all the same, but there’s no scale of volume or loudness.

          But again, I did not say there had been no change… I questioned the idea of ‘progress’… This is your ethical progress?

          No, that’s you rhetorically cherry picking your examples and using that to dismiss evidence of a trend. If you’re going to mock a book, at least don’t fall into a trap the book and its author has already discredited.

          Effectively you seem to be almost saying that the status quo ‘is it’. We humans are powerless.

          Who’s putting words into other people’s mouths now? I said you’re not going to obliterate all suffering, which was part of a larger point that being able to scale suffering and thus prioritize what to tackle was perfectly legitimate. Heck, I’m the one referring to a book that shows you can reduce suffering. You even agree later that some suffering is the result of bad luck, which is to admit we don’t have control over at least some of it, and so we should approach the matter pragmatically. You seem to be under the impression I was saying that means we can obliterate no suffering, which is a curiously “all-or-nothing” way of interpreting what I said.

          I think you are guilty of laying down an all-or-nothing demand on what I have written. I am only saying that I think the general emphasis is based on ‘societal expediency’ rather than actually alleviating the sources of suffering.

          Except you’re using that to dismiss the notion of scales of suffering in principle, which raises the problem: how are you going to determine which suffering takes precedence when dealing with them, unless you think we can just solve all problems of suffering completely? And quite frankly, you dismiss the work of people who actually are looking at alleviating suffering, from the source or otherwise.

          I was certainly not pointing fingers at any one.

          Except, of course, for “the munitions manufacturer, the politician wanting to introduce new legal measures, the judge seeking to impose the ‘correct’ punishment, and even the medic treating the injured.” Not to mention your more recent name drops of Obama et al.

          I agree with you that it is for political purposes that some way of assessing (we can’t call it a ‘scale’ on a science site) suffering exists. The problem I am highlighting is that the politicians are themselves involved in inflicting a lot of suffering – as are we tax payers that fund their war machines.

          “Some way of assessing suffering exists”, not “for political purposes” but in the same way other forms of measurement exist. If you don’t agree with that, you don’t agree with my position.
          If your point was as banal as “some politicians are corrupt”, then why the focus on dismissing the discussion on quantifying suffering, a “subjective” phenomenon, on a scale, and why bring it up in this article? How exactly does a concept of a scale of suffering somehow hinder efforts at relieving it? That’s like trying to treat diseases without caring which diseases are worse than others.

          “The existence of the scale isn’t in doubt”. I think a lot of the article questions your idea as do I.

          Then you were only reading half of it, as the second half points out why it’s difficult, not that it’s impossible:

          Everyone is an individual combination of genetic and experiential circumstances, meaning everyone experiences stimuli differently on a mental level. And given that suffering is an intensely mental experience, the idea of a specific scale of suffering then looks to be on shaky rational ground. Each person undoubtedly has a scale of suffering within them, though even that is likely to change regularly as they evolve as a person, but discovering that scale from the outside is almost impossible. It appea5rs possible for one person to have an opinion on what suffering would be worse for them, and for that opinion to be reasonably well informed, but this shouldn’t be described as a universal rule.

          The obvious conclusion to draw is that we should feel comfortable in making the obvious and general judgments, in regarding extreme forms of suffering as worse than the relatively trivial, as society needs this in order to function: we need to be able to lock away rapists and murderers, whilst providing less harsh sentencing on less harsh acts. However we should be careful with attempting to scale anything which causes significant suffering, as one can’t be sure exactly how it is experienced. The most horrific torture you could imagine is not necessarily the most horrific that someone else can; it’s likely not even of the same type. This highlights the necessary practical problem in trying to scale suffering. It is absolutely necessary that we discuss these issues in society, though, otherwise we reach a moral stagnation which lacks the potential for progress.

          I.e. there are difficulties, but we will make progress in this area if we discuss the relevant issues. Not “scales don’t exist, but let’s pretend they do for political expediency”. That’s what you said.

          Also, what happened to that “I agree with you that some way of assessing suffering exists” you brought up earlier? Seems to have gone away quite quickly, by the look of it, unless I’m supposed to pay attention to the “political expediency” bit.

          But that is just an abstract idea.

          So?

          Move to a different culture and you’ll find ‘your’ scale has no credibility but another one has been invented to suit what people want in that culture. It’s like religion in that respect… just made up stuff to suit circumstances.

          Ah yes, of course. Because if another culture says different, then obviously there’s no such thing as a right or wrong answer to the question. It’s not like different cultures can be more or less correct, or anything. Just halt discussion.

          Some suffering is just bad luck. Fatal illnesses for example.

          So, that somehow discredits the notion of ranking suffering by scale?

          I mention that to highlight that what we are tacitly limiting this whole debate to is human-inflicted suffering.

          Were we? I wasn’t aware a scale of suffering depended on suffering being solely man-made. I thought it just meant discussing any and all forms of suffering, regardless. Animal ethics and crime are just two examples of its applications.

          Above, I have argued that – and most people baulk at this – we are all more or less involved in the creation of human-inflicted suffering. We demonise the bad guys as ‘the problem’ but the reality of the situation is that crime stats show over and over again that these ‘bad guys’ are not people who decided one day to ‘be bad’. They come from marginalised, less well-off parts of society – often broken homes etc. – not situations and lifestyles that they ever consciously chose. So unless you hold them guilty for the background into which they were born, you have no moral right to judge them or any one else for that matter.

          Why are you going off on a tangent? At no point did I or Mr Johnson even talk about any of the issues you mentioned: just about the scale of suffering concept and its feasibility, especially in applications such as crime and animal ethics. Perhaps I’m not the one putting words into people’s mouths this time?

          Now I am not saying therefore we need to scrap the entire judiciary and crime and punishment system. Rather it is about realising that those social institutions act to treat symptoms and not causes. They are bandages, not cures. As regards treating the causes, there is of course no magic wand. But the little you, me or anyone else can do is to be less self-righteous about the blame and punishment of the ‘guilty’ and realise that, ‘but for the grace of god, there go I’.

          I already agreed pointing fingers is unproductive, so quite frankly I’m wondering if you’re even paying attention to my original post. I’m saying that your dismissal of the “scale of suffering” concept is misguided, including your criticism that no ethical progress has occurred to support Johnson’s conclusion. Also, I’m disagreeing with your notion that discussion is somehow not going to help the problem, and in addition, I think you’re muddling this issue with at least two other issues, such as about political corruption and blaming people for their circumstances (seriously, where did that come from?). If you want to say judiciaries should be less vindictive, more power to you, but its relevance to a scale of suffering seems a bit unclear to me. The closest I can think of is using that scale to fit more sadistic punishments to more painful experiences, but then that’s a misuse of the scaled suffering concept, not an actual indictment of the concept itself.

          • What? The decibel scale obviously did not exist before it was INVENTED. Other scales could have been invented in its place… in the way that we have both metric and imperial scales for umpteen phenomena. You can invent a scale of suffering if you like – I saw you did it in fact – but if you can’t even come up with units I wouldn’t waste money patenting your invention!

            So where is the ‘evidence of a trend.’ you mention?

            “Effectively you seem to be almost saying… ” is “putting words into your mouth?”

            “Heck, I’m the one referring to a book that shows you can reduce suffering.”
            Look, I have obviously not read the book and anyway I take anything that is in books with a large pinch of salt. It’s pointless to talk as if having read some book means I ought to bow down to your greater wisdom.

            “… how are you going to determine which suffering takes precedence when dealing with them”
            That’s not my problem. I’m not a judge. Are you? If not, why are you concerned with that? (These questions are ‘replies’ to quite a few of your most recent points. I am merely trying to understand the situation, whereas I think our clash is that you by contrast are more focussed on practical judicial strategies for assessing the degree of suffering and the punishment that society chooses to impose based on that measure. And I don’t infer by that that you are not trying to understand the situation(!) but, to be frank, I have no interest in moralising or doing anything else to assess crime and punishment. If you want to do that, obviously that’s fine but I basically, I don’t see mileage in that and it is not where I am coming from).

            “Except, of course, for “the munitions manufacturer, the politician wanting to introduce new legal measures, the judge seeking to impose the ‘correct’ punishment, and even the medic treating the injured.” Not to mention your more recent name drops of Obama et al.” You are not understanding the point I am making. I say that they are doing these things… but I do not assign blame in the moral judgement sense. Blame is a form of not understanding the world, IMHO. Did you really think I was blaming the medic for causing suffering?

            BTW: some of the issue of ‘scale’ is actually a technicality not really worth arguing over. Whereas you seem (if I understand correctly and don’t put words into your mouth!) to be, I think, taking a scale as somewhere between the idea that not all suffering is equal and that a form of assessment is useful for legal purposes etc., I am saying that a ‘scale’ as in, not just comparative and debatable judgements, requires units and is a means of measuring with those units (inches, kilograms or whatever). The word is sometimes used in place of the ‘degree’ of suffering or whatever to infer an understood estimation of the extent of some phenomenon so it’s a bit grey. But let’s not waste more time on the slippery definitions of words.

            You quote the author “It is absolutely necessary that we discuss these issues in society, though, otherwise we reach a moral stagnation which lacks the potential for progress.” For me, he is promoting his trade. I don’t agree at all with what he says here. Morality is primarily about how we act… words (discussion) are relatively cheap… including that hallowed word of modern culture, “progress’

            “But that is just an abstract idea.” “So?”
            The tooth fairy is ‘just’ an abstract idea. Without wanting to open another avenue for debate, abstract ideas have different degrees (no scale!) of relevance to reality. The tooth fairy I contend has none.

            “It’s not like different cultures can be more or less correct, or anything. Just halt discussion.”
            Who is anyone to judge what is correct, right or wrong in such situations beyond stating their own views? I guess you are not religious (sorry if that’s wrong). Nor am I. So we have 100 religions with different ideas of god. I don’t really care to work out which one is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they all think they are right and I think they are all deluded, as best as I can tell. So as regards this scale issue – however you define it – are you suggesting that behind all these cultural variations there is some sort of knowable absolute truth?

            “Why are you going off on a tangent?” That’s your perception. My answer to take your perception at face value is: because, life is all joined up. When we don’t want to face the ugly facts like, for example, that taxpayers fund wars, we can then retreat into the confines our safe intellectual debating enclaves as if the world was nicely pigeon-holed into unrelated issues … like I said, most people baulk at the idea. (That sort of relates to your closing comments too)

            Off subject, blogging – as in text-to-text – is really a pretty poor medium in my opinion. I am sure I have misunderstood various points you have made… if that permits me to say that I think you have done the same thing with mine. However, I don’t think discussion is pointless… as I must have appeared to do somewhere.
            Oops!

          • JohnHH spake thus:

            Look, I have obviously not read the book and anyway I take anything that is in books with a large pinch of salt.

            I’ve got some books that list the the pKa values for weak acids, but in buffer systems, they really are just a pinch of salt.

            At any K, you’d do well to read this one. Find fault with it if you like, or don’t, but either way, don’t take it a slander that someone suggested some light reading to you that might help clear some things up. We are, all of use subject to many hard-won and ill-serving heuristics. Pinker’s scrawlings might clear some things up for you. The arc of something something is long, but it trends towards something something.

          • To R Patrick.

            I guess you too have read the book from your post which does sound a bit cryptic.

            What exactly does your comment of “The arc of something something is long, but it trends towards something something.” mean? Is it ‘go with intuition’, but dressed up for fun? Whatever it is suppsoed to signify, if it’s from the book, I’ll make a point of not reading it tout suite!

          • John,
            Your bibliophobia and its implications aside, the quote is from MLK Jr., and what he said was:

            The arc of moral history is long, but it bends toward justice.

            I think Pinker may in fact quote it, but that should not sour you on the sentiment. You may disagree with it, and I’ll something something your something something to do so, but I don’t think the facts bear you out. Viewed with an eye to proportionality, the hawk is beating its beak into a dovish style.

  2. I like Your comment John HH, but I did not reasoning of Mr. Johnson.

    I agree that we can not measure suffering, but I do think that because of it we should not permit any, we should not have a tolerance for it. There has to be zero tolerance on any suffering. The way he explained his thoughts here, I get the sensation that he thinks that society need some sort of tolerance scale. But a problem with that is that societies are constantly lowering a threshold of tolerance, and that is not a progress of an civilization. We are already immune on how Israel (with a help of USA) is killing Palestinians, or how people in Africa (and other countries) are starving, or on deforestation and pollutions of Earth. Politicians are not going to resolve this matter, because they are corruptive by default, and spineless (honorable exceptions), and they work for wealthy consortia (which are supporting suffering in order to manipulate people more easily).

  3. the question mentioned of locking up rapists and murderers, while giving lesser sentences to lesser crimes needs furter consideration.

    locking up criminals, as i understand it, should serve two purposes; to protect the public from further acts and to rehabilitate the offender. However public opinion is starting to force the hand of judges to deal more harshly with certain “types” rather than extremities of criminal behaviour.

    I would be interested to know to what extent sentencing hels victims overcome their suffering. I’ve no doubt that seeing an offender found guilty in court will be a huge relief and provide some closure but all too often it’s those who support victims rather than the victims themselves up in arms that an offender didn’t get long enough.

    Just yesterday I was listening to a debate about the plight of older prisoners and how they rely on goodwill to get the social care they need. naturally listeners were writing in showing little care and heard the mantra “if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime” while failing to realise what they’re effectively saying is younger prisoners who don’t need help going to the toilet or someone to push their wheelchair somehow are deserving of a better time in prison. After all everything is relative, even if we can’t define an objective scale of suffering.

    If I were to become the victim of suffering due to crime, I don’t know how I’d react but I like to think I would be deserving of court help to overcome any long term effects of my suffering and assurance the guilty party won’t do it to me again. but a look on facebook shows me the people who get the most “like”s on their comments are the ones who can best articulate their vengence fetishes, not the ones who articulate their hope for an end to the suffering.

    Humans love suffering. they donate to “help for heroes” with a picture of a soldier being stretchered. It’s almost like a crucifix to some. I’m happy to donate but I also feel very sorry for our cowards who must be having a much worse time in afganistan.

    Suffering is subjective and always will be. What’s worse is empathy is also subjective and easily damaged. We do become desensitised to the suffering of the innocent when we see it on the news every day. those innocents suffering are even more desensitised, some brutalised and they will carry out atrocities of their own given time, that may be more brutal and more deliberate than what has happened to them.

    So I guess my point is, even if we could create an objective scale of suffering, would anyone care? and would that scale become the new method of punishment? if that happens then things can only get worse. furthermore, can suffering ever be attributed to one victim? surely anyone who empatises suffers as well, and that’s how vengance is cultivated

    • I would say sentencing helps the victims a hell of a lot. There seems to be a deep seated need to see people who’ve caused us suffering punished. Several high profile historical cases of abuse in the UK have shown that. Even tho nothing happened until one of the perpetrators was dead victims needed to get justice, be vindicated and see their abusers imprisoned. The same is seen with those abused by priests, social workers or even relatives. The same is seen with the hunting down of those involved in the holocaust. No longer any threat, but victims needed to see them punished. It seems to be necessary for closure.

      The rehab and protection elements of prison are only part of the story. Victims do seem to need to see some kind of punishment, and are only appeased if they feel the sentence fits the crime.

      • Irritating, slightly uncomfortable, aching, painful, acutely painful, torturous, pure screaming agony.

        Of course, there are currently no formal units assigned to the phenomenon, at least not until the mind sciences make further progress, but absence of units does not equal absence of scale.

      • Hi John HH

        How about measuring levels of stress hormones in the blood over time? Our brain is not disconnected from our bodies and what we feel is likely reflected in the cocktail of hormones rushing through our bodies. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are obvious candidates.

        Of course it would be difficult to do anything but generalise over a large study group – I’m not suggesting rape victims be blood tested to influence sentencing. However research projects in which stress levels in which people find themselves in could be measured with statistical significance including a measure of how much this effects the least stressed and most stressed. For example I imagine that being verbally insulted might not effect an emotionally secure person at all (they may even see it as evidence of their superiority) whereas someone prone to anxiety much find it drives them into a deeper state of anxiety. This would presumably be measurable and hence give a scale if not useful on a case by case basis may well be useful in deciding the respective cost/benefits of say increasing the tax burden on the poorer members of our community as opposed to say the top 10%, or how we treat asylum seekers, how much people suffer under different types of palliative care or similarly afflicted people when euthanasia is an option. We already test in this way to measure stress in animals to help understand different animal husbandry practices why should we as humans be that much different?

        • Hello RM,

          Most of the case for assessing suffering seems to hinge on the issue of sentencing perpetrators. Morally, that principle is flawed thinking in that the subjective experience of suffering is… well, highly subjective as you point out. A more or less ‘same’ act of violence can entail different levels of suffering for different victims. Surely any judgement should be based on the ‘badness of the act’ rather than on its consequences? Of course there are a stack of questions that are on the back of that. A lot of violence goes unreported, whereas lesser crimes do get reported. Is the ‘same’ act of violence really the same for different relationships between aggressor and victim? One important point here is that these are philosophical questions. The idea that society will come up with a set of reliably ‘fair’ or ‘just’ rules for these matters is, for me at least, laughable in an unfunny way.
          In principle the sort of tests you suggest can obviously correlate subjective pain with observable measures… but that’s a scale of bodily chemistry which, as you point, is not a direct measure of how any individual feels his or her suffering.
          Frankly I think the situation is a mess in many respects. Culturally, there is not even a consensus about why society has punishments for crimes of any sort. Is it some form of social retribution? Corrective treatment? Just to keep troublemakers out of harm’s way? To act as a deterrent to others?
          The article at least does a good job of highlighting our communal confusion over the whole issue.

          • You misunderstand the purpose of criminal law. Primarily, it is to deal with wrongs against society. It is the civil law courts which have the primary purpose of dealing with wrongs against the individual.

  4. To ask if one type of suffering is worse than another is to
    potentially incur the wrath of those who feel all suffering should be
    considered equal

    Is there anyone who actually makes that argument? I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t use the more extreme suffering in one case as a rhetorical tool to dismiss or minimize the suffering of others, but that’s not the same as saying all suffering is equal.

    • When, in discourse with bloggers and men’s lies,
      John all alone beweeps his enlightened state,
      And troubles deaf Dawkins with his bootless cries,
      And looks upon my posts, to smack my pate,
      Wishing me like to one more poor in words,
      Featur’d like him, like him with ignorance possess’d,
      Desiring no man’s art and no man’s books,
      With whate’er he most enjoy contented least;
      Yet in these thoughts myself almost revising,
      Haply I think on thee, and then your post,
      And you the troll at break of day a-hiding
      Neath sullen bridges, bark nonsense at this host;
      For thy sweet wit remember’d such joy offers,
      That I scorn to change my state with philosophers!

  5. As in Dr. Dawkins article – to which this one is referring I guess (and which itself was a reaction to the reactions on Dr. Dawkins tweeds that dealt with the question: Is it true that there are fields that are covered with emotions to a degree that we dare not to discuss them on the base of logic and reason?) – Mr Johnsons article gives the most important facts. Yes of course there are degrees of suffering. But a major problem is how to scale them as the perception of something like suffering is a very individual issue.
    Nevertheless there are points we all can agree on. E. g. there are two major different forms of suffering, a physical one and one that is based on our psyche. In both cases there are degrees how hard an experience can hit the individual.

    Suffering from rheumatism I can tell that there are different degrees how strong the pain can be. From a little unpleasant pain in a finger to lying in bed for three months not able to role from one side to the other and being forced to wait for my mother to come home from work, because I needed her help to go to the toilet. I was not able to explain the degree of suffering to anyone – not even my doctor – precisely but it seemed to be obvious for my human environment, that something terrible was going on with me.

    On the other hand the suffering of the psyche knows degrees as well. As I am divorced I can tell there were forms of pain I experienced during that process that reached from laying on the floor in my apartment crying my eyes out unable to move, over a sheer horror in the legal process in court, to something that is at least uncomfortable and connected to a feeling of sorrow about lost chances and a life that has taking a path I never wanted it to – now. Time seems to play an important role in the change of the degree of pain that I felt concerning my divorce and everything connected to it.
    But if there were not something communicable and “in general” understandable about this form of suffering, why should have the forms this is managed by the law have changed through out the time? And it has! The lawmakers changed their points of view drastically over the years, understanding, that first of all there are three parties involved in the case (the two parents and the children) who perceive the situation very differently and second that it is not at all that easy, that in case of a divorce there is one party guilty and therefor responsible to enable the rest to be able continuing their lives on the same “standards of comfort” like they had before the divorce. At the time I got divorced it was absolutely clear that mothers are the better parents (exceptions were made only in cases of proven violent behavior by the mother towards the children) and the fathers had to be the ones paying for everything even if it led to a life at the edge to the possible material existence in our society. Today things are dealt much more differentiated. There is no more divorce based on guilt and the custody is normally split between the parents.

    As you can see the lawmakers actually MAKE a difference in degrees of suffering. Why shouldn’t they if it is obvious that there are differences in the first place.
    Nevertheless it seems to be extremely uncomfortable to discuss this because we all know that suffering IS an individual experience and we want nobody to scale our degree of pain. So by promoting the aspect of individuality we try to defend our own right to claim that our form or degree of pain is not comparable to others anyway.

    Luckily there are people dealing with this issue on the base of reason and logic and try to improve our system, so that it is as just as possible in dealing with individual experiences. Otherwise we still would have incredible forms of punishment like in the dark ages, or the ones coming up again in countries where things like the Sharia are empowered again. I am happy not to live in such a country!

  6. My comment is only tangentially related to the post. I think the author unwittingly set up the underlying problem to philosophy in general in his opening paragraph:

    In modern ethics this question is more frequent in animal ethics than anywhere else; given our inability to perceive the world as any animal but ourselves, our activities which involve animals become morally debateable. So we end up asking, for instance, what would be a better way of changing our behaviour to suit them, which in turns leads to the question ‘which kind of suffering is worse?’

    We fail tremendously even at that. We struggle to even perceive the world as the same animal from different cultures. Not to say it’s impossible, it just takes great effort and study. But let’s face it; most people are happy to wallow in their ignorance rather than entertain something that even remotely challenges their worldview.

    To put it another way: Whether you’re in Africa or Australia, animals “do what they do” for broadly homogeneous reasons (to survive and procreate). However, due to humanities capacity for conceptual thinking, our motivations for our actions rise way above these base considerations and often our actions are based on ideologies. Two people from the same household may “do what they do” for completely different reasons, nevermind people from different continents (whose motivations might, paradoxically, coincide).

    I feel as though until humanity is (passionately) dedicated to an over-arching goal that transcends ideologies, most philosophical questions remain unanswerable, and conflict in general is unavoidable. This is because, as it stands, Philosophy exists to further…philosophy. So does science, art, education, etc.

    Obviously each discipline presents itself as something aspiring to “make the world a better place” to varying degrees, and exploration is pivotal in making discoveries that do indeed end up making the world a better place. I’m just saying it would be helpful if we could reach some kind of consensus as to what “a better world” might look like, and apply our efforts in that direction, rather than endlessly muse over and patch up problems which exist (and always will) because of the status quo.

  7. Really, this ‘article’ says almost nothing. He says that suffering is hard to quantify since it is highly subjective.

    He concludes with a plea to keep discussing the above.

    Is this the normal level of intellectual discourse on this site? I am new here.

    • . Is this the normal level of intellectual discourse on this site? I am new here.

      Ooooh! Do you mean the article or the comments? And do you see this as being at a high level or low? It sounds faintly judgmental and I suspect you are not going to stick around for long.

  8. “Our function as a society depends upon this ability; we need to lock away rapists and murderers, but we also recognise that less brutal acts deserve less harsh punishment”. – it is said in the article (last paragraph).
    ,and “…it is absolutely necessary that we discuss these issues in society, or we risk moral stagnation; the loss of potential progress”.

    What progress? For example the generals who brutally slaughtered thousands children, women and men in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the nineties (in the name of someone’s distorted vision of correctness and truth) are released from Haag (international war crimes court). Those animals are today free as you or me. To release them was a political decision and not justice. Progress of the society? I do not think so.

    What about that pope Ratzinger? What about criminal charges against Joseph Ratzinger, filed by Hetzel and Sailer (German lawyers) to the International criminal court in den Haag? Ratzinger was retired.

    Unfortunately, suffering of the societies and individuals will continue as long as politicians are involved in creating justice, and societies are not going to progress.

    • What progress?

      Progress=/=”no bad things happening any more hooray”. It is true that a lot of the modern world sucks. Anyone who paid attention to the news could tell you that. Yet, the point of a claim to progress is not that we’re absent of war and national scandal in the modern era, but that the world of a few decades and centuries and even millennia ago was a lot worse.

      Let me count the ways: The first half of the last century saw tens of millions of deaths due to war, to the backdrop of a population explosion rising into the billions. The century before that saw Africa ravaged by European colonials, and the slave trade, while the native Australians were getting culled en masse. Centuries preceding that, the Americas were almost entirely wiped clean of their native peoples, countless ideological and interstate wars were raging in Europe and Asia, and most of the fruits of the civil rights movements were unthinkable. Torture and execution were pretty standard forms of punishment that raised little to no objection, and war was glorified to an obscene level. At least church scandals in this day and age can actually be called out; imagine what must have been going on before investigative journalism arose, in the days when something like the Inquisition and the witch hunts could go unchecked in Europe alone. It was only a couple of millennia ago that wars of conquest could be boasted about rather than vigorously cloaked and spin doctored for the sake of international peace keeping agencies.

      This is before we even get to pre-civilized societies, which – while certainly absent of the major wars of civilization – made up for their lack of weaponry by having more frequent raids, killings, and homicide rates. And if we’re comparing numbers, we might as well throw in the number of people who didn’t die due to murder, torture, or war, which has been increasing, albeit slowly, over time. Even if we pooled the estimated total number of people killed during the top hundred worst atrocities of recent millennia, which according to Matthew White is under six hundred million casualties, that’s still less than ten percent of the modern population alone, and a much smaller percentage of the number of humans who lived during the last few millennia. And there’s hardly an equivalent to modern Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan to be found for most of human history. Even given their corruptions and evils, by contrast with the societies of the past they’re as offensive as milk.

      There is a difference between saying the modern world sucks and saying we’ve made no progress. The former is true. The latter is false.

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