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.