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Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

10. Objection: Minorities

Book cover: Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice by Jack Donnelly

The fourth objection to the view that the striving for happiness and the minimization of misery lies at the root of our concern for human rights is that this focus on maximizing utility licenses the abuse of minorities in some cases. In my response, I will draw on two paradigmatic historical cases of persecution: the Roman torture of the Christian minority and the Nazi's forced sterilization programme. I will try to show that when we sum the satisfactions and dissatisfactions of all the persons in these two cases, it turns out that the pain and suffering borne by the persecuted immensely outweighs the gains in pleasure and happiness of the persecutors. If I am right, the upshot is that the utilitarian agrees with the judgment that these acts of persecution are egregious abuse of the rights of the victims.

10.1 Roman Empire Persecution of Christian Minority

The first oft-quoted paradigm case I will deal with is the Roman Empire's punishment of the early Christians from the second to the fourth century BCE. Sandel [2009: 37] gives voice to this kind of criticism:

In ancient Rome, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum for the amusement of the crowd. Imagine how the utilitarian calculus would go: Yes, the Christian suffers excruciating pain as the lion mauls and devours him. But think of the collective ecstasy of the cheering spectators packing the Coliseum. If enough Romans derive enough pleasure from the violent spectacle, are there any grounds on which a utilitarian can condemn it?

The Roman's punished the Christians in amphitheatres located around the Empire by damnatio ad bestias (Latin: condemnation to beasts). A purported eye-witness account in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (Wikipedia contributors [2023f]) gives the flavour of what happened at one of these spectacles:

On the day of the games, the martyrs are led into the amphitheatre (xviii). At the demand of the crowd they were first scourged before a line of gladiators; then a boar, a bear, and a leopard were set on the men, and a wild cow on the women (xix). Wounded by the wild animals, they gave each other the kiss of peace and were then put to the sword (xix).

First, if we are to sum the pleasures of the persecutors (Romans) and the sufferings of the persecuted (Christians) so that we may compare the two, we will need a method of quantifying pleasures and pains.

The method I will use for this case study is the following:

  1. Set one standard unit of pleasure as the typical amount of pleasure experienced by one Roman spectator at one event.
  2. Quantify the number of standard units of pleasure a typical person is willing to trade for avoiding suffering damnatio ad bestias.
  3. Take the number of standard units of pleasure as representing the comparative value of the suffering over the pleasure.

Let me illustrate the application of the method with the familiar case of toothache. Reflect on how much enjoyment you get from seeing your favourite live performer (or from doing some other activity you enjoy). Set that amount of enjoyment to the value: +1 (Step 1).

Now ask yourself: How many instances of pleasure from seeing your favourite live performer (or from doing some other activity you enjoy) are you willing to trade for avoiding a painful extraction of a tooth without the use of an anaesthetic? Let's say your answer is 10 (Step 2).

Then the disvalue of one painful tooth extraction is equal to the value of 10 enjoyments from a live performance (or whatever). That is, your suffering from the tooth extraction is 10 times as bad as the live performance (or whatever) is enjoyable. Since we fixed the value of the enjoyment as a standard amount of +1, the value of the painful experience is −10 (Step 3).

Now that we have the measurement method in place, we can move on to evaluating and tabulating the amount of pleasure experienced by the Romans during one event and the various corollary sufferings experienced by the Christian and animal victims. For completeness, we will also need to include on the negative utility side of the ledger the lost utilities consequent to organizing the event. My estimates are shown in the table below.

Table 2 – Pleasures and pains inventory from Roman damnatio ad bestias

  No. Unit Value Unit Disvalue Total Value Total Disvalue
Beast's suffering during capture 1 −100 −100
Beast's suffering in captivity 1 −1,000 −1,000
Beast's suffering during spectacle 1 −100 −100
Beast's lost years of pleasure 1 −1,000 −1,000
Lost utility from maintaining beast 1 −100 −100
Lost utility from taming beast 1

−200

−200
Lost utility from feeding beast 1 −100 −100
Lost utility from training trainer 1 −200 −200
Lost utility from administration of guards 3 −200 −600
Lost utility from administration of prisoners 5 −200 −1,000
Prisoner's anticipatory suffering[9] 5 −10,000 −50,000
Prisoner's family's anticipatory suffering [10] 10 −2,500 −25,000
Prisoner's friend's anticipatory suffering[11] 50 −100 −5,000
Christian's anticipatory suffering[12] 100 −25 −2,500
Prisoner's suffering from scourging 5 −500 −2,500
Prisoner's suffering from attack by beast 5 −10,000 −50,000
Prisoner's suffering seeing others tortured 5 −1,000 −5,000
Prisoner's lost years of satisfaction[13] 5 −20,000 −100,000
Prisoner's surviving family's suffering[14] 10 −1,000 −10,000
Prisoner's surviving friend's suffering[15] 50 −200 −10,000
Surviving Christian's suffering[16] 100 −50 −5,000
Visitor's pleasure from spectacle   20,000 1   20,000  
Visitor's displeasure from attending[17]   20,000 −0.1 −2,000
       
TOTAL: 20,000 −271,400

For the purposes of performing the above calculations for a typically large damnatio ad bestias event, I've assumed the following:

  • 20,000 amphitheatre visitors
  • 5 Christian victims tortured
  • 20 years average age of the tortured Christian victims
  • 40 years life expectancy of the tortured Christian victims

(For background information on Roman amphitheatres and the torture of Christians, see Cartwright [2016] and Wikipedia contributors [2023g]).

Book cover: The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer

The leftmost column in Table 2 itemizes the key items of pleasure and suffering experienced by the various parties to the spectacle. The second column (No.) indicates the number of instances of pleasure or suffering. For example, '5' being the number for 'Prisoner's anticipatory suffering' indicates five Christian prisoners suffered during the event. The third column (Unit Value) indicates the amount of pleasure experienced by one entity during the event. For example, '1' being the amount of pleasure for 'Visitor's pleasure from spectacle' indicates that each Roman spectator experienced one unit of pleasure from the spectacle. The fourth column (Unit Disvalue) indicates the amount of suffering experienced by one entity during the event or the opportunity cost from holding the event. As an example of the former, '−10,000' being the number for 'Prisoner's anticipatory suffering' indicates that each Christian prisoner experienced 10,000 units of suffering during the event. As an example of opportunity cost, '−200' being the number for 'Lost utility from administration of prisoners' indicates that for each prisoner handled for the event, the labour expended could have been used to raise positive utility (pleasure/happiness/well-being) by 200 units. The fifth column (Total Value) indicates the total amount of pleasure resulting from the spectacle. This value is arrived at by multiplying the number of instances of pleasure (No.) with the Unit Value. The sixth column (Total Disvalue) indicates the total amount of suffering or total opportunity cost resulting from the spectacle. This value is arrived at by multiplying the number of instances of suffering or lost opportunity (No.) with the Unit Disvalue. Positive values are indicated in blue font while negative values are indicated in red font throughout.

The 'Total' row sums all of the value and disvalue accrued from holding the event. At a total disvalue of 271,400 resulting from the event, it is clear that the total amount of suffering and lost opportunity for positive value exceeds the total amount of pleasure experienced by the Romans (20,000) by a factor of more than 13:1. The conclusion reached from completing this exercise is that the critic's evaluation of the balance of bad effects over good effects is seriously mistaken. It is not true to say that the misery resulting from the torture of the minority in this case is outweighed by the pleasure of the torturing Romans.

Of course, the values I have entered in Table 2 are indicative only. However, I think the values I have chosen for the amounts of suffering experienced by the minority are very conservative. Even so, the balance of suffering over pleasure is pronounced. Now, a critic may dispute my estimated values. As it is the critic making the objection to utilitarianism, I think it fair to say that the onus is on the critic to provide their own quantitative analysis demonstrating that the balance of bad over good weighs against the utilitarian.

Footnotes

  1. [9] 100 instances; each instance equivalent to 100 units of misery
  2. [10] 50 instances; each instance equivalent to 50 units of misery
  3. [11] 10 instances; each instance equivalent to 10 units of misery
  4. [12] 5 instances; each instance equivalent to 5 units of misery
  5. [13] 20 years of lost life; each year equivalent to 1,000 pleasure episodes
  6. [14] 10 years suffering; each year equivalent to 100 pain episodes
  7. [15] 10 years suffering; each year equivalent to 20 pain episodes
  8. [16] Surviving Christians are Christians not in the spectacle but may be in the future; 10 years suffering; each year equivalent to 5 pain episodes
  9. [17] Dealing with crowds, poor weather and violence from other spectators

Copyright © 2023

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