Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

10. Objection: Minorities

10.2 Summing Pleasures and Sufferings

Book cover: A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume

One line of attack from a critic of my evaluation of the damnatio ad bestias case study is to question how the amounts of suffering I attribute to the Christian prisoners and their family and friends are so astronomically high compared with the single unit of pleasure I attribute to each Roman spectator. The answer lies in two aspects of human nature. These two features involve:

  1. the law of diminishing marginal utility (principle of economics)
  2. the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering (principle of psychology)

Dealing with the first attribute, the law of diminishing marginal utility is a well-established principle in economics that states that the more and more a person receives something of value to them, the less and less value that extra amount becomes. (For an introduction, see University of Minnesota [2011].) That extra amount accepted each time is the amount at the margin and its value diminishes each time it is received. So, for example, the first cup of rice given to a starving person is of immense value. The next cup is of a little less value. Once the person receives their 100th cup, the value to them is minimal. If you had a cup of rice to give away, giving it to a starving person increases total utility very much more compared with giving it to a well-fed person.

For our damnatio ad bestias case study, the upshot from the application of this principle is that the labour and funds expended to increase the pleasure of the Roman spectators would have been used much more beneficially by decreasing the misery of the persecuted Christians. Being deprived of these resources impacts the Christian victims much more negatively compared with the slight benefit accrued to the comfortable Roman spectators.

The second feature of human nature relevant to this case study, the asymmetry between how human beings react to events that cause pleasure and the events that bring about suffering, is now a well-established principle of psychology. This aspect is in two parts. Firstly, the strength and duration of the dissatisfaction and suffering resulting from negative events is more and longer than the strength and duration of the satisfaction and pleasure brought about by positive events. Baumeister et al [2001: 326], for example, report:

In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. . . . After a short peak in happiness, people become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than they were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, people adjust less quickly, even though many victims ultimately do recover (Taylor, 1983).

From their extensive meta-analysis of many and varied psychological studies, they conclude that undesirable, harmful or unpleasant outcomes had much greater negative impact on emotion and reports of well-being compared with desirable, beneficial or pleasant outcomes of the same magnitude. In their words, 'When equal measures of good and bad are present, however, the psychological effects of bad ones outweigh those of the good ones' [Baumeister et al 2001: 323].

Shriver [2014: 8] concurs with what the research is telling us: 'Equal amounts of positive and negative experiences do not balance out to neutrality; in fact, negative experience has “more weight” and drags one down faster than positive experience picks one up.' On the subjective perception of human well-being in particular, Shriver [2014: 7] summarizes the psychological research as showing that 'negative affect has a much greater influence on subjective reports of well-being than does positive affect'.

So, even if the Roman spectators had the same quantity of positive stimuli as their Christian victims had negative, the Christian victims would feel a much greater quantity of displeasure than the Roman spectators would experience pleasure. This psychological principle supports the relative weighting I gave to the Christians' sufferings compared with the Romans' enjoyments.

As we know all too well, the Christian victims were subjected to immensely more negative effects than the much smaller quantity of positive effects impacting the Roman spectators. This fact brings in the second aspect of the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering. This feature of human psychology concerns the extremities of the pleasure-suffering axis. To illustrate, put the most ecstatic experience you can imagine (e.g., birth of your child, religious bliss) at one end of the pleasure-suffering scale and the worst imaginable suffering at the other end (e.g., being tortured, burned alive). Assign an arbitrary number to signify the amount of pleasure for your most pleasurable experience. Let's say: 100. What number would you assign to indicate the amount of your worst imaginable suffering?[18] To help you answer that question, think about the upper limit of the amount of pleasure you would be willing to give up to escape the worst imaginable suffering; say, to escape being burned alive. Would you give up 1,000 units of pleasure? What about 100,000 units of pleasure? Or would you say there is no upper limit to how much pleasure you would trade to escape the worst suffering? Would you be like Dax Cowart who pleaded to be killed in order to escape the suffering resulting from a gas explosion? As he recounts:

I was burned so severely and in so much pain that I did not want to live even in the early moments following the explosion. A man who heard my shouts for help came running down the road, I asked him for a gun.

[Wikipedia contributors 2023h]

The immeasurable intensities of these worst kinds of sufferings raises the question of whether any amount of pleasure experienced by the Roman spectators can compensate for or override the amount of suffering experienced by their Christian victims.

Shriver [2014: 15] states the ethical conclusion from this asymmetry and what it means for an adequate utilitarian theory succinctly:

The difference between the standard account and the asymmetrical view, however, is that on the latter view one might think that no amount of pleasure for one person, or indeed even many people, (where that pleasure is not itself preventing suffering) could even in principle justify causing intense suffering in another being.

This utilitarian ethical imperative to focus our attention on alleviating suffering is also well-put by Tomasik [2015]:

Another motivation for focusing on suffering is that suffering seems more severe. In the life of a given organism, the most intense negative experiences typically outweigh the most intense positive ones.

This second aspect of the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering even more reinforces how conservative the values are that I assigned to the sufferings of the Christian victims.

In conclusion, whether we limit the extreme end of the 'suffering' side of the pleasure-suffering scale to a value of 100,000 (compared with the value of 100 at the extreme end of the 'pleasure' side of the scale) or to the value of 10 million or to the value of infinity (indicating no trade off is too great), the above considerations of the law of diminishing marginal utility and the two aspects of the asymmetry between pleasure and suffering diffuse the critic's objection that my relative weightings of the sufferings of the Christian minority and the pleasures of the Roman spectators is not credible.


  1. [18] For a brief account of this approach, see de Lazari-Radek and Singer [2017: 99].

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