Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

10. Objection: Minorities

10.3 Other Utilitarian Defences

Book cover: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

The defence of my analysis of the immorality of the Roman Empire's persecution of the Christians is one that can be made by an act utilitarian. It's not the only successful defence that can be put, and I don't think that the act utilitarian's method of considering each act of persecution in isolation is the best method of justification. A rule utilitarian will advance their own defence. Rules in practice utilitarianism, I think, provides the most robust reasons for why the Romans acted immorally. (For a brief discussion of the types of utilitarianism on offer, see §9 Objection: Justice above.)

Rules in practice utilitarianism is the view that what morally justifies an act by a particular agent is whether their action conforms to the rules, roles and responsibilities enshrined in an accepted social practice that has utilitarian warrant. Principally, it is the social practice designed as an integrated system that is judged on its consequences. The question for the rules in practice utilitarian is not whether this act or that act of persecution is morally justified considered in isolation. For our damnatio ad bestias case study, the relevant question is whether the system that supports and regulates the legal condemnation of Christians, their imprisonment and final torture for punishment and entertainment is morally justifiable on the grounds of its good consequences overall.

Each particular feature of the enforcement, judicial and penal aspects of the system of persecution must be shown to support the good consequences of the system overall. However, if the entire system is without utilitarian warrant, then attempting to justify each element becomes moot.

Imagine you are sitting in the legislature of your home country and you were tasked with providing reasons, grounded in the overall good consequences (increase in happiness and decrease in misery) for everyone affected, for implementing such a Roman-style enforcement, judicial and penal system. What reasons would you put before your fellow legislators for implementing such a system on utilitarian grounds, all things considered impartially? As with John Rawls' [1955: 10–13] unjust 'telishment' institution, the proposed system, if implemented, will endow certain office holders with the discretionary power of the state to identify members of a religious minority for torture.

How would you counter the key objections to such a system by your fellow legislators? On the political level, the ruling class singling out adherents to a religion for torture breeds resentment, sabotage and potential war with other states, all leading to an increase in misery. The diversion of considerable valuable state resources to implementing and maintaining this system of torture for entertainment robs other more socially beneficial projects. In addition, the religious argument that the Christians are undermining the health of the state by angering the gods is simply false. If, on the other hand, the minority religion and its adherents are chosen for persecution by the office holders randomly or arbitrarily, then on the social level, citizens will live in constant anxiety knowing that their religion could be targeted next. Again, this general anxiety constitutes a decrease in utility. On the level of the individual, the suffering of the victims and their families and friends grossly exceeds the ephemeral pleasure experienced by the spectators. At the systems level, it seems impossible to justify the practice of damnatio ad bestias on utilitarian grounds.

It is important to note here that the justification for the persecution of the Christians under Roman law was not utilitarian in nature. The proto-utilitarianism of the Epicureans was very much a minority view that had no sway with the Roman Emperors. Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death for a number of reasons, including atheism, for not revering the Emperor and for not worshipping the Roman gods (see Lyes [1998]; Wikipedia contributors [2023g]). Members of this religious minority were sentenced to an excruciating death not because it would on balance lead to greater happiness, but because they were criminals due the full weight of the law. The practice of damnatio ad bestias was justified by Emperors and governors essentially on religious grounds. Clearly, with the aim of inflicting the maximum pain and suffering on the victims and of terrorizing the remaining Christians in their communities, their happiness and well-being was the very antithesis of what the Romans wanted.

Roman Emperors and governors organized damnatio ad bestias as a public spectacle in order to maintain the favour of the Roman commoners. However, this was seen as a side benefit gained from inflicting lawful punishment on the Christians. As seems clear, the interests that were served by the public spectacle were the interests of the ruling class and not, as is required by the application of utilitarian principles, the general welfare of the entire population.

A critic may object that even though the Roman ruling class did not justify the torture and death of Christians on utilitarian grounds, such utilitarian reasons could be given. I hope to have shown in this section that such a justification cannot be given, neither on act utilitarian grounds nor on rules in practice utilitarian grounds.

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