Let’s start right out with an example. In a courtroom, Jack is the defendant accused of torture. The plaintiff, Jill, claims to have underwent an insufferable ordeal causing her much physical and emotional trauma. There is enough evidence to see Jack indicted by the prosecution. He is sentenced to life behind bars.
In our scenario we have two people: Jack and Jill. Prior to the crime being committed, they both have a tally of zero in our numerical Suffering Score system. This system will allow us to measure numerically the total degree of human suffering in a particular scenario.
When Jill is tortured, we increase her total suffering to a count of one. The total amount of human suffering at this point is now one. When we sentence Jack to life (note the particular punishment he receives is irrelevant here) he receives a degree of suffering as a result. We now have a Suffering Score of one for Jill and a Suffering Score of one for Jack.
At this point, my premise is glaringly obvious: two wrongs don’t make a right. But it is simply so. Our judicial proceeding has systematically doubled the total human suffering from one to two.
Now you might be saying, but Jack deserves it for the misdeeds he committed! And this is where it gets really interesting. Imagine you are Jill. You suffer a horrendous amount of pain because of Jack. Now imagine you’re Jack. You (i.e. “I”, “me”) suffer for a long time in prison. You experience the pain of regret, anxiety, and an intensely morbid dawning of the realisation that you will suffer confinement and remorse for the rest of your life. Regardless of the fact that Jack was entirely at fault in this case, he will absolutely undergo extended and unfathomable suffering as punishment.
When we observe the situation, we can say without a care in the world that Jack deserves to suffer. To the bystander, Jack’s life sentence is fully warranted; it’s a good result in the name of justice!
But boy are we glad that we are not Jack!
What a horrible experience it would be to suffer life in prison! We think that, because we don’t personally experience Jack’s suffering, it isn’t such a terrible thing. We’re aware that the suffering is happening but it is just not in our reality. It’s in Jack’s reality. In Jack’s reality, he does have to endure endless suffering now and it is very real and very vivid.
But because we don’t actually taste this suffering, we can warrant it as being just. Because we’re never in Jack’s shoes, we don’t have to endure years of sorrow and misery. And as the onlooker, as the prosecution, we manage to convince ourselves that we did the right thing. But what we did was nothing more than increase the amount of human suffering resulting from the situation.
When I say that everyone is “I”; everyone is “me”, I’m doing my best to tap into a particular ontological perspective. You must understand that Jack’s reality is the only reality that can possibly be experienced. He cannot jump out of his body and begin living as someone else. You, Jill, the prosecution, and everyone else is just a very small figment of his experience in life. In the same way, my reality is the only reality I’m experiencing – and for all I know, it is the only reality that truly exists (i.e. solipsism). And so by inflicting suffering on Jack as punishment for his crime, the only available reality (seen through an “I” or “me”) is one of great suffering.
It is particularly hard to convey this ontological impression of global subjectivity in words but it is exactly this understanding that justifies my philosophy today. Without which, there is absolutely no value in what I am writing about today. I don’t expect many readers to comprehend this notion fully. In fact, I would suggest almost all would not. But as an optimist, I will simply take this as an opportunity to train my skills in communicating such fundamentally ambiguous and abstract concepts.
At this stage, the majority of readers will be saying, yeah but by punishing Jack, this incapacitates him thus preventing him from committing more suffering. It also acts as a preventative measure for budding torturers! That’s how our legal system works – misdeeds are largely prevented by our ability to foresee the punishment they will incur. Perhaps a temporary increase in gross suffering (i.e. punishment) results in a lesser net suffering?
Regardless, I’m still not satisfied with this. What alternatives are there? There simply must be better ways of responding to human suffering than by inflicting human suffering upon the offender! If it is our mission to reduce human suffering where at all possible, we must endeavour to scour for suitable alternatives even if they appear ill-contrived at first. Currently, we’re taking two steps backward and one step forward!
It would be dangerous of me to armchair philosophise like this without actually offering some sort of a solution. Historically, philosophers have been able to rattle on about worldly inadequacies quite well but often omit their oh so pragmatic solutions after uncovering the deficiency.
This article is becoming quite long now so I will be very terse by briefly introducing a possible solution. If our mission was to reduce human suffering, while it is noble one, it could be rivaled and possibly overshadowed only by the promotion of happiness. That is to say, the truly noble mission is to promote maximal happiness.
In keeping with this spirit, we can look to respond to suffering in a very unorthodox manner. Previously, our judicial system has fought fire with fire. The intimidation and fear factors seem to work but unfortunately they do quite overtly warrant the institutionalised augmentation of human suffering.
So an alternative approach may be to respond to suffering (i.e. a case of rape, for instance) by, instead of prescribing punishment in the form of suffering to the “at fault” party, we could perhaps increase the happiness of those who suffered. We would now be extinguishing the fire of suffering as opposed to dousing our offender in petroleum and throwing them in as well!
For this approach to work, our justice system would look very different. Now, if you torture or rape someone, you don’t encounter any punishment. Your Suffer Score remains as is. The case is no longer about your punishment but instead about comforting the victim. It’s about systematically removing those tallies next to the Suffer Score of our victim by increasing happiness. Without looking at all into practicality, monetary compensation as well as psychological support may be options to consider for the victim of a rape case.
I’m going to leave it here and allow others interested in this particular approach to further expand upon the pragmatics.