By Simon Knutsson
First written: Aug. 2015; last update: Aug. 9, 2016
This page builds on Brian Tomasik’s “On the Seriousness of Suffering,” which he summarizes as follows
This page gives some links to depictions of real human and animal suffering. While general terms like pain and suffering can sometimes feel abstract and detached, this material is a reminder of what they really mean — and why our efforts to reduce suffering are so important.
Although Brian’s page is illuminating and shows horrible suffering, I think that he spares the reader of even worse cases, which could be even better for one’s moral education and development. This page lists cases of extreme suffering that supplement Brian’s.1
Warning: This page contains very disturbing descriptions of suffering and cruelty.
Update: Brian has published a new relevant video called “Preventing Extreme Suffering Has Moral Priority” that I highly recommend (warning: graphic content).
Why learn about extreme suffering?
For a long time, I did not understand that it was so bad; I had to actively search for information to get it. Here I share some of my findings. Learning more about extreme suffering can help one decide what moral priority to give to reducing suffering compared to other endeavours. For example, I would call Professor Jamie Mayerfeld suffering-focused. He writes that “the lifelong bliss of many people, no matter how many, cannot justify our allowing the lifelong torture of one.”2 Such views matter in practice, they are not just theoretically interesting. I have been told that Mayerfeld works to prevent torture, which, if it is true, would make sense given his suffering-focused view.
Modern and future torture
According to Edward Peters, torture methods of the late 20th century “produce a range and intensity of pain that greatly exceeds that of earlier forms of torture.”3 For example, he mentions that “technical and medical personnel are often enlisted” in order to, among other things, “block the operation of natural pain inhibitors” and to increase the pain.4 Moreover, “Histamines, vasodilators, are one of the strongest pain-producing agents known. It is said that modern techniques of torture sometimes include the direct injection of histamines in order to produce intense pain.”5 It seems very likely that future torture methods will be able to cause even worse suffering.
Tissue damage versus unpleasant experiences
Sometimes when the badness or moral importance of torture is discussed, it is described in terms of different stimuli that cause tissue damage, such as burning, cutting or stretching. But one should also remember different ways to make someone feel bad, and different kinds of bad feelings, which can be combined to make one’s overall experience even more terrible. It is arguably the overall unpleasantness of one’s experience that matters most in this context. For example, torture can combine a range of feelings like pain, fear, panic, terror, horror, disgust, hate, sadness, shame and so on. Matthews (2008) quotes a horrific case from Jempson (1996):
Soldiers from a counter-insurgency brigade in Colombia broke into a house in Sabatena, Santander department, during November 1992. While her husband was being beaten, Sonebia Pinzon was taken outside and raped in front of her three year old son. She could hear her two year old daughter Marcela screaming inside. The toddler was found semi-conscious and bleeding: she too had been raped.6
The torture survivor in this case was violated in multiple ways. The husband received an undetermined physical beating. Ms Pinzon’s suffering was exceptionally complex. Her own beating and sexual assault were one violation. The damage done to her three-year-old son by being compelled to watch the sexual assault was his own special psychological torture. She was additionally psychologically devastated by the knowledge that her son had to witness this. She underwent further hell in hearing the suffering of her daughter.7
This example is not the worst imaginable. One can imagine how combinations of more torture methods and related feelings can make things even worse. To take another example: Tomasik often talks about the Brazen bull as a particularly bad form of torture. It essentially involves to be locked inside a metal bull and fried inside it by a fire lit underneath the bull. It is easy to imagine how this can be made worse. For example, inject the victim with histamines before the torture (as discussed in the previous section), and put all the victim’s loved ones in the bull so that when she is being fried, she also sees and knows that her loved ones are also being fried. One can imagine further combinations that makes it even worse. The point of all this is that talking of only, for example, burning, almost trivializes how bad experiences can be.
Examples of extreme suffering
Disclaimer: I haven’t vetted the facts about these cases, the sources are online videos or articles of unknown reliability.
- “10 Most Terrible Deaths in History.” A video by Rob Dyke which describes the fate of Junko Furuta (at 10:15). She was kidnapped in 1988 at age 16 by four teenage boys and then tortured for 44 days before they killed her. For example, she was raped (between 400 and 500 times according to the video), set on fire, beaten, and starved. She begged the boys to “kill her and get it over with.” You can read about what happened to Furuta here and at Wikipedia.
- Rob Dyke also has a video “Brutal Execution Methods” and one titled “Horrific Experiments,” which includes vivisection of humans at “Unit 731.”8
- “Daisy’s Destruction” is the name of a supposedly real video that combines child porn, torture, and murder. It has been described as the worst video ever made. A news report on the topic says that
in its complaint, the NBI [National Bureau of Investigation] described one of the acts in the videos as “unprecedented in the history of child abuse investigations.”9
- tvtropes.org has a page called “Cruel And Unusual Death: Real Life,” which has a long list of horrible deaths through history.
- ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’ Photos From Late Qing Dynasty. Photos of a torture process also known as ‘slow slicing.’ (archived)
Academic texts on contemporary extreme suffering include
- Professor Mayerfeld says that “some governments torture people for years” and points to further reading.10
- Mukengere Mukwege, Denis, and Cathy Nangini. “Rape with Extreme Violence: The New Pathology in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.” PLoS Med 6 (12) (2009): e1000204. Ungated. 11
- Bunker, Pamela L., Lisa J. Campbell, and Robert J. Bunker. “Torture, Beheadings, and Narcocultos.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21 (1) (2010): 145-78. The article overviews torture and beheadings linked to Mexican drug cartels. It says that “so many incidents of torture and maiming have now taken place in Mexico that a new and tragically unique lexicon is developing to describe the horrific crimes being carried out: … [including the term] Pozoleado (also Guisado): [meaning] body in acid bath, looks like Mexican stew” (p. 146).
- See also Brian’s “The Horror of Suffering.” (back)
- Mayerfeld, Jamie. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Page 178. (back)
- Peters, Edward. Torture. New York: Blackwell, 1985, p. 172. (back)
- Ibid., p. 171. (back)
- Ibid., p. 167. (back)
- Richard Matthews, The absolute violation: why torture must be prohibited. Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008, at p. 42. Matthews cites Mike Jempson, “Torture Worldwide.” In D Forrest, ed., Amnesty International, a Glimpse of Hell: Reports on Torture Worldwide, 46-86. New York: New York University Press, 1996, at p. 67. (back)
- Matthews (2008, 42). (back)
- One can read more about human vivisection at Wikipedia (back)
- Archived here. (back)
- Mayerfeld, Jamie. Suffering and Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, page 151. He refers to Middle East Watch, Syria Unmasked: The Suppression of Human Rights by the Asad Regime. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, page 57. (back)
- Archived here. (back)