1. There are two jails. Both employ torture of prisoners as a means to gain confessions.

  2. Jail A has one prisoner. One guard tortures him.

  3. Jail B has 1000 prisoners, all of whom are also tortured, each by a different guard.

Question: Is the Chief Warden of Jail B guilty of a worse act than that of Jail A?

The intuitive response will for many be "of course", yet whilst Jail B is torturing 1000 times as many people as Jail A, the amount of suffering sustained by each prisoner (and each guard) never exceeds one person's suffering. The amount of suffering by each person in Jail B is the same as that endured by each person in Jail A.

What is it - if anything - that makes Jail B's actions worse that Jail A's?

What is it - if anything - about the suffering of a group that is worse than the suffering of an individual?

Perhaps a simpler way to put it would be: "All else being equal, what - if anything - makes the suffering of a group worse than the suffering of an individual?".

Is it, for example, because of an innate evolutionary desire to maximise the group's odds of survival (thereby increasing our our own chances of survival)?

NOTE: This question has been refined thanks to feedback and answers. Thank-you.

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    This depends on the presupposition: is it that torture is only inflicted upon one party? If viewed thru the Stalin quote regarding an individual death being a tragedy and that of many being merely a statistic, it could it be that perhaps those inflicting torture themselves receive trauma psychologically and therefore experience pain directly inverse to the number of their victims. Aug 3, 2021 at 16:54
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    Fair point. Perhaps I need to modify the question so that each victim has his or her own torturer, and that each torturer sustains suffering equal to all other victims. Aug 3, 2021 at 17:30
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    Minor language nit: unless this is a British thing or something, I believe by "admissions", you mean "confessions"--and it shouldn't be in quotes in that context. Aug 3, 2021 at 19:12
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    I'll note that there are three related questions here (1) is the guilt of one warden worse than the other, (2) is one offense greater than the other, (3) is one harm greater than the other. It is easy to assume that these are all three the same question, but they aren't. Aug 3, 2021 at 19:17
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    Questions about moral should include what moral framework is to be considered (deontological, consequential, etc..). Unless you want a grand tour of how each notable framework addresses the question. For example Consequentialists would probably say that obviously the consequences of torturing 1000 people is worst than 1.
    – armand
    Aug 4, 2021 at 0:45

6 Answers 6


Well, say that at first the warden has 1 prisoner that he tortures. Then he is given the choice to acquire a second prisoner to also torture.

Are you indifferent as to whether he acquires and tortures this second prisoner, or does not?

If you aren't indifferent, then you must be agreeing that (in your value system) it is worse to torture two prisoners than to torture one. And so on, up to 1000.

Another way to phrase the question: If you have the power to easily and immediately stop the warden from acquiring the second prisoner, would you do so?

We acquired the values we have because of multiple factors.

Evolution. We evolved to maximize our reproductive success. Saving people from being tortured gains us social credit with those people, and with their relatives and friends. This social credit translates into social status and material support, with translates into reproductive fitness. Also, by saving more people, the local tribe would become stronger through their contributions, which would benefit everyone in the tribe, including yourself and your relatives.

Culture. We are born into a society that teaches us certain ways of thinking. We adopt these teachings largely because we evolved to learn from our elders. And so, if a child grows up in a religion or a secular culture that teaches him a certain thing is wrong, the child will grow up to believe that thing is wrong. We also evolved to seek out social status, which causes us to mimic the beliefs of high-status members of our community. High status members of our community say torture is wrong, so we also believe it to be wrong, in addition to our innate revulsion to it. Members of different cultures will have different values.

Consistency. We evolved a sense of reason and consistency. We evolved this sense because a consistent set of beliefs tends to be more effective at guiding our actions to acquire rewards. We do not want to hold inconsistent beliefs when it comes to purely practical knowledge, and we apply this same instinct for consistency in the moral domain. So, we take our initial values, given to us through innate instincts or through culture, and we try to resolve any inconsistencies they have with each other. A career criminal may value not hurting people, but also value providing for their own family, and these values may come into conflict. The criminal then alters their values to remove the conflict - either he finds another line of work, or he decides that hurting non-family members is not so bad.

  • Thanks Causative. I'm certainly not indifferent, but I'm less sure as to why. The fact I would immediately stop the warden acquiring a second prisoner speaks to a value I hold, but I'm interested in why I hold that value (as presumably most of us do). What is it about a greater quantity of suffering (as opposed to individual experience of suffering) that makes it worse? It seems intuitively like an absurd question, but I struggle with it nonetheless. Aug 4, 2021 at 7:09
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    @Futilitarian If you would expend some effort to save an individual, then you say there is some value in saving the individual. So, why wouldn't there be more value in saving two individuals? You value a dollar, so why wouldn't you value two dollars more? The question of why you hold the value goes back to why you evolved to hold the value. You evolved to hold the value because if you save two people, you get more social credit from them and their friends than if you saved one, and your tribal community is stronger with the extra person contributing, which helps you and relatives survive.
    – causative
    Aug 4, 2021 at 7:25
  • Thanks Causative. I agree re. the evolutionary angle. Would you mind adding it to your answer? I will then accept it. Aug 4, 2021 at 7:29

Welcome, Futilitarian. Your question sets a poser but I will try to formulate a response.

To fix ideas, I assume that torture is (1) the deliberate infliction of physical pain or psychological suffering (2) beyond a threshhold of mere mistreatment (c) applied by a state actor in order (d) to gain information (e) relevant to the vital security of the state (or community) where (f) it is known for certain that the person tortured possesses the required information.

This will not cover all cases of torture - of course not - but it will give us a starting point.

1.It is possible to hold that torture is always morally wrong and should never occur. Let's consider the weaker position that torture is always morally bad. Moral judgements are sensitive to considerations of pain and suffering (among much else) and so it follows that the use of torture (as defined) is always morally bad, always a moral evil, always something that has moral disvalue. But badness does not entail wrongness. This is clear from the many cases in which we have to act and our action has to be a choice of evils. We choose the lesser evil, X rather than Y.

This means that both X and Y are bad. It seems clear to me that, so far as pain and suffering go, i.e. employing only that moral criterion, the equal pain and suffering of 1000 people (X) embodies greater moral disvalue than the torture of 1 person (Y). It is in your language 'a worse act'. This rests on a comparative judgement of the numbers of persons and their equal experience: it is morally worse that more rather than fewer people should equally experience deliberately applied pain and suffering.

Here in the words of your question group sufffering is worse than individual suffering.

2.To turn now to the second possibility: if torture is morally bad, for the reasons just given, is it always morally wrong? If you hold the principle that torture is always morally wrong and should never occur, that practically ends the discussion. Are there, however, or could there be cases in which the torture of 1000 persons does not embody as much moral disvalue as the torture of one person?

I need to change the terms of the example. Suppose the one person is innnocent and does not have the information his torturers require. Suppose also that the 1000 do have this information. If the torturers of the one person are persecuting him because as a dissident he fails to vote for the ruling pary, then his torture is morally wrong as well as morally bad.

If the information-possessing 1000 will not disclose what they know, conditions are imaginable in which for the sake of the survival of a community of millions, torture at the minimum level necessary to extract the information would be justified in terms of communal self-defence. If (as is widely acknowledged) it is morally justifiable, and in that sense morally right, for me to kill in self-defence, is there not a parallel with a state's right to torture in self-defence? Here is a case where the torture of 1000 embodies less moral disvalue than the torture of one.

Here in the words of your question individual suffering is worse than group suffering.

Two caveats: (1) such conditions, while imaginable and not wholly unrealistic, are so rare that they would (even if my parallel works) hardly ever justify torture and make it morally right. (2) The means of torture remain subject to moral constraints. If torture involves merciless beatings, powerful and dangerous electric shocks, 'rape, acts which resemble drowning and suffocation, burning with fire and chemicals, sensory deprivation, the witness of the torture of others, especially loved ones, and threats of the same, and sham execution' (Blakely: 376) then these are not justified merely because, and if, torture is justified. Extreme discomfort, yes and with compunction and regret, but not acts such as these.


I am less than certain about the above arguments. But they represent what I am currently inclined to think. If they contain errors, these can and I'm sure will be easily exposed.


Ruth Blakely, 'Why Torture?', Review of International Studies , Jul., 2007, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 373-394.

Ben Juratowitch, 'Torture Is Always Wrong', Public Affairs Quarterly, Apr., 2008, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Apr., 2008), pp. 81-90.

  • Thank-you Geoffrey. I have added qualifiers and a rephrasing of the question at the end. Aug 4, 2021 at 3:55

If everyone is equal, it is worse to torture 1000. If one person however is worth 1001 units of value, relative to the others, then it is worse to torture the one individual.


They are both terrible, however the 1000 inmate scenario shows that it's now a habit done thousands of times, it's progressively worse (going in the wrong direction)

Who is better: The man that does one really good thing, but just once, or the man that does many small good things, but has made it into a habit?

  • Thanks JBS. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is why is it progressively worse? What is it about a greater quantity of suffering (as opposed to individual experience of suffering) that makes it worse? Aug 4, 2021 at 7:13
  • I suppose, because it's a greater wound to the Universe. With it's own way of propagating through reality directly and indirectly. Think of the people who are tortured, families of the victims, guards of the scenario, families of the guards. Torture is destructive to the human body and so it is destructive to the Universe. The human body is a part of the Universe, great effort was expended to grow and nurture all of those people. We are systems/beings within the Universe that remember these things and we take them with us and unlike insects we act on those memories perhaps to more torture
    – Jbh
    Aug 4, 2021 at 7:52

I think the answer by causative is pretty clear and straightforward about why we would like to stop more people from suffering.

This answer isn't an answer to the actual question but an invitation to look at an even more difficult argument: The Repugnant Conclusion.

It touches on the same topic - the ethical mathematics of groups - and it raises some questions that are genuinely very hard to answer.

  • Thanks TKoL. Very interesting. Aug 5, 2021 at 3:40

Of course the suffering of the group is far more a bad thing then the suffering of the individual. It seems a bit of trick question when the language suggests that if each person sufers the same amount no more no less.each person treated the same in a one on one setting. It gives the impression that this form of treatment spares the group suffering. There I said it and you only have to hear it a second time to see the problem with jail B it's group suffering its the difference between finding and treating some form of abuse at a late age and the individual leading a suitable life and something a kin to genocide that group suffering can couse.

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