Jamie Mayerfeld

American political scientist

Jamie Mayerfeld is a professor of political science and adjunct professor in law, societies, and justice at University of Washington. He is also a faculty associate of the Center for Human Rights and an associate faculty member of the Program on Values.



Suffering and Moral Responsibility (1999)


Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. ISBN 978-0195154955.

  • Real cases of suffering ... tend to go unheard. This is not only because people who are genuinely suffering typically lack the resources with which to publicize their condition, but also because ... many forms of suffering deprive people of the very ability to express, sometimes even think, the fact that they are suffering.
    • "The Meaning of Suffering", p. 53
  • I believe that most of us tend to underrate the evilness of suffering. The reason is that it is difficult for us, when not actually suffering, to recollect what suffering really is. We employ numerous psychological mechanisms to conceal from our consciousness the true nature or meaning of suffering, to falsify and deny it. We do this without renouncing the word, however. The word comes to designate, in our minds, only a faint copy or superficial image of the real thing; but having forgotten what the original is, we mistake it in the copy. We ascribe to "suffering" a certain gravity of evil; but it is slight compared to what we would ascribe to suffering itself, if we could only recall its true meaning.
    • "Underestimating the Evil of Suffering", p. 101
  • The falsification of suffering is everywhere—in movies, in poetry, in novels, on the nightly news. Accounts of disaster routinely veer from a discussion of the agony and plight of the victims (which quickly becomes tiresome) to the description of some moving act of kindness or bravery. Often it is these descriptions that affect us the most and that provoke the greatest outburst of emotion. These are the images we often take away and that become our image of "suffering." Suffering comes to be closely associated with stirring images of hope in adversity, acts of moral heroism and touching kindness, gestures of human dignity, sentiments of noble sympathy and tremulous concern, the comfort and consolation of tears. It turns into something beautiful. It becomes poetry. People begin to refer to "sublime suffering." Suffering, in other words, becomes just exactly what it is not.
    • "Underestimating the Evil of Suffering", p. 102
  • We might say (again metaphorically) that suffering cries out for its own abolition ... .
    • "The Duty to Relieve Suffering", p. 111
  • A strong duty to relieve suffering that does not discriminate between species would require radical changes in the ways that we relate to other animals. It would, for example, require an end to the practice of factory farming, in which billions of animals are annually subjected to extreme suffering in order to supply humans with meat and other products at the lowest possible cost. It would also raise difficult questions about the practice of experimenting on animals to obtain medical benefits for humans. These cases, much discussed in the literature on animal ethics, involve suffering that is inflicted by human beings. But a species-blind duty to relieve suffering would also make it a prima facie requirement to save animals from suffering brought upon them by natural conditions and other animals.
    • "The Duty to Relieve Suffering", p. 117
  • An agent who regarded [sound moral principles] as mere rules of thumb would ignore them whenever she calculated that compliance wasn’t necessary to minimize the cumulative badness of suffering. The problem is that it might also be in her own interest to violate these principles, and self-interest could distort her calculations, even when she calculated sincerely. She could thus acquire a pattern of violating the principles even when compliance with them really was necessary to prevent the worst cumulative suffering. To avoid this, we would want her to feel strongly inhibited from violating the principles. Inhibitions of this kind can insulate agents from the effect of biased calculations.
    • "The Duty to Relieve Suffering", p. 121
  • ... there may be a crucial difference between thinking that it would have been better if the world had never come into existence, and thinking that we may take it upon ourselves to destroy the life that already exists.
    • "The Moral Asymmetry of Happiness and Suffering", pp. 159-160
  • ... the duty to relieve suffering comes in two parts: a prohibition against inflicting suffering, and a requirement to prevent it. What we tend to underestimate is less the former than the latter.
    • "The Limits of the Duty to Relieve Suffering", p. 189