Forward Thinking: Round up of Responses About the Ethics of Cruelty

For this round of the “Forward Thinking” values development project Libby Anne and I are running, I asked bloggers to contemplate the ethics of cruelty. I pointed out a number of roles cruelty plays in our lives and asked them what ethical sense we should make of it. How should we determine what is good or bad about each kind? (To see Libby Anne’s question to be blogged about and sent to her by June 16, go here. To see bloggers’ treatments of other topics in the series go here.)

Leah Libresco astutely spots a fascinating and contradictory dialectical interplay between empathy and cruelty which seems to make cruelty possible:

For me, cruelty seems to entail a strange kind of double think.   We’re able to figure out how to be cruel  because our victims are similar to us.  Cruelty can’t exist without some degree of empathy — the ability to model the way other people think and feel.  So, we lean into that feeling of kinship and connection, and then exploit it to hurt the other person in precisely the way we do not want to be hurt.  Someone being cruel swings back and forth between connection and detatchment.

Near the end of his post, Daniel wonders what to make of our love of villains like the Joker, Hannibal Lector, or Dexter.  Both these men understand humans very well.  They can carry out elaborate schemes, because they know exactly how people will respond to their provocations.  They look on human thought and feeling and understand it without loving or respecting it.  When we watch them, we feel a certain amount of delight at getting to vivisect humanity and safely manipulating it.

Shira Coffee at The Fruits of Kamma defines cruelty this way:

It seems to me that the best way to define cruelty is this: cruelty is acting in a way that harms one or more people, without a proper degree of empathy for the person(s) we harm. We may or may not have a strong desire to harm the other person(s); way may have the right or even the obligation to harm the other person(s); but we must also restrain ourselves by keeping in mind the other person’s rights and inherent worth — by harming them, in effect, no more than we would think fair if our roles were reversed.

This idea of empathy restraining the desire to hurt someone is perfectly compatible with the way our brains work — it is often the case that one brain function (in this case, empathy) moderates another (in this case, the urge to harm someone.) If the governing impulse is absent or too weak, we can reasonably judge the resulting action as inappropriate, just as we do, for example, if a person gives in to the impulse to steal from a convenience store.

Although we assign blame to the individual who acts, culture plays its role here, too, by asserting that some people (either by class or by situation) are worthy of more empathy than others, and that some actions call for a response of greater harm than others.

In addition, there is a historical component in determining the correct response in a given situation. For instance, I remember that when my daughter was five, one of her friends’ grandparents groused that, when he was young, if a teacher hit a kid and the kid complained to a parent, the parent would hit the kid even harder. Everyone of my generation inched away from the poor old man…

This view of cruelty, I think, solves most of the mysteries that pop up when we think about cruel actions. For instance, under this analysis, it is clear that saving someone’s life by means of old-style surgery without anesthesia (in the days when anesthesia did not exist) cannot be called cruelty, since there is no failure of empathy. But doing the exact same action nowadays, in defiance of the normal standards of surgical practice, would still be cruel. BDSM play would also fail to qualify as cruelty, while domestic abuse would qualify.

An interesting, and possibly controversial, aspect of this definition of cruelty is that it takes no heed of intentionality. One can, under this view, be cruel unintentionally, by virtue of a failure of appropriate empathy. This, in my mind, is a feature rather than a bug: by this definition of cruelty, if a first-world company that outsourced its manufacturing to the third world and put in place layers of middlemen to make sure the company remained ignorant of horrendous labor conditions, the company cannot escape blame for cruel practices. Similarly, legislation that “just happens” to benefit rich people at the expense of the poor would be properly analyzed as cruel.

Eudaimonic Laughter interestingly sees cruelty and teasing as concerned with security:

People are cruel because they can be – in other words because they know they can do these things to the person they are being cruel to and there will be no negative consequences.  Add positive reinforcement and convince people that cruelty is necessary to maintain security as in the Stanford Prison Experiment and a lot of people become cruel.  When being cruel there’s the rush for being secure enough to do this and nothing stopping you.  And cruelty also takes away the victim’s security, lessening them, and showing whoever is being cruel could go further.  This, incidentally, is why people want to be cruel to those they fear.  By doing so they are exerting power over those they fear and lessening the way the formerly terrifying victims appear in the mind.

There are two layers of teasing.  The first form of teasing is merely cruelty by another name.  Where does teasing end and bullying begins?  That’s something only the victim knows – although it’s a pretty good clue that if the victim says stop (or uses a negotiated safe word) and it’s ignored that’s direct cruelty.  Which leads me nicely into teasing and being teased.

Liking being teased is also about security, and subverting it.  In this case it’s closer to “This situation that would otherwise be a nightmare is happening, and I’m still safe.”  Underlining how safe you are because things that would otherwise be very dangerous are perfectly safe.  Without the safety and security things don’t work (which is why BDSM bleeding into mainstream fashion worries me – making it mainstream almost always removes almost all the security).  The person doing the teasing is also, like the person being cruel, in a safe and secure enough place to smash the normal social boundaries.  And above all it’s about trust – trust between the teaser and the teased that they are secure enough with each other that without the normal social safeties, nothing serious is going to go wrong.

Kristofer Rhodes acknowledges that punishment is necessary for overall happiness and that the pleasure rewards that the cruel experience in punishing may help entice them to carry out such punishments, giving cruelty a sort of justification. He does not think it’s the optimal way to attain that good:

So there’s one use for cruelty—if some people in the group take pleasure in seeing others suffer, and a way is found to give these people an outlet in the form of punishment, things turn out to be better for everyone.

This doesn’t make cruelty a virtue. But as Fincke points out, reducing it to a question of whether cruelty is virtuous in itself is not to the point. The question is, is cruelty good foranything. And this is one case where it can be argued that it is good.

Having said this, though, I am led to wonder whether cruelty is necessary. Sure it can be used for a certain good result. But can it be thought of as a Wittegensteinian ladder? Cruelty has gotten us where we are today, but now that we know how to codify rules and punish people in legally rigorous ways, we don’t need cruelty anymore?

It depends. It’s a little difficult for me to think about this because, to be honest, I really don’t think I have a cruel bone in my body. Even when it comes to punishment of horrific genocidal maniacs—believe it or not, once they’re in prison and facing their fate, I feel sorry for them. I also feel sorry for their victims. But I see no connection between feeling sorry for their victims and wanting the genocidal maniac to suffer. It just feels like an awful situation all around, and no punishment makes me feel particularly good for anyone. So if everyone were like me, I think, there would be no need for cruelty. But then, if everyone were like me, possibly since there would be no cruelty it would turn out that cheaters (and yes, I cheat in some contexts) would go unpunished (since no cruel people were around to use punishment as an excuse to cause suffering). And as the models suggest, this might mean things would be worse for everyone! And in any case, everyone is not like me. We have to deal with the seemingly overwhelming evidence that there are a great many people—possibly most of us—who do have a cruel streak. Just watch a little TV and you can see this. A species that enjoys watching what passes for entertainment on broadcast TV definitely is composed of many, many individuals with a pretty strong cruel streak.

So, given that the cruel streak exists and isn’t going away anytime soon, it would seem best to provide an outlet for it. Punishment looks like a good candidate. Fiction looks like another—since fictional suffering is not real suffering. I guess I can’t go into it here, but it occurs to me that advances in storytelling over the centuries could be framed as more and more exquisite ways to explore more and more devastating types of human suffering. If that’s right, then fiction, like punishment, isn’t just an outlet for cruelty, rather, fiction is another case where cruelty is necessary for a kind of advancement we find valuable for its own sake.

None of this means cruelty is necessary full stop. I’m suggesting it’s necessary for some things that we value. This is not to say that a species couldn’t be built which doesn’t need cruelty. In some far-off sci-fi future, we may engineer ourselves into some such species. Is this desirable? It’s impossible to say. That engineered version of ourselves is sure to value things completely differently than we do. Perhaps they’d see no need to punish cheaters—instead finding some other way to handle the effects of cheating. And perhaps they would have no need to craft fictions for each others’ enjoyment. Rampant unpunished cheating? No more stories? This sounds horrible to me! But if this hypothetical engineered version of us can make it work, who am I to complain?

I’m just not sure I’d want to be engineered to live in such a world. And so, to my surprise, it appears I would prefer to insist on living in a cruel world.

Finally, within a larger discussion of heaven and hell prompted by the pope’s recent remarks about the supposed redemption (but not salvation) of atheists which confused many people, Marta Layton differed from my account of what constituted examples of cruelty a bit:

Cruelty, to my mind, involves actual harm. A rape fetish where you get off from actually raping people would certainly fall into that category, but BDSM seems more built on a fiction, with a partner who willingly degrades themselves (indeed, they usually find the degradation erotic from my sketchy understanding of the situation).

And while I was a little uncomfortable when people cheered on the execution of Osama bin Laden, I think that reaction can be motivated by a desire for justice. I know I wept at the Sandusky conviction simply because a bad man would get some bit of justice for the pain and destruction he’d doled out.  I like to think those tears were motivated more by relief that justice was reaffirmed, that those boys would have someone saying what they’d been through was unacceptable, rather than Sandusky’s suffering. All of this made me ask what exactly I think of as cruelty. It’s a complicated concept, to be sure, but I think a good starting place would be this: someone is actually suffering in a way that is neither just nor necessary for some greater good, and you enjoy it.

Using that working definition, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot about heaven and hell that seems downright cruel.

Finally, here at Camels With Hammers, my guest poster and online student Lu Zhao gave her thoughts on how “BDSM is like sour candies, cannibalism is like white chocolate, and violence is like cinnamon.” And even before issuing this question to other bloggers, I analyzed some of the ins and outs of the ethics of teasing, hazing, and satirizing people.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikmik

    Something about finding cruelty fascinating is that it isn’t happening to us. This provides such a tremendous amount of relief that this sense of having escaped something tremendously unbearable is almost ecstatic. The problem comes when this doesn’t involve compassion and a greater and greater experience of the thrill of it not happening to us becomes sought.
    I think that it takes empathy for cruelty, but also a lack compassion for the other, for all the compassion is focused on the self. It is the height of evil self-centeredness. Personally, I cannot even bring myself to hit a person I abhor pain in others so much. But I have no compassion for, say, Dick Cheney, and I can at least fantasize about being cruel to that bastard!
    This brings up a complimentary impulse, that of masochism. Occasionally I test myself to see how much I can stand, knowing that I can stop at any time. This only involves psychological fears and phobias. Again, the abhorrence of pain is great in myself, but also others – compassion – and I have no desire to inflict it on anyone else.
    Just some thoughts!


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