Shades of Cruelty

The following is a guest post from Lu ZhaoAs with all guest posts, her views are her own and not necessarily mine. This post was written as a response to my “Forward Thinking” prompt asking bloggers and commenters to discuss the difference between good and bad kinds of cruelty. Tomorrow, I will round up responses from various writers. There is still time, before early tomorrow morning eastern daylight time, for you to write a post on this topic for me to include. This semester Lu has been one of my online students. One of the opportunities I offer my online students is to submit guest posts for consideration on Camels With Hammers. I am currently enrolling students for summer classes with me and all are welcomed to sign up. If you cannot or do not want to take a course this summer but would like me to build classes around your interests and availability in the future please fill out this survey.


Before I begin my exploration of cruelty, I would first like to put up a disclaimer that I tend to eat when I write and write when I’m hungry. Therefore, my writing tends to be peppered with food references, especially of the sugary kind. So, if you’re the type of person who’s triggered by food descriptions, please first get a bucket of ice cream (because ice cream is awesome) to go with the (hopefully good) food for thought. Also, I will be talking about sex (scientifically, of course), so if that squicks you, please skip when I start talking about desires. Now, follow me as I meander around my initial thoughts examining potential cruelty and along the way showing why BDSM is like sour candies, cannibalism is like white chocolate, and violence is like cinnamon.


What is Cruelty?

Cruelty is always morally wrong. However, it’s not enough to simply harm someone and call it cruelty. There must be the intent and enjoyment of the harm/suffering caused by the act towards others. Because without looking at intent, there is no difference between doctors and torturers, especially before painkillers. So for an act to be cruel, and, therefore, morally wrong, both conditions have to be met. Also, just because an act doesn’t meet my definition of “cruel” doesn’t mean that it’s not morally wrong. Below, I’ve listed some areas to explore which acts are cruel and which are morally wrong, but not cruel.



That being said, I’m going to start off with the simplest case. Someone harming someone else and enjoying the suffering of the other person (e.g. sadistic torture). This is cruel and morally wrong. And when it comes to causing harm, it could still be considered morally wrong, even if it’s not cruelty, if the intent behind it isn’t to help (e.g. dentists, surgeons). For example, torturing someone for information is morally wrong, even though it doesn’t fit under my definition of cruelty.



On the far end of the spectrum, broadly speaking, I don’t consider BDSM to be morally wrong or cruelty. It’s not cruelty because the main intent behind the sadistic act in sadomasochistic play isn’t the enjoyment of the other’s pain. The main intent is mutual enjoyment. Furthermore, while physical harm is caused, the end result is pleasure, so I wouldn’t classify it as harm. BDSM should be thought of as sour candies. True, there is some pain involved (i.e. the sourness), but the main intent behind eating them or giving them to others to eat is pleasure. And, at least for me, part of the enjoyment of eating sour candies is that the sourness heightens my pleasure. On a more serious note, there are many other examples of acceptable, even desirable, activities where pain is a component. For example, exercising with a gym trainer. The gym trainer is going to push the person exercising, often to the point where the “victim” (although, considering some of the trainers I’ve seen, I’m not sure the quotes are appropriate) is in pain and might even derive some enjoyment out of the suffering. But, similar to BDSM, that enjoyment isn’t the main point. For all intents and purposes, there are no intrinsic differences between the exercise and BDSM case. And I doubt anyone would consider the exercise case to be morally wrong. Therefore, no accusation of moral wrongness can be made in the BDSM case.

I do want to make several caveats though. First, about a possible misapplication. I want to emphasize that I’m speaking of BDSM and not similar behaviours that are sometimes misclassified as BDSM. For example, some people think that domestic violence is the same. It is not. The purpose of domestic violence is to harm the other person for the abuser to relieve frustration, enjoyment of the pain caused (which would also make it cruel), to “discipline” the other, etc. The purpose is not mutual enjoyment or consented by both parties. BDSM requires both. The two aren’t the same and saying BDSM is morally okay does not mean that domestic violence is. Not only is domestic violence wrong because of the suffering caused upon the survivor, it is wrong because it degrades the dignity of the person.

Another objection I often hear is that people who enjoy BDSM are people with an history of child abuse. Therefore, BDSM practitioners are either becoming the abusers or taking advantage of those who have been abused instead of getting help. However, that objection isn’t borne out by research. While the research in this area is scant, no study has been able to find a correlation between a history of child abuse and enjoying BDSM. The most recent study is an Australian one. And in fact, if someone is taking advantage of a vulnerable person, that isn’t BDSM, that’s abuse, which is definitely morally wrong. As an aside, the argument that BDSM practitioners are mentally unbalanced is also not borne out in research. In fact, the most recent one that looked at this found that BDSM practitioners tended to be better mentally adjusted than their vanilla counterparts.


An Aside: Acceptable Desires

Before we go further, I do want to take a slight diversion regarding whether some desires, even if they aren’t cruel, are morally wrong to indulge in. To start, I would argue, for a desire to be morally acceptable, it has to at least be formed freely and acceptable to the person. By “freely” I don’t mean that they were formed with no input by your genetics or environment, just that they weren’t coerced. So for example, if a person has a shoe fetish because his (I’m going to use “he” because most fetishists are male) first porn involved shoes or his early masturbation involved shoes, then I would consider that freely formed. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be freely formed if he learned his shoe fetishism because someone shocked him every time he gained an erection when there were no shoes involved. Even if the desire was naturally formed, it wouldn’t be acceptable for another to play with shoes if he’s humiliated or uncomfortable with this desire. Unless, of course, he has a humiliation kink or wants to test it out, maybe because he wants to push his boundaries. However, this still involves him wanting to indulge in the desire. Also, the other party has to also want to.

Having both parties wanting to indulge in the activity and deriving something out of it is a biggie for me. To use another example, whether voyeurism is morally wrong or not, in my opinion, rests entirely on whether the watcher wants to watch and the watched wants to be watched. If both are happy with their roles, then it’s morally okay; if either party isn’t, then it’s morally wrong.

Shoe fetishism and voyeurism are pretty mild kinks though, how about more extreme desires, such as cannibalism? I won’t be considering the case when people are in the middle of nowhere, are starving, have no food, and there’s a dead body lying conveniently nearby. I will focus on cases where cannibalism is a desire and mainly wanted for pleasure purposes by both parties. Whether cannibalism in this case is morally acceptable, for me, rests mostly on how permanent the damage done to the body is. If the cannibalism just involves eating some flesh, meat, or muscle without killing or injuring a person, then it’s not morally wrong. The people involved should be taking the proper safety precautions. The reason I don’t consider it morally wrong is because both parties are deriving something out of it that outweighs the cost of the physical harm done. Furthermore, the damage isn’t permanent, so even if either party regrets it later on, the damage isn’t irreversible. Flesh, fat, and muscle will re-grow in time. In fact, this version of cannibalism is kind of like eating white chocolate. Both are indulged in because people believe that they will gain a satisfaction that outweighs the cost of cutting a piece off the body or adding excess sugar to the body and potential social disapproval if found out (white chocolate lovers should be ashamed of themselves). And if either indulgence is regretted later on, the damage isn’t permanent. The body piece will re-grow and exercise can help with the chocolate eating.

I do think that more extreme versions of cannibalism are morally wrong though. For example, cutting off a limb to eat or killing another person to eat, even if the person providing the limb or life agrees and enjoys it. My main problem with this type is that desires can change and the damage is permanent and drastic. If the person who lost a limb later regrets it, he/she can’t get the limb back. And the person dying can’t predict whether he/she would have enjoyed the dying for cannibalistic purposes more or living the life he/she no longer can (I’m assuming the person is relatively healthy). If it turns out to be the latter, the person can’t come back to life, despite reports to the contrary (I’m looking at you, superhero comic deaths). In either case, the risk the person is taking is morally unacceptable.

The risk would be like BASE jumping without the proper equipment. In this type of cases, permanent harm is not only a risk, it’s a likely outcome. To still go ahead despite knowing this also shows a lack of respect for life, which is morally suspect. For the person who wants to indulge in it, it’s morally wrong because he/she can’t guarantee that he/she won’t regret it, or a means to fix it if he/she does regret it, and shows a lacking disrespect for his/her life. For the other person helping this person, he/she is also committing a morally wrong act because he/she is also demonstrating a lack of respect for the value of the other person’s life. Although, my objection to this type of cannibalism would probably change if limb replacements became cheap, convenient, and equally good as the original. For example, through bionic replacements or growing a new leg out of a vat. Ditto for the killing thing. If the person could be brought back to life with an equally good body, then I would re-think my objection.



Back to cruelty, is fantasizing killing or harming another cruel? I would say no, with a couple of caveats. It would be morally wrong if the person were to describe the fantasies to another party knowing or wanting the other person to be hurt by hearing it. If the person describing it enjoys the hurt it causes the other, then it would be cruel because they have the sadistic desire and the act, which is the describing. It would also be morally wrong, although not cruel, if the person is using the fantasy as preparation to carry out the fantasy. The act itself could still be cruel. I would also find it problematic if the person constantly has these fantasies. Although, if they don’t tell anyone or act them out, it wouldn’t be morally wrong, I would still suggest that person might want to seek a professional opinion.

If a person sometimes has violent or cruel fantasies and has no intention of acting them out or telling anyone who wouldn’t want to hear it, then I think that’s morally acceptable. My acceptance rests on two things. First, pragmatics. Most people have violent fantasies sometimes. There’s a study that pegs it at around 62% in women and 76% in men and given it’s a self-report study on a touchy subject, it’s probably an under-representation (Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A Psychologist Investigates How Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity are Revolutionizing our View of Human Nature by Douglas T. Kenrick has a great chapter on this topic). And that’s not surprising. After all, who hasn’t thought about harming an ex-lover after a nasty break-up or hitting someone who’s insulted you? Given that most people sometimes have these thoughts and as long as they stay in the person’s head and no harm is done, why bother classifying it as a moral wrong? It’s like classifying lust as morally wrong. Lust doesn’t harm anyone and saying it’s morally wrong hasn’t dampened lust. Instead, all it’s done is made some people feel guilty about it and can even backfire by causing some people to fixate on the very thing the rule was supposed to prevent.

For example, I have rarely seen a group describe female sexuality in greater volume, more pornographic detail, or greater relish than Christian Republicans who think that female chastity is a virtue. And this is saying something considering that one of the things I do is work in a sexuality lab that focuses on female sexuality! My other reason is that violent fantasies can serve a helpful purpose. If imagining harm to another person helps ease frustration or anger and/or decreases the chance that the person will actually go out and do the violence, then that’s a good thing. Although, I wouldn’t recommend this being the only outlet a person helps. And if the fantasy doesn’t harm and can even hurt, why would it be morally wrong?


Violence in Books, TV, Movies, and Other Media

I want to start out by pointing out that there is no clear evidence that there’s a correlation, far less a causation relationship, between violence in popular culture and violence in society. In fact, in countries such as Canada and the U.S. (and basically any first world country), where violence levels have exploded in popular cultures, crime rates have dropped.

Onto whether it’s morally wrong to enjoy the violence, it would depend on whether the violence is fake or real. If the person thinks the violence he/she is enjoying watching or reading is real, then it is cruel and morally wrong. It’s cruel because the person is enjoying the suffering of others and is causing harm, even if the direct harm wasn’t caused by the person, by helping to support the demand for such entertainment.

If the person enjoying the violence can reasonably assume the violence is fictional, then it’s not morally wrong. On “reasonably assume”, I would a say Hollywood movies are a safe bet and personal videos on YouTube are not. Although, if the person can only enjoy violent entertainment, I would, at the very least, suspect the person has very poor taste. I would also probably be worried and suggest the person might want to get that assessed. My reasoning for why enjoying this type of entertainment isn’t morally wrong is similar to my argument for violent fantasies. This type of enjoyment is pretty common among people and, as long as you don’t describe it to people who don’t want to hear it or intend to act it out, isn’t causing harm. Furthermore, it could be useful in two ways. One is diverting a person’s violent impulses to watching fake violence rather than enacting it. Better a person derives pleasure from watching a movie murder than from committing a murder. I admit whether this division actually works is hardly certain and so, I don’t want to put too much emphasize on it.

The other way that fictional violence can be helpful is that it can be used to teach. Like adding cinnamon to vegetables helps encourage eating vegetables, violent entertainment can help encourage learning. For example, the Transformer movies, on the surface, is pretty much mindless violence (with a side of racism). Most people probably go watch it for the violence, rather, than say, thinking about philosophy. However, philosophers can use the movies to help explain philosophical concepts, such as how to define sentience or what is good. Using the movies can help make these abstract concepts easier to understand and connect to a larger audience. A good example, of using pop culture to help explain philosophical concepts is the popular Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy series. This series includes book such as Transformers and Philosophy: More than Meets the Mind (Popular Culture and Philosophy) and The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers. And the learning potential isn’t just limited to philosophy. For example, CSI can be used to help cram in knowledge about forensic science or Star Trek about physics.

I will admit that most people probably won’t be seduced into learning about things they aren’t interested in just by linking it to violent pop culture. However, some will. And it is this potential for good and the fact that just watching it doesn’t cause harm that make me reluctant to consider it morally wrong. Watching too much of it’s probably not good for you, like eating too much candy, however, that’s insufficient to say it’s morally wrong to watch and enjoy.



Now we’ve reached the area that I’m conflicted about. Therefore, I’ll be more tentative about this area. I do think that self-deprecating humour is better than humour at the expense of others. However, I will qualify that with the fact that it depends on the motivation of the humour. If the self-deprecating humour comes from insecurity, then I think it’s problematic, especially if other people find it funny. I think it’s problematic because other people’s enjoyment might reinforce the insecurity and tearing one’s self down isn’t really something an insecure person really needs. However, if the humour comes from an awareness of one’s own flaws, then I think it’s okay. A little humour can help self-awareness and prevent conceit. Similarly, the motivation behind humour at another’s expense helps determine if it’s wrong. If the motivation is malicious such as teasing while bullying, than it’s cruel and wrong. If the motivation is to help expose the truth or make an uncomfortable truth more palatable, than I think it’s okay. A good example of this type of humour would be satire, such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Satire does derive humour at the expense of others, however, it also helps uncomfortable truths, such as an act of hypocrisy.

Then, there’re the types of humour that lie in the middle. For example, humour that relies on stereotypes or bad myths, such as rape myths. If the humour is used to reinforce these prejudices, then it would be morally wrong (although, deciding whether it’s cruel will depend on the motivation of the speaker). However, if the humour helps expose why these prejudices are wrong or poke fun at them, they’re fine. I recognize that the line between the two can be pretty fine and admit there’s a lot of grey area between the two. To help determine if a joke falls in one camp or another, I think requires context and there will probably be dispute about which it falls in. Unfortunately, I can’t offer a better guideline than this.

Lastly is schadenfreude, the type of humour I’m most conflicted about. The enjoyment we derive from the tragedy of another. If this enjoyment leads to the person deciding not to help that person, if the opportunity came up, then it would be cruel. The intent comes from the schadenfreude and the harmful act comes from the person’s inaction. However, the humour by itself, I’m conflicted by. On one hand, it’s a pretty common feeling and saying it’s morally wrong probably won’t help decrease the rate of it. On the other, it’s pretty close to callousness and vicarious sadism. I’m going to place it as morally dubious. Not something that should be encouraged, but not a major sin either.



And that concludes our tour of cruelty. I hope you enjoyed the sightseeing and ice-cream, and hopefully got some food for thought.

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