Forward Thinking Challenge: About Cruelty

This was an interesting one, because it made me do some research. As I read Dan’s excellent summary of situations in which we recognize cruelty, I began to wonder how cruelty might have developed historically (meaning, via evolution.) Please note that in THIS post, I will confine myself to discussing cruel actions against other people. Many of the same considerations would apply to acts of cruelty toward animals, but I’d prefer to limit the length of the post by not considering the differences between the two kinds of victims.

A search for “evolution of cruelty” yielded some interesting results. In particular, there was a fascinating paper  that set out to define cruelty in such a way that it can be discussed scientifically. I did not end up agreeing with his definition, but there was a great deal of good thinking in that paper!

It seems to me that there is no evolutionary explanation for cruelty as such. There are, however, numerous evolutionary advantages to causing harm to other people in various situations. For instance:

1. War. Fighting and killing is a common evolutionary strategy to assure that a group has access to sufficient resources to survive. There are, and have been for thousands of years, clear standards about appropriate ways of making war and ways that inappropriate (i.e., cruel).

2. Revenge. According to this article in Scientific American, revenge makes it less profitable for others to attack you. Thus, it can serve to increase the lifespan — and other things being equal, the reproductive success — of a person who is known to be vengeful.

So is revenge cruel? It certainly can be; we have recently been witnesses to the beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby in vengeance for the actions of British soldiers in Muslim lands. Nearly everyone agrees that this act of vengeance was cruel. But when someone from Seal Team Six shot Osama bin Ladin in the face, this was not generally regarded as cruel.

3. Punishment. Punishment is clearly related to revenge, but is subject to more formal control. It generally involves hurting a person, though not always physically. As I discussed in an earlier Forward Thinking post, one kind of punishment called altruistic punishment can be shown in the laboratory to make it easier for groups of strangers to work together. As with revenge, punishment can sometimes be regarded as cruel, but not always.

4. Hazing is related to punishment (especially altruistic punishment), and it serves the prosocial function of assuring members of a group that they can count on each other. Again, we make distinctions between initiations that are harmless and those that are cruel. 

5. Teasing. Often, teasing can involve insults that could cause real pain. They seem to serve a prosocial function similar to, but milder than, hazing. We make a distinction between those that are “all in good fun” and those that are cruel — the latter kind is often referred to as “bullying”.

6. Capture / abduction / imprisonment of women for sex. As I was researching for this challenge, this post appeared in my daily blog reading. It is easy to see the evolutionary value of this practice — it increases the number of children a male can father. It might, in many circumstances, also increase the number of children a woman produces (by preventing her from engaging in other, competing, activities). For those reasons, it is a very old and very persistent pattern in human history. But unlike the other examples I have used, we now consider this practice cruel in all cases. Why is that?

Considering these six cases, we appear to observe a sort of Aristotelian mean with regard to at least the first five ways of harming another person. We feel that one can, and perhaps must, inflict an appropriate amount of harm based on the situation, but if someone inflicts too much harm, we regard them as cruel. (In the sixth case, we seem to have decided that the appropriate amount of harm is none, so in that sense we can say that  even the sixth case is an example of the same principle.)

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.

There is every reason to believe that social pressure can break down the level of empathy, which can lead directly to cruel behavior. We know from the Milgram Obedience Experiment that an authority figure can induce ordinary people to behave with cruelty. The Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us that peer pressure suffices to foster cruelty. Fred Clark (the slacktivist) wrote an extremely good post the other day about the way that fear of being punished for helping a stigmatized group can actually cause us to resent that group and stand by while they are abused:

And thus bystanders never only fear the mob or the secret police. They also fear the knock at the door. I don’t mean the loud knocking of the mob or the police — they have obediently done nothing to have to dread such an inspection. No, the knock that they fear is the furtive knock of a neighbor in need. They come to dread this more than anything.

And that dread, ultimately, becomes resentment. Guilt always leads to resentment. 

When cruelty is defined as a failure of empathy, it follows that individuals must cultivate and society must inculcate an appropriate degree of empathy. We in the West have not generally considered empathy a virtue that can be cultivated, but even so, we have clearly been drifting in the direction of increased empathy extended to a broader base of persons. For instance, we no longer tolerate slavery, indentured servitude, public hangings, cock- and dogfights, and many other activities that used to be perfectly acceptable but now seem cruel. And we insist (in law if not always in fact) that poor people, blacks, women, foreigners and gay men have the same right to security and public appearance that wealthy, straight white men enjoy. 

My own, fervently humanist, belief is that we can greatly reduce cruelty by deliberately cultivating empathy as individuals, and by public debate of the appropriate degree of empathy in various situations. Buddhists cultivate empathy by the discipline known as “metta meditation”, and I have no doubt other traditions offer their own paths to the same good. And public debate is already being sponsored by groups such as Karen Armstrong’s Compassionate Action Network.

It’s time to stop drifting and start working for a cruelty-free world.