The Nature of Cruelty

Steve Martin at the premiere of Baby Mama in N...

Image via Wikipedia

The notion of cruelty seems to be an important concept in both law and morality. Not surprisingly, what acts count as cruels is a matter of significant debate. My intent here is not to focus on sorting out specific actions or developing a cruelometer. Rather, I am going to address a slightly more abstract issue: whether cruelty requires the capacity to suffer on the part of the victim.

Intuitively, for an action to be cruel, the victim of the action must be capable of suffering. With due apologies to Steve Martin, while there can (perhaps) be cruel shoes, one cannot be cruel to shoes. This, of course, excludes sentient shoes such as Philip K. Dick’s brown oxford.

If this intuition is correct, it would follow that cruelty would be impossible in cases involving beings that cannot suffer from the action in question.

While this intuition holds for inanimate objects such as rocks and shoes, it weakens in the case of living creatures, even when such creatures cannot suffer. For example, the human fetus is not supposed to be able to suffer from pain prior to a certain number of weeks of development. However, it would not seem irrational to speak of such a fetus being subject to cruelty. It would also not seem foolish to speak about certain acts done to brain dead or even dead humans as being acts of cruelty. As a final example, even if certain animals could not suffer (suppose, for example, that Descartes had been right) it would still seem appealing to regard some acts as being cruel to them.

One way to cash out these intuitions would be by asserting that although the actions would not be truly cruel, we regard them as cruel because 1) such acts against a being that could suffer would be cruel and 2) the beings in question (the fetus, the brain dead human, and the animals) are enough like creatures that can suffer.

One way to present a moral argument against such “pseudo cruel” acts is to use Kant’s argument regarding animals:  if a person acts in cruel ways towards such entities then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, such actions would be wrong. This would not be because the victim was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the person damaging his humanity through such an action.

Since the argument is based on the psychological effects of the action on the actor, acts against beings that 1) lack the relevant moral status and 2) do not create the psychological effect in question when subject to “cruel” acts would not be wrong and also presumably not cruel. This nicely matches our intuition that one cannot be cruel to rocks.

So, an act can be considered cruel if the being in question can suffer or if the action can affect a normal actor in a way comparable to an act of “true” cruelty (that is, make her more inclined to cruelty).

Of course, this discussion cannot be properly finished without bringing up a strange and perhaps irrelevant  imaginary scenario:

Imagine a future scientist, Sally, has a mean sister, Jane, who is very cruel to her husband, Andy. Sadly, Jane is a crime boss and would see to it that Andy would be gutted and then cloned if he ever left her. Being a sensitive genius, Sally builds an android duplicate of Andy (an Andydroid) to replace her sister’s husband and spare him from her cruelty. She then smuggles Andy off world so he can have a better life.

Being a moral person, Sally does not want Andydroid to suffer, so she makes him immune to pain and suffering. Naturally,  he has all the behavioral programming needed to satisfy Sally’s need to see Andy suffer. For example, if Jane flaunts her latest lover in front of Andrydroid and “his” friends, he will shed tears but will actually feel no emotional pain.

Sally is such a genius that Jane never notices the difference. She treats Andydroid the same as Andy, yet Andrydroid does not suffer from her actions at all.

So, are Jane’s acts against Andrydroid cruel acts or not? Bonus points for classic science fiction references, of course.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Leave a comment ?


  1. James: I think that you confused Sally and Jane above, when you say that “Sadly, Sally is a crime boss…”

  2. Snoops | ducksanddrakes - pingback on April 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm
  3. MARIJUANA CULTIVATION | - pingback on April 15, 2010 at 11:12 am
  4. Cultivating Marijuana-How To | - pingback on April 15, 2010 at 11:32 am
  5. Jane is cruel as long as she believes that her victim is suffering. If she were informed of andydroid’s condition but still persisted in her behavior, she would no longer be acting cruelly.

    Bonus: Shoes cannot be cruel unless their victim believes that the shoes are aware of the victim’s suffering, and that the shoes could act otherwise.

  6. I see that James beat me out. Jane’s actions and intentions were to inflict pain on an object she and everyone else believed to be her husband, hence, I’d say she’s cruel. This is different than her doing the same to a wall which she thinks is her husband and everyone else knows it to be a wall. Here, she’s showing signs of dementia an irresponsibility.

  7. The nature of cruelty is cruelty itself(go to dictionary).
    Capacity of cruelty? Does not matter when still it is a cruel act(tradition from Pythagoras).

  8. Marta,

    Unfortunately the dictionary just gives the common usage of a term and generally does not settle substantial matters. Unless, of course, it is argued that the dictionary is to be taken as the final arbitrator of meaning.

    It would be very handy if it did work that way. Just imagine being able to look up “good” and thus solve those endless moral debates about what is good. 🙂

  9. I’m inclined to agree with Marta: ordinary usage deserves to be honoured. At law or in medicine are two places where it makes a difference to have a more precise use. At law, ‘we’ cannot charge someone for feeling murderous. In medicine, a psychic cruel-o-monmetre might diagnose a treatable condition (some time in the future.) So, a more precise meaning may belong to some group of specialists.

    Perhaps in ordinary usage, we might tweak ‘cruelty’ with the notion of ‘incomplete or completely’ cruelty. Complete cruelty would be both an act and a painful and otiose event for a living animal. Incomplete cruelty would be a persistent capacity or intent without any outcome; or an outcome suffered by a living animal and/or an absent of an attempt to ease the pain. (E.g. the neighbour’s child is seen to be torturing a cat but a call is not placed to the ‘Humane’ society.)

    I’m curious about “cashing out”. There needs to be something observable or empirical if a claim is to be exchanged for cash money, but I don’t see any cash money on the table.

  10. Mmmmm, I would think there is a difference between a Jane who wants to see Andy suffer and a Jane who just does not care. The Idontcare-Jane might not be cruel to the Andydroid. She just treats him as if he did not have any feelings and as the Andydroid does not have any feelings, her relationship is comparable to the Jane-Stone-Relationship.
    But I have another question: Might it be of importance if one thinks of the victim of one’s action als being unique? Doesn’t that change the moral judgement?
    (PS.: I’m from germany and try my best writing english. So if there are any problems understanding what I say, pls dont hold back and tell me. I’ll try harder and do not want you to suffer from my bad english.

  11. Daniel,
    I don’t see why the uniqueness of the victim, at least in general, should matter. Do you have something specific in mind?
    (PS More than once, after someone read something I had written, I was asked if English is my second language, to which I answered, no, English is my only language but it came to me very late in life, which in a way is true.
    I know in German you have to capitalize more than we do in English, but it appears as though you’re over compensating by not capitalizing anything, which doesn’t bother me, but if you’re not trying to make some personal statement about punctuation, you might look into this.

  12. Cruelty may be a species of segmented things whose parts are intentional and performative; or in simpler terms ‘whose parts are emotional or intellectual (‘mental’ if you wish) and an action or set of actions’. And an instant of the species need only be intentional.

    What other sorts of things are similar? Consider: virtuous or evil, knowledgeable (but not ignorance), loving or artistic. For example, an evil man is both a set of bad attitudes and a performer of some of harmful acts. Is it possible to be evil but not ever harm another? Similarly cruelty?—but that’s the question being asked, isn’t it.

    I suppose that cruelty is something that is acquired through doing cruel things. But one can stop doing cruel things and continue being a cruel person. In general, the intentional segment can continue even when confirming acts have not occurred.

  13. As a young boy I inflicted psychological pain upon my younger sister by threatening to throw her teddy bear over the edge of the bannisters and down the stairs. In terms of her mind set concerning her teddy (which incidentally was much bigger than my older and more worn one), I was cruel to her. I did not hit my sister but as she was getting more attention than me at the time from one of our parents it seemed that I had exercised some degree of control over that situation.
    Of course one cannot be cruel to an inanimate thing, but if you believe it isn’t inanimate then that is an act of cruelty by proxy. Especially as I believed in my teddy bear still (my mother removed my teddy from my bedroom in my early teens and I believe that to be an act of cruelty to me and my teddy).

  14. Ordinary usage is a good place to begin and we might even end there. However, there still seems to be a great deal to explore beyond the ordinary.

    Well, some folks do get cash money for ideas. But, “cashing out” in philosophy is usually just a slang phrase for “providing a more detailed account and analysis”.

  15. Daniel,

    It certainly does make sense to consider the actor’s view of the victim. In the Jane case, if Jane knows that Andydroid is a unfeeling, uncaring droid then it would be just like a stone to her. However, if Jane thinks Andydroid is actually suffering then that would seem to change things.

  16. Ripis,

    I have also wondered about the same thing. Using your example of evil, I suppose a person could be evil without harming another. To use a specific philosopher, Kant’s theory would allow this. After all, he focuses on the will as the defining factor rather than the actions. So, for example, a person could have an evil will (the opposite of the good will) and yet fail to ever be able to carry out his nefarious willings. Since Kant argues that the good will is good even if it is never able to achieve any results, the same would apply to the evil will.

    Aristotle would agree with your final point-we would become cruel by doing cruel acts. This would presumably stick with a person even if they stopped being actively cruel (for example, a devastating stroke leaves the villain unable to act or even command others to act).

  17. Are we making a distinction between pain and suffering, or lumping both together? I like the Buddhist’s stand: “Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional”. There have been examples throughout history where people have had such a mental fortitude as to have survived the cruelest of conditions (Viktor Frankle comes to mind), which proves that suffering is a mental state. Whether it is possible to eradicate suffering all together out of one’s life is questionable, but certainly there seems to be a way to develop the mental skills to control the amount of suffering an adult human allows in his/her life, regardless of the intentions and source of the inflicted pain or suffering. As far a human embryos, children, and defenseless animals go, who do not have the mental resources to deal with suffering, it would be morally wrong to inflict pain and/or suffering onto them. Intentionality seems to be important here because humans (and certain animals) instinctively know what causes pain. Jane’s intentions are to cause pain, whether her husband or the droid is the recipient to her intentions is irrelevant.

  18. GoldEagle,

    Being a runner, I split pain and suffering. For example, running hard can be painful, but I do not consider myself to be suffering. Pain, I would venture, is a sensation while suffering involves a certain state of mind and attitude.

  19. David Jefferson


Leave a Comment

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: