The Psychology of Cruelty

Sunday, May 30, 2021
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 16, 2018

What Is It

Throughout history, people have committed all kinds of cruel, degrading, and evil acts toward other people. Many believe that for evil acts like genocide to be even possible, the victims must first be dehumanized by the perpetrators, starting with dehumanizing language or propaganda. But is this lack of empathy always at the heart of human cruelty? When we call others “vermin,” “roaches,” or “animals” are we thereby denying their humanity? Or can human cruelty and violence sometimes rely on actually recognizing the other’s humanity? Josh and guest host Alison Gopnik welcome back Paul Bloom from Yale University, author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

Listening Notes

Is a lack of empathy always at the heart of human cruelty? Josh and guest host Alison Gopnik begin the show by debating this question. While Josh offers the view that cruelty emerges when something is wrong with a person’s “empathy circuit” and he/she begins to dehumanize his/her victims, Alison believes that this explanation isn’t the entire picture. A cruel act, she claims, is generally designed to provoke an emotional reaction from its recipient—meaning that its perpetrator is not only recognizing but attempting to exploit the humanity of the other person.

Guest Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, joins the show. He argues that some of the very worst things that one person can do to another are, in fact, driven by an appreciation of the humanity of the other person. Take misogyny, for example: many men who hurt or kill women do so because they feel humiliated or disrespected by them. These intense feelings toward women could only come about, Paul argues, as a result of viewing them as terrible humans—we wouldn’t feel this way toward, say, rats or turtles. Alison makes the point that large-scale acts of cruelty, such as bombings, do appear to involve the viewing of their victims as less than human. Paul’s response is that while some acts of violence can be the result of perpetrators’ dehumanization of their victims, what he considers the prototypical view of cruelty—which involves degradation, humiliation, and torture—does require recognition of the victim’s humanity.

One caller reminds the philosophers that cruelty can also serve as an exercise of control and a demonstration of power. Paul agrees, adding that shared cruelty—such as talking badly about a third party—can create alliances between people. Paul, Josh, and Alison then discuss the role that art and literature might be able to play in ameliorating cruelty, as they allow viewers and readers to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Josh argues that although this function of art can be wielded to make people more understanding and compassionate, there are also cases in which works can employ the empathy of viewers for negative purposes—for example, The Birth of A Nation. Ultimately, Paul posits that if his stance is correct and that in acting cruelly toward others, we are recognizing them as people, the only way in which we can make the world a kinder place is to fundamentally change how we think about other people—both on an individual and a cultural level.

Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:51) → Liza Veale examines a case in which a feminist Facebook group originally designed as a safe and private space for discussion ends up receiving disturbing and relentless harassment from an opposing, “anti-social justice warrior” group. It appears that while the internet can allow people to access supportive, empowering communities, it can also serve as a hotbed for bullying and heckling that gives users the freedom to act maliciously without having to face responsibility or their victims.

Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 46:34) → Ian Shoales looks at how attitudes—and in particular, levels of empathy—toward the poor have shifted over time and with politics, taking us from the Reagan era to Clinton’s presidency to our present administration.

 

Comments (13)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, September 14, 2018 -- 11:30 AM

I guess I would have to read

I guess I would have to read Bloom's book, in order to get to the rationale behind the title. My eleven-year-old grandson shows empathy for many sorts of living things, including some human beings who may (or may not) deserve it. I won't bore anyone with declarations about his level of maturity. Certainly, there are varying depths of cruelty and most anyone is capable of displaying that sort of attitude and behavior. Denying the humanity of someone or some group is, to emulate Dennett, 'a sky-hook' to oblivion. Recognition of another's humanity can lead to envy or jealousy: cruelty is only a short distance from those deadlys. We are fully able to discount those whose station surpasses our own (whether in reality or vain fantasy). Empathy is that human capacity, most related to love, generosity, magnanimity, and so on. In probability, those of us who lack one also lack the others, on any but the most superficial level. But, admittedly, Professor Bloom is the psychologist in the room. As such, he knows much of the intricacies of the human mind; the interconnections of human neurons and synapses; and roles neurotransmitters play in deciding how we think what we think. Wish I were in Gambier or Marietta or that other Ohio location where your show airs. I'll try to keep up with this subject, online with your blog. Warmest regards, HGN.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, April 25, 2021 -- 11:01 AM

M wife is a fan of crime

M wife is a fan of crime shows. Criminal Minds NCIS, etc. When much younger, she wanted a career in law enforcement. Being a female, small in stature, her opportunities were denied. Cruelty is a particular weakness of human beings. According to popular thinking (as far as I know) it is not manifested in other animal life. One might conclude, therefore, that it is a necessary evil of our species? A countermeasure or defense mechanism? A stretch, I suppose. But, many of us speculate on stretchy things. The psyche is vast and our behaviors varied. I think that although Pinker's notion about a declne in violence has some merit, our penchant for cruelty has increased. Why might that be so? Here, again, there is a totality of circumstances ( when I used that thought in a 2018 comment, it was mostly in fun). In short, though, there are more circumstances than there once were. People alter coping mechanisms, to adapt to changing contingencies: when the going gets tough, the adaptive turn MEAN. Is this psychology? Probably not. I think it is more of a practical matter...

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 15, 2021 -- 12:50 PM

What follows is no critique

What follows is no critique of Paul Bloom rather a restatement of his czar of compassion answer. He sees no hope. The same is true in his book, as far as I can tell as well. He justifies violence and cruelty as a deterrent and gives no path for a better nature and world.

Alison was a bit more thoughtful, and, in Bloom's defense, he did join in that social justice could bring a less cruel world. I'm not sure how many of these topics boil down to a call for social justice, but it seems most do. The income disparity is reaching a pitch that is unsustainable. It is "the" issue that is driving unrest and cruelty, in my opinion.

Bloom gives multiple other sources of cruelty. The general theme of the show and book was that cruelty happens because of empathy and not despite it. That causal learning is helpful and counter-intuitive. I will be careful talking down others to friends given all the filters Bloom lays down on how we think about cruelty.

I have been cruel to others in my life, and that haunts me still. I've made apologies to many but not enough. Time has left these for me to deal with alone for the most part. The victims have long since forgotten or perhaps never took notice. I noticed.

The sociopathic case is odd. I take heart in the lack of concern about psychopaths and sociopaths by Bloom and the hosts. They are all too often the scapegoat in these conversations, and they represent a small impact.

I learned something here, reading and listening. Always good to consider what is cruel/kind or the nature of empathy. The most significant change for me was to look to the road of compassion, questioning empathic choices, and always minimizing cruelty in my interactions and company.

Nice show.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, May 22, 2021 -- 4:47 AM

Sometimes, we are bent toward

Sometimes, we are bent toward cruelty when, in our view, people just don't act right. This is doubly painful when they are those for whom we profess love. Respect. Admiration. My brother, in his Mind Poem asked whether life and the Cosmos are adversaries. I don't know the right or wrong of that notion.. Moreover (perhaps), I don't even know if that question has crossed other minds.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 22, 2021 -- 8:29 AM

If you don't know the right

If you don't know the right or wrong of an action or notion then we are back to " if I got a notion to jump into the ocean..."

An adversarial notion of life and the cosmos is probably best posted in the Nonduality thread/show next week. Biologists are hard-pressed to define life for their students. I'm not sure if I see enough identity in life to define it apart from its cosmological context. I've not heard this extreme notion expressed there (that life and all other non-life are adversaries.)

Twists on this are the simulation hypothesis and deep ecology. I can see similar ideas there as well as in mystic traditions.

In response to your post...I don't know either.

Cruelty is in both the observer and observed. I'm not sure setting up the cosmos vs. life paradigm helps here in the end.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 28, 2021 -- 11:43 AM

As a skeptical pragmatist, I

As a skeptical pragmatist, I am much (not all) about usefulness. The idea floated by my brother is the work of an inquiring mind. A 'what if', if you would. His background is more deeply academic than mine. And, now his focus is on the poet he has become. I have not posted anything here...only commented, as allowed by PT. Acts of cruelty are distinctly human, seems to me. Which gets us back to current arguments about consciousness, dualism, materialism, panpsychism and the rest. Unless you (or anyone else) really wants to argue that cruelty is a feature of all living things, per se, ,I don't think there is an argument....but, then again, great minds can think alike, while fools seldom differ. Was intrigued and amused by your other exchange with the tartar. Saucy
Respects,
Neuman.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, May 30, 2021 -- 6:19 AM

Harold,

Harold,

I don’t mean to be saucy, but there are plenty of primatologists who have stories of cruelty on a human scale played out in a shrewdness of apes. Jane Goodall, Robert Sapolsky, Frans de Waal, I doubt any field biologist, for that matter, doesn’t have a shocking tale of nature to tell of cruelty. But, in general, none compare to what human beings will do to their own kin, much less their sworn enemy. On that, we agree. On the flip side, humans are also more empathetic, to Bloom’s and my chagrin.

No philosophical thought is worth thinking unless bracketed by an occasional ‘what if.’ Given our current trajectory – adversarial is a euphemism. I’m sure your brother has already read Ishmael by Dan Quinn. We are all takers.

I meant no disrespect to Tartar Thistle. She is a seeker and thinker. She is not one to be persuaded, I think, but she can be worn out evidently. Having the last post today in a PT back and forth is no guarantee of the ultimate word. I will settle for truth in the now without any spice or sauce. Again, I didn’t intend impertinence or if that can't be done, the least amount of disinformation.

Best,

Smith

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 31, 2021 -- 1:14 PM

Working on a reply. Hope this

Working on a reply. Hope this much is listed, because my reply was in line with what you wrote. If, and only if, my previous response finally reaches this forum, you may understand. If not, I am sorry. I am not a robot. Too bad we are assaulted by them everyday.
Neuman.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, May 31, 2021 -- 2:04 PM

I will abbreviate: 1. Cruelty

I will abbreviate: 1. Cruelty is distinctly, human. 2. Apes are shrewd, because they can. Their capacity for what we call cruelty is questionable. They are about survival and procreation of their species. Just as much as are we, who are more conscious of that goal. 3. Lions and other carnivores make their living by hunting and devouring prey. 4. If, and only if, Lions were mostly vegetarian, as gorillas, we would not think much about their ' cruelty'. It would be 'off the table'. If this account is wrong, sobeit.
This was what I failed to frame before.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 -- 9:37 AM

Apes are not shrewd.

Apes are not shrewd. Shrewdness is the collective noun for a troop of apes.

No issues here. Humans are cruel in ways no other specie can be - most likely due to the external computation of our reality.

There is nothing cruel about eating meat. It is murder in my mind, but I think murder is justifiable under certain circumstances. Justice is another external logic, though even apes have a keen sense of it. A good example of veganesque excess (this may muddle itself with politic) would be Rachel Carson and the banning of DDT.

I see no failure to frame.

Hmm... I'm not saying much here that is controversial.

Just checked with my checker. I think I need to change the titer of my sauce.

Always good to have a checker. ;-)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 -- 2:02 PM

I agree as to the checker

I agree as to the checker part. As to your other statements, they are yours alone, fact-checkers, notwithstanding. My thinking stands for me. We will always differ, I suspect. I may recall you under different blog handles. Your approach seems, uh, familiar. The letters evoke another person, who later was mollusc-like . A miracle guy? Ok, then, I'll clam up. I missed you, too.
HGN.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 -- 7:08 PM

Harold,

Harold,

I meant no harm here. I have never held another handle on this site. but there are others out there with similar views for sure.

I agree with you here.. Humans are cruel in ways animals are not. I've said it before, I said here above. I'm not sure what else needs fact-checking but let's have at it if there are questions of fact. I want to know and will concede on truth.

Disagreement on philosophical views is a given for the most part, but let me assure you I stick to the best science I can find. I am no miracle guy or clam (whatever that is.)

If you want examples of cruelty in animals, here is one taken from Frans de Waal's - "Mama's Last Hug." When Mama was in her last hours, the keepers had to isolate her because other apes would have pummeled her to death for no reason other than they could.

There is no harm in difference but there is to indifference. I will never be indifferent to matters of fact. That can bring on the sauce as you say. There is no harm or foul here intended from me.

Best,

Tim

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, June 2, 2021 -- 6:13 AM

Well-stated. No harm intended

Well-stated. No harm intended from me, either. We may agree;we may disagree. That is always part of the human equation.
Respectfully,
HGN.