Why are some humans cruel to people who don’t even pose a threat to them – sometimes even their own children? Where does this behaviour come from and what purpose does it serve? Ruth, 45, London.
Humans are the glory and the scum of the universe, concluded the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, in 1658. Little has changed. We love and we loathe; we help and we harm; we reach out a hand and we stick in the knife.
We understand if someone lashes out in retaliation or self-defence. But when someone harms the harmless, we ask: “How could you?”
Humans typically do things to get pleasure or avoid pain. For most of us, hurting others causes us to feel their pain. And we don’t like this feeling. This suggests two reasons people may harm the harmless – either they don’t feel the others’ pain or they enjoy feeling the others’ pain.
Another reason people harm the harmless is because they nonetheless see a threat. Someone who doesn’t imperil your body or wallet can still threaten your social status. This helps explain otherwise puzzling actions, such as when people harm others who help them financially.
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The popular imagination associates sadism with torturers and murderers. Yet there is also the less extreme, but more widespread, phenomenon of everyday sadism.
Everyday sadists get pleasure from hurting others or watching their suffering. They are likely to enjoy gory films, find fights exciting and torture interesting. They are rare, but not rare enough. Around 6% of undergraduate students admit getting pleasure from hurting others.
Unlike sadists, psychopaths don’t harm the harmless simply because they get pleasure from it (though they may). Psychopaths want things. If harming others helps them get what they want, so be it.
We need to know if we encounter a psychopath. We can make a good guess from simply looking at someone’s face or briefly interacting with them. Unfortunately, psychopaths know we know this. They fight back by working hard on their clothing and grooming to try and make a good first impression.
But not all psychopaths are dangerous. Anti-social psychopaths may seek thrills from drugs or dangerous activities. However, prosocial psychopaths seek their thrills in the fearless pursuit of novel ideas. As innovations shape our societies, prosocial psychopaths can change the world for all of us. Yet this still can be for both good and for ill.
Sadism involves enjoying another person’s humiliation and hurt. Yet it is often said that dehumanising people is what allows us to be cruel. Potential victims are labelled as dogs, lice or cockroaches, allegedly making it easier for others to hurt them.
It is a sweet sentiment to think that if we see someone as human then we won’t hurt them. It is also a dangerous delusion. The psychologist Paul Bloom argues our worst cruelties may rest on not dehumanising people. People may hurt others precisely because they recognise them as human beings who don’t want to suffer pain, humiliation or degradation.
For example, the Nazi Party dehumanised Jewish people by calling them vermin and lice. Yet the Nazis also humiliated, tortured and murdered Jews precisely because they saw them as humans who would be degraded and suffer from such treatment.
Sometimes people will even harm the helpful. Imagine you are playing an economic game in which you and other players have the chance to invest in a group fund. The more money is paid into it, the more it pays out. And the fund will pay out money to all players, whether they have invested or not.
At the end of the game, you can pay to punish other players for how much they chose to invest. To do so, you give up some of your earnings and money is taken away from the player of your choice. In short, you can be spiteful.
Some players chose to punish others who invested little or nothing in the group fund. Yet some will pay to punish players who invested more in the group fund than they did. Such acts seem to make no sense. Generous players give you a greater pay-out – why would you dissuade them?
Yet there is a hidden upside of do-gooder derogation. Once we have pulled down the do-gooder, we are more open to their message. One study found that allowing people to express a dislike of vegetarians led them to become less supportive of eating meat. Shooting, crucifying or failing to elect the messenger may encourage their message to be accepted.
For Nietzsche, cruelty allowed a teacher to burn a critique into another, for the other person’s own good. People could also be cruel to themselves to help become the person they wanted to be. Nietzsche felt suffering cruelty could help develop courage, endurance and creativity. Should we be more willing to make both others and ourselves suffer to develop virtue?
And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth.
Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative – wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be.