Both Torture and Morality require Theory of Mind


Being “Broken on the Wheel”. Europe, 14th century.

In reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and I’ve been shocked at the cruelty in earlier centuries. Particularly striking are the broad range of torture techniques and the widespread use of torture (chapter 4).

What is torture? What is cruelty? I’ll propose definitions:

  • Torture: a technique designed to inflict pain and suffering on a subject
  • Cruelty: Intentional induction of pain and suffering on a subject.

pinkerThe other end of the spectrum is moral behavior. I lean towards utilitarian ideas, but you do not need to be an extreme utilitarian to accept the following

  • Moral behavior is action designed to increase the happiness of others (possibly at the expense of personal happiness).

If these definitions are correct, then both moral behavior and torture/cruelty require a theory of mind. Each of us has the personal subjective experience of happiness and suffering. Theory of Mind is the inference that others have  minds with subjective states, including the subjective states of happiness and suffering.

This post makes two points. First is noted above: both Moral Behavior and Torture/cruelty require Theory of Mind. This suggests that only animals or individuals with a “Theory of mind” could be considered “moral entities” or have the possibility for torture or cruelty. An animal or infant without a theory of mind cannot be considered moral, immoral or cruel. Altruism, where an animal is involved in self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, is not synonymous with moral behavior. The noted primatologist Frans De Waal  recognizes alruistic behavior in non-human primates, but does not consider these animals moral entities. In a similar fashion predatory animals can be extremely violent, but should not be considered, ipso facto, cruel. The human capacity for Theory of Mind, shared with select other animals, is critical for the best and worst in us.

The second point starts with a question: why does the remarkable capacity for Theory of Mind result in such extremes in behavior? The answer, I suggest, is values. We make behavioral choices based on a complex value-systems. The value system permits  selection from a complex set of drives. Simple drives include hunger, thirst, temperature control. and other body maintenance functions. Somewhat up the drive hierarchy are gene passing drives such as mating and caring for family members. Included in the value hierarchy are group identity, promotion of one’s social group, and ideologies.

I won’t elaborate on the values that lead to moral behavior. Basically, values that pay attention to the welfare and happiness of others. What values might lead to cruelty and torture? Here is a speculative list:

  1. Sadism. Pure enjoyment in seeing others suffer. A mob’s pleasure in watching torture is likely sadism.
  2. Religious and ideolgical values. As Pinker says, valuing the afterlife more than the current life. One can imagine an ideology where a soul is cleansed for the afterlife by suffering in the current life.
  3. Retribution. The (mostly) biological urge to impart suffering on those who have made you suffer.
  4. Deterrence. A demonstration of suffering to dissuade others from similar behavior.
  5. Demonstration of in-group or individual power, status and superiority.

The cognitive capacities such as Theory of Mind, logical reasoning and what-if scenarios can be applied to any value system. Logic, Reasoning, Theory of Mind and projecting the future are value free. An individual’s moral or immoral value system is due to a combination of biology, culture and experience.


8 thoughts on “Both Torture and Morality require Theory of Mind

    • Mostly synonymous. In some usages there are differences. For example, one can talk about “ethical systems”, while the term “moral systems” would be awkward. But if there are distinctions, I’d like to hear them.

      • Consider, if you will, the following ethical conundrum.

        It’s called “The Moral Majority Meets the Ethical Minority” and it goes like this:

        There is a community with just two factions. One faction is the Moral Majority. The other faction is the Ethical Minority.

        The Moral Majority makes a Rule. The Rule is: The Ethical Minority must obey the rule of the Moral Majority.

        What happens next?

      • Re: Barry Cort’s Ethical Conundrum.
        As a utilitarian, it depends on the definition of happiness. To me, a definition includes the freedom of individuals to work towards goals. As a utilitarian, I want to maximize happiness. This makes the will of the majority immoral. I’d add a dose of “justice” which, roughly means a minimum level of freedom and freedom-from-needs for all. “Life, liberty and he pursuit of happiness” sums it up pretty well.

  1. In your analysis, jkubie, I gather you posit that the Ethical Minority are unhappy with the state of affairs in which they are subjected to and constrained by the Rule of the Moral Majority. Under that interpretation (if I have fairly paraphrased you accurately), what options or responses would you imagine, conceive, or expect from the now-unhappy Ethical Minority?

    • In our government, which I consider ethical, the majority can only make certain kinds of rules. There are also rights, mostly in the bill of rights, that inviolable, even by the wishes of the majority. Group decisions are made by the moral majority, but this should not make a constraint on the freedom of individuals in the ethical minority. Ideally, everyone gets “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. This does not mean that all of your wishes will be fulfilled. In our society, if you are a member of the ethical minority and you want collective decisions to go your way, you must convince members of the moral majority to switch sides.

      • In the scenario of the ethical conundrum which I set up as this exercise, I did not stipulate that the US Constitution with its Bill of Rights was present as an axiomatic given. If the Ethical Minority were obliged to flip members of the Moral Majority to change sides, is there a Best Ethical Practice for doing that?

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