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.
- 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:
- Sadism. Pure enjoyment in seeing others suffer. A mob’s pleasure in watching torture is likely sadism.
- 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.
- Retribution. The (mostly) biological urge to impart suffering on those who have made you suffer.
- Deterrence. A demonstration of suffering to dissuade others from similar behavior.
- 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.