Abstract Can one be cruel to an inanimate object? In the following I argue that one can in fact be cruel to an inanimate object, defining cruelty as taking pleasure in intentionally causing suffering to another person, animal or (in this case) inanimate object, whether such suffering be genuine, mistakenly believed, or sincerely hoped for. I label the conception of cruelty in question ‘agent-subjective, possible mistake of fact’, and touch upon some implications of this. I like to see the sun pass through the blue glass, the bottle of blue ink, the translucent blue stones. But the light is clearly destroying some of the objects, or at least bleaching out their blues … Out of laziness, curiosity, or cruelty – if one can be cruel to objects – I have given them up to their diminishment. (Maggie Nelson, Bluets 2017: 82) 1. Begin with this question: can one be cruel to an object? However, most (if not all) cruelty has an object in a grammatical sense, and so we might more accurately ask, can one be cruel to an inanimate object? To narrow the question even further for the purpose of analysis: can one be cruel to a chair? Let me set the scene. Jack pours petrol onto a blue wooden chair and sets it alight wanting to cause it to suffer. Further, he enjoys the notion that the chair is (apparently) suffering in this way. If the flaming object were not a chair but a dog, our answer to the given question should be an unequivocal ‘Yes’. But in the present case we are considering a simple wooden chair. Is Jack’s behaviour cruel? 2. Let us clear away two distractions. There are (at least) two responses to the question with which I am not concerned and wish to dispatch up front. First, Dispositional. One might say that Jack’s behaviour is a sign of the potential to be cruel elsewhere; the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. This response admits that Jack’s behaviour is only a sign of potential and future cruelty – hinting at a cruel disposition – and is not a cruel act in and of itself. Second, Kantian. A Kantian might propose that we do have duties towards inanimate objects in the sense that they are also indirect duties to humankind (Collins 1997: 212–3). To illustrate, while a woman may not herself value the antique watch on her husband’s bedside table, to wilfully smash it would be inconsiderate of her husband’s attachment to the item. In this case the woman is cruel to the man by proxy. Importantly, the wife is not strictly cruel towards the watch but towards her husband. Now, whether the act is properly cruel in this instance or whether it is better described as petty, for example, is not the issue. I am only trying to show that, though the watch is harmed, she is not being cruel to it. Contrary to these two examples, however, in the case of Jack and the chair, the chair is the true and final object of his behaviour. It is neither a (mere) sign of potential future cruelty, nor a pawn used to inflict cruelty elsewhere. 3. Let us now turn to a fairly representative definition of cruelty with which to engage. Victor Nell takes cruelty to be the ‘deliberate infliction of physical or psychological pain on another living creature, or on the self’ (Nell 2006: 212, emphasis added).1 There are three parts to this definition to which we must attend: (i) intent on the part of the perpetrator, (ii) the successful infliction of pain upon the victim and (iii) the involvement of a living creature. I will agree with the first stipulation and question the second two. 4. The first aspect of Nell’s definition requires that the act must be done deliberately, with a certain kind of intent, namely, the intent to harm. This requirement, owing much to Aquinas, is on the agent. Paulo Barrozo (2015) calls this construction agent-subjective. ‘The vice of cruelty obtains when the agent of excessive punishment derives pleasure from the torments he inflicts on his victims’ (Barrozo 2015: 1046). Barrozo writes in the context of legal history and so includes the idea of excessive punishment. I will forgo this notion of punishment and focus on the transgression of acceptable norms that cause suffering and the agent’s taking pleasure in this.2 Now, the requirement of intent is intuitively fair. We do not call a man cruel for accidentally knocking a child onto the road. Doing this intentionally and for pleasure, however, is clearly cruel. In our case of Jack and the chair, he intentionally sets the chair alight in order to (as far as he is concerned) harm it to cause suffering, and he takes pleasure in this fact. The first requirement on intentions is therefore met. 5. The second part of Nell’s definition requires that the cruelty is successful, achieving its target of harming another living creature or the self.3 Barrozo calls this construction victim-subjective. Here ‘the definitional element of cruelty rests in the victim’s intense experience of suffering’ (Barrozo 2015: 1047). Though there are certainly cases where this does hold, with two examples designed to question it we might see that it is not a necessary condition of cruelty. First, a terrorist whose bomb does not go off has not succeeded in performing the ultimate intended act, but we may well call his preparatory acts cruel. Importantly, such a person has not only revealed a cruel disposition (that is, the potential for future cruelty) for he does strap a bomb to himself, does go into the crowded arena, and does pull the trigger. These are actual cruel actions even without the sinister finale of an explosion. We can call this kind of cruelty agent-objective;4 the agent has (objectively) performed an act that goes far beyond applicable norms. Even though the explosion itself was only attempted, the preparatory acts were cruel.5 Second, in cases where the cruelty ends up unintentionally helping the intended victim, we can still attribute a cruel act to the agent. Imagine that Tom is in love with his neighbour. He believes that his neighbour’s husband is severely anaphylactic and that peanuts will kill him. Feigning generosity, Tom makes dinner for the couple each week and sprinkles the dish with crushed peanuts. The husband, it so happens, is not actually allergic to peanuts and ends up enjoying the meal even more than he would have without the peanuts. In the end, good effects are ultimately produced. But I think we can still look at Tom and say that his behaviour is cruel. He intentionally puts peanuts into the meal, hoping to kill the husband and take his wife. But the effects are not ‘successful’ in the sense that the aims of the motivational component of his act are fulfilled. Of course, there is an epistemic limitation here: if a vice falls in the forest and nobody sees it, etc. Tom’s neighbours will see him as a good cook who unexpectedly spiced up a meal with peanuts. But this is only an epistemic problem. If we were in the kitchen with Tom and saw him place the peanuts into the meal with the intent to poison, we would have witnessed his cruelty. Perhaps not all vicious actions have a success component in quite the same way that virtuous actions do.6 The man who tries and fails to poison his neighbour is still being cruel even though not technically ‘successful’. But we do not really need the man to successfully poison his neighbour in order for his act to ‘earn’ the attribution of cruelty in the same way that a temperate man may need to successfully refrain from drunkenness in order to be called temperate. (Relatedly, this is why attempted murder, and not only successful murder, is considered morally unacceptable.) In legal terms we might call this a mistake of fact: a defendant is guilty even if the attempt is factually impossible.7 In moral terms, Tom is guilty of what he believes to be a successful act of cruelty even though the victim does not actually suffer. We can, then, adding to Barrozo’s typology, call this kind of cruelty agent-subjective, mistake of fact. Taking these replies into account, while cruelty may very often negatively impact the intended victim, this is not necessary if the act is to count as cruelty. 6. We can now begin to reply to Nell’s third stipulation: the cruelty must be directed to a living creature. But since it is not necessary to confirm the victim’s true subjective experience of suffering, perhaps it should not (in this respect, at least) make a difference if the victim or intended victim is living or not. If the subjective experience of the victim is made a necessary requirement, we must then rule out cases of sincerely attempted (that is, not merely dispositional) but failed cruelty and cruelty with unintended (positive) consequences. However, I believe these can count as instances of cruelty and I therefore take it that the subjective suffering experience of the victim is not always necessary. For cruelty to obtain, perhaps it is enough that the perpetrator believes the victim – living or otherwise – to be suffering as a result of their intentional action and to take pleasure in this. To clarify: is the chair actually suffering? It is almost certainly the case that the chair is not suffering. The burning of wood is a regular and natural occurrence. If not, we are guilty of centuries of mistreatment. But a boy who tries to drown a fish, believing this to be a particularly pernicious form of torture, still acts cruelly just as when a man miscalculates his neighbour’s peanut allergy and ends up cooking an even better meal. Similarly, it does not matter what is truly cruel and unusual punishment for the chair, only that Jack believes it to be suffering. Of course, it is certainly an instance of cruelty if one does truly cause their victim to suffer (and is not in this sense irrelevant), but this is not, I have argued, a necessary condition. But here one may object: the cruelty in the above examples is in fact still directed to living creatures even if it occasionally fails. Nell’s third stipulations therefore still holds. We must continue our exploration to see if this objection can be overcome. 7. We have seen examples of cruelty that required an element of causation. The agent’s actions cause a change to states of affairs in the world even if these do not ultimately result in ‘successful’ cruelty and the true subjective suffering of the (intended) victim. But we can also imagine cases dispensing with causation where the agent passively enjoys the cruelty inflicted upon another (Nell 2006: 219, 226). Gaius goes to the arena to watch a group of Caesar’s slaves forced to fight to the death. Watching the blood and suffering, he turns to his wife and says, ‘Darling, this is very funny; what a tremendous thing to see’. It is, we might agree, a cruel thing to say even though – and importantly – the spectacle will take place with or without Gaius’s cruel words. I suggest further that if he merely thought such a thing it would be equally cruel if Gaius’s pleasure is reflected equally in both speaking or thinking, and speaking or thinking are equally impotent in respect to their causal powers upon the ensuing suffering.8 Imagine now that Gaius attends the slave fight unaware that it is a mock performance and believes (wrongly) that it is real. Again, watching the (fake) blood and (apparent) suffering, he turns to his wife and says, ‘Darling, this is very funny; what a tremendous thing to see’. What is the difference on Gaius’s part? I suggest his speech (or thought, if it goes unspoken) is equally cruel since as far as he is concerned he takes pleasure in the suffering of the slaves. Here we have agent-subjective, mistake of fact cruelty. Imagine finally that Gaius knows Caesar alternates between genuine slave fights and mock-performances but is unaware which kind he is now watching. He desperately wants it to be real, however, for the blood to be genuine and the suffering sincere even while unsure if the slaves before him are acting or not. I suggest that this wanting or hoping is an act of cruelty.9 Granted, it is mental cruelty, but I have just proposed that in cases where the agent’s speech or thought makes no causal difference to the ensuing suffering there is also no difference between the speech and thought as cruelty. The hoping or wanting is the most amount of cruelty that Gaius can perform from high up in the stands of the arena. Here we have agent-subjective, potential mistake of fact cruelty. The inclusion of the word ‘potential’ recognizes that the agent makes room for the possibility that he or she might be wrong, but sincerely hopes she is not. Now Jack the chair-burner goes further than Gaius in that he wants the suffering and, furthermore, is the agent of causation. He does want (and hopes for) the chair to suffer even if he is not entirely certain that, being a non-sentient chair, it can do so.10 And he goes further, physically attempting to achieve this suffering by burning the chair. If we can call Gaius cruel for non-causal and wanting-only cruelty, Jack has gone further and the label of cruelty might apply. 8. We now have a scenario where Jack’s burning of the chair may be cruel even where it is not definitely directed to a living creature. He may want the chair to suffer (even if he is not entirely sure of its ability to do so) and take physical steps to ensure this. Imagine that Jack has a robot housemaid and is not sure whether she has developed the ability to suffer or indeed if any robot yet has. However, when he pushes his cigarette into her arm he sincerely hopes it causes her to suffer and he takes pleasure in this. In light of the above argument, I take this as an instance of cruelty (agent-subjective, potential mistake of fact). However strange the scenario without anthropomorphic similarities, the same must be said of Jack and the chair. Now, why would Jack want such a thing? Perhaps he believes the chair is partially responsible for his divorce and wants it to suffer in some way. Perhaps he has bumped his knee against it one too many times. Even if Jack is rational and knows that the suffering of this chair is unlikely, he may sincerely hope that he can cause it to suffer (for whatever reason) and take pleasure in the act.11 Here we have agent-subjective, potential mistake of fact cruelty. And while this violation is not as worrisome as that seen in the case of the violent criminal, it does share important characteristics and thus bears the same name. This present analysis of cruelty places the onus squarely on the perpetrator and comprises both their mental states and their actions towards the object. 9. I finish by briefly considering a final objection, connecting the argument to some wider debates and showing why it is important to view Jack’s behaviour as cruel. Here is the objection: While Jack’s motive and enjoyment are cruel it does not follow that the act (that is, what he is doing) is cruel.12 Michael Slote (2001: 34–6) offers an agent-based (or motives-based) view of right action whereby an action is right just in case it proceeds from virtuous motives. This, by extension, seems to answer the above objection: an act is cruel just in case it proceeds from cruel motives. But critics say this account collapses the wall between good actions and right ones and, by extension, bad and wrong ones (Brady 2009: 4, Swanton 2003: 230–31). However, an act can still be cruel even if it is right in all-things-considered way, and an act can still be cruel if it produces good effects or no bad ones. We can look at three different aspects of an action. In a typical case of cruelty the act will be: Cruel Wrong Produces Bad Effects But these three may come apart. A general sends his army on a dangerous mission, intent on killing many of them, and taking pleasure in that suffering. Now, it may be that this very plan would also be implemented by a benevolent general who believed the manoeuvre was the right one, all things considered.13 As it turns out, the campaign is a success because of unforeseeable weather conditions the enemy was not prepared for. It was, all things considered, the right move, and produced surprisingly good effects. It was also, however, a cruel act, proceeding as it did from a cruel motive with the intent to cause suffering and we ought to label it as such.14 In such a case we have: Cruel Right Produces Good Effects Consider now, Nero knowingly has sex with a slave with a mental disability that renders her unable to consent. Incapable of reading the situation correctly, she is flattered by the encounter and enjoys it. If we cannot call this abuse of power cruel then we must rule out sinister cases of cruelty where a good effect15 is produced even in cases where the perpetrator gets what they want out of the situation (unlike Tom the poisoner). I suggest the act is cruel even while it produces pleasure. And so here we have: Cruel Wrong Produces Good Effects And now, without the motive. Jack gives peanuts to a boy who is anaphylactic. Jack was not aware. Here we have: Negligent Wrong Produces Bad effects An act is cruel just in case it proceeds from a cruel motive.16 It may or may not also be a wrong action, and may or may not also produce bad effects. I reserve my judgment as to whether the same can be said for all virtues and vices, though I do think one ought to be loyal to the intuitive specificities of the individual virtues and vices over and above the demands of an overarching theory. And here I am concerned with cruelty. 10. In conclusion, I have argued that Jack’s burning of a chair (an inanimate object) and taking pleasure in the apparent suffering he causes is indeed an act of cruelty. I have called this agent-subjective, potential mistake of fact where Jack hopes for the chair to suffer (even if he is not entirely certain that it will) and takes pleasure in the possibility. Where one might finally reply, ‘It was only a chair’, ‘It was only a robot’, or, more disconcertingly, ‘But it brought her pleasure’, in light of the preceding argument I suggest that the label of cruelty, first and foremost, tells us something about Jack and his beliefs, desires, view of the world and the acts proceeding from this.17 Footnotes 1 In a similar vein, Judith Shklar writes that cruelty as ‘the wilful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear, however, is a wrong done entirely to another creature’ (1982: 17, emphasis in original). Burghardt writes, ‘However, “cruelty” to inanimate objects does not lead to such disapproval at the ethical level unless valued objects such as artworks are the target’ (2005: 386). Note here the scare quotes surrounding the word ‘cruelty’; Burghardt does not appear convinced that it applies. 2 Barrozo also takes this element to be decisive here (2015: 1035–36) Note, agent-subjective cruelty will often have an agent-objective element since the agent’s pleasure is often derived from behaviour that goes beyond acceptable norms. 3 There are many other kinds of cruelty outside of these more obviously violent species. For example, Barrozo (2015: 1053ff) describes structural and institutional cruelty and Baehr (2010) examines epistemic cruelty. 4 In Barrozo’s definition of agent-objective cruelty (taken from Seneca) it is presupposed that there also be a suffering victim (Barrozo 2015: 1035). In the present example with the terrorist we may (expanding Barrozo’s typology) have a victim-independent or victim-intended version of agent-objective cruelty. 5 Syrota’s (2008) examination of preparatory acts in relation to terrorism cases is very helpful. 6 See Zagzebski (1996: 136) for such a statement on virtue. A consequentialist view of virtue and vice may disagree, suggesting that vices must produce bad states of affairs (see, e.g. Driver 2001). And a Kantian theory of virtue might count virtuous motivation alone as sufficient. 7 Simons asks us to imagine a man who, ‘while hunting out of season, shoots at what he believes is a live deer, but he is actually shooting at a stuffed deer. He is guilty of the attempt to hunt out of season’ (Simons 2009: 214). This legal terminology was suggested to me by an anonymous referee for this journal. 8 A situation where vocalizing a cruel thought makes a difference might be if one said that a friend’s haircut looked bad rather than merely thinking it. Here the victim is actually affected by the spoken words and would not be had the words not been spoken. 9 This wanting is somewhere in between Anscombe’s conceptions of wanting as ‘movement towards a thing’ and idle wishing (1957: 67–70). Gaius would take steps towards securing the cruelty if he could, but all he can do is something closer to idle wishing. Hence it is not only one or the other. 10 In fact, being genuinely unsure that an inanimate object can experience cruelty and going ahead with its burning may be a helpful indicator of cruelty since one has real doubts about its capacity to suffer and ignores them. 11 If – for whatever reason – he is certain in his own mind that the chair is suffering, then, as with Tom the poisoner, we have agent-subjective, mistake of fact cruelty. 12 I owe this objection, and that in fn. 16, to an anonymous referee for this journal. 13 I am using ‘right’ in quite a thin capacity. I recognize that motives can have an effect on the deontological status of an action (see Sverdlik 2011), though I do not have room to consider these cases. 14 It may counterfactually produce bad effects, but would not be counterfactually benevolent merely if it produced good effects. 15 It could also be said that bad effects are produced in that dignity is violated. Barrozo offers victim-objective cruelty where the dignity of the victim is objectively violated (2015: 1053). The example I offer is controversial, but I am trying to show that cruelty and the presence of pleasure are not mutually exclusive. The pleasure is obviously a very qualified good effect. 16 A target-centred account of virtuous action suggests that an action is benevolent if it hits the target of benevolence (Swanton 2003: ch. 11). I have argued that a cruel action may be one proceeding from cruel motives even where it does not produce cruel effects. However, if the intentions of an act are cruel but it hits the target of benevolence, is the act now both cruel and benevolent? This seems counterintuitive. To avoid the result, I would say that a benevolent act is not in fact one merely that hits the target of benevolence, but one that proceeds from a benevolent motive. The man who gives money to the homeless all the while despising such people is not benevolent. An act can be wrong and benevolent, just as it can be cruel and right. Similarly, in lying to the Gestapo an act can be dishonest while also right (Smith 2018: 249). But an act cannot be both cruel and benevolent. 17 Thanks to Paul Formosa and Jeanette Kennett for advice on an earlier draft, and to the Editors and Administrator of this journal for their encouragement and patience. Three anonymous referees provided comments of such wonderful generosity and insight that I shudder to think of the piece without their input. If we do ever meet, please identify yourself so I can buy you a beer. References Anscombe G.E.M. 1957 . Intention . Oxford : Blackwell . Baehr J. 2010 . Epistemic malevolence. In Virtue and Vice, Moral and Epistemic , ed. H. Battaly , 189 – 214 . West Sussex : Wiley-Blackwell . Barrozo P.D. 2015 . Cruelty in criminal law: four conceptions . Criminal Law Bulletin 51 : 1025 – 73 . Brady M.S. 2009 . Against agent-based virtue ethics . Philosophical Papers 33 : 1 – 10 . 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Analysis – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 6, 2018
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