EdSciFest – Cruelty

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Dr Kathleen Taylor, neuroscientist and author of the books “Brainwashing” and now “Cruelty”, came to the Edinburgh International Science festival today to talk about cruelty, which, when you think about it, could prove to be a much larger task than it must seem. For one thing, how does one define cruelty? Everyone likely has their own unique conception of what is and isn’t cruelty, of what constitutes a cruel or callous act. At a science festival, where many speakers are here to talk about anti-matter, high energy experiments and all manner of things beyond most people’s everyday experience, a talk grounded in (unfortunately) everyday reality makes a welcome change.

Not to imply that Dr Taylor’s talk dealt with just the banal and the everyday occurrences of cruelty (although those are certainly important to understand and address as well), but it had a scope that reached as far as war and genocide, and also had implications for how science and morality could combine to help us address the issue of cruelty.

She illustrated the problem of cruelty by relying on proxy measurements such as crime (overall crime rates and murder rates) and the amount of people killed in conflict worldwide. Of course, these are not, by any means, perfect measures of cruelty, and I was glad that it was made very clear these were imperfect proxies – for one thing, not all crime is cruel and perhaps not all acts of war are cruel. The aspect of intent, which was key to Dr Taylor’s definition, is sadly lacking from such bald statistics and as such makes it difficult to determine if the crimes committed were acts of cruelty (as I would understand them) or just criminal acts.

That said, my definition of cruelty (which I have personally come to after much less research than Dr Taylor, no doubt) seems to be encompassed by two of the types of cruelty mentioned by Dr Taylor in her talk: terrorism and sadism. Taylor proposed four types of cruelty: reactive – which is not desired and may be triggered defensively; callousness – where the cruelty is a by-product of trying to fufil another desire, terrorism – where the cruelty is desirable or useful but not enjoyed; and sadism – where the cruelty is practiced for cruelty’s sake.

To my mind, key to a conception of cruelty is intent, and the moral reasoning of an individual engaged in a cruel act is integral to whether or not it is cruel. Now, before the talk, I was reasonably sure in my conception and definition of cruelty – but now, I am slightly unsure, as a very good case was made for this being a lacking conception. For one thing, it does perhaps leave the door open for people to excuse themselves of cruelty by saying that they did not intend to be cruel, which, as Dr Taylor pointed out, can be part of the road to genocide.

I really felt that Dr Taylor’s talk was excellent, and covered the broad topic of cruelty well. It also provided plenty of food for thought – and really, isn’t that what a Science Festival event should do?