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Enlightenment, Porn, and Worse: Studying Human Cruelty

Kathleen Taylor studied physiology and philosophy at Oxford University. She went on to do a research MSc at Stirling University, working on brain chemistry, before returning to Oxford to do a DPhil in neuroscience. She has written on a range of topics, from consciousness to the psychology of wartime atrocities, and is now affiliated to the Oxford University Department of Physiology, Anatomy, and Genetics. Her latest book, Cruelty: Human Evil and the Human Brain, looks at the nature of human cruelty. Below, she talks about how she went about researching such a painful subject.


To be born in a Western nation, even in these days of angst and crisis, is to join a world of unparalleled order and control. Scientists can model crowds and climates, mend failing hearts and shrink tumours, manipulate atoms and genes. With so many achievements you might have expected modern science to have made enormous progress on one of our species’ biggest problems: how to stop us tormenting and killing each other. You’d be wrong. Science has worked far harder at making more effective weapons than at understanding what makes us want to kill in the first place. (Weapons, of course, are a much, much easier challenge.)

Some say modern weapons are morally better because they kill fewer civilians. That’s probably not much comfort for the population of Gaza just now, or for anyone else on the receiving end of military hardware. The twentieth century’s technological advances weren’t accompanied by fewer civilian casualties, but tens of millions more. To solve the problem of human viciousness we need to know what makes us vicious. As our weapons become ever more portable and accessible to terrorists, that need becomes more and more urgent.

War is a standard way to bring out human cruelty, but cruelty extends far beyond war. Examples of abhorrent savagery in ‘normal’ society are easy to find: the teenage girl raped and doused in caustic soda, the disabled man murdered by his ‘friends’, horrific cases of long-running child abuse. These reach the headlines; many less extreme kinds of domestic violence, bullying and exploitation do not. Yet they add up to a frightening level of harm done and suffering inflicted.

Traditionally, organised group violence like war and genocide is seen as separate from ‘normal’ violence, like rape and child abuse. Certainly all are complex events with many causes and many differences. Yet they also have things in common. Rape, for instance, is typical of war and genocide (though it’s received relatively little attention until recently). One common factor is surely the desire to hurt. However much we blame ‘the situation’, people hurt and kill others at least in part because it makes them feel better. The situation may vary from a marriage to a war zone (I’ll pause here to let the obvious jokes past), but the rewards of cruelty can be surprisingly similar.

In researching my book, I explored the moral, psychological and social dimensions of vicious behaviour. I also looked at its history, which is why I’ve read so much porn lately. Enlightenment, upper-class porn, mind you, and the Marquis de Sade’s works are much more than just pornography, but I should honestly say I didn’t read them all and feel no great urge to tackle any more. Yet writing on cruelty without reading Sade made no sense to me (although other people have done so). And it was worth it; I learnt a lot, and not just about cruelty. For instance, Sade on religion makes today’s atheists look feeble and unoriginal; he made their arguments first, and with more flair. It’s good academic practice to cite your predecessors, so is he in The God Delusion‘s index? Is he hell. Alfred Hitchcock gets a mention, but not one of Europe’s most influential atheists. Maybe Sade’s just too much of a black sheep for the brights to stomach. Having said which, I found the historical material far harder to handle than anything from le divin Marquis.

Instead, I make the case for cruelty as a behaviour we could change, and as a subject ripe for scientific analysis. You might think that argument is won already, but it isn’t: there’s huge resistance to the idea that cruelty can be explained (‘explained away’, as the phrase goes). I’m not a fan of reductionism, and a ‘theory’ of cruelty would be premature, but I do think a scientific understanding, focused on the brain, is our best hope for reducing this human evil.

Cruelty, however, involves morality, so lab research won’t ever be the whole story. All the knowledge in the world won’t mean less cruel behaviour unless we apply that knowledge. One danger, of course, is that research will be government-funded and its findings abused to make soldiers more cruel and civilians more lethargic and compliant. I can only hope that raising awareness of this nasty possibility helps stop it happening.

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Recent Comments

  1. Anna

    I believe that cruelty and viciousness on the part of humans has helped us to become a particularly successful species. Other animals lack the capacity to be cruel, they kill and maim to protect themselves and/or to feed. They never do it needlessly, as humans sometimes do. Those same animals, however, also lack the ability to reason and think creatively as humans do. It seems to me, that we cannot have one without the other.

    I think cruelty in humans can be linked to the instinct to survive. Other animals must sometimes compete against their own kind in order to survive. It is the same with humans. However, because we are so intelligent, competition can grow out of proportion with what’s necessary.

    I would like to see a study of human cruelty along these lines.

  2. gautam biswas

    The primary difference between others and human is the urge to win over and just survival. When the rest is satisfied with bare minimum need, human overdo many. Other’s actions are need-based (for survival). Others are only concerned with security of food and safe shelter, that they want (need) to protect themselves and enjoy their lifecycle. I believe in the early days when human had to race/compete with other animals for mere survival (both for basic i.e. food and safe shelter) and had a very hardworking/tiring days, had no idle time to think beyond these two basics. But, after they invented growing food, they do not need to compete with the rest and the hardship gone forever. Now he has ample free/idle time, and this might be the beginning of using thought power beyond basic needs. Now he can afford to use idle time to torture and then kill to have his food. In early days they cruel only towards the food likes and such evil habit grow into cruelty for no reason just fun. Then there is obvious competition within (human race) to show off/prove more cruelty-power over each other.

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