Why Are People So Cruel?
Sometimes it isn't very pretty.
In primitive cultures, the primary source of threat to human beings is Nature. But in economically-advanced countries, it is not nature, but other human beings who make us feel threatened most of the time.
Human beings are constantly hurting each other in both their intimate relationships and in their social relationships. Yes, sometimes the pain they inflict is physical, but most of the time it is emotional in nature. With a bit of reflection, it becomes quite apparent that Emotional Pain is the single greatest remaining threat that human beings must deal with in the modern era.
Just how big is this Emotional Pain Problem we are dealing with? Well, it is only responsible for virtually all of the suicides, homicides, acts of violence, and cases of clinical depression that we see every day. It is responsible for most of the wars that have been fought in modern times.
It is also responsible for the sad fact that most marriages, which begin as special unions between 'best friends', end up as painful wars fought by 'worst enemies.' Emotional pain is the biggest continuing problem that most humans will deal with in their lifetimes.
While human beings have displayed an impressive ability to tackle the challenges of biological pain, when it comes to the problem of emotional pain, they have remained largely clueless.
In this essay, I propose a 'solution' to the problem of emotional pain. What is perhaps unique about this solution is that it is not the personal answer that so many individuals have sought for themselves. It requires that we work together to conquer a common foe, just as we have worked together in organized efforts to provide for our many biological needs.
The first step is to expand our understanding of precisely what it is that motivates people to do the things they do.
PAIN <===> NEEDS <===> PLEASURE
All human motivation is built upon a foundation of Needs. A human need is defined as that which---when satisfied---rewards us with the experience of some type of pleasure or satisfaction (or---if it is dissatisfied---punishes us with some kind of pain or discomfort).
We can say that we have experienced the pleasure of need-satisfaction whenever we've felt joy, ecstasy, hope, pride, contentment, security, or even just a feeling of being 'complete.' The pain of need-deprivation is experienced whenever we've felt agony, anguish, boredom, ennui, angst, or even just a feeling that 'something's missing.'
Some of our needs are properly described as 'purely biological.' They generate pain/pleasure that we feel physically, at a particular location within our bodily tissues. But humans experience other needs that are purely 'mental' or 'emotional' in nature. The pain they generate is not associated with any kind of tissue damage.
When we experience the emotional pain of 'hurt feelings', it may not be possible to point to any physical wound, but when our feelings are hurt, there is little doubt in our minds that we have experienced something that is thoroughly undesirable. We call that undesirable 'something' pain. After a while, we come to realize that when we experience pain, we are experiencing the deprivation of a need. To experience any kind of pleasure is to experience the satisfaction of a need.
It should be quite obvious to us upon reflection that our collection of physical & emotional needs is imposed on us as a condition of our existence. We can no more choose to not have an emotional need than a man lost in a desert wilderness can choose to not have a need for water.
Like it or not, there is absolutely nothing we can do about the burdens that our needs put on us except try to get them satisfied. That they motivate us to act is obvious. What is not so obvious to some thinkers is that our needs determine our values.
We 'value' those things/experiences that we think might provide us with some need-satisfaction. We cannot 'choose' our values any more than we can 'choose' to create a need within ourselves for something that we do not already need. Try it. Make yourself need something that you don't already need. Make yourself feel pain if you don't experience the need's satisfaction. It can't be done.
Our needs determine that we will experience pain/pleasure when our needs are deprived/satisfied, but they do not determine what our responses will be to their demands. How we respond to the demands of our needs is determined by (1) our biological programming, and (2) our minds.
We are biologically programmed to respond to need-deprivation (satisfaction) in particular ways. We call these 'dispositions' instincts. They have an emotional quality. We fear pain. We feel anger when we identify a perceived source of pain. We feel a stimulating desire to repeat pleasurable experiences that can sometimes evolve into a yearning.
These instincts completely determine how we will behave in the absence of the Mind's intervention. It is probably helpful to think of them as the default program that will always be executed to motivate us unless the Mind has a better idea.
With just a little bit of reflection, it becomes obvious that our instincts are the source of all human cruelty. Yes, it is actually true that human beings treat each other cruelly because that is what they are biologically programmed to do..
Fortunately, we are not entirely dependent upon these instincts for our motivation. We also have Minds that are able to recognize alternative response options that are superior to our instinctive urges (superior, in that they can produce more desirable outcomes).
For example, we have instincts that encourage us to kill those who have infuriated us. Think of Road Rage. When we choose not to yield to our instinctive urges, it is ultimately because our Minds are able to recognize that we would be better off if we did not follow the 'recommendations' of the urge that's pulling on us.
(Sometimes our instincts are not easy to overcome. In the case of addiction, instinctive urges are able to exert a tremendous amount of pressure because they use fear to panic the addict into action. Fear is the most powerful of all of our motivating 'feelings.' Cigarette addiction is a formidable challenge to overcome for precisely this reason. The only way it is possible for human beings to overcome deeply ingrained habits such as these---without drugs---is if the Mind is able to summon up a Greater Fear. Individuals who are 'self-disciplined' simply have an Appropriate Fear of the consequences of yielding to their urges. When a superior alternative to an instinctive urge is recognized by the Mind---perhaps inspired by A Greater Fear---instinctive programming can be effectively overridden.)
Philosophers and behavioral scientists have produced inadequate explanations of human cruelty because they have ignored the important role played by our fundamental and intrinsic need for the APPROVAL of other human beings. It is a need that is different from our purely biological needs in some special ways.
It appears to be an "open-ended" need in that there is no point of homeostasis at which it is finally satisfied. We can enjoy approval from every imaginable source all day long and still feel hurt by disapproval at the end of the day. More approval received always continues to feel good.
But it's not just a lack of approval that causes emotional pain, even though that eventuality is certainly painful in its own right (loneliness). Expressed disapproval seems to dramatically aggravate the need, often inflicting acute emotional pain (embarrassment, ridicule, rejection).
But it's not just a need to avoid disapproval. Expressed approval feels so good, we are always eager for more. It is a need that can be satisfied and/or deprived through many different forms of expression in many different types of situations. It is quite simply the single most important need that we experience in our lives.
THE SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT
In social environments, most human beings try to protect themselves from the emotional pain of disapproval by employing certain strategies/tactics inspired by their biological instincts. We rely on the simplistic 'reasoning' of these instinctive strategies when we are unaware of more sophisticated response options.
Consider the 'logic' of the most evil of all biologically-programmed instincts: the Anger Instinct. The Anger Instinct encourages us to 'hurt back' any enemy object that it suspects might be responsible for hurting us. If you experience a great deal of pain because you accidentally stumbled on some inanimate object, your Anger Instinct will encourage you to hit or kick the offending object to 'pay it back' for hurting you.
What sort of strategy is implicit in such a response? The Anger Instinct apparently seeks to bring an end to the continuation of pain [or the fear of it] by urging relentless attacks on perceived enemies until they are finally rendered incapable of hurting or threatening any more. It may not be an especially sophisticated defensive strategy---based on a thorough understanding of the nature of a threat---but it nevertheless has its own 'logic.'
(The Anger Instinct begins to surface in infants as young as ten-months-old. If one baby happens to pick up a toy rattle that another baby had just reached for herself, the latter will invariably strike the former without having ever witnessed such behavior previously. Such observations lead us to the conclusion that anger and violence are biologically programmed behaviors and not 'learned' behaviors as many now assume. Yes, learning is involved in aggression, but what people 'learn' (or are inspired to imitate) is not the feeling of anger that makes them want to strike. What we 'learn' are different ways to express, or act on our feelings of anger. The fundamental urge to hurt a perceived threat or to exploit a victim is generated by our genetic programming.)
There is another instinctive response to pain that has a major impact on the way humans treat each other. The Fear Instinct is activated when we [intuitively] recognize that we have a physical or emotional vulnerability.
Upon realizing that we can be hurt by the disapproval of others, our Fear Instinct encourages us to hide that vulnerability from the view of any potential attackers, lest they be tempted to exploit it. The logic of this cloaking instinct is simple: if I can persuade you to believe that I cannot be hurt by expressions of disapproval (because I have somehow been able to 'turn off' my need for approval), it just might discourage you from initiating any kind of emotional attack.
It is a strategy that actually works some of the time, but only because 1) all human beings are quite aware of their own emotional vulnerability, and 2) most people tend to believe the performances they are shown by others. Together, these two variables have encouraged many people to believe that their emotional vulnerability is exceptional.
We intuitively recognize that we definitely have something to fear if it is true that others are not as vulnerable to disapproval as we are. And so people learn to mask their vulnerability behind fronts of feigned invulnerability just in case they are actually dealing with people who are less vulnerable, emotionally, than they are.
Humans have a demonstrated ability to pretend [at least for a little while] that they are not experiencing pain when they actually are. Instead of showing tears or fear when facing another person's disapproval, many individuals learn to display a confident smile instead. Such performances become even more effective when they are combined with painful counterattacks
If we notice that we've been criticized, our Anger Instinct imbues us with an instinctive urge to defend ourselves by 'hurting back', i.e., by criticizing the critic. Some individuals become so impressed with the effectiveness of their counterattacks, they begin to regularly launch pre-emptive strikes to warn off any who might be tempted to criticize them.
In civilized circles, these pre-emptive strikes usually take the form of humor. Having fun at another person's expense lets all observers know that you have the capacity to inflict a lot of pain on them if they make the mistake of criticizing you. (The laughter of those in the 'audience' is an expression of relief or 'gladness' that they were not the target of the criticism that was expressed or implied.)
Individuals who become especially fond of this defensive strategy find themselves instinctively led to target those who appear to be 'easy victims' (who show fear or shyness or a reluctance to engage in emotional combat) since they would be the least likely to launch a painful counterattack.
In less civilized environments, Bullies are quite willing to go beyond humor when executing their pre-emptive strikes and counterattacks. For them, the use or threat of physical violence is an acceptable or even preferred option.
The Bully's willingness to use physical violence shows that he actually fears the emotional pain caused by disapproval more than he fears the possibility of physical pain. Emotional pain can make us that desperate. The truth that Bullies don't want others to know is that they are just as vulnerable, emotionally, as any of their victims are.
They can be easily hurt by expressions of disapproval. The only reason why their emotional vulnerability is not clearly evident is because they are able to mask it behind their smiling/angry faces and because they are able to keep attention focused on the discomfort of their victims.
What makes The Bully different from others is his willingness to terrorize others with threats of physical violence in the hope that it will discourage them from hurting his feelings. 'Fighting words' are nothing more than expressions of disapproval that are especially painful to the target, so painful that the targeted individual's Anger Instinct 'recommends' a physical attack on his enemy in order to force him to stop inflicting the pain.
A Bully only feels comfortable when all of the potential threats he sees around him show enough fear of his capacity to inflict pain on them that they no longer appear to be threats. It is a defensive strategy that seeks to protect the Bully from the very thing that he is inflicting on others.
In civilized environments, people do not normally resort to physical violence, but it's not because they aren't inspired by their anger to do so. They are. It's just that their anger is inhibited by Fear...the one force that is powerful enough to conquer the Anger Instinct. (Developing patience is simply a matter of developing an Appropriate Fear of the consequences of acting impatiently.)
The civilized individual fears losing her job, being arrested, the disapproval of family/friends, or even the physical pain that one's adversary might inflict. Such fears seem to effectively limit the number of incidents of physical violence that we see but they don't kill the Anger Instinct entirely.
'Limited' anger is expressed with great frequency, inflicting an enormous amount of emotional damage. To be the target of another person's anger is to experience the most powerful of all human expressions of disapproval.
Distraction is perhaps the most effective of the defensive strategies that human beings employ to protect themselves from emotional pain. We seem to intuitively understand that we are less likely to be attacked if we can keep the attention of others focused away from the reality of our emotional vulnerability. There are a couple of ways to do this.
One relatively harmless way to distract the attention of others away from your emotional vulnerability is to simply focus their attention on various innocuous activities, like the task at hand, or on various 'safe' topics of discussion. But all too often people learn to focus group attention on the emotional vulnerability of some other person in the group. The preferred way to do this, of course, is in the guise of humor.
The payoff reaped from using distractions is clear. When you focus the attention of the group on the pain you've just inflicted on some particular individual, their attention is not focused at that moment on your emotional vulnerability. If the individual you've attacked (made fun of) is unlikely to launch a painful counterattack, then you probably have little to fear in repeatedly attacking her.
What people eventually discover is that the practice of inflicting pain on others in this way can actually provide an individual with a measure of security in an environment that might otherwise expose him to a significant risk of emotional pain. Others are not likely to attack you as long as you have their attention focused on the emotional discomfort of others.
Those who are present as witnesses when a teasing/ridicule event takes place discover that they enjoy not being 'in the victim's shoes.' They are able to infer quite easily that they are seen as approvable---compared to the victim---in the eyes of the victimizer.
That is to say, they understand that the victimizer has just declared them to be worthy of his approval, since he did not criticize them along with the victim. They find that they rather enjoy social gatherings when they have someone or some group to make fun of (they tend to feel insecure in intimate settings, when attention is focused primarily on them).
The victimizer's reputation in the eyes of others is enhanced because group members tend to recall the smiles they saw on his face and the fact that he didn't show any of the fear that they saw on his victim's face. With a smile, the victimizer can claim that his hurtful comments weren't 'serious' and that no one who isn't flawed should be upset by a little joking around.
(It is noted that not all forms of humor rely on the creation of victims. Humor can sometimes be quite friendly when good friends tease each other, but only if they do it somewhat apologetically and while offering many reassurances. Self-effacing humor [like that perfected by the late Johnny Carson] enables us to enjoy the same feeling of relief without creating a victim. Unfortunately, humor is far more often used as a pre-emptive strike. People learn that the best way to avoid being victimized by the humor of others is to do it to them first before they have a chance to do it to you. And thus do we end up with the ultimate irony of this strategy: when everyone employs it, we all end up constantly trying to hurt each other with pre-emptive humor in order to protect ourselves from the pain of pre-emptive humor. It doesn't offer us much consolation to know that, ultimately, the pre-emptive strikes of others are defensively inspired.)
POSITIVE REWARDS FOR VICTIMIZING OTHERS
The intent of most of these strategies is simply to avoid the emotional pain that is inflicted by disapproval. But our fundamental need is not just to avoid the pain of disapproval but also to enjoy the pleasure of approval. From within the individualistic perspective that dominates our culture, those who have perfected their use of these strategies end up being perceived as 'Winners' on the emotional battlefield.
Upon noticing that some people are Winners and some people are Losers in emotional exchanges, our Imitation Instinct encourages us to 'get close to' the Winners and figure out what it is that has enabled them to become winners. They become valued as models to emulate.
To emulate The Winners is to identify with them and celebrate their successes (because you hope to achieve the same status for yourself one day). Thus are even Bullies able to receive something that seems to approximate approval. But is it really approval?
The 'approval' that bullies receive from their followers is related to the type of 'approval' sought by those who try to elicit the envy of others. When envious people exhibit smiles of approval after being exposed to the possessions/circumstances of The Envied, their approving feelings are usually not intended for the envied individuals themselves, but rather for the 'special experiences' that The Envied get to experience.
Being able to ride around in a $250,000 automobile looks like it might be a fun experience. Having the freedom to not work and spend your time instead on experiencing all different kinds of novel experiences sounds desirable. Of course, we approve of these things/situations because we think they might be desirable.
But these feelings of approval do not extend to the people who currently have the opportunity to experience them regularly. Indeed, hatred is the emotion that envious people are more likely to feel for the people whom they envy.
At the root of envy is our very fundamental and instinctive urge to experience any experience that another person seems to be enjoying. We are programmed to want to imitate those people who have smiles on their faces or who seem to be having their curiosity satisfied in a non-threatening way.
Hatred becomes a part of the Envy Experience after the Anger Instinct becomes involved. The Anger Instinct is triggered whenever we perceive 1) an enemy that seems responsible for the pain [or threat of pain] we are experiencing, or 2) an enemy that seems to be responsible for depriving us of some pleasure that we'd like to experience.
When envious people hate the people they envy, it is because their Anger Instincts have assumed---sometimes accurately, sometimes not---that The Envied are responsible for the need-deprivation they are experiencing.
Experiencing feelings of envy is not a sin. (Responding to those feelings with violent anger is.) Much worse is the sin of intentionally trying to elicit the envy of others.
Efforts to elicit the envy of others are primarily driven by an individual's desire to experience their approval. What they eventually discover, however, is that it usually inspires quite the opposite feeling within the hearts of the envious. Indeed, they are far more likely to feel hatred, instead. One would think that a wise individual would want to avoid situations that might make others feel envious.
A far more intelligent way to elicit the sincere approval of those who are less fortunate than you is to earn their gratitude---an especially satisfying form of approval---through acts of generosity. The risk of hearing disapproval when you've acted generously is almost zero.
Our instincts also encourage us to pursue indirect methods of eliciting expressions of implicit approval. If one member of a group is singled out for ridicule, then all those who were not included in the indictment are able to infer that they are approvable in the eyes of the victimizer.
They intuitively realize that when they join in the victimizer's ridicule, they are indirectly praising themselves. It provides them with a powerful incentive to participate in victimizing orgies of ridicule (especially if they otherwise risk being ridiculed themselves).
This 'strategy' provides few payoffs, however, if all the members of a group are equally skilled in waging emotional warfare. If there are no easy victims available for them to exploit, then the victimizers will find their group environment far less enjoyable, since they will be 'taking it' as well as 'dishing it out.'
Emotional victimizers find that they can avoid targeting each other if they are able to find suitable targets outside of their group. Group 'spokespersons' who regularly criticize outsiders discover that they can become quite popular among their peers, valued for their ability to make the others feel good about themselves.
These peers quickly discover that they feel good about themselves when they disparage non-group members. Every utterance that condemns another individual or group indirectly praises the critic for not having the same flaws. If face-to-face encounters with those who are ridiculed can be avoided, group members are able to praise themselves in a way that is essentially risk-free.
This indirect method of expressing approval is so popular, it is often used to strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger. Expressing criticism of some third party that you see or have heard about tells the stranger that you find her approvable (at least in contrast to 'those people').
Given our individualistic cultural attitudes, it's quite natural for people to highly value their membership in groups that are constantly disparaging 'outsiders.' Even members of the group who are normally victimized by other members are able to feel like Winners at such moments and are able to enjoy the implicit approval generated by the group comparisons being made.
Bashing outsiders ends up being a major part of the 'good time' that the group members enjoy. Simply having some outsiders to 'feel superior to' becomes very important to those who are immersed in the individualistic perspective.
Certainly part of their enjoyment comes from the indirect approval they heap on themselves, but another part of it is simply the relief of knowing that they are not among those who are the targets of the group's ridicule. The more savage the criticism they express, the more 'fortunate' they feel about their membership in their approvable group.
People in groups will use anything they can think of to distinguish themselves from outsiders in a favorable way. Some groups focus their attention on the economic resources their members have that outsiders do not have. But groups do not need to have a real advantage over outsiders in order for them to start praising themselves (indirectly).
Sometimes groups simply proclaim themselves (indirectly) to possess a collection of noble personality traits [like courage] that most them actually do not have. If, for example, your group ridicules the cowardice of another group of people, you are implying that the members of your group are all very courageous, even though that is extremely unlikely.
But it really doesn't matter---in the short run anyway---if group members actually have the character traits that they celebrate. If at least a majority of the group members support the expressions of approval that are being voiced, then most of them are likely to end up feeling good about themselves.
A MORAL SOLUTION
With a bit of reflection, it becomes apparent that human beings are cruel to each other because they are urged by their instincts to act that way. They are encouraged to victimize others with gratuitous expressions of disapproval in order to express [& elicit from others] indirect praise for themselves and to minimize the possibility of becoming a target of disapproval, themselves.
Given the fundamental appeal of this double payoff, is not surprising that an urge to be spontaneously cruel to other human beings is something that comes to us quite naturally. Most victimizers would tell you that they have to do it in order to protect themselves.
So why is it that not everyone is a bully? Well, one reason is that some people simply never learn how to be skillful victimizers. If they don't know how to go about changing their social environment, they will tend to end up becoming chronic victims instead. They don't 'understand people' and are not able to see what is behind the performances that others display for them.
Those who are neither victims nor victimizers usually end up that way because they just happen to enjoy a social environment that is largely devoid of victimizer-types or because they simply recognize that victimizing others is immoral.
The phenomenon of Morality is a part of the Human Experience for one simple reason: it arises from the Mind's recognition that superior response alternatives can be pursued that would spare all of us the damage that would otherwise be wrought if we were all to follow our biological instincts.
Accordingly, we have sought agreement amongst ourselves to eschew certain types of instinctive responses or 'urges.' How do we determine if a particular action [or failure to act] is Moral? We simply need to ask,
If so, then the action or decision to not act is moral. If we would all be worse off, then the action or failure to act is immoral. If we would be neither better off nor worse off, then the action or failure to act is neither moral nor immoral.
Killing a person who angers you is immoral because we would not all be better off if we were all to kill the people who anger us. Stealing is also immoral in most situations for the same reason. Lying is immoral in some circumstances because we would not all be better off if everyone also lied when facing the same circumstances. But lying would be moral in other circumstances because everyone would be better off if everyone were to lie for the same reasons.
Gratuitous expressions of disapproval that do not seek to help the one being criticized are immoral because we would not all be better off if everyone were to act in the same way. Indeed, it is only because people act in this immoral way that we have a problem of human cruelty within the social environment.
Today, we live in a social environment where emotional victimization is countenanced and even encouraged. An awareness of the Emotional Facts of Life leads us to a moral solution to the problem of emotional pain. Since our emotional happiness is dependent upon how others treat us, we must find a way to persuade them to not hurt us. How can we do this?
People in general will be able to do these things if they come to realize that the only solution to their shared problem is a collective moral solution. Individuals who choose not to join in the effort become properly recognized as a threat to the happiness of all others.
This gives the whole effort a sense of urgency. We can only feel safe if everyone else is willing to confess his emotional vulnerability to the rest of us. What kind of great burden is it really to admit you're simply a vulnerable human being just like everyone else?
Weigh that against the reality that failing to do so puts everyone else in danger. As human beings, we are morally justified in insisting that others make it clear to us that they are not a threat to us.
With a sense of moral conviction and commitment to the virtues of Emotional Honesty, we could finally defeat the Dark Side of Human Nature, the part that encourages us to treat each other cruelly. This is one 'moral crusade' that actually has a chance of changing the way people behave. An idealistic prescription? Yes. But do we really have any choice? What other path shall we follow heading into the future? Is it really going to hurt us to strive for perfection in this life?
Edited, June 2013
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