There is a new book out about cruelty.  (CRUELTY Human Evil and the Human Brain, Kathleen Taylor Oxford University Press, New York 2009)
I have ordered the book.  It has not arrived, but there is a review (Human Inhumanity Ak Prashanath SCIENCE volume 324 May 8, 2004 page 726) that raises some points.  I shall read the book and return to topic if I have anything more to say.

The review points out that the subject has received little attention in the scholarly literature.  Not only that.  It is not one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  It is not prohibited by any explicit commandment.  So there are two issues.  Why does it happen and why is it tolerated.  Torture, an extreme form of cruelty is used even though it is known that you can get more information out of a person faster by trying to befriend the person than by inflicting suffering.  (Responsible Interrogation.  Editorial.  NATURE volume 459 number 7245 May 21, 2009 page 300)

I suspect the reason cruelty is tolerated is that something close to cruelty, strictness anyway, is important in bringing up children.  It has been a long time since I had the reference, but from what I remember children do better if they are treated with affection than if they are treated with indifference.  However, it is more important to give them structure.  Strange as it seems, if you try to turn a child into a little robot by making it clear exactly what needs to be done all the time and being sure that it gets done, you will wind up with a happy, loving, level headed young person.  If you let the child do just about anything it wants to, you wind up with a dysfunctional robot.  If that is the case, then obviously we can never abandon something that could be interpreted as a degree of cruelty although real cruelty toward children is something we all abhor.

Come to think of it, I was given an enormous amount of freedom as a child.  There were rules, yes, but there was a great deal of scope for imagination and initiative.  I wonder …

More to the point, of course, is the question of why adults can be so cruel to each other.  There are structured environments.  The military is one.  Prisoners have structured lives.  But cruelty goes far beyond discipline, and is not rare.

I suspect cruelty is like a lot of other unattractive human behaviors.  Its function is simply to drive outsiders away, to persuade them that our own tight little community is simply nothing they ever want to have anything to do with.  Thus do we protect our gene pool size at hazard to our souls.  And it is all so unnecessary.  All we need to do is understand the process and do what is in the common interest both of insider and outsider.

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