Humans have the ability to do truly horrendous things. When animals hurt each other, we can think of reasons why they do it. To protect their nest, or to hunt. But never do we think that they do it on purpose just to see the other being suffer. That it seems to be something only humans do. As Nietzsche said: “Man is the cruelest animal.” The Russian writer Dostoyevsky wrote “People speak sometimes about the ‘bestial’ cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to beasts, no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche wrote on this subject, which I will try to explain in this post.
Schopenhauer had a very stoic interpretation of happiness. Happiness for Schopenhauer was the absence of pain. All human action was the contribution to the alleviation of pain. But cruel people like to inflict pain on others in order to be happy, which seems a bit contradictory. How can one want to inflict pain to lessen their own?
Cruel people want to lessen their pain by giving others a greater quantity of pain. As Schopenhauer writes in The World as Will and Representation: “The calling to mind of sufferings greater than our own stills their pain; the sight of another’s suffering alleviates our own.” Schopenhauer thus claims that we can be cruel because we have pain within ourselves that we want to lessen by inflicting others with more pain than our own. Cruel people are miserable in a sense and envy those who are happier, thus have less pain, than they are. This jealousy of painlessness of others turns people cruel.
For Schopenhauer those who are cruel are impossible to be a good person. By inflicting pain, you were increasing the amount of pain in the world even though it alleviated yours for a moment. Even those who were cruel against animals couldn’t be a good person. Schopenhauer writes in The Basis of Morality: “Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”
Schopenhauer goes even further in characterizing the cruel person. According to Schopenhauer cruelty is “without self-interest”. In this way cruelty is analogous with compassion but instead of having the well-being of others in its view, it has the view of inflicting pain. But doesn’t this go against the claim that the cruel person is cruel because he wants to alleviate his pain? Not really. The goal is not necessarily to reduce your pain (other things could do that more easily), the goal is to make the other person have more pain than you, because then you can see yourself as the better off person. That is the result of envy. Instead of alleviating his pain directly he does so indirectly by increasing the amount of pain in the world.
Nietzsche has a bit of a different conception of cruelty. He analyzes this in the context of punishment, where people induce pain to another because they induced some sort of pain unto them. Here physical punishment is a sort of compensation for the pain the one person feels. When a mother hits a kid, she can say that she punished him for inducing pain unto her by being annoying or uncontrollable. This also implies that every pain has an equivalent that can be caused unto the other person. If you steal my laptop then there is some sort of punishment or pain that is equivalent to my pain of losing my laptop.
So, cruelty exists in a sort of idea of punishment. We are cruel to those who we deem deserve punishment. Making others suffer increases our feeling of power according to Nietzsche and this feeling of power increases the lower the person stands on the social hierarchy and if he’s inflicting it on someone higher in the social hierarchy. If you can punish someone more powerful than you, you will have the feeling that you are in fact more powerful than him. Which would be a different feeling when you’re being cruel to someone with less power. The bank employee might feel an immense increase in power when punishing the bank CEO, but just a fraction increase when punishing a beggar.
The reverse goes for mercy as Nietzsche writes in The Genealogy of Morals: “It goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man.” Only when you have power can you be merciful, because if you don’t have power then you don’t have the ability to inflict suffering and thus, you’re not able to grant mercy.
Cruelty feels satisfying not because it alleviates our own pain like Schopenhauer claims. It feels satisfying because we make someone suffer. In Daybreak Nietzsche writes: “To practice cruelty is to enjoy the highest gratification of the feeling of power.” The very activity of punishing is satisfying. Where Schopenhauer has a more passive conception of cruelty, Nietzsche gives a thrilling active account.
Power doesn’t have the bad connotation to Nietzsche as it has to us. Power isn’t dominating someone else, though it might be an aspect of it. Power is a process of overcoming resistance. The more power one has, the more resistance one can overcome. Domination doesn’t give you real power, because you still need others to grant your feeling of power. Power comes from individual resistance. But the domination of others can increase our feeling of power. We might feel powerful while in reality we are not. But the other person might be putting up resistance to your punishment and the higher the resistance, the higher our increase in the feeling of power.
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer both were philosophers interested in humanity’s morality. I believe they took some of the most interesting cases out there and tried to give a moral explanation to why someone might want to inflict so much pain on others. It is still something that boggles our own mind. Are we capable of being cruel? We surely are and it is by realizing this that we can hope to overcome those tendencies of cruelty.