A World Without Cruelty
What is cruelty?
Exactly what is cruelty? Essentially, it is a cruel behaviour or action.
So, what does “cruel” mean?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “cruel” as:
“Willfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it.”
A definition found in a more recent edition gives another version of this sense of the word as: “indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress”. Something that is elided in these definitions is the perpetrator’s capacity to feel concern, i.e. the possession of a fully developed moral agency analogous to human moral agency. For this reason, nature is not truly cruel, and neither is life itself; to say such a thing would simply be a pathetic fallacy.
Likewise, it is sometimes said that non-human animals are cruel. But this is a misunderstanding. Non-human animals cannot be ascribed full moral agency equivalent to that of humans as, even if many social animals do seem to demonstrate some form of conscious behavioural regulation and some set of emotional responses similar to empathy, there is no empirical evidence to demonstrate equivalent moral agency and no reason whatsoever to suppose it.
Another point that might be made is that many non-human animals are obligate carnivores, or at least obligate omnivores, and are therefore left with no choice but to do harm. A counter-response often heard in relation to this is that certain animals, such as cats, often engage in behaviours, including play behaviours, that involve deliberately maiming, tormenting, or otherwise harming other animals where it is not necessary for survival and where they seem to show no intent to eat their quarry. This is all well and good, but such a response ignores the fact that such animals, when engaging in social behaviours such as play, are in fact exercising instincts that exist within their psyche due to the very fact that they are obligate predators and have evolved to possess such instincts accordingly.
In summary, the subject, i.e. perpetrator, of cruelty is always human, as non-human animals do not have the requisite moral agency to be cruel, and the object – coincidentally often the party that is also being objectified – is any being capable of suffering. In other words, to be cruel is an exclusively human attribute, even if not all humans are capable of demonstrating true cruelty due to the fact that not all humans can be said to have full moral agency. Whereas, both humans and non-human animals alike are the victims of cruelty, with the overwhelming majority of victims being non-human.
The long shadow of apathy
The truth is that the vast majority of the world’s cruelty is the result of apathy rather than sadism and so it is the lack of concern or indifference mentioned in the definition above that characterizes the manifestation of cruelty in the world more than anything else. The boogeymen known as sadists, even though greatly mythologized in modern culture, are very real, although thankfully relatively rare specimens. Apathy is a far more hideous spectre than sadism, being as it is, the most pervasive enabler of evil.
Victimization, in the sense of a cruel doing of harm, could potentially be justified in some cases, were it the result of some necessary or unavoidable action. It is not too much of a leap to see that it could therefore be justified if there were a sincerely perceived necessity, even if the latter does not exist. Recent trends in public opinion seem to indicate that people in the West do tend to understand that veganism is a more ethical way of life. Nonetheless, there is a common and very pernicious misconception that it is not a viable way of life. Likewise, people, being conformists, are guided mainly by social conventionality, which creates an imperative to continue consuming animal products and also to demonstrate apathy for doing so. Inspiring people to comprehend the reality of the terrible cruelty for which they are responsible as well as tearing down the myth that exploiting animals is somehow necessary, eventually removes this justification and also devolves the war against the senseless brutalization of animals into a multiplicity of battles, each waged within the conscience of the individual consumer.
So, imagine a world without cruelty. Not a world without suffering; merely without cruelty. This may seem extreme and unrealizable, but actually that is not a problem. Imagine a world without rape. Or a world without blackmail. Or, to choose an example from the domain of things that are tragic although not exactly cruel in a literal sense, imagine a world without cancer. Clearly, when put in this way it is clear that even if it is incredibly difficult, perhaps ultimately unachievable, to rid the world of any of these things entirely, such a world is, in each case, a blueprint.
What is the alternative? To aim to create a world where slightly less cruelty occurs but some is simply allowed to occur on an arbitrary basis? Or perhaps to suggest that any amount of cruelty is justified because some cruelty will occur in any case? Clearly, both of these responses, whilst extremely common, are nonsense. How much blood do we want on our hands exactly? So, instead, imagine a world without cruelty and attempt to create it.
The very least that a fully functional human can do is to avoid condoning or supporting animal exploitation.
“Progress is the realisation of utopias”, Oscar Wilde.