Human cruelty and wisdom


The subject of human cruelty is challenging. We encounter it on the various scale in our everyday life, but reading about horrors how purposefully it is used all over the world makes you terrified.   I must confess that I avoided this topic because it appears to contradict the key premise that wisdom is an innate quality of Homo Sapiens. But I decided to meet it head-on: further avoiding this issue could be viewed as a form of hypocrisy or ignorance and discourage readers from taking the whole idea creation of Wisdom Society as a real alternative.


I will begin with a definition of cruelty. It may be similar to ones which can be found in dictionaries but not in all aspects.

Cruelty is an avoidable action producing pain or fear in a life form capable of experiencing them. Please note the presence of the term avoidable, which is an essential part of the above definition. Otherwise, such activities like walking outdoors would be cruel since very often, just by putting our foot down, we squish and kill invisible insects. Another example is surgery performed in a situation where full anesthesia is not appropriate, and the local one does not entirely eliminate the pain, so it is not an act of cruelty because it is unavoidable.

 On the other hand, torturing any being is an act of cruelty because no reason, no matter as well justified, can prove that it is unavoidable. The issue becomes more complicated when, for example,  a parent causes pain by hitting a child, believing that it is done for the child’s benefit. In this case, there is a chance that this hit has merit: for example, when a small child wants to touch a red hot iron and can get severely burned.  But in the case of torture, no justification would hold any water.

Cruelty does not have to be the only physical; the mental type is encountered as frequent without being recognized. But such recognition is more straightforward: any kind of conscious inflicting mental pain upon others is an expression of cruelty.  A particularly common form of both physical and psychological cruelty is rape. Since the arising of wars around 5,000 years ago, rape has been used as a tool to subjugate and humiliate the defeated ones.

So far, this discussion was focused on cruelty towards human beings. It is difficult to say what is the level of development of an animal necessary that it can experience both pain and fear. Still, we can safely say that the presence of an even primitive nervous system is sufficient. The idea of cruelty to animals is not comfortable, and we try to ignore it as much as we can. But it becomes increasingly difficult during the era when on the Internet, we may see painful details of torture and killing high-level animals, particularly the domesticated ones such as cows, pigs, ducks, etc. Let call a spade a spade – the animals experience pain and fear, which is consciously and exclusively inflicted to kill them.

Also, due to media and changes in social attitudes, the widespread sexual abuse of children becomes horrifically evident.  The arguments (sometimes used by lawyers defending the abusers) that it is not cruelty because the adults involved do not do it to produce pain are nonsensical. 

Cruelty, however, does not affects only the victim. Despite the perverse pleasure or ignorance they may experience, the perpetrators are also profoundly affected, sometimes even more destructively than the victims.  Performing acts of cruelty, which are not necessary for one’s survival, goes against innate human wisdom. Consequently, the perpetrator has somehow to justify it to oneself and also others. It requires some convoluted reasoning or suppressing one’s intelligence. Both lead to an increase in one’s dangerous ignorance, covering a sense of empathy or guilt. All such and similar mental manipulation further blocks access to our wisdom.   


I think that the above is sufficient, and there is no need to show that we, humans, are capable of being cruel. Now a more uncomfortable question arises: can cruelty and wisdom coexist?

Let us begin at the beginning. Archeologists and anthropologists usually call the social structure of our earliest ancestors hunters/gatherers. Because they had not yet fabricated many concepts that emerged, later on,  their state of being could be considered fairly close to wisdom – they were free from possessiveness, desire to dominate and attempts to cover it with ignorance.  On the other hand, as their name indicates,  they hunted and killed animals. The reason was simple: Homo Sapience, like its predecessors, the great apes, is genetically omnivorous, but the diet consisting exclusively of gathered edible plants, roots, fruits or mushrooms was generally insufficient to survive, particularly during the Last Glacier period, when it was virtually impossible. Consequently, they have no choice but to kill other animals to consume their meat. 

So, a question arises: were they cruel? According to the definition presented above, they were not. Why, because causing pain to animals which they killed was unavoidable. Otherwise, they would not be able to survive.

Later on, when the agricultural revolution based on the domestication of wild plants began around 12,000 years ago, agriculturists mostly abandoned hunting but replaced it by raising and killing various domesticated animals, such as sheep, cows or pigs. Here is a fundamental difference: they could avoid killing animals for meat because they could survive on a vegetarian diet containing a sufficient amount of protein from plants, milk, and eggs.  However, they had no modern know-how about the needs of the human organism; they did not know how to replace animal proteins with a combination of those coming from legumes and grains. However, we can not expect them to know much about nutrition, so their killing animals, though technically fall in the category of cruelty, does not exclude their ability to experience wisdom.

It all changed dramatically around 5,000 – 4,500 years ago. More or less in the same period when agriculture has been discovered, some hunter/gatherers became pastoralists. They abandon gathering plants and mostly hunting basing their society, owning the large herds of domesticated animals such as cows, sheep, goats, or horses as the source of nutrition. While agriculturists kept their animals often in the same dwellings as themselves, pastoralists treated them as some organic “machines” producing meat and milk. For them killing was an ordinary, everyday occupation. So it should not be surprising that to become more wealthy, they began invading, robbing and slaughtering agricultural societies. This phenomenon, unknown by humanity earlier, we call wars. At the same time, they created religions such as Judaism, Hinduism, and a few others were slavery, obedience, harsh punishment, torture, and killing were the most important themes.

Humanity entered the dark ages of full-blown stratification, where some individuals were more powerful and wealthy than others. The fully conscious and purposefully executed cruelty accompanies this period. The forms changed, but its essence remains the same. The direction of cruelty remains, as a rule, is one-directional: a person inflicts pain to a being, which can be dominated. Presently, to the traditional kinds of cruelty, are added new ones: mental tortures, mob violence, and use the new communication tools to do shaming, terrifying, falsely accusing, etc.

Cruelty and law

Around 4,000 years ago, there have arisen several large states such as Babylonia,  Egypt and China. The stratification in them, among other means,  was enforced by law, such as the famous Hammurabi codex. Those legal systems introduced a new form of cruelty the torture. Tortures, changed they form, became more insidious, and by now are less used as legal punishment but as a tool used by states or the mafia to subdue or destroy opponents or extract information. Torture is most widespread in Middle and South America by their dictatorial regimes, for example, tortures and killing in Pinochet’s Chile or the military junta in Argentina. They are still used in many authoritarian regimes and, until recently, in a more covertly way, by democratic counties like the USA, where they were called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

However, in the majority of modern countries and societies, certain forms of tortures are outlawed. If the legal system decides that it is the case, and the perpetrator is not diagnosed as mentally challenged, it is punished. This punishment supposes to prevent him/her from doing the same. In reality, it is rather a form of revenge than re-education, and often, the criminals do the same or similar crimes as soon as possible.

But, mental tortures are not considered an illegal activity. It is not surprising because, according to the majority of legal systems, a case of mental cruelty will have no chance to lead to a conviction. However, mental cruelty increases in its frequency and forms, particularly within families, often having even more devastating effects as physical. 

From a certain viewpoint, the interhuman relations in stratified society can be considered a form of mental cruelty because dominators have the power to threaten and terrorize those placed lower in the hierarchy. The competition, which is one of the founding principles of stratification for more sensitive individuals, is cruel.

To summerise, existing legal systems, at best, touch the tip of the iceberg of cruelty. It cannot because it is built into the core concept of stratification, in which dominations of one over other is legal, for example,  physical oppression of children. 

So far, we discussed cruelty perpetrated towards human beings. However, the vast majority of cruelty is done to animals capable of experiencing pain and, most likely, fear. Among wild ones, we begin with millions of insects are killed each day by insecticides, and end on elephants mostly killed for trophies. The other forms of wild killing animals, such as hunting, if done in a locally prescribed way, are legal, and some sections of society are considered a legitimate kind of sport. Also, fishing and killing aquatic animals like whales, which is cruelty en mass, is certainly not illegal. On the contrary, it is an acceptable form of food industry.system. Some vegetarians, who avoid eating meat, do not hesitate to eat fish and may not know that they are as capable of suffering while killed as advanced mammals

Cruelty to animals

But the particularly common cruelty comes from killing billions of domesticated animals to be processed into various kinds of meat products. This killing is especially atrocious because before being slain, they are accustomed to humans who feed and even care for them. But before their death, some of them like, for example, geese stuffed with food to make their liver very fat, which eventually become foix grass or pigs crowded to the extent that they are covered with wounds, the chicken factory all experience forms of pain difficult to imagine. Of course, this kind of cruelty towards domesticated animals is legal and only in cases when media publicize exceptional circumstances, the law may reluctantly intervene.  

Ignorance and cruelty

Now I will discuss how the stratification uses ignorance, its most fundamental quality, to support the continuation of domination and possessiveness in the context of cruelty. It is a “weapon” to desensitize us, so we ignore our own or others’ cruelty. It prevents us not only from natural empathy towards the victims but makes cruelty not only socially acceptable but admirable. See this attitude of admiration for mechanized cruelty in this post.

The development of technology permitted the invention of more and more sophisticated machines, where which kill or torture, while the human, which controls them, is less directly involved. Now old methods are replaced by modern artillery, bomber aeroplanes and, more recently, weaponized drones.  It makes possible those who use them to be removed from the scene, which permits them to feel less involved. This kind of perverse cruelty is hardly viewed as what it is; instead, we are conditioned to admire its methods’ technological cleverness and efficiency.

As a result, we are so accustomed to ignoring cruelty that we accept it without even a moment of reflection. How many of us, while opening the can of sardines or tuna, think about ourselves as a beneficiary in mass murder?

Wisdom and cruelty

Cruelty, as we have defined it at the beginning of this article, is an act which not committed if it can be avoided. Consequently, a person who re-covered wisdom is not going to do. So, It seems reasonable to say that an act of cruelty, which is not a result of social conditioning, is related to the malfunctioning of the brain. However,  distinguishing such malfunction from conditioning is often very challenging because of the social acceptance of the effects of stratification and our limited knowledge of neuroscience. 

However, in most cases, it is evident that cruelty and its acceptance are the results of social conditioning.  The support for this can found in the anthropological research of pure aboriginal societies, which were not polluted by surrounding them stratification. The cruelty among members of the same tribe is unknown; instead, they are engaging in caring and plays.  

Is cruelty a mental sickness?

As far as the cruelty that comes from a malfunctioning of the brain is concerned, a person suffering from this kind of illness must be prevented from inflicting cruel actions to oneself or others. It can be done, for example, by separating such people from the rest of society. After that, in the proper environment, such an illness would be medically and psychologically treated as one of many chronic diseases. 

Concluding remarks

All of that makes us doubt that wisdom is the innate quality of humanity because it looks that maybe instead, it is cruelty. However, I still maintain that cruelty is not an inherent human quality, but results from social conditioning or, in rare cases, from malfunctioning of the brain. Furthermore, the only way to stop it from being a widespread social phenomenon is to cut its root: social and economic stratification. 

However, until that is going to happen, beings passive and just looking at this all-pervasive phenomenon, growing day by day, is not a solution. We can, at least, not participate in it and acknowledge its presence. We can observe our reactions and do not block our empathy towards the victims. We can examine more in-depth the material presented by media, which shows unimaginable acts of cruelty. All of that may inspire us to engage ourselves in reducing its scope and depth. It may inspire us to become vegans, eating the free-range eggs, signing petitions, calling to introduce legislation, which supposes to prevent it or call the police to intervene when we witness the domestic violence. It is better than do nothing. 

However, at the same time, we may also look at our beliefs and use our critical intelligence and realize that cruelty in most of its form is unavoidable in our existing system based on stratification. And that, we can use as inspiration to get involved in the realization of egalitarian systems, where cruelty will be an exception rather than a rule.  

One thought on “Human cruelty and wisdom

  1. Thank you for beginning this topic.
    What do you think about Zbigniew Herbert’st poem, ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’?
    And also his essay on Prehistoric art in southern France?
    These point, I think, to a cruelty more deeply and ambiguously woven into the fabric of our being.
    Please be well, and again thank you.

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