Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Samuel Scheffler on Cruelty and Brutality
As we know all too well, the world can be an unbearably sad place, and people’s astonishing capacity for deliberate cruelty and brutality is one of the most striking things about them. These facts are hardly news outside of philosophy, but on the whole it cannot be said that contemporary moral philosophy has displayed much interest in them. Its focus on questions about the relative motivational importance of reason as compared with sympathetic or benevolent feeling has made it easy for philosophers to neglect the importance of sheer human viciousness: to forget that the desire to harm other people [and animals!--kbj] is one of the most prominent and enduring forces in human social life. (Samuel Scheffler, Human Morality [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992], 136 [footnote omitted]) From the Mailbag The only point that I would disagree with in Mr. Saletan's article [see here] is where he says, "The guards didn't understand Iraq, hated being there, and were under constant assault from Iraqi mortars outside the prison walls. To them, the inmates seemed a foreign enemy." This is (in part anyway) factually incorrect, and it misses what I consider to be a very important point psychologically. The inmates do not "seem" to be a foreign enemy; they ARE the enemy. They are the very people who, before their capture, were firing those mortars and planting the IED's (like the one with sarin in it yesterday). The abuse, while very wrong, was not perpetrated on the innocent. It's very hard to be nice to someone today who was trying to kill you yesterday, and who perhaps succeeded in killing some of your buddies the day before. But to understand is not to condone, and I think a little time in Leavenworth is needed in addition to courts martial. The guilty soldiers need to see the other side of the coin.