If natural compassion makes everyone detest the cruelty

I was asking that question about why revulsion from torture isn’t universal five years ago, too, almost to the day. I’ll just repost it.

Lynn Hunt asks a pertinent question in Inventing Human Rights:

Voltaire railed against the miscarriage of justice in the Calas case, but he did not originally object to the fact that the old man had been tortured or broken on the wheel. If natural compassion makes everyone detest the cruelty of judicial torture, as Voltaire said later, then why was this not obvious before the 1760s, even to him? Evidently some kind of blinders had operated to inhibit the operation of empathy before then.

The facts aren’t enough. Science isn’t enough. There has to be emotion too. People have to care. It’s that simple. If people don’t care, the facts are just facts, they’re inert.

This is also why relief organizations use one person (and animal welfare organizations use one animal) on fund-raising appeals: we’re wired so that we empathize with one person much more strongly than we empathize with a million. If facts were enough for morality, we ought to respond a million times more strongly to reports of a million people in desperate straits, but in fact we respond much less strongly to a million people than we do to one.


  1. Eric MacDonald says

    iknklast (Iconoclast, I presume?). This was precisely Hitler’s point, when he said: “Who remembers the Armenian massacre now?” However, he was wrong, for who does not know about the Shoah (Holocaust) now? Millions can be a tragedy, and not only a statistic. And it is the caring that makes the difference.

    The Armenian massacre of over a million Turkish Armenians (which Turkey still refuses to acknowledge as a deliberate act of genocide), is, for many in the West, something foreign and far away. The Shoah is Western. It included European Jews of education, culture, and high social standing. We find their suffering more immediate and we care more. The million and a half that died as a result of partition in India in 1947 are, for most of us, just a statistic. They too, like the Armenians, were too foreign and too far away.

    This, I take it, was what permitted the American forces to use torture during their recent wars, and even rendition of American citizens to places where torture was a common practice. It happened because of the success of American armed forces in depersonalising the enemy. In WW II, 80% of American infantry soldiers never fired their weapon. Now, the proportion, instead of 80 to 20, is more in the range of 10 to 90. The problem of getting soldiers to kill the enemy is now largely solved, but this success rate increased the likelihood that torture would be practiced. It has also increased the risk of Post Traumatic Stress.

    What we need to do, in order to turn the dead to a statistic, is to “other” them, make them as different from us as possible. Der Stürmer, and its crude anti-Semitic cartoons was very successful in “othering” Jews from die Volksgemeinschaft, a practice that is still common in many Muslim majority countries. The same thing goes for the recognition of people’s rights. Voltaire’s position on torture changed, because it became impossible to “other” one’s neighbour just because he was poor or of a lower class. It had been widely believed in pre-Enlightenment Europe, that aristocrats were more sensitive, and the lower classes less so, so torture was necessary for the lower classes, whether to get the truth or to give them the appropriate amount of pain as they were executed. (Compare this to the Roman practice of beheading Roman citizens, and crucifying those who were not citizens.)

    Madame Guillotine expresses the change that overcame Voltaire. He had come to realise, as did many of those in what had been Christian Europe, that people experience pain in similar ways. In this respect, all men are born (roughly) equal. (It would be unfair to suggest that Christianity had nothing to do with this change.) However, once you recognise this (that there is neither rich nor poor, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, as Christians would come to remember), it is hard to justify torture. If you do not recognise this, torture seems to be justified. It has to do, as Hume said, with the passions, without which facts are simply facts (simply inert as Ophelia says).

    But, of course, looking at people in the mass is already to “other” them, which makes the suffering of millions (who cannot be present to us all at once) more tolerable to us than the obvious suffering of just one in our presence. Even the obvious suffering of a dog while this suffering is present to us, can have more effect than the suffering of millions of children far away. Morality obviously evolved in small kinship groups, and is very hard (emotionally) to generalise to those who are “other” than us or far away.

  2. Bluntnose says

    I wonder if future generations will look on incarceration with the same moral bafflement with which we consider torture.

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