Resolving Standards of Decency

Words are powerful and elusive things.  We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans.  They are not perfect tools.  They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity.  TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!”  We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing.  However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean.

One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty.  I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means.  This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture.  It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live.  The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment.  But what does it really mean?

When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide.  The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways.  For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare.  If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual.  If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time.  The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel.  The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.

The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable.  It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel.  However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted.  This holding is extremely confusing.  Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel.  It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing.  What is the distinction?

In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments.  In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment.  This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country.  Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that.  These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted.  Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated.  The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape.  The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002).  The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).  All of these punishments are considered cruel.

The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not.  This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre.  Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”

Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court.  It is everywhere you look.  In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not.  Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars?  Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?

The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war.  Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?

During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way.

Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals.  According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year.  Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant.  Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals?  Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?

Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?

I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel.  Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it.  However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved.  We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior.

How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty?  I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it.  Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.

A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature.  This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are.  When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure.  It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is.

This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade.  If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless.  Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another.  I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.

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  1. #1 by Guillermo Verano on November 24, 2010 - 3:35 PM

    I wonder, though, by the proposed definition, would any form of imprisonment be considered cruel? Or would imprisonment be exempted because it does not directly cause physical harm?

    • #2 by Guillermo Verano on November 24, 2010 - 3:58 PM

      Regarding the viewpoint of the being experiencing suffering:

      You seem to argue that there is no real difference, in terms of cruelty, between a dog dying in a dogfight and a dog dying to be eaten by humans. The same with an Iraqi citizen dying at the hands of the U.S. army and being placed in a stress position and threatened with dogs. The logic is that, to the being experiencing the suffering, the reasons don’t matter. They suffer either way.

      Here’s a situation that is essentially a bad action movie plot, but one meant to serve as a thought experiment:

      A man breaks into my house. I wake up and try to stop him. He knocks me unconscious.

      He has done something cruel, by your definition.

      But what if the man needed money in the next ten minutes or some psycho would execute his family and there was really no time to explain this to me and convince me it was true. Is what he did less wrong than if he needed money to go get high with? I think it might be.

      The point is this: context might affect what is or is not cruel. Is killing a Nazi guard cruel if it’s the only way to release hundreds of prisoners? I don’t know. (And no, this is not an argument to justify the government torturing terror suspects. These Jack Bauer scenarios don’t come up in real life.) If any of what I’ve said is true, it isn’t NECESSARILY equally cruel to kill an animal for food and to have it die fighting for sport. The context of the ones causing the suffering might matter, as in my silly action movie example.


  2. #3 by Keith Spillett on November 24, 2010 - 3:56 PM

    Great point, Guillermo. Not an easy question to answer. I would believe that it is cruel. I got at this point a bit in the Hobbes-Locke article a few weeks back, but we incarcerate people at a rate unmatched in the annals of human history. We have legal monstrosities like the “three strikes your out law” that lead to punishments of 50 years in prison for shoplifting 150 dollars worth of videotapes (see Lockyer v. Andrade, 2003). We have mandatory minimum sentences that lead to jails filled with non-violent offenders.

    Prison is a violent and harmful place. Incarcerating a person for years of their life is a decision that should be made with a sense of the cruelty involved. The rate at which we imprison people would lead me to the conclusion that either Americans are predisposed to commit more crimes than other people or we do not understand the degree of suffering that imprisonment causes (or we really don’t care). A deeper understanding of cruelty is, in my opinion, exactly what is needed when discussing imprisonment.

    • #4 by Guillermo Verano on November 24, 2010 - 4:00 PM

      Agreed. I think lots of people think of prison as “three squares and a place to sleep” for people with nothing better in their lives. I doubt that’s the case.

  3. #5 by Keith Spillett on November 24, 2010 - 8:48 PM

    (I think we were posting at the same time, so I missed your second comment until a moment ago)

    I never mind a good Jack Bauer scenario. I watched an embarrassing amount of 24 in my day, so I have had a few of these roll through my mind before as well. The context is always important when understanding an issue. I would not argue that there aren’t nightmare scenarios were cruelty is the only option and is therefore acceptable (Nazis with the power to end the suffering of hundreds, suspects that have a bomb planted and we only 15 minutes to diffuse it). Unfortunately, these are the exception and not the rule.

    Unfortunately, the stuff I am talking about is ever present in our lives. There are everyday acts of cruelty that go ignored. As a culture, we then pull out a few examples of times we have spoken against cruelty (Vick, Abu Ghraib) and assume that we are not cruel. That point of view, to borrow an analogy from Apocalypse Now, is tantamount to “giving speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”

    I am not claiming to have any answers to the question of how to deal with human cruelty. However, I believe we should call it what it is, then deal with the moral ramifications.

  4. #6 by Jim Wheeler on November 27, 2010 - 11:11 AM

    This is a fascinating subject and discussion. There are a couple of additional aspects which could be mentioned.

    One is that civilization and modern “farming” have enabled us to distance ourselves mentally from what it means to hunt and kill prey. For all but a tiny fraction of 1% of the life of our species it was natural to do that. Now we are removed from its reality.

    I can still recall life on my grandparents farm more than 60 years ago when it was quite natural to kill a chicken for Sunday dinner, usually by wringing its neck, after which the chicken’s bloody body would thrash around briefly. Most city dwellers would recoil from that image now, I expect. I wonder if mankind will evolve in a different way because of this in the next few thousands of years? That is, if we don’t first destroy ourselves on fast food and obesity, or through WMD’s.

    Which brings me to the second aspect, the ubiquity of conflict, a.k.a., war, in human behavior. I think the tendency of human beings to do this derives from our tribal nature which evolved (that word, again) to empathize with others of our own kind and to defend against those alien to our group. It seems ironic that such would govern human behavior in the nuclear age but you only have to look as far as North Korea to see a fine example of it.

    Jim Wheeler

  5. #7 by Keith Spillett on November 27, 2010 - 12:27 PM

    Excellent points, Jim. Let me respond to each separately.

    Your idea about our “removal” from the suffering that exists is quite important. I think our culture has created many ways to be safe from some of the horrors of modern life. Our wars are starting to be fought on computer screens and our killing of animals is done by others at a distance. In many ways, our definition of cruelty is shaped by our detachment from its implementation. Then, on another level, we are more attached to strangers than we have ever been. I remember watching people openly weep over the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Strangers, who had never before met this woman, were overwhelmed by her passing. The impact of watching fire hoses turned on protestors during the Civil Rights Movement certainly had the effect of engaging people in compassion for strangers they had never met and moved people in the direction of a more humane legal system. This removal/detachment phenomena is really hard for me to get my mind around. What makes people connect viscerally to some things and remove themselves safely from others?

    Your second point reminds me very much of some of the ideas that were written about by Marshall McLuhan (actually, the first one did as well). He saw the world as in a state of re-tribalization. During this period, our relationships to each other are dramatically changing. He had the whole idea that technology was reconnecting people into a “global village” (an oft cited expression of his). He felt that during this process, humans would be subjected to extended periods of confusion about their identity and who “others of our own kind” are. (If everyone around is connected, who am I (the self)?) He seemed to think the loss of personal identity was something that drove people towards a feeling of alienation which sometimes resulted in violence. Having all of these feelings coursing through the collective human consciousness while nuclear weapons are widely proliferated is a highly disturbing idea. This is why I am moving to Mars.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this and for adding insightful points. I look forward to our continuing dialogue.


  6. #8 by Diana Mauriello on December 16, 2010 - 6:31 AM


    Well said. The debate over what is ‘cruel’ and what isn’t is indeed a strange one. Amazing that there needs to be so much rhetoric in defining the parameters of cruelty.

    I like your simple but effective definition of cruelty. It’s succinct and to the point. You acknowledge the place ‘intention’ plays, which is good. But the real issue, of course, as you mention, is how to end cruelty, which is resulting in all the madness we continue to see. And it seems to be getting worse as divisiveness and fear continue to escalate.

    In order to look for ways to eliminate cruelty from our lives we need to recognize that cruelty happens because we view the world and all the beings in it as separate from ourselves. It’s only when we understand that we are all connected and what we do to each other we do to ourselves, will we have a chance of eliminating cruelty from our lives. I blogged about some of this in Stop the Madness.

    PS – I love your blog…..

  7. #9 by Keith Spillett on December 16, 2010 - 5:15 PM

    Thanks, Diana. I think your comments add a great deal to the article.

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