The purpose of this work is to consider the prominent philosopher Richard Taylor’s work ‘Cruelty and Compassion.’ In this respect, firstly, it is necessary to discuss the definitions of both phenomena. Secondly, it will be discussed if they are arbitrary or not, and sufficient proof will be presented.
The third issue under consideration will concern the sources of the common good when it serves as a force for or against evil inclinations. Finally, the six stories provided by the author will be viewed, and how they illustrate the nature of mankind. To add, it will be discussed if the same rules of expressing cruelty and compassion work with individuals and the society. For this purpose, the example of slavery will be used.
In his work, Taylor raises one of the eternal moral issues that concerns the demonstration of cruelty and compassion by the individual. To start, the author attracts the reader with several simple examples that illustrate how a person may be cruel and compassionate. According to Taylor, the stories are to make the readers “see moral good and evil, whether small or great” (329).
The value of the examples he provides consists in the fact that they describe ordinary people in ordinary situations. It is supposed that the readers will recognize themselves and the people around. Another strong side of the stories is that several of them discuss real events while others may be called parables as they describe situations that happen every day.
This mixture of the real and the imaginary makes the instances of malice and mercy vivid. Moreover, it is necessary to add that the stories are simple enough for everybody to understand their message, that is why Taylor’s work is attractive and exciting.
Before discussing the stories themselves, it is important to take a look at the conclusions that the author comes to. Firstly, it is possible to consider how the philosopher understands cruelty. Taylor states that it is “the intended infliction of injury and the delight derived from it, that fills us with that peculiar revulsion that is moral” (331). Thus, malice may bring satisfaction to the one who practices it.
In the cases that Taylor describes, it is only partly caused by certain circumstances. In the examples he gives, a person can choose how to behave: one may demonstrate either cruelty or compassion, but the choice is given to malice. That is why one may say that the evil lives deep in the individual’s heart and comes out in favorable circumstances, and it is partly an arbitrary quality.
The same may be said about compassion. According to Taylor, in the stories describing mercy, “no one has earned any medal of honor, any citation from any society for the protection of animals, or any recognition from any council of civil liberties” (333).
On the contrary, the characters of the stories demonstrated compassion in situations when they could have demonstrated any other qualities, including cold calculation or cruelty. However, it happened so that they showed mercy for no obvious reason. Moreover, they got no other results but, perhaps, self-satisfaction. The characters had no motive to act as they did that could be expressed in words and properly reasoned.
That is why one may conclude that, like cruelty, compassion also comes from the depths of the individual’s heart and soul. It is partly arbitrary as its demonstration is influenced by the circumstances but it seems to be predetermined that special kind of outer conditions raises mercy in the heart.
It is also important to discuss the author’s viewpoint on the source of the common good against the individual’s evil inclinations. According to Taylor, “most men have always recognized their kinship with the rest of creation and their responsibility to other living things, in spite of the fact that moralists in our tradition hardly so much as mention it” (335).
It seems reasonable because most people know what suffering is. That is why one may imagine what a living being experiences when someone is brutal to it. Simultaneously, compassion may be a mechanism of self-defense because the cruel should expect that the evil done by him or her will return and bring double or triple suffering.
The individual might not guess that it is so, but in most cases, he or she acts in this way, that is why cooperation, compassion, and mutual understanding between people are possible.
The first story may be called slightly shocking. However, it paints a realistic picture of the attitude of some representatives of mankind to nature and beauty. The parable describes how a boy saw a beautiful beetle and pinned it to a tree trunk to see what will happen (Taylor 329).
On the one hand, the short story describes the human nature as a curious one: when a person sees something strange, weird, unusual, or beautiful, he or she immediately concentrates the attention on the object. The boy acted in the same way when he saw the beetle.
Another example that illustrates this may be seeing an accident in the street. When it happens, a lot of passers-by gather around the spot and gaze at the consequences of what has happened. It is significant that they do it not due to their helpfulness and compassion but because of their natural curiosity coded in the genome.
Secondly, the parable shows that the human being is able to admire beauty. It is not stated directly, but one may realize that the boy from the story was fascinated by the appearance of the insect. There are many other examples both in life and in literature when people are fascinated by the beauty of the object they see. Exactly for this purpose, museums, art galleries, and art itself exist. Their aim is to arise the feeling of the beautiful in the heart of the seer.
Finally, the story tells the reader that the human being is a cruel creature as the boy not only pinned the insect to the trunk but then, forgot about it, and after that, came sometime later to watch the beetle still moving its legs (Taylor 329). As one can see, the character does not feel any compassion or responsibility for taking another living creature’s life.
Moreover, this case of cruelty may seem especially disgusting because here, the admiration of the beautiful combines with the cruelty to it. This happens as a matter of fact as for the collective ‘boy’ under consideration, such events happen every day so that he may even forget about his brutal actions in a few seconds and continue going his way. In this case, it does not matter if cruelty is practiced towards an insect or a human being as they are both living things.
The second story describes the same traits of the human character. The parable is about boys (obviously, teenagers) who poured kerosene on a cat and set it on fire (Taylor 329). One should admit that, like the character of the former story, the boys are curious because they wanted to see how the cat would run across the field while burning. According to those children’s aesthetic taste, the scene looked beautiful and spectacular.
Thus, one may conclude that the characters also have a certain sense of beauty, though a pervert one. Finally, the teenagers are cruel as they kill a living thing without any twinge of conscience, absolutely shamelessly. Thus, being cruel is characteristic of human beings.
The third story depicts a horrible scene from the time of war. Although it is not directly mentioned, one may easily recognize fascist Germany’s soldiers killing Jews on a conquered and devastated territory (Taylor 330). Here, one may observe a vivid example of the highest degree of cruelty. Knowing that they will not be punished for their actions, the soldiers murder a Jewish man, and then his infant daughter or granddaughter.
It is significant that they do not doubt their actions, and their behavior seems cynical. They do what they do not because they are ordered to but because of their groundless hate, tiredness, and impunity. This example shows that the same human being may behave differently in various situations. He or she may be a law-abiding and respectable man or woman in the usual circumstances of peace.
It is because he or she knows that any crime causes punishment. However, when the conditions change, and the law ceases to work, the human gives vent to the hatreds and hostilities that have been sleeping deep inside the soul until the situation woke them up. Thus, the case described in the parable demonstrates the human being as an extremely violent, aggressive, law-fearing, and hypocritical creature.
All the three examples are united by the admittance that the human being is naturally cruel. Although it may be shocking to oneself, one still practices cruelty and hate. According to Taylor, this kind of behavior is also irrational as people engaged in such deeds as the ones described will certainly not feel the bliss of heaven after their death (331). However, they are destined to hell as the evil they do comes from the depth of their hearts.
Further on, the author tells three stories of another kind. The first one is about a thievish boy who suddenly begins to feel sympathetic to the suffering birds trapped in a cupola (Taylor 331). There are obstacles and punishments that prevent him from releasing the pigeons, but he overcomes them and saves the creatures. This instance shows that a person may be kind, and kindness, just like cruelty, comes from the very core of the heart.
Story five touches upon racial discrimination that used to be practiced in the United States on the legal level until the 1970s. The character is a die-hard racist deputy sheriff who was intending to kill a wounded Afro-American but helped him survive instead (Taylor 332).
This story, like the previous one, shows that there is compassion deep in the heart of even those who have been taught to follow their ancestors’ cannibal traditions since the childhood. It seems that compassion exists inside each one from birth and shows itself even in cases of those who are not inclined to be sympathetic.
The last story brings the reader back to the time of war. The parable’s main character is a marine who finds himself on a desert island together with a better-weaponed enemy (Taylor 333). After a long and exhausting period of hunting each other, one of the men came across the other sleeping. Because of his inner compassion, he did not dare kill a sleeping human and dropped his weapon.
The other woke up and also found no inner force to take the life of a weaponless man. This real story illustrates that compassion may come from deep within the soul at the moment when the individual does not expect it. Like cruelty, which is described in the first three stories, under the influence of circumstances, mercy demonstrates itself as it has always lived within the individual.
All the above-mentioned examples prove the statement that the source of many good deeds, as well as evil ones, lies within the human nature. Its demonstration may be provoked by the situation and special circumstances, but the inclinations live inside each individual. Practicing cruelty and compassion, one often might not consider the consequences or expect any profit: the process and its outcomes merely cause delight or satisfaction.
However, this principle works only when the individual is concerned. In social groups, other rules come to power. In this respect, it is necessary to discuss what the author of the work under consideration says about slavery. According to Taylor, “if there is… a clear and natural distinction between two groups… then there can, from self-interest alone, be no reason why the larger group should be solicitous of the needs of the other” (338).
Slavery is a vivid instance that can prove this idea. To develop the author’s thought further, if the individual does not feel his or her direct responsibility for cruelty, it is possible that he or she does not take close to heart the sufferings of the other social group caused by the deeds of his or her own one.
That is the reason why such phenomena as slavery, corruption, and genocide have always taken place and been neglected or silenced by the majority at the same time.
To conclude, Taylor’s work ‘Cruelty and Compassion’ discusses where both phenomena mentioned in the title come from. The author provides several examples that reveal the meaning of them. His opinion is that malice and mercy of the individual come from his or her heart and are predetermined by human nature.
Although some individuals are more inclined to evil deeds and others to good ones, these qualities of the human soul may become apparent only when the circumstances are favorable. However, it is the individual’s personal choice how to behave.
Due to these reasons, cruelty and mercy may be called only partly arbitrary qualities. The author translates the idea that in the scope of the society, these rules do not work as the individual does not feel any direct responsibility for the injustices practiced by his or her whole social group. Moreover, such malices as slavery are caused only by the current correlation of forces between nations, social layers, etc.
Taylor, Richard. “Cruelty and Compassion.” Doing and Being: Selected Readings in Moral Philosophy, edited by Joram Graf Haber, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1993, pp. 329-339.
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