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Vice dressed as virtue

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Following in the steps of Michel de Montaigne, the distinguished political philosopher Judith Shklar has argued that cruelty should be considered the supreme evil and that we should put it first among the vices. The essence of cruelty is to wilfully and needlessly inflict pain and suffering on another creature – be it an animal or a human being. Closely related to this vice are malice and sadism, both of which involve taking pleasure or delight in the suffering of others. Although cruelty might not be peculiar to human beings, it is a familiar and pronounced feature of human nature and social life. One important feature of human cruelty is the way that it varies, both with respect to its instruments and when it is occasioned, depending on our particular cultural and social circumstances. With this in mind, we can ask: what is the relationship between cruelty and morality?

On the face of it, cruelty and morality are opposites. Just as morality stands as a check or constraint on our cruel impulses, so these impulses propel us away from morality. On closer examination, however, the relationship between them is more complex and much messier. One way of appreciating this is to consider our retributive propensities and dispositions, which certainly encourage causing pain and suffering to those we find objectionable or threatening. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to consider the relationship between morality and cruelty entirely in terms of our largescale social and legal institutions and practices, such as prisons, and the forms of punishment associated with them. For one thing, these institutions and practices might or might not be cruel in terms of the definition provided. Beyond this, we shouldn’t overlook or ignore the way in which morality is frequently misused at a much more personal or everyday level, one that need not involve our legal institutions and practices at all. The particular form of cruelty that I am concerned with is a mode of moralism.

When I speak of moralism, in this context, what I am concerned with, in general terms, is the misuse of morality for ends and purposes that are themselves vicious or corrupt. Moralisers present the facade of genuine moral concern but their real motivations rest with interests and satisfactions of a very different character. When these motivations are unmasked, they are shown to be tainted and considerably less attractive than we suppose. Among these motivations are cruelty, malice and sadism. Not all forms of moralism, however, are motivated in this way. On the contrary, it could be argued that the most familiar and common form of moralism is rooted not in cruelty but in vanity.

The basic idea behind vain moralism is that the agents’ (moral) conduct and conversation is motivated with a view to inflating their social and moral standing in the eyes of others. This is achieved by way of flaunting their moral virtues for others to praise and admire. Any number of moralists through the ages – reaching back to the likes of François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) and Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) – have attempted to show that it is vanity that lies behind most, if not all, of our moral conduct and activity. While theories of this kind no doubt exaggerate and distort the truth, they do make sense of much of what troubles us about moralism.

One feature of vain moralism that is especially troubling is that an excessive or misplaced concern with our moral reputation and standing suggests that moralisers of this kind lack any deep or sincere commitment to the values, principles and ideals that they want others to believe animates their conduct and character. Moralisers of this kind are essentially superficial and fraudulent. We have, of course, countless examples of this sort of moral personality, ranging from Evangelical preachers caught in airport motels taking drugs with male prostitutes, to any number of highly paid professors wining and dining on the lecture circuit while explaining the need for social justice and advocating extreme forms of egalitarianism. For the most part, these characters and their activities – whatever their doctrine – are a matter of ridicule rather than of grave moral concern. Over time, the motivations behind their ‘grandstanding’ and ‘virtue signalling’ will be exposed for what it is, and the moralisers’ shallow commitment to their professed ideals and values becomes apparent to all. While we shouldn’t dismiss the vain moraliser as simply innocuous, there is no essential connection between moralism of this kind and cruelty or sadism.

The particular motivations behind vain moralism largely account for the cluster of vices associated with it. This includes hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, pomposity, pretension and conformism. These vices are all evidence that vain moralism is at work. Cruel moralism involves a very different set of motivations and a different cluster of vices. Although vain moralisers might adopt cruel attitudes and practices if they serve their (vain and shallow) ends, there is no satisfaction or pleasure taken in the suffering and humiliation of others for its own sake. With cruel moralism, things are different. What gives cruel moralisers satisfaction is not enhancing their moral standing in the eyes of others but rather the suffering and humiliation of others as a means to achieve power and domination over them. Achieving this confirms the moralisers’ sense of superiority over others and provides further validation for their ideals and values. It is self-validation – not validation to others – that cruel moralisers care about and seek to confirm. Imposing suffering and humiliation on the guilty and morally flawed provides this validation, and this becomes a deep source of motivation in their own ethical conduct and responses. In the hands of the cruel moraliser, morality lends itself to misrepresentation and misuse, and is liable to become cruel and sadistic.

Just as the motivation of the cruel moraliser is very different from that of the vain moraliser, so too is the principal set of vices associated with it. What comes with cruel moralism are vices such as severity, vindictiveness, dogmatism and authoritarianism. Cruel moralisers take a stance of excessive confidence........

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