Many examples of extraordinary cruelty, both in history and happening right now as we speak, are the result of a group of reasonably 'normal' people being given orders by one or several rather 'nasty' people.
Other examples of extraordinary cruelty are the result of a less clear order of events, where a person or group of people takes on or carries on with a given 'way of doing things' (doing certain things or not doing certain other things), that leads to extraordinary cruelty executed as part of the package and not really thought about.
A variant of this last situation is a scenario where one is cruel with someone else as a way of fitting in or conforming to peer pressure. If all my friends at school think Mary is X, Y and Z and treat her cruelly, it's easy to be carried by the inertia of it all and take part more or less actively in the cruelty, or maybe just as a passive onlooker (perhaps also an enabler?).
Why is it that our sense of obedience is sometimes stronger than our sense of duty to behave decently to other people?
When should we disobey or disregard authority?
Are there any situations where we are not free to disobey authority?
What does it take to disobey authority?
Are we responsible for acts of cruelty perpretrated at the order of someone else -a person or an institution-? Or is the person or institution giving the order the only one responsible?
Does fear for our own safety justify being cruel to others? Would killing Snow White be somehow 'understandable', given the possible consequences for the huntsman at the hands of the queen?
How often are the following statements really true?
"I had no choice but to do it."
"I can't change the way things work around here."
"If I stand up for Mary, everyone will start being cruel to me too."
Even if they are true, would they be a reasonable justification for cruelty?
One of the most interesting philosophical -and psychological- questions about cruelty is how it is possible that perfectly 'normal' people ('normal' on a scale of perceived cruelty) are quite capable of behaving in extraordinarily cruel ways out of a desire to please authority or fit in. Our need to obey or conform, it would seem, is often stronger than our need to avoid being cruel to others.
Wonder Ponder's first Visual Philosophy for Children box, Cruelty Bites, prompts these questions, together with others, aiming to provide a 'visual map of cruelty' for children (and adults!) for them to build their own 'philosophical map of cruelty'.
Text by Ellen Duthie, illustration by Daniela Martagón.
(c) Wonder Ponder (An imprint of Traje de lobo S.L.).