Cruelty is possibly best defined as an action that will deliberately bring harm others. The perpetrator is aware that what they are doing is wrong and that it will cause pain, yet they do it anyway. Aggressive reactions are not necessarily cruel: we all can, at some point, either have or suffer from one, as it is a natural human reaction, a response to a perceived attack. These aggressions may be intentional, or not, and sometimes are cruel, but these actions are mainly backlash.
Envy often generates an aggressive reaction. When people compare themselves to others and find themselves wanting, they feel inferior and, consequently, humiliated. This humiliation is perceived as a personal attack, and the envious person reacts in subtle, disloyal ways, attempting to take down the person who made them feel that way. Any of us can be a perpetrator or a victim of this kind of behavior.
Cruelty usually comes from a person’s desire to have something that does not rightfully belong to them; selfish people will do what it takes to reach their goals, whether they are financial, intellectual or romantic in nature. They are acting in self-interest, without guilt or empathy; they do not care about the pain they might cause. But causing pain to others is not their main purpose, just a consequence – a consequence that brings them neither satisfaction, nor distress.
In some cases, aggression has strong links to sexuality, especially for men, as I’ve been saying for decades. This explains, for instance, sadism, consented or not, and more serious acts, from nonconsensual exhibitionism, to rape and pedophilia. This connection can also explain some men’s sexism, as well as some women’s manipulative sexual provocativeness.
A cruel act isn’t always violent; sometimes, it can be subtle and cause psychical pain, such deliberately humiliating someone else. With children, bullying is usually about self-affirmation, as they might feel stronger if they physically or psychologically abuse other children. On the other hand, it’s harder to explain a child’s violence against animals. Some believe that it’s indicative of a biological predisposition to cruelty, but I don’t agree: if such a proclivity exists, the person can’t be blamed, as they’d “only” be respecting their nature, according to Comte-Sponville. It’s possibly about self-affirmation, as well, especially if other children are watching. It can also be an exhibition of courage, cool-bloodedness, and adeptness at violence.
This need to establish oneself might explain cruel behavior that brings no other benefits to the perpetrator; this is a psychopathic trait. Psychopaths are fearless and many like to show off their boldness with violence. It can seem gratuitous, but it’s impelled by their vanity, which is a feeling of sexual pleasure that comes from standing out among one’s peers; it makes them feel better than the others. Among criminals, the person who is capable of more conspicuous and unnecessary cruelty comes out on top. Being the most fearless, guilt-free and callous member of this kind of group usually also translates into a leadership position, as their seemingly gratuitous cruelty intimidates others who do feel more fear, reinforcing and establishing the psychopaths’ position. This pleasure in being cruel is also called “negative empathy.”
Tradução: Amanda Morris