Daniel Fincke is inviting bloggers to write on the question contained in the title of this post as part of his "Forward Thinking" series of (what I'd term) blog-symposia on public values.
Well, before answering that question, I have to say what I mean by "cruelty" in the first place. My immediate response to the question "What is cruelty good for" would have been "It's good for nothing," because to my mind the term "cruelty" denotes, by definition, something that is unjustifiable. But there are two problems with this. First of all, even if no one is ever justified in being cruel, it does not follow that cruelty isn't good for anything—for example, it may be that some peoples' unjustifiable cruelty is useful for the attainment of other people's perfectly justifiable goals. Second, however, I may just be wrong to think "cruelty" is always unjustifiable. In Dan Fincke's discussion he names several examples of cruelty which are arguably justifiable. For example, he mentions playful mutual mockery as an example of cruelty, as well as hazing. Hazing has a deservedly bad reputation, but I have never thought that it categorically true that absolutely any ritual imposition of suffering in exchange for promised membership in a group that offers mutual support must necessarily be unjustifiable. There may be a right way to do something like that. (I don't know what the right way would be but it doesn't seem impossible that there might be one, in the right context for the right kind of group). He mentions his own feelings of celebration at seeing the Yankees' disappointment upon losing their chance at the World Series every year—which, again, does not appear unjustifiable to me. I personally don't "get" this kind of thing—not a sports person myself—but I can understand, in the abstract, that one might justifiably take pleasure in the disappointment of someone one sees as one's opponent in some sense. After all, what's bad for your opponent is probably good for you.
So I have to renege on my initial commitment to the idea that cruelty is always unjustified. If I'm thinking of something that's always unjustified, then I'm not thinking of the same thing Fincke is talking about (and I intend to be discussing what he's discussing). So then. What is he talking about?
The thread that runs through all his examples (and the famous Nietzsche quotation about cruelty with which he begins) is pretty simple: Cruelty is taking pleasure at someone else's suffering. And to be clear, it seems the idea isn't just to be pleased that someone is suffering, but rather, the idea is more visceral than that—to feel immediately pleasurable sensations as a direct response to the suffering itself. So, for example, I might be pleased that my kid is sad that he is grounded, simply on the basis of a belief that this will lead to my kid learning something about how to comport himself. In that case, the pleasure I feel isn't cruelty (I think) because it's not an immediate, visceral, direct response to my kid's suffering. (In fact the immediate visceral response is the opposite in my case.) If, on the other hand, upon grounding my kid and seeing how unhappy it made him, I felt pleasure independently of any lessons I thought he would take away from the experience, then this would mark me out as someone who is being cruel.
Feeling such immediate pleasure at his suffering might make me likely to psychologically abuse him. If his suffering made me glad just because I was glad to see him suffer, the temptation to make him suffer for no good reason would entice me towards abusive behaviors. But even in such a case, if I were able to exercise the right kind of self-control, and make use of foresight, I might see that my best bet isn't to abuse him willy-nilly (thereby running the risk of either destroying him or having him taken away from me) but rather to abuse him only according to some set of rules or principles, rules or principles sanctioned by society, ones it would be hard for him to articulate any effective objection to. So perhaps I will only make him suffer when he disobeys me or breaks a social rule—or when he acts cruelly!
Lucky for my kid, this is not how I think or feel about disciplining him, but it lets us in on one way that cruelty—even unjustified cruelty—might be good for something. The existence of a tendency toward cruelty in at least some people may help enforce a code of conduct which, over time, works out best for everyone.
Evolutionary Sociobiologists (or whatever they're calling them these days) have run models which lend support to this hypothesis. Imagine three kinds of agents. You have cooperators, you have cheaters, and you have punishers. Cooperators share their resources with others. Cheaters do not. Punishers punish cheaters. If you set up several groups with different ratios of cooperators to cheaters to punishers, and then have them compete for a common pool of resources, it turns out that groups with a mix of all three do better than other groupings. (This is a great simplification of what is described at the link—I'd recommend reading it when you get a chance!) And it's not just that the group does better in some sense independent of the well-being of the individuals—it turns out that each non-cheater in the group does better than it would have if no punishing had gone on. It's better not just for the group, but for each individual in the group.
So there's one use for cruelty—if some people in the group take pleasure in seeing others suffer, and a way is found to give these people an outlet in the form of punishment, things turn out to be better for everyone.
This doesn't make cruelty a virtue. But as Fincke points out, reducing it to a question of whether cruelty is virtuous in itself is not to the point. The question is, is cruelty good for anything. And this is one case where it can be argued that it is good.
Having said this, though, I am led to wonder whether cruelty is necessary. Sure it can be used for a certain good result. But can it be thought of as a Wittegensteinian ladder? Cruelty has gotten us where we are today, but now that we know how to codify rules and punish people in legally rigorous ways, we don't need cruelty anymore?
It depends. It's a little difficult for me to think about this because, to be honest, I really don't think I have a cruel bone in my body. Even when it comes to punishment of horrific genocidal maniacs—believe it or not, once they're in prison and facing their fate, I feel sorry for them. I also feel sorry for their victims. But I see no connection between feeling sorry for their victims and wanting the genocidal maniac to suffer. It just feels like an awful situation all around, and no punishment makes me feel particularly good for anyone. So if everyone were like me, I think, there would be no need for cruelty. But then, if everyone were like me, possibly since there would be no cruelty it would turn out that cheaters (and yes, I cheat in some contexts) would go unpunished (since no cruel people were around to use punishment as an excuse to cause suffering). And as the models suggest, this might mean things would be worse for everyone! And in any case, everyone is not like me. We have to deal with the seemingly overwhelming evidence that there are a great many people—possibly most of us—who do have a cruel streak. Just watch a little TV and you can see this. A species that enjoys watching what passes for entertainment on broadcast TV definitely is composed of many, many individuals with a pretty strong cruel streak.
So, given that the cruel streak exists and isn't going away anytime soon, it would seem best to provide an outlet for it. Punishment looks like a good candidate. Fiction looks like another—since fictional suffering is not real suffering. I guess I can't go into it here, but it occurs to me that advances in storytelling over the centuries could be framed as more and more exquisite ways to explore more and more devastating types of human suffering. If that's right, then fiction, like punishment, isn't just an outlet for cruelty, rather, fiction is another case where cruelty is necessary for a kind of advancement we find valuable for its own sake.
None of this means cruelty is necessary full stop. I'm suggesting it's necessary for some things that we value. This is not to say that a species couldn't be built which doesn't need cruelty. In some far-off sci-fi future, we may engineer ourselves into some such species. Is this desirable? It's impossible to say. That engineered version of ourselves is sure to value things completely differently than we do. Perhaps they'd see no need to punish cheaters—instead finding some other way to handle the effects of cheating. And perhaps they would have no need to craft fictions for each others' enjoyment. Rampant unpunished cheating? No more stories? This sounds horrible to me! But if this hypothetical engineered version of us can make it work, who am I to complain?
I'm just not sure I'd want to be engineered to live in such a world. And so, to my surprise, it appears I would prefer to insist on living in a cruel world.