Paul Bloom on Cruelty

Paul Bloom on Cruelty

17/09/2018 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player:

Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about cruelty–what motivates cruelty, the cruelty of small acts that accumulate into something monstrous, and the question of whether the abuse of a robot is a form of cruelty.

Paul Bloom’s first EconTalk appearance, about how empathy is to be avoided, was one of the most interesting episodes I had heard this year, and got me reading his book, which was also one of the more rewarding reads of 2018. I still think that his title is being too clever by half, but the concept at its core – that allowing our kindness to be driven by our feelings rather than by our ratinality – is provocative, interesting, and hard to refute. (Poor Hume, yet another attack on reason being the slave of the passions.)

Of course, the implications of kindness being more reliable when its driven by reason alone are very depressing – and boy, even this episode’s message is dismal. Bloom paints a picture where cruelty is an inescapable part of human nature; not one that is planted in us through manipulation techniques. We don’t become cruel because we’ve been taught to dehumanise, we dehumanise because we are reveling in our inborn cruelty. Ouch.

Some interesting bits from the episode:

Paul Bloom: So, I’m drawing on the work here of a lot of people, particularly the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and the philosopher Kate Manne. And in different ways they both make the following argument, which is that, if you look at the actual atrocities people do to each other–the Holocaust and slavery and misogynistic violence–you don’t necessarily see dehumanization in any sense of the term. Rather, what you see is a full recognition of the humanity of other people. So, Appiah points out that in genocide in, say, in Germany in World War II there are all sorts of humiliations and degradations done toward the Jews, and it’s hard to make sense of this if you say the Germans didn’t think of the Jews as people. Rather, they thought of them as people and they wanted them to suffer as people. They felt that they were morally tainted as people. They recognized their humanity and they hated it.

Later on, there are two separate bits about medicine – an Atul Gawande quote about doctors treating patients as a problem to be solved, not as human beings; and how as a patient you would want your surgeon to not see you too much as a human being. Ties in nicely with my current binge watching of House, MD.

Then there’s this:

Paul Bloom: Spoiler alert; but this will not harm the movie. No more than what you’ve seen in the trailer. Says to the main character, Ethan Hunt, the Tom Cruise character, ‘You are a great person. And you are a great person because you believe that the life of one person matters more than the life of a million.’ And I’m there like saying, ‘Hey. I want to rebut.’ No, that isn’t a good–the movie is orchestrated so that favoring the one over the million works out, because it’s a movie. But it’s actually–it’s a horrific policy.

This stands in contradiction to the close of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, and the quote from the end: “‘I think,’ he said, ‘I think, if you want thousands, you have to fight for one.'” But then, slightly further in the episode, we get a quote which lies in lovely synchronisation with an earlier quote from Small Gods.

Paul Bloom: And I disagree with Jordan Peterson–I haven’t met him–I disagree with him about a lot of things. But there is one thing he says which I think is true and important and doesn’t get said enough, which is: He talks about the desire for power and domination. And he talks coherently; then he says, ‘Look, people get a pleasure and a satisfaction about dominating others.’ And, it’s not sadism, strictly speaking. I think what it is, is we are hierarchical creatures, and we want to be on top. And there’s all sorts of ways of being on top. There’s to be respected and admired. But, failing that, terrifying somebody and making him fall before you is a go-to some individuals use.

Compare this with:

‘Oh, I’m not talking about the poor bugger in the pit,’ said the philosopher. ‘I’m talking about the people throwing the stones. They were sure all right. They were sure it wasn’t them in the pit. You could see it in their faces. So glad it was them that they were throwing just as hard as they could.’

This particular story was one of those which puts into words something that you’ve always felt but couldn’t express:

Paul Bloom: Yeah. Yep. There is–of all things–and I’m going to bring up a story I heard from a rabbi, once, and it’s about this guy, and he and his wife are at a hotel; and his wife is fumbling to get something out her bags, at the front desk. And the guy–and they’ve been married for 30 years–looks at the guy behind the desk and rolls his eyes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It’s a fantastic story–

Paul Bloom: And, the point of the story is, you’re betraying[?] how bad that is. And it’s the sort of thing I can see myself doing. I could see–but you are betraying somebody you love to a stranger, showing his dominance.

It followed an extended conversation about how the flipside of being acknowledged as human, and even to be loved; is to make yourself vulnerable to being knocked off that elevated state and being hurt in the process. I feel that particular argument needs to be teased out more.

Later on, they talk about the Parfitt thought experiment of how there could be a thousand people, each with a switch that gives you an infinitesimal amount of pain, and when all the switches go on together, it causes agony; and compare this to social media and online shaming and trolling. In my more pessimistic moods, I see this as a metaphor for not just social media but life itself; and we all have each other’s pain switches and are flipping them all the time; with antinatalism being the only way to exit the game. But then we all have each other’s pleasure switches too.

The final segment of the show was about Westworld, but everything in that passed me by.

Start Date: 2018-09-22

End Date: 2018-09-30

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