Cruelty, Callousness, Sadism, and Science

We think we have a clear distinction between cruelty and callousness. The cruel person inflicts pain and is pleased to do so, derives a sense of satisfaction from its infliction. The callous person inflicts pain simply because some other reason makes it expedient, and is indifferent to the pain per se. (The nice person inflicts pain regretfully and does everything they can to avoid doing so, of course).

For example, someone might have to operate on someone without anaesthetic (let us say, there is none available, or the risk of death is too great). A mild operation, not too much pain, but enough that the patient would very much prefer anaesthetic. We might intuitively say that the surgeon who takes satisfaction in the infliction of that pain is cruel (perhaps sadistic might be a more appropriately psychological word? no offence to BDSM tops) while the ‘businesslike’ surgeon who simply gets on with the operation is merely callous (the nice surgeon would, we imagine, do something to minimise the pain or prepare the victim for it?).

So these two alternatives – cruelty and callousness – seem very different: one is defined by a certain affect, the other by a lack of affect. But it seems to me they may often be very similar. I say this because it seems that very often people draw satisfaction precisely from their ‘callousness’, their indifference to pain.

I’m thinking of people for whom it is a point of pride that they do what must be done, and do not concern themselves with the squishy feelings – more broadly, who regard it as an important principle to be dispassionate, to ‘raise themselves’ above crude emotional reactions. People who can see past the messy feelings and sensations to the cold, hard, facts that are important.

I say this is very similar to cruelty/sadism. The sadistic mind encounters the other person’s specific pain, and draws satisfaction from the sense of mastery, control, or superiority that this gives them. As O’Brien says in 1984: how does one man assert his power over another? By making him suffer.

And then the mind that is indifferent to suffering as a point of principle encounter the other person’s specific pain. Here there is only a slight difference – the specific pain is brought under the general category of ‘messy distorting feelings’. Then this category is ignored in action through indifference to the suffering being caused. But this ignoring of it in action itself shows mastery, control, and superiority over it in general – which then provides satisfaction to the mind, understanding itself as the rational.

All that has changed is a slight internal reorganisation – instead of the specific pain of the other providing satisfaction, it is that pain as a representative of the general class of feelings. It is as if a company were to announce a shake-up of its internal structures, and then afterwards to continue to take in the same inputs, produce the same outputs, behave in the same way. Would we really believe that anything essential had changed?

What does this mean? It means that the principle of dispassion, of privileging reason over feeling, of making it a point of principle to ignore feelings – a principle which is deeply entwined with both modernity (science, and the scientification of other disciplines like economics or management) and masculinity (‘toughness’, ‘boys don’t cry’) – this principle is inherently sadistic. Its appeal is the appeal of superiority, of mastery, of power.

Does it matter that science is inherently sadistic, or something close to sadism? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s not a reason to dispense with science or reject its reliability, or an argument against it in any particular case. But nevertheless it is worth recognising, surely? Sadism may in many cases be helpful, but failing to recognise it as what it is seems likely to be very unhelpful.


I think I should clarify. The thing is that if you look over the history of science you can find a lot of what looks like cruelty. That’s not just animal experiments, and human experiments like in the USA, it’s also the way that medical professionals have often treated peole with mental illnesses, mental disabilities, mental differences, sexual deviances, etc. The same mentality also extended to workhouses and prisons in many cases. And let’s not forget the scientists who explained how the natural deficiencies of the non-white races made them fit to be subjugated, or who prescribed the proper methods of disciplining children.

Now, given that there is all this apparent cruelty that we in retrospect see as pointless (and no doubt there is still much going on now that we will in the future see the same way), defenders of science/those scientists might say in mitigation that this cruelty wasn’t ‘sadistic’, that it wasn’t inflicted for the sake of causing pain, but rather with a dispassionate and indeed noble concern for truth. My point is thus that we shouldn’t accept this as the last word. The ‘scientific’ infliction of pain on homosexuals to ‘cure’ them is not to be distinguished from more obvious cases of cruelty – it is merely a particular (and perhaps better, or worse, or whatever) variety.

EDIT AGAIN: It’s been pointed out that a better word than ‘science’ here might be ‘technocracy’. More specific, donchaknow?

14 Responses to “Cruelty, Callousness, Sadism, and Science”

  1. Francois Tremblay Says:

    More than that, the whole idea of science as being “value-neutral” is an absolute load of bollocks.

  2. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Hey Alderson, it seems to me that “science is inherently sadistic, or something close to sadism” doesn’t follow from what you’ve said before. Your claim is that “privileging reason over feeling” is “inherently sadistic”. You give examples based on actions that an individual takes with respect to another individual, but then you apply it to something totally unlike that, an epistemological viewpoint about which methods of inquiry are valid (science). I don’t think you can do this, it doesn’t make sense to me.

    I found it a little difficult to unpack what your argument was though. Is it a slippery slope argument? that once you are willing to ignore feelings in one domain (scientific inquiry) that will inevitably lead to ignoring them in other domains (human interactions)? If so, that’s a very strong claim and one that is highly inconsistent with my experiences at least. The scientists that I know are no more unfeeling than anyone else.

    Another point, where would the issue of pain and feelings even arise in scientific investigation? Surely not in theoretical physics for example, it would be silly to talk about feelings we might have about electrons for example. We might have feelings, gut instincts, about what theories are likely to be right or wrong, but I don’t see how claiming that those feelings are inadequate as a basis for judging theories could possibly lead to any unfeelingness in the domain of human interaction. Possibly one could question what was going on in the minds of the people who built the atomic bomb. But I don’t see that the epistemology of science had anything to do with that. We can (and should) question their decision, but that decision wasn’t based on anything inherent to science. They didn’t pretend that they were seeking pure knowledge about nuclear explosions and not thinking about the consequences. They knew what the consequences would be, and their decision was a decision to take an action, not a decision to find new knowledge.

    One area where you might say that the issue of pain and feelings would arise, and I have a hunch this is what was motivating you but I might be wrong, is animal experimentation. Is this what you had in mind? If so, then I think you’re being unreasonable in applying the same considerations about animal experimentation to the whole of science. Scientists have widely diverging views about animal experimentation, all the way from those who reject it completely to those who think that anything is justified (but they don’t get free rein to do this because of ethics committees). Further than that, although I don’t expect you to agree, I think it’s a reasonable point of view that animal experimentation is justifiable, but I won’t get into this argument (unless you particularly want to).


    Which ‘value’ is inherent to science? (I assume you’re talking ethical/moral values rather than epistemological ones, because for sure science is not value neutral with respect to the latter.)

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I’m not trying to say that scientific approaches necessarily lead people to behave in a crueller way. It’s like if I said that watching horror films and hang-gliding were based on the same basic motivation, exhiliration-seeking (that may not be true, I’ve never hung-glidden) – that doesn’t imply what the empirical relationship will be between the two activities, just that they have a certain ‘kinship’.

    Similarly, I think there’s a ‘kinship’ between drawing satisfaction from inflicting strong feelings on another person in a way that shows a mastery of their will, and drawing satisfaction from resolving one’s will to ‘master’ strong feelings in general. At least, I think there’s a kinship there.

    Note, this is not so much about people who engage in science because it’s useful, who put aside feelings because they are as a matter of contingent fact, unhelpful, as about the psychological satisfaction provided by the scientific approach. The ‘pay-off’ that people get from asserting that their view is the ‘scientific’ one. The ‘libidinal’ aspect of science.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I’ve edited the post to clarify what sorts of things I have in mind here.

  5. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    defenders of science/those scientists might say in mitigation that this cruelty wasn’t ’sadistic’, that it wasn’t inflicted for the sake of causing pain, but rather with a dispassionate and indeed noble concern for truth

    For sure if someone was trying to defend scientists who acted cruelly based on the idea that they were only doing it for a ‘noble concern for truth’, then by all means attack this point of view (and I’ll join you). But who is saying this about the things you mentioned? Leaving aside animal experimentation there is nobody who is trying to defend, for example, Nazi ‘racial science’. Quite the opposite, these things are not only abhorred, but as science they are ridiculed.

    There is still an ongoing debate about the ‘treatment’ of ‘mental health’ (quotation marks to recognise that even the use of these terms presupposes a potentially objectionable viewpoint). I would say in this case that (a) we’d be better off talking about medicine rather than science, and (b) the criticism is not of sadism but of a failure to understand things properly and a willingness to act without proper understanding. The distinction between medicine and science is important. There is obviously a relationship between the two, but there is a fundamental difference. Medicine aims at finding cures, not about understanding. There is something inherently technocratic about medicine, you specify a desired outcome and you do whatever it takes to achieve that. Sometimes that works well if the outcome is actually desirable and the means are not harmful, and sometimes it doesn’t work well when the outcomes are based on prejudice and the means are more harmful than the ‘cure’. On the other hand, science seeks understanding. Sometimes understanding can be used to come up with medical technologies (broadly understood as including drugs, therapies, etc.), and this is why there’s a link between the two. But it’s not a strong link. A huge amount of medicine is based on just trying stuff and observing statistically that some things ‘work’ (produce the desired outcomes), but without knowing why. We don’t even know, for example, if anaesthetics stop people from feeling pain, or just stop them being able to either take actions or remember the pain. (There’s a philosophical issue about whether or not there’s even a meaningful distinction between these two possibilities.)

    The ’scientific’ infliction of pain on homosexuals to ‘cure’ them is not to be distinguished from more obvious cases of cruelty

    And this is a case in point. There are innumerable things you can criticise here. For a start, you can criticise the decision to define homosexuality as a disorder. This decision doesn’t relate to science in any way, except that (some) scientists (possibly only self-styled) were willing to go along with it. Francois dismissed the idea that science is ‘value-neutral’, but if it really were you would expect to see cases of individual scientists who were against homosexuality and ones who weren’t because that’s what you saw with non-scientists. And that’s exactly what you did see. So I agree that this infliction of pain is not to be distinguished from other cases.

    For sure science doesn’t stop people from inflicting pain on others, but neither does it make it more likely. Incidentally, I would make a similar argument about belief in God. But that’s another story.

    that doesn’t imply what the empirical relationship will be between the two activities, just that they have a certain ‘kinship’.

    But what purpose do you want to put this observation of a ‘kinship’ to? I mean, there’s millions of ‘kinships’ in some abstract sense, and almost all of them are completely meaningless. For example, there’s a kinship between vegetarianism and anti-abortionism that’s fairly obvious. Is it a useful one worth remarking?

    The ‘pay-off’ that people get from asserting that their view is the ’scientific’ one. The ‘libidinal’ aspect of science.

    I think I see what you’re getting at now. But I don’t think that one can identify this as a feature of science, but as a feature of a certain type of person. In another age, or even in this age, the same type of person would have been asserting that their view was the right one as ordained by God. It’s a notable feature of some of the New Atheists, Hitchens and Harris in particular.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “I don’t think that one can identify this as a feature of science, but as a feature of a certain type of person”
    Well, I think perhaps we’re thinking about different things and using the same word. You’re talking about ‘science’ as a principle, as something abstracted from what humans do in the name of science. I’m talking about ‘science’ as a historical and social phenomenon, a sort of worldview, mentality, and organisation that has characterised ‘modern’ societies and extends to many areas beyond ‘pure science’ – such as labour policy, prisons, or even statist socialism, for instance. The idea of ‘scientific socialism’ became a tool of great destruction in the hands of Lenin and Stalin.

    I’m willing to grant that this human psychology and history perhaps bears no relation to abstracted ‘science’ as you mean it. On whether science is value-neutral, I’ll plead ignorance of how the phrase is meant to be taken. For some definitions it can be made true, for others false.

  7. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I think a better word for what you’re describing is ‘technocracy’. The use of mathematical and scientific methods as a form of social control. I think this is a much better word to use because first of all it better characterises the essence of the problem, and secondly because there is already a great deal of interesting work and thought about technocracy. I wouldn’t object at all if you criticised technocracy, and implicated many scientists as technocrats or of exhibiting technocratic behaviour.

    Technocracy is actually a subject I’m very much interested in. I even had an (ultimately abortive) project to get young scientists from diverse fields to each write a chapter for a book on the technocratic social aspects of their field.

    You’re talking about ’science’ as a principle, as something abstracted from what humans do in the name of science.

    I’m not just talking about it as a pure abstraction though. There are and were many, many individuals in science who are opposed to the technocratic application of science. Probably the large majority of them in fact.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Hmmm, yes, that may indeed be a better word. *rolls it around the mouth tentatively*

  9. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Dan | thesamovar seems extremely optimistic about the nature of scientists and seems to believe that they are somehow more responsible than the rest of the population. I don’t think this is the case.

  10. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    Not at all. As I said, they are no more or less ‘responsible’ than everyone else.

  11. Francois Tremblay Says:

    Then how else can we explain such a comment you made?

    “There are and were many, many individuals in science who are opposed to the technocratic application of science. Probably the large majority of them in fact.”

    Since when does a large majority of “everyone” examine their place in society and critically judge their own work?

    PROTIP: They don’t.

  12. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I was originally going to add an “or would be if they knew about and understood the concept” clause to that first sentence. The point I was trying to get at was that science and scientists are not intrinsically technocratic, it’s politicians and civil servants that use science and the jargon of science as part of a technocratic form of governance. The reason that science isn’t technocratic intrinsically is that it doesn’t specify what sorts of actions one ought to take, it only specifies how you assess knowledge. A crucial aspect of technocracy is that it specifies the desired outcomes and takes actions. One can on the other hand certainly criticise scientists for not knowing about technocracy and by their ignorance allow themselves to be used as an agent of social control (indeed that was the point of the book I had in mind to write/edit). I suspect you won’t find that a satisfactory response though.

  13. huh Says:

    Does science lead to mass murder and genocide? Let’s take a look:

    Crusades – caused by religion. Not science
    Conquest of Americas – caused by religion. Not science
    WW1 – caused by imperialism. Not science
    WW2 – caused by imperialism. Not science
    Holocaust – caused by nazism. Not science
    Collectivization – caused by communism. Not science
    Great Leap Forward – caused by communism. Not science
    Cambodian genocide – caused by communism. Not science

    Wow, that’s a whole lot of genocides and all of them were caused by RELIGION or POLITICS none of them by science. What a big surprise!!

    Now let’s see what SCIENCE brought to the world:

    Fritz Haber & Carl Bosch – saved 2,720,000,000 lives by invention of synthetic fertiliser
    Karl Landsteiner & Richard Lewisohn – saved 1,094,000,000 lives by invention of blood transfusions
    Edward Jenner – saved 530,000,000 lives by invention of vaccination of smallpox

    So just these 5 scientists alone saved 4.34 billion lives. I think that refutes any argument you may have made.

  14. Kashif Ansari Says:

    cruelty begins in the heart where all things start in the first place. it has nothing to do with the government or the capitalist pigs or terrorists. a single man can cause havoc by morally and emotionally exploding at some point in his life due to a breaking point triggered by mental illness that is not treated right. while a whole nation could end up hostage to the cruelty of imperialism imposed from above by a superpower. culture is meant to grow from homely roots and not by being spoonfed to the masses by an elite that kowtows to higher ups. the reason behind so much violence and rude behavior is wounds and humiliations inflicted by well meaning parents, teachers, peers and most of all ordinary citizens who don’t give a damn either way. youth is always uncouth and only learns too late that the behavior it showed when young will be turned in its own direction when it enters old age itself. therefore have a heart that beats in your chest and think of the pain someone feels when you hurt their feelings. for though he or she may not show it outwardly, ultimately it will have fallout in the form of hurt individuals and grudges being nursed by society’s dispossessed.

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