Why are human beings cruel?

Posted on April 21, 2019

It may be hard to understand the precise origins of human cruelty, but the harm our actions cause to non-human animals need not be difficult to change writes End Animal Slaughter’s SANDRA KYLE.

There are a number of theories about why human beings exhibit cruel behaviour.   Christian fundamentalists say that our troubles started when Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden apple leading to The Fall, while scientists assert cruelty is more likely to be the result of our evolutionary past.  

 Many psychologists maintain that in order to be cruel to others we have to ‘dehumanize’ them, as with the institution of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews in the Second World War.  

There is a famous social psychology experiment conducted in the 1960s, known as The Milgram experiment.  Stanley Milgrim and his team recruited 40 men to participate in an experiment on ‘memory and learning’.    The subjects were from a diverse range of occupations and varying levels of education, and were told that they would be paid for their participation, no matter what the outcome.   One by one the men were taken into a room and placed in front of a control panel that ostensibly delivered electric shocks to other participants (actors, actually), who were located elsewhere in the building.   Standing beside them was an official looking ‘scientist’ in a white coat carrying a clipboard and making notes.  As he instructed the men to steadily increase the amount of voltage to near fatal level, every one of the subjects did so.    Delivering what they believed to be real electric shocks the men showed signs of tension and stress, sometimes severe, but even though they could hear the screams from the other room they did it anyhow.

Milgrim experiment on obedience to authority

 Milgrim’s research was considered evidence that German soldiers in concentration camps were only able to carry out such atrocities against the inmates because of unquestioning obedience and deference to authority.

It is doubtful that there is a ‘silver bullet’ for understanding cruel behaviour however.  Sometimes acts of cruelty come from our sense of justice and outrage.   We may want to hurt and punish others, because they have hurt us or those we love.   Included in expressions of cruelty by humans to other humans are some motivated by extreme racial biases.  A recent example of this is the recent Christchurch massacre by a single gunman of peaceful Muslims praying in their mosques.

Some of these theories of cruelty may bear more weight than others, but it could be that pinpointing where cruelty in human nature comes from may be a difficult, and even pointless, exercise.   As human beings we are a bundle of characteristics, and thankfully, along with the potential for cruelty, there is a great capacity for empathy, compassion, kindness and caring.

When it comes to other animals who we know feel pain and fear just like us, the majority of humans would not directly hurt them.    We love our pets, who we think of as members of our family.  Yet there are many animals we continue to hurt indirectly, and this is widespread and sanctioned as normal behaviour. Eating the flesh of animals is an example, especially those that have led lives of torture in factory farms. 

In order to continue with behaviours that deep down we know hurt sentient beings,  we are forced to rationalize, and live with ‘cognitive dissonance’.    Eating meat isn’t cruel because…  Wearing wool isn’t cruel because….  Testing on animals isn’t cruel because…. Having a flutter on the racetrack isn’t cruel because….  I don’t want to think about it… so I’ll think about something else instead.   

To overcome these tendencies in ourselves we have to be ruthlessly honest and courageous enough to change the harmful behaviours we engage in.  As far as cruelty to other animals is concerned, we need to put ourselves in the place of the sentient being our actions are harming.  There may have been a time when we needed to eat and otherwise exploit other animals, but that is certainly no longer true.   If we stop indirectly hurting animals, we will not only become happier and more peaceful human beings, but also develop a sense of wonder and appreciation for all Life.  Refusing to change our behaviours on the other hand, means we continue to be a direct link to their egregious suffering and premature deaths.  Knowing how much they suffer I think the choice is clear. We have to stop hurting other animals.


  • Debbie Nelson says:

    Another well thought out and written essay. Education is the key. I’m so sick of humans saying I just can’t watch it ( slaughter abuse etc.) and go ahead and buy the animal product .Don’t let them fool you they know what’s going on or they would watch the evidence. Can’t think for themselves. I could rant on and on.

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