Cruelty is not a virtue

Some comments on the sinful psychology that, at least for some, is helping to drive demands for "vaccination passports" and the like along.

(There are some suggestions at the bottom of this post if the problem itself is so obvious that you don’t care to read about it first.)

I wanted to write a quick post today to name a problem I’ve seen all over social media these last two weeks. I have personally had several interactions go like this:

  1. Person says something remarkably cruel about the “unvaccinated”, wishes harm upon them or suggests denying them medical care, or otherwise delights in the prospect of making the life of such people as miserable as possible by denying them access to as many public services as possible. (And it is central to my point here that such thoughts are enjoyable to them.)

  2. I point out that what is going on here is that cruelty to the designated out-group is its own pleasure. In fact they will even cheer along the loss of basic freedoms and contradict principles that were ostensibly very important to them just yesterday to gain that psychological and sinful pleasure today. Would-be tyrants should take note at how easy it was to move the mob. Although they don’t really care all that much about improving the situation, they do have that excuse, which allows them to label their sneering as, in fact, righteousness. “Punish the out-group, fire them, kick them out of public venues, double their healthcare costs!” but they’re only saying that because they love humanity so much and want the best for everyone.

  3. If confronted, they say something like “but in this case the out-group deserves it”, which is definitely not what people have always thought about the out-group. And that is also central to my point here. When confronted (in the conversations I’ve had), they don’t deny that they have this attitude, but rather argue that it is justified in this circumstance. (And that, perhaps more than anything else, is what motivated me to write this post. “Yes, but being cruel to my neighbor is what they deserve right now, it’s justified!” is a dark road to start traveling down but that is exactly what I’m seeing regularly on social media right now.)

Possibly related:

Mainly I just wanted to name the problem. Two quotations that have been passed around during the pandemic come to mind again, but I’ll share them again. The first is from C.S. Lewis from The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment (I bet you haven’t seen an Angelfire link in a decade):

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Now my only “objection” to that quotation, for this post, is that Lewis does seem to be speaking more about the behavior of the rulers. Throughout this pandemic, yes, the behavior of the state has often been abysmal, but I expect the state to be always about gobbling up more power for itself. That’s not a surprise. I’ve been more “fascinated”, if that’s the right word, to see all the people cheering it on. That is a more interesting and more significant human phenomenon. But the explanation is parallel. The torment is for the good of society and is therefore justified. They’re just trying to improve the behavior of the out-group for the benefit of everyone.

And then, although I have never actually read Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley and am therefore loathe to quote from it lest the context totally upsets the quotation, we’ve all seen this passed around and it seems quite verified in our moment:

The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior 'righteous indignation' — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.

That is exactly what is happening right now. They get to behave badly and call that bad behavior righteousness. And it’s a great pleasure. I guess Huxley was at least right about that.

Are there any lessons here, though? I’ll offer a few thoughts:

  1. Modern Christianity is often (rightly, I think) criticized for being so focused on the individual to the neglect of larger societal concerns… but here is a situation where focus on individual virtue is actually appropriate. Because what people are saying is “my cruelty toward those people over there is justified because that cruelty is aimed toward improving society as a whole”. I think it is perfectly correct to rebuke those people for their personal cruelty regardless of their ostensible larger aim.

  2. There is an alternate universe out there where public health and political leaders recognize that setting neighbor against neighbor and encouraging sinful instincts is a failure that is actually worse than disease spread. And, actually, if you want a Christianity that is more engaged with the world and that “speaks truth to power”… here is a great truth to speak to power. You, leaders, have failed, and you have failed not only because your efforts to contain a disease failed, but also because you encouraged the worst instincts in man along the way. Good Christians leaders should watch and see if their efforts are having the side effect of encouraging vice. Other leaders who have been informed enough by common grace to care or who, alternatively, fear the populace can have this pointed out to them.

  3. Ultimately, shocker here, people need the gospel. Generally speaking, a people who have forgotten God can justify any behavior they want to justify. We face the strange situation of trying to argue from Christian principles in a nation that sort of respects them and has certainly been greatly influenced by them but barely remembers them anymore. It is easy to see how the present situation becomes worse and worse. I do think it ends in disaster or revival. We can work for revival.