...written for the purpose of sharing knowledge gained from Phillip Hallie's essay on ethics, From Cruelty to Goodness.

what is cruelty?

It is easy for folks to throw around terms like "cruel" and "kind" without talking about specifically what we mean. There are many types of cruelty and many types of kindness. There is that which is good and moral, and that which is evil and immoral.

There are larger forms of cruelty that are functions of society as a whole. Phillip Hallie, in his piece, From Cruelty to Goodness, defines cruelty on a smaller scale, and also identifies institutional cruelty, and what its remedy may be.

While cruelty itself is derived from the Latin crudus, or "bloodshed", Hallie dismisses this definition as inadequate because it does not define all that which we would define as cruel. That is, not all cruelty is defined by the sole fact of shedding of blood.

Adapting the previous term, Hallie tests the idea of cruelty being "the tendency to inflict pain." But this definition is considered too superficial. People can inflict physical pain upon us, but this fades away--physical damage passes and we can remember being damaged, but the pain itself is not so vivid to be completely recalled.

Thus, when cruelty is inflicted, it stays with us. Emotional pain can be recalled; we remember our embarassment, humiliation, and pain that maims our dignity and crushes our self-respect. When we are demeaned by others, cruelty remains to be recalled and relived.

substantial and institutional

Hallie calls this "substantial cruelty" and uses it to define larger, systematic trends we would call cruel. This criterium, along with three others, defines what is referred to as institutional cruelty.

The second identifier of institutional cruelty is that the cruelty is built into our social institutions. Examples of these institutions include the political system, religion, and economics. Using queer-identified folks as an example, there are sodomy laws in the United States that make it illegal to perform certain sex acts between two consenting adults. These laws put institutional pressure on a matter that many would consider private, and attack the dignity of the individuals by preventing them from making consentual decisions on their own.

Note that this requires cruel groups; there is no individual who is an institution.

This example can be extended to include the third criteria of institutional cruelty: the process operates at the edge of awareness. It is easy for society at large to ignore these problems, although most folks have some knowledge of the issue at hand. One can lift ones hands and place them at the periphery of one's vision and ignore them, but the fact remains that they are there. Issues of institutional cruelty lie similarly on the margin.

The last prerequisite of institutional cruelty is that there is a power differential. Those performing cruel acts must have power over those upon whom the cruelty is inflicted. A simple definition of power is that it is the ability to accomplish one's goals. Institutional cruelty is only institutional cruelty so long as the dominant group has the power to inflict that cruelty upon its victims.

what is the opposite?

Defining institutional cruelty is easier than identifying the opposite of it. Hallie argues that one cannot simply remove the power imbalance--while this may end the cruelty, the repercussions still exist. This fact means that the cruelty done remains; the dignity of the victims is still maimed by the cruelty inflicted.

Many would be quick to say that kindness is the opposite of cruelty. However, if that kindness is occuring within the context of that larger institutional cruelty, that action, too, may be considered cruel. This process is referred to as "the gilded chain", as the cruelty is still present, despite some gesture of kindness.

As an aside, this point is what causes some feminists, Marilyn Frye, for instance, to argue against such behavior as men opening the door for women. Frye believes that women are oppressed by men, that this institutional cruelty is present, and that some simple acts of kindness accomplish nothing except helping women move around in the cage which confines them.

Kindness within that context can raise questions within the victims of institutional cruelty. Some women ask why these kind gestures are being performed, when the men could better spend their time helping end the institutionalized oppression of women. A kind act does not restore the dignity of the individual that the kindness is bestowed upon.

Hallie decides that the opposite of this cruelty is hospitality, which he describes as unsentimental, efficacious love. Hospitality is unsentimental, because one does not act out of pity; pity implies a power difference. We feel pity for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and pity is a temporary emotion that passes.

Hospitality must also be effective; that is, if the acts are not effective at restoring the victims' dignity and self-respect, then it is not hospitality.

The term 'love' is used here because Hallie would argue that one can only love an equal. Power differentials do not exist between true equals, and Hallie would also assume that love includes respect for those that are loved. Dignity is acknowledged, and self-respect is restored.

an example of goodness

So we have the terminology--hospitality--but what is an example?

Hallie tells us about the villagers of Le Chambon, a French village, and their behavior during World War II. The villagers of Le Chambon did not pick up a gun, did not fight the Nazis as we consider fighting.

As Jews fled Germany and occupied nations, the villagers of Le Chambon gave them a home. Literally. While other nations and cities and towns turned away Jews, whether for political reasons or because they felt they needed their resources to themselves, these villagers did the opposite.

When a new Jewish family came to town, the villagers would build them a house or provide them lodging within one of their own homes. When the new family settled in, a wreath would be left on their door. There would be no tag on the wreath saying from whom it came, because it came from the entire village--they were welcomed into the entire community.

Hallie calls this hospitality because the villagers recognized the needs of those Jewish people to be equal to their own. They did not act out of pity; their actions demonstrated only respect and what Hallie would call love.

These actions helped to restore the self-respect of those who had been dehumanized, demonized, and mistreated--those folks were the victims of institutional cruelty. The Jews who found refuge in Le Chambon are known to be the most well-adjusted of those who had to face the horrors of the Holocaust. This fact alone implies that the love demonstrated by those villagers truly served to restore the dignity and self-respect that had been lost; those people were not only freed, but healed.

From Cruelty to Goodness, by Phillip Hallie, is available in many different places. If one is interested in seeing the document in its original form, rather than analyzed here, it can be found in any good reference book about ethics, and could also likely be found online with Google.

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