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I recently read a paper in the journal "Analysis" titled, "Can one be cruel to a chair?". This got me thinking, can people be cruel to nonsentient objects? I believe that, while one can have harmful intentions toward nonsentient objects, one can't be cruel per se, because cruelty requires consciousness for the thing being cruel towards. But what have philosophers thought about this topic?

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    I wonder why do you consider this an interesting question. Could you provide some motivation or background?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 21 at 20:35
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    Robinson's paper references about 20 authors and papers. I assume that at least some of them answer your question "But what have philosophers thought about this topic?" Have you already studied these references?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Mar 21 at 21:44
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    I often joke about torturing SQL Server with my weird and complex crosstab report statements. But it's probably not even breaking a sweat. "I laugh at your silly queries!"
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 21 at 21:51
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    I find it strange and a little sad that the body of this post mentions a paper dedicated to answering the question at hand, yet neither the question nor any of the answers acknowledge the contents of that paper whatsoever (or any of the surrounding work, as Jo Wehler pointed out in an earlier comment).
    – Carmeister
    Commented Mar 22 at 20:34
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    Ask Elvis (unless you consider hearts to be sentient). Commented Mar 23 at 0:51

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Metaphorically, sure, but not literally. Cruelty is an indifference to pain and suffering. Objects like rocks and trees don't suffer pain. Therefore, by definition one can only be cruel to that which experiences pain and suffering.

EDIT

2024-03-25 Added link to Britannica article on why plants do NOT feel pain.

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    "trees don't suffer pain" I disagree. Acacia trees produce a chemical reaction when they are damaged that signals tells the ant colony living inside of the tree to come out and start attacking the thing that damaged the tree. And in fact all trees have chemical responses that travel throughout the entire tree when damaged. And they can pass that message on to neighboring trees.
    – Questor
    Commented Mar 22 at 20:19
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    @JD What is awareness? Trees are able to send chemical signals across large areas (see birch/fig trees and mycorrhizal networks.. They are even capable of sharing nutrients thru that network. And they can send information about disease/ insect attacks/ and fires to other connected trees, which change their behavior in response to the signals...
    – Questor
    Commented Mar 22 at 20:45
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    @Questor Well, that's simple. Kick a person in a shin, and she'll kick back. Tell a dad joke, and you might get a laugh. Insult a person's mother and see the dislike on the face of the person. Trees can do none of this. You ask the question. It's not what is awareness, but rather which form of awareness are we talking about. Cutting down a tree is not cruelty because trees are not human aware and do not suffer like higher-order animals. It's a fun theoretical exercise to stretch definitions, but terms are only so elastic before becoming absurd.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 22 at 23:57
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    @JD I vehemently disagree on the basis that with all those examples, you are essentially defining the subjective experience of another based on your personal subjective interpretation of events which seems to be highly dissonant reasoning. Your definition would deem a person with locked in syndrome as suddenly incapable of suffering. What you describe would not be unlike a teenager being heartbroken over a trivial break-up and an adult declaring that what the teenager is feeling isn't really heartbreak on the basis no adult would be heartbroken over such a minor thing.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 24 at 4:16
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    @JD Not when it is so easy to defeat the so-called feasible reasoning.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Mar 24 at 6:42
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One conceivable scenario is akin to the impossibility defense in law: Are you guilty of a crime if you are trying to murder an already dead body, convinced they are alive? After all, this is factually not even an attempt.

In many countries, the law considers this a crime nonetheless. It turns out that the law is not only concerned with factual violations, it is also concerned with the state of mind of the perpetrator. Lacking malice often mitigates the punishment, as in imperfect self-defense; in the case of an attempt to murder a dead body, the malice is prominent enough to justify punishment even in the absence of any damaged party.

Cruelty, after all, is a state of mind. As such, it is independent of the material world, even though it usually manifests in material or psychological actions against people or animals. Therefore, a moral argument can be made regarding cruelty against objects, especially if the perpetrator assigns some degree of personhood to the object, as we humans frequently do. We become emotionally attached to objects which surround us. For example, we give them names and are sad when they break. Spiritually or esoterically inclined people may actually be delusional enough to assign personhood to objects. Needling a puppet in a Voodoo ceremony would be an example of a similar delusion, and consequently cruelty. Children may torture their dolls.

In the end, any behavior towards inanimate objects which would be considered cruel if it were animated may be considered cruel if the perpetrator draws satisfaction from it. Such behavior would expose a state of mind which is enough of a deviation from the norm to label it cruel.

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    When you stub your toe on something, you might react by calling it names, as if it intentionally caused your accident. Or if your car breaks down, you'll lash out at it.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:23
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    @Barmar Kind of the opposite of the old, "I refute it thus!" idea.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 15:03
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    This makes me think of the movie Cast Away. Imagine if someone murdered Wilson. Commented Mar 22 at 20:10
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    @Barmar - like this? Commented Mar 24 at 19:14
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Certainly! Humans have tendency to anthropomorphize things, including inanimate objects or even non-substantial things. Since, as you pointed out, cruelty requires harmful intent, not just harmful consequences per se, cruelty is subjective. As such, is perfectly reasonable to consider cruelty towards inanimate objects, as if the object had feelings that could be hurt and the person being cruel intentionally wishes to hurt the object.

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  • Maybe we could be nicer to people too, even if we can't understand their different experience?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:57
  • I had a coworker who would bring stuffed animals to work, and I always threw cruel false accusations at them. Poor things. But my coworker was always a step ahead of me and had an answer for everything. Commented Mar 24 at 22:54
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How do you define "sentience"? Is it binary or are there degrees of sentience?

Scientists conduct experiments on "lower" animals all the time: rabbits, mice, chimpanzees, fish, clams, etc. I recognize that there are people who are concerned about animal experimentation, and I do not discount that belief. Some of these people object to experimentation on mammals but not on non-mammalian vertebrates, and some object to experiments on vertebrates but not invertebrates.

I recall PETA got mad when somebody wanted to study the structure of an ant's nest so he poured molten aluminum down the entrances, effectively killing every living thing in that nest. Getting drowned in molten aluminum is a pretty quick way to die.

As I wrote my comment above, I was going to write a tautology such as "All living things are things". You mentioned a chair. When the trees were killed to make the wood to make a wooden chair, did they experience pain? You cannot prove that trees do not experience pain, and I do not know how to demonstrate that they do. All living things die, and since death is inevitable, then perhaps the state of mind of whatever kills the living thing is really what's important.

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    "If a fir tree had a foot or two or a wing, like a turtle or a bird, do you think it would just stand there waiting for the saw to enter?" - Rumi - You are correct, your state of mind is very important.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 10:33
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    @ScottRowe If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason. -- Jack Handey :-)
    – SusanW
    Commented Mar 22 at 17:56
  • @SusanW babies on a plane? I bring noise-cancelling headphones, but parents just lose their hearing, I guess. I wasn't a fan of Screaming Trees, but I liked The Ramones.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 19:30
  • @ScottRowe I assure you, parents do not lose their hearing. Please do not confuse "unaware" with "inability" or "incompetence". Parents are aware, very aware, that their baby is screaming. Most of the time, they are unable to do anything about it, and they have decided that the child's discomfort is worth the price compared to the alternatives. There are incompetent parents who choose not to be aware, and there are incompetent parents who could do something but they are incompetent so they don't. Commented Mar 26 at 9:11
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    Yes, I skipped over having children. I have a sharp loss above 3 kHz in one ear, a bike tire exploded near my head while I was filling it as a child. No crickets on that side, and I can't direction locate high pitches with just one good ear, but it's not a serious impairment. Data centers, all those whirring fans I guess? We've started trying to make workers protect their hearing. Someone said, "Blindness separates you from things but deafness separates you from people."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 28 at 10:44
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If "cruelty" includes abusive behavior, then yes- it happens all the time. My favorite example is the youtube video of a skateboarder who wipes out spectacularly, and then picks up his board and slams it against a power pole. It then bounces off and strikes him squarely in the head.

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    But that's not abusive behaviour in the sense we apply to people. It's gratuitous damage to the board, sure. But it's not abuse in the sense of abuse to a person. It's only abuse in the older meaning of the word of "not being used correctly".
    – Graham
    Commented Mar 22 at 7:28
  • It is notable that bad behavior has a tendency to 'redound' against the perpetrator, even without an agent to cause that. Wrong things are often wrong for multiple reasons. Being angry while using tools can result in damage to the work, which one might care about, and harm to self.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 10:52
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    @Graham But he's doing it partly because he's anthropomorphizing the board, treating it as if it had intentionally caused the wipeout. If you kick your car when it breaks down, you're doing the same thing.
    – Barmar
    Commented Mar 22 at 14:27
  • @Barmar right, the action is based on blaming, with an attribution that the object had a goal of harming you. The imputed motive is one step further than the cruel action, and the blame is further than that. No wonder the Buddha said we are all lost in delusion.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 22 at 15:01
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Yes. I think we can and do be cruel to objects. But it is pretend cruelty. We recognize that we are playing and pretending.

Kids blowing up GIJoe's with firecrackers, or playing Barbie and have Ken cheat on Barbie and cause a big 'ol pretend fight with blaming and crying and hurt feelings.

It is pretend, it is play, but it is also potentially practice, and desensitization.

It can also be "processing" and "working through", therapeutic. Or "experimenting to explore scenarios and outcomes". Researching and learning.

Or just plain old entertainment. See how high GIJoe can fly.

The "cruelty" is there. It is not experienced by the non-animate objects. But it is there. Not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps. Sometimes we teach ourselves by viewing "What not to do" scenarios.

There is a "time-loop" plotstyle movie called Palm Springs. In it, one scene sees one of the trapped time-loopers being cruel to a third party (which will not remember the cruelty the next day/the future.

Niles (the other person trapped looping says "Don't do that, don't be cruel".

Sarah says "Why not, nothing matters, they won't remember, this won't have happened."

Niles says "But we do. We remember. We see it all in our memories still. It can't be who we are, it will change us if we become that".

Which I thought was interesting. A puts a different spin on things when I am blowing jumbo jets out of the sky with rocket launchers or flying them into buildings playing while playing GTA5. It makes me think about it more. (lol)

Another movie, called Free Guy mostly takes place within a made-up for the movie virtual world game called "Free City". This movie has AI driven non-player characters. So the game explores their existence, and public interaction with non-player-characters. And public reaction when they become self-aware. Making it an interesting exploration of cruelty to "artificially sentient" identities that can't even claim the characteristic of "object" or "real" per se.

The question is interesting.

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    It's been shown that the mind can't distinguish actual from as-if. Also, it doesn't distinguish violence directed at another from violence impacting self. "The self perceives all actions to be self-directed" or something like that, I don't know how to find the exact reference just now in psych literature. So, you are sanding down your empathy and concern for other (and yourself!) with every moment of doing 'pretend' or inadvertent violent or abusive things. You are part of all that is. There is not a 'you' and a 'them'. That said, people do need to be able to try things out and practice.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 26 at 10:55

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