I'm not well versed in philosophy, which is why I'm asking, so feel free to tell me if I'm going at this in the wrong way.

Is there any particular school of ethics that could justify cruel treatment (as in causing severe physical or emotional pain and/or injuries) of other people?

The infamous medical experiments made in the Nazi concentraion camps during the second world war comes to mind, certainly the people in charge can't all have been void of emotion and empathy. They must have justified their actions some way.

From another point of view, corporations that makes the labour force work under very dangerous circumstances with minimal pay, the people in charge there must also justify their actions somehow.

I thought it would be interesting to know if this kind of reasoning belonged somewhere "academically" or what you would call it.

  • Welcome! Please note that "cruel treatment" is somewhat subjective. Can you specify the concern here a bit more clearly? Maybe you could also tell us a little more about your context here -- what might you be reading or studying that makes this concern an interesting or urgent one for you? What might you have found out so far?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Jan 11, 2012 at 22:42
  • It's actually a thought that just occured to me, about the same time I noticed this part of StackExchange existed. I just wanted to know a bit more if there is some "legitimate" ethical reasoning that justifies causing severe physical or emotional pain to another person. I guess I'm assuming that it's wrong from the start, and was wondering about exceptions to the "rule".
    – spektre
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 0:31
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    A trivial example would be the "spare the rod, spoil the child" school of parenting. It advocates physical punishment for children (sometimes very extreme) in an effort to better the child.
    – apoorv020
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 9:54

6 Answers 6


Consequentialism not only admits but advocates cruel treatment in exactly those cases where there is an overall benefit. Depending on whether it is plain-vanilla utilitarianism or something more sophisticated, exactly what situations call for cruel treatment of some individuals will vary. If your objective is to minimize the suffering of those who suffer the most, you will only, for example, advocate moderate torture of a criminal who knows where a bunch of innocent people are being held and are being tortured severely.

There are lots and lots of considerations that I won't go into here regarding to what extent different measures of what is good are justified, and what the framework should be given that it has to apply to real humans (with limited ability to make carefully-reasoned snap judgments and be entirely impartial), but theoretically, the answer is a resounding yes in principle.

The reason why this sort of thing is not done more seems to be a combination of both suffering and causing suffering pretty widely being accepted as the opposite of good (so you try to avoid it), and a lack of sufficiently dire situations where one would legitimately have to consider doing something truly horrific in order to avoid something even more horrific.

  • Yes! This looks like exactly the answer I was looking for. Thanks!
    – spektre
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 16:49

Referring to your comment in answer to Joseph Wiessman's question (in comment), Legitimacy in ethical reasoning is also quite subjective. Your example of the Nazi camps is a particularly poignant example where those who could did engage in barbarism and cruelty from our point of view, yet legitimized their actions based on their own views perhaps that their prisoners were considered animals and a belief that they might have deserved nothing less. History shows us that the Allies won the war, the Nazi's didn't, so it's a moot point as to which point of view was subjectively more correct given we do not live today under the influence of years of further historical cruelty had the other side won, and that thankfully neither you nor I were taught in school to accept the Nazi point of view.

Your assumptions that such behavior is "wrong from the start" is ultimately formed from a cultural and historical perspective. So to are the behaviors of Sunni vs Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia. You and I might not agree with the way in which the Arab world live, but neither do they agree with our way of life. We see much of their approach to corporal punishments and their treatment of women to be "cruel" and immoral from a certain point of view, yet from much of the Arab world's point of view, we are meant to be the immoral ones.

When it comes to corporations in our own countries on the other hand, the waters get a little muddier, and perhaps from our own moral perspective, a little dirtier. There seems to be a collective forgetfulness among the heads of really big corporations. They know ultimately that they have people building their products in places they wouldn't want to know about, yet they take no responsibility for any cruelty committed in such places because as far as the corporate heads are concerned, it was someone else's problem. They can argue that 'it was a subsidiary', they were 'outsourcing', and that if it happened in another country, then that outsourced labor happened under the jurisdiction of another country's labor laws. The corporate heads don't have to know, don't want to know, and therefore they don't feel a need to concern themselves about such matters. You and I might think that their moral compasses are a little out of whack, but for these very rich and powerful individuals, that's beyond the realm of their concern.

If on the other hand the "cruel sweatshop" was discovered in their own back yards, you'd likely see a very different story, and depending on the individual either genuine concern for the well being of individuals loosely connected to them, or perhaps concern that they might get in trouble, and so behave as expected in order to cover their backsides. Again a lot of very individual and subjective reasoning is going to occur there.

I guess that the point I'm trying to make is that these corporations supposedly exist under our laws, and most likely governed by individuals from similar cultural backgrounds to ourselves, so to us their actions (or lack thereof) might seem to be out of the norm, or perhaps even worse to us because it may seem to attack the fabric of our own core beliefs.

As to which philosophical school of thought all of this falls under... nearest I can get it to is perhaps Kantianism or Deontological.. but perhaps one of the more well-versed students of philosophy might be able to come up with a better match for you.

  • Very good answer, I think you did a good job in filling in some blanks too. I understand fully that my cultural heritage affects my view. I guess my interest in the question is to learn more about ethical reasoning that's quite different to what I'm used to. I'll look into Kantianism some more, it seems to be something in the right direction at first glance.
    – spektre
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 10:43

This question could go under the category of penal system studies. They hold that if the torture is the consequence of the action and thereby receives a punishment, that punishment does not amount to torture. For example, one who is confined in a small cell in prison but suffers due to the fact that he likes to walk in gardens and parks is not a subject of cruelty since he is receiving what he is due as a result of his crime.

But this potentially problematic because it could open the way for abuse. For instance, during the 1970s, some Irish Republican activists were tortured by British police to reveal the time and place of some bombs based on the idea that their suffering is the consequence of having information that can endanger the lives of innocents or otherwise save those lives.

The second way in which the cruel treatment of people is often justified, at least in the industrialised world, is with regard to the institutionalisation or incarceration of the mentally ill. Inmates become systematically subjected to cruel behaviour in order to stabilise their anger or emotions. For example, they receive dirty, emotionally hurting insults to become angry if it is deemed necessary, or they receive extremely painful shocks. Moreover, they are detained for an open-ended period of time. If one becomes detained after a drunken brawl, the sentence might last only a week. But if an assessment shows that the brawl was a result of his being mentally ill, he might be confined for a life time. A case of that is a man still incarcerated in a secured mental hospital for more than a decade for slapping his wife. As he keeps insisting that he is not regretful, they believe he is a danger to the society since normal people should feel regret, and therefore can be released from prison after only a week for the payment of a fine. A team of lawyers accompanied by Professor Thomas Szasz, and Dr. John Breeding tried to get him released, but the court rejected their defence. This kind of argument is becoming increasingly prevalent in the US and is significantly increasing the number of potential prisoners.

  • 1
    This is a good answer, and you shouldn't feel shy about adding a new answer of your own as long as you have something new to add that isn't already in one of the other answers. While making a few minor grammar corrections, my eye caught your mention of Thomas Szasz; definitely a very relevant thinker to investigate when researching questions such as this one. As his work draws significantly upon the thoughts of the French historian Michel Foucault, it might also be worth reading both Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization as well. Two of my favorites to be sure! Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 8:29

The infamous medical experiments made in the Nazi concentraion camps during the second world war comes to mind, certainly the people in charge can't all have been void of emotion and empathy. They must have justified their actions some way.

Concerning your wondering here. During the Nurember trials these guys that you reason that they couldn't be void of compasion, claimed that they were following orders.
They did not stick to the "philosophy" of doing something bad to achieve a greater good.
Had they actually believed some philosophy of life as you assume, they should plea guilty for believing it, same as Socrates refused to not take the conium when his student Crixus told him that he can help him escape.

Now, for example if someone is a child malestor one could say he should be executed for the benefit of society. Or even delivered to the child's family to be tortured.
Other could think that these decisions violate the criminal's rights.

But I am not sure where are you getting at with your question.

Because if we seriously consider that someone should be hurt for a greater cause, who can justify who would be the one holding the gun and who should be shot?


The experiments done by those other than Mengele on prisoners by the Germans saved more lives than they cost. The main purpose was to determine how long a person could live in ice-cold water before they died. This was to know how long the planes would have to search for a downed German pilot, as a function of the temperature of the water.

The data was collected by plunging Jew after Jew into ice water, until they each froze to death, at different temperatures, while monitoring their heart rate and respiration, and body temperature. The data from these abhorrent repulsive experiments has been used to determine how long to search for people by both Germans and now by anyone else, and for how to revive these people, if they survive.

These actions seemed to those doing them to be utilitarianly useful, in the sense that, overall, freezing a few people once, especially subhuman Jews, will give data which then saves thousands of German lives. I believe more lives have been saved by the data by far than the number tortured to death in this way.

So the moral imperative against these comes only from a religious point of view. Only the Nazi's atheism allowed them to push through with this program, plus experience at silencing the religious folks. The euthanasia program for the handicapped and mentally retarded was halted by religious folks. From this point on, the religious folks were kept in the dark.

  • 2
    @Cody Gray: My answer was talking about the experiments of those other than Mengele. Mengele's experiments were sadistic monstrous tortures with no scientific value, then or now. The other scientific experiments involved freezing people in water, and testing their endurance to temperature, and while inhuman, probably could be justified on utilitarian grounds (as they were by the Nazis, who only believed in rational ethics, not in what they called sentimental (intuitive) or Jewish (religious) ethics). Mengele was a monster, even by warped Nazi standards.
    – Ron Maimon
    Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 1:33
  • Ah, duh. I'm not sure how, but I completely misread that. I guess whoever downvoted did too? Anyway, +1 and removing my dorky comments. :-) Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 1:41

The only form of ethics that I can think of that would justify the cruel treatment of peaple, would be altruistic ethics. Related to the evil ethics of sacrifice. Sacrifice of self and others to external authorities. i/e the evil ethics of the totalitarian regime of fascism. Follow these ideologys at everyones sacrifice.

  • 1
    If this is a serious answer, you're going to have to elaborate a bit. As of now this answer is complete nonsense, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's simply beyond my comprehension. Can you explain what you mean here?
    – stoicfury
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 2:36

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