A Hornets’ Nest of Morality

In his monthly pieces for New English Review, Dalrymple has increasingly turned his attention to nature (meaning the non-human kind), and his reaction to it. In this month’s article, he discusses his battles with the insects around his house, which cause him to think about the nature of cruelty.

Clearly I cannot be cruel, though I can be destructive, towards the inanimate objects before me at this moment. I could destroy the screen of my computer in a fit of temper, for example, but I should not have been cruel towards it. Does it follow that a being has to be sentient before one can be cruel to it? And what degree of sentience is necessary? Could one be cruel towards an amoeba, for example, that certainly moves away from noxious stimuli but surely cannot – we presume – have much in the way of self-awareness?

Cruelty, it seems to me, is an unstable mix of the intention of the alleged perpetrator and the degree of sentience and self-awareness of the object of the perpetrator’s actions. The degree of cruelty depends not so much on the reality of the suffering inflicted as on the perpetrator’s intentions and on what he imagines the object of his actions feels or is capable of feeling.

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