Poverty, inequality and cruelty

From Appropedia

It is sometimes stated that poverty make people cruel. [1]

It is certainly possible to point to apparently cruel things that poor people do. Mothers who sell their daughters in sex slavery, for example, or the horrors exerted on child laborers in Bangladesh. Or even, on a level down, the awful treatment of animals in many developing countries. Sometimes it is out of desperation (so the action may be "cruel" but the person cannot be blamed) but at other times, such actions occur even when there is no immediate threat of starvation.

Inequality[edit | edit source]

It seems impossible to argue that poverty leads to cruel things. Not really an interesting or disputed point. The real question is whether wealth also leads to cruelty. When you consider systemic cruelty, the answer is yes. The factory owner who benefits from child labor is as culpable as the parents who give their children to the factory. This is more culpable, since the factory owner could make money in another way and faces no threat to their survival.

A possible conclusion is that inequality makes people cruel. That explains the people on the bottom end of the pyramid forced into cruel actions and cruel choices, and the people on the top end, so far from poverty that poor people and their problems no longer seem real to them. It’s easy to be cruel when you can’t see your victims. Or when you think their problems are inevitable and can’t be solved. Or when you think poor people make themselves poor or even aren’t quite human. Inequality creates the kind of distance that makes that happen.

Altruism and cruelty[edit | edit source]

A more positive perspective is to note that altruism also exists. In spite of our "selfish genes" (to use Richard Dawkins'W term) we actually do have empathy and the capacity to sacrifice for others.

Our culture, institutions, families, genetic roll of the dice and personal choices will all influence how much our capacity for cruelty is brought out, and how much our empathy and cooperative instincts are cultivated.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Alanna Shaikh refers to an example of this from a Tajik colleague (in the post that this article draws on). (Personal comment: I have experienced similar views in Indonesia. --Chriswaterguy) It may be hard to know how popular this view is in the West, as it would not be a politically correct view in many circles.