The Psychology of Cruelty: Neither Victims Nor Perpetrators: Beyond Animal Sacrifice

The Sanitizing of Violence in Our Society
An Article Series

Throughout the ages, we have accepted killing, violence, and violent behavior as just being a part of life - it's time we change!

| Home Page | Table of Contents |

The Psychology of Cruelty: Neither Victims Nor Perpetrators: Beyond Animal Sacrifice

By: Frank L. Hoffman

There have been some very interesting studies performed concerning the psychology or nature of cruelty, some of which are discussed in the transcript of Gary Kowalski's talk, which follows.

This article may be disturbing to many people. We may not agree with the Biblical interpretation. We most likely won't like the nature of some of the experiments. We may be uncomfortable, as we probably should be with the conclusions, for it speaks of our human nature, and compares our cruelty with those of non-humans. But, Rev. Gary A. Kowalski's talk, which was delivered in Rochester, New York on 26 June 1998 at the meeting of the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association is a "must read" for anyone concerned with the nature or psychology of cruelty and violence in our society. (FLH)

"Neither Victims Nor Perpetrators:
Beyond Animal Sacrifice"

By: Gary Kowalski, the author of the book, "The Souls of Animals."
"The Milgram experiment, Nazism and the sacrifice of Isaac form the background for these reflections on animal experimentation and the psychology of cruelty."

FIRST READING Genesis 22:1-14

The time came when God put Abraham to the test. “Abraham,” he called, and Abraham replied, “Here I am.” God said, “Take your son Isaac, your only son, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a sacrifice on one of the hills which I will show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his ass, and he took with him two of his men and his son Isaac; and he split the firewood for the sacrifice, and set out for the place of which God had spoken. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his men, “Stay her with with the ass while I and the boy go over there; and when we have worshipped we will come back to you.” So Abraham took the wood for the sacrifice and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulder; he himself carried the fire and the knife, and the two of them went on together. Isaac said to Abraham, “Father,” and he answered, “What is it, my son?” Isaac said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the young beast for the sacrifice?” Abraham answered, “God will provide himself with a young beast for a sacrifice, my son.” And the two of them went on together and came to the place of which God had spoken.

There Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. Then he stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son; but the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham.” He answered, “Here I am.” The angel of the Lord said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy; do not touch him. Now I know that you are a God-fearing man. You have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up, and there he saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So he went and took the ram and offered it as a sacrifice instead of his son.

SECOND READING from The Scroll by Woody Allen

... And Abraham awoke in the middle of the night and said to his only son, Isaac, “I have had a dream where the voice of the Lord sayeth that I my sacrifice my only son, so put your pants on.” And Isaac trembled and said, “So, what did you say? I mean when he brought the whole thing up?” “What am I going to say?” Abraham said, “I’m standing there at two a.m. in my underwear with the Creator of the Universe. Should I argue?” “Well, did he say why he wants me sacrificed?” Isaac asked his father. But Abraham said, “The faithful do not question. Now let’s go because I have a busy day tomorrow.”

And Sarah who heard Abraham’s plan grew vexed and said, “How doth thou know it was the Lord and not say, thy friend who loveth practical jokes, for the Lord hateth practical jokes and whosoever shall pull one shall be delivered into the hands of his enemies whether they can pay the delivery charge or not.” And Abraham answered, “Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep, resonant voice, well modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” And Sarah said, “And thou art willing to carry out this senseless act?” But Abraham told her, “Frankly, yes, for to question the Lord’s word is one of the worst things a person can do, particularly with the economy in the state it’s in.”

And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?” “Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake, “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er--not really ... no.” “I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.” And Abraham fell to his knees. “See, I never know when you’re kidding.” And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor, I can’t believe it.” “But does this not prove I love Thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?” And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well modulated voice.”
One of the best known stories of the Bible, and one of the most troubling for me, is the tale of Abraham and Isaac. The lesson I learned in Sunday School (the usual one) was that Abraham represented a model of faithful obedience. He followed God's will, and made himself subservient. But even as a young boy, or perhaps especially as a young boy who found it easier to identify with the terrified Isaac than with any of the other characters, I had questions.

Why does God tell Abraham to murder his child? Why does Abraham listen to this dubious directive? Why does God change his mind? Why does he ask that an animal be killed instead of Isaac?

And what manner of deity demands bloodshed in any form? The story is like a riddle. There is an absurd quality to it, as our second reading suggests. But it fascinates because it defies any simple explanation. If we had the answer to any of our questions about the story, we might understand more of the psychological and spiritual roots of violence. We might gain greater insight into how it is that men who consider themselves to be righteous and blameless in the eyes of God can take the blood of the innocent without any apparent feelings of remorse or compunction. We might have a window not merely into an ancient morality tale, but also into our own cultural narrative, which continues to create both perpetrators and victims with frightening regularity.

One man who studied these problems of psychology in a modern context was Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University who carried out a series of famous experiments during the early 1960's. In a book called Obedience and Authority, Milgram described his operating procedure this way: \

"Two people come to a psychological laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated as a "teacher" and the other a "learner." The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a kind of miniature electric chair; his arms are strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist. He is told that he is to learn a list of simple word pairs; whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity."1

He needn't worry about it much, since the shocks aren't real. He's just an actor. But the other participant, who is the actual focus of the experiment, doesn't know that. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is seated in front of an impressive shock generator, with an instrument panel of thirty lever switches labeled with voltage designations of increasing intensity, from 15 to 450 volts. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will go along with orders to inflict pain on an unwilling victim.

As the shocks move up the scale, so do the learner's outcries. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he complains loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the experiment. As the voltage increases, his protests become more vehement and emotional, until he begins screaming, and at the highest levels makes no sound at all.
For the teacher, Milgram comments, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. "It is not a game for him; conflict is intense and obvious. The manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit; but each time he hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority."2
The analogy to the story of Abraham and Isaac should be evident.

Like the subjects in Milgram's experiment, Abraham is caught in a moral dilemma. Commanded to kill his own son, he must make a choice: follow directions and carry out an act of wanton destruction or resist orders. Abraham's response, as it turns out, was not so unusual. Most people do as they are told.

Before carrying out the experiment, Milgram asked various people to predict how subjects would react to their ethical predicament. Almost all of those surveyed forecast that compliance would be minimal. Experts and laypeople alike assumed that when told to deliver the shocks, the "teacher" would back out or call the bluff.. The actual results of the experiment showed the opposite. The large majority of the subjects obeyed the experimenter to the very end, punishing the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator. Like Abraham, they were prepared to go to the limit rather than question what they understood to be the rules.
The experiment has disturbing implications. It leads to the conclusion that most people are capable of torturing and systematically abusing others under the right circumstances. The voice of conscience, along with the religious precepts we have heard since childhood (expressed in Judaism as "love to God and neighbor," and in Christianity as "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") appear weak and uncertain guides when confronted by a man in a lab coat or another authority figure who demands that we inflict pain and injury on those who are helpless to resist.

Another experiment that parallels Milgram's research raises similar concerns. It was carried out at about the same time, and reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1964.3

In this experiment, rhesus monkeys, also known as macaques, were confined in a laboratory where they were trained to receive food by pulling on one of two chains, right or left, depending on the color of a flashing light. After they had properly learned the sequence, another monkey was introduced, visible through a one-way mirror and held in restraints. By pulling the chains in the correct fashion, the first monkey could still get his snack, but one of the chains now delivered a powerful electric shock to the other animal whose agony was in plain view. In effect, animals who refused to deliver the shock were cut to starvation rations. Trapped in this situation, it was discovered that most of the monkeys would not cooperate. In one experiment, only 13% would deliver the shock--87% chose to go hungry instead. One of the animals refused to pull either of the chains and went without food for twelve days rather than hurting its companion. The experimenters, who were interested in learning whether kinship plays a role in altruistic behavior, found that unrelated macaques were just as likely to be spared as those who were genetically similar. Only one variable really seemed to predict how the animal would respond to the dilemma. Monkeys who had been shocked in previous experiments themselves were even less willing to pull the chain and subject others to such torment.
In their book, "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" where they describe this research, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan comment:

"If asked to choose between the human experimenters offering the macaques this Faustian bargain and the macaques themselves--suffering from real hunger rather than causing pain to others--our own moral sympathies do not lie with the scientists. But their experiments permit us to glimpse in non-humans a saintly willingness to make sacrifices in order to save others--even those who are not close kin. By conventional human standards, these macaques--who have never gone to Sunday School, never heard of the Ten Commandments, never squirmed through a single junior high school civics lesson--seem exemplary in their moral grounding and their courageous resistance to evil. Among the macaques, at least in this case, heroism is the norm.4

This experiment also lifts up provocative questions. I wonder, for instance, whether the individuals implicated in Milgram's study would have been so willing to obey the man in the white coat if they have previously given more thought to the ethics of applying electric shocks to any living creature, be it a person or some other primate.

Would a convinced anti-vivisectionist, one who opposed the use of animals in laboratories in general, have been as willing to steadily increase the voltage on command when human subjects were involved? Possibly, though it seems fairly unlikely. Most of those in Milgram's study appeared to struggle inwardly with the ethical tension between their natural reluctance to harm another person and their desire to please and placate the man in charge. Perhaps they were able to overcome their initial reluctance to inflict pain on another because they were able to place their actions, consciously or unconsciously, within another moral framework--the framework of the animal laboratory, where the gathering of data is considered paramount and the cost in pain and suffering counts for little or nothing.

That hypothesis would be consistent would the work of Charles Sheridan and Richard King, two would-be followers of Stanley Milgram who decided to carry his research one step further by administering real shocks instead of phony ones. As they describe it in an article that appeared in the "Proceedings of the American Psychological Association" in 1972,

"In this experiment the learner-victim was actually given shocks. A nonhuman subject--a cute, fluffy puppy--was substituted for the human learner-victim of Milgram's paradigm. In addition, shocks were amperage-limited and capable of creating responses such as running, howling, and yelping, without, however, doing the subject any serious harm ... The first of the three actual voltage levels produced foot flexion and occasional barks, the second level produced running and vocalization, and the final level resulted in continuous barking and howling.5

As in the original research, most of the human subjects experienced acute distress in this morally compromised setting. Although they had been told that the puppy was being trained to discriminate between flickering and steady lights, the experiment was in fact designed to give the dog a painful jolt no matter how he responded to the stimulus. Both the animal and the trainer were unknowingly caught in an insoluble predicament. Many tried to gently coax the puppy to escape the shock, to no avail; others shifted nervously from foot to foot, as if sympathizing with the animal whose paws were trapped on the electric grid. Some hyperventilated, gasping for air, or even began to cry. As in Milgram's experiments, however, those who protested were sternly reminded that they had no choice and must continue with the regimen of punishment. Having been informed at the outset that this was an "important" scientific investigation into the "critical fusion frequency" in canine vision, almost all surpressed their own better instincts and ultimately surrendered to authority.

It is seemingly a small step from shocking puppies (regarded as standard practice in animal research, where much worse things are routine) to giving real shocks to real people (still looked upon as off limits by most ethicists). This leads to the next point. For what I want to suggest is that just as Abraham was able to substitute a human for an animal sacrifice--and expressed an equal willingness to take the life of a kid, be it two-legged or four-legged--people living in our own time may make similar substitutions. Of course, we no longer inhabit a world in which ritual slayings are a part of our ordinary experience. Unless we are followers of cults like Santeria, the thought of ceremonially killing an animal as an act of divine worship is abhorrent for most of us. Still, we can understand that in Abraham's time, some four thousand years ago, such practices were commonplace--so common, indeed, that human sacrifice was an accepted element of many cultures. Human and animal sacrifice reinforced and complemented one another; they were close cousins within an archaic worldview. It required centuries of criticism--critiques like the story of Abraham and Isaac, which many scholars now recognize as a panegyric against the human sacrifice of Israel's ancient Near Eastern neighbors--to gradually eliminate such barbarism. And yet so long as animal sacrifice remained a feature of the religious landscape, human sacrifice remained a persistent possibility. There was always the danger of backsliding. So long as the ritual machinery remained in place, the victims might be interchangeable.

The machinery of the laboratory, I want to suggest, plays a comparable role in modern society. Like the primitive machinery of sacrifice, it has its own mystique, its own priesthood, its own structures of plausibility. It generates a mental and moral universe that operates by its own distinct rules. Within that universe, for instance, duplicity is an accepted norm. Shocking puppies can be represented as an "important" inquiry on visual perception, when in fact it is merely a study in how easily people can be bullied into submission. Within that moral universe, almost anything goes. But once the framework has been established, it must be maintained. It enforces its own imperatives. The issue of who gets hurt then becomes subordinate to the smooth functioning of the apparatus.

The boundary separating human and non-human is easily blurred in such situations, as it was in Nazi Germany, where Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and many others became guinea pigs for various forms of medical experimentation. One woman who survived the notorious Block 10 in Auschwitz recalled being "locked up as animals in a cage." Another imprisoned in the same camp observed that for the Nazis, "man was the cheapest experimental animal ... cheaper than a rat," while survivors who encountered the notorious camp physician Josef Mengele testified that he treated the prisoners like mice. In the Ravensbruck concentration camp, bone transplants and other experiments were conducted on women who were actually nicknamed "rabbits." This identification of human with animal was an explicit element in the pseudo-science of Nazism. Ernst Haeckel, a biologist who became a chief propagandist for Nazi ideology asserted bluntly that since the so-called "lower races" are "psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives."6

Traditionally, of course, animals have been considered to have no intrinsic value in Western culture. Philosophers from Aquinas to Kant have affirmed that we have no ethical duties except toward our own species. Animals may have worth insofar as they can be used as research tools, or for other human purposes, but have no worth in and of themselves. They stand outside the realm of rights and responsibilities that define our moral order. But when a broad category of beings exists whose lives are considered expendable, almost anyone can be assigned there, and once they have been reclassified as less than fully human, they too can be exploited and manipulated with impunity. Since many of the SS officers who ran the laboratories had long experience with pharmaceutical firms and other research establishments, it presumably required only a small psychological transition to enable them to apply to Jews the same principle they had applied to other sub-species: "Everything is permitted."

Of course, history is never simple, and is often full of ironies. In a recent article in the journal Between the Species, Lance Stell of the Carolinas Medical Center points out that Nazi ideology officially opposed the practice of animal experimentation. In some cases, German law may have actually encouraged medical researchers to use human rather than non-human subjects.

Unfortunately, most were ready to make the switch. The Third Reich's greatest authority on gas warfare, for instance, was Otto Bickenbach, on the medical faculty of the University of Strassburg.

He had conducted extensive animal experiments with phosgene, a vapor that sears lung tissue on contact, and developed the drug utropine to treat the burns. In 1943, Bickenbach was persuaded to use prisoners in the Natzweiler concentration camp to further study the effects of the deadly gas--continuing his earlier line of research, but substituting human for non-human subjects. After the war, he was sentenced to twenty years hard labor by the Nuremburg Tribunal.7 Doctor Eugen Haagen was another pre-eminent medical practitioner whose extensive studies on animal immunology helped to produce a vaccine against yellow fever in 1933, but whose experimental impulse during the 1940's turned to testing vaccines on humans (who of course were first deliberately infected with deadly diseases to measure the efficacy of the good doctor's serums). He too was given twenty years in prison.8 These men were highly respected in their field. While Haagen remained unrepentant, at least Bickenbach appeared personally uneasy about his role in carrying out experiments on human beings. How then do we account for the crimes they ultimately committed?

Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who documents the horrors of the death camps in his book "The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide," has coined the term "psychic numbing" to explain how otherwise decent and law-abiding people become participants in such massive systems of evil. It essentially depends on a process of self-deception. For instance, Nazi doctors were able to carry out their murderous experiments without ever actually using the word "killing," just as animal researchers speak of "sacrificing" the creatures in their labs rather than using more honest and graphic language.9 Similarly, doctors in the death camps tried to justify taking the lives of prisoners by reasoning that if it was done "humanely" it presented no ethical conflict.10 With tricks like these, they were able to deceive themselves about the nature and reality of their own actions.

The most troubling thing is that almost all of us are potentially subject to "psychic numbing." If Robert Jay Lifton is correct, the Nazi doctors were not monstrous characters or aberrant personalities, but ordinary physicians operating within a monstrous and aberrant environment. The evidence suggests that under the right circumstances, we too might be capable of mindless cruelty. Unless we are exceptionally strong-minded individuals, we would most likely increase the output of Milgram's voltage generator to the maximum level if directed to do so. Unless we had given careful thought to the matter beforehand, we also might very well shock the puppy, or even worse design and carry out an equally cruel and needless experiment, where the two male investigators discovered that young women were even more susceptible to browbeating than young men, and concluded that because they were prone to follow orders, girls are more likely than boys to act like fascists. But there is at least a ray of hope. For while almost all of us can be turned into bullies, none of us seems to be born that way. Like our relatives the macaques (not known as a particularly gentle or peace-loving species), or like Binti, the celebrity gorilla who recently rescued a young child who fell into the ape’s enclosure at a city zoo, we Homo sapiens also appear to have some inborn controls on our propensities toward violence. One of Stanley Milgram's findings was that while most people bowed to authority when asked to give the most severe shock the machine could deliver, most of them also, when given the choice to inflict either a mild or a strong shock, chose to remain on the lowest, least harmful end of the spectrum.11

We are not naturally sadists, it appears. We do not actually enjoy seeing other people in agony. And this means that there is nothing inherent in human nature that condemns us to replay the dismal history of what is usually called "man's inhumanity to man," but whose chief targets have usually been children, women and other living creatures.

Consider that human sacrifice is now a thing of the past. Religious and ethical standards evolve and (in some cases) even progress. The dilemma that confronted Abraham would be unthinkable for us today, not because we are morally superior to our Hebrew ancestors, but because the practice of ritualized killing has been abolished. Our instinctive inhibitions against violence are no longer tested in that particular context. And those internal restraints will continue to be strengthened to the extent that we can agree that all beings, human and non-human, have rights and interests that are deserving of respect. Perhaps someday, tormenting puppies will no longer permitted without more careful scrutiny. Confining animals in restraining devices and depriving them of food for days on end will simply not be tolerated. When that day arrives, the world will be a safer place for us all.

But to bring it to pass, we will need to exercise greater resistance to the voices of authority and command, which will continue to demand more and better victims. Should living organisms be patented like mechanical inventions? Should animals be bred and engineered so that their organs can be harvested for human transplant? As ethical dilemmas arise, we can expect to hear a familiar refrain. “Medical science demands ... progress requires ... research protocols insist ...” Our duty in each instance will be to question the man in the lab coat, and to insist on real debate, rather than being taken in by the resonant, well-modulated voice.

Those of us who consider ourselves people of faith might well reflect on where in our experience we do find the voice of God, and what that voice might sound like. Is it the strong, confident voice of the perpetrator, who orders, directs, asserts, dictates? Or is it rather the weak and trembling voice of the victim, who begs for mercy and forbearance? Or is it instead a voice within ourselves which refuses to participate in a system which narrows our choices to such stark alternatives? I want to leave you today, not with any word from on high, but with that question.


1. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (Harper & Row, New York, 1974), p. 3.

2. Ibid., p. 4.

3. Jules Masserman, Stanley Wechkin, and William Terris, "`Altruistic' Behavior in Rhesus Monkeys," in American Journal of Psychiatry vol. 121 (1964), pp. 584-585.

4. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Random House, New York, 1992), p. 117.

5. Charles Sheridan and Richard King, Jr., "Obedience to Authority with An Authentic Victim," Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, vol. 80 (1972), pp. 165-166.

6. Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (Basic Books, New York, 1986), p. 441.

7. Paul Hoedeman, Hitler or Hippocrates: Medical experiments and euthanasia in the Third Reich (The Book Guild, Sussex, England, 1991) p. 148.

8. Ibid., p. 137.

9. Lifton, op. cit., p. 445.

10. Ibid., p. 433.

11. Milgram, op. cit., p. 72.