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The ten thousand things and the one true only.

by Kip Manley

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Things to keep in mind:
The secret of cruelty.

Many years ago, a deeply religious Roman Catholic friend said to me, with some irritation, “Why must you liberals bring everything down to cruelty?” What could he have meant? He was, and is, the most gentle and kindly of men, and a principled defender of political freedom and social reform. As a Christian, he obviously regarded cruelty as a dreadful vice. He was not defending cruelty or abandoning liberal politics; rather, he was explicitly rejecting the mentality that does not merely abhor brutality, but that regards cruelty as the summum malum, the most evil of all evils. And he was reminding me that, although intuitively, most of us might agree about right and wrong, we also, and of far more significance, differ enormously in a way we rank the virtues and vices. Those who put cruelty first, as he guessed, do not condemn it as a sin. They have all but forgotten the Seven Deadly Sins, especially those that do not involve cruelty. Sins are transgressions of a divine rule and offenses against God; pride, as the rejection of God, must always be the worst one, which gives rise to all the others. Cruelty, as the wilful inflicting of physical pain on a weaker being in order to cause anguish and fear, however, is a wrong done entirely to another creature. When it is marked as a supreme evil, it is judged so in and of itself, and not because it signifies a rejection of God or any other higher norm. It is a judgement made from within a world where cruelty occurs as part both of our normal private life and our daily public practice. By putting it irrevocably first—with nothing above it, and with nothing to excuse or forgive acts of cruelty—one closes off any appeal to any order other than that of actuality.

Judith N. Shklar

—posted 30 days ago


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