Jaron Treyer
I might be wrong

Inherently Cruel

We‘re on good terms (image courtesy of author)

A while ago, I behaved like a little devil towards my younger brother. When he would sneak into my bed because he was scared of the night and the dark, I always let him, but at the same time, I made evil use of the power I had over him. I denied him part of my sheet. But the most wicked thing was that I somehow found satisfaction in doing so. But who cares, I was a kid then. Weren’t we all a bit mischievous in one way or another?

I remembered this dark chapter of my history while using ChatGPT. And now it gets weird. You likely had the experience of personifying ChatGPT by saying “Hi, …” or “thank you!” Well, I took this personification to another level. After recurring disappointments with the answers I got, I started to become impatient and eventually found myself in a similar situation to the one with my younger brother. Treating the language model as if it were subordinate, I yelled at it, “why are you so incapable?” or “why don’t you read what I write???” And once again, I found satisfaction in exerting my power over something incapable of defense. It’s a great feeling until you realize how twisted it actually is. It’s important to add that none of my family members and friends would describe me as a particularly abusive person, and yet I possess those “qualities.”

Talking to a language model, nobody will get hurt, and my actions will have no consequences. This shows me that at least I avoid doing certain things because of the consequences. Social exclusion from family and friends, fines, and prison, etc.

It’s not speculation to say that one big reason why we behave well towards each other is to avoid negative consequences. Here are some examples to underline this point:

1. Kids. Kids can be cruel. They don’t yet understand that certain actions have consequences, but if they’re lucky, they’ll learn it quite quickly. Just like I shared my sheet with my brother when he started crying. I couldn’t risk our parents finding out.

2. Drunken people. They are more likely to face trouble. The voice in our heads that warns us of terrible consequences seems to be asleep. We do the most terrible and stupid things when we’re drunk.

3. Extremist groups. Extremists, like Nazis, Stalinists, and terrorists, lack the boundaries we take for granted today, such as not killing or torturing. Nazis didn’t just kill Jews and other minorities; they found pleasure in exerting power over others. Just like the terrorists who broke into Israel on the 7th of October to massacre and rape their victims.

What these groups have in common is that they either don’t know, have forgotten, or lack certain boundaries.

In the German movie “Die Welle” (The Wave), based on a true story, a school teacher starts a project with his students to explain what autocracy is. Initially, the students argue that Germany could never again become an autocracy. However, the project spirals out of control, ending in autocracy, demonstrating that everyone is capable of being part of such a system.

“Every nation is capable of committing a Holocaust”, as Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor said. What prevents us from becoming monsters are boundaries. We should not be naive in assuming, or worse, relying on, our inherent goodness.

A child would remain cruel if not a little afraid of their parents. A drunk would remain reckless if the effects of alcohol lasted forever without consequences returning to memory. Terrorists remain cruel because no one tells them not to be. Evil is justified. Labeling terrorists as “freedom fighters” further complicates this, worsening the situation by legitimizing their actions under a guise of nobility.

Boundaries aren’t natural; by nature, we can be cruel. If you think otherwise, you should have seen me 20 years ago when my scared younger brother wanted some of my sheet, or more recently, when I was interacting with ChatGPT. I thought I had changed since I mistreated my brother. Clearly, I haven’t. What has changed are the boundaries I set for myself or that others have set for me.

The question remains: where do these boundaries come from? They’re not natural. For me, it’s quite simple: if they’re not natural, they must be supernatural. Regardless, those of us who aren’t children, drunk, or extremists know that these boundaries are good, and we must ensure we respect and care for them. This way, when we need them, like during a conversation with a language model or the next great economic depression, we can rely on them rather than lose our way.

About the Author
A lone soldier who is torn between two countries. Switzerland and Israel. Order and Chaos. Shallowness and restlessness. What is more convincing?
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