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Cruel vs. Ruthless: What's the Difference?

Edited by Harlon Moss || By Janet White || Updated on October 2, 2023
Cruel implies causing pain or suffering intentionally, while ruthless suggests a lack of compassion or pity in pursuing one's goals.

Key Differences

When one describes an act or person as cruel, the focus is often on the intentional infliction of pain, harm, or suffering. Cruelty can be physical, emotional, or mental, and it emphasizes a deliberate desire to cause distress. For instance, someone who teases another relentlessly, exploiting their insecurities, is being cruel. On the other hand, ruthlessness is more about the absence of compassion or mercy, especially when pursuing an objective. A ruthless person may not actively seek to harm others, but they won't hesitate to do so if it benefits their goals.
Ruthless, as a term, denotes a single-minded pursuit of an objective, even at the expense of others. It doesn't necessarily mean that the person enjoys causing harm, but rather that they are willing to do whatever it takes. In business, for instance, a CEO might make decisions that result in job losses; they might be described as ruthless if they make such decisions without apparent regard for the affected employees.
Contrastingly, cruelty often has a more personal, visceral element to it. The cruel individual might derive pleasure or satisfaction from the suffering of others, making their actions not just about achieving a goal but also about the act of causing pain itself. A bully who enjoys seeing their victim cry is an embodiment of cruelty.
In essence, while there are overlaps in the two terms, and one can be both cruel and ruthless, they focus on different aspects of behavior. Cruelty underscores the act of causing pain, often with pleasure, while ruthlessness emphasizes an unwavering pursuit of goals without compassion.

Comparison Chart

Primary Emphasis

Intentional infliction of pain
Absence of compassion or mercy


Often derives pleasure from harm
Driven by achieving a goal

Common Context

Personal interactions
Business decisions, strategic moves

Emotional Undertone

Malicious, sadistic
Cold, calculating

Associated with Pleasure

Yes, in causing pain
Not necessarily

Cruel and Ruthless Definitions


Indicative of a desire to cause pain or distress.
The child's cruel prank scared his younger sister.


Showing no compassion or pity.
He was ruthless in his ambition to take over the company.


Unrelenting or severe in nature.
The cruel winter made their journey treacherous.


Unyielding in pursuit of one's goals.
Her ruthless determination made her a top athlete.


Disposed to inflict pain or suffering
A cruel tyrant.


Without moral restraint in achieving aims.
The ruler's ruthless tactics subdued any opposition.


Causing or characterized by severe pain, suffering, or distress
Cruel treatment.
A cruel remark.


Harsh or relentless.
The ruthless landscape of the desert challenged the explorers.


Intentionally causing or reveling in pain and suffering; merciless, heartless.
The supervisor was very cruel to Josh, as he would always give Josh the hardest, most degrading work he could find.


Indifferent to the suffering caused while pursuing objectives.
The general's ruthless strategy resulted in many casualties.


Harsh; severe.


Having no compassion or pity; merciless
Ruthless cruelty.
Ruthless opportunism.


(slang) Cool; awesome; neat.


Without pity or compassion; cruel, pitiless.


(nonstandard) To a great degree; terribly.


Having no ruth; cruel; pitiless.
Their rage the hostile bands restrain,All but the ruthless monarch of the main.


To spoil or ruin (one's chance of success)


Without mercy or pity;
An act of ruthless ferocity
A monster of remorseless cruelty


To violently provoke (a child) in the belief that this will make them more assertive.


See Crewel.


Disposed to give pain to others; willing or pleased to hurt, torment, or afflict; destitute of sympathetic kindness and pity; savage; inhuman; hard-hearted; merciless.
Behold a people cometh from the north country; . . . they are cruel and have no mercy.


Causing, or fitted to cause, pain, grief, or misery.
Cruel wars, wasting the earth.
Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath for it was cruel.


Attended with cruetly; painful; harsh.
You have seen cruel proof of this man's strength.


Lacking or showing kindness or compassion or mercy


(of persons or their actions) able or disposed to inflict pain or suffering;
A barbarous crime
Brutal beatings
Cruel tortures
Stalin's roughshod treatment of the kulaks
A savage slap
Vicious kicks


(of weapons or instruments) causing suffering and pain;
Brutal instruments of torture
Cruel weapons of war


Used of circumstances (especially weather) that cause suffering;
Brutal weather
Northern winters can be cruel
A cruel world
A harsh climate
A rigorous climate
Unkind winters


Deliberately causing pain or distress to others.
The cruel taunts of his classmates left him in tears.


Enjoying the suffering of others.
It's cruel to laugh at someone's misfortunes.


Lacking compassion or humanity.
The dictator's cruel reign lasted for decades.


Is cruelty always physical?

No, cruelty can be emotional, mental, or physical.

Can someone be both cruel and ruthless?

Yes, one can be intentionally harmful (cruel) and also show no mercy in their actions (ruthless).

What does cruel mean?

Cruel implies intentionally causing pain or suffering to others.

How does ruthless differ from cruel?

Ruthless suggests a lack of compassion or pity, especially when pursuing objectives.

Which term has a more personal connotation?

Cruel often has a more personal connotation, implying a desire to see another suffer.

Can businesses be described as ruthless?

Yes, businesses or their strategies can be described as ruthless if they prioritize goals over compassion.

How might one describe a ruthless competitor?

Someone who will do whatever it takes to win, regardless of the consequences to others.

Does being ruthless mean lacking emotion?

Not necessarily, but it does imply a lack of compassion or mercy.

Does a ruthless person always want to harm others?

Not necessarily; they may harm others as a byproduct of pursuing their goals without compassion.

Is cruelty always intentional?

While cruelty often implies intention, it's possible to cause harm without the conscious intent to be cruel.

What emotions are associated with cruelty?

Malice, sadism, and enjoyment from seeing others suffer.

Can an act be unintentionally cruel?

Yes, one can cause pain or harm without intending to be cruel.

Is there a redeeming quality to ruthlessness?

Some argue that in certain environments, ruthlessness can lead to efficiency or success.

What's the opposite of ruthless?

Compassionate or merciful can be considered opposites.

Can ruthlessness be a positive trait?

In some contexts, like competitive business environments, ruthlessness might be viewed as a strength.

Are there any situations where being cruel is justified?

Ethical stances vary, but many believe that cruelty is rarely, if ever, justified.

What's a synonym for ruthless?

Merciless or unrelenting.

How is cruelty perceived in society?

Generally, cruelty is negatively perceived as it involves causing intentional harm.

Why might someone be described as cruel in a personal setting?

They might be inflicting emotional, mental, or physical pain on others intentionally.

How can cruelty manifest in everyday situations?

Through mocking, belittling, or intentionally causing distress in interpersonal interactions.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.

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