The Moral Foundations of Violence

October 10, 2015

Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.

In the wake of yet another school shooting, we should all reflect on the causes of such senseless violence and what it says about our society that such acts are so common in this country. But new research suggests most violence may not be as senseless as we think.

I was reminded of a recent article in Aeon, “How could they?”. The author, Tage Rai, and anthropologist Alan Fiske performed a broad, cross-cultural analysis of violent practices and found that:

In every case, the violent act is perceived by the perpetrators, observers—and in some cases the victims themselves—as just.

Rai and Fiske performed what must have been some of the most soul-aching research in history and surveyed “first-person accounts, ethnographic observations, historical analyses, demographic data, and experimental investigations of violence” across times and places:

A mother in the American South beats her child because he disobeyed her authority, to protect him from himself, and to ensure that he becomes a responsible adult. Drill sergeants, gang leaders and guerrilla fighters brutally ‘beat in’ new recruits to create lifelong bonds with their compatriots and unflinching obedience to their superiors, both of which are fundamental to success in battle. A father in Papua New Guinea pours hot fat down the inner arm of his son and hopes he will endure it stoically because this is critical if he is to become a respected adult in the community. A boy gets into a fight because the other boy hit him first, and his father taught him that he must defend himself and never allow himself to be bullied; when the boy becomes a man, he gets into a bar fight because someone insulted his girlfriend and he must defend her honour.

A Saudi man paralysed in a fight requests that his attacker be paralysed at the exact same position on the spinal cord — and the judge looks into it. A brother in northern rural India kills his sister because her sexual infidelity has contaminated and shamed their family; her death is the only way to restore the family’s honour and prove to their community that they can be trusted. A US college student rapes a female acquaintance to ‘get back’ at the women who have rejected him and because he believes women are subordinates who are morally required to do as he commands. A suicide bomber in the Middle East kills himself and others in the name of an authority he respects and out of loyalty to his compatriots who will also die. A US fighter pilot bombs an ISIS target, killing several terrorists along with nearby civilians because his commander calculated it was an acceptable loss in order to achieve a greater good, the death of their enemies.

This catalog of human violence reminded me of a passage from Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem, in which modern, western notions of criminality are juxtaposed with historical notions of the same, and in the juxtaposition they are all revealed as equally arbitrary:

You say of course there are criminals, but if you look at a particular person, how do you know whether or not he is a criminal? Are criminals branded? Tattooed? Locked up? Who decides who is and isn’t a criminal? Does a woman with shaved eyebrows say “you are a criminal” and ring a silver bell? Or is it rather a man in a wig who strikes a block of wood with a hammer? Do you thrust the accused through a doughnut-shaped magnet? Or use a forked stick that twitches when it is brought near evil? Does an Emperor hand down the decision from his throne written in vermilion ink and sealed with black wax, or is it rather that the accused must walk barefoot across a griddle? Perhaps there is ubiquitous moving picture praxis—what you’d call speelycaptors—that know all, but their secrets may only be unlocked by a court of eunuchs each of whom has memorized part of a long number. Or perhaps a mob shows up and throws rocks at the suspect until he’s dead.

Rarely do humans commit violence without reason, so when we believe our own acts of violence justified, let us remember how little that distinguishes us from the rest.

Even the deluional are not without their reasons. In the wake of another recent act of public violence—the murder of two television journalists live on the air—an article in New Republic introduced me to the concept of an “injustice collector”:

Collectors magnify petty “injustices” and perceive them as intentional and purposeful. Over time, he forms a worldview of himself as victimized, bullied, discriminated and disrespected.

In response to their growing sense of victimization, injustice collectors fantasize about retaliation, not against specific people but against the world as a whole. Not all of them are considered “dangerous,” and few go on to kill, but this is a type often found among mass-murderers.

When faced with these acts of violence which appear more-and-more common, we shouldn’t be content to throw up our hands and declare them senseless. After all, if they truly are without reason, then there’s nothing we can do, and that’s a depressing thought. No, we owe it to ourselves as a society to continue trying to understand their roots, and in doing so, consider our own motivations when we resort to violence ourselves.