We must reorient potential perpetrators to find non-violent ways to regulate their relationships

7 Dec

NS 2997: Most violence arises from
morality, not the lack of it
* 02 December 2014 by Alan Page Fiske
and Tage Shakti Rai

Alan Page Fiske is an anthropologist at
the University of
California, Los Angeles. Tage Shakti Rai
is a psychologist at the
Ford Center for Global Citizenship at
Northwestern University in
Evanston, Illinois. They are authors of
Virtuous Violence: Hurting
and killing to create, sustain, end, and
honor social relationships
We are rarely violent because we fail to
think about right and
wrong, we do it because it feels like the
right thing, say the
authors of Virtuous Violence

WHY would anyone hurt you? Why
would you hurt or kill someone else?
Contrary to popular perception, people
are rarely violent simply
because they lose control and fail to
think about right and wrong.
They rarely commit violence because
they lack empathy and fail to
see their victims as fully human. And
almost no one is violent
because they draw sadistic pleasure
from the suffering of others.

Across cultures and history, there is
generally one motive for
hurting or killing: people are violent
because it feels like the
right thing to do. They feel morally
obliged to do it.

Loss of control, lack of empathy,
dehumanisation, self-interest:
these are factors that help facilitate
violence, but none of them
account for the motives underlying
most acts of violence. When
people impulsively lash out, on the
whole they don’t simply lash out
randomly. The truth is that people
engage in violence when they feel
it is the morally right thing to do.
Violence is not a breakdown of
morality – it is motivated by moral
emotions and judgements.

To claim that people are morally
motivated to hurt and kill others
might sound like a contradiction in
terms. This is because many
people in the West have been taught to
equate morality with the
avoidance of pain and suffering. But as
laudable as this stance may
be, we cannot allow it to cloud our
scientific description of the
moral psychology that guides human

So here, when we use the term “moral”,
we mean “moral from the
perpetrator’s point of view”. When we
say that violence is morally
motivated, we are not justifying
violence; we are simply describing
the motives, emotions and judgements
of the person committing the
violence. We ourselves judge violence
to be repugnant, but it is
crucial to acknowledge the empirical
fact that morality – the sense
of “ought”, “should”, or “must” – varies
between cultures and
changes across time. However, violence
always functions to create,
sustain and otherwise regulate our
social relationships. A person’s
moral psychology is not fundamentally
or intrinsically oriented
toward harm-avoidance, peacefulness
or altruism. Ultimately,
morality is about regulating
relationships, and violence is a
powerful means to do so.

Driven by love

If your parents spanked you when you
were a child, it was probably
because they thought it was good for
you. They may have hated to do
it, but they did it because they felt they
had to, to bring you up
correctly. Their parents may have
spanked or whipped them in order
to raise them as God-fearing, virtuous

Looking more broadly, violence – the
deliberate infliction of pain,
suffering, fear, injury or death – has long
been an integral part of
many people’s lives around the world.
Violent initiations, for
instance, create strong communal ties
that bind participants to
sacrifice their lives for each other.
Likewise, the brutal
self-inflicted harm formerly committed
by Native Americans on their
spirit-quests creates an irrevocable
relationship with a spirit
guardian who would empower and
protect them in battle. In many
cultures, some form of surgical
modification of the genitals of men
or women is felt to be essential to the
creation of a virtuous
adult, even – and sometimes especially
– if it is frightening and

When a woman shoots an intruder to
protect her children, it is love
for her children that motivates her.
Likewise, soldiers often kill
to protect their buddies. Some violent
acts are punitive – the
execution of a murderer for example, or
the bombing of those who
bomb us. That’s justice as the
perpetrator perceives it – an eye for
an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

In some cultures, when someone dies,
the principal mourners cut or
burn themselves or amputate a finger
joint. In some old
civilisations, wives and retainers were
killed to accompany the
spirit of a dead king, or captives were
sacrificed in his honour.
Thus they honoured the dead, showing
their love and commitment.

A person may also harm someone to
morally regulate a relationship
with someone else. For instance, a
youth who wants to join the
Bloods gang may have to kill a member
of the Crips gang first. In a
culture of honour, a man is morally
obliged to attack someone who
insults his wife or mother.

In short, most violence is morally
motivated to create, conduct,
protect, redress, terminate or mourn
crucial relationships,
according to the cultural norms of the
group that people belong to.

None of this negates the fact that
people also have strong motives
of care and compassion towards those
they have communal or pastoral
responsibility for. And none of this
negates the fact that most of
us find committing acts of violence
repugnant and traumatic. But
moral motives to do harm may grow
strong enough to compel a person
to be violent. This may happen in an
instant, so they do not have
time to reflect on the wider moral
implications of their violence.
Or a person may carefully ruminate
about the morality of violence
for years while awaiting the right
opportunity to violently regulate
a relationship. But the motives are
equally “moral” in either case.

The foundation of Western legal
systems is that people are found
guilty and punished for intentionally
doing what they know to be
wrong. But what happens when people
know that what they did was
right, according to their internal moral
compass? If we wish to
reduce violence, simply increasing the
penalties will not work,
because people will do what is morally
required if they feel their
cause is righteous – whatever the
consequences. It will not reduce
violence to simply teach people to step
back and consider the
victim’s feelings and whether the victim
deserves harm, because
often the perpetrator may decide the
victim does deserve violence,
and may even relish the pain the victim

Instead, we must reorient potential
perpetrators to find non-violent
ways to regulate their relationships.
Moreover, we must make
perpetrators know that their violent
actions will violate their
relationships with people they care
about. Family, friends and
leaders must show potential
perpetrators that they won’t put up with
violence. They must make it clear that if
the perpetrator injures or
kills anyone, they won’t just hurt the
victim, they will damage
their relationships with family, friends
and community leaders.

When, for instance, non-violent African
American protesters were
hosed and beaten during the civil rights
movement, it did not evoke
guilt in the majority of white American
southerners, but it did
elicit the sympathy of the northern
states and the international
community, and as a result the
American South was shamed and
pressured into tolerating integration.

Likewise in US cities plagued by gang
violence and homicide, the
most successful violence-reduction
programmes rely on communicating
to gang members that their violence is
not praiseworthy and that it
is hurting the people they care most
about. For example, in the Cure
Violence programme – previously
known as CeaseFire – in Baltimore,
Maryland, influential local leaders,
speaking for the community,
publicly tell the principal perpetrators
that killing is
intolerable, and victims and bereaved
families confront the killers
with the social consequences of killing.
Swift and certain legal
sanctions are used alongside these
meetings, but are insufficient by
themselves: family members and
respected community leaders must
clearly and forcefully state that violence
is wrong.

Changing people’s motives and beliefs
about violence is difficult
and takes time, but that is true of many
cultural changes in values
and practices. Extreme corporal
punishment of youngsters used to be
ubiquitous, but is now in steep decline
and widely judged to be
child abuse. Domestic violence used to
be commonplace and explicitly
condoned; now, an incident of family
violence can dominate a news
cycle and be widely condemned.

Violence is already less condoned and
practised than it used to be.
We have a long way to go, but we have
the power to stop violence by


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