Expanding on arguments first proposed by psychologist Roy Baumeister, research fellow Taje Rai presents some compelling thoughts about violence.
Noting our propensity to denounce violent acts as sadistic, psychopathic and evil, he agrees with Baumeister’s objection, to the effect that we simplify when we say that violent actions are immoral or evil:
In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (1999), the psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that people believe most perpetrators of violence to be sadists who gain pleasure from the suffering of innocent victims. Especially for the most heinous crimes, we can’t help but see the perpetrators as ‘bad’ people: inhuman monsters who lack basic moral feeling. Baumeister called this phenomenon ‘the myth of pure evil’. A myth because it isn’t true.
In spite of widespread beliefs about its existence, sadism is so rare that it is not even an official psychiatric diagnosis. Its closest relative is psychopathy, but psychopathy is not characterised by malevolent joy at the suffering of others. Admittedly, psychopaths lack moral emotions and empathy toward victims. And they can be quite violent: in large-scale studies of criminal offenders, it has been found that around 10 per cent of violent crimes are committed by those who score above the cut-off for psychopathy, whereas such people make up less than 1 per cent of the general population worldwide. Clearly, psychopaths account for more than their fair share of harm.
Some criminals commit violent acts because they lack moral feeling or because they gain a sadistic delight from watching others suffer. But, most do not. Sadists and psychopaths enjoy such spectacles but the world contains far fewer of them than we think.
Researchers have offered two theories about why people commit acts of violence.
The first says that we are all prone to commit violent actions, but that most of us successfully repress our impulses. Under the right set of circumstances we can overcome our inhibitions and become violent monsters.
This says that we all have a capacity to commit violent acts. One would be hard-put to disagree.
But, that does not mean that we are prone to do so or that we spend our mental energy trying to prevent ourselves from acting on this potential. As sometimes happens, this theory confuses a potential with a desire. We all have the potential to cannibalize our neighbor, but, under any but the most extreme circumstances we have no real inclination or wish to do so.
Another theory suggests that people commit violence when it provides them certain benefits, and when the risk of capture is tolerable:
On this view, violence is just a way to achieve instrumental goals. For example, killing rival heirs is sometimes a good idea if you want to be king. Whether it’s fighting among brothers or between nations, these rational-choice models predict that the likelihood of violence increases when its benefits go up or its costs go down.
This makes sense, and yet, it does not explain the wastefulness of some violent behavior:
But once again, we find ourselves with a puzzle. People frequently resort to violence when, by any measure of practical utility, non-violent means would be more effective. As Baumeister and colleagues noted in the paper ‘Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression’ (1996): Wars harm both sides, most crimes yield little financial gain, terrorism and assassination almost never bring about the desired political changes, most rapes fail to bring sexual pleasure, torture rarely elicits accurate or useful information…
Among the most horrific instances of violence for the sake of destruction was the trench warfare of World War I. Can anyone say that the carnage of that war served any real purpose?
Still, this deserves some questioning. Some people commit horrific acts of violence because they want to deter others from attacking them. You are less likely to attack someone who is notably brutal. If your enemy convince you that he will never surrender, the cost of the engagement becomes very high indeed.
Some people commit acts of horrific violence because they want to show that they possess superhuman powers. People who have lost out in competition and who reject the idea of working to improve their standing might very well resent the outcome. They might want to show how strong they are by participating in actions that are beyond the human pale.
Faced with the choice between anonymity and infamy, they choose the latter.
Also, some nations might be practicing human potlatch. They might be willing to sacrifice an inordinate number of young males because this signifies their strength.
Be that as it may, Rai offers his own theory. He suggests that many of those who engage in violence do so for good moral reasons. They are violent because they believe that it’s the right thing to do. In some ways this correlates well with the theory where violence is a rational action, designed to gain an advantage. It merits attention:
Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By ‘moral’, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations.
People commit acts of violence, against their parents, their children, their spouses and their neighbors because they believe that they are morally obligated to do so.
Rai provides some examples:
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.
He continues to suggest that moral behavior is designed to affirm and to regulate social ties:
At the same time, if violence is motivated by moral sentiments, what is it motivated toward? What are these perpetrators trying to achieve? The general pattern we found was that the violence was intended to regulate social relationships.
In the examples above, parents are relating with children; recruits and fighters are relating with peers and superiors; boys and men are relating with their friends; families are relating with their communities; men are relating with women; people are relating to gods; and groups and nations are relating to each other. Across all cases, perpetrators are using violence to create, conduct, sustain, enhance, transform, honour, protect, redress, repair, end, and mourn valued relationships.
Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.
Human beings are wired to function within an orderly society. If that requires them to commit acts of violence they feel duty-bound to do so. No one questions the right to use violence in self-defense. No one questions the rightness of using violence to defend a nation against invasion.
But, some people also see the use of violence as intrinsic to their cultural identity. You cannot be a member in good standing of some cultures if refuse to kill your daughter for wearing a short skirt. Here your violent action affirms your commitment to the culture and the intensity of your belief. Willingness to practice human sacrifice is taken as a sign of conviction.
It seems roughly to correspond to the situation where an undercover policeman is asked to commit a murder because otherwise how can his new associates know for certain that he is not an undercover policeman.
Of course, different cultures have different laws. The Bible, in both old and new testaments, tells people love their neighbors and to open their arms to strangers. In that way, it attempts to preclude the use of violence as a sign of membership in a religious community.
Rai adds that is some cultures violence and suffering are considered to be morally cleansing.
He argues that it all depends on how much value we place on happiness:
There have been many cultures and historical periods where people did not particularly value happiness, or where they actively sought out suffering because they saw it as morally cleansing. Late 16th- and early 17th-century Protestant religious manuals instructed readers that pain was a moral good to be pursued and delighted in. Public executions have often been popular spectacles, with families picnicking at hangings throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Finally, Rai envisions a future without violence:
It isn’t easy to change a culture of violence. You have to give people the structural, economic, technological and political means to regulate their relationships peacefully. Social groups have to learn to shame and shun anyone who hurts others. But it can be done. It has been done in the past, and it is happening as we speak.
Cultures do change. Globally, violence is on the decline. People everywhere are finding ways to satisfy their moral motives and social-relational aims non-violently. This does not mean our work is finished. People still hurt and kill one another because they believe that it is the right thing to do. But if their primary social groups make them feel that they should not be violent, they won’t be. Once everyone, everywhere, truly believes that violence is wrong, it will end.
Clearly, this is optimistic. It is true that there is less violence now than there used to be. It may be because there is more international trade and commerce, more practice of what William James called the moral equivalent of war.
And yet, people compete within cultures, for status and prestige. And cultures compete with each other, for dominance. Markets have winners and losers, some who have more and some who have less. Marketplace competition does not lead to equality. Why would there not be a natural resentment among those who have lost out in competition? Why would they not prefer to take what others have earned rather than to earn it themselves?