Thursday, July 10, 2014

A moral theory of violence

A psychologist explains his scientific theory about the moral motivations that drive violent behavior.

IOWA CITY, Iowa--Typically when we think about violence, we tend to label it as the result of drunken accidents or as the actions of psychopathic sadists who enjoy hurting others, but according to one theory presented at a lecture sponsored by the University of Iowa Psychology Department, moral motivation is a largely overlooked contributor to violent behavior.

Tage Rai, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, presented a framework that he and Alan Fiske, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, have developed that explains a large portion of violence as morally motivated by the social context in which it occurs.

“We have a lot of theories about why we don’t typically want to hurt people and when those conditions that facilitate not hurting people break down,” Rai said, “but we don’t have theories about why people want to hurt people in the first place.”

Obviously, in some cases, violent behavior results from conditions including mental illness, substance abuse, and high stress, but the present theory seeks to explain the perpetrator’s motives for hurting another individual.

A morally motivated perpetrator will often feel like he or she is doing what’s right, but it’s not necessarily true that the person will enjoy it. In some situations, violence feels obligatory, as though the circumstances require it.

“In a lot of important ways, killing and hurting are really painful,” Rai explained. “They feel awful, you don’t want to do it, but that’s true of a lot of moral practices. Telling the truth when it would be really beneficial to lie isn’t something you want to do.”

Criminologists including Jack Katz and David Kennedy have studied the moral emotions that motivate crime. Katz noted in his book, “Seductions of Crime” that perpetrators of violent crime often lash out in defense of some sacred principle without regard for the consequences. On a similar vein, Kennedy found that inner-city gang violence is often a matter of exacting revenge or defending honor.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of the French Protestants in 1572.

Rai pointed to field studies, which showed that some people in local communities with no relationship to the people involved agreed with the perpetrator’s motives and sometimes actively supported retributive violence. However, these moral motives often overlap or compete with one another, many of which depend on social context. Rai and Fiske see morality as a way to regulate relationships, explained via a typology with four distinct categories.

People in a communal sharing relationship “have a sense that they have something essential in common with each other that differentiates them from others,” Rai explained. “Communal sharing relations are motivated by unity, where people are motivated to care for and support the integrity of in-groups through a sense of collective responsibility and common fate.” 

Honor killings, common in some societies occur in a communal sharing relationship. These often occur when a group often believes that one of its women had sex with someone from an out-group (like a Muslim and a Hindu), contaminating the purity of the in-group. Killing the woman, in the eyes of the community, restores balance to the social order.

Authority ranking is a separate relational form in which “subordinates must obey the will of superiors, and superiors in turn, must protect and lead subordinates,” Rai said. Authority ranking is common in any situation where acknowledging a hierarchy is a present moral motive like at a school, in a family, or among rival gangs.

Violence typically arises in these relationships when people compete for power or disrespect the existing hierarchy. In the recent past, parents and schoolteachers would physically punish children who disobeyed the rules. Gangs often fight to establish a pecking order, and backing down from a fight when fighting for status is viewed by outsiders as dishonorable, shameful, and weak.

The third social form is equality matching, based on the notion that everyone has the same worth. It most often arises in situations where its members act according to “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Similarly, equality matching can apply to violence in blood feuds or wartime where both sides want to kill just as much of the enemy as the enemy killed of their side. Violence motivated by equality is the purest form of revenge.

The final social relation is market pricing, which depends on making a cost-benefit analysis to determine the morally right course of action. Usually money or some other unit of measurement helps us make this calculation. Rai offered the example of U.S. President Harry Truman deciding to use atomic bombs against Japan near the end of World War II. The price of the hundreds of thousands of Japanese dead, Truman and his sympathizers would argue, was a better deal than the potentially millions killed if the Allies attempted to launch a conventional invasion.

To be clear, Rai and Fiske’s theory cannot explain cultural differences like why some societies find honor killings socially acceptable, even righteous, while others find them reprehensible. Their theory does however, explain the origin of moral motive for engaging in a particular type of violence.

“Violence is morally motivated,” Rai said. “It’s motivated toward regulating different kinds of social relationships, and these different kinds of social relationships require different kinds of violence.”

Editor's Note: Iowa Peace Network invites your feedback on the ideas discussed in this article in order to promote discussion about the relationship between morality and violence. What kinds of morals and values can we, as a society instill in one another to override traditional justifications for violence? Can it be done? How might we achieve such a goal? Whether you'd like to submit a letter-to-the-editor or just want to give your two cents, please comment below or email your thoughts to

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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