People Are Violent Because Their Moral Code Demands It

Written by Derek Ruhland

In "Virtual Violence," Tage Rai and Alan Fiske make the case that, "Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral." Rai and Fiske's conclusion contradicts the widely accepted idea that violence is the result of a breakdown in self-control. All I can say is, "Good!" 

How depressing a thought, that the natural state of a human being is brutish, and that only our prefrontal cortex prevents us lashing out indiscriminately. Their new conclusion makes good sense. It also neatly explains the impressive nature of human kind's violence when compared to other animals. 

Imagine that violence were simply a failure to regulate baser instincts, those we consider closer to the behaviors of non-human animals. Does it not then follow that human violence should resemble that perpetrated by non-human animals? That it should be perpetrated almost exclusively against a threat to our dominance over resources we regard as rightly ours, primarily food, sex, and the territory necessary to procure each? That it should be swift, reactionary, and cease the instant a threat is neutralized? This is the violence of non-human animals, and it should be immediately apparent that its logic and limited scope couldn't be more different from the violence we do against each other, from the creativity, obsessive cruelty, and persistence which stretches the imagination nearly every time human violence finds a place to flourish. That we elevate our violence to a repellent art form is evidence that it is born of a higher-order cognitive process, morality being Rai and Fiske's accused system. 

Emotions are our Brain's motivational systems, primarily concerned with successfully navigating the complex social landscape of an interdependent human group. Just as our nervous system protects our hand when we grab a hot iron by firing off pain signals, so too does it protect our reputation when we commit a social error by plunging us into a bout of shame. Because no two groups are the same, the cognitive architecture we use to maneuver within a group must be flexible, and that fact is why Rai and Fiske's conclusion gives me so much more hope than the one it supplants. 

In 16th century Spain, it was considered morally right to subject a person to the full creative power of the human mind as applied to torture, as long as that person belonged to certain classes. Now, persecution for religious beliefs is considered abhorrent to Spaniards, as is torture itself. We have no power to change our drives to eat or sleep, but morality changes itself in response to social progress. Personally, I'd much prefer our motivation to harm one another spring from something as plastic as morality, than from something as foundational as our sex drive.