Why do individuals resort to violence? Justifying violence by playing the morality card
Why do people behave violently? And what if violence is used instrumentally to defend moral values? Tjanana Deurwaarder discusses the topic and examples from different cultures. This is one of the three best submissions for a writing contest in my “Theory of Science” lecture taught at the University of Groningen in 2019.
In 2017 a 21-year-old girl walked into the bus rank in Gaborone, Botswana. She was wearing what was described in the Mmegi newspaper as a ‘skimpy skirt’. Hushed whispers of disapproval quickly turned into drones of poisoned words filled with vehement. In the hum of chaos, a group of young men attacked her. Abused and stripped down to the threads of her undergarments, the young lady took the beating of the growing number of men and women.
Bystanders looked on in horror, not believing their eyes. Others cheered and encouraged the attackers in agreement of the assault. Nobody came to her rescue. Not even the wind blew to brush off her tears. But with good faith, she managed to escape with her dear life.
In the typical digital age fashion onlookers recorded the incident with their mobile phones and posted it on various social media platforms, passed on through friends like a dirty secret. This generated a string of reactions.
Some people condemned this appalling incident in the strongest terms and stated that it is just one in many and out rightly barbaric. The perpetrators were described as ‘beasts’, as persons having mental health issues, void of any sense of morality. The minister of health spoke out and stated that this immorality had no place in African culture. Others thought otherwise and commented that the courageous mob did the right thing by teaching the girl a lesson. After all the girl had only herself to blame for dressing scantily, they opined.
An assumed general moral view on ‘decency’, ‘respect’ or particularly how one should be dressed as accepted by the community was challenged by the 21-year-old woman. And the men at first and later the surrounding supporters believed that ‘teaching a lesson’ would (in the perpetrators’ perspective) be morally justified. Them not ‘teaching a lesson’ would have meant to passively violate their moral codes.
Violence in its many hues is never as straightforward as we want it to be. The act of violence inflicted on the young lady were disapproved by many, yet just as many agreed with it. One individual stated, “I think these women should be stripped so that they do not repeat the same thing again”, (Mmegi). The perpetrators believed that they were right, that their actions were justified.
Which perspective should one take to explain this incident? I propose that individuals are violent because they feel morally obligated to do so, not acting violently would, in turn, be immoral. Simply stated, violent individuals’ morals demand them to be violent.
Violence is demanded morally
“I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent, we have no future. People who do not want writers to write about violence want to stop them writing about us and our time. It would be immoral not to write about violence.”Edward Bond, 1972
Throughout the ages acts of violence have plagued societies. Millions have been victims of violence. While others have tried to be wielders of violence. Perpetrators of violence have been characterised in a variety of ways throughout the years. In this day and age, new terms have been added to describe violent people by laymen such as ‘sadists’, ‘diseased’, ‘broken’, ‘disturbed’, ‘abnormal’ and ‘mentally disturbed’ among others.
This labeling of perpetrators of violence places the persons in categories to separate them from ‘us’ the ‘normal’ non-violent persons. All these labels point to possible causes such as mental health, family structure, socioeconomic factors that might or might not lead to violent behaviour. One root cause less frequently mentioned, and hence the focus of this paper, the moral beliefs of violent perpetrators.
I believe that violence as much as we may scorn it as not an aspect of humanity is the outcome of what makes us humans, moral humans. Charles Darwin stated “I fully … subscribe to the judgment of those writers who maintain that of all the differences between man and the lower animals the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important..” His statement raises three major questions:
(i) Is what separates humanity from any other species only the fact that humans possess morality?
(ii) Could morality be cultural and not just evolutionary as Darwin believed?
(iii) Is morality an innate and vital necessity to humanity?
In this essay, I argue that individuals resort to violence, that is, violence that is physically harmful in behaviour with the intent to hurt or kill e.g. sexual violence and direct physical behaviour, because their morals demand it. This essay will focus solely on violence performed by individuals or individuals within groups. Research with regards to violent behaviour enacted by collectives such as riots and wars, self-harm (e.g. suicide), and psychological violence in examples of verbal abuse and/or manipulation will be excluded as it falls outside the scope of the core statement.
What is violence?
Violence has always been part of human existence throughout the ages. The statistics are plain and simple. 1.7 million innocent men, women, and children died in the crusades for a cause they believed was the only truth. Over 70 million innocents were slaughtered for being perceived as inferior in World War II. The Rwandan Genocide left approximately one million dead, 9/11 set a wave of terrorists’ acts that even persist to this day. South Africa and its neighbouring countries quiver at the blasts and echoes of xenophobia.
After all, history has a way of repeating itself, violence just happens to be one of these repetitions just dressed differently throughout the years. Could this be because of a constant throughout history, moral standards of humanity namely, individuals’ and groups’?
The media tend to focus on incidents of violent behaviour worldwide skewing our perception of the actual prevalence of violence globally. According to reports such as Pinker (2011) and Harari’s book ‘21 lessons for the 21st century’, there has been a noticeable decline in violence over the ages. there is some criticism regarding the methods of establishing the incidence of violence resulting in the question of whether violence is in fact declining. But we are faced with the fact that violence is still present and needs addressing.
Despite the decline in violent acts, violence still occurs worldwide although perhaps now by a much smaller number of individuals within a society. South Africa and Botswana, for instance, are the top two violent countries in Africa, with the highest rape incidents at 132.4 and 92.9 per 100000 citizens, respectively. Followed closely by Lesotho and Swaziland. It can’t be a coincidence that the top four highest-ranking countries with rape/ sexual violence cases are in Southern Africa, a region of Africa with the highest HIV/AIDS population globally. I don’t want to imply any kind of correlation between these two facts but would like to highlight the complexity of the violence involved. Violence however defined is intertwined with cultural, social, and moral beliefs no matter how much we disregard it to be.
It is for this very reason that violence is a complex concept to address because it 1.) is dependent on what the community/society deems as violent, 2.) these beliefs can also change over time, and lastly 3.) violence is justified and thus perceived as non-violent behaviour but merely responsive behaviour. Corporal punishment of children by parents, the death sentence, rape, and murder, amongst others, has at some point in history and in the present time been justified. To justify a violent act, one would have to state that the act was reasonable (normal) given the conditions in which they (the perpetrating individual) found themselves.
Regardless of the concerns in addressing violence, The World Health Organisation defines violence as, ‘… the intentional use of physical force or power threatened or actual against oneself, another person or against a group or community that either result in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development or deprivation.’ (WHO, 2002, p. 5). This definition highlights three points: a) violence is intentional. This is to exclude unintentional incidents such as traffic injuries or fire burns, b) violence can be both actual (physical) or threatened (resulting from a power relationship) and c) violence is not limited to physical harm but also includes psychological deprivation and mal-development.
It is easy to get swallowed up in semantics but nowhere does it suggest that violent acts are not based on morality or are immoral. To answer the question of whether or not violence is deeply rooted in high moral values held by the perpetrators, this essay will focus mainly on the use of intentional physical force resulting in injury or death.
To understand violence as morally motivated, the type of violence is important to consider. Commonly nine types of violence and abuse are identified. Namely; physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, spiritual, cultural violence, verbal abuse, financial abuse and neglect. These types are all covered by the WHO definition of violence. When looking at a specific incidence of violence it will not just fall into one of the nine categories. Actual acts of violence can be classified in several of the nine categories. For example, violence against women is most often a combination of sexual, emotional and physical violence.
In this paper, I will focus on physical violence by perpetrators [whatever the result of this violence might be, but mainly injury to the body or death] and argue that the use of violence by most of these perpetrators (excluding violence as a result of psychological/mental illnesses) is rooted in their strongly held moral beliefs. The question to consider is – what is happening in the mind of the perpetrators? How do they justify their acts of violence? This paper argues that the moral values the perpetrators hold make them act violently.
What makes persons act violently?
Violence occurs in a variety of forms and therefore the causes of violence may be as multifaceted. A commonly mentioned root cause for violent behaviour is “mental health issues” (psychological dysfunction, brain damage reference). Raine (2013) in his proposal on the LOMBROSO project, takes a more biological and neurological approach to understanding violence. This approach falls in line with the current biological approach in research and may well confirm the layperson’s perspective on violent perpetrators as being ‘different’ from the common man and woman.
Other common causes of violent behaviour that allow individuals to distinguish (perhaps stereotypically) themselves from possible violent individuals have been attributed to poverty, social-economic status, parental neglect/attachment styles, low self-esteem, substance abuse, exposure to violence, evolutionary perspective and access to weapons amongst others.
Violence comes in many forms, that is, there are a variety of types of violence and the causes are just as ample. No theory or perspective can fully explain all forms of violence. Therefore, no matter how difficult it is to acknowledge that perpetrators of violence may act on the basis of their moral convictions this may well be an essential addition to the literature which addresses violent behaviour where other theories fail to explain it completely.
The current understandings fall in line with differentiating one individual (non-violent) from another (violent) and can even to some extent encourage differentiation between violent individuals depending on the causes. Nevertheless, we are made from the same cloth. That is, we are more similar than we are different. All humans have the potential to be violent.
The question is not whether we are or are not violent (categorical perspective) but more to what extent are we to act on our potential to be violent (dimensional perspective). Similarly, individuals differ on their moral beliefs. The point is not on whether they believe in justice or not but whether they think this one moral value should take precedence over another moral value such as compassion. So the question is, do individuals resort to violence because they feel obliged to use violence to uphold their moral beliefs?
What is morality?
For this essay, it is sufficient to say that morality can be defined as both
1. ‘codes of conduct put forward by a society or a group (such as a religion), or accepted by an individual for her own behaviour’ (descriptive), and
2. ‘the code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons’ (normative) (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2016).
According to this definition morality is a social construct based upon what individuals and society accept to be right and wrong. It is also defined by the rational individual (whatever that supposedly is). This might be the case broadly but the variations within a group/society will remain. There is seldom/hardly any a moral law that is accepted by every person in the group/society.
Moral rules are not as clear cut as we might assume them to be. ‘The content of the moral rules is determined by the requirement that protection from evil, rather than the promotion of good, is their primary purpose’(Gert, 1969). There are cultural and individual deviations within morality. Moral values such as selflessness, honesty, humility, respect, and patience might not always be right or wrong, good or bad, but depend not just on the cultural group but also on the context or circumstance. Something might be seen as the right action in situation x, but wrong in situation y. Differences between groups/cultures are also very clear. What is seen as an immoral act y [e.g. beheading an adulterous woman] in culture A is considered as the right thing to do in culture B, it would be immoral NOT to do so.
Moral rules and values are dynamic and relative. Perpetrators of violence follow the moral rules of the group they associate with. In the case of individuals motivated by their morals to be violent, what they believe as morally right is more important than what their communities and society deem to be morally right.
The ongoing xenophobic attacks in South Africa reflect yet again a similar moral deductive reasoning. South Africa has struggled with several forms of racial and nationalistic discrimination over the years. Xenophobic attacks have been occurring as far back as 1994 and since 2000 there has been an unexpected increase of these behaviours. Xenophobic individuals have taken to the streets and resorted to violent attacks for reasons that media has attributed to the attackers’ beliefs that the underlying reasons for the economic and social distress in South Africa are as a result of the African migrants in South Africa.
Perpetrators of xenophobic attacks can be said to believe that they are morally justified in acting violently towards immigrants because the government will not take responsibility for and take action to solve the economic and social crisis. Now with the idea that a country is its people, these perpetrators feel obliged to act in this way because otherwise lest they be seen to be accepting the economic and social distress as negligible and their fault.
This example arguably refers to groups and does not deal with violence by an individual but rather by the behaviour of individuals within a group. Nevertheless, individuals can be motivated to use as much violence as a group could.
In the United States of America, the confusion on what stance to take on gun control has resulted in thousands of the innocent people’s death at the hands of individuals who believed they were morally obligated to act violently. The El Paso killings in Texas saw Patrick Crusius acting on his moral obligation (defending his country) and confirming this by stating “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me“.
Similarly, the Poway California synagogue killings and the Christchurch, New Zealand mosques killings executed by Brenton Tarrant and John Earnest respectively can be deduced to be motivated by moral reasoning. John Ernest threatened by the belief that Muslims were intent of replacing ‘white’ people resorted to violence because his moral reasoning to ‘protect’ his race was so powerful that he felt obliged to the extent that not acting would be immoral. Brenton Tarrant, too, shows similar deductive moral reasoning, the difference is just that Tarrant’s moral challenge was directed at Jews whom he presumed were ‘enslaving’ other races. His moral belief demanded the emancipation of all races. Their moral reasoning was deduced on the better of two evils. In Tarrant’s perspective, deductive reasoning was as simple as choosing between accepting the slavery of all races or the potential of emancipation through active change (violence).
What is the implication for ‘fighting acts of violence’
Understanding all possible motives for violent behaviour will guide us in reducing its occurrence within our communities. If morality is seen as root cause of violence, how do we move forward? That is, how do we change the moral beliefs that individuals hold and can changing them be even morally right? Interventions which address the issue of violence within these individuals without infringing on their rights to their beliefs need to be explored. With morality also stemming from our social groups and communities it also begs the question whether violence can only be addressed at the individual (micro-level) or should it also be tackled at the group and community (meso-level and macro-level) to which these perpetrators belong.
Violence is often used as a tool (although perhaps ineffective) to defend morality. The aim is to establish a source of pride and defence of honour, to eliminate feelings of shame and humiliation, of oneself/and the community. Morality is not just the good, it also entails the bad. The violent perpetrators’ approach to acting in a violent way is not easy, killing or hurting another is not easy, but neither is not following one’s moral beliefs. Both acting in ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways require strong motivation and dedication to uphold one’s principles and act on them. Despite the discomfort of acting violent, perpetrators not just find their acts justifiable, but in all entirety consider their acts to be fundamentally right.
The current approaches to ‘fight violence’ in regards to violent individuals such as time served in correctional facilities does not acknowledge the possible moral motive towards violence by perpetrators. Strategies such as reducing frustration, fostering self-control, humanizing victims, or reinforcing moral reasoning amongst perpetrators are not enough to negate the effects of moral violence (Fiske, Rai, 2014). We do need to recognize that perpetrators of acts of violence (a minority in every society) see no wrong in their actions, on the contrary, they believe their acts (and at times self-sacrifice) to be morally justified, virtuous and irreproachable.
Taking this perspective brings the perpetrators community to the fore front of violent acts. The community has to ‘change’ in the values, and moral rules they adhere to. Without community involvement interventions to ‘fight violence’ are bound to fail. Key actors in civil society in local communities are still reinforcing violent acts by providing open or silent support to the perpetrators. Each case of violence is unique and the strategy towards curbing the effects of violence in areas such as gender-based violence amongst others need different approaches than other forms of violence.
I call for research to delve into the paradigm of morality in violence and to come up with interventions that tackle the morality aspect of violence. We all have a responsibility to be active as we struggle to reduce the approach towards violence both within our communities and within ourselves.
Tjanana Janneke Deurwaarder is a third year student at the University of Groningen. Raised in a multicultural family she has always been intrigued by questions on identity, and the similarities and differences amongst individuals. It was from this curiosity which directed her towards pursuing her further education in Psychology. Her interests have expanded across a variety of fields, amongst which include education, philosophy, and social and developmental psychology.