The Seeds of Love Contain the Roots of Hate

A surprising new scientific theory explains why morality leads to violence.

Posted Dec 14, 2018

Kiwanuka/Flickr
Source: Kiwanuka/Flickr

In a book titled Virtuous Violence by Tage Rai and Alan Fiske, the authors claim that violence is mostly morally driven. People are violent because of their morality, not in spite of it.

Moral Violence

As they put it, “When people hurt or kill someone, they usually do so because they feel they ought to: they feel that it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent.”

They go on to write, “The perpetrator is violent to make the relationship right—to make the relationship what it ought to be according to his or her cultural implementations of universal relational moral principles. That is, most violence is morally motivated. Morality is about regulating social relationships, and violence is one way to regulate relationships.”

Plainly, perpetrators believe a social relationship has somehow gone wrong, and are morally motivated to put it right. This can drive them to do violence.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister discusses a related idea. In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, Baumeister reviews scientific and historical texts.

He concludes that for the most part, people who commit violence view themselves as victims and their targets as moral wrongdoers. Again, for the perpetrators violence is morally motivated. 

No one is the bad guy in their own movie.

Other research has found that perceived threat motivates violence between groups. In fact, there appear to be 5 beliefs that can make one group commit violence against another:

1. They believe their group is superior

2. They think other groups have committed injustices upon them

3. They view other groups as threatening to harm them

4. They consider out-groups to be dishonest

5. They perceive their own group to be powerless or oppressed

It can be hard, though, to accept that morality motivates violence. Maybe there’s something wrong with thinking of violence as moral. Isn’t the point of morality to care for people, or at least not hurt them?

The Unlovely Hormone

Let's take a look at what makes people care for others. One factor is a hormone called oxytocin. It’s a neurotransmitter that some have called the “love hormone.” It appears to have evolved to bond mothers and infants.

Throughout pregnancy and after giving birth, oxytocin floods the brains of mothers. This creates a powerful attachment to their children. While oxytocin likely evolved to enhance the mother-infant bond, it’s not just mothers. The rest of us have oxytocin in our brains, too. And we respond to oxytocin.

Researchers have proposed that the biological prototype for all sociality among mammals can be found in mother-infant interactions. Evolution co-opted the parts of our brain that engage during these early interactions and use them for the rest of our social relationships.

But the love hormone is not always so lovely. Studies have found that oxytocin can increase aggression and hostility to those perceived as threats.

As Matthew Lieberman puts it, “In nonprimates, oxytocin leads individuals to see all outsiders as possible threats, thus enhancing aggression toward them.”

And administering oxytocin to humans “facilitates caregiving toward both liked groups and strangers, but it promotes hostility toward members of disliked groups.”

A neurotransmitter that evolved to make mothers care for their infants also heightens hostility toward others. If you really care about a person, you're more willing to protect them from perceived threats. This includes a willingness to do violence.

The evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein has said, “The same parameter that makes a mother love her children also makes people commit genocide.” What bonds people together can make them violent against outsiders.

More Choices = Less Violence?

A key component of Fiske and Rai’s virtuous violence theory is that people use violence to regulate social relationships. And the more important a relationship is, the more likely violence will be used. People aren’t as likely to be violent in unimportant relationships. It’s risky to be violent, and people generally don’t want to take risks for relationships that don’t matter much.

Violence is a signal of commitment. If people are willing to commit violence to regulate a relationship (which is risky to them and others) it shows how important a relationship is to them.

But when people have more choices for relationships, they’re less likely to commit to any of them. They’re concerned that if they commit, they’ll miss out on better choices. And too many options make people less devoted to any of them.

This suggests when people have many options, they’re more likely to abandon relationships in search of new ones. But when options are constrained, they’re more likely to use violence to make the relationship work.

As Rai and Fiske put it, “Where there is a relational mobility, such that old relationships are easily abandoned and new relationships are easily formed, it may not be worthwhile to use violence to sustain a relationship that is in jeopardy. Don’t like this relationship? Leave it and find a better one. But if there are no or few alternatives...people may resort to violence to make it work—because this relationship must work.”

Violence is one type of commitment signal. And more choices correlates with less commitment. What this seems to imply is that less relationship commitment means less violence.

Overall, it suggests we can’t have strong commitment without a greater risk of violence. Put differently, we can’t reduce violence without weakening commitment.

If people are not so committed in a relationship, that means the relationship isn’t very important. And if a relationship is unimportant, people are less likely to risk using violence.

More choices→ lower likelihood of commitment

Less commitment→ lower likelihood of violence

Fewer choices→ higher likelihood of commitment

Higher commitment→ higher likelihood of violence

The idea that morality motivates violence, or that violence occurs more frequently in important relationships seems counterintuitive. But a crucial point emphasized in Virtuous Violence and Evil is that understanding the roots of violence can help us to reduce it.

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