Rationally Speaking #235 - Tage Rai on "Why people think their violence is morally justified"Rationally Speaking Podcast
- 328 views
- 25 Jun 2019
We typically think of violence as being caused by a lack of control, or by selfish motives. But what if, more often than not, violence is intended to be morally righteous? That's the thesis of the book Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Author Tage Rai debates his book's thesis with Julia. Plus: What does The Iliad teach us about changing attitudes about morality over time?
Today's episode of Rationally Speaking is sponsored by Livewell Give Oil takes a data driven approach to identifying charities where your donation can make a big impact. Give all spends thousands of hours every year vetting and analyzing nonprofits so that it can produce a list of charity recommendations that are backed by rigorous evidence. The list is free and available to everyone online. The New York Times has referred to give oil as, quote, the spreadsheet method of giving give. Those recommendations are for donors who are interested in having a high altruistic return on investment in their giving.
Its current recommended charities fight malaria, treat intestinal parasites, provide vitamin supplements and give cash to very poor people. Check them out at Give Weblog.
Welcome to, rationally speaking, a podcast where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and my guest today is T Dry. Teej is a social sciences editor at Science magazine and a research associate at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. His background is in psychology and he's the co-author with anthropologist Alan Fisk of a recent book titled Virtuous Violence, which even if you haven't come across the book, you might have seen some of the articles that have been written about it in the last few years.
The thesis basically is that most acts of violence that people commit are motivated by moral feelings that people feel when they commit violence. Most of the time that what they're doing is defending morality. Their violence is righteous. Basically, in this model of violence seems to conflict, interestingly, with a lot of other common sense notions of violence and academic theories of violence as well. So that's what we're going to be talking about today. TATGE, welcome to rationally speaking.
Thanks for having me.
What was your prior going in to doing this research? Like what was your rough model or assumption about what causes violence?
I think if, you know, it depends on what time of your life you're talking about. But, you know, if you grow up in a relatively peaceful part of America or something, you know, it doesn't seem like all violence is particularly morally motivated. But then, you know, you start to realize, like, I moved around a lot when know, once I started going to college and stuff. And you start to realize, like, people's attitudes about right and wrong are actually way more different than I would have guessed.
And a lot of things where I thought, yeah, I'm really pissed off and angry and I kind of do want to hurt somebody. Turned out I'm from the south. It turned out that a lot of my friends from the North didn't have any feelings like that at all. And they would go out and, you know, my background research wise, I was saying moral psychology. And you start to see the sort of diversity and breadth, moral practices around the world, across cultures, throughout history.
And it just really became clear that we see a very, very narrow slice of that and sort of Western liberal academic America.
Well, I guess I'm wondering whether when you and Alan launched this research project together, did you start off with the suspicion that morality was going to be the, you know, route's the common thread? Or did you or was it purely exploratory? You didn't know what you were going to find. You just wanted to see if there was some pattern that had been missed before this project.
I had already sort of made the argument that there's probably a lot more violence that's morally motivated we like to acknowledge or think about. But I don't think we really would have guessed the sort of extent that we found, you know, that we see it everywhere, that perpetrators, which sort of readily admit it to the degree that they do that sort of thing. So you might imagine the splitting the difference in somewhere.
And this was qualitative research, right? You weren't doing you know, you weren't running randomised controlled trials. No.
So so the book is almost all scholarly. So we're drawing on other sources, first person accounts, historical documents, ethnographies, newspaper accounts, everything like that. We do some interviews ourself on some of the topics. But but the majority of us scholar, there's no sort of quantitative experimental data that we did ourselves. I did some experimental work. That's why I've been doing the last couple of years.
OK, well, let's just dive into some concrete examples. Could you give one or two examples of violence that you studied that you wouldn't necessarily have expected to find would be morally motivated before you started, but they now seem quite plausibly moral to you. Sure. So, you know, I think. Examples that I would come up with would be intimate partner violence might be a good example and tied to that, things like sexual assault. So, you know, I think a standard approach and in the literature might have considered that, well, really, what's driving that is an instrumental desire for sexual satisfaction or something.
And in fact, you might think that if the perpetrator doesn't even necessarily recognize his victim as a human being and therefore it's not that they're morally disengaged from the act, they're just trying to get sexual satisfaction or something like that instead. That's actually not where I find it at. All right. What we find is that, you know, perpetrators really do ascribe a lot of mental emotional states to their victims, a lot of moral considerations into their actions. And what they're trying to do is rectify what they see as a violated social relationship between them and the victim or between them and the victim social category in general.
So right now, they're trying to get back at women or they're trying to get back at this particular woman and they're trying to create what they believe to be the morally correct relationship between the two individuals. And if you took that away, actually, if you if you did sort of strip away the humanness of the victim, then actually the satisfaction of it would go away, too. So the morality is totally tied to the to the act.
How do you know that the that if you took away the humanity from the perpetrators perspective, that that they their desire to commit the act would go down? Is that a you're inferring that or you've observed that?
I think we'd have to infer that from the data in the book. So what we can look at is what the perpetrators are are saying and doing. Then we have to separate paper in PNAS. That was an experimental paper looking at kind of what drives perpetrators. If they're ascribing if we kind of manipulate the levels of human humanity and mental states and things like that that perpetrators ascribe to people. Does that sort of increase or decrease aggression in support of these kinds of ideas?
But you'd have to extrapolate it so it over spoke there. Another example might be something where I really well guess would be something like robbery, OK?
It were physical violence. Assault ends up getting well. It turns out that when we look at robbery, here's something where if I was really just thinking about it from an instrumental point of view, I might have thought, oh, well, I should be robbing strangers out of convenience, let's say. So whoever is that society is targets and I don't know them or anything like that. And so it's just not really what we see. What we see is actually a lot of times the robbery victims or people that, you know, which there could be multiple reasons for that, but a lot.
But even when they're not, there are more of those that come into play, both in terms of kind of what perpetrators do. So they use more violence that's necessary. And then they also seem to you know, they also claim that they're really trying to get back at these this particular social group and also trying to establish dominance over that group and really, again, get across what they believe to the morally correct relationship, trying to re-establish that in some way, establish some sort of equity, some sort of fairness over a perceived injustice.
So I'm sure you're familiar with the research about how people come up with justifications like virtuous sounding justifications for self-interested behavior, like, well, just in experiments, people who are given an opportunity to do something selfish, like take more than their fair share of some pool of money, we'll come up with a definition of fair that makes that OK, or they'll denigrate the person that they're taking the money away from so that they don't have to feel guilty, stuff like that.
And, you know, maybe the conscious reason that they feel they have for that act is moral. But clearly, that reason was not causally upstream of their act because we have this randomized experiment showing that, you know, people's definitions of morality or their view of their partner depends on whether they have the option to, like, cheat that partner, basically. And that is easier to prove in experiments.
But there seem to be so many real world cases that I would put in that same category like, well, slavery, you know, slaveholders in the South would claim that slavery was good for the slaves. Right. They they weren't smart enough to run their own lives. So, you know, they need us to take care of them. And I'm just pretty dubious that that reason preceded slavery rather than the other way around. So, I mean, my question is.
Do you have any reason to doubt that the moral justifications that, you know, robbers or domestic abusers give for their actions are rationalizations as opposed to the actual causes of their acts?
Yeah, I mean, I think I think there are a few ways to respond to this. The most basic I usually think about is in the absence of any other evidence, then what should we rely on? I think in the absence of really tightly controlled experiments on violent crime and real physical aggression, then we should as a starting point. Usually people are saying. Second, though, you know, I would say that it's true that I can't really get inside the mind of a perpetrator.
I can only go off of what they say and what other people say and her actions. But if I were to think about I think, well, usually when we say, hey, that's just a post hoc justification, the implication is that it's an excuse. Correct. But that means excuse the behavior. And you know, what I would say is if the goal of someone is to excuse their behavior and to mitigate blame, moral justifications are really bad in this context, right.
Perpetrator, violent perpetrator should be saying shouldn't be making moral claims. They should be saying, oh, I didn't do it. It was an accident. I wouldn't do it again. I'm sorry. That's not what we see. What we see is their own owning their actions and saying, yes, I did it, I do it again. That person deserved it. These are all things that are going to make their situation worse, not better. And so the underlying logic for the post hoc justification isn't totally clear to me.
And then the third thing is, again, absolutely true. I can't get inside the mind own future. But if the purpose of a post hoc justification is to appeal to observers, then I am learning. I think I am learning something about the moral attitudes of the social group. And so that is very interesting and usable data. So it's telling me something about what kinds of moral standards other people have such that these kinds of justifications would actually help, conceivably.
So so I might not learn about that particular individual, but I do think I learn about the social group through looking at the justifications that the individual perpetrators provide.
Yeah. So I think you you learn something about the social group and what kinds of justifications would be acceptable. I think my view as of now is that you I think we learn less than you might think. We learn for a couple of reasons. One, because the perpetrator might be able to go through a bunch of kind of contorted rationalization to make their situation fit a legitimate reason. So like the if you were honestly applying your societies or your subcultures rules about what counts as a, you know, morally justified act of violence, then it would apply to a much smaller case, a smaller set of instances than the actual case that people try to are the actual set of instances people try to apply it to.
And then the other thing I was going to say is that it might I've been reading a lot about signalling lately where, like we were motivated to adopt beliefs or preferences, you know, aesthetic tastes, even basically just because we unconsciously want to influence the way other people see us. So like we were motivated to adopt sophisticated beliefs because we want people to see us as sophisticated, that kind of thing. And the goal in most of those instances of signaling is not to convince other people that the belief you hold is true.
It's to convince them that you believe it's true. So if that's what's happening here, then I, the perpetrator of a violent act, don't necessarily need to convince you that. My justification is that you should, you know, share my justification for what I did. I just need to convince you that I genuinely believe my own justifications, that you believe that I didn't act knowingly and morally. Does that make sense?
Yes, I think so. I I would still push back and suggest that if I wanted to, you know, reduce the likelihood of me getting in trouble or something like that, it would be better for me to signal to you that I had no idea that it was wrong or that I was an accident or that I would never do it again, as opposed to signaling to you that, oh, I was aware of this and I was committed to it.
You know, obviously, the worst signal would be for me to signal to you, yes, I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway because I'm a psychopath. Right.
That's not a very frequently sent signal or intentionally send signal.
Yeah. And it's actually kind of a really interesting sort of philosophical legal question because it was sort of based as if that was the signal. Right. To the concept of mens rea is this idea that, oh, I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway. And that's not really what we see. What we see is that people say, I don't think what I did was wrong and I did it.
And, well, I don't know much about the law or the definition of mens rea, but is it more about the person has to know that their act was wrong by their standards or that they have to know that the act was wrong by society's standards?
So so it could be that I have some knowledge about national policy, which I think gets back to what you were saying before. So I would only. He made the claim a perpetrators trying to appeal to their sort of local peer group, not to some sort of national culture, and oftentimes there's going to be disagreement between the sort of overarching national group and the sort of local group. But I think stepping back, I'm totally willing to acknowledge that this is that you relying on perpetrator accounts of this sort introduces all sorts of potential biases, and it has to be taken with a major grain of salt.
And so the claim that most violence is motivated by moral sentiments is not one that I want to pick as the hill that I would die on. Right. What I would hope is that we could agree that there is going to be some sizable chunk of violence, whether that is, you know, 80 percent or 20 percent isn't that important to me or whether it's fifty one or forty nine isn't that important to me. But as long as we can agree that there's some sizable chunk of violence that is more motivated by moral sentiments, then we're left with the question of, well, how do we explain that our theories really do a good job of capturing that kind of violence?
And I would argue that they don't.
Good. Yes. OK, so this is getting to the next question I wanted to ask you, which is what are the other leading theories to explain violence that you and Alan are diverging from?
Sure. I mean, I think I would say we can sort of, you know, if we try to think about the literature on on just aggression and generally the sorts of explanations that you find for why someone would hurt or kill another person are that well, they didn't feel the right emotions or they couldn't control their emotions or they were psychopaths or they didn't see their victim as a fellow human being or they morally disengaged from their act or they knew it was wrong, but they gave in to some sort of selfish temptation.
You know, we can block these sort of explanations, other things like instrumental theories of aggression or sort of impulse control, theories of aggression or the sort of disengagement and psychological type theories or aggression. But what I would argue is sort of implicit in all of those approaches is this kind of basic core assumption, which is that violence happens when something went wrong. There was some sort of breakdown in the psychology of the perpetrator. They didn't feel the right things.
They they they they couldn't control themselves. They didn't see they didn't know what they were doing. And I think from a certain kind of Western liberal point of view, that might make intuitive sense on introspection, like if we were to think like, you know, if you were thinking like, well, what would lead me to kill somebody? Oh, it must be I went crazy or something. But as somebody who is kind of studying moral practices across cultures, that really wasn't satisfying.
It wasn't capturing what we saw, where you have cases where you would have to assume that everybody is a psychopath, where you would have to assume that everything a person is saying, they don't believe a person. If you were to apply a kind of claim of moral disengagement would really make sense with all the sort of felt emotions that the person was expressing. You know, it became this kind of question of, well, we have a lot of theories about how inhibitions against engaging in violence break down, thereby allowing violence to break through.
We don't really have a lot of work on the other side of the equation. What makes you want to be violent in the first place? And that was really what we wanted to get at. And then the question becomes, I think if you sort of shift your perspective toward seeing violence is not about moral failure, but actually about moral activity, moral performance, then how does that change the relationships between violence and various kinds of psychological processes, like dehumanization, like self-control, like rationality?
OK. So maybe the best approach would be to go through some of the patterns that we see in data or patterns in the world and talk about how they fit with the virtuous violence theory. So one pattern and, you know, feel free to tell me I'm wrong about the existence of any of these patterns. I'm going off of kind of common wisdom here. But one pattern is that as people get wealthier, they're less inclined to commit a lot of kinds of violent crime, like armed robbery, presumably because, you know, they have less to gain from acquiring additional wealth.
Maybe they have more to lose. Their current life is pretty good now. And I think this is true at the individual level and it's kind of the society level over over time. Doesn't that pattern fit better with like a rational or instrumental theory of violence than a morally motivated theory?
So that, you know, I think what we can say is, you know, if you're coming from an instrument of you where you're going and says, hey, look, it turns out as we reduce the costs to violence or reduce the cost of engaging in violence and increase the benefits, then you get more violence or something like that.
But then you're faced with this problem that so much violence is clearly not beneficial to the perpetrator. You know, wars are on both sides. People get caught a lot. And, you know, people who engage in violence face huge material consequences for their actions, oftentimes consequences that they clearly saw going in. And so the question is, yeah, it might be true that if we reduce the costs and increase the benefits, violence goes up.
But it's also true that if we sort of look at the sort of overall cost benefit, it's really negative and a lot of cases. And yet people are still engaging in violence.
Yeah, you know, I guess I should have disambiguate it earlier between a rational theory of violence where people are acting in what they perceive to be their own self-interest. And what I don't know, I might call an adaptive theory of violence, where we're we have drives to act in ways that maybe were in the self-interest of our ancestors or in the self-interest of our genes in the ancestral environment, but are not necessarily in our rational self-interest. Now, as you know, individuals in the year twenty nineteen.
So like maybe for our ancestors, if someone disrespected us or, you know, pushed us or something, the rational thing to do would be to fight back and like defend our status and honor or something. And so we have a drive now or, you know, men more. So have that drive now. And it's not actually the most rational move in today's world. Like you can go to jail and it doesn't actually matter if a stranger in a bar disrespects you, but we still have these drives and so we can't help but act on them.
Does that is that like an alternate theory to yours or is that consistent with yours?
I'm glad you brought that up because I think that captures something I should make clear. What I'm really talking about is sort of proximate motivational psychology.
So, OK, what is the person feeling that, you know, the assumption is that there are ultimate causes that are driven by adaptive reasons, but that, you know, in the proximate psychology of the perpetrator, they're not necessarily doing a kind of cost benefit calculation of their actions, which the the sort of instrumental approaches to aggression tend to assume that that's what's going on. But I don't think anything I'm arguing for here, you know, is out of line with, you know, Senator approaches to evolutionary approaches to cooperation, for example, or third party punishment or something along those lines.
What about I mean, now that we're talking about evolutionary patterns, there's the pattern that animals, especially male animals, have seemed to have a built in drive to dominate each other, to try to dominate each other, which would make sense evolutionarily because that's how they get more access to food and mates and so on. So it seems reasonable to surmise that humans also have such a drive and. If so, then shouldn't we just expect that to be the cause of a lot of violence, just apriori, maybe not all, but shouldn't that be our dominant theory that we have a drive to dominate each other?
Yeah, and there there is work making exactly that sort of argument, the and I'm totally down with that work, I think, where I differ from a lot of moral psychologists that I really much broader view of morality than a lot of other psychologists. And so I think those behaviors are things that I would consider Proteau, moral things that what we do is a sort of extensions of that.
I see. So so what. Yeah, but someone else might call a desire to dominate. You might call a sense that you're morally entitled to dominate.
Yeah, I would say that people are motivated toward authority relations and they find higher rewarding and that they think it's natural and good and just and they feel a motivation to maintain that.
I see. Well in that case, do you think how much of this apparent disagreement and models of violence is a real disagreement and how much of that do you think is, you know, having different definitions for morality versus, like, self-interest? Yeah.
So, you know, I try to, as best I can really avoid kind of semantic arguments.
I find it super frustrating when people are like, oh, well, you know that. But that's not moral or that's not whatever. And, you know, that's not dehumanization and whatever that is. Right. And I tend to just want to be like, OK, that's fine. But then let's get concrete about the particular psychological processes. And I don't care what we call it. I think in this space, it's not so much that a lot of the theories are absolutely incompatible.
I think in some cases they sort of are. So if we think about the the instrumental ones, it's really hard to come up with a theory that is incompatible with an instrumental theory that says you do things that are sort of good for you in some broad sense. It comes instead it comes down to, well, you know, what are the parameters that people are actually assuming?
And so and traditionally instrumental theories of aggression, they tend to assume that those parameters are material utilities. So material costs and benefits in the world. But actually a lot of the utilities are nonmaterial, social and moral utilities. And if you think of it that way, then my work is perfectly compatible with the instrumental view. It just assumes really different parameters and really different goods to the instrumental theories. The other point about cloning, though, and those sorts of acts is, you know, I would I would really push forward to kind of say like actually we have reasons to think that, you know, it's not clear to me how if somebody sort of honor is offended or something like that and they're sort of reduced in status and then they engage in some sort of violence to restore their honor, we say, oh, yeah, that was moral, when really concretely what they've done is their status was lowered and then they've engaged in aggression to raise their status back up to some sort of initial default level.
But then when somebody engages in aggression just from the default level to go up, we say, well, that's not moral. That's not moral at all. That's just part of seeking.
Like, to me, I don't think that those are really equivalent. And the only reason we view them differently is has more to do with these sort of moral biases and heuristics like things that have to do with like omission and commission or defaults or something like that.
Hmm. Well. I mean, I definitely have that intuition that you're describing that I'm more willing to say, OK, I can see how that's morally motivated. If someone has been has been beaten down by society and now they're trying to restore their rightful place or something.
And I've observed people who do really anti-social things to two individuals who have not harmed them at all. And the what it has always felt like to me is that they they're passing society as the moral units. They're not thinking about individuals as being separate moral units. And they're just thinking about like, well, society has done harm to me or society has taken something away from me. Therefore, I am entitled to take something back from society.
And who they take it back from is not really that relevant, which is very alien to my, I guess, you know, modern, individualistic post enlightenment, utilitarian sentiments or something. But I could imagine a version of morality that's maybe an older one that does not distinguish between what the you know, the different relevant units of of of moral calculus in society. Yeah, I mean, I think. You know, it really sort of depends on the cultural rules as far as like what's appropriate or not, in some cases it's saying, hey, you really need to target the specific person that aggrieved you in other cases are saying, well, you know, you can target anybody in that person's social group.
In other cases, it's just pure kind of displaced aggression that if you were harmed, then you have the right to basically go out and hurt whatever stranger you happen to be first. And that's kind of the classic example of sort of these weird head hunting cases of dubious ethnography. But, you know.
This idea of like the dad, you can have this sort of range, I think it's real, is so when I read accounts of bullies who enjoy humiliating their victims or to go a little farther afield, I also like reading about trolls like self-identified Internet trolls. People ask them, why do you do it? And a common response is something like, well, you know, it's fun. It's amusing to me. And anyway, people shouldn't take it so seriously, like the rules don't apply to the Internet, like the rules of how you're supposed to treat people don't apply to the Internet.
You know, it's your fault anyway if you let it bother you and. And what it I guess what I'm wondering is, could your theory of morally motivated violence just be stated as people when they commit acts of violence or, you know, figurative violence in the case of trolling, is it not so much that they think they're they're being actively virtuous as that they think what they're doing is morally permissible?
Like those are two very different things. But I think you sometimes kind of slip between are back and forth between in your discussion of the theory.
Yeah, I think that's a fair critique. I think part of why slip between them, though, is because I honestly see them as sort of on a continuum as opposed as opposed to being distinct. But what I would say about, you know, your example is, you know, I do think it's true in all sorts of contexts. The you know, we could have bullies who are basically do you see them motivated by a sense of righteousness, a sense of like and this is this is how it should be.
Then we could also police who are doing what you're saying that, you know, they're drawing a sort of boundary beyond which moral concerns don't actually apply. And if they feel that they're within that they're beyond those bounds, then, you know, by my sort of approach in morality, they wouldn't necessarily be acting morally. And here's where it gets complicated.
When I talked about, like, oh, well, are you defining things scientifically or sort of phenomenologically, you know, maybe, you know, hopefully in those cases that they match, but they don't always. But I tend to argue that, you know, what morality is really about is about regulating different kinds of relationships. But if you don't actually perceive a relationship or you don't perceive the relationships as being relevant or motivating in any way, then your actions aren't really going to necessarily be morally motivated.
And that's where you are going to find this kind of more instrumental kinds of stuff.
Can we look at what interventions should or do reduce violence as a way to determine what the right causal theory, a causal explanation of violence should be like? What would your model of what causes violence? Would it suggest that there are certain interventions that we should be doing that other theories of violence?
Wouldn't say so. So it strikes me that it seems to me like you asked two different questions there, that the first one was if if my approach suggests different interventions and those interventions work, does that cycle back to disambiguate the.
Which theory is right? I'd have to I'd have to think about that the second one is easier, I think, which is does does my sort of approach make different sorts of policy implications or something like that and just different predictions of different reactions? And I think. Yeah, it does. You know, at its core. Our approach would argue that, yeah, you know, if you really want to change, if you really want to change violence and reduce violence, then you have to really focus on the social norms surrounding as opposed to, let's say, the costs and benefits, the material costs and benefits involved.
So, for example, I have this new project where it's very much tied to signal where we do this third party punishment stuff. And it turns out that if you pay people to engage in third party punishment, so punishing somebody who has made an unfair offer, if you try to pay them some additional benefits on top, they're actually less likely to do it than if you didn't pay them anything at all that we essentially crowd out there. There's the behavior and it turns out that the reason you crowd it out is because you've now you've now corrupted the sort of signaling value of the punishment.
And so it turns out that people people want to signal to other people that they're a good person. And in the context of more or less a punishment, the way to signal to other people that you're a good person is by hurting another person. Does that make sense?
Yeah, without without benefit to yourself.
And and so that's like an experimental example. But we can kind of think about some real world examples, too. So. So a real world example might be.
You know, in Chicago and Baltimore and some other places, there were these violence or cease fire type programs, and initially those sorts of programs were really geared around carrots and sticks. So violent gang members in the community would basically be told that, hey, you know.
They need to stop engaging in violent crime, and if they don't, there's going to be serious consequences.
If they play ball, they're going to get various kinds of help with jobs and other kinds of structural things. And on its own, that wasn't really successful only when it started to get paired with them being brought face to face with community members who are respected, who were telling them that this was wrong, that things start to really change. Now, that doesn't mean that the models worked on their own. Either they did it. You had to pair it with material consequences, too.
But, you know, really leveraging the SA social ties within the communities did have the sort of effect. I think this is similar to someone on the other side of community policing kinds of things that we're seeing. You know, on the flip side, you know, our theories are predicts things like body cameras aren't going to necessarily be straightforward for changing moral behavior, because the implicit assumption there is that people are less likely to do things that are wrong if they know they're being watched.
But if people don't actually believe that what they're doing is wrong and we don't have any reason to think that being observed is going to change anything, does that make sense? Yeah, yeah, yeah. Good point.
You get these kind of weird situations like that. Another space where I think our theory makes some different predictions has to do with the sort of broad approach to say, oh, we just need to start to recognize the humanity of our enemies or something like that, you know, build empathy, don't dehumanize, et cetera. You know, my argument really suggests that a lot of violence is directed toward people we recognize as fully human, and that's actually part of why we're we desire to hurt them, because we want to hurt people who can who deserve it and who can suffer and who will understand why we're doing it to them.
And so that sort of makes different predictions about about whether you should really be building up.
So if you think about things going on at the southern border now, I think a standard sort of dehumanization approach might be like, oh, well, we really just need to emphasize the humanity of these children in particular or something like that. But our approach would actually say, well, no, if the if the moral motives are geared toward thinking about what these people are doing is wrong, then people are simply going to reframe that. So they're going to see those pictures of children and they're just going to blame their parents and get even more angry.
Yeah, I mean, I, I guess it depends on whether you think because you're your theory does allow that some violence is instrumental, just not nearly as much as people think.
So if you thought that the efforts to keep refugees out or to imprison refugees were instrumental because the main goal was just preserving America's low refugee status or something, then then maybe making people feel guilty about the effects of their actions on children would help.
But if it's motivated by, you know, moral outrage at these refugees who dare to violate our laws, then then I guess your theory would predict. No, this is not going to work that right? Yeah, I think so.
So, so so what I you know, again, going back to this kind of initial framing of like, you know, what's motivating versus what's sort of inhibiting and those things coming into contact and being kind of two separate processes, I think when we think about sort of American attitudes and opposition to kind of immigrants and refugees and stuff, there are two distinct psychological processes. One really might be a process of demonization where we don't see victims as fellow human beings and therefore we don't care about their welfare.
And that creates a kind of sense of apathy such that we're not willing to help them. But that's very different from another psychological process, which is sort of active antipathy toward these people based on a kind of moral motivation where we actually want to hurt them and we can look at other kinds of cases. So, you know, my sort of work would suggest that a lot of things where we said, oh, it was about to humanisation, it's not totally clear.
Like the people who engage in direct violence, we think about, you know, ethnic cleansing or genocide of the people who are really kind of the most ideologically motivated. My argument would be that they weren't necessarily dehumanizing targets that were or at least that dehumanization wasn't really driving their actions on the front end or dehumanization was important, which was neutral. Third parties who you just want to kind of stay out of the way and not get involved in.
That helped write the confusing thing, I think. And this is something that reading some of your papers helped clarify for me. The confusing thing is that verbal acts of dehumanization like referring to groups of people as vermin, you know, rats or snakes or or brutes or animals, things like that, that looks like dehumanization. But the reason that people want to do that is because they they they believe that the targets of those of that language can suffer and will find it, you know, humiliating and degrading to be called vermin.
Whereas if they just saw the targets of the language, as, you know, unfeeling, unthinking brutes, then, you know, the language would lose a lot of power.
So it's just yeah, it's a confusing when we talk about, like, are they dehumanizing their victims? It depends on whether we mean are they thinking of them as unhuman or are they, like, intentionally trying to make them feel on human?
Yeah, that's right. So so, yeah, so are they are they actually conceptualizing them as less human or. I don't even know if they were trying to make them feel less human so much as they're just trying to, you know, really kind of make them feel humiliated and degraded through the comparison. Well, this was another case in which I thought there might be a semantic disagreement happening. I know you don't like to have semantic debates, but my perception was that there might be two different senses of dehumanization being used where one notion is, you know, this person has no mental states or feelings, at least none that are salient to me.
And then a different one is this person has no inherent rights or dignity. They're not someone that I have to treat like a person. And so maybe the people who disagree with you and are arguing that dehumanization leads to violence, they're using the second definition, whereas you're using the first.
I think that's totally possible. You know, when I when I talk to people in this field, what they tell me is like, well, no, you know, what demonization is, is ascribing all these sort of evil aspects to the person. And they have evil desires and they they want to hurt people. And and I was like, well, OK, that's a really weird definition of dehumanization to me. Yeah. I don't endorse that.
That seems like confusing cause and effect or something. You know what I kind of tell them as I like. I you know, again, I don't I don't really care what terms we use for a lot of these things. If people want to say some of the stuff that I'm categorizing as moral isn't really moral or something like that, that's fine. But if we can agree on that, there might be distinct psychological processes, processes where we're sort of attributing various kinds of mental processes to people.
And that's causing one set phenomena versus processes where we're stripping away, actively stripping away those kinds of mental phenomena and feelings and emotions and thoughts. And that's causing a different kind of thing than than as long as we agree on that, then I don't really care beyond beyond that. Got it.
So I like a second to last question. We were talking a few minutes ago about what predictions your theory makes, but we could also talk about predictions like what would your theory have predicted would have happened in the past?
And so if you look at the the better angels of our nature story that Steven Pinker tells, violence has gone down steadily over the centuries, at least if we're talking about interpersonal violence and not state sponsored violence, is that what your model would have predicted, given that like, I don't think that for most of the period of that decline in violence, there were like campaigns to change people's moral values.
Yeah, so, you know, I don't think if it was fifteen hundred that I would have necessarily predicted some giant decline in violence. Pinker's story. You know, I don't disagree with him about the decline. I know that's kind of contentious in some circles, but it seems straightforward to me. Where I would probably disagree is on the or at least question a lot would be on the claim that the the source of the decline has to do with kind of rational enlightenment and stuff like that.
Instead, I would think that, you know, what I would say is just because a lot violence is morally motivated, that doesn't it sort of imply the inverse, that moral motivation automatically requires violence. And that really what's happened over the last several hundred years is that people got, you know, nonviolent options to satisfy their moral motives. And if we're talking about how to make the world less violent, policy was, you know, that's going to be sort of the key is, is giving people non-violent means to satisfy their morality.
And so, again, going back to these are bigger policy issues. I think we've often had this kind of approach of material benefits and costs. You know, if we want to reduce violence, then we should just increase the severity of punishment or something like that, which is actually kind of this, you know, kind of long saying interesting puzzle in criminology, which is that, oh, well, it turns out juries aren't that sensitive to increasing the severity of punishment.
And the normal explanation for that has been like, well, criminals are just dumb. They have bad discounting functions. They can't they can't weigh the costs and benefits appropriately. But actually, you know, maybe it's the case, especially if blacks are violent crime conditions. They're motivated by moral sentiments that are actually relatively insensitive to material costs and benefits, that are more sensitive to sort of social pressures, in which case leveraging crime material costs and consequences isn't going to get you what you want.
So would an example of giving people an alternate outlet for their moral feelings be just having having the state be the one to take justice into its hands so that you don't have to?
And so the the thing you do when you're, you know, outraged at what someone else has done is get the police on it. Yeah, absolutely.
I mean, I think this is where kind of structurally it does match up with some of the Enlightenment claims that we basically outsourced a lot of. You know, what I would say is that there actually is a ton of moral violence. We just don't do it ourselves. It's just transformed into structural violence.
And we've just outsourced it to to institutions. Yeah, yeah.
That makes sense. I actually don't know if pinger would disagree. I don't remember better angels well enough, but that seems very I don't know whether you disagree with that point or not.
Yeah. What I've what I've seen is that, you know, some of these disagreements come out like, well, yeah, maybe a few people are killing each other, but there's way more incarceration or something. How do you weigh those sorts of those things against each other? And we don't really have a good criteria for doing so.
Yeah, I mean, when when the question is how do you weigh the value of one type of violence versus the other? That becomes very tricky. But if we're trying to answer a causal question, then that's only slightly less impossible. Yes.
So outsourcing violence to a third party institution is one way. Another way is if if the purpose of violence and a lot of these contexts is to achieve some sort of legitimacy within your local community, then doing the kinds of structural sorts of things that are going to have an effect. Right. So if you, you know, increase the ability of people to earn a living or earn respect through those sorts of means as opposed to to through violence, then that's going to have an effect as well.
Got it. OK, great.
Well, that's probably a good place to stop, but T.J., before I let you go, I wanted to ask if there's any book or blog or other source that has had a big influence on your life or your career.
So. Right. So there are two of the pop to mind. Is that OK? Yeah, definitely. So, you know, probably the biggest sort of academic influence directly on my research would be Durkin's division of labor in society. I think psychology in particular is hyper focused on the individual and what is the individual mind perceive about the social world. And what we actually need is something that would be more akin to the kind of distinction in economics between micro and macro.
We need like macro psychology and I think really gets that.
Do you think that social psychology doesn't fit the bill? No, because I think it might have used to.
But actually the sort of there was a kind of cognitive turn and social psychology around the late 70s and 80s that went from being a psychology of groups and how the groups work towards what inferences about social groups do. Individual minds make so much social social cognition. And that's really what a lot of social psychology is now, especially in America, less so in your the other book that comes to mind is from earlier in my life, which would actually be the Iliad, really.
Huh? You know, I think The Iliad, like, actually really does have this kind of effect. I mean, so so if you think about the Iliad as a as a modern reader, The Iliad, we have this this character, Achilles, who he basically he's the greatest fighter. He's half God. And, you know, the leader of the of the Greek army, Agamemnon takes away his his slave girl.
Right. And Achilles says basically sulks in his tent and refuses to fight because his slave girl was taken away. He was given the second best slave girl when he thought she deserves the best slave girl. And and then you go through the book and eventually kill you. And meanwhile. So that's your main hero on the Greek side and the main hero on the Trojan side is this guy, Hector. And Hector is the brother of Paris.
So Paris is the one who kidnapped Helen of Troy Holland and brought her to try and cause this war to happen in the first place. And Hector is basically like the older brother and he's just trying to clean up this mess. And all Hector cares about is his family. So he cares about his wife and his son or something and and cares about his dad in terms about like Troy and saving Troy and all of his people. And he's just he doesn't have any special powers.
He's just this really brave leader of the Trojans. And and as as a as a modern reader reading this, you know, who are you? Who are you rooting for here?
I mean, I, I don't remember who I was rooting for when I read it back in freshman year of college, if I actually read it instead of busting my way through the class discussions. But from your description, it's very hard to root for the smoking man, maybe in the tent with the slave girl, second best slave girl you would be rooting for Hector, right?
And so so at the end of the book, you get to this sort of climactic battle where basically what ends up happening is Hector and Achilles are facing off right outside the walls of Troy, and it's just them one on one. And and I think there's a sense that if if Hector can just defeat Achilles in this battle, the Greeks will be so defeated that they'll turn back, you know, and so Hector knows he he can he can win the war.
He can save his family. You can save everyone if he just does this.
And in that pivotal moment, what happens is Hector Hector returns, gets scared and he runs away.
I must not have read it because I feel like I would have remembered that disappointing moment. Who knows, maybe I'm misremembering. But this is this is my memory of it from around the same time.
You know, I trust you more than freshman year. Julia gone. So he starts running around the walls of Troy Achilleas chases. I think he shoots him in the back.
Oh, this is all just so disseminators dead. And then Achilleas, like, ties him up to his chariot and just drags his body around Troy again and again, like all day, so that all the people in Troy can see their their hero being dragged on the ground by a chariot and his body being basically desecrated, you know, and that sort of like, you know, eventually they they, they do some they give Hector's body back. But that's the core of the book, you know, who are we supposed to root for it?
Like from the perspective of Homer, was it who are who's the hero?
Exactly. This is this is what I love about this book and why I think it kind of really had a big effect. Obviously, as a modern Western reader, we read this book as a tragedy. We say like, oh, man, that really good guy, Hector, he he he lost. But I actually think that, you know, two thousand years ago, twenty five hundred years ago or whatever, the ancient Greeks cheered in that moment that that Achilles was the hero because he had sort of divine right.
And he was just naturally morally good. It was a completely different set of moral standards that essentially makes Keely's the hero, that it was right for him to soak in his tent. Of course he should have. You deserve the best slave girl. And it would have been it would have been wrong for him to fight because he had been offended. The guest host relationship had been violated. The honor code had been violated.
It's so crazy because like in a modern movie, if the first if your first introduction to a character is Sulkin, his tent, because he didn't get the first best of something that's that's your like hit with an anvil over the head. Q That you're supposed to dislike that person and they're not going to triumph in the end. Exactly.
That's that's why I think that that Berkely resonated with me so much like it shows this is like a perfect example of how wildly different moral norms and values can be across cultures in history.
Uh, you know, I increasingly feel the more I read history that, like the two main lessons I draw from it are one. Wow, people in the past were so similar to me. Like, I didn't realize that people in the past could think and feel the same things I think and feel. And the other lesson being, God, these are like aliens. How are these humans? I don't relate to these people at all. It's really a wide range.
Well, I mean, I actually think that, you know, probably the case is that a lot of them are Westerners. There is a part of them that actually feels the same way as the Greeks. We just have a lot of other explicit morality laid on the that also competes with that high.
Well, anyway, I'm going to not think about that.
I I'm sure there are scholars of ancient Greek literature that disagree with my reading of the literature.
So I again, it's been a long time, but wasn't it written by people who are on the same side as Achilleas? Yeah. Yeah. So that does that definitely points to, you know, we should be we would have been expected to see Achilles's as the hero for sure.
Yeah. The Greeks go in and they slaughter everybody and they they hunt down Hector's family and they throw his baby from the top of the rafters and they do they shoot the worst things possible. But I think that that's that they're the good guys from the Greeks.
I feel the same thing every time we read the Haggada on. I don't know if you've been to a Jewish state or on Passover, but there's this passage in the Haggadah, which is the thing we all read where we're, you know, thanking God for all the things he did for us, including killing the first born children of the of the Egyptians like, oh, it would have been enough if you had only done these things, but also you killed these all these innocent babies.
Thank you so much. That was such a lovely thing to do. And yeah, it's very jarring as a modern reader.
Oh, well, thank you so much for that stimulating conversation and debate and storytelling. And I was just trying to think about what photo of you I'm going to use for the podcast website. And I think I'm going to go with this. I don't know if it was an author photo, an interview photo or something, but there's a great pic of you. And I guess your co-author, Ellen, looking very grim in a graveyard.
Take this horrendous picture in front of a graveyard so that their attempts to illustrate.
You guys study violence because that was your idea. I mean, out of all the, you know, background illustrations of violence that they could have chosen, a graveyard is one of the less bad ones, I guess. Thanks again. It's been a pleasure.
This concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.