The Wrong Kind of Violence, Part 1

“No animal shall kill any other animal… without cause.”                   – the pigs (George Orwell, Animal Farm)


When I was in the second or third grade I asked my parents about the Ten Commandments, which we had just learned in my Catholic school. Specifically, I wanted to know about the fifth commandment: “Thou shall not kill.” As my father was in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, I was concerned whether he had broken the commandment. To my relief he told me that, as far as he knew, he had never killed anyone.

Beyond my own father’s past —and I know this isn’t an original thought— I wondered how to reconcile this sacred instruction with all of the killing that must have taken place in the wars across history. Were they all sins? Were all those soldiers doomed to hell?

It’s been a long time since that day, and I only have a vague memory of my parents’ response. They said that killing in war was different. Somehow, the rule was lifted when soldiers killed for their country. In the eyes of a child, I guessed that even divine decrees had exceptions.


From an anthropological perspective, it is worth considering how individuals and societies negotiate what forms of violence are permissible. Some religious scholars, like Rabbi Marc Gellman, have written that a more accurate translation of the fifth commandment should be “Thou shalt not murder” instead of “kill.” Gellman noted that while killing entails ending a life, murder is “taking a life with no moral justification.” Similarly, in his book The Warriors, Glenn Gray wrote that “The basic aim of a nation at war in establishing an image of the enemy is to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder by making the former into one deserving of all honor and praise” (1959: 131-2).   

However, determining when violence (lethal and non-lethal) is morally justifiable can be a gray zone, with people positioning themselves on a continuum between completely nonviolent “doves” to hyper-aggressive “hawks.” While many people hold nonviolence as an ideal; living up to that ideal perfectly has proven difficult to almost impossible. The question is where people draw their line.

Drawing Lines

It would be hard to think of four recent historical figures more different than Gandhi, Ayn Rand, Malcolm X, and Ali Hassan al-Majid (“Chemical Ali”). Yet they all agreed that violence can be justified under certain circumstances. In 1926, Gandhi wrote that “taking life may be a duty.” In his hypothetical example, violence was acceptable to stop a man who was in the act of committing mass murder with a sword, writing that “anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man.” However, Gandhi added that violence should be used “only when it is unavoidable, and after full and mature deliberation and having exhausted all remedies to avoid it.”

For Ayn Rand (1964), use of physical force was a person’s right, but “only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: it is the difference between murder and self-defense.” Malcolm X echoed this theme of self-defense in a 1963 speech, alternating between escalation and proportionality: “Be peaceful. Be courteous. Obey the law. Respect everyone. But if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery…  Preserve your life; it’s the best thing you’ve got. And if you’ve got to give it up, let it be even-Steven.” Finally, in the case of Ali Hassan al-Majid, he signed a decree in 1987 that ordered the mass killing of Kurdish people in northern Iraq which read: “Within their jurisdiction, the armed forces must kill any human being or animal present in these areas.”

These are just a handful of examples, snippets from these individuals’ writings. The point is that individuals have drawn different lines where violence is considered justifiable. To Gandhi, it was a last resort to stop someone already in the act of killing. For Ayn Rand and Malcolm X, it was in retaliation and self-defense. And to al-Majid, it was not for defense but wholesale genocide.

Self-defense is probably the most commonly cited justification for violence because it is usually considered morally acceptable, though not always. It is hard to think of examples of people who renounce violence under any circumstances, though perhaps Jainism comes close. Followers adhere to a path of non-violence or non-injury (ahimsa) not just toward other people but animals as well, leading to a strict vegetarian diet, sweeping one’s path to avoid stepping on insects, and the creation of animal hospitals. Many Jaina abstain from eating potatoes or garlic (since uprooting them would kill the entire plant) and from consuming alcohol or honey (which would harm microorganisms). Monks in Jainism are even more ascetic, coming from a tradition with “an unparalleled concern for life” (Chapple 1993: 11). They try to avoid harming water, air, earth or fire by forgoing bathing, fanning, digging, or lighting or extinguishing fires. If nonviolence can ever be called hardcore, this is probably it. Personally, I don’t think I would make a very good monk in Jainism, but I find their compassion and empathy for life deeply admirable.

Yet self-defense for laypeople is permitted in Jainism, though it is usually regrettable and is believed to result in the accumulation of bad karmic matter (Skoog 2004: 31). People are expected to consider the consequences of their actions in full, including whether violence is necessary and the potential harm to others and their self (as all beings are connected). However, when violence is necessary it should be selfless, dispassionate, and one should later renounce the act. Jaina are also allowed to participate in war and may even be praised for valor, as long as their actions were performed in a defensive, “just war” (p. 31).

The upshot is that it is hard to find examples of “purely” dove-ish humans (or other species), as the strategy of complete nonviolence carries a risk of vulnerability. This was demonstrated symbolically in 2014 when Pope Francis and two children released a pair of doves from a Vatican balcony, representing peace. However, the peaceful birds were soon attacked and injured by a seagull and a crow. The next year, understandably, the Vatican replaced doves with balloons.

Pope Francis and two children released doves as symbols of peace in Jaunary 2014. The doves were soon attacked by a seagull and a crow.


After his home in Montgomery was bombed in 1956, Martin Luther King applied for a concealed handgun permit (he was denied by local white officials). He did have guns in his home for a time, and armed guards as well. In a famous story, a reporter named William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol during a visit to King’s home. However, Dr. King’s perspective shifted over time and he later discarded weapons and personally embraced principled nonviolence, not as an expedient tactic, but as “a way of life.”

As journalist Charles Cobb (2014) wrote, Dr. King acknowledged that there might be times when armed self-defense might be necessary for Black Americans, with Cobb adding that “willingness to engage in armed self-defense played an important role in the southern Freedom Movement, for without it, terrorists would have killed far more people in the movement.” Cobb relayed the story of a Black Mississippi farmer named Hartman Turnbow warned Dr. King in 1964, “This nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get ya killed.” That vulnerability is an obvious obstacle to people embracing complete nonviolence. However, its practitioners argued that while violence could achieve short-term goals, they came with long-term costs. Gandhi wrote that “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” MLK said something similar in his Nobel acceptance speech: “But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Despite those long-term costs, violence has not gone out of fashion.


Defensive Violence

“The only defensible war is a war of defense.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton


So, a general pattern around the world is that people tend to distinguish between initiating violence and defensive violence, with the latter being more acceptable. This may even extend to other species. Among chimpanzees, individuals who are recipients of violence are often consoled by others. Context is important, however, including an individual’s rank, the severity of the attack, and whether the victim was a cocky instigator or just an innocent ape minding their own business. One study by de Waal and Aureli (1996) found that subordinate chimps who were victims of unprovoked aggression were much more likely to be consoled than were violent instigators. In other words, chimpanzees may have a sense of sympathy, and they appear to deem aggression as less worthy of consolation than self-defense (if you end up being the loser).

Juvenile chimpanzee consoling adult male just defeated in a fight with a rival (photo by Frans de Waal)


Humans do something similar. We recognize that retaliatory violence is morally superior to aggression. We are very quick to point out, sometimes disingenuously, that we were merely responding to others’ aggression. They started it. For example, the US, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Israel, Germany, India, UK, and China all have Departments or Ministries of Defense (or Defence). France has a Ministry of the Armed Forces, which seems a more neutral description, while the US once had a Department of War. As far as I know, there is no Ministry of Attack or Department of Belligerence. Remarkably, almost every nation is just defending themselves.

A more likely explanation for these ministries’ titles is that they are an appeal to the moral high ground. In short, this is marketing. To our credit (and maybe to chimpanzees’), we don’t want to be tagged with the role of aggressor. To our shame, we sometimes want to avoid that label not out of an aversion to being the source of harm, but because we cynically wish to avoid undermining the legitimacy of our cause. As Chris Hedges wrote in his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:

“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort. The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause… The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism (2003: 146).”

While government entities and individuals are obviously not the same thing, there is overlap here. Governments appeal to our moral sentiments by portraying their violence as righteous, necessary, and usually defensive. It can sound strange to think of violence as “moral” or “righteous,” but psychologist Tage Rai argued that this is a valuable framework. As Rai wrote in 2015, people usually don’t commit violence because they are evil sociopaths devoid of self-control or solely because they dehumanize others. Instead, “most violence in the world is motivated by moral sentiments” … [and] the general pattern we saw in the cases we studied was that violence was intended to regulate social relationships and sustain a moral order. The perpetrators are in control of their actions—they know they are hurting fellow human beings, and that is exactly what they intend to do.” Furthermore, when people engage in moralistic violence, they often believe they did so out of a sense of obligation, that doing nothing in that situation would be wrong. This would apply to Gandhi’s above scenario of dispatching the man in the act of committing mass murder with a sword.

Obviously, dehumanization can also lead to violence. Yet moralized violence differs in the sense that the perpetrator can see that their victim is fully human and has moral agency. In fact, it is because – in the eyes of the beholder – a person failed as a moral agent so badly that they deserved to be hit, kicked, beaten, shot, killed, etc. In our minds, their moral failings brought punishment upon themselves. Perhaps. In the movie (and book) A Time to Kill, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Carl Lee Hailey, is tried for killing the two men who raped and tortured his young daughter. When asked by the prosecutor what an appropriate punishment would be for raping and hanging a child should be, and whether they deserved to die, Hailey emphatically agreed that they did. Though the story is fiction, many people would agree with Hailey.



The Wrong (and Right) Kind of Violence

However, people clearly do not limit the use of violence only when they stumble upon someone in the act of mass murder. Reality is complex and all sorts of ambiguities arise. What if the person with the sword was not in the act of killing, but had just finished and dropped their weapon? Would violent retaliation be acceptable? What if they had raised their sword and appeared like they were about to attack people, but had not yet actually done so? What if their sword was sheathed and they were yelling about their intentions to attack everyone around them? What if they had no sword, but they spoke calmly about their desire to get one and use it against people? What if you suspected that someone might one day commit an atrocity because they wore a symbol that you suspected made them at a higher risk for violence (gang-related, a Swastika, or from some ethnic group you might not trust)?  

I think most people would agree that with each step away from stumbling across someone in the act of committing an atrocity, violence (intervening, retaliatory, preemptive) against the alleged or potential perpetrator becomes less justifiable. Yet through our subjectivity, our access to partial information, and our cognitive biases, we can be adept at convincing ourselves that our cause is just, step-by-step, much like Fat Tony convincing Bart that there isn’t much difference between stealing a loaf of bread in order to survive to stealing truckloads of cigarettes in order to make a profit.

This is more than theoretical. An important aspect of human psychology is that we possess what’s called “theory of mind.” What that awkward term entails is that we try to understand others’ mental states and intentions, from which we try to predict their actions. Take the example of the US killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January. The rationale given to the public was that Soleimani posed an imminent” threat to US soldiers. Later we were told that the threat might not have been imminent, but that he was planning a campaign of violence against US troops in the region. At other times, the killing was portrayed as justified because Soleimani “was a man with US blood on his hands” in past military operations. Soon after, Iran attacked US troops in neighboring Iraq, leaving more than 100 soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. Our sense of which violence counts as justified “retaliation” probably depends on a combination of factors, including our nationality (our “ingroup”), our individual personality, and which pieces in the chain of events in US-Iran history are most salient. Again, our biases (or calculated cynicism) often induce us to believe we’re merely responding to others’ aggression. Someone else always started it.

The combination of human fallibility and our pliable ability to galvanize moral outrage, can create an almost endless range of scenarios when we feel violence is justified. We often paint ourselves as reluctant warriors (I really didn’t want to fight, but they forced my hand). As General Norman Schwarzkopf once said, “Any soldier worth his salt should be antiwar. And still there are things worth fighting for.” That’s probably true. There are things worth fighting for, but deciding what those things are is highly subjective. And when we are fighting for something of value, that moral certainty can carry with it positive emotions. In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolsky discussed our affinity for violence in certain contexts:

“We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, violence in the wrong context. Because violence in the right context is different. We pay good money to watch it in a stadium, we teach our kids to fight back… Our conversations are filled with military metaphors— we rally the troops after our ideas get shot down. Our sports teams’ names celebrate violence— Warriors, Vikings, Lions, Tigers, and Bears. We even think this way about something as cerebral as chess—“Kasparov kept pressing for a murderous attack…” We build theologies around violence, elect leaders who excel at it… When it’s the “right” type of aggression, we love it. It is the ambiguity of violence, that we can pull a trigger as an act of hideous aggression or of self- sacrificing love, that is so challenging. As a result, violence will always be a part of the human experience that is profoundly hard to understand” (2017: 3).

To be continued…



Chapple, CK. 1993. Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Traditions. Albany: State University of New Press. Link

Cobb CE. 2014. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Basic Books (AZ). Link

deWaal FBM and Aureli F. 1996. Consolation, reconciliation, and a possible cognitive difference between macaque and chimpanzee. In Reaching into Thought: The Minds of the Great Apes, ed. AE Russon, KA Bard, and ST Parker, pp. 80-100. Cambridge University Press.

Gray G. 1959. The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. New York: Harcourt. Link

Lee RB. 1979. The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in  a Foraging Society. New York: Cambridge University Press. Link

Pike IL, Straight B, Oesterle M, Hilton C, Lanyasunya A (2010) Documenting the health consequences of endemic warfare in three pastoralist communities of northern Kenya: A conceptual framework. Social Science and Medicine 70: 45-52.

Sapolsky R. 2017. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin. Link

Scheper-Hughes N, Bourgois P. 2003. Introduction: making sense of violence. In Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, eds. N Scheper-Hughes, P Bourgois, pp. 1–31. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Link

Skoog K. 2004. The Jaina response to terrorism. In Tara Sethia Ahimsā, Anekānta, and Jaininsm, pp. Motilal Banarsidass. Link

Rand A. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library. Link

14 thoughts on “The Wrong Kind of Violence, Part 1

  1. Great stuff, Patrick.
    I love Sapolsky, and I just finished Wrangham’s latest and he concludes the same sort of thing, as do we all – but I swear, the truth is better than that, better than the weak, nutless, we are half this and half that stuff we all end up at – that scenario, half this and half that? That is definitive gaslighting, you can’t argue me here, because I’m over there now. It’s gaslighting and misdirection that freezes us and allows the status quo to reign, un-hindered. I think I’ve finally cracked EP, it’s not just game theory, as I’ve been saying, it is psychology, sort of – but it’s the psychology of authority. It posits “aggression” as some innate noun and takes off “logically” from there, like religion takes off “logically” from the word of God. Psychology that pointedly doesn’t undergo any analysis itself. The only psych it has is the punishment ultimatum: conform or not? Minds and hearts are not part of the story, except the master’s mind and wishes.
    I’m sorry, but Wrangham’s conclusion, and Sapolsky’s upshot, what little hope they find in it isn’t, because, don’t tell them – we’re already doing that. Aren’t we?
    It all needs me, because the only thing we aren’t already doing is not stoking the fire, not bringing more abusive law and order. They crash against what they see as innateness, I don’t know how we all square this innateness with the fact that the same evidence for what is never ending and innate is the evidence of what we are doing to ourselves, and in other context we know what that does.
    It is my contention that “aggression” is the new original sin, and it’s purpose is to end the inquiry, we stop asking why when we are given a noun like aggression. This is all clearly the aggressors’ idea, that they get the advantage of being the default and kindness must explain itself. Seems arbitrary to me, not written in stone.
    I’m sorry to rant at you, I know the flawed history of thought is not your fault. Ha. I seriously need an audience.

    • Hi Jeff, I get what you mean about how dissatisfying the “half-this, half-that” view of humanity can be. I don’t know if “half” is the accurate percentage; I think our deep evolutionary history as social primates weighs more heavily to me. As nasty as we can be at our extremes, I think that is a smaller percentage of our behavior, but the extremes stand out and are more memorable. But I get the point that we didn’t need a Spaolsky or a Wrangham to tell us that we are a hybrid of a species with some altruistic traits and some nasty ones. We can see it for ourselves, and we have folktales about the angel and devil on either shoulder, the story of the two inner wolves, or the modern folk story of there being three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs (that apparently started with Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman who gives lectures to police). Anyway, the science doesn’t seem to tell us much that is new beyond these simple stories, beyond adding detail of what goes on neurologically. But I think there’s value in adding detail and nuance to what we know, and it reminds us of the power of culture (ex. Jainism) and context. A behaviorally flexible animal should have the ability to respond to circumstances, including predicting whether others intend to harm us (which we do imperfectly since we cannot see others’ thoughts). Adding nuance also helps us go beyond simplistic versions of human nature as one-sided. Still, it’s all dissatisfying because we’re not much closer to improving human lives than we were before essays like this one. Maybe that’s a lesson—that violence is a condition to be managed in perpetuity rather than a problem to be cured.

      • Well, my idea is perpetuity minus one, I guess.
        I’m working hard lately trying to find a way to express that in some way it’s fifty-fifty, if not in proportion, at least that there are two things, two principles, or forces, and that it is our attempts at control that tip the balance in the wrong direction, set the default to the wrong side. Our attempts all being some kind of negativity, you know?
        Always working on that, of course. It’s a sort of Jainism just for humans I’m advocating, patiently talking your kids into things and waiting for them to do what you ask and always talking, never pulling rank, never deciding that one little intimidation is “worth it” for some goal (LOL – like going to work. I know, all just theory in this world). Giving the car thief a car and asking him if he’s eaten, LOL. I came pretty close to that ideal with my kids, we both had good jobs and such – but life screwed up the experiment, I got no data still.
        It’s looks like a mental disorder to me that we think we can pull rank and hit or otherwise punish and still expect love and trust – but all humans have it, so . . . ? If you raised your kids regular, I ain’t mad at you, at all. I would almost do it that way if I could again, my revolution helped no-one.

        • They all get so close to it when they say that most violence is moral in nature, it’s an equation, just transpose: most morality is violent in nature. I would ask we worry less about promoting morality and more about discouraging moral violence – which doesn’t only mean Holy Wars, but also spankings.
          If I’m mad at Wrangham, it’s for the tease, I hoped “proactive aggression” meant this.

  2. Comprehensive and brilliant, Patrick. I’ve retained a copy and will share. — I was trying to add here the picture of the doves flocking onto Fidel Castro (it reminds me of the animals coming to listen to Gautama Buddha speak). Well done.

  3. A small, last and unoriginal thought from me: violence is addictive — easy to start, hard to stop. —- I was very much part of May ’68 in Paris. I started peacefully. But when imprisoned and beaten by police, I stopped seeing them as human. When my best friend lost his leg from a riot police grenade and I got a bit of shrapnel from the same blast, I cracked. If I had had a gun I’d have used it. When we (a small group of ‘leaders’) were clearly beaten and when the Communist Party of France called us ‘traitors’, we ‘escaped’ to the Canary Islands to plan a more violent revolution. While there, we got news Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague. We came back and signed that we wouldn’t do it again. — But I would! It was the very best feeling to make a Molotov, set it alight, throw it, and see it explode in fire on a riot police shield. Yes, I’d happily do it again. It was the best and most formative part of my life.

  4. “…We don’t hate violence. We hate and fear the wrong kind of violence, violence in the wrong context. Because violence in the right context is different. We pay good money to watch it in a stadium, we teach our kids to fight back…”

    How long has this been with us? Do we, or can we know? Has it been with us as long as we have existed? Or perhaps, is it an outgrowth of millennia of military aristocracy typified in the West by the sky-god worshipping, raiding lifeways of the Indo-european and Semitic peoples as they expanded their ranges and settled down into raiding-warfare nation-states? (…and in other regions of the world through analogous institutionalization of organized violence?)

    • I’m not sure, Peter. I would think that, like all things human, it’s complicated. There are people who’ve written about moralizing and punishment being important social forces to keep bad from causing disharmony in the group, but I haven’t looked into that much. I just have a few pieces of information that could help answer this, coming from recent hunter-gatherer cultures. Richard B. Lee who studied the !Kung noted that hunters were very accurate with their bows while hunting; however, when they fell into a violent rage in an disagreement, their shots were often wild. This either suggests they were too angry to shoot straight, or they had some disinclination to fatally wound the other person. Another anthropologist, Doug Fry, noted that most lethal violence in hunter-gatherer groups was interpersonal and within communities, rather than between groups. I think the most frequently cited causes of violence were revenge and sexual jealousy.

  5. I would add this: “I would like us more were it not for countless instances of ‘sub-violent’ everyday cruelty common to our much-vaunted ‘sociality’ as a species.”

  6. Pingback: The Wrong Kind of Violence, Part 2 – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

  7. Pingback: The Chances of Violence & the U.S. Election: Lessons from Emile Bruneau and Reading Intentions – Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D.

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