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Virtuous Violence (Alan Page Fiske & Tage Shakti Rai)

Alan Page Fiske & Tage Shakti Rai

If ever an academic book needed to come with an XXX-rated certificate and Government Health Warning it must surely be this one, for the unspeakable violence that it documents is profoundly disturbing. Therefore, its title might seem strange indeed. For example, can flogging a school-boy for failing to translate Latin correctly be described as ‘virtuous’? Is it morally right to whip a sailor for minor transgressions, as happened in past centuries in the Royal Navy? Can rape ever be described as a moral act? Can female genital mutilation? Surely, to every reader of this review, probably of the book too, such things are the epitome of extreme immorality.

But wait. If this is your reaction, you are probably looking at things from a contemporary egalitarian Western perspective, shared by the authors of the book and by me. The ‘virtuous morality’ of violence strictly applies to the emotional and motivational processes underlying the perpetrator, not to us. In his own mind, the Victorian school teacher hitting the back-side of a boy is acting virtuously, since thereby the boy will succeed at Latin, rather than fail in life. Rapists commonly justify their behaviour in terms of putting right an injustice that has been done to them. Even if their victim is a complete stranger, then she holds collective guilt since all women are said to be the same. If she didn’t want this to happen, why was she behaving in that provocative way? The person performing female genital mutilation sees this as virtuous, since the girl is spared the problems that later arise from excessive female desire.

The book documents the morality involved in mass (‘spree’) killing, as in bullied school pupils turning up at school with an automatic weapon in order to ‘get even’. It also looks at the morality of genocide, exemplified by the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia, who considered their ethnic cleansing to be ridding the world of ‘cockroaches’. 

Although not discussed in the book, serial killers tell a similar story. Ted Kaczynski (the ‘unabomber’) targeted various prominent people as a protest against industrial society and had a moral justification for doing so in terms of putting right society’s wrongs. There was sometimes a very tenuous link between victim and industrial society, one victim being a professor of biological psychology. The Washington Sniper might well have had moral motives too. Gary Ridgeway, the so-called Green River Killer of Seattle, and probably America’s most prolific serial killer, perfectly articulated that morality can blend with other motivations. He claimed to have right on his side by killing sex workers while he had intercourse with them, since thereby he was preventing other men from suffering at the hands of women in the way that he had suffered. BOOK REVIEW News & Views Winter 2016/17 41 This book, with an excellent foreword by Steven Pinker, represents a monumental and broad piece of scholarship and is very well written. It has several profoundly important and radical takehome messages for psychology. For example, it argues that so much of behaviour can only be understood in terms of the particular nature of the relationship between at least two people. What does this say about attempts to study personality as some intrinsic property of the individual? Someone might be a tyrant at home but delightful at work. In the terms of this study, it depends upon the nature of the relationship that is being regulated.

Violence is not necessarily the product of a reflexive automatic process though it can be this. In other cases, it is the product of extensive conscious deliberation. For example, revenge sometimes happens years after the offence and the victim has only an indirect link to the offender, as in the case of the vendettas practiced in parts of Albania.

The book neatly shows the futility of dividing things into biology versus social or essentialist versus social construction. The authors present a strong case for universal processes in the human brain/ mind, which they term ‘relational models’. They note that some species of non-human primates show behaviour similar to humans in complex processes of administering punishment. My own reading of their argument is in the terms of control theory. These relational models specify the ideal values of interaction of the individual with others. Where reality departs from the ideal, action is taken to bring actual into alignment with the ideal. If the culture, as interpreted by the individual, specifies violence as the means to achieve this, so be it; the individual feels morally obliged to resort to violence. Mercifully today we no longer flog school boys for academic failure since the cultural prescriptions have changed.

There is a neat dovetailing between this book and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. We have discovered new ways of regulating relationships in society. Instead of killing those who harm us, we call the police or a lawyer. Fiske and Rai conclude with a section describing how our social relationships might be more effectively regulated without resorting to violence.

The authors claim that most violence has a moral dimension to it and make the implicit assumption that morality lies as part of the causal nexus underlying the behaviour. I think that they are right here but they might need to question whether sometimes it is a justification after the event (an ‘epiphenomenon’), even a mitigating plea.

Finally, I was left with a feeling that, in some sense, it is absolutely morally right not to flog school children, whatever the particular society has as a convention. I guess most readers feel this but I cannot justify it. It is a (God given?) belief, a gut feeling. B.F. Skinner confronted this issue in designing a utopian society. In his terms, quite apart from its relative inefficiency, what moral code specifies that punishment is to be avoided and in its place positive reinforcement employed? But this takes us beyond our brief here.


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