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Justice Lab

Can Violence Be Virtuous?

A new book examines the morality of crime.

What do police-involved shootings have in common with gang violence, rape, warfare, and even football? According to the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske of UCLA — best known for studying how people relate, socially — they are all examples of “virtuous violence,” violence that seems, to its perpetrators, to be morally defensible and even righteous.

Fiske’s previous work has been popular within the business community and has been used to understand what motivates individuals at work and during negotiations. Now, in a new book, Fiske and his coauthor, Tage Shakti Rai, an anthropologist at Northwestern, try to understand what drives people to hurt others. The vast majority of those who commit violence around the world, they write, are using brutality to “make relationships right” — when soldiers kill to protect their comrades-in-arms, the authors contend, their motivations are similar to a drug kingpin who murders a rival in order to shield the dealers who work for him, a gang initiate who must commit a crime in order to be accepted into the group, or even a linebacker who blindsides a quarterback so his team can win a football game. All believe they are doing the “virtuous” thing within their own social world.

It might seem like moral relativism to compare athletic violence to crime, or to consider perpetrators’ moral beliefs when determining punishments. But Fiske argues that, in fact, the criminal justice system should be more concerned with changing the moral attitudes that provoke violence than in punishing violence through incarceration.

In your book, you write that “Western people (and people in many other cultures) tend to believe that only evil actors do violence, and that good people do not hurt others on purpose.” How has this assumption prevented us from understanding crime?

When you’re the victim of violence or you see other people do violence, it violates your morals. You assume that it’s wrong in the perpetrator's moral system, and therefore the perpetrator must be evil and ignoring morality and intending to do something wrong. You’re not taking the perspective of the perpetrator into consideration, which is that most of the time, what they’re doing is not only right, but something they feel they have to do and should do.

What the book does is take the anthropological perspective. What people do in some other culture or subculture makes sense from the point of view of the person doing it.

How do you define morality?

What morality comes down to is making relationships right. Morality is realizing, improving, and enhancing the kinds of relationships that are regarded as ideal in your culture. Sometimes violence is used to do that. If we want to reduce the prevalence of violence anywhere in the world, we have to see where it’s coming from. To understand it is not to condone it. We write in the book about many kinds of violence in which the perpetrators feel morally motivated, but that doesn’t mean we approve of it.

Let’s talk about specific types of morally motivated violence. You demonstrate that more than half of urban homicides are due to beefs, or vendettas between individuals or groups. Can you describe how that fits into your virtuous violence theory?

If somebody transgresses a relationship, then other people very often seek retaliation. The third party may be the police or the courts. But it could be the gang leader or somebody who has moral authority within a system, even if the larger society doesn’t recognize their moral authority. If a gang member buys drugs that turn out to be bad quality, the gang leader — in his responsibility to support and look out for and protect his members — goes to the dealer and says, “Hey, you can’t do this.” The drug dealer is afraid and pulls out a gun, and the gang leader pulls out his gun and shoots the drug dealer. The gang leader is in a system of authority where he has to look out for and enforce the rules on behalf of the people who are dependent on him.

You also write about studies that show some police officers are morally motivated to use violence to punish.

One source of police violence is that police sometimes have very little faith in the legal system and the court system, and believe that perpetrators are likely to get off and continue to do violence. They may feel they need to take responsibility for punishing those people because the courts won’t. For example, the police see a person holding up one store and they think he probably held up other stores. But they feel the courts aren’t likely to incarcerate this person, so they say, “Hands up!” and shoot.

Most police are conscientious and very careful, but there are some who are not, and those who are not are still following their own moral principles and principles that are supported by many others.

Our crime debate throws around words like “sociopath” and “psychopath.” But you show that studies from around the world find that only 2 to 13 percent of violent criminals are psychopaths or have some other psychological condition that affects empathy.

Novels and TV shows and movies often represent people who do violence as psychopaths. When somebody does violence against you or against somebody you love, very often if they’re from a different subculture from yours, you don’t understand their moral system. So you assume they don’t care about morality at all. And to have no morality is to be a psychopath. It’s very hard to understand the point of view of other people, especially if they are from another subculture. Even if I live in L.A., it doesn’t mean I understand the thousands of cultures and subcultures within L.A.

But we know so much violence is perpetrated within communities. Three-quarters of victims of violent crime are hurt by someone they know, someone whose subculture they may understand intimately.

A gang may have its own moral system that doesn’t agree with the moral system of most of the people in the neighborhood. And that’s where David Kennedy's work comes in. You can show gang members that the rest of the community, including people they admire and respect, like the pastors and mothers and grandmothers, don’t share their gang’s morality. It can have an effect on whether people do violence.

You praise the Cure Violence program in Chicago, in which ex-gang members try to change the attitudes of current gang members.

If somebody from the outside comes in and says, “Hey, your moral system is all messed up,” it’s likely to have very little influence. But if you take people who gang members admire and used to have the values they have, those people are in a position to be very influential. That person can say, “Hold on, if you do violence, this hurts the community and yourself. Your mother will be hurt. Your wife or partner needs you. Your children need you, and you can’t help them if you’re in prison or killed by somebody else in a street fight.” Those people can potentially change the moral system of perpetrators.

Could the virtuous violence theory be used, by, say, a prosecutor to argue that because someone is part of a community with a history of virtuous violence — for example, a community that has practiced honor killings in the past — they are likely to have committed a crime?

We shouldn’t use stereotypes, but look at the particular individual and particular community and what their moral system is. There are certainly some implications of virtuous violence for the law. There is the doctrine of mens rea that has been used in the context of insanity or unintended harm. You’re less culpable and sometimes not punished at all if you didn’t intend to do evil or mean to do something that was wrong. If we apply that doctrine beyond where it’s usually applied to cases of insanity or accidental bad consequences, if you take it more literally and say that people are only liable to be punished if they did something with evil intent, the implication is that in the vast majority of cases of violence, people don’t have evil intent, and maybe they shouldn’t be punished. Punishment is ineffective and doesn’t have the results that we would like it to have if the perpetrator believes that what they did what was right and necessary.

You cite a body of research suggesting that men who commit violence against women are acting out of the desire to control their relationships with the opposite sex: that they don’t believe women have the right to sexually reject them or challenge them. If a man assaults or rapes or kills a woman, should the law be concerned with his moral calculus, or with getting him off the street so he cannot victimize more women?

If you’re trying to prevent future harm, then indeed, it may make sense to lock people up. It’s not punishment so much as prevention. But if you let the person out eventually, and they still have the same moral system, they may end up doing the same thing again.

That could lead some people to say, “Let’s lock ’em up and throw away the key.” But you suggest our criminal justice system should focus less on punishment and more on changing attitudes.

Although we feel inclined to punish people, that may or may not be the best way to reduce violence. There are forgiveness processes, truth and reconciliation. We can explore if those processes would be better at reducing violence than prison or executing people.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.