Sounds like a dumb question. Everyone knows that violent people are immoral. They lack empathy, are selfish, and some are even psychopaths.
But what if the research doesn’t support these assumptions? Harvard professor Steven Pinker, giving a talk for the Economist, says we need less moralizing. He says that most murders happen for moralistic reasons: someone done me wrong, stole my stuff, slept with my wife, cut me off in traffic.
On a larger scale, Hitler saw himself on a moral quest to defend victimized Germans against Jewish perfidy, Communists slaughtered millions of evil bourgeois capitalists, and the Catholic Church’s medieval Inquisition was done in the name of a perfectly good God to defeat the powers of Satan.
The good news, according to Pinker, is that the world today is far less violent than the past. This also sounds counter-intuitive, but in The Better Angels of Our Nature (which he summarized in a Ted Talk) he notes that the scale today is larger because the world’s population is larger. In Roman times there were probably only 50 to 60 million people on the entire planet, but today there are over 7 billion people.
However, per capita violence is far lower today. Pinker says there were about 100 murders per 100,000 people in medieval Europe, but in some European countries today the murder rate is down to 1 per 100,000. And, as a percent of the population, wars today also kill far fewer people.
Further, violence that was not only socially acceptable in the past but even promoted is considered repugnant human rights violations today. Pinker points to the Bible (Numbers 31) where God commands the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites, killing all the men, boys, and non-virginal women, sparing only female virgins (presumably to be raped). Were Moses around today he’d be reviled just as we revile the men of ISIS, and he’d be tried as a war criminal.
Writing for Aeon, Tage Rai claims that the primary reason people commit violence is because their moral code demands it. Often it comes down to revenge.
And extreme violence, as with Islamic terrorists, can emerge when people find their way of life threatened – such as modernity, with its ideals of equality, encroaching on Islamic cultures that are based on ancient ideologies.
Giving up one’s vigilante quest to defend personal honor in favor of allowing the state to adjudicate the situation, and accepting the verdict even if it’s not guilty, has done much to reduce violence. Equality also promotes peace because much violence has to do with regulating social relationships, which can mean violent consequences for those who resist subordination.
Social pressure from one’s peers is also huge. Rai describes
a Chicago program known as ‘CureViolence’. The program hinges on getting trusted members of the community to intervene with moral appeals that focus on social-relational consequences, before retaliatory violence can erupt. A study of the program found that it reduced shootings by 16-28% in the areas where it was implemented.
However, he cautions that
It isn’t easy to change a culture of violence. You have to give people the structural, economic, technological and political means to regulate their relationships peacefully. Social groups have to learn to shame and shun anyone who hurts others. But it can be done. It has been done in the past, and it is happening as we speak.