Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships, by Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai

Chris Knight on a theory that an excess of morality is the cause of most violence and conflict today

January 1, 2015

There was a time when social theorists would complain about Homo economicus – the classical economist’s picture of man the rational maximiser, devoid of morality. Echoing Karl Marx, they would argue passionately that a world full of such individuals would be hell on earth.

Virtuous Violence turns that argument on its head. According to authors Alan Fiske and Tage Rai, the source of most violence and conflict in today’s world is an excess of morality, not a dearth. Unfortunately, they argue, we human beings are not rational maximisers at all, but intrinsically moral creatures.

When a man fires a gun during a bank robbery, perhaps killing someone in the process, it is unlikely to be because he has found a clever way to maximise his profits. Armed robbery is in fact a risky, accident-prone, hugely inefficient way of feeding oneself or paying the rent. No, declare these authors, the robber will be acting in accordance with “morally motivated cultural ideals”. He will be wanting to enhance his moral standing in the eyes of his peers, to get even with his rivals, to correct some perceived injustice, to restructure his social world. The same applies to the police and other state authorities that are ranged against him. Equipped as they are with handcuffs, locks, bars, prisons and refined means of torture or execution – their own “virtuous violence” – these upholders of law and order might not agree with the robber’s particular choice of morals, but morals they undoubtedly are.

This book is a cross-cultural survey of violence, rape, abuse and torture of every imaginable kind and is, accordingly, quite an unpleasant read. In addition to what we traditionally call violence, it encompasses and reinterprets vast areas of cultural life that previously have not been construed that way at all.

Fiske and Rai are not talking about structural violence. They do not mean, for example, neoliberal governments enforcing austerity or mining companies polluting water supplies. To count as violence, there must be a conscious intention to inflict pain or harm.

An interesting consequence is that Jewish circumcision does not count (the intent is not to cause pain or harm) whereas other people’s tribal initiation rites and associated mutilations do. When, for example, a girl is initiated into adulthood in a traditional society, the ceremony is almost certain to qualify as violence because it will be designed to enforce deprivation and suffering – a lesson the young initiate is not supposed to forget. The violence here is “virtuous” because family and friends inflict it on her out of a sense of duty or even love.

Humans often behave in what appear to be cruel and irrational ways, mutilating their children’s genitals, torturing prisoners, attempting genocidal massacres and so forth. With the exception of rare pathological cases, say the authors, the impetus is not economic or utilitarian: it is moral.

Fiske and Rai lump together a vast range of practices – pretty much everything cultural agents do – as “virtuous violence” in one way or another. “The world has far too much morality,” as Steven Pinker explains in the book’s enthusiastic foreword. The message – a comforting one for free-market libertarians – is clear. If only people would forget morality and become selfish maximisers, stuffing their faces and pockets as they please, the world would be a much better place.

Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships

By Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai
Cambridge University Press, 384pp, £40.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9781107088207 and 7458918
Published November 2014

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