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Killing for good? ‘Virtuous Violence’ examines morality in violence

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Is violence as a response to violence justified when it’s morally motivated? The recent killings at Charlie Hebdo are an example of what authors Alan Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai refer to as “morally motivated violence” in their new book ‘Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End and Honor Social Relationships.’ Those who commit violent acts are motivated by their personal moral emotions or judgments. For example, the brothers suspected in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo took innocent lives because they felt they were defending their beliefs.

The authors have found this to be a common reason for violence throughout history from interviewing thousands of violent offenders and doing scholarly research on violence.

The few exceptions they found were psychopaths who make up a small percentage of the population and make up a small portion of violent acts committed. However, individuals with other mental illnesses committing violence often did so believing they were doing the right thing. Abusers may feel entitled or obligated to use violence because they perceive that as the right way to act in a relationship. Gang members kill as an act of retaliation.

In order to stop violence, the authors stress the importance of understanding what motivates it. They say change can only happen once a violent person understands that their actions are wrong. As Fiske notes in a recent article in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “When we make it clear that regulating our relationships to each other don’t require violence, we can stop that cycle.”

Can society truly put an end to violence? How far away are we from making that a reality?


Alan Fiske, professor of Anthropology at UCLA and co-author of “Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End and Honor Social Relationships” (Cambridge University Press, 2015), anthropology professor at UCLA