It’s interesting that I had been reading about violence, and particularly the motives that underpin violence, in the book I mentioned in last week’s blog post, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. On virtually every page of Pinker’s book, I gain new insights I had not considered or learned before. For example, on page 484:
“Have you ever fantasized about killing someone you don’t like? In separate studies, the psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss have posed this question to a demographic that is known to have exceptionally low rates of violence—university students—and were stunned at the outcome. Between 70 and 90 percent of the men, and between 50 and 80 percent of the women, admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year.“
Fortunately for society, we fantasize about murder far more often than we actually carry it out; there are consequences to murder that prevent most of us from committing it casually. Normally it’s only when the perceived benefits of murder (e.g., putting an end to a rivalry in an affair, financial gain, silencing a witness to a crime, bringing someone to justice for a offense committed against the muderer, etc.) outweigh the risks that murder is actually carried out. It was revealing to me to read this on page 488:
“I am now convinced that a denial of the human capacity for evil runs even deeper, and may itself be a feature of human nature, thanks to a brilliant analysis by the social psychologist Roy Baumeister in his book Evil. Baumeister was moved to study the commonsense understanding of evil when he noticed that the people who perpetrate destructive acts, from everyday peccadilloes to serial murders and genocides, never think they are doing anything wrong. How can there be so much evil in the world with so few evil people doing it?”
I hadn’t really considered the fact that most evildoers think of themselves as good people and attempt to justify their actions. In fact, most murders are committed out of a sense of vigilante justice to set things right when the justice system has failed. This makes sense to me in retrospect as I consider the end of every episode of the TV shows I enjoy most (The Mentalist and NCIS), in which the murderers, once caught and confronted with their crime, always explain why they committed the murder, expecting the law to sympathize with their motives. (Of course, we as an audience do not sympathize with their reasons and are disgusted with the very attempt of the murderers to justify themselves.)
Pinker then goes on to expound on an important facet of human nature in relation to offenses both small and large: when we’re a perpetrator, we justify and downplay the severity of our actions, and when we’re a victim, we typically inflate the extent to which we have been victimized, attributing the worst possible motives to the perpetrator. And generally a neutral third party takes the side of the victim, unable or unwilling to understand what motivated the perpetrator. The long and the short of it is that we (usually without realizing it) tend to put ourselves in the best possible light, whether we’re the victim or the perpetrator in any situation. If we genuinely (especially without realizing it) believe ourselves to be better than we are, then when we make our case to the outside world, we can do so without consciously lying, and if we’re not consciously lying, we can be more believable to others in our self-deceived pronouncements.
But on to the next question Scott posed to me: Why do we consider acts like murder to be evil if there is no god to give us any reason to think they’re evil? My position is that we all live in and depend on society for our well-being. If society allows or smiles on murder, then eventually the chances that murder will touch me or my family or friends will increase. We have no choice but to denounce murder in the most uncertain of terms, to send a message that murder doesn’t pay, and to remove from free society those who don’t respect the right of the rest of us to live without the threat of murder. Millennia ago, societies consisted only of small families or clans of hunter-gatherers, and murder within these societies was always seen as evil (though not outside those societies). Over time the size of our societies has grown from clans to tribes to ethnic groups to nations and now leagues of nations. We still legitimatize homicide in warfare, but expanding the extent of our societies and putting in place laws and police and justice systems to keep the peace within our societies have played a large part in the significant reduction of violence over the centuries.
I don’t have all the answers to the problems of human nature that still plague us in the twenty-first century, but I am heartened to know that, despite the very real and upsetting examples of apparently wanton violence like the murders that Scott witnessed repeatedly on the surveillance tape during the recent trial, the rates of all kinds of violence are on the decline in our world. Whatever the reasons for the decline, we can be thankful we live in a safer world than ever before.
I ended my conversation with Scott by addressing his concern that nothing good could come of the murders or the trial he participated in, that it was wearying and tragic. I assured him that if there were no juries or a justice system to get murderers off our streets, we would certainly be living in far, far more murderous society. We are all capable of murder, but as long as the cost of committing murder (whether life in prison or the death penalty, even if I have reservations about the latter) outweighs its benefits, we can prevent its shadow from affecting all our lives. Thank you, Scott, for doing your duty so the rest of us can live in relative freedom from the daily fear of homicide!