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20211211 – Virtuous Violence



This book’s main idea is that violence in all its forms is often moral and even obligatory in the eyes of perpetrators and services to regulate their social relationships. Another purpose is to provide modeling of such relationships regulation and apply these models to the historical occurrence of violence and relevant empirical research in psychology to demonstrate how it all works. Finally, it presents some ideas on inhibiting the use of violence.  


1 Why are people violent?
“Chapter 1 lays the foundations for the book, stating the theory in the simplest terms, then explaining what we mean by “violence” and what we mean by “moral,” and then briefly comparing virtuous violence theory with previous approaches that address the morality of violence.”

So here is the author’s definition:” “violence “consists of action in which the perpetrator regards inflicting pain, suffering, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement, or death as the intrinsic, necessary, or desirable means to the intended ends.”  The author notes that people normally are not inclined to use violence but do it if they are driven by morality and strive to be virtuous. The author explains this unusual stand by providing this definition of morality:” So we define morality in two ways, which we believe coincide and are indeed two sides of the same psychology. Morality consists of a certain set of evaluative emotions, as well as a certain set of intentions. The motives and emotions concern the feelings that something should or should not be done, while the intentions concern making relationships what they should be. When we posit that most violence is morally motivated, we mean that the person doing the violence subjectively feels that what she is doing is right: she believes that she should do the violence, and she is actually moved by moral emotions such as loyalty or outrage. At the same time, moral refers to the evaluation of action, attitudes, motives, or intentions with reference to an ideal model of how to relate.” The author also discusses in this chapter the cultural relativity of morality and the cultural attitudes to pain and suffering, which are not evil but rather positively good in some cultures. Finally, the author discusses the origins and forerunners of his virtuous violence theory and identifies the book’s scope. The book’s key point, which defines its scope, is an approach to violence as a tool people use to regulate relationships according to cultural rules. In this case, the violence, however bad, is moral in the eyes of its perpetrator. Except for some sadistic and psychopathic personalities, people who inflict violence typically do not enjoy the process but perceive it to be the moral duty they have to fulfill.

2 Violence is morally motivated to regulate social Relationships
“Chapter 2 presents the analytic structure we will be employing throughout the book to understand the social-relational nature of violence: the four fundamental relational models, their essentially cultural implementation, their constitutive phases, and how they are linked into larger metarelational configurations. This completes the foundation and erects the framework of virtuous violence theory.”

The author here defines four elementary relational models (RM) underlying the infliction of violence:

  • Communal Sharing: Unity (CS)
  • Authority ranking: hierarchy (AR)
  • Equality matching: equality (EM)
  • Market pricing: proportionality (MP)

The author also defines six ways of how each model generate, shape, and preserve social relationships:

1. Creation: violence that is intended to form new relationships, either between strangers or in a way that fundamentally changes a pre-existing relationship.

2. Conduct, enhancement, modulation, and transformation: violence that comprises the relationship itself – enacting, testing, enforcing, reinforcing, enhancing, honoring, attenuating, or transforming it.

3. Protection: people’s belief that they have a moral entitlement to protect themselves and their relationship partners.

4. Redress and rectification: punishment, making someone “pay a penalty,” retaliation, revenge, purification, restoration of honor, violent sacrificial offerings, or self-punishments in response to transgressions that threaten relationships.

5. Termination: unlike the previous relationship functions, violence not meant to create, protect or restore the relationship but to have it permanently cease. In some cases, this violence is meant to free someone from relational obligations that they can no longer fulfill, such as in cases of euthanasia or Japanese seppuku.

6. Mourning: action in response to the loss of an important relationship due to the other’s departure, defection, or death.

The author also provides a graphic representation for various scenarios.

3 Defense, punishment, and vengeance
Chapter 3 makes the crucial point that people often feel that it is right and necessary to use violence for defense, punishment, or retribution.

Here the author discusses the types of violence that in most cultures considered not only legitimate but also required. In addition to defense, it includes vengeance and retribution.

4 The right and obligation of parents, police, kings, and gods to violently enforce their authority

Chapter 4 explores the moral motives for violent enforcement of legitimate authority.

After a brief reference to history and philosophy, the author discusses corporal punishment of children, military and policing violence, perceived violence by God(s), and other cases of violence by authority. Here is the author’s take on motivation:” The moral motivations for violence grow out of the dyadic relationship between the perpetrator and the victim; but also, and sometimes even more strongly, out of metarelational models linking the relationship between perpetrator and victim to their relationships with third-party nobles, ecclesiastics, and deities; and, in turn, they grow out of those first, second, and third parties’ relationships with fourth parties such as the king, and to an important degree with other subjects of the nobles, congregants of the church, and worshippers of God.”

5 Contests of violence: fighting for respect and solidarity
Chapter 5 illuminates the moral motives for regulating relationships consisting of contests of violence such as jousts, martial and contact sports, or confrontations between gangs.

In this case, the morality of violence comes from its metarelational character. Its use against individuals out of the group allows one to establish and enhance their position, whether as a knight, warrior, gang member, or whatnot.

6 Honor and shame
Chapter 6 characterizes honor and shame as motives for violence in many cultures and subcultures, and we unpack the metarelational moral motives for violence that comprise the framework for the Trojan War and Homer’s account of the violent regulation of relationships among the ancient Greeks.

 The author provides many references to works describing specific cultures in which honor and shame play an oversized role in human behavior. He also discusses particular functions such as guest-host relationship, honor killing, and honor among thieves. He then provides a detailed analysis of the metarelational honor model, which organized the violence of the Trojan War.

7 War
Chapter 7 describes national leaders’ moral motives for going to war, and soldiers’ moral motives for killing and dying.

Here the author discusses the motivation of leaders and nations that initiate a war and applies his model to actual historical events such as the Vietnam war. The author then looks at the real people who kill: soldiers, fighters, and terrorists. Finally, he analyses moral motivations such as compliance with orders from leaders of the group, protection of comrades in a battle, defense of one’s people or ideology, and so on.

8 Violence to obey, honor, and connect with the gods
In Chapter 8 we consider how humans violently constitute social relationships with gods and spirits, including human sacrifice and excruciating self-torture. After showing that these six types of violent practices are morally motivated to constitute critical social relationships, we pause to explicate virtuous violence theory more precisely.

Here is the author’s characterization of the overall discussion so far:” We have reached the midway point of the book, having characterized the moral motives and relationship-constitutive phases of defense, punishment, vengeance, fighting for respect and solidarity, violence ordered by and committed by authorities, honor violence, violence in war, and violent sacrifice.

9 On relational morality: what are its boundaries, what guides it, and how is it computed?

Chapter 9 considers more deeply the links between moral and immoral motives for violence, showing that morality is not defined by forms of actions or their material consequences. Rather, morality is culturally defined by local precedents, prototypes, and precepts for implementing the four universal relational models (RMs). We also show that both impulsive and reflectively considered violence are mostly morally motivated.

Here is the key statement describing the author’s position on the perceived morality of violence:” violence is morally motivated when the perpetrator intends the violence to regulate a relationship in a manner that is congruent with the cultural preos as the perpetrator perceives them.”  The author illustrates this by presenting a wide variety of cultural norms that define the morality of violence, from traditions of Nuer hunter-gatherers to the 53-page NATO Rules of Engagement Manual MC 362–1. The final question that the author discusses in this chapter:” Is morally motivated violence rational and deliberative or emotional and impulsive?”. The answer is: it is both.

10 The prevailing wisdom
This allows us in Chapter 10 to show how virtuous violence theory either encompasses or complements previous theories that violence results from sadism, psychopathy, rational cost-benefit calculation, or, conversely, failures of rationality. The author discusses the psychology and nature of killers and provides the summary table:

11 Intimate partner violence
Then we tackle forms of violence that people may be loath to acknowledge could be morally motivated, but, in fact, often are: intimate partner violence;

The author notes that Intimate partner violence is widespread and often morally motivated to regulate relationships

12 Rape
Chapter 12 explicitly discusses a frequent form of violence – rape, including gang rape and rape in warfare.

13 Making them one with us: initiation, clitoridectomy, infibulation, circumcision, and castration     

Chapter 13 demonstrates that moral motives to constitute critical relationships with or among their children drive people to perform violent initiation rites on boys, to excise or infibulate girls, and to castrate boys.

The discussion here relates to various initiation rates that often include some form of physical mutilation. 

14 Torture
We discover in Chapter 14 that moral motives drive the leaders who order torture and their minions who enact torture on victims, as well as the wider public who condone torture.

Here the author concentrates on motivation for torture as it is experienced by those who order torture and those who inflict it. The author also describes some experiments designed to define public attitudes to torture. Here is his conclusion:” In short, authorities order torture to sustain or restore their AR relationship with the victims. The torturers themselves are typically motivated by hierarchy: the desire to sustain and enhance AR relationships with the torturer’s superiors, or competitive AR relationships with peers. Torturers see torture victims as enemies existing outside the CS group, and they are motivated by MP proportionality to acquire information for the common good, using the most efficient means possible, particularly when time and resources are scarce. Public approval of torture is often driven by EM sentiments of vengeance, making the victim suffer as punishment for the evil he is thought to have done.”

15 Homicide: he had it coming
Chapter 15 investigates the motives of killers; we see that most homicides are morally motivated and the killers’ peers and neighbors feel that they did exactly what they should have done. Even mass murderers and mentally ill killers typically kill because they genuinely feel that their victims deserve to die.

The brief conclusion:” In short, when people kill, they usually do so because they feel that a crucial relationship is being threatened or has been violated, that their position in a crucial relationship is as stake, or that the relationship has reached an intolerable state and cannot be rectified, yet they cannot simply withdraw from it by ceasing to interact.”

16 Ethnic violence and genocide
Chapter 16 analyzes lynching and genocide, which sustain what the perpetrators and their reference groups perceive as legitimate, natural, and morally necessary relationships with their victims’ ethnic group or race.

Here the author, for some reason, mixes two different types of ethnic or racial violence: lynching and genocide. However, the author stresses that in both cases, the important feature is a dehumanization of victims.

17 Self-harm and suicide
When we look at suicide and non-suicidal self-injury, we discover that violence against the self is also intended to rectify critical relationships: the person who hurts herself feels that violence makes the relationship right.

The author’s conclusion:” All of these studied cases converge on the conclusion that non-suicidal self-injury and suicide are intended to constitute relationships, especially to rectify or terminate relationships, but sometimes to sustain a crucial relationship by staying with a partner who has died. The subjective phenomenology of injuring or killing oneself is moral as well: it is motivated by shame, guilt, moral outrage, loyalty, love, or the need to evoke love, guilt, or shame. Violence against the self has a lot in common with violence against others, both emotionally and with respect to its regulative functions.”

18 Violent bereavements
Chapter 18 illuminates the final constitutive phase of violence. In quite a few cultures in diverse parts of the world, people mourn the deaths of loved ones by seriously injuring themselves or others, or by going out to kill some random innocent person – and then, eventually, by also killing the witch or sorcerer or manifest assailant whom they hold responsible for the death.

The author describes a variety of cases when people killed or otherwise hurt in process of mourning for an elite person in order to provide this person with support in the existence after the death. He also discusses rage as result of death, that sometimes could be directed at others.

19 Non-bodily violence: robbery
Here authors conclude their empirical ethnological and historical investigations by considering robbery. Though robbers have obviously instrumental motives, it turns out that often they are highly morally motivated to regulate relationships with victims who don’t deserve what they have, or shouldn’t have flaunted what they had. The authors conclude the book with five chapters of further theoretical explorations building on virtuous violence theory:

20 The specific form of violence for constituting each relational model
21 Why do people use violence to constitute their social relationships, rather than using some other medium?

The authors’ answer is:

  • it is necessary to attract participants’ and others’ attention to a constitutive transformation of the relationship;
  • it is necessary to raise the stakes in the relationship because the relationship is crucial;
  • they are constituting the relationship, rather than merely conducting (performing) it;
  • there is a great deal at stake;
  • people are responding to transgression through redress or protection rather than regulating relationships in other ways;
  • people are acting according to CS and AR relational models rather than more dispassionate EM and MP relational models;
  • people have no good alternative ways to regulate the relationship, nor do they have alternative relationships, so they cannot simply leave this relationship and start a new one;
  • the violence will enhance the metarelational models within which the perpetrator–victim relationship is embedded or enhance the constituent relationships that comprise those metarelational models.

22 Metarelational models that inhibit or provide alternatives to violence

Here the authors discuss how their metarelational model may inhibit violence. They present graphics of their model and qualitatively summarize the variable effects of metarelational models in three tenets:

1. The more important and the more numerous the other relationships that are linked through metarelational models to the focal relationship, the greater their potential effects (facilitating or inhibiting) on the frequency, intensity, and lethality of the violence in the focal relationship.

2. The greater the imbalance between the number and importance of linked relationships that are enhanced by violence in the focal relationship, compared to the lower number and importance of linked relationships that are jeopardized by violence in the focal relationship, the greater the frequency, intensity, and lethality of the violence in the focal relationship. And vice versa.

3. In general, the more metarelational models in which a relationship is embedded, the less violence will occur in it (less frequent, less injurious, less lethal). This is because, more often than not, violence in one relationship undermines or jeopardizes most other relationships linked to the focal relationship, and most relationships are mostly peaceful. That is, most people don’t want most of their associates to be harmed. People typically sanction or avoid people who are violent in other relationships – for their own safety, and because the harm to the victim is objectionable to most of the people who relate to the victim. That is, most of the time most relationships inhibit violence in most of the other relationships in the metarelational models that they are enmeshed in. So, on the whole, the more metarelational models a relationship belongs to, the less violence will tend to occur in it. But, as we have seen, there are many exceptions, the most dramatic of which are cultures of honor and shame.

23 How do we end violence?

Here authors discuss alternatives to violence such as Civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and so on. They also present a list of steps that in their opinion, could reduce any kind of violence:

1. Generate precedents, prototypes, and precepts for non-violent relationship regulation.

2. Generate precedents, prototypes, and precepts that prohibit violent relationship regulation.

3. Generate metarelational models that make important and desirable social relationships follow from and contingent on non-violent relationship regulation. Thus, make peaceful relationship regulation reliably foster other good relationships.

4. Conversely, make violent regulation of any relationship irreconcilable with positive relationships with the perpetrator of violence. Publicly demonstrate to perpetrators that their violence hurts good people whom they should care about, and whom the people they care about. Shame, shun, and ostracize those who are violent to anyone.

5. Make these preos and metarelational models definite and clear, so there is no latitude or ambiguity about the unacceptability of violent relationship regulation.

6. Develop near-unanimous consensus among the primary groups, reference groups, and respected leaders of potential perpetrators, ensuring that nearly everyone adopts the peaceful preos and the metarelational models that ensure them.

7. Ensure that these preos and metarelational models are universal common knowledge: everyone knows them, everyone knows that everyone else knows them, and everyone knows that everyone else knows that everyone else knows them.
24 Evolutionary, philosophical, legal, psychological, and research implications

In this final chapter the authors discuss variety of implications and summarize it in 5 points:

1. At the most basic level, any controlled studies of first-person accounts of violence among either criminal or civilian populations should reveal the presence of moral motives, and these motives will be more prevalent than evidence of self-regulatory failure, instrumental gain, moral disengagement, dehumanization, or sadistic pleasure and psychopathy.

2. Meanwhile, if some violence is seen as obligatory, then doing violence requires increased self-regulatory control. A parent who hates to see his child in pain but knows that a good spanking is what the child needs will be less likely to be able to carry out the punishment when he is tired or his self-control is otherwise diminished. We predict that support for some forms of costly punishment, the kind of punishment that the actor believes is right and obligatory but that requires self-control, will be reduced under conditions of depletion, challenging the view that self-regulatory failure always increases the likelihood of violence.

3. Regarding rationalist approaches to violence, the addition of material incentives for peace can actually increase support for violence. We propose that in the same way that the addition of material incentives often weakens intrinsic motivation, providing material incentives to engage in violent action may lead participants to consider the violence in instrumental rather than moral terms. Hence, adding material incentives when none are currently present may reduce the propensity to engage in violence if the material benefits are small and the potential costs are great.

4. To the extent that dehumanization does facilitate violence, we should expect selective dehumanization of victims to occur, depending on the moral motives of the perpetrators, such that different kinds of violence may be tied to different kinds of dehumanization when it actually occurs. Thus, there is no reason to expect victims of retributive punishment or revenge to be deprived of mental capacities related to feeling pain, as this is necessary for the violence to have its intended effect, nor should the victim be deprived of capacities for reason or intention, as they are what make the victim deserving of punishment. Victims may, however, be deprived of certain moral emotions, such as compassion or empathy. But, of course, victims of initiation rites such as genital excision or violent hazing are often beloved members of the community, so they should be seen as capable of having moral emotions, and to the extent that their stoic endurance of pain is a crucial aspect of the initiation, they should be seen as capable of feeling pain as well. Only under conditions where perpetrators harm someone they are not morally motivated to harm (i.e., the motivation is non-moral) or where they are a passive third-party to harm, do we expect perpetrators to fail to perceive their victims as experiencing pain.

5. If violence is morally motivated to satisfy relational aims, then support for specific forms of violence will depend on the RM and corresponding moral motive people are using. For example, collateral damage, wherein some innocents are sacrificed in order to bring about a greater benefit, should be seen as more morally right when people are relating according to MP, but should be seen as more morally reprehensible when people are relating according to CS, wherein we are all in this together and anyone’s pain is my own pain. Similarly, when relating according to EM, people will feel that a person is required by equality to respond to violence with the same violence in return, but when relating according to AR, people will feel that violence may be committed only by superiors toward subordinates, not vice versa.

The dénouement

The book ends with a very brief coda reflecting on the nature of theory and the merits of inductively generating theory and broad explanations by observing and comparing the widest possible range of naturally occurring phenomena.

The authors recommend a question for any encounter with violence:

  • Is it morally motivated?
  • Which RM is the person constituting?
  • Which constitutive phases is the violence intended to realize?
  • What are the metarelationships that facilitate or inhibit the violence?
  • What led the perpetrator to use violence to regulate the relationship, rather than alternative means?


I always was doubtful about the typical characterization of violence as something abnormal and done by especially bad people. There are plenty of examples of highly violent people becoming absolutely normal and well-behaving or absolutely normal people becoming extremely violent. One of such examples would be Germany after WWII. Millions of former German soldiers who survived the war came home and mainly behaved as peaceful and nice people. From 1939 to 1945, these soldiers killed many millions of civilians, including children. Sometimes they did it reluctantly, sometimes enthusiastically, but always diligently.

Nevertheless, after the war, there was no wave of violence or explosion of crime in Germany. This example nicely supports the main points of this book that violence is seldom related to psychological problems of individuals but rather prompted by the cultural norms and prevailing at the moment ideology of society. I also find the author’s modeling of violence pretty convincing and supporting evidence comprehensive enough to agree with most of his points. The only thing that I think is overcomplicated is the author’s recommendations on the elimination of violence. I like the way hunter-gatherers handled in-group violence: starting with mocking and contempt, slowly increasing pressure, and, if necessary, quick elimination of irreparably violent individuals by all group members. The same could not be fully applied to violence between states due to extreme costs of contemporary wars, but complete economic isolation, denial of access to technology, and other forms of pressure could do the trick. Overall, I think that the only way to prevent violence is making retaliation or suppression of it inevitable and so costly for the perpetrator that the very idea to use it would become unthinkable.

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