Calculating Justifiable Violence

Not all violence is created equal. This is easy for us to see and understand even if we have not thought about it deeply. The idea that some violence is justifiable, excusable, and even a necessity is played out in sports, movies, and books all the time.
Hunting is a clear act of violence, but it can be a necessity for some people and even a public good (as is the case with hunting wild hogs in parts of Texas today). Violence in the form of sports is often celebrated and replayed on nationally broadcast television shows. Violence in self-defense is excusable (and sometimes explicitly protected under the law), and sometimes small displays of violence can prevent larger violence in the future.
According to Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, our brains have evolved specific skills around calculating whether violence is permissible or not. He writes,
“The temporoparietal junction and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which grew tremendously over the course of evolution, gives us the wherewithal to perform cool calculations that deem certain kinds of violence justifiable. Our ambivalence about the outputs of those calculations … shows that quintessentially cerebral parts of the cerebrum are neither inner demons nor better angles. They are cognitive tools that can both foster violence and inhibit it.”
Our mental ability to excuse violence that takes place in sports, violence that shows that we will defend ourselves and prevents larger future violence, and violence that kills wild pigs for the good of society can be both a good and a negative part of our thinking processes. We can dismiss violence in the case of a single mother using a weapon to defend herself against an intruding violent criminal in her house. However, we have also seen humans justify state sanctioned capital punishment, deliberately killing criminals in a form of retributive justice that may not be as fair as humans have long thought. As Pinker’s quote notes, the same brain processes can be better angels and inner demons when it comes to the ways violence plays out and is accepted or dismissed within our society. This is important to think about because it means at an individual level violence and our perception of it will fluctuate and vary. To reduce and control violence, we need larger institutions which function to reduce violence across the board, without as much individual variation and dismissal of some forms of violence.

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