Character  &  Context

Our Enemies Are Human. That’s Why We Want to Kill Them

Image of two opposing face statues, the left is white the right is red

On Saturday (August 12), James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, injuring 30 people and killing Heather Heyer. Earlier that day, white supremacists nearly beat Dre Harris to death. Throughout the afternoon, violence erupted between white supremacists and counter-protesters.

What drove white supremacists to converge on the town of Charlottesville ready to fight and, in a few cases, kill? Did they see the victims as less than fully human and feel no moral obligations to them? Or could an excess of morality—morality that could only be satisfied by punishing a fellow human being—instead have driven their violence?

A popular explanation for horrific violence is that perpetrators see victims as little more than animals or objects, and so perpetrators feel no remorse in abuse, torture, and murder. This process of dehumanization has been invoked to explain violence ranging from the Holocaust in World War II to the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

But this theory is challenged by research we published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Dehumanization would predict indifference toward others’ welfare, not an active desire and delight in harming them. To understand why one person would actively desire to inflict suffering upon another, we have to look to a counterintuitive source: human morality.

Could an excess of morality—morality that could only be satisfied by punishing a fellow human being—instead have driven the violence in Charlottesville?

Dehumanization allows perpetrators to commit violence to satisfy instrumental goals and self-interest, but perpetrators do not dehumanize victims when they are morally motivated to see them suffer. Specifically, our experiments reveal two classes of motives for violence. One kind of violence is driven by instrumental gain, wherein people do not desire to harm victims but knowingly harm them in order to achieve some other objective (shooting someone in order to steal their money). Dehumanizing victims enables this kind of instrumental violence. The second kind of violence, however, is driven by moral sentiments, wherein people actively desire to harm victims they feel deserve it. This moral violence only emerges when perpetrators see victims as capable of thinking, experiencing sensations, and having moral emotions. In other words, when perpetrators see their victims as human.

Continue reading the post by visiting Behavioral Science.


Tage Rai is a research associate and lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His research focuses on moral violence, conflict resolution, organizational justice, corporate personhood, and the marketing of terrorism.

Piercarlo Valdesolo is an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab at Claremont McKenna College. He researches the mechanisms underlying moral judgment and behavior with a particular focus on the role of emotions in our moral lives. 

Jesse Graham is an associate professor of management at the Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. He investigates the moral, ideological, and religious principles that cause so much conflict and yet provide so much meaning to people's lives.

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