'Breaking Bad' Syndrome: Most Acts of Violence Are 'Virtuous' and 'Morally Necessary'


Most acts of violence come out of the desire to do the right thing -- a sort of "Breaking Bad" syndrome -- rather than as the result of a failure in personal morals, two anthropologists argue in an upcoming book.

People rarely commit violent acts with evil intentions, say Alan Page Fiske of UCLA and Tage Shakti Rai of Northwestern University, authors of the book "Virtuous Violence."

"When someone does something to hurt themselves or other people, or to kill somebody, they usually do so because they think they have to," explains Fiske. "They think they should do it, that it's the right thing to do, that they ought to do it and that it's morally necessary."

Killings and assaults are often carried out as retribution for a wrong, perceived or real, or committed as an action to teach a lesson or instill obedience, says Rai, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

And amazingly, he says, they are sometimes an effort to repair a personal relationship or bond that in a perpetrator's mind went wrong and can't be restored in any other manner.

"We're not talking just about the way perpetrators excuse or justify their behavior afterwards," says Rai, a former graduate student of Fiske's at UCLA. "We're talking about what motivates them to do it in the first place."

Fiske and Rai are quick to point out that their work is not meant to justify violence in any way.

"When we say that violence is morally motivated, we mean that it is so in the mind of the perpetrator," Rai says. "We don't mean that we think that violence is good."

For their book, to be published by the Cambridge University Press, Rai and Fiske analyzed a wide range of scientific research about violence, which included interviews with thousands of violent offenders.

There are people who commit violence without virtuous motivation, they acknowledge, but those exceptions are typically psychopaths and account for only a small portion of violent acts committed.

"When we started writing this book, we thought, "We'll never figure out what really motivates perpetrators of violent acts,'" Fiske says. "But actually it turned out not to be that hard."

It's down to a surprising impulse, Fiske and Rai say: a desire to do the (perceived) morally right and appropriate thing.

"Except for a few psychopaths, hardly anybody harming anybody else is doing something that they intend to be evil," Fiske says. "On the contrary, they intend to be doing something right and good."

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