Violence will always be with us. There is something in common between the street battles in Berkeley and Charlottesville and the saber rattling over North Korea. Millions also tuned in to watch Mayweather fight McGregor.
Violence is alluring. It attracts our attention. Our fascination with fire and fury is morally problematic. When a fight breaks out on a playground, kids rush to watch. No one really cares which side they are on.
Not everyone is enamored of violence. There are more anti-hate protestors than there are haters. But a few people are always itching for a fight. Others egg them on. And the rest of us watch awestruck and spellbound.
There is a whiff of transcendence in violence. Adrenaline, pain, and the risk of death are stimulating. The heart races and the senses focus. Like sex and extreme sports, violence can elevate and inspire.
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Aggression is hard-wired in brain – especially the masculine brain. Buried somewhere in the male limbic system is the evolutionary residue of the mammalian struggle for mates and dominance.
But we are not animals. The world’s moral and religious traditions demand that we control aggression and limit violence.
Socrates suggested that it is wrong to return harm for harm. Jesus told us to love our enemies. The Taoist sages advised harmonious nonaction. South Asian traditions prescribed ahimsa or nonviolence.
Unfortunately the Paleolithic brain is often immune to the counsels of civilization. Anger and aggression are subrational. Young men fight without thinking about what they do.
Some people offer justifications for violence, making exceptions to moral commandments. Some think that violence can be productive. They view it as a tool to advance a cause. Terrorists often rationalize violence in this way.
But justifications of violence are morally flawed. An immoral tool should not be used to advance a noble cause. Morality requires a unity of means and ends.
Violence infects and discredits any cause it is associated with. When a riot breaks out at a political event, the riot becomes the story. Violence undermines political agendas and destabilizes political movements.
Violence can be effective, in the short-term. Intimidation and coercion do work to change behavior. Violence runs some people off, scaring them away. It also attracts thugs. But it does nothing to persuade people to change their minds.
Violence is stupid. It stupefies, stuns and awes. But violence makes no argument and gives no reasons. Violence is not intelligent, clever, or insightful.
As brute force, violence brutalizes. Violence dehumanizes because it treats persons as objects to be manipulated through physical power. Violence does not listen or respect human needs. Instead it pushes and pulls the levers of pain, seeking dominance and control.
Violence has no moral authority. The victors are not more virtuous than those they defeat. They are only more powerful. Victory depends upon physical prowess—and often on good luck. It does not depend on moral rectitude.
Violence feeds on itself. Bloodlust is stimulated by fear and the desire for power. Those appetites and emotions overwhelm our rationality. Thus violence incites more violence.
The tit-for-tat of violence slowly simmers. Hatred and resentment fester. A careless spark can cause quick and fatal escalation. Violence is chaotic, unpredictable, and contagious. It stimulates backlash and blowback. And it tends to spread.
Violence only creates lasting change when it becomes excessive and permanent. The logic of violence thus points toward totalitarianism and final solutions that eliminate all enemies.
Violence makes no argument, utters no truth, and cherishes no value. It cannot deliver liberty, justice, or happiness. Violence tears down, destroys, and destabilizes. But it cannot transform and uplift the human spirit.
Violence cannot give birth to a child, build a community, create justice or sustain a way of life. The work of birthing, building, creating, and sustaining is nonviolent. It requires love, patience, tenacity and wisdom. Those are human values that have evolved beyond the Paleolithic brain.
The good news is that most of us understand that violence is subhuman. We know that a human world depends upon rational argument, cooperative activity, love and justice. The challenge of the future is to further discredit violence. And to find ways to further sublimate the sinister impulses of our mammalian brains.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala