World Science Fest 2010: On Violence

The amphitheater and stage at Baruch College glowed blood red. Space age, frenetic pop music percolated in the background. The tone was set for World Science Festival’s panel on “Brutality and the Brain.” A sold-out, attentive audience came to learn about humans and our propensity toward violence. Is violence hard-wired in our brains? What is the psychology behind violence? Why are we drawn to violence in entertainment? These and other questions were addressed by a very brainy panel. Here are some highlights.

On the panel: evolutionary biologist and neuroscientist Marc Hauser; the neuroscientist with a legal bend, Oliver Goodenough; and law and psychology expert Stephen J. Morse. Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute moderated. The material was rich and provocative, and the discussants were compelling with their arguments. It was a smorgasbord of logic, science, morality, free will, and psychology.

But first, a nice teaser for the audience. The lights dimmed so that a video montage of violence could get everyone in the mood. School shootings, serial killers, the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib. What better way to kick off the evening? The various images portrayed a range of types of violence. Violence, after all, has many guises. War is not the same as serial killing, and serial killing is not the same as self-defense, and so on.

Much of the evening took on a nature versus nurture tack. Time and again Isaacson’s questions were parlayed with “yes, but…” or “it depends…” Is there such a thing as evil? If we understand violence as a result of chemical reactions in the brain, is morality removed? If we can isolate violence in the brain, should we mandate medical adjustments?

The discussion, appropriately, focused mainly on what we might consider disturbing violent actions, such as murder, torture, war, random acts of violence, atrocities, and so forth. But Hauser brought up a good point: violence is not always necessarily bad. For instance, in order to act in self-defense or to perform complicated surgical procedures, one is required to de-humanize the other in order to perform violence (shooting a would-be rapist; cutting open a chest cavity to work on the heart).

Also, Goodenough says, violence can exist to push certain outcomes. There is a sense of fairness amongst humans and societies, and so if one is not “playing by the rules” [my words], an act of punishment (sometimes violent) can help to restore a fair order. Punishment, then, comes in to ensure that norms are kept. But, Hauser warned, there is a delicate balance to be made between rewards and punishment. A punishment, you see, can also be a reward. Justice (reward) can be achieved through punishment. But reward-inducing punishments can develop into acts of atrocities, a phenomenon that occurs when denial about the suffering your punishments are causing becomes dominant in the psyche.

Likewise, Goodenough touched on a point that has been in the back of my mind for years: he studies violent acts in order to help explain peace. In other words, for him to understand peace and compassion, he studies their opposites. Had the panel taken questions, I would have put the following to Goodenough: in order for me to understand peace on the international level, must I get out there and experience war firsthand? Goodenough, if you are reading this, what say you?

Violence is a big topic. Many subjects were left on the sidelines. War, for instance, was hardly touched. Indeed, much of the discussion stayed at the individual, rather than macro, scale. Arguments made by the panelists on behalf of individual acts of violence may not easily translate to larger, structural forms of violence. Questions of morality, intent, free will and so forth do not easily translate from individual to societal to national to global scales. Furthermore, violence is a complex phenomenon, one that can be explained on biological, sociological, and molecular levels. Thus, there is no easy, cut and dry answer to any question on violence. It can be (and should be) explained on various levels, from various perspectives. (It makes for an exciting and challenging subject to do so!)

Is there such a thing as evil? Yes, Hauser says, just as much as compassion is a part of life. Are we born evil, though? That’s a different question, one that spins into the nature vs. nurture debate. If evil is a part of human nature, are we morally culpable for evil acts? You bet, say Hauser and Morse, because there is that little thing in our minds called “intent.” A murderer may know that killing may be wrong (for whatever reason—cultural, moral, legal), but if s/he continues with the act with the explicit intention of doing harm, that person should be held morally responsible. If we understand violence to be the result of chemical reactions, is morality removed? Morse again says no, because there is a psychological (the mind) aspect that must be taken into account. The brain is a manifestation of intent, not the creator of it. (A fascinating thought!) Causes are not excuses, he said later, because if they were, responsibility would not exist.

Much more was discussed, but I’ll end this post with a look toward the future. Asked by Isaacson where the panelists saw their areas of research going in the next ten to twenty years, they answered as such: Hauser predicts there will be an important shift in our understanding of triggers of violence that will help guide treatment and education. Goodenough’s hopes and fears are connected: while he too sees development in understanding triggers of violence emerging, he worries about what these triggers will reveal about us. In other words, we may discover that each of us, even the most peaceful, have the same violent propensities as the evil “others” we deplore. And finally, Morse fears that a focus on the science of violence will lose touch with the psychological element involved, thus de-humanizing ourselves to dangerous levels, both morally and conceptually.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.