Morality and War

It's hard to believe it's been four years since the war began. If you missed Bob Woodruff's important documentary on the epidemic of brain injuries caused by war, I highly suggest watching it. According to Woodruff, up to 10 percent of all veterans suffer some sort of brain injury - often caused by explosive shock waves - while in Iraq. Most of these injuries will go untreated.

And then there's the psychological toll. Numerous reports indicate that the army still doesn't get PTSD, and isn't providing our veterans with a suitable level of care. It seems that, because mental illness is invisible, it often goes untreated. Sometimes, soliders with PTSD are hazed.

But even soldiers who manage to return from Iraq without any bodily injuries or mental illnesses still have to deal with the emotional trauma and stress of war. They are often haunted by memories of what they've done:

By the time he came home, Jeffrey Lucey was a mess. He had gruesome stories to tell. They could not all be verified, but there was no doubt that this once-healthy young man had been shattered by his experiences.

He had nightmares. He drank furiously. He withdrew from his friends. He wrecked his parents' car. He began to hallucinate.

In a moment of deep despair on the Christmas Eve after his return from Iraq, Jeffrey hurled his dogtags at his sister Debra and cried out, "Don't you know your brother's a murderer?"

War isn't natural. Humans are social primates; we need to live in densely clustered groups. As a result, we've evolved a set of powerful moral instincts that prevent us from hurting each other. Killing makes us feel bad, even when we are killing Sunni insurgents. It's one of the more uplifting facts of human nature: each of us is born with a powerful moral compass, and this compass constrains our behavior.

Going to war forces soldiers to void this innate moral compass. Violence is normalized in battle, but violence isn't normal, at least from the perspective of the brain. Thanks to fMRI research, we can now begin to see the neural source of this morality. Joshua Greene has done some of the pioneering work in the field. Greene has discovered that when we contemplate certain types of moral questions, a specific network of emotional brain areas become active.

What triggers this moral cortical network? Greene believes that our mind automatically distinguishes between "personal" and "impersonal" moral judgments. A personal moral situation occurs whenever we consider harming a specific person. (As Greene puts it, these actions can be roughly defined as "Me Hurts You," a concept simple enough for a primate to understand.) When confronted with a personal moral dilemma, our emotional brain areas are activated, and we start to imagine what somebody else might experience if we pursued a certain course of action. Psychopaths seem to be unable to generate any emotions in response to personal moral situations.

To better understand this distinction, consider the trolley dilemma, a philosophical thought-puzzle first coined by Judith Jarvis Thompson in the early 1970's:

Suppose you are the driver of a trolley. The trolley rounds a bend, and there come into view ahead five track workmen, who have been repairing the track. The track goes through a bit of a valley at that point, and the sides are steep, so you must stop the trolley if you are to avoid running the five men down. You step on the brakes, but alas they don't work. Now you suddenly see a spur of track leading off to the right. You can turn the trolley onto it, and thus save the five men on the straight track ahead. Unfortunately, there is one track workman on that spur of track. He can no more get off the track in time than the five can, so you will kill him if you turn the trolley onto him. Is is morally permissible for you to turn the trolley?

In this hypothetical case, about ninety five percent of people agree that it is morally permissible to turn the trolley. Some moral philosophers even argue that it is immoral to not turn the trolley, since such a decision leads to the death of four extra people. But what about this scenario:

You are standing on a footbridge over the trolley track. You can see a trolley hurtling down the track; it's out of control. You turn around to see where the trolley is headed, and there are five workmen on the track...What to do? Being an expert on trolleys, you know of one certain way to stop an out-of-control trolley: Drop a really heavy weight in its path. But where to find one? It just so happens that standing next to you on the footbridge is a fat man, a really fat man. He is leaning over the railing, watching the trolley; all you have to do is to give him a little shove, and over the railing he will go, onto the track in the path of the trolley. Would it be permissible for you to do this?

The brute facts, of course, remain the same: one man must die in order for five men to live. If our ethical decisions were perfectly rational, then we would act identically in both situations, and would be as willing to push the fat man as we are to turn the trolley. (Kant wouldn't have seen any difference.) And yet, almost nobody is willing to actively throw another person onto the train tracks. The decisions lead to the same outcome, and yet one is moral and one is murder.

What accounts for this inconsistency? Thompson argued that pushing the fat man felt wrong because "it was an infringement on his rights". We are using our body to hurt his body. The whole event is very visceral. In contrast, "turning the trolley onto the right-hand track is not itself an infringement of a right of anybody's." We are just shifting the trolley wheel: the ensuing death seems indirect.

This fuzzy moral distinction is built into our brain. When Greene asked people inside his fMRI machine to contemplate these two different trolley scenarios, he saw distinct patterns of activation. When they were asked whether or not they should turn the trolley, their standard decision-making machinery was turned on. Their brain treated the quandary like any other - it was an impersonal moral question - and quickly realized that it was better to kill one man than five men. That's just simple arithmetic. It doesn't take a moral philosopher to realize that it's always better to kill fewer innocent people.

However, when these same people were asked whether they would be willing to push a fat man onto the tracks, a separate network of brain areas was activated. These are the same regions turned on by all personal moral questions, and they cause us to automatically imagine how the poor fat man would feel as he plunged to his death on the train tracks. We vividly simulate his own mind, and conclude that pushing him is a capital crime, even if it saves the lives of five other men.

By using his fMRI scanner, Greene easily distinguished between these two variations on the trolley dilemma. He could see how personal moral questions are processed separately from impersonal moral questions, and how these different patterns of brain activation lead to contradictory choices. People couldn't justify these moral decisions but their certainty never wavered. Pushing a man off a bridge just felt wrong.

Why are we so sensitive to personal moral situations? The answer is evolutionary: thinking about each other is how we keep from killing each other. "Our primate ancestors," Greene explains, "had intensely social lives. They evolved social mechanisms to keep them from doing all the nasty things they might otherwise be interested in doing. This basic primate morality doesn't understand things like tax evasion, but it does understand things like pushing your buddy off of a cliff." Our most visceral moral reactions are simply side-effects of natural selection, the necessary consequence of monkeys living in a group.

War violates our most fundamental moral instincts.
It forces soldiers to consistently ignore some of their most basic emotions. These killings may be justifiable - sometimes war is necessary - but that doesn't change the existence of our innate morality, which doesn't comprehend these political distinctions.

It's perhaps more convenient to believe that killing is a normal part of our biology. If men are Hobbesian brutes, then anything is possible. But our veterans know better. After four years of urban street fighting, after four years of close combat and tense gun battles and harrowing convoys, their psychological scars are tragic reminders that killing isn't natural. Violating our innate moral code makes us feel bad, and those feelings linger.

Update: Thanks for the great comments. If I were re-writing this post, I'd take out that stupid line about war not being natural. Of course war is natural. It happens all the time. (I'm personally of the opinion that everything humans do is "natural".) But I disagree that war or violence is somehow more natural than goodness, that humans and chimps are naturally predisposed to violence, that altruism and empathy are simply a veneer imposed by the dictates and legal codes of civilization.

Look, people and primates do evil things all the time. We are entirely capable of voiding our moral instincts, rationalizing away our evil acts. That goes without saying. My point was simply that this very basic primate morality - what Greene calls "Me Hurt You" - is built into the brain. It takes extra cognitive work to excuse our moral failings because it is our failings that make us feel bad.


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Thanks for this post. It's important to remember just how bad and unnatural war really is.

Interesting. I've seen interviews with WWII RAF fighter pilots who talk as if shooting down German planes was a bit of a laugh, they certainly didn't seem in any way traumatised by the fact that many of their victims would have burnt to death, for example. Maybe this is another example of the 'ensuing death being indirect', as they were shooting at a machine and may never have seen their victims firsthand. Unless they were just psychopaths ...
But I wouldn't rule out the importance of the state propaganda machine in providing moral justification/reassurance. In contrast to the Battle of Britain, how many American soldiers really believe in what they're doing in Iraq?

By Jonathan Vause (not verified) on 19 Mar 2007 #permalink

I think that's an excellent point, Jonathan. My guess is that different aspects of war have very different psychological consequences. Bombing targets from 30,000 feet is a much less personal moral situation than shooting someone at close range. It's like driving the trolley instead of pushing the fat man. It would be interesting to see if air force pilots have very different mental health problems than infantrymen after returning home. I think this also points to why the post "victory" phase of the Iraq war has been so tough on our veterans, as it's involved much more close combat than any other war post-Vietnam. These soldiers often see who they have harmed.

Hmm, I appreciate your thoughts but I'm not convinced. If we consider how much of human history includes war, it is very difficult to make a case that it is not natural. We see it again and again, across cultures, whenever a group is in intense competition with another for scarce and desirable resources. Tragically, war is actually richly rewarding in an evolutionary sense. This is because war (and some of its lovely bedfellows such as rape and pillage) is outrageously advantageous to the victors. Winners live to reproduce and prosper, having killed off competitors.

Typically our morality extends to to our in-group. Villification of the out-group is absolutely natural. The more enlightened among us struggle against these tendencies, while the rest simply continue as usual- claiming the Other not worth moral consideration.

Just as we see the rudiments of empathy and morality in other closely related primates, we also see habits of war.

Feeling repulsed by something doesn't make it unnatural. When we apply a human, contemporary, moral point of view, that which is natural is very, very often grotesque and horrific. For example, how many of us would want to personally slit the throat of a baby lamb before eating him for dinner? We don't want to do this because we know the poor things feels horrible pain and terror, yet eating meat is certainly "natural".

I do believe that insights from our prefrontal cortex can override these (evolutionarily rewarde) tendencies, but we definititely need education and culture to support us.

Very nice post!

Of course the two scenarios are only equivalent if you can be absolutely sure that killing the fat man would indeed save the workers. I realize that that's part of the thought experiment, but I just can't imagine myself in that situation without some lingering doubt like "What if I kill the fat man but fail to save the workers? I couldn't live with myself."

On a related note, I remember a while back Sam Harris wrote an essay where he "justified" torture. His thesis, if I recall, was to point out that there really is no difference between hurting or killing someone close-up and personally, and hurting or killing them remotely. The argument then went on that if you can ever justify war under some circumstances (ex. to stop a genocide), then it is hypocritical to call torture immoral. I wonder if Sam's doctoral work in neurobiology has caused him to change his tune?

"War isn't natural. Humans are social primates; we need to live in densely clustered groups. As a result, we've evolved a set of powerful moral instincts that prevent us from hurting each other. Killing makes us feel bad, even when we are killing Sunni insurgents. It's one of the more uplifting facts of human nature: each of us is born with a powerful moral compass, and this compass constrains our behavior."

This is a strange claim. From Publishers Weekly review of "Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence" by Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham:

"Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids, brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling, beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare -- which would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated violence and hyenas' territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding among the Yanomamo people of Brazil's Amazon forests and other so-called primitive tribes, as well as to modern 'civilized' mass slaughter."

Betrand Russell once wrote about witnessing trainloads of young men heading joyfully, in drunken oblivion, off to war. He concluded that no other explanation was so fitting as that they were acting on the impulse of the joy of killing, or at least its prospect. See also, Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel By Bertrand Russell (1917).

"Those who realize the harm that can be done to others by any use of force against them, and the worthlessness of the goods that can be acquired by force, will be very full of respect for the liberty of others; they will not try to bind them or fetter them; they will be slow to judge and swift to sympathize; they will treat every human being with a kind of tenderness, because the principle of good in him is at once fragile and infinitely precious. They will not condemn those who are unlike themselves; they will know and feel that individuality brings differences and uniformity means death. They will wish each human being to be as much a living thing and as little a mechanical product as it is possible to be; they will cherish in each one just those things which the harsh usage of a ruthless world would destroy. In one word, all their dealings with others will be inspired by a deep impulse of reverence."

Nice post, but you seem to be in denial about an "ugly" aspect of human nature which springs from a possessive or acquisitive impulse. War is a "natural" phenomenon, most regrettably, because it recurs throughout time and space and is not limited to the so-called homo sapiens sapiens. To argue otherwise is to give in to the naturalistic fallacy. The sociobiologist E.O. Wilson remarked that if a certain type of ape had the power of the atom, it would have done away with the world in about a week.

It's very easy to find evidence in history and literature that war is natural to normal humans (ignoring abnormalities such as psychopathy), just as revulsion to war is. But the naturalness of war to humans is the common denominator, opposite to what is written above.

For example, here's a Salon review of An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare.

In her new book, "An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth-Century Warfare," British historian Joanna Bourke brings us accounts of killing in battle that are frank, forthright and, yes, even eloquent. ... These dispatches provide rare insight into the experiences of men who may have scrawled in the foxhole or the barracks thoughts that they would not, or could not, convey once they got home. And no wonder -- since many such thoughts articulated the pleasure, the near-orgasmic ecstasy, that some of these men discovered in killing.

"Gorgeously satisfying," "joy unspeakable," rhapsodized two of Bourke's correspondents. Some descriptions of this perverse thrill are flip and full of bravado -- "For excitement, man-hunting has all other kinds of hunting beat [by] a mile," declared Sgt. J.A. Caw -- while others display a chilling serenity.

"I secured a direct hit on an enemy encampment, saw bodies or parts of bodies go up in the air, and heard the desperate yelling of the wounded or the runaways," reported British soldier Henry de Man about a World War I raid. "I had to confess to myself that it was one of the happiest moments of my life."

Just read the Iliad to see the conflict between the natural joy of killing and the natural revulsion of it -- nothing has changed. I daresay that brain reserach into this subject will confirm what the Iliad's author knew instinctively all along.

I take strong exception to the statement, "War isn't natural." War is as "natural" as sex and hunger. When we perceive threats from other tribes, our impulse is to flee or fight. We do have prohibitions against hurting others in our group, but these prohibitions do not extend to individuals in other groups. There is a good reason why very few human societies have existed which did not go to war under some circumstances: societies which do not make war do not survive long.

By H. M. Schuber (not verified) on 20 Mar 2007 #permalink

My problem with the study is that of certainty. I strongly doubt that pushing a fat man in front of a train would stop it, despite your appeals to authority. Surely, if an MRI that can show a difference between whatever dichotomy you are promoting, it will also show a difference between: [I'll kill to save / You're a liar, killing won't help.]

By Absent Observer (not verified) on 20 Mar 2007 #permalink

Thank you very much for all the insightful comments (and the embarrassing correction on Woodward/Woodruff). My basic point was simple, and perhaps clouded by discussions of "natural" and "war": people, like all Great Apes, have an instinctive aversion to hurting other human beings. This is just an evolved side-effect of being social animals. When we see grief or suffering, or imagine hurting somebody else, our amygdala goes into overdrive. We naturally sympathize with the victim. As the primatologist Franz De Waal put it in "Primates and Philosophers," "Instead of empathy being an endpoint [of human morality], it may have been the starting point." For more on this line of inquiry, I'd suggest taking a look at any of De Waal's books and papers, or even looking at today's NY Times article "Scientist Finds Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior." I'm fairly convinced that the roots of human morality lie in these basic social emotions which allow us to empathize with one another.

That said, I was wrong to say that "War isn't natural." That's a stupid sentence: of course war is natural. It happens all the time. But I disagree that humans and chimps are naturally predisposed to violence, that altruism and kindness are simply a veneer imposed by the dictates and legal codes of civilization.

Look, people and primates also do evil things all the time. We are entirely capable of voiding our moral instincts, rationalizing away our evil acts. That goes without saying. My point was simply that this very basic primate morality - what Greene calls "Me Hurt You" - is built into the brain. It takes extra cognitive work to excuse our moral failings because it is our failings that make us feel bad.

Tomorrow, I'm planning on posting a bit more on this topic. But thank you all for your great comments, criticisms and corrections. They are much appreciated.

These findings could greatly influence our debate on gun control. If we can establish that the use of guns is easier on us psychologically than the use of other other hand-held weapons, perhaps we can drown out the gun lobby by pointing out that guns provide us with a loophole in our neurologic moral compass. Those people who are so fond of saying guns dont kill people, people do might realize that the very nature of their beloved guns-close enough to kill; far enough to be easyis, in fact, a vital factor in how often they are used against humans. It has always seemed absurd to me to contend that killers who use guns do so only because it makes their deeds physically easier to carry out. Theres clearly an emotional component, too.

Hi Jonah, Thanks for the clarification. Just one more thing-- I'd argue we can be naturally predisposed toward violence AND empathy. It doesn't need to be an "either/ or" situation - natural and sexual selection has and continues to create crazy quilt hodge podges out of us and any other living beings. For example, we our reproductive and excretory systems share the same space in our bodies- not exactly the most complementary nor logical of arrangements. (Someone once described this as placing a great entertainment center in in the middle of the sewer.) So, I'm just saying, (as perhaps you are, too) our bodies and brains and emotions quite commonly present us with conflicting purposes and impulses.

But I definitely, definitely welcome the message that you (along with de Waal and Nicholas Wade in today's NY Times) are putting forth, regarding the roots of empathy and morality in human as something we share with other social animals, and that predates religion.

I'd particularly recommend to your readers de Waal's Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals". He covers this topic very thoroughly and persuasively and includes some pretty excellent ape pictures, too!

The question about moral aversion to killing is something tackled in the book "The Dark Side of Man: Tracing the Origins of Violence" by Michael Ghiglieri. One of the book suggests is that altruistic behavior is equally a biologically determined evolutionary strategy - essentially stemming from the instinct to preserve one's own extended gene pool. This concept is supported by the practice of 'dehumanizing' would be opponents, while trying to establish personal connections with those one would help.

So, ultimately, the two views are compatible with each other, if not mutually reinforcing, once one considers the amount of psycho-social distance between any two parties. For instance, in the case of the trolley above, the workman on the spur is some sort of isolated, inhuman actor, but in the process of putting a human face on the person and introducing him as a person upon whom we act, versus someone merely standing in the way, it already removes some level of dissociation.

By Bravo Romeo Delta (not verified) on 20 Mar 2007 #permalink

Read the final chapters of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs & Steel, in which he discusses the evolution of the social unit from hunter-gathering tribe to nation. A big contributor to war is the breakdown in personal connections with others as the units get larger and larger. In a tribe of 20 people everybody will know the other and will often have blood ties. In a village of a 1,000 people it is impossible to have that intimate relationship with everyone so disputes are more likely as the brain will resist less an attack on a stranger than an attack on an intimate. He cites lots of fascinating 20th century anthropolgical studies on surving hunter-gatherers including one in which men from different hunter-gatherer groups, on encountering each other, will sit down and try to establish some connection between them by listing relatives and extended family in order not to have to kill each other.

By Paul Gill (not verified) on 20 Mar 2007 #permalink

A few days ago, on Dispatches there was a discussion on morality/lack of morality demonstrated by Gen. Pace on gays in the military.

Dr. X brought up the notion that Kohlberg's scale dictated moral development in (westernized) humans and that Gen. Pace was morally stunted. But, even if that was the case, humans routinely create artificial entities and subgroups where they can slough-off their morals routinely and separate a personal code from the group code. For example, asking anyone where they think they stand or what they aspire to, they would certainly say they tended toward Kohlberg's stage five or even six (and I would most particularly place scientists in this group, maybe even the religious as well).

However even if individually they tend to seek toward Kohlberg's moral scale, people find it convenient and natural to work in organizations that don't mature past a stage two (for-profit corporations or a personal fixation on enforcement of IP) where progress beyond a specific stage is not in the mission statement.

Another consideration about the trolley example: in the case of the choice between killing five workers and killing one, the driver is choosing between the only available courses of action, either of which results in killing someone. You, innocent bystander on the bridge with your fat buddy, are not inevitably involved in the accident, horrible as it may be to witness. If you involve yourself by killing your friend, you have become a murderer.

(some further rumination at my blog)

I agree with the PSSD being a problem but not the unatural part of killing. Since the first canivore we have been killers. Since the first mother killed to protect her children. Since the first animals killed to protect land and food sources we were always killers.

What we have to find moraly are the reasons we allow ourselves to kill and if they are worth it. War is simply these same ideas with larger numbers. Some reasons why it may bother people is because they don't understand why they are killing, they don't agree why they are killing, or they haven't been personally effected by those he/she is asked to kill. However the ability for us to kill another person will be considerably easier after we have seen a friend or family member killed by the opposing side.

War is bad. Dr. garth Nicolson found one of the most debiliting microbes ever, mycoplasma incognitus in the blood of GWI vets. (Cant look for antibodies, the monkeys inoculated that sickened and died did not elicit antibody reposnse)

Every animal injected with it died as Dr. shyh ching LO from the army proved. There is a clear PCR correlation with this microbe and CFS etc. Read Dr. garth Nicolsons incredible struggle to Help sick GWI patients, one where he attained a lot of inside info because of his contacts in the pentagon