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On Violence

on violence, violence, war is my business, aaron burr, alexander hamilton

Killing human beings and destroying their stuff is an important aspect of war. In fact, it is the most important characteristic that separates war from other human endeavors - like business. Combat, however, takes up only a small portion of all activities seen during the conduct of warfare. Outside of war and conflict, that portion drops to practically nil, as warfighters and their organizations prepare and train for combat but don’t actually harm anyone.

Training to kill and destroy is also a small portion of a military organization’s overall schedule. While small elite organizations—like Navy Seals, Special Forces, and Army Rangers—engage in more combat and are able to dedicate more time to training and preparing for it, all organizations spend the bulk of their time doing non-combat activities. Some of these activities may be indirectly related and help in the execution of combat: logistics, vehicle maintenance, physical exercise, and first-aid training. While the rest of the time may be spent on executing tasks unrelated to combat, but necessary for the organization to function: mandated government training, personnel evaluations, payroll, religious services, and briefings ad nauseum.

When you strip away the periodic combat operations and training, along with their unique military uniforms and equipment, the lion’s share of tasks and responsibilities can be indistinguishable from any other large government or private organization. And to be honest, sometimes the military can be called upon to do the work of others because of this reality. For the United States, our Department of Defense has had to bear the burden of tasks that would normally have been assigned to the Department of State. To quote Rosa Brooks from her book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon:

The American public may know little about the military, but we recognize that it is the only reasonably well-functioning public institution we have these days. We do not trust Congress, and the budgets of civilian foreign policy agencies have taken a beating, along with their capabilities. Faced with problems, we send in the troops - after all, who else can we send? Unlike any other part of the government, the US military can be relied on to go where it is told and do what it is asked - or die trying.

So, while the military can be used for non-military purposes—and it wouldn’t have been the first time in human history that this has been the case—there is one purpose for which it excels most and for which it exists; to win wars through the threat or use of force. That is, to kill human beings and destroy their stuff.

This unique aspect of warfare is what shapes the organization and its people. The nation, kingdom, empire, or tribe—regardless of the organized society—will feel compelled to protect its interests or even improve its position relative to others. The greatest threat to society, or even individuals, are other human beings. We need to ensure that our will is met and, if necessary, impose that will on others. Ideally, this can be done through other avenues, like diplomacy and economics. However, through the use of force, we find the most dangerous, yet tempting, tool at humanity’s disposal.

Our propensity to use force to impose our will is what drives the development of warriors and militaries. Their existence only makes the decision to use force more viable. Having a military doesn’t necessarily beget war, but wars do beget a military’s existence, and the warfighter plays a crucial role that separates them from all other human professions. The Profession of Arms, a US Army White Paper published in 2010, presents the following quote from James H. Toner’s book, True Faith and Allegiance: The Burden of Military Ethics:

The preeminent military task, and what separates [the military profession] from all other occupations, is that soldiers are routinely prepared to kill… in addition to killing and preparing to kill, the soldier has two other principal duties… some soldiers die and, when they are not dying, they must be preparing to die.

Here we begin the discussion of what it means to kill another human being. It is more than simply the removal of a threat. It is more than simply improving your chances of success and accomplishment of the assigned mission. Engaging in violence by killing or causing harm is more than just an action; it is a commitment to the severe social consequences of an action. An action that can be either commended or vilified based solely on the perspective of the observer.

In this discussion, we will see that violence, in general, is only a tool and only exists as a result of human behavior. We will show that, in the subsequent chapters, the nature of combat for an individual warrior changes when they become integrated into a group organized to fight. And that all of this violence has significant behavioral and psychological ramifications for those involved. Understanding this will allow us to see how a person can come to harm other people, and therefore why we continue to see conflict as an important aspect—though undesired—of our species.

Violence is a Tool

The world is filled with problems. A solution to a problem usually involves tools used in various ways to shape conditions towards that solution. There can be many ways to perceive a problem, and how we perceive it, coupled with our experiences and resources, may impact the solutions we develop to tackle those problems. These differing solutions may, in turn, compel us to use a variety of different tools to bring them about. Violence and its implements are such a tool.

The term tool comes from the old-English word tōl which means to prepare for use. If what we are preparing to use are the environmental conditions that we need to change to achieve the desired end then it makes sense. It includes not just tangible implements that we employ, but also the methods we use to achieve ends. We use a plow in order to prepare the soil for cultivation. We use fire to prepare food for consumption. We use violence to prepare people to comply.

Violence is a tool, but it is a tool that comes with significant consequences to its use. Humans are a social species, and to commit violence—to kill or harm—other humans can appear to be an inherently asocial activity. It is, however, a social activity in a way. While some implementations of violence can be asocial, such as killing others so as to take their stuff without resistance, you can just as easily use it to change a social paradigm, such as simply beating others instead of killing them for their stuff. Violence can be both asocial and social and it depends on the ends that are trying to be achieved.

Tim Larkin, in his book When Violence Is the Answer: Learning How To Do What It Takes When Your Life Is At Stake, he wants the reader to understand that violence is indeed a tool. That you need to understand it in order to protect yourself when violence is brought upon you. That we must detach the negative connotations from this tool in order to truly understand it, or otherwise we risk ignoring it because it makes us uncomfortable. A criminal will use violence for their own benefit at the expense of the victim, and that in order to protect oneself from becoming a victim, you must learn to study and use violence as a tool as well.

“We think that because violence is undesirable, to study it is to endorse it – to say that we think it is desirable… Violence is a tool like any other. As with any other tool, the proper object of our moral and ethical judgment isn’t the “what” – after all, you wouldn’t call a screwdriver or a toothbrush evil - but rather the “why,” the ends to which human beings choose to direct it.”

“Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the answer will not be violence. It will be avoidance or de-escalation. But that one time when violence is the answer, make no mistake, it will be the only answer.”

Larkin makes note that our bodies were evolved to use violence. Our forward-facing eyes and large upright bodies allow our arms to be free—alongside opposable thumbs—to handle tools and complex brains for understanding and shaping our environments. It is no doubt that our ancestors would utilize tools to shape human interactions as it would the feral beasts and virgin lands they found themselves occupying. Humans would evolve to become more effective in the use of violence as much as it would evolve along with other survival strategies.

In sexual dimorphism, males and females can be of different sizes based on the sexual strategies that had evolved in their genetics. For example, insects usually have larger females since their strategy involves females producing large numbers of eggs to ensure survivability through large numbers of offspring. Males, on the other hand, are small since their most important contribution is just to provide genetic material for the diversity of the genome. For mammals and avian species, sometimes the males are much larger since their females produce lesser numbers of eggs, and the males compete for access to females as well as protecting those females and their offspring.

Within the great apes, such as humans, most of the males have greater mass, bone density, and muscular strength in relation to their female counterparts, and this has shown in the fossil records of early humans for at least the last two million years. This is evidence of a sexual species in which its male population utilizes violence as a tool to compete for females and shape their environments. Our genetic cousins—chimpanzees—show much of the same propensity towards violence as we do since they are compelled by the same genetic factors that shaped our development: the result of a common evolutionary ancestor. Steven Pinker relays this perspective to a finding made by Jane Goodall, a world-renowned primatologist:

“When a group of male chimpanzees encounters a smaller group or a solitary individual from another community, they don’t hoot and bristle, but take advantage of their numbers. If the stranger is a sexually receptive adolescent female, they may groom her and try to mate. If she is carrying an infant, they will often attack her and kill and eat the baby. And if they encounter a solitary male, or isolate one from a small group, they will go after him with murderous savagery… In one community, the chimpanzees picked off every male in a neighboring one, an event that if it occurred among humans we would call genocide.”

Humans are violent because we evolved to be so. Violence isn’t bad per se, it is a tool that our ancestors used to survive in harsh environments with scarce resources. And while violence is less of a tool today than it has been in the past, every human alive today exists because a male ancestor competed against other males for breeding opportunities, thus preventing predation from befalling their partners and offspring. That is why contemporary homo sapiens still retain sexual dimorphism—with larger males—as we are all descendants of a system of male competition and aggression.

But is violence still a desirable tool for humanity? Our species has evolved to the point in which we can make inquiries into our own existence and determine how best to shape our environments through logic and rational assessment. Our bodies have been shaped by violence throughout human evolution, but we are able to look beyond our instincts into more abstraction and determine where to go from here. We have found other tools such as cooperation, optimizing resources, long-term planning, etc., that has made violence less and less vital to ensure our survivability. Still, violence is very much a part of us, but we can reduce it by understanding the causes of human violence.

Causes of Violence (Pinker’s Inner Demons)

“So let me begin by convincing you that most of us - including you, dear reader - are wired for violence, even if in all likelihood we will never have an occasion to use it." -Pinker

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, has identified that throughout human history, even pre-history assessed in our fossil records, that humanity has been witnessing an overall reduction in violence. From a Hobbesian state of nature, where homo sapiens were no more developed than our fellow primates, to our present international world order, there is a downwards trend. Taking into account both organized conflict between groups and individual fights for personal reasons, you are far more likely to die a violent death, regardless of sociopolitical station, the farther back in time you go.

While some may counter this perspective by half-jokingly saying, “Haven’t you been watching the news,” it isn’t an effective argument. The reason being is that the news is written and curated specifically to draw your attention. It will usually be bombastic, riveting, and full of emotionally-filled rhetoric to retain your attention. If our ancestors had the same international and competitive access to media that we have, their feeds would be filled with war, disease, and devastation. In a sense, our desire to be fed news of danger—things that may be of concern to us and of which we can learn—compels those that make the sharing of news their business, the media, incentivized to emphasize violence and hatred over cooperation and progress. People may say they don’t like it, but violence draws us in so we may learn from it.

Statistics on violence underestimate the importance of violence in the human condition. The human brain runs on the Latin Adage “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Even in peaceable societies, people are fascinated by the logic of bluff and threat, the psychology of alliance and betrayal, the vulnerability of a human body and how they can be exploited or shielded. The universal pleasure that people take in violent entertainment, always in the teeth of censorship and moralistic denunciation, suggests that the mind craves information on the conduct of violence. A likely explanation is that in evolutionary history, violence was not so improbable that people could afford not to understand how it works. -Pinker

Our desire to better understand the nature of violence can drive us to seek it out in a safe manner. In this case, we do so by looking at the examples and lessons set by others. We learn from experience best, but when violence is involved, learning becomes costly: potentially at the cost of life, limb, or eyesight. So we seek it out for practically free, at the expense of others, or in the controlled environment of training. This is why we are drawn to the aforementioned media-fed stories of violence and danger — we desire to learn what may be of concern to us without endangering ourselves in the process.

In the discussions of conflict, even those that purport peace as desirable may still seek out violence in other forms: as an area of study, in cinema, in video games, or in martial arts. In whichever medium we consume violence, we learn a little bit about its nature. Sometimes what we learn may be incorrect, since they are crude facsimiles of actual violence, but we learn a little bit nonetheless. We seek to learn, even if we don’t realize it, how to use violence effectively through these other mediums, because our brains are evolved to seek out information to problems we perceive: e.g. conflict. You don’t have to be a proponent of hurting your fellow humans for personal gain to understand that others may do it to you and you need to be prepared. When you act in defense of yourself or others, you fall back on what you learned from these many mediums of violence. Violence is just a tool, and in order to use it, you must perceive it as such.

The reality is, what makes criminals better at violence is that they don’t romanticize - they treat it like it’s business. In my time interviewing high-ranking prison gang members while also training business executives in self-protection, I’ve continually noticed parallels between the two worlds. They’re both very savvy and possess all the different kinds of intelligence that help them succeed. They both have clear goals and act with purpose. They both value precise, timely execution. And neither of them have time for opinions or sentiment - they only want facts. -Larkin

The emphasis to treat violence as a tool is important to make since it allows us to study it objectively. We will look at the ethics of violence and human conflict in a later chapter, but for this chapter and the following ones, we look at it more practically. We explore how the tool of violence is manifested through brain functions and perception into physical action against targets, and how we can be more effective in its use. That being said, however, greater cooperation has provided a benefit to our species as it has allowed us to produce ever greater and powerful societies capable of progressing human development with great works and a better understanding of our universe.

Yet the foundation of violence is always there, built upon two-million or more years of competing and surviving in harsh resource-scarce environments. We need to understand violence if we want to control it but also understand the fact that peace is a two-way street. Both sides in a conflict need to see cooperation as desirable, and if not, conflict will occur and violence is the tool to ensure one’s will is protected.

First, to understand humanity’s propensity for violence, we must see where this motivation originates. Pinker identified the following five driving factors that were responsible for most human conflict. These inner demons, as he calls them, will provide us some insight on some of the fundamental reasons for conflict, from world wars, revolutions, crusades, and border skirmishes to gang violence and drunken barroom brawls.


This particular factor uses violence as a means to achieve an end—some tangible gain. It isn’t that violence is critical, like a form of sadism or retribution for a violation, but simply the easiest or shortest route to achieving their goal. It is exploitative and instrumental conflict for personal or collective gain at the expense of others.

It is the oldest form of violence for life on our planet since it is fundamental to survival. There is scarcity in resources and threats to one's continued survival. In order to survive, one needs to secure those resources—even hoard them not unlike a concept called the Tragedy of the Commons—and to remove threats from the equation. The easiest way to achieve this is not through cooperation but through violence. Indeed, there is a risk of harm to oneself by engaging in violence, but that will have to be a calculated risk—much like when chimpanzees attack only when they have a perceived advantage. Cooperation requires constant vigilance to ensure you won’t be betrayed at a later date, and sometimes it is safer to simply get rid of the threat altogether: this is the predator's thought process.

For a social species, like humanity, predation within and amongst groups comes with significant caveats. It is very much an asocial activity. Predation of other creatures for food and furs is more widely acceptable, and has been the norm for most of our species’ existence, but to prey upon fellow humans requires two psychological mechanisms.

“The psychology of predatory violence consists in the human capacity for means-ends reasoning and the fact that our faculties of moral restraint do not kick in automatically in our dealings with every living thing... [1] Though predatory violence is purely practical, the human mind does not stick to abstract reasoning for long. It tends to backslide into evolutionarily prepared and emotionally charged categories… [2] People exaggerate not just their moral rectitude but their power and prospects, a subtype of self-serving bias called positive illusions." -Pinker

To rephrase and add context, a human being or group of human beings, unfettered by social restraint preventing the use of violence, will at first see violence as a practical tool—as we have stated before. [1] After having become engaged in conflict, however, the human brain and body will be flushed with various hormones in order to facilitate its survival in a fight, and the abstract concept of violence being simply a means to an end will fall away to simply an enemy—a parasite—that must be destroyed. Additionally, [2] the ability to overhype one’s capabilities and justifications for conflict can lead to a deluded prospect of success—meaning that the risk of damages from conflict is incorrectly perceived as minimal or worth the costs.


Whereas predation was the use of violence in order to gain something tangible, domination seeks to jockey for social position. Predation was an asocial activity, removing human obstacles from their path to their goal. Domination, however, upends the social paradigm. In the pursuit of dominance, the individual doesn’t necessarily want to kill or harm their adversary. They merely demand that they comply.

Killing can still be involved, but this is generally in support of their bid for social position. This sentiment can be seen in the old Chinese adage, “kill one to warn a hundred.” It isn’t that the intent is to kill or harm, but if some need to die or suffer to force others to submit, so be it.

This type of violence is also some of the most prevalent in society: from nations to individuals. The Cold War and the War on Terror can be summed up as conflicts of dominance with the containment of communism and destruction of terrorist safe havens on the one side, and the spreading of ideologies throughout the world on the other. Note: While spreading ideology is dominance, the use of ideology to compel violence is its own factor of violence which we will get to shortly. Amongst small groups and individuals, we see fights start due to perceived slights or violations of established norms or etiquette.

Even though nothing tangible is at state in contests for dominance, they are among the deadliest forms of human quarrel. At one end of the magnitude scale, we have seen that many wars in the Ages of Dynasties, Sovereignty, and Nationalism were fought over nebulous claims of national preeminence, including World War I. At the other end of the scale, the single largest motive for homicide is “altercations of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc.  -Pinker

Amongst our chimpanzee cousins, when one group doesn’t have overwhelming numerical superiority, they resort to displays of strength. It is understandable that this is common amongst primates, as these social species are intelligent enough to understand certain abstractions, such as long-term consequences and social dynamics, and would choose a display of force. It allows both sides to see what the others have and their willingness to use violence and opt to press or disengage depending on what they perceive.

Zulu Warrior Posturing

Traditional Zulu warfighting techniques, much like many tribal societies, were focused on displays of strength and courage, and less on actual combat and killing. Most battles would end by agreement, and any lingering disputes would be handled through negotiation. Shaka Zulu upended this tradition by altering their weapons and training to emphasize closing with and killing their enemy. The violence associated with dominance gave way to killer predation - for the betterment of the Zulu.

Elephant Walk, misawa airbase, war is my business, domination

The Elephant Walk - the taxiing of multiple aircraft - is as much a tool of deterrence as it is tactical employment of large sorties of aircraft. The ability to get so much aircraft airborne in a short amount of time allows for better employment of airpower in support of a mission, and as a result, also shows potential adversaries the strength and will of the nation. A show of force is a display of dominance and reaffirms deterrence.


To understand revenge, one must first understand the concept of deterrence. To deter a potential aggressor from predation, one must showcase their capacity to defend themselves if necessary. They must make any other course of action the predator could take—that doesn’t bring harm to the prey’s interest—a preferable option. If they do cause a violation, they must know that they will suffer more for it. But some aggressors still take up the action and you must respond. If nothing is done in response, the message given to the world is that there is little to no consequence for harming this particular target. Revenge, therefore, is a cognitive urge to reestablish deterrence.

From dealing with schoolyard bullies to whole nations, the sentiment of not letting others walk all over you is generally understood by all peoples. We pity the downtrodden, but short of calling upon a protector, occupying a pitiful position doesn’t deter predation. If you are attacked, you may keep getting attacked until you fight back. When you fight back, when you bring violation back upon your violators, you reaffirm your willingness to fight - reestablishing a deterrent effect. Our probability of survival is increased if we have an effective deterrent to predation and domination. As a result, revenging-seeking provides an evolutionary advantage to our species.

The neurobiology of revenge begins with the Rage circuit in the midbrain-hypothalamus-amygdala pathway, which inclines an animal who has been hurt or frustrated to lash out at the nearest likely perpetrator. In humans the system is fed by information originating from anywhere in the brain, including the temporoparietal junction, which indicates whether the harm was intended or accidental. The Rage circuit then activates the insular cortex, which gives rise to sensations of pain, disgust, and anger. None of this is enjoyable, and we know that animals will work to turn off electrical stimulation of the Rage system… But then the brain can slip into a different mode of information processing. [Scientists] predicted that patterns of activity in the brain can shift from an aversive anger to a cool and pleasurable seeking, the kind that guides the pursuit of delectable food. As [test subjects] were pondering the opportunity [to seek revenge on a person who cheated them out of money], their brains were scanned, and the scientists found that a part of the striatum (the core of the Seeking system) lit up - the same region that lights up when a person craves nicotine, cocaine, or chocolate. Revenge is sweet, indeed. -Pinker

The desire to strike back is a characteristic of human survival. Just like pleasure derived from foods and sex are a result of evolution rewarding us for taking part in evolutionarily beneficial activities, revenge is also pleasurable. We find pleasure in it because our ancestors were able to survive and pass on their genes by using it to avoid future conflicts. To those that didn’t employ revenge successfully, well, they have no descendants.

doolittle raid, war is my business, revenge, ww2

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the desire for revenge against the Empire of Japan was pretty strong within the nation as much as it was for the Government of the United States. The desire to show strength after such a perceived violation led to the execution of the Doolittle Raid which was the first counter-strike against the Japanese mainland. It boosted American morale while showcasing Japan's operational weakness.


The fourth cause of human violence is peculiar since it doesn’t appear to provide a direct benefit to its user. Sadism is the process of deriving pleasure through the infliction of pain and torment on others. It does appear to help support the goals of other forms of violence. For predation, the fear of suffering may compel prey to simply submit instead of fighting back and risking the anguish. For domination, it compels the weak to accept their lesser station instead of challenging the social dynamic. For revenge, the thought of an agonizing death can cause fear in everyone which effectively reestablishes the deterrent effect.

Pinker identifies that there are two requirements for sadism to exist within a person, 1) enjoyment of suffering, and 2) the lack of inhibition that restrains them. There are people that naturally are predisposed to lack empathy and concern for others’ wellbeing as a result of “a blunted response in their amygdala and orbital cortex to signs of distress” and these people are called psychopaths. But not all psychopaths are sadistic, since it requires that the person derives pleasure in suffering. Psychopathy just makes inflicting suffering easier on the person’s psyche.

The development of a pleasurable response to inflicting suffering follows a similar response to the use of drugs in that it can become addictive. The brain desires to maintain an equilibrium between various forms of brain activations from external stimuli and hormonal counter-balancing. As the brain reels in disgust to an action, it may release hormones to counteract it.

“An aggressor experiences a revulsion to hurting his victim, but the discomfort cannot last forever, and eventually a reassuring, energizing counter-emotion resets his equilibrium to neutral. With repeated bouts of brutality, the reenergizing process gets stronger and turns off the revulsion earlier. Eventually it predominates and tilts the entire process toward enjoyment, exhilaration, and then craving… The pleasure is in the backwash.”  -Pinker

Pinker does put forth the idea that the pleasure derived from inflicting pain may come from the drive to push extremes and take risks. There are benefits to partaking in an action that others don’t in that it provides access to resources and information others will not have. There is a drive to see what is beyond that next hill, or – in the case of Disney’s Pocahontas – “just around the riverbend.” The knowledge of whether a particular fruit is poisonous or edible. Or the curiosity to investigate a strange noise and disturbance. It could be nothing, it could be a boon. The gathering of knowledge, therefore, could be the difference between thriving, surviving, or dying.

If a drive for cautious knowledge is an evolutionary advantage then naturally the brain might evolve to provide a pleasure response when it is achieved. An individual learns a lot about the nature and limits of the human body through the suffering of others – more than many may ever care to know - and this pursuit of macabre knowledge alongside pleasure associated with other beneficial effects of violence – like compliance, dominance, and deterrence – can make the infliction of violence as addictive as opiates and stimulants. The reward system of the brain—the mesocorticolimbic circuit—is activated as a counter-balance to hormones being released to compel one to stop, as these negative hormones are suppressed by the positive ones. What is left is pleasure. Meaning that anyone, over time, can become a sadist through a process of natural addiction.


In predation, the end is some type of personal or collective gain. In domination, the end is to defend or upend the social pecking order, be it long-lasting change or a fleeting moment. In revenge, it is to rectify past wrongs and reaffirm deterrence. In sadism, the end is the macabre knowledge of suffering and the pleasure associated with the act. Ideology, however, can have an end that is nebulous and undefinable. An end that may have no clear measure of progress towards success and a culmination of collective efforts. It is driven by emotions and faith in a concept to which perception may produce differing truths that compel violence.

Ideology stems from a form of collectivist thinking. Developing a shared identity compels cooperation which improves survivability, and naturally, an evolutionary advantage would be gained through genes that compel such behavior. The offspring of groups compelled to cooperate would in turn benefit from a culture of cooperation that rewards that type of behavior — improving chances to access resources and greater support to raise offspring. Being part of a group has, therefore, become a very important aspect of our species that even in a society that values diversity, individuals will still seek out a group that shares something in common in order to satisfy the compulsion: professional circles, hobbyist clubs, ethnic groups, gangs, and religious communities.

When you have a group of people that have a shared identity, they also sometimes develop a set of values and norms that its people must follow and a perspective of how the world around them should function. When a group perspective forms the basis for how they treat others then you have an ideology. Many different types of groups have an ideology and that doesn’t make them either good or bad, in the moral sense, only that they have a strong compulsion to act and engage others in a certain way. This powerful driving force, however, can be used to fuel violence derived from ideological motives.

There is a strong compulsion to serve the interests of the group to which one belongs. Members do not want to stand out against these group interests, as they may risk being ostracized. Many may even go along with actions they deem deplorable and undesirable because they think others would approve. This can lead to groups, overtime, becoming progressively more ideologically extreme and even supporting violent courses of action to achieve ideological goals. This type of complicit agreement to an undesired action is called pluralistic ignorance, and helps explain the rise of the murderous institutions found within Nazism and communism, but also violent religious extremism throughout history.

The counter to ideological violence taking over a population through pluralistic ignorance is, therefore, an open society that promotes the concept of freedom of speech and expression.

If the true believers are scattered throughout the population and everyone can interact with everyone else, the population is immune to being taken over by an unpopular belief. But if the true believers are clustered within a neighborhood, they can enforce the norm among their more skeptical neighbors, who, overestimating the degree of compliance around them and eager to prove that they do not deserve to be sanctioned, enforce the norm against each other and against their neighbors. This can set off cascades of false compliance and false enforcement that saturate the entire society… One is tempted toward the moral that open societies with freedom of speech and movement and well-developed channels of communication are less likely to fall under the sway of delusional ideologies. -Pinker

One of the biggest issues facing individuals and groups dealing with extremists driven by ideological violence is that they aren’t as likely to permit compromise as people driven by other violent motivators. People can pay off a predator with a gain—like tribute. A person seeking dominance can be dissuaded from violence by submission or through the ability to disengage while saving face. Revenge can be sated through legal and justice systems. Sadism can be quenched through other less antisocial avenues, like hunting or partaking in violent media. Ideology, however, is founded in a collective belief in some perceived truth, and to compromise on that truth is tantamount to blasphemy and is abhorrent to one’s beliefs. This is one reason why ideology can be so dangerous. Cooperation requires compromise and you can’t compromise on the truth, and those that do may be outed or even killed for this transgression.

A Business Perspective on Inner Demons

It may seem odd at first, but when we discuss the factors of violence in our species, we must think in abstractions in order to discern its fundamentals. Humans, as are other species, generally perceive the nature of things through concrete experience. Just as it takes imagination to understand concepts, such as atoms, black holes, and spacetime, it takes imagination to see past the emotional response to violence to find underlying, and how this tool can compare to tools used in business and other human activities. By divesting the emotions of violence from the pragmatic use of it, we can see that it is but another way and mean to an end, like any other tool.

In predation, violence and threat of violence is used to achieve some gain. Force is used to secure territory, resources, and—for more ancient or tribal societies—mating partners. The goal is the tangible object to be acquired, and violence is just incidental to getting it. Similarly, in business, the primary purpose is to make a profit through goods and services. The goal is to gain capital—a tangible asset—and the conduct of business is incidental to getting that capital.

An important note to interject here. I know some will ask the question, “How can you compare conflict with violent predation which involves a victim to business with a consensual agreement in which there is no prey?” I have two points to make, points that showcase the way in which War Is My Business seeks to fundamentally break-down, compare, and contrast, concepts between the military sphere and the business world. 1) In violent predation and business, one person desires something the other has in their possession, and the only difference between the two is how that one person goes about getting it. And 2) there are indeed victims and prey found in business transactions. For example, look at predatory lenders: it is in the name. The only difference between a predatory loan and a regular loan is the honesty and fidelity of the loan originator and the competency of the target.

Since violence is almost always seen as negative and if the targets of violence are incapable of defending themselves, they will usually be viewed as victims. Similarly, in a business transaction, if the target is negatively impacted and they couldn’t protect their interests due to incompetency or duress, they too would be considered a victim. Fundamentally speaking, the relationship we have with predation and business is quite simple. An actor executing an action against a target for some gain.

Predation can also be committed against a business. Opportunistic customers or even just local criminals can prey upon the goods and services of a store or bank for personal gain. Violence may or may not be involved, but this showcases the nature of violence in predation. Shoplifting goods, dine-and-dashing, and paying with counterfeit bills allow the perpetrator to acquire the gain without the use of force. Armed robberies of armored cars, banks, and cashier’s till use violence in order to get at the capital—the people are simply an obstacle between them and the cash. Predation in war by combatants against a target is therefore similar to predation in the business sector. The actor acts upon the target in a particular way in order to gain something. The action can be either good or bad, however, regardless of the ethics, the action is incidental to acquiring the object of desire. If a different action improved the livelihood of getting the gain then they would choose that action instead.

If the goal is domination and revenge, however, the action is very critical to achieving the end. In domination, remember that the goal is to reaffirm or reform the social order. In business, dominance is achieved through market share, and actions tailored specifically to increasing market share are employed to that end. The goal for revenge is retributive punishment, and reestablishment of the deterrent. While businesses can seek revenge for wrongs through the court system, they can also flex their business prowess in a vengeful way.

For example, in the late 80s and early 90s, Nintendo and Sony were working on a joint venture to provide the next generation Nintendo console that used Sony’s CD-ROM technology. Long story short, Nintendo backed out on Sony and decided to partner with Sony’s competitor, Philips. In revenge, Sony decided to enter into the console market with their own, the Sony PlayStation—using the tech they created for Nintendo—and became an established competitor. Since then, they now compete to dominate the market, stealing shares that would have otherwise increased Nintendo’s profits. A violation turns into revenge and the victim then becomes a constant threat to the violator, similar to many nations that have rebelled against their previous conquerors and masters.

In dominance, the actor acts against the target in a way that reaffirms or rearranges the social order. In revenge, the actor acts against the target to punish for past wrongs and establishes future deterrence.

For sadism, however, it may be a little more difficult to pin down a fundamental truth that is universal. Remember in sadism, there is an associated pleasure response with causing suffering upon the target. We speculated on Pinker’s hypothesis that the pleasure may have been the result of an evolutionary drive to push things to an extreme in order to achieve some advantage over more cautious people. That in sadism, the extreme is the violation of a social norm—causing human suffering—in order to get a macabre knowledge no one has. The act itself, therefore, provides the benefit, and the pleasure is only incidental: a driving force compelling the individual to carry out the act against inhibition. The fundamental aspect of sadism, after pleasure is removed from the equation, is that an actor acts in an extreme and socially unacceptable way against a target for some benefit; be it knowledge or tangible gain.

Looking at it from the perspective of sacrificing ethics for benefit, it is easy to find examples in the business sector. Though I do admit that without the pleasure aspect of it, the link between predation and sadism in business gets a little blurry. For example, I think most people are in agreement that predatory loans and Ponzi schemes are unethical, but would they be considered predacious, sadistic, or maybe both? What about companies that bypass environmental protection regulations in order to cut costs or increase production and throughput? What about neglecting OSHA regulations since it slows down workers and sometimes requires greater planning considerations that take time away from the primary purpose of operations? It doesn’t feel sadistic, inconsiderate, and greedy maybe, but without pleasure in breaking these regulations, we don’t sense sadism is at play.

So what are we dealing with in regards to any clear delineation between predation and sadism? Is sadism just unethical predation? I would say no to that, because people have accused many politicians and warlords of engaging in unethical conflict without considering them wars of sadistic intent—unless they were being hyperbolic to emphasize their disgust. Is sadism just pleasurable predation? I would also say no, since pleasure as an evolutionary driver for action can be found in almost all forms of violence: taking things, dominating adversaries, and achieving revenge are pleasurable acts though few may admit to it publicly.

Then is sadism just unethical and pleasurable predation? Yes, pretty much! We may, as a social species, have discerned that this type of violence is especially heinous and destructive to social order that it must be singled-out. In this instance, forms of sadism associated with violence are easy to identify due to their quick and vicious nature. Business, however, requires much more time and facilitation than violence and, as a result, sadistic business practices would similarly require a much slower burn before the pleasure could be realized. While I am not personally aware of such real-world forms of business sadism (and if you know, please message me with examples and references), there are examples in fiction.

trading place, dan aykroyd, eddie murphy, war ir my business, sadism, sadistic business

In the 1983 movie, Trading Places, two rich brothers in charge of a commodities brokerage take up a bet to see if they can successfully switch the social order of two characters: a broker played by Dan Aykroyd and a street hustler played by Eddie Murphy. In order to accomplish this, they conspire to mentor and raise the affluence of the later target while destroying the life and livelihood of the prior target. Since the brothers derive knowledge and pleasure at the expense of these two pawns, I would say this justifies the label of sadistic business. Aykroyd and Murphy’s characters, however, have the literal last laugh by coming together to short-sell the brothers on the trading floor, forcing them into bankruptcy—an example of revenge that is righting a wrong and deterring future violations.

south park, sadism, sadistic business, war is my business

In the South Park episode “Informative Murder Porn,” the boys are trying to get the local cable company to remove channels from their service in order to prevent potential marital violence by their parents. Since South Park takes satire to a high-level, the episode plays on the perceived poor customer service of many cable service providers to such an extreme that employees and technicians of the local South Park cable company derive sexual gratification from annoying and frustrating their customer base. Every plea for help by the boys is met with more overt displays of the employees’ enjoyment at their suffering. The one time they appear to actually help the boys is only for the purpose of frustrating the boys’ parents by denying access to their murder documentaries. Since the company derives pleasure from the unethical treatment of their customers, I would say this too earns the label of sadistic business.

Finally, we have the factor of ideology, a belief in an unmeasurable lofty end that is the pretext to the use of any number of means and ways to achieve it. It is a thought process that demands collective action and may involve suppression of dissent or differing perspectives. Changing course or compromise with outsiders may be viewed as blasphemy or treason to the cause.

The relationship here is between the actor and their goal; everything else becomes incidental and justified as long as it is in the pursuit of that goal. This isn’t to say that the actions taken, or the targets selected, are not important. Or that every course of action is favored or agreed upon. Only that in the minds of the actors, what is communicated to the group, and what everyone else thinks, is that the ends justify the ways, means, and targets selected. Ideology, therefore, has the potential to be a very powerful mechanism for action: either good or bad, depending on one’s perspective.

Do we see ideology in the business world? Of course! The very economic system of countries is derived from a particular ideology. Oxford dictionary defines ideology as, “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy,” and as far as most of the modern world is concerned, the primary ideology guiding economics is capitalism with a little bit of communism sprinkled about parts of the globe. But this is too vague, as practically every individual and organization has an idea of how things should be and how people should act. Pinker’s focus was on ideology taken to such an extreme that most people would view it as objectively counter-productive and subjectively abhorrent.

So, do we see examples of counter-productive and terrible ideology at play in business? Imagine the reasons why we have OSHA and EPA regulations, child-labor laws, worker’s compensation, etc. The pursuit of profit by any means available was considered detrimental to social health. Capitalistic ideology unrestrained has led to terrible outcomes. Conversely, communism's pursuit of equity led to massive starvation and death as farmland in China was redistributed to more and more people who could not effectively cultivate their parcels.

At the level of individual businesses, a business model can be seen to embody the aspects of ideology. They have visions and mission statements to provide guidance, direction, and purpose to organizational activities. Evaluations of executives and staff will be based on their ability to achieve goals while adhering to standard operating procedures and company policies. None of this is bad, and in fact, is important to businesses that rely on unity of effort to accomplish tasks and meet objectives. Ideology is about unity towards a common goal, but sometimes it can blind everyone to change that needs to occur in order to achieve that end.

When looking at profit-maximization as a goal, we know that some companies will engage in practices that would appear to be unethical: outsourcing to sweatshops to cut costs as an example. But the negatives of business ideology aren’t just those aspects that are inherently repugnant. Sometimes it can simply be an organization being unable to change to market conditions due to a culture that fears and suppresses change to its winning formula.

digital vs film, digital cameras, film cameras, kodak

Film Cameras vs. Digital Cameras

Look at Kodak as a case study in ideology. They had the greatest market share in camera and film for the better part of the 20th century. They were subject matter experts in camera and film development in the consumer market. That position bred a familiarity within their corporate culture that emphasized profit with the selling of film. Kodak cameras were basically a loss leader because it was Kodak’s film sales that truly increased their bottom line. When digital cameras became more commonplace, they started to outshine traditional film cameras, and Kodak failed to adjust their business model to the reality of their shifting market. While other companies were dedicating more of their budgets to digital camera sales, Kodak’s traditional cameras and film were holding them back.

From the beginning of its decline in 2005, it would continue to hemorrhage its reserves until it filed for bankruptcy in 2012, at which point it was finally forced to reorganize. The moral of the story is that even a winning formula needs to be periodically reassessed in order to avoid being inflexible to changing conditions. Additionally, it is important to cultivate an environment that promotes open discussions about the health and direction of the business in order to stave off groupthink and pluralistic ignorance that breeds counterproductive ideology.

Final Thoughts

We have discussed that violence is a tool. A tool is neither good nor bad, it is just a means and a way to an end. It is up to us as individuals and groups to apply morals and ethics to the use of violence to determine whether it is good or bad. However, even those that consider themselves good should study and be ready to employ violence lest “bad” people hold a monopoly in its use.

There are reasons that humans employ violence. Like many other species, humans engage in competition for territorial resources and breeding partners as a survival strategy in which violence had been the traditional tool. While humanity has developed complex and dynamic societies, these factors of our evolution that drive us to use violence are still there.

Steven Pinker helped us wrap our heads around five primary factors that compel humans to commit violence, and we determined the fundamental relationships in each of them.

  • Predation = Actor acts against a target for some tangible gain.
  • Dominance = Actor acts against a target in order to upend or reaffirm the social order.
  • Revenge = Actor acts against a target in order to punish a violation and reestablish deterrence.
  • Sadism = Actor acts against a target unethically and with enjoyment for some type of gain.
  • Ideology = Actor acts against a target in pursuit of a goal by any means.

When these causes of violence are broken down by their inherent relationships between actors, targets, and purpose, we are able to see commonalities in other human endeavors — like business. Some avoid making the comparisons because of violence’s visceral and non-consensual nature which can feel like an antithesis. As a result, people may scoff at the idea of looking towards military theory, concepts, and principles in order to find inspiration. They fail to realize that most of what makes up a military organization and its activities are not uniquely military. As we have professed in “Bridging the Civil-Military Divide,” there is more in common than not.

That being said, we know the reasons for violence, or at least we have made our hypothesis as to why it is used. Now we will discuss how it is actually employed. How does a social creature—a human—engage in an asocial activity? What are the psychological and sociological factors that actually compel the action? And how does the capacity to use violence differ when it is employed by a group? Follow us to the next section!

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Bridging the Civil-Military Divide

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The Psychology and Physiology of Combat

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