The Psychology of Killing and NonKilling

The many moral selves we have.

Posted Apr 08, 2012

Note: First author is Todd Junkins

“A United States Army sergeant methodically killed at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children...” (Shah & Bowley, 2012)

Is this sergeant just a really ‘bad apple’ or are we all susceptible?  Believe it or not, we can each shift into evil thoughts and behavior quite easily. How do we become “bad” or “good”?

Triune Ethics Theory (Narvaez, 2008) describes three distinct, but related, moral orientations based on the evolution of the brain (MacLean, 1990): Safety, Engagement, and Imagination. This theory describes the range of our moral selves.

Safety Ethic. The Safety Ethic stems from the oldest parts of our brain, evolutionarily speaking. These older parts, the basal ganglia and lower limbic system, are designed for survival and thriving in context. Our most basic emotions of fear, anger, and basic sexuality also originate in these systems.

Potential threats activate our Safety Ethic. Since this part of the brain deals with basic survival, it can dominate the process of taking an action. Once the stress response is activated, it shuts down our higher order thinking and more compassionate responses. In this panic or fearful state we overlook informative details and empathic feelings in the sole pursuit of reestablishing a sense of security. As a result, when we are in this mindset, we are prone to ruthlessness and attaining a security goal at any cost. In this way the Safety Ethic decreases our sensitivity to others and higher moral goals..

Early experience shapes how dominant the Safety ethic will be in our lives. For example, early life trauma (e.g., extensive or intense distress) can condition our stress response system to be easily activated whenever we are stressed. New or unexpected situations can easily feel threatening. It is easy to imagine how this can result in an aggressive personality.

Extensive trauma later in life (e.g., war), can also fix the Safety Ethic as our moral outlook. In both cases, early or later trauma, the Safety Ethic can become our dominant moral orientation or disposition rather than just a useful response to an occasional situational threat. People who look or act differently will seem threatening rather than interesting. To feel safe, those with safety orientations will strive for status, dominance of self or their group.

A Safety Ethic has its virtues: ingroup loyalty (not the loyalty of love), self-control (especially of ‘soft’ emotion), and obedience.

Engagement Ethic. The Ethic of Engagement represents relational attunement, particularly through caring social bonds. This ethic is rooted in the visceral-emotional nervous system, or the part of the brain that encourages play and other prosocial emotion systems. Early care shapes the reliability, function and integration of these systems (Narvaez & Gleason, in press). When all goes well in early life, we develop the capacity for strong social attachments, well functioning emotion systems that guide our choices and actions (Schore, 1994), and a corresponding social moral sense (in contrast to the self-oriented Safety Ethic).

The Engagement Ethic is a nonkilling ethic. This is the ethic that major religions emphasize— humbly and compassionately treating other life as equally important as our own. It is a self-transcendent orientation. It is the Engagement Ethic that keeps us from harming others when we don’t get our way. When this ethic falters, we are susceptible to evil actions, as self-protection or self-aggrandizement takes over.

For the Engagement Ethic to develop well, the infant’s nervous system is dependent on caregiver guidance in self-calming. Caregiving co-develops the child’s skills in social communication and interconnecting with the emotions of self and others (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000). Inadequate or poor early care and trauma can cause our brains to develop weak self-regulatory systems that daily activities easily overwhelm. With such weak development, the stress response system becomes easily activated, potentially leading to a self-protective orientation (the Safety Ethic) with greater distrust, hostility or aggression towards others (Kruesi, et al., 1992).

Imagination Ethic. Residing primarily in the neocortex, prefrontal cortex and related structures, the Imagination Ethic is built on the third stage of human brain evolution (MacLean, 1990). The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is vital to creativity, flexible thinking, and perspective taking. It is critical to life-long emotion regulation, empathy, and problem solving. Using reason and other tools, the Imagination Ethic helps us adapt to ongoing relationships through coordinating the reactions, instincts and intuitions of the older parts of the brain (e.g., fear, anger).

The Ethic of Imagination, like the Engagement Ethic, requires a nurturing environment in early life. Much is happening in the first year of life to wire the prefrontal cortex. Even in this first year, children are already learning how to relate to others.

Are children learning cooperation, dominance/submission, or separation as a way of relating? Take a young child who is often left on her own. As the brain shapes itself based on experience, this continued experience of being alone conditions the brain for being alone. The result is a reduction in density of neurons and circuitry for social relations. These stressful experiences early in life may predispose us to depression, anxiety and poor social and emotional skills throughout life (Schore, 2003a, 2003b).

The PFC and its specialized units take decades to fully mature. Even with nurturing care early in life, the PFC is susceptible to damage in adolescence and early adulthood (Giedd, Blumenthal, Jeffries, & al, 1999; Luna, Thulborn, Munoz, Merriam, Garver, & Minshew, 2001). For example, the PFC may be damaged through binge drinking (Bechara, 2005) or continually playing violent video games (Mathews, Kronenberger, Wang, Lurito, Lowe, & Dunn, 2005). This damage can lead to poor control of impulses and emotions, and little ability to predict consequences of actions.  

Did something like this happen to Robert Bales, the soldier who appears to have shot 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood? Was the killer functioning from an unregulated Safety Ethic? We examine this question further in part 2, The Psychology of Killing: Blurred Moral Vision.

*For a more detailed look at this topic, see our chapter titled ‘An Educational Model for Teaching a Nonkilling Ethic’ in Nonkilling Psychology, published through Center for Global Nonkilling. The title is available for free in .pdf format or through Amazon.


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