How Social Morality Helps Normalize Violence

May 20, 2018

Social morality is the degree to which people conform to the precepts of socially established morals. Morals are a set of norms and values that people are supposed to follow. In other words, in our daily lives, we conform to different rules that we deem appropriate to get along with others.

What about social morality with respect to violence? That would be the societal norms that we respect in order to avoid violence. If we stop to observe where we tend to direct blame for violent acts, we get a somewhat accurate picture of said moral considerations.

The just world theory

The just world theory is a very good indicator of the degree of social morality regarding violence. It is based on the general idea that people want to live in a just world. In other words, for our peace of mind we need to believe that everything happens for a reason.

If we attribute certain crimes to mere chance or bad luck, it means that any of us could be victims. This is an unsettling idea. On the other hand, if we attribute them to other people (i.e. they mugged her because she was in a dangerous place) it makes us think that we’re less likely to become a victim of violence (i.e. as long as we don’t go to those dangerous places, we’ll be fine).

social morality

This perception is based on a cognitive distortion. It implies a symbolic re-framing of social cognition and is based on the following premises:

  • The victim is bad (dumb or careless): devaluation and negative reconstruction of the person. We make inferences about them, particularly things like their personality. In other words, because of what the person is like, it makes sense that what happened to them happened.
  • The victim behaves badly: blaming the victim for certain behavior. For example, if someone gets their wallet stolen in the city, people say things like “It’s the city, you have to be more careful…”

Techniques of justification

As we said, in society there are accepted values. However, there are also other types of “underground” values. Why do we call them that? Well, the idea is simple: they are values that many people adhere to but don’t externalize because they are in conflict with accepted values.

Skyes and Matza originally presented the idea in their neutralization theory. Normally, criminals themselves are the ones who use said techniques. They do it to cushion the consequences of their actions. 

There are also, however, people who use them to give their opinion about the facts at hand. They use them to legitimize or justify the perpetrator.

These techniques are:

  • Denial of the crime: It was such a small amount of money, you can’t call it theft…there’s no one on the highway at this hour, it’s fine to speed.
  • Denial of the existence of victims: I’m not hurting anyone…
  • Condemnation of those who condemn: Politicians steal way more than citizens.
  • Appealing to a higher motive: I did it for…
  • The necessity of the behavior: There was no other way…
  • Defense of some value: He wasn’t a trustworthy person…
  • Denial of justice: Someone always has to lose…
  • Generalizing the behavior. Everyone does it…
  • Claiming a right: They egged me on… I killed her because she was mine.

Calculation of social morality

You can see examples of all of this in many real-life situations. It’s when people blame the victim of the crime. That’s why we have things like sexual harassment prevention plans that are directed at potential victims. They indirectly imply that people’s lifestyle or choices are the reason they would experience harassment.

Some attribute violent and anti-social acts to the victim’s behavior or dress. From a moral viewpoint, society considers the behavior of the victim a crime. If the victim acts in a way that society considers incorrect, the behavior of the perpetrator is normalized. It is made out to be a logical consequence when morally it isn’t that at all.

Morality in society is based on people’s good behavior: patterns, rules, and codes of conduct that everyone has to follow. If people behave in ways that society deems inappropriate or that don’t conform to established norms, then said behavior is considered the cause of violence. Sometimes these violent acts are seen as an inevitable outcome.