What is it about?

How likely is it that someone would approve of using a nuclear weapon to kill millions of enemy civilians in the hope of ending a ground war that threatens thousands of American troops? Ask them how they feel about prosecuting immigrants, banning abortion, supporting the death penalty, and protecting gun rights and you will know. This is the finding from two national surveys of Democrats and Republicans that measured support for punitive regulations and policies across these four seemingly unrelated issues and a fifth, using nuclear weapons against enemy civilians (in Survey 1) and approving of disproportionate killing with conventional weapons (Survey 2). Those who support these various policies that threaten harm to many people tend to believe that the victims are blameworthy and it is ethical to take actions or policies that might harm them. This lends support to the provocative notion of virtuous violence put forth by Fiske and Rai, who assert that people commit violence because they believe it is the morally right thing to do. The common thread of punitiveness underlying and connecting these issues needs to be recognized, understood and confronted by any society that professes to value fundamental human rights and wishes to prevent important decisions from being affected by irrelevant and harmful sociocultural and political biases.

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Why is it important?

Two surveys of U.S. public opinion found that support for killing enemy civilians and combatants disproportionately with nuclear or conventional weapons was deeply divided along partisan political lines. Those approving such excessively lethal attacks tended to be Republican and conservative. They felt socially distant from the enemy, dehumanized them, and believed that the victims were to blame for their fate. These same individuals also tended to support domestic policies that protect gun owners, restrict abortion, and punish immigrants and criminals (excessively). Understanding the origins and motives underlying the widespread support for such punitive behaviors is essential to mitigating violence that threatens millions of people and our democracy.


This study originated as an examination of public support for the use of nuclear weapons against enemy civilians in a difficult military battle. It evolved into a broader expose of diverse bur related punitive attitudes held by many Americans.

Dr Paul Slovic
Decision Research

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Virtuous violence from the war room to death row, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2001583117.
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