Violence & Shameful Joy


Hobyahs2smallMost of us would agree that it’s wrong to bludgeon someone with a baseball bat and take their car. Yet many of us take joy from simulating that act in a video game. This strikes me as wrong.


Here’s a two premise argu­ment:

(P1) It is wrong to com­mit unnec­es­sary vio­lence

(P2) It is wrong to take joy from watch­ing or sim­u­lat­ing wrong actions

(C1) So, it is wrong to take joy from watch­ing or sim­u­lat­ing unnec­es­sary vio­lence

Some clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the first premise is in order. Let’s let unnec­es­sary vio­lence be any act intend­ed to harm a per­son that is not a means to pre­vent­ing greater harm or pro­vid­ing ben­e­fit pro­por­tion­al to the harm intend­ed. It may wall be that it is wrong to com­mit even vio­lence aimed as pre­vent­ing greater harm or pro­vid­ing ben­e­fit, but I need only the weak­er claim that it is wrong when it is not so aimed. I take it that this weak­er claim needs no defense.

The sec­ond premise is less obvi­ous­ly true. To moti­vate your intu­itions, con­sid­er the fol­low­ing sit­u­a­tion:

Rob­by is a ded­i­cat­ed roboti­cist by day, work­ing to build robot­ic aides for children’s hos­pi­tals. He loves chil­dren and would nev­er harm a child. In the evening, Rob­by returns home and, to relax, goes down to tin­ker in his base­ment work­shop. Descend­ing the stairs, he sees Rober­ta, a stun­ning­ly real­is­tic robot­ic child that he has made. Rober­ta greets Rob­by with a smile and a wave and Rob­by, smil­ing back, takes up a crow­bar and begins bash­ing Rober­ta in the legs. Rober­ta, being well-designed, reacts like a child would, adding to Robby’s enjoy­ment. After a refresh­ing ses­sion with Rober­ta, Rob­by rebuilds his toy and retires for the evening.


I con­tend that the plea­sure Rob­by takes in his base­ment is mon­strous. It is not mon­strous because it harms Rober­ta, for Rober­ta is a mere automa­ton; Rober­ta can feel noth­ing, has no inter­ests, no desires, no goals. Rober­ta is inca­pable of being tru­ly harmed.

Fol­low­ing Kant, you might think that Robby’s actions are wrong because they pose an indi­rect harm to him­self or oth­ers:

If a man shoots his dog because the ani­mal is no longer capa­ble of ser­vice, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog can­not judge, but his act is inhu­man and dam­ages in him­self that human­i­ty which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to sti­fle his human feel­ings, he must prac­tice kind­ness towards ani­mals, for he who is cru­el to ani­mals becomes hard also in his deal­ings with men. (1997, 212)


Replace “dog” with “extreme­ly real­is­tic robot” and Kant’s rea­son­ing applies to our case. But why should an act that does not harm a per­son be “inhu­man” and dam­age in the actor “that human­i­ty which it is his duty to show towards mankind” unless it is ill-fit­ting some­how? Even if we take the Kant­ian approach, we must admit that tak­ing plea­sure in sim­u­lat­ed vio­lence is to show dis­re­spect to human­i­ty or, what is the same for Kant, per­son­hood.

Per­haps one would skip over Kant’s claim that harm­ing ani­mals harms our­selves and, instead, jump to his claim that “he who is cru­el to [extreme­ly real­is­tic robots] becomes hard also in his deal­ings with men.” The prob­lem with Robby’s actions is that it makes him more like­ly to harm peo­ple. Maybe tor­tur­ing Rober­ta just won’t be enough for him at some point and he’ll want to try it out on an actu­al child. His action is wrong because it makes that step more like­ly.

If this is right, then it is not (P2) but rather the weak­er claim…

(P2*) It is wrong to take actions that make one more like­ly to do wrong

…that our case sup­ports. (P2*), how­ev­er, is not strong enough, by itself or with (P1), to get us (C1). What would be need­ed would be empir­i­cal research sup­port­ing the claim that tak­ing joy in sim­u­lat­ed unnec­es­sary vio­lence makes one more like­ly to car­ry out unnec­es­sary vio­lence. Per­haps the research would sup­port this con­nec­tion and per­haps it would not.

I think that the strength of the argu­ment is not, how­ev­er, con­tin­gent on the research. Even if we stip­u­late that, because of his psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up, Robby’s actions in his base­ment make him no more like­ly to harm a per­son, we’d still find his actions reprehensible…or so it seems to me. I’d be inter­est­ed in hear­ing your intu­itions on the case.

The upshot of this argu­ment is sig­nif­i­cant. Sim­u­lat­ed vio­lence per­vades out cul­ture. We watch it on tele­vi­sion, we enact it in video and table-top games, we read of it in our nov­els. Chil­dren make toy guns and pre­tend to shoot strangers. If the argu­ment above is sound, this is all wrong.

Kant, Immanuel. 1997. Lectures on Ethics, translated and edited by P. Heath and J.B. Schneewind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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