What Stops Us from Killing Those Weaker than Ourselves?

Thirty years ago, I was hiking alone on a section of the Appalachian Trail known as "Rocky Top" when I encountered two stocky young men.  The thought occurred to me that they could easily kill me, toss my body in the brush, and get away scot-free.

Whether the thought occurred to either of them, I will never know.  I passed them by with a brief nod and moved on quickly to the turn-off leading to my parked car.  But I remained troubled, and remain so today, by the fact that I had been so completely at risk.  I had been spared, but why?  There was no practical reason why the young men shouldn't have dispatched me with a rock, stolen my wallet, and sailed me off the ledge.  What restrained them?

Was it just the fear of getting caught?  Or that I might be carrying a weapon, or might yell loudly enough to attract help?  Or is there actually a moral boundary not to be crossed — a line that most humans have hardwired into our brains or that we have been taught?  Was I just lucky that day to encounter decent chaps who would never hurt a fly, to say nothing of another human?

As the decades passed, I thought back to that meeting, wondering if the result would have been different had it taken place years later.  Ten, twenty, thirty years later, has that moral inhibition dwindled to the point that the stronger group would think nothing of attacking the lone hiker?  If I met such a pair today, alone and considerably less fleet of foot as I am, would I escape unharmed?

In many situations, I believe I would not.  Not in the Walmart parking lot, with a handgun pointed at my head, demanding my wallet.  Not as an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a convenience store robbery.  Not with my car broken down in the worst sections of many of our cities.  There are situations, and places, where the inhibition against violence — something that moral philosophers from Aristotle to Hume to Deirdre McCloskey have all considered — has mostly disappeared.  The only question in many of these situations is, "Will I get caught?"  And even that does not seem to restrain many of today's killers.

Whoever murdered Gabby Petito is one of those killers.  That person crossed the line that most of us observe automatically.  We do not commit murder because murder is abominable.  We do not engage in robbery, rape, arson, and dozens of other crimes because these crimes are despicable.  Even when no one is looking, we do not steal.  And though adultery is more common than it once was, we still know that it is wrong.  Having been taught moral values when we were young, we carry these inhibitions with us throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, there are millions in whom this knowledge has not been instilled and who would engage in any sort of criminal activity with no remorse.  There is a class of individuals who have no respect for human life or human suffering.  They only respect force, and if the police response is not strong or quick enough (as is the case 36.4% of the time, even in response to violent crimes), the weak are on their own.

What prevents most of us from acting in this way?  It's not the police or the fear of getting caught.  It's the inner voice — the result of early moral training — telling us that criminal behavior is unthinkable.  That training took place mostly in the family, and that, all too often, is where it is not taking place today.

On the surface, this may be because family life is dysfunctional among some groups.  Among blacks, just 43.3% of children live with two parents.  Among Hispanics, the figure is 67.9%, among whites 78.6%, and among Asians 89% (2020 Census figures).  But one must dig deeper: why is traditional family life less common among some groups?  There is undoubtedly some truth to the familiar explanation that government welfare policies have shaped family life by stipulating single parents as a criterion for aid, but then one must ask: why were these policies allowed to be written in this way?  What is the underlying factor beneath the decline?

Alasdair MacIntyre identified that factor as the general acceptance of moral relativism emerging out of Enlightenment rationalism.  As MacIntyre put it, if all traditions possess equal merit, then "there could be no good reason to give one's allegiance to the standpoint of any one tradition rather than to that of any other" (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? p. 366).  That being the case, there could be no obvious basis for prioritizing one moral good over any other.  Or, to go one step farther, there would be no compelling reason for regarding any particular action as morally superior to any other.

Among millions of Americans, the gang sayings "BTK" (born to kill), OFFO (outlaws forever, forever outlaws), and "La Vida Loca" (the crazy life) seem more reasonable than Judeo-Christian values.  Even those who do not actually embrace these gangster codes exhibit a confused and relativistic inclination.  One has only to study the lyrics of popular rap "artists" like The  Notorious B.I.G. ("Juicy"), DaBaby ("Whole Lotta Money"), and hundreds of others to realize that a large segment of American society, black and white, is aligned with a culture that glorifies violence, promiscuity, prostitution, and drugs and dismisses any kind of moral uplift.  Who is to say that the nihilistic "values" of rap are not equal or superior to traditional Judeo-Christian values?

We are.

We reject relativism and nihilism. We believe in self-restraint, goodness, and decency, and we don't hesitate to say traditional moral values are superior to anything one might hear in rap music or, for that matter, in most popular culture. 

In the absence of traditional inhibitions, society is reduced to brute force.  In that world, the ruthless and the strong steal, kill, and assault with no compunction, and the police can do little about it, especially since they are stretched thin and do not have the support of many misguided persons.  There are not enough police to prevent the criminal actions of millions once the Pandora's box of moral decline has been opened.  Only the widespread teaching of traditional values can do that.  Those who have been taught an unambiguous code of ethics as children are less likely to harm others or to engage in actions like brazen shoplifting.

A civilization should be judged not just by its wealth and power, but by the protections it affords the weak — its children, the disabled, and the elderly.  On that score, America is becoming less civilized.  Child abuse is rampant, and attacks on the disabled and elderly are a daily occurrence.  Teaching traditional values in our homes and schools won't solve the problem entirely, but it would be a good first step.

When I encountered those two young men on the Appalachian Trail, there was nothing but their upbringing and values to stop them from harming me.  I was entirely on my own, just as Americans today are increasingly on their own.  There is nothing to prevent another person from harming us except the values that person has learned throughout life.  We live in a violent and callous time and place.  All we can do is take precautions, defend ourselves, and surround ourselves with those who share our traditional beliefs.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Image via Pxhere.

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