The Morality of Internal Responses to Violence

Recently (and by “recently” I mean like over a week ago, which just goes to show how little free time I have for blogging) I was at a party with some friends and we ended up discussing porn and violent video games. (Yes, this is what we do at parties. Philosophers get weird in social situations.)

The question under debate was whether or not there was something morally objectionable to watching (certain types) of porn or playing violent video games, the idea being that doing so might promote problematic behavior in real life, e.g., prompt men to see women as mere objects or encourage aggressive behavior.

Personally I have mixed thoughts about the morality of the porn industry and the consumption of porn, but with respect to violent video games, at least, my stance is that if there is no evidence that engagement with such games raises the probability of acting violently in real life, then I see no compelling reason not to play them.

The conversation got interesting at this point because my friend, who holds the position that playing violent video games is morally objectionable despite there being no tangible outward negative effects, raised the consideration that being exposed to so much violence might make one less sensitive to it. Becoming desensitized to such acts, he argued, is reason to avoid violent video games.

Given that we have already stipulated there to be no outward behavioral changes, I take him to mean by “insensitivity” something completely internal, happening within the mind of the individual. So he is making a moral claim about the qualia of violence: You must experience violence in a certain way (internally), otherwise you are, in some moral sense, wrong.

And here is where my disagreement with him becomes controversial: I see no reason to consider a lack of internal sensitivity to violence morally wrong. Whether you feel sick to your stomach when you see someone get stabbed or you feel nothing at all, either is morally permissible and the person who experiences more discomfort upon witnessing violence does not earn any “moral brownie points”. (Again, this is with the stipulation that, regardless of how you feel on the inside, your outward behavior/actions will be the same.)

A different friend then offered the suggestion that it is wrong because you are missing out on some level of connection with other humans; you lack to ability to empathize. I am willing to admit that this is true, and also that a lack of empathetic ability is sufficient grounds for the claim that your life is missing an important part of the human experience. But while this is a problem, it is not a moral problem.

So long as you are acting in the ways you ought to, I find no moral significance in the variations of internal response with respect to violence.

4 thoughts on “The Morality of Internal Responses to Violence

  1. I think the disagreement stems mostly from the fact – well, assumption on my part – that your opposites feel that the lack of visceral reaction to indirect negative stimuli will cause one to be less likely to take action to “correct” for others’ immoral actions.


      1. That may have been your stipulation but, even if they claimed to accept it, I don’t think they could put themselves in that isolated logic space.


      2. Another assumption on your part. I guess I have more faith in my friends’ imaginative abilities; philosophers are trained to work with thought experiments and hypotheticals, after all. The disagreement was purely about the morality of the internal experience.


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