More often than not, violence between states in the field of international relations is understood in instrumental terms. States are thought to act purposively in the pursuit of some tangible object, treating those in their way as objects; the targets of that violence respond to such treatment phlegmatically, without any sense of outrage. Drawing on psychological research in ‘virtuous violence’, which argues that intergroup violence is primarily moralistic in character, we present results from three survey experiments in the United States and Russia and a re-analysis of a recent study, which demonstrate that moral condemnation of adversaries is extremely easy to invoke, hard to avoid, common across different cultural contexts, and a central feature of ‘binding’ morality, one of the most fundamental moral foundations. Our first survey experiment presents American respondents with a fictional state developing nuclear weapons. Strategic features of the situation – offensive capability, past history, and interest divergence – generate not only threat perception but, crucially, negative moral attributions that mediate between the two. In the next two survey experiments, we show that American and Russian respondents judge aggressive action against a third country, regardless of whether the aggressor pursues water necessary for its population or oil useful for its economy. Finally, our re-analysis of Rathbun & Stein shows that moral condemnation strongly mediates the effect of binding morality on support for nuclear weapons use against terrorists. Our results suggest a future agenda on morality’s role in international relations that highlights ethical dynamics beyond the taming influence of humanitarianism and cosmopolitan individualism. Morality can drive conflict, not just restrain it.
This was originally published on SAGE Publications Ltd: Journal of Peace Research: Table of Contents.