Human Potentialities for Building a Nonkilling Society

Published: 01.10.2008
Updated: 30.07.2015

Nonkilling Human Nature

Although we might begin with a spiritual basis, first consider a completely secular fact. Most humans do not kill. Of all humans now alive - and of all who have ever lived - only a minority are killers. Consider the homicide statistics of any society. Consider also killing in war. The world’s military and ethnographic museums offer scant evidence that even women, half of humankind, have been major combat killers, that some have fought in wars and revolutions, that in some societies women and even children have engaged in ritual torture and murder of defeated enemies, and that women are being recruited for killing in several modern armies. But most women have not been warriors or military killers. Add to this the minority combat role of men. Only a minority of men actually fights in wars. Of these men only a minority directly kills. Among killers, most experience reluctance and subsequent remorse. Perhaps as few as two percent can kill repeatedly without compunction. As Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman explains in a major review of male reluctance to kill in war, “War is an environment that will psychologically debilitate 98 per cent of all who participate in it for any length of time. And the two per cent who are not driven insane by war appear to have already been insane - aggressive psychopaths - before coming to the battlefield” (Grossman 1995: 50). Thus, contrary to the customary political science assumption that humans are natural born killers, the principal task of military training “is to overcome the average individual’s deep-seated resistance to killing” (295).

The human family itself evidences its non-killing capability. If human beings were by nature killers, if even half of humanity were inescapably homicidal, then the family in its various forms could not exist. Fathers would kill mothers; mothers, fathers; parents, children; and children, parents. All of these occur, but they do not constitute a natural law of lethality that controls the fate of humankind. If it were so, world population long ago would have spiralled into extinction. On the contrary, despite appalling conditions of material deprivation and abuse, the human family has continued to create and sustain life on an unprecedented scale.

A non-killing global puzzle to challenge ingenuity and evidence for successive attempts at solution is to calculate how many humans have ever lived and how many have and have not been killers. One estimate of a totality of humans who lived from 1 million BCE. to 2000 CE. is some 91,100,000,000 people (combining Keyfitz 1966 with Weeks 1996; 37, as recalculated by Ramsey 1999). If we inflate Rummel’s war and democide deaths to half a billion, assume erroneously that each was killed by a single killer, and arbitrarily multiply this by six to account for homicides, we might imagine as many as 3,000,000,000 killers since 1,000 BCE. (Figures of 1 million BCE are not available). But even this crude and inflated estimate of killings would suggest that at least ninety-five percent of humans have not killed. If the United States’ homicide rates were 10 per 100,000, only 0.01 percent of the population would kill each year. If aggravated assaults were 500 per 100,000 then 0.5 percent could be added to total 0.51 percent of the population as actual or attempted killers. Perhaps less than two or even one percent of all Homo sapiens have been killers of fellow humans. The percentage of killers in specific societies, of course, may vary greatly according to culture (Keeley 1996). Nevertheless the survival and multiplication of humankind testifies to the dominance of vitality over lethality in human nature.

Spiritual Roots

Grounds for confidence in the realizability of a society without killing are present in the spiritual traditions of humankind. Granted that religious feelings have been invoked to justify horrific slaughter, from human sacrifice and genocide to atomic annihilation (Thompson 1988), the principal message of God, the Creator, the Great Spirit, however conceived, has not been “O humankind, hear my Word! Go find another human and kill him or her!” To the contrary it has always been “Respect life! Do not kill!”

Non-killing precepts can be found in all the world’s spiritual faiths. This is why Max Weber deems spiritual commitment to be incompatible with the political imperative to kill. Jainism and Hinduism share the precept of ahimsa paramo dharma (nonviolence is the supreme law of life). The first vow of Buddhism is to “abstain from taking life.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share the divine commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13). One of the most ancient Jewish teachings is “Whosoever preserves the life of one person, it is as though he saves a multitude of men. But he who destroys the life of one person, it is as though he destroys the world” (Eisendrath: 144). The core of this teaching, although with qualification, is continued in Islam: Whosoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or for spreading corruption in the land, it shall be like killing all humanity; and whosoever saves a life, saves the entire human race” (Al-Qur’an 5:32). The Baha’i faith - incorporating the teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - enjoins “Fear God, O people, and refrain from shedding the blood of anyone” (Baha’u’llah 1983: 277).

Humanist traditions also hold forth the desirability and possibility of a non-killing society. In Confucianism, when morality among rulers prevails, no death penalty will be needed (Fung 1952: 60). In Taoism, when humans live simply, spontaneously, and in harmony with nature, “Although there might exist weapons of war, no one will drill with them” (Fung 1952: 190). In a modern socialist society though, when workers refuse to support killing each other, wars will cease. An anti-WW-1 manifesto proclaims:

All class conscious members of the Industrial Workers of the World are conscientiously opposed to shedding the life blood of human beings, not for religious reasons, as are the Quakers and Friendly Societies, but because we believe that the interests and welfare of the working class in all are identical. While we are bitterly opposed to the Imperialist Capitalist Government of Germany we are against slaughtering and maiming the workers of any country (True 1995: 49; for a courageous example, see Baxter 2000).

In all societies murder is disapproved. Humanist respect parallels religious reverence for life.

What significance has the presence of a non-killing ethic in the world’s spiritual and humanist traditions for the realizability of non-killing societies? On the one hand it reveals divine intent to plant profound respect for life in the consciousness of humankind. On the other, it demonstrates the human capacity to receive, respond to, or to create such a principle. If humans were incurably killers by nature, neither reception, nor transmission, nor creation of such a principle would be plausible. Even if a non-killing spiritual ethic were invented by elites to discourage revolution by the oppressed to weaken oppressors, or by killers to escape retribution, this would imply that the people to whom this is addressed are capable of responding positively.

The spirit of nonkilling has emerged before, during, and after history’s most horrible outbreaks of bloodshed. Its expression is not just a luxury benevolently bestowed by killers. Irrepressibly surviving into the contemporary era, it continues to inspire liberation from lethality in post-crusades Christianity, post-conquest Islam, post-holocaust Judaism, post-militarist Buddhism, and post-colonial traditions of indigenous peoples. In the murderous twentieth century it can be seen in courageous contributions to nonviolent global change by the Christians Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi, the Muslim Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Jew Joseph Abileah, the Buddhist Dalai Lama, the Green Petra Kelly, and countless others, celebrated and unsung.

The presence of the nonkilling spirit in each faith and examples of principled commitments, open the way for the awakening and affirmation of this spirit by hundreds of millions of fellow believers. Dissonant tension between the non-killing imperative and recognition of responsibility for killing and its noxious consequences create the motivation for a non-killing personal and social change. While roots of nonkilling can be found within each tradition, the spiritual heritage of humankind as a whole is like the multiple root system that sustains the life of a banyan tree. Inspiration and sustenance can be drawn from the entire root system as well as from any part of it. For all tap the power of life. The reality of respect for life in religious and humanist faiths provides a strong spiritual basis for confidence that a non-killing global society is possible.

Scientific Roots

“We will never get to nonviolence by religion alone.” Such is the advice of one of India’s foremost religious leaders, Acharya Mahapragya, creative inheritor of the ancient Jain tradition of ahimsa (nonviolence). In Jain thought, “Ahimsa is the heart of all stages of life, the core of all sacred texts, and the sum … and substance … of all vows and virtues” (Jain and Varni 1993: 139). For Acharya Mahapragya, the way to realize a nonviolent society is to empower individuals to discover nonviolence within themselves and to express it socially by combining modern neuroscience with spiritual truths. In his analysis, violence is caused by emotions produced by the endocrine glands affecting the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and is related to what we eat. Furthermore, based upon scientific knowledge of our neurological system, we can purposively use the energy of our brains in simple meditational practices to nurture nonviolence within and to commit ourselves to nonviolent social life (Mahaprajna (sic) 1987 and 1994; Zaveri and Muni Mahendra Kumar 1992).

What are some scientific grounds for confidence in nonkilling human capabilities? By science is meant broadly all forms of knowledge gained by questioning and experimentation - facts, theories, and methods for determining validity and realizability. A harbinger of scientific revolution is when some philosophers begin to question accepted thinking.

This has been done for nonviolence by A. Richard Konrad (1974) who questions the conventional assumption that readiness to kill is the only effective way to cope with violence from rape to holocaust. Konrad argues that the thesis of the single violent problem-solving alternative rests upon three assumptions: that all nonviolent alternatives have been identified; that all have been tried; and that all have failed. But these assumptions are untenable: nonviolent problem-solving alternatives are hypothetically infinite; practical constraints of time, resources, and other factors prevent testing even those that are identified; therefore we cannot be certain that the single violent alternative is the only one that can succeed. Thus Konrad argues the need to shift from a philosophical predisposition to accept violence to one that seeks to create and test nonviolent alternatives. Such an approach is likely to lead to scientific discoveries that question the inescapability of human lethality (see also Yoder 1983).

The assumption that humans must inevitably be killers because of their animal nature is being questioned. Tulane University psychologist Loh Tseng Tsai (1963) has demonstrated that a rat-killing cat and a sewer rat can be taught to eat peacefully together from the same dish. The method was a combination of operant conditioning and social learning. At first separated by a glass partition, the two animals learned that they must simultaneously press parallel levers to release food pellets into a common feeding dish. After seven hundred training sessions the partition could be removed without bloodshed.

Tsai concludes:

We have demonstrated for the first time in the history of science with crucial experiments that cats and rats - the so-called natural enemies - can and do cooperate. Such a discovery throws overboard the traditional dogma in psychology that in animal nature there is an ineradicable instinct of pugnacity which makes fighting or wars inevitable. (1963:4).

Observing that “many think that our research has laid the cornerstone of the basic biological foundation for the theoretical possibility of world peace,” Tsai calls for a science-based philosophy of “survival through cooperation” rather than continuation of the presumed inescapability of competitive lethality. In a radically different field, the physicist and historian of science Antonino Drago, contrasting the implications of Carnotian versus Newtonian mechanics for conflict resolution, arrives at a similar science-based recommendation in favour of transcendent cooperation (Drago 1994). So does the psychotherapist Jerome D. Frank in recommending cooperation toward mutually beneficial common goals to overcome deadly antagonisms (Frank 1960: 261-2; 1993: 204-5).

Challenge to the assumption that human lethality is inescapably rooted in our evolutionary emergence as a species of “killer ape” comes from new studies of a genetically almost identical primate species - the non-killing bonobo of Central Africa (Kano 1990). The Mangandu people of the Congo, who share the tropical forest with the bonobo, strictly prohibit killing them based on a legend that once their ancestors and the bonobo lived together as kin (Kano 1990: 62). In contrast to gorillas, chimpanzees, and other apes, bonobo have not been observed to kill each other (Wrangham and Peterson, 1990; Waal 1997). Furthermore, recent studies of “peacemaking” and “reciprocal altruism” among primate species who do kill also call into question the tendency to claim only lethality but not non-killing potentiality in evolutionary human nature (Waal 1989; 1996), Sorokin (1954), and Alfie Kohn (1990) have demonstrated, a cooperative, altruistic, and “brighter side” of human nature as well.

In a comparative study of aggression in animals and humans, the ethologist-anthropologist Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979; 240-1) finds that there is a biological basis for the spiritual imperative not to kill. Observing that “in many animal species intraspecific aggression is so ritualized that it does not result in physical harm,” he finds similar and more elaborate human techniques for avoiding bloodshed. “To some extent,” he concludes, “a biological norm filter lays down the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” But “in the course of cultural pseudo-speciation (defining others as not fully human and thus subject to predation), man has superimposed a cultural norm filter that commands him to kill upon his biological norm filter, which forbids him to kill.” In war, “this leads to a conflict of norms of which man is aware through the conscience that pricks him as soon as he apprehends the enemy and confronts him as a human being.” This is evidenced by the need for warriors after having killed for purification and social acceptance.

Confirming Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s thesis is Grossman’s finding that “throughout history the majority of men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives or the lives of their friends” (Grossman 1995: 4). Grossman notes that psychiatric casualties among soldiers who have killed directly are higher than non-killers. The soldier-psychologist and the ethologist-anthropologist differ only on the policy implications of their findings. For the former the task is to provide professional training to overcome resistance to killing. For the latter the problem is to bring cultural norm into conformity with non-killing human biology. Eibl-Eibesfeldt concluded:

The root of the universal desire for peace lies in this conflict between cultural and biological norms, which makes men want to bring their biological and cultural norm filters into accord. Our conscience remains our hope, and based on this, a rationally guided evolution could lead to peace. This presupposes recognition of the fact that war performs functions that will have to be performed some other way, without bloodshed. (1979: 241).

Brain science provides further support for confidence in the non-killing human potential. Terming his approach “Neurorealism,” the pioneering neuroscientist Bruce E. Morton (2000) presents a “Dual Quadbrain Model of Behavioural Laterality” that describes the neurobiological bases of both nonkilling and killing. The four parts of the model “function in two modes of a single tetradic system.” They are the brain core system (instincts), the limbic system (emotions), the right and left hemisphere systems (imagination and intellect), and the neocerebellar system (intuition). Morton locates the source of higher spiritual and social consciousness in the system of neocerebellar intuition. This “Higher Source” is “truthful, creative, self-disciplined, altruistic, cooperative, empathic, and nonviolent.” It facilitates the long-term survival of the group and is “strictly a brain dependent phenomenon accessible to all. The emergence of the “source” into consciousness can be evoked in three ways: by near-death experience, by certain hallucinogenic drugs, and most importantly by meditation. In everyday social life, the “Source” intuitively facilitates the emergent benefits of synergy “toward a nonviolent community.” It benefits from and contributes to the absence of lethal threats to survival.

Thus neurorealist brain science provides a basis for self-activated nonviolent commitment and social transformation that is entirely consistent with non-killing spirituality and biological reluctance to kill. This is also compatible with for example Vivekananda’s insight that the task of the great religious teachers is not to bring God from outside, but to assist each person to bring out preexisting godliness within. It resonates with Tolstoy’s affirmation that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Tolstoy 1974).

Or, in the words of the fifteenth century Indian mystic Kabir:

Between the two eyes is the Master,
The messenger of the Lord.
Within your own body resides your Lord,
Why open the outer eyes to look for Him?
                                                (Sethi 1984: 56-7)

Prof. Glenn D. Paige is the most celebrated nonviolent political thinker of the world. He is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at University of Hawaii and is the founder president of the Centre for Global Nonviolence, Honolulu (US).

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  1. Acharya
  2. Acharya Mahapragya
  3. Ahimsa
  4. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma
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  6. Brain
  7. Buddhism
  8. Christianity
  9. Consciousness
  10. Cooperation
  11. Dalai Lama
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