On the Permissibility of Violence

In general, we think that violence is a bad thing. We think that we should not wage wars, we should not injure people, and we should not say mean-spirited things. This is because all these things are acts of violence on various scales, and because acts of violence cause harm to others, and sometimes, also to ourselves.

However, there are also times in which violence seems inevitable, times of political conflict, times where violence seems like self-defense, times where we might argue that violence is the only option. On the other side, when we resort to violence, we are often told it will be a never-ending cycle and that by responding to another’s violence against us we are “stooping to their level,” or continuing some kind of eye-for-an-eye logic that eventually ruins us all.

Notably, this kind of logic points to the fact that violence is not universalizable, which is a Kantian idea, and as we know, Deontology, like all other ethical theories, sometimes encounters some serious flaws, because of course we want to be able to defend ourselves and fight for a better world. Given that, I want to answer two questions with this post:

  1. When is violence acceptable?
  2. When is the risk of a cycle of violence too high to justify self-defense?

When is Violence Acceptable?

On a purely Utilitarian calculus, violence is acceptable whenever being violent will result in less unhappiness/pain overall, and more happiness/pleasure overall. Of course, we cannot know when these times might be, which makes the point generally moot.

On the other hand, as mentioned above, on a purely Deontological calculus, violence is never acceptable, which also seems like a bad state of affairs. Similarly, on an Aristotelian understanding, it would always be bad to build habits of committing violence, and I don’t know if finding the mean of when it is acceptable to commit violence, or what a paragon of virtue would do in a situation that might demand violence is any easier than figuring out the Utilitarian calculus.

So, what are we do to?

I think that what we are left with, is a justification of violence from a standpoint of rights (moral rights, not legal rights, though some legal rights are in line with moral rights). Don’t ask me where these rights come from, or morality in general, that’s a) a messy question and b) not the point of this article.

When we think about rights we usually think about things like  life, liberty, and, security of the person, freedom, and equality. When these rights are violated, this is a bad thing, and it is an issue of justice that balance be restored in some way. Obviously, there are times when balance cannot be restored, such as when one person kills another and we cannot bring that person back to life. But, there are times, especially in advance of certain situations, where balance can be striven for.

This, I think is the key to understanding when violence is permissible or not permissible. When a rights infringement can be corrected through violence, e.g. (through self-defense that will prevent someone from violating your right to life or security of the person) I think that violence is justified. On that same note, if your violence can prevent someone else’s rights infringement and that person is unable to advocate for themselves for whatever reason in a way that prevents that rights infringement, then you have the right to be violent on their behalf if they desire help. When violence cannot prevent a current or future rights infringement, or when that current or future rights infringement can be prevented through non-violent means, then there is not right to commit violence (which is why I disagree with the death penalty, since offenders can be prevented from future offences through an (admittedly flawed) system of incarceration).

Obviously there will still be difficulty in determining when violence is the only answer, but that is a judgement call we all have to make, and the immediacy of the situation makes such calls harder to make and therefore also more forgivable than if they are premeditated and no other solution can be found.

Finally, we must still ensure that the violence we are inflicting is proportional a) to the amount of violence needed to stop the rights infringement and b) to the amount of rights infringement itself. We cannot behead someone simply for refusing to hire women, but we can wage economic violence against them and their company for doing so.

When is the Risk of a Cycle of Violence too High?

This is a more difficult question, namely, because I believe it is a matter of individual and cultural psychology whether or not someone will retaliate, and how devastating and enduring that retaliation will be. Forgiveness can be a powerful tool, and we must recognize its importance.

Situations of cyclical violence will all have their own individual quirks and ethical facets, and I don’t know if much can be said about them in general, but I will say two things.

First, I think that it is important to not further perpetuate violence merely because of violence and rights infringements in the past. There must also be a realistic risk of violence against others and therefore rights infringements in the current situation or in the future.

Secondly, I do not think that the risk of retaliation in and of itself is a good enough reason to not do violent acts in self defense. As in my earlier article on compromise, when one party is simply not acting in good faith, or is being unreasonable and requiring some submission of rights, or rights of third parties, the risk of their retaliation or negative consequences that come about from refusing to play their unfair game, cannot be seen as a good reason to play their game.

As always, we should lead with kindness, but there is no moral value in being taken advantage of, or in being dissuaded in helping others in genuine need. There are things that need to be fought for, and there are times when two sides are not equal, and refusing to recognize that is perhaps one of the most dangerous moral equivalencies we can make.

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