Can Violence be Justified?

Here’s the other written exam question I answered over the weekend.  Oh graduation you are getting so close!

Can violence be justified? Explain what you mean by “violence” and “justified.”

In posing the question of the justification of violence it is appropriate to seek firm definitions of “violence” and “justification” for there is no single undisputed definition for either term.  To start with violence, if one wants a quick and seemingly adequate definition they might be tempted to go with a dictionary description along the lines of “the use of physical force to harm someone, to damage property, etc.”[i]  The reason that this definition might seem adequate at first blush is that it does cover those acts of violence that are most overt and that affect us on a personal level.  Under this heading we find assaults, murders, robbery, rape, and all the other personal violations which colloquially we refer to as “violent crime.”  However this definition only picks out one sort of violence within an entire scope, so what is needed here is a more expansive definition.

The World Health Organization tracks various sorts of violence committed against groups of peoples around the globe and compiles that information in order to give some sort of context to the phenomenon and voice to the victims.  They define violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”[ii]This definition has a much broader scope than what we saw in the dictionary; included alongside physical forms of violence are psychological forms of violence as well as a focus not only on individuals, but also groups.  I think this definition gets closer to the phenomenon of violence, however I would object to the uses of “force” and “power” along the same line that Hannah Arendt takes in her essay On Violence.[iii]  Arendt separates notions of power, strength, force, authority, and violence into their own categories with power being the ability of the group to take action, force being the energy expended by physical and social movements, and violence being the antithesis and destroyer of power.  If power is the ability of action, then violence is the stifling of that ability.  All this, however, has only brought us marginally closer to a working definition of violence, so perhaps a more detailed account of what we are actually trying to capture under the umbrella of violence is in order.

There are many different forms of violence which take place within a wide range of contexts.  There are violent acts committed which can be physical (e.g. murder, arson, genocide, robbery, assault, etc.), psychological (e.g. intimidation, threats, blackmail, manipulation, etc.), and social (e.g. racism, sexism, classism, fascism, etc.).  Some of these violent acts are committed against individuals while others are against groups; they can also be of a personal and institutional nature, and be committed against not only living beings, but to property as well.  It seems then that the definition of violence can be inflated to cover a great deal of human actions.  Here we need to be mindful of a couple restricting factors before we proceed further:  The first involves non-violent acts against others.  This point will undoubtedly seem obvious, but I find it is always good to cover all the bases so to speak; there are certain instances (e.g. a paramedic performing CPR or dragging a drowning child out of water) where injury may befall a victim but not through an act of violence.  The second point is related to the first and pins down an important feature of violence.  Whenever a violent action is committed it is done so intentionally.  Intentionality is what separates acts of violence from benevolent acts where injury occurs, or accidents for that matter.  It is one of the key parts of the World Health Organization’s definition above, and I fully endorse it.

There are many different forms and contexts within which violence can be expressed and intentionality is one of the benchmarks for measuring an act as being violent or not.  This is still far too vague and here we can do well to look at the well-known paper What Violence Is by Newton Garver.[iv]In his paper Garver makes the same move Arendt does divorcing force from violence, making the same point I just made about non-violent action.  But if violence is not connected to force then what is it connected to?  According to Garver it is the notion of violation that underpins the goal of violence.  Whenever a person or group is the victim of a violent act, they are being violated in a certain way.  Specifically there are certain rights we as humans take to be inalienable which are violated; those rights are that over one’s own body (i.e. the right to possess one’s own body) and that of autonomy.  Thus when someone is the victim of violence they are either having their body or their autonomy violated, or both.Now I want to spell out some useful distinctions Garver makes about the scope and context in which violence can take shape.

As we have seen above violence can take shape in numerous different ways.  Garver notices this and classifies violence into four different kinds based on two criteria.  Violence can be personal or institutional, and can be overt or covert.  Personal violence refers to those acts (or better violations) which are aimed at individuals.  These can be crimes motivated by greed, passion, anger, and a whole host of other intentions.  Personal violence is contrasted with institutionalized violence which is aimed at groups of people.  For example, in war countries are committed to committing institutionalized violence against their opponents.  Overt violence consists of those violations which are the most obvious to observers.  All physical forms of violence are most likely overt (there may somewhere be exceptions but I am hard pressed to think of any at the moment).  Also some forms of psychological violence could be considered overt (e.g. verbal threats of violence against one’s loved ones would be overt).  Covert violence is a bit more difficult to point a finger at but not impossible.  A good example Garver makes use of is institutionalized slavery.  In that sort of system, while it is true that overt violence does take place, it is not commonplace.  After all, a farm full over injured slaves will not be able to get any work done.  Instead there is an entire system designed to rob the slaves of their rights to body and autonomy by limiting what options they have available.  Slaves are psychologically violated by having everything that defines them as human stripped away and end up becoming complacent within that system.  It is along this same vein that the Holocaust was as successful as it was or why sexism, racism, classism, etc. are able to thrive.  Garver’s main opponent in his paper was the conditions which allowed the Watts riots to break out in 1964, but in all these examples the same sort of covert violence is taking place.

At this point someone might object in a couple of ways.  First, this way of defining violent acts does seem to be quite inclusive and could possibly identify acts as violent which are not.  Garver even asks the reader at one point to ponder which sex acts should be considered violent.  However I think that if one takes enough care when examining some certain situation with respect to the intentionality of the party committing the act and any possible violation to the other party involved, then a clear delineation can be made between what constitutes violent and non-violent acts.  Second, these categories seem to have a huge amount of overlap which could suggest that perhaps this is the wrong way to go about separating different kinds of violence.  Take the example of war as institutional violence; on the battlefield it is not countries that are killing each other, it is people doing very personal work.  Or take overt violence that takes place within the sphere of covert violence (e.g. murders in poor neighborhoods or slaves being made examples of as “lessons” to the others to not rebel).  Time and time again we see that these categories overlap in every way possible which could leave the feeling that they really are not defining anything at all, but rather just pointing out parts of a bigger picture that needs to be looked at as such (like that old idiom of not seeing the forest for the trees).  I would respond here that while yes it is true that within the sphere of human interactions violence plays a multifaceted and dynamic role, it does not follow that we should just ignore those distinctions we can make regardless of how intertwined with each other they may be.  Also it seems that is maintaining these distinctions we can eliminate some forms of violence as by-products of other forms.  Take the slavery example just used, in eliminating slavery not only have we eliminated a covert institutionalized form of violence, but also all those overt forms of violence that were associated with it.  The overlap can work in both directions: when one form of violence is dependent upon another form, that dependent form will disappear when the violence it is reliant upon disappears.  In keeping with the distinctions between overt, covert, personal, and institutional we give ourselves the chance to pick out specific types of violence that have multiple offshoots of dependent violence and do away with them all in one fell swoop -a sort of tearing the weed out by the root if you will.  Much more can be said on the ambiguities of violence but in the interest of space I will move on towards answering the question posed.

From what has been said I here offer the following definition of violence:The intentional violation of individual or institutional rights from either overt or covert means.  This inclusive definition is meant to cast as wide of a net as possible in determining acts as violent with the caveat that any questionable action be scrutinized for intentionality and possible violation.  Now we must turn to the question of what do we mean here by justification.

When asked a question about the justification of a concept so integral to human interaction such as violence, it only seems proper to find that justification within ethics.  Of course, the answer will differ depending on who you ask or read.  Obviously this cannot be a full-on examination of all the competing moral theories out there, so for the sake of brevity I will focus on three standpoints.

Suppose you are walking down a rather dark street one night minding your own business when suddenly a crazy man appears and starts attacking you.  What do you do, do you fight back or do you take a beating?  According to some sects of pacifism you do not.  The underlying thought here is that there is a greater duty to upholding principles of nonviolence than even one’s own welfare.  On the other end of the spectrum would be those who think violent action not only can but should be taken preemptively when being employed to stop someone from committing some act of violence.  The United States involvement in many of the conflicts in the Middle East seems to fall along this line.  I find neither of these alternatives very palatable and so a more middle of the road solution seems to be needed.  Here I appeal to Tom Regan’s essay How to Justify Violence[v]from the anthology Terrorists or Freedom Fighters.  Regan’s main concern in the essay is justifying when violence is permissible in the defense of animals, but for my purpose he offers the following three criteria that need to be meant in order for violence to be justified:

  1. The violence employed is used to defend the innocent.
  2. All nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted as time and circumstances permit.
  3. The violence used is not excessive; it is proportionate to the desired objective.

I believe these three criteria provide a suitable justification for the use of violence whether it is for self-defense or for the defense of some other innocent person.  It also sets in place appropriate levels of violence that may be implemented in a given situation (e.g. it is not permissible to shoot someone who punches you in the arm).  And finally a person cannot simply commit violence against another without first trying to find a peaceful alternative.  These criteria seem not only very reasonable, but also very commonsense and in line with how many of us view the appropriate use of violence.


[iii] Arendt, Hannah. On Violence.Mariner Books. March 11, 1970.

[iv]Garver, Newton. “What Violence Is,” The Nation 209 (24 June 1968), pp. 817-822.

[v] Regan, Tom. “How to Justify Violence,” http://www.brontaylor.com/courses/pdf/Regan–JustifyViolence.pdf

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