Violence: An Ethical Inquiry

Updated on September 30, 2018
Elliot Lamb profile image

Elliot is a lifelong student of philosophy with an annoying dependence on sarcastic humor to help him get through the day.

Force Answers Force, War Breeds War, and Death Only Brings More Death: To Break This Vicious Cycle We Must Do More Than Simple Act Without Though or Doubt

The above quote is by author Dmitry Glukhovsky, from his fantastic novel Metro 2033. This quote tells us that we must go beyond our instinct in order to break the particularly human cycle of violence. In other words, we must go against our nature. But I would like to consider the question if something is seemingly part of our nature, our core instinct, should we deny it?

My goal in this article is to take a purely subjective and philosophically driven investigation of violence and its seemingly contradictory place in human society. This is not a research-driven piece, meaning I am not going to be citing specific historical perspectives or going in depth with the ideas of other philosophers. This is to be an inward-looking Socratic investigation.

Violence Is The Ink Used to Write Down History

Human civilization as we understand it is very young in the grand scheme of our world. The prominence of violence as the shaper of history may, therefore, be simply a flaw of youth. Nonetheless, it would be hard to argue against the claim that human history has been shaped, advanced, and written through war. War, simply the use of violence to achieve a goal, has been the most effective tool for almost all desires of civilization regardless of culture. It would certainly seem that in every major point of contention in the past and present, the automatic solution has been the use of force.

Empires have risen and fallen because the flow of violence willed it so. The United States of America, a country built on the vision of freedom, peace, and happiness for all (a vision not yet achieved one might argue), was itself borne from the use of force. In fact, I would say that in most situations the use of violence is the only way to achieve one's goal. It seems quite obvious that American independence would not have been realized through diplomatic means. It was only through the universal language of mankind that those goals could be secured.

Every powerful and influential nation or people to rise throughout history has done so because they used violence to make themselves such. I know of no nation that has risen to great influence and power without the use of force. I would be very pleased to be informed of such a thing, but until then I will maintain my current assertion.

Now, it would obviously be a false assertion to say that every major event in history was concluded with the use of force. The first and most obvious example that comes to mind is the civil rights movement. For the most part, the party desiring change did not use force or violence to achieve their ends. I see this as having been a conscious choice on their part to not act by instinct, out of principle but also possibly out of strategic discipline. On the other side, however, we would not have to look far at all to find violence used as the tool of response by the antagonists of the movement. There was certainly no shortage of violent actions taken on the part of the side against the movement. Why would this be so? There was no weakening of the movement side as a result of this violence. Obviously, the use of violence only made the peaceful side more attractive, at least through a historical lens. I posit that the use of force was simply because that violence of action is the instinctual response in humans when threatened in some way. The antagonistic side of the movement saw their beliefs (as wrong as they were) as being threatened, thus violence was the automatic response.

I do not use this example as objectively correct, nor do I yet support the instinctual use of force in humans. I only cite this as a potential perspective of violence in a historical context.

The Dominance of Violence Throughout Media

When one looks at the most popular items in the realm of film, books, games, etc, one will find that these items are almost always dominated thematically with a focus on violence in some way. Why is it that in our modern age, the most popular movies are of the action genre, filled to the brim with over the top violence and spectacle. The same for the video game industry, an industry to rival films. Going beyond films, where the consumer is a distanced viewer, video games allow the consumer to be the director and user of violence. They allow an active participation in equally over the top forms of violence.

One must ask the question, why does human society seem to be feverishly attracted to violence in this form? Certainly, there is no lack of violence still raging in the real world, and there are a number of avenues open to see and experience this real-life violence. Yet, it seems that is not enough. Violence is the number one selling point for these widespread forms of media. In the philosophical and political discussion, violence and war are the sources of disdain and repulsion, it is commonly agreed that violence is terrible and not fitting of our civilized human societies. Despite the vocal agreement against it, violence is still the source of obsession in common daily entertainment.

The Defense of Violence

Again, I am not asserting this as the view that I personally hold. One of the core abilities of a philosopher is the ability to consider how one might intelligently defend a view, regardless of whether you agree with the view or not.

Given what we have looked at thus far, one might come to the conclusion that violence is an intrinsic facet of human nature. In our most primordial, instinctual faculties violence is one of our automatic responses. Ethically, can we argue that we ought to live in our nature? Many in the past have posited that the struggle against our human nature is the cause of so many of life's ailments and problems. According to them, the best way to live is in accordance with one's core nature.

If violence is somehow part of our core human instinct, then should we embrace it as a good? Should violence be looked down upon with the same magnitude that love is typically looked kindly upon?

The ethical thing for a human to do is live in accordance with their human instincts. This view does not assert that it is unethical to not do violence, only that violence itself is not unethical.

The contradiction we saw earlier between human action and human sentiment is a prime example of the effect that struggling against nature can have. We as a human society repeatedly assert with near unanimous agreement that violence is bad and peace is good. But, in practice, we as a human society relentlessly seek out and engage in multiple forms of violence as a tool, entertainment, and solution. This mental denial of our nature creates the grief, disgust, and pain that follows the realization of violence.

One final defense of violence is that it is the primary tool for forwarding advancement and evolution. The most basic rule of nature is that the strong survive and create more like themselves. Human civilization, in all its complexity and diversity, has not escaped that basic rule. In all aspects of life, whoever is strongest and able to adapt will "survive". One can see this in practice by examining the technological and ideological advancements that have been borne from war. Without an innate instinct for violence, how else would the best solutions and best abilities find their way to the top and thus benefit humanity as a whole? I posit that it is an undeniable fact of history that human civilization has advanced as much as it has and risen to its current heights as a direct result of the natural instinct for violence. Is not the ethical thing that which benefits people the most? Is not that the natural use of force?

A Short Critique Of The Defense

When considering the possible defenses of ethical violence, an important problem revealed itself. That being the problem of degree. Given any of the defenses formerly stated, we have to ask to what degree is violence ethical to fulfill that defense? If we simply accept that violence is human nature, and human nature is good, then we still have to consider what degree of violence is allowed within that nature. Does it mean that human nature requires the total annihilation of a thing? If not, then what amount short of annihilation is acceptable? I do not have an answer to this problem, but it is something which must be kept in mind.

An Argument Against Ethical Violence

Humans are a unique species on this planet and given our current knowledge, we are unique to the universe as well. Since the dawn of philosophy, this uniqueness has been the reason that humans are not to be reduced to the same realm as other beings in nature. Countless ethics and moral philosophies have raised humanity to a pedestal above the other products of nature and prescribed for us special rules in virtue of our place.

It would be quite a task to produce evidence for why humanity is so special in our world, but that we are special is a given and thus means we must consider ethics and morals which acknowledge us as such. For this reason, we cannot bind ourselves to rules governed by our nature or history. It could easily be argued that our ability to change and evolve intellectually is as much a part of our nature as anything. Binding us to a nature of violence because of our history is denying our unique ability to change as a species.

Many would say that our uniqueness stems, at least partially, from our ability to change our nature and not be bound by our past. Whatever our nature was or is, does not need to be our nature going forward. Our ability of self-awareness means that we should never simply accept our nature as given and static.

Bringing this all back to the subject of violence specifically, violence may be a part of human nature, but it does not have to be. Our uniqueness allows us the potential to rise above our former selves (self here referring to mankind as a whole). Our cognitive ability, a statistical miracle, releases us from the grip of nature. It might be nigh impossible to realize across the vastness of our species, but we are capable of selective evolution in a way. We may be in a vicious cycle of violence, but it is the wonder of mankind to be able to step outside our nature and change it. We are able to break the cycle and the ethical struggle against violence is clear evidence of that.

Questions & Answers

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        Sabrina 

        3 months ago

        I am learning English now and trying to improve my writing by reading your essays/ articles (whatever it is).

        But... God, what a pleasure to read how you are debating with yourself rising such interesting questions, that I completely forget paying attention to grammar, word usage, etc.

        I will continue reading your articles. I really love the way you are conveying your ideas

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