Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… Violence

After devoting the last three weeks to my all-time favourite pursuit – listening to myself talk about things I find interesting – it’s time to get back to something real, interesting and relevant to normal life. And what better than the darker side of human nature to get us started?

Welcome to the Month of Blood – four weeks investigating the lurking beast within us all, kicking off today with good old fashioned Violence, and finishing up with the single most controversial thing I will ever write on this website (stay tuned).

Some will be looking at that title and thinking that this is going to be a pretty short post. The ethics of violence? Surely that starts and finishes with ‘don’t’, right? Ethics may well be a far more complex topic than we usually give it credit for, full of shades of grey and philosophical musing, but surely everyone can get behind that idea that violence is a bad thing? Physical assault, stabbings, shootings, accidents, emotional and verbal abuse, domestic violence – whatever package it comes in violence is defined by the suffering it causes, and as (nearly) everyone agrees, suffering sucks. It is, by definition, something we aim to avoid.

So case closed then? A nice short article with everyone going home early? Not if I have anything to do with it!

If violence were that simple then none of us would participate in it – violence causes suffering, suffering is bad, therefore we should avoid violence at all costs. Why on earth would you every punch someone given the extremely likely chance that you will end up getting hit as well – a thoroughly unpleasant experience? Why would you ever be a soldier or fight in a war, depriving yourself of nearly every good thing in the world and risking your life daily? And even if there was somehow zero risk of you being hurt yourself, why would you ever act violently to another person when basic empathy should make you regret the suffering you cause and could so easily stop?

Looking at it like this violence, all violence, seems senseless. A horrible waste of time, potential and energy with no winners – just pain, destruction and waste. Why must we always hurt one another? Why can’t we look past the stupid, tiny differences that blind us and see ourselves as fellow members of the human race? Can’t we all just get along?

It’s a powerful idea, born of the distress that this view of violence naturally causes. But what this angle fails to grasp, and what always stops it from ever ending violence, is that violence is rarely pointless. Violence is, in fact, rarely about violence at all.

Violence is about power.

That may not seem like much of a distinction to make (sort of like saying that greedy people actually value buying stuff rather than making money) but it’s important to remember that power is not a big bad thing in-and-of-itself – power is just about being able to control your circumstances in life. And in that sense everyone has a degree of power, and nearly everyone would quite like some more.

Want to buy something at the shops? You need power (in the form of money) to do that. Want a high paying job? You’ll need an education (information is power), money (purchasing power) to pay for that education, and the authority (knowledge again) to make that happen. Want to have a say in the future of your country? Want to defend your basic human rights? Want to hold someone accountable for their wrongs against you? These, and everything else you do to control your situation in life, requires a degree of power to achieve. And even in the unlikely event you achieved total control over your own life, looking at other people suffering in the world, wouldn’t you wasn’t to be able to do something to help them? That requires power too. And the unfortunate reality is that violence is a very, very effective way of getting that power.

Don’t want to do as I say? I’ll hit you. Still not complying? I’ll hit you again and KEEP hitting you until you do. Unless someone stops me, you will, without a single doubt, give in eventually.

Fortunately, in our enlightened civilisation power comes in a variety of forms that make violence unnecessary.

Money is the obvious one, giving you a very reliable, safe method to buy goods and services. With enough money, you can buy just about anything (though importantly, not everything). The Social Contract is another major source of power in society – essentially the idea that we can trust each other not to be dicks, which in turn means that I can afford not to be a dick in self-defence. This ranges from being quite sure I’m not at risk of being robbed, right through to giving someone my seat on the bus – the nicer we act on average, the more likely it is that other people will do the same to us.

But both of these more enlightened forms of power both rely on the institution of Law to make them stick. Regardless of how well everyone acts on average, you can be certain there will always be someone who sees the advantage of screwing the system for their own gain (or perceived gain). The Law is there to make sure that certain standards of behaviour are maintained, regardless of whether people want to or not, and to make sure those who cannot be trusted to respect those minimum standards are separated from everyone else until they can.

So by replacing power in the form of violence with these far more enlightened systems, surely we’ve proven that violence is in fact needless? But look a little deeper and there’s a nasty question waiting for you;

If money and the Social Contract both rely on Law to prevent abuse, what does the Law rely on?

The answer is force. A very formal way of saying violence.

Say one day I decide I want your house, but I don’t have the money to buy it. So I decide to hurt you until you give it to me. You appeal to my humanity and the Social Contract to make me stop, but I ignore you. You might try to pay me to make you stop, but I don’t want your money, I want your house. Finally, you call the police to enforce the law I am breaking. But if the police cannot use force to stop me, then why would they have any better success than you?

Suddenly the truth of the matter is laid bare – violence isn’t just a form of power that civilisations outgrow and discard.

Violence IS power; the source of all those subsequent, more enlightened options that we’re so proud of.

Without violence, or the threat of violence, the law is meaningless because it becomes impossible to enforce. Without the reliable standards the Law provides, our other systems crumble because they cannot be guaranteed any more. Violence becomes the only reliable form of power, and quickly the law of the jungle takes hold: Might Makes Right.

And who amongst us hasn’t dreamed of that happening? Throwing off the shackles of society, dumping the rule book in the bin and letting our fists do the talking? Our entertainment is filled with post-apocalyptic wastelands, lawless western towns, violent videogames and TV shows, and vigilante killers that allow us to live out this power fantasy vicariously (don’t even get me started on zombies). Wouldn’t life just be so simple if you didn’t have to treat Dave in Accounts like a human being and could just kick his stupid head in?

Naturally, once the red haze wears off, most of us agree that the costs of the situation definitely wouldn’t be worth the benefits. Even if it turned out we were amazing badasses who thrived in a Might Makes Right world, it would also come with the condition that we would have to constantly watch our backs for someone stronger, someone smarter, someone faster. Animalistic hyper-vigilance might well be a great help in staying alive, but it doesn’t make for a very happy life.

Violence is indeed an overall negative thing in terms of the suffering that it causes, and ‘Might Makes Right’ is about as broken an ethical system as you can hope to imagine. But if every good, enlightened thing about our civilisations is, at the end of the day, dependant of violence how can we call it unethical?

As with so many terrible things in life, sometimes the ideal we strive for must be limited by the realties we live in. Principles must not be abandoned, but to be of any use they must account for the Practicalities of the situation. Violence should be avoided wherever we can achieve it, but we must also acknowledge and accept that sometime, violence is better than the alternatives we face without it.

Those who do not respect the nature and occasional need of violence will inevitably become subject to it.

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19 thoughts on “Month of Blood: The Ethics Of… Violence

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