1: A crap idea
“Violence,” you say, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
I can only agree. It’s a great saying. Whose is it?
“Isaac Asimov, I think. I’m not sure.”
The science fiction writer?
I love the guy.1 He said a lot of great stuff. Have spacesuit. Will travel.
“No, that was Heinlein.”
Ah. Right-wing libertarian Heinlein. I loved a lot of his stuff, too.2 Starship Troopers. Stranger In A Strange Land. Shame he was a right-wing libertarian.
“He was probably ok with violence, too.”
Ah, yes, getting back to the topic of violence…
Why not? I agree with you.
“With me or Isaac Asimov?”
I agree that violence is a crap idea. It’s a crap idea for a whole range of moral reasons… and it’s a crap idea for practical reasons too. Where would you like me to start?
“Morality’s your bag.”
Ok, morality – I’ll start there.
Here’s the moral case against violence:
Ethically, in ourselves, we’re all equal – sparks from the same fire, water from the same stream.
Ethically, too, we’re all entitled to equality of opportunity, equality of nurture, equal kindness, equal consideration, equal care.3
But violence attacks equality. It directly enforces – or tries to enforce – inequality: between the violator and the victim, between the abuser and the abused. It’s an assertion, or attempted assertion, of dominance. It thrusts a knife through equality’s heart.
Can anything that thrusts a knife through equality’s heart be moral, do you think?
“I shouldn’t think so.”
So that’s the first thing that makes violence immoral. It conflicts with equality.
You see, it’s not just equality that violence has trouble with – it’s freedom, too. No one is free if they do something or don’t do something out of fear. But that’s what violence is all about. It’s a vehicle of fear. It’s inherently antagonistic. It attempts to coerce, enforce or compel. Yet freedom is a prerequisite of morality. Can a car or a lawn mower be moral? Do you scold a hammer for being cruel? Morality presupposes freedom. Morality is meaningless without an agent – someone capable of choice.
But that’s just what violence attacks: choice.
The violent attempt to limit your options. They create a wall of force through which the violated cannot pass. They objectify their victims, treating them as things. We’re roboticised by the violent – at least as the violence occurs.
And anything that roboticises a human being can only be immoral.
And then we get to the crux of the matter: what morality is.
To be moral is to care.
Nurture is at the core of morality. The nurturing others, the nurturing of all humanity. How could it be otherwise? 4 How could anything else be moral?
But violence is the opposite of this.
You do not nurture someone when you kill them, beat them or lock them up. You do not nurture someone through physical or emotional abuse. It’s a lie to suggest you can ever be cruel to be kind; cruelty always causes harm. To use violence, even against criminals, violates your own morality. It makes you a criminal also – and is a criminal truly what you want to be?
“You’re asking me?”
It’s rhetorical question.
“Thank f*** for that! I was trying to think how to reply…”
So that’s the moral case against violence… Want the pragmatic?
“Only if it’s less harrowing.”
“Ok, fire ahead.”
Violence inspires violence. Directly, in the form of reprisals or revenge, and indirectly, in the form of self-harm or violence passed onward to others. It’s easy enough to see why.
Newton’s Third Law tells us that energy doesn’t just vanish. When you see something happen, the energy of that happening doesn’t evaporate into nothingness. It takes a different form. You could call this Social Newtonism: force begets force; coercion creates resistance; violence incites violence. It’s as evident and verifiable as an apple falling from a tree.5
So the energy from a violent act doesn’t just vanish – it ripples outward, through society. It has repercussions and consequences. But is that something anyone wants? Pragmatically, ignoring morality, even on the basis of self-interest alone, is more violence, more resistance, more force really what you want?
I hope so.
Another problem for violence is normalisation.
Violence normalises violence.
Again, that makes sense, doesn’t it? If you live in a society which brutalises children, you’re more likely to see this as normal… and if you see it as normal, you’re more likely to treat your children the same way.6
But who wants violence or coercion or force to be normalised in their communities or in society as a whole?
Isn’t cooperation and engagement and kindness considerably more appealing?
Then there’s the ‘excuse’ factor.
The experience of violence becomes an excuse for violence. Because a person has suffered violence, they can always say, “Someone was violent to me, so why shouldn’t I be violent to others in turn?” They can say, “That’s how I was treated as a child, and it was good enough for me.”
It’s a game of Pass The Parcel – and each time you open up the package you get a nasty surprise.
On a larger scale you might also ask, “If the state is violent towards those it’s meant to protect, then why shouldn’t individuals be violent to those they’re meant to protect?” And you see that happening. Children and women are commonly abused in violent societies. Does that surprise you? They’re just next victim in a chain of harm.
Even for the perpetrator, violence offers little benefit. The violent are brutalised by the violence they deliver. Executions brutalise the executioner. Invasions brutalise the invader.
Justify your brutality as much as you wish – it will always do you harm.
A last pragmatic drawback of violence is its counter-productivity. It doesn’t tend to work.
Do violent overthrows result in happier nations? I’ve yet to see the evidence. Coercive prohibitions? Without relentless state violence they invariably fail. The ‘War on Drugs’? You might as well rename it the ‘Forever War’. The ‘War on Terror’? It’s a recruiting ground for terrorists.
Violence, coercion and force, it seems, rarely do societies any good.
Want to know why?
It’s simple enough.
We live in a complex world. A world of complex humans, complex social and biological networks, complex technological and economic systems.
Understanding and foresight are needed to navigate our way in such a world. If we want to change our world for the better, we need planning, intelligence, good data and sensitivity. Violence or force?
They’re f*** all use when it comes to complexity.
“But surely there are times…?”
I thought you might try that one. And I agree. Surely there are times…?
It’s interesting, though, how those who seek to defend violence find themselves having to dig deep into a world of extremes. They bring up the masked intruder, the wicked invader. They always ask, “But surely violence is ok for self-defence?”
But that’s not the moral question.
The moral question is, “Surely you can defend yourself without violence?”
Humans are geniuses of creativity and invention. Look at what we’ve achieved in our amazing technological world. We have the capability to circumvent violence, to make the need for force, against humans or any life form, vanishingly small.
Violence is always preceded by failures of imagination, planning and intelligence.
Violence is what happens when we’re incompetent.
As Asimov says, it’s the incompetent’s last refuge.
Our civilisation is in desperate need of change.
We’re immersed in a world of self-harm, enmeshed in a web of destructive narratives, concepts and lies.
We need rebellion.
But not violent rebellion.
Not incompetent rebellion.
A rebellion by the competent.
A rebellion infused with empathy, foresight, intelligence and love.
www.ethicalintelligence.org “The ethics of common sense”
Twitter & Facebook: @EthicalRenewal
© Luke Andreski 2021. All rights reserved.
- Isaac Asimov (1920–1992). Author of the Foundation series, where he envisages a sophisticated social science capable of predicting sociological outcomes; of three wonderful books about a developing friendship between an android and a human detective: Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn; and of the famous Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
- Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988). Science fiction writer, most famous for the books I mention. I particularly enjoyed his lesser known novel, The Door Into Summer. His political views were libertarian but something can also be said for his advocacy of rationality and science.
- See my book Intelligent Ethics (2019) for a defence of this claim.
- As 3, above.
- Consider the interventionist attacks by the US and allies on Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and Libya(2011) or their encouragement of insurrection in Syria (2011) – and consider how the statistics on death rates in these countries compare before these interventions and after them.
- For an interesting article on the normalisation of violence see Sered, Dannielle (2014). How Violence Becomes Normal. Vera Institute of Justice. Link: https://www.vera.org/blog/how-violence-becomes-normal.
While violence against other living things is broadly both stupid and immoral, violence against objects is another thing entirely. Objects have no inherent value. They should never be treated as more important than people. If violence against an object is required to make precisely this point, to say that people matter more, then that violence is moral.
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