Tonight's Philosophy Society meeting will cover the "Philosophy of Violence", and pose questions about possible justifications for acts of violence, including war. This post will touch on an element of the topic: why does violence need justification?
Princeton University's Wordnet offers three definitions for violence:
1. An act of aggression.
2. The property of being wild or turbulent.
3. A turbulent state resulting in injuries and destruction etc.
If we assume that violence can potentially need ethical justification, I think we should reject the second definition's utility to our discussion, as properties necessarily do not require ethical justification (feel free to disagree with this, or call for an argument, in the comments). We might, therefore, consolidate the definition into the following:
"An act or state of aggression that results in injuries and/or destruction".
Per this definition, we can expound a bit on the nature of violence:
1. Violence requires an aggressor-- there cannot be aggression without an aggressor. Thus, it is incorrect to speak of violence where there is no aggressor to be found.
2. An act is not violent unless it has certain consequences (injuries and/or destruction). Thus, it is incorrect to describe an entity as violent (video games, movies, et cetera) as violent, unless they themselves actually cause (rather than merely depict violence.
So, working from this definition, let's talk about justification. When we say that an action needs ethical justification, we implicitly argue that it should be taken to be ethically improper unless a sufficient argument can be made to the contrary. It's not enough to say that ethical justification is required for potentially (ethically) bad actions. Moriarty need give no justification for mowing his lawn, even though it is a potentially (ethically) bad action-- if, for instance, he were cutting his lawn to cause pain to the Pain-Sensing Dandelions that he believe live in it. If, however, you knew for a fact that Moriarty's goal was to cause pain to the Pain-Sensing Dandelions (a great evil, indeed; poor dandelions!), he would most certainly need an ethical justification to mow he lawn.
So, then: if violence needs (ethical) justification, it must be supposed to be by default an ethically bad action or state. Why, however, need violence be considered as such? Consider: if Moriarty were to spray a nerve-numbing concoction upon the Pain-Sensing Dandelions that prevented them from feeling pain, it would still (by definition) be an act of violence to chop them into tiny bits and pieces. The action would still be performed by an aggressor (Moriarty still hates and desires the genocide of Pain-Sensing Dandelions), and it would cause injury or destruction. However, is it unethical?
I don't think we would say so-- but then, this is an absurd example. You may find it outlandish. Let me resort to one that's a bit more easy to follow.
Let's say that you discover an army of ants living outside your home. It is not harming you, and they aren't violating any laws I am aware of, but you nevertheless wish them exterminated. You commit an act of violence by killing as many of them as possible with insecticides. Would this act of violence require ethical justification? I anticipate you would say, absolutely not!
This should be sufficient, I believe, to show that violence in and of itself is not an ethically inappropriate state or action. To say that Moriarty performed an act of violence is not sufficient to say that Moriarty must justify his action.
Therefore, I challenge those who attach ethical judgments to claims about violence: what is sufficient to make an act of violence one that requires ethical justification? Violence in and of itself is clearly not sufficient; therefore, there must be an external element that makes it need justification. If that is the case, why should this external element not be evaluated for its own sake, not with regard to its relation to violence?
Thursday, September 8, 2011