Can Violence Be Just?

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader fight
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Violence is a central concept for describing social relationships among humans, a concept loaded with ethical and political significance. In some, probably most, circumstances it is evident that violence is unjust; but, some cases appear more debatable to someone’s eyes: can violence ever be justified?

As Self-Defense

The most plausible justification of violence is when it is perpetrated in return of other violence. If a person punches you in the face and seems intentions to keep doing so, it may seem justified to try and respond to the physical violence.

It is important to notice that violence may come in different forms, including psychological violence and ​verbal violence. In its mildest form, the argument in favor of violence as self-defense claims that to violence of some sort, an equally violent response may be justified. Thus, for instance, to a punch you may be legitimate to respond with a punch; yet, to mobbing (a form of psychological, verbal violence, and institutional), you are not justified in replying with a punch (a form of physical violence).

In a more audacious version of the justification of violence in the name of self-defense, violence of any kind may be justified in reply to the violence of any other kind, provided there is a somewhat fair use of the violence exercised in self-defense. Thus, it may even be appropriate to respond to mobbing by using physical violence, provided the violence does not exceed that which seems a fair payoff, sufficient to ensure self-defense.

An even more audacious version of the justification of violence in the name of self-defense has it that the sole possibility that in the future violence will be perpetrated against you, gives you sufficient reason to exercise violence against the possible offender. While this scenario occurs repeatedly in everyday life, it is certainly the more difficult one to justify: How do you know, after all, that an offense would follow?

Violence and Just War

What we have just discussed at the level of individuals can be held also for the relationships between States. A State may be justified to respond violently to a violent attack – be it physical, psychological, or verbal violence to be at stake. Equally, according to some, it may be justifiable to respond with physical violence to some legal or institutional violence. Suppose, for instance, that State S1 imposes an embargo over another State S2 so that inhabitants of the latter will experience tremendous inflation, scarcity of primary goods, and consequent civil depression. While one may argue that S1 did not impart physical violence over S2, it seems that S2 may have some reasons for a physical reaction to S2.

Matters concerning the justification of war have been discussed at length in the history of Western philosophy, and beyond. While some have repeatedly supported a pacifist perspective, other author stressed that on some occasions it is unavoidable to wage wars against some offender.

Idealistic vs. Realistic Ethics

The debate on the justification of violence is a great case in point setting apart what could be labeled as idealistic and realistic approaches to ethics. The idealist will insist that, no matter what, violence can never be justified: Humans should strive towards ideal conduct in which violence never figures, whether that conduct is attainable or not is beyond the point. On the other hand, authors such as Machiavelli replied that, while in theory, an idealistic ethics would work perfectly well, in practice such an ethics cannot be followed; considering again our case in point, in practice people are violent, thus to try and have a non-violent behavior is a strategy that is destined to fail.

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Your Citation
Borghini, Andrea. "Can Violence Be Just?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Borghini, Andrea. (2021, September 8). Can Violence Be Just? Retrieved from Borghini, Andrea. "Can Violence Be Just?" ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).