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When is Political Violence Justified?

by Phoenix Sunday, Jul. 11, 2004 at 10:44 AM

Today I am writing about a very sensitive subject. Indeed, at this point in time it is a very dangerous subject to write about. The subject is political violence: when is it justified and when is it not justified. There are many positions on this topic and like most topics there are extreme positions. One extreme position is that political violence is never justified. This is the belief held by pacifists and followers of Gandhi. At the other extreme we find believers in political violence ranging from Stalinists, some Anarchists, Fascists, to Imperialists, among others. These political ideologies generally support the use of violence to achieve their ends.

When is Political Violence Justified? Author: Phoenix

Today I am writing about a very sensitive subject.  Indeed, at this point in time it is a very dangerous subject to write about.  The subject is political violence: when is it justified and when is it not justified.  There are many positions on this topic and like most topics there are extreme positions.  One extreme position is that political violence is never justified.  This is the belief held by pacifists and followers of Gandhi.  At the other extreme we find believers in political violence ranging from Stalinists, some Anarchists, Fascists, to Imperialists, among others.  These political ideologies generally support the use of violence to achieve their ends.

My position is not extreme.  In fact, upon closer inspection, I think it is not in the least bit radical.  I believe that there are times when political violence is justified but that these situations are not encountered frequently and in all cases political violence can only be justified on the basis of the preservation of categorically imperative values, such as the rights to life and liberty, which cannot be compromised without extinguishing them.  Said differently, there are various rights that we have by nature and the negation of those rights destroys our humanity.  That which reduces us to less than human kills us qua our human nature.  Since the right to self defense of our existence as humans is absolute, violence is justified when it is necessary for preserving our human nature.

Some may argue that if human nature is natural, it cannot be removed from us.  I beg to differ.  When you treat a human being as an animal you reduce the human being to an animal (i.e. you have killed the human).  Our nature is not found only within us but it is found in our relationship to our surroundings.  As our relationship to our surroundings changes, it impinges upon our nature and changes our nature.  We exist as embedded entities and the notion of atomic selves (that is, selves separable completely from other selves) is absurd.  I am not only that which is bounded by my outer layer of cells, I am that and I am my relationship to the world around me which includes my relationship to others.  When my relationship to others becomes hierarchical, I am denied my true nature as I am bound by the constraints of the hierarchical relationship.  If I am to remain human, I must change the relationship between myself and others such that I am no longer subject to a hierarchy.  Anything less than a voluntary relationship between myself and others negates my nature.  Since it negates my nature, it kills me qua my nature as a human being and I have a right to restore my nature as a human being, even by using violence if there is no other option.

It is important to distinguish between past, present and future when considering violence.  Violence in response to past injustices is not self defense.  You cannot change the past.  Relationships exist in the present and violence in the present does not change the past unless access to the future exists.  What I mean by this is if, hypothetically, we could see into the future with absolute accuracy then violence in the present would have a causal relationship to the past as individuals in the past would be able to see the future.  Such individuals with the ability to see the future accurately would adjust their behavior to avoid negative consequences further down the line.  If a violator of rights could see clearly your "retaliation" in the future, that might cause the violator not to engage in the violations.  If this were our reality, present violence against past violations might be viewed as defensive.  However, we know of no cases where actions taken in the present have changed the past and therefore, cannot assume that they do change the past.  Since we have no basis in believing that our present actions change the past, no action taken in the present in relation to a violation in the past can be said to be defensive.  Defense, for it to be defense, must have some chance, even if very slight, of stopping the violation or reducing it.  We know that this is the case when a defensive action and a violation are simultaneous relative to our place in space/time, but we do not know this to be the case otherwise.

On the other hand, it is possible that various actions taken in the present could defend against violations in the future, but the question is whether we can know that such violations in the future will really take place.  For example, even if I can prove that a specific individual will attack me in two days in such a way as to deny me my nature, that proof is likely contingent upon various assumptions.  For example, I am assuming that an asteroid will not crash into the Earth between now and then and end all life on Earth.  I am assuming that the person will not have a change in heart over the next two days.  There are an infinity of assumptions I am making when I believe that I can prove that an individual will violate my nature at some future coordinate in space/time.  Since these are assumptions, in the absence of being able to see the future, I cannot prove that my action is defensive.  Indeed, since nothing may happen in two days, my action can only be interpreted as aggression.  It is, in fact, a violation of the other individual's nature and he or she would be justified in defending himself or herself against me in the present.

It follows from the above that one cannot, in the present, defend against violations in the past and in the future.  One can do nothing about the past, except learn from it, and one can do nothing about the future except prepare oneself for the possibility of needing to engage in defense when that point in space/time is arrived upon.  The use of violence for retaliation or prevention, therefore, is unethical.  Executing a person for murdering another is murder and murdering a person in order to prevent him or her from murdering in the future is murder.  Preemptive war is even more absurd because it murders many that have no causal connection to future concerns.

It also follows from the above that the use of violence in the present when one's nature is being negated and there is no other option to preserve one's nature is ethically justified.  For example, if, during a demonstration, a police officer abuses his authority with the intent of denying you your rights, it is ethical (though perhaps illegal) for you to resist.  If every attempt at peaceful resistance fails, then it is your ethical right to use violence if that violence will restore your nature or has a chance of doing so.

Is all violence equal?  For example, if I defend myself against a minor assault by beheading the assailant is that the same thing as merely blocking the assailant and temporarily disabling him or her?  If we are concerned about only using violence when there is no other option it must be because there is something abhorrent about violence.  If there is something abhorrent about violence and there is something less abhorrent about some alternative actions, then it stands to reason that there is some continuum of abhorrence and that violence is some range within that continuum.  There must, therefore, be kinds of violence which are less abhorrent than other kinds of violence.  The degree that one is willing to engage in abhorrent behavior must be justified.  Since one's rights are absolute, one cannot compare an absolute to degrees of abhorrence.  Killing is justified if it is the only alternative in preserving one's human nature, but when violence less than killing will do the same, then it is ethically imperative to take those steps necessary to minimize the level of violence to just that which is necessary to preserve one's human nature.  This is important because the violator has rights too.  The violator has a right to life.  Since he or she has chosen to violate your rights, you have the right to oppose him or her.  His or her own decision (i.e. to violate your rights) justifies your right to defend your rights even if that means taking the assailants rights away.  However, since the goal is to protect rights, one should violate the assailants rights only in so far as it is necessary to preserve one's own rights.  If you can preserve your own rights without taking away the assailants right to life, then that is what you are ethically constrained to do.

There has been a great cost to following Gandhi's example.  Gandhi's methods work when the violator is bound by ethical principles which he or she is unwilling to defile.  Gandhi's methods do not work when the violator dispenses with all ethical principles.  Gandhi could resist the British because they had ethical principles.  Gandhi would have failed against Hitler.  Fascism cannot be opposed by pacifism.  So long as we have "peace monitors" among us who demand that violence always be avoided, even in the face of unethical oppressors, we will be forced into conditions beneath our dignity as human beings.

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