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Not a trick question: Why is violence bad?

  1. Jun 16, 2010 #1


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    I'm looking for a sound philosophical argument in (what seems to be) an obvious case so that I can apply it to other, less-obvious situations.

    Why is violence bad? I mean nonconsentual forceful interactions or transactions between people, taking something of value from another for one's own gain: assault/battery, theft, or even murder. Actually I'll even include taking things by threat of violence, like protection rackets. These seem like bad things that should not be allowed, and indeed society generally does not sanction this kind of behavior. But why?

    I think the standard response is Hobbes' social contract, but this is an incomplete answer to me. Yes, these things exist in a state of nature, but a social contract could provide for protection from some but not all of these, or could provide protection from outside dangers (wildfire, other tribes) but not from internal. Alternately, a social contract could provide for protection from entirely different threats (positive rights rather than negative rights, say) without protecting from these.

    Please be explicit; assume that nothing is obvious to me. Thanks. :shy:
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  3. Jun 16, 2010 #2
    But agents would in nature seek to partake in the social contract that most advantages and protects them. Do we not observe people migrating from the societies that fail to protect from internal (and not just external) violence?

    That and we generally appear to have an evolved strong psychological response (we feel empathy) when we witness harm.

    I don't see why a social contract of positive rights might practically permit violence: murder clearly obstructs the victim exercising more rights than what not-murdering constrains the aggressor.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2010
  4. Jun 16, 2010 #3
    It isn't.

    We commit violence everyday to feed ourselves... etc.

    In fact, any time we seek to impose our will on the world, we do violence to the world. This is natural, and necessary to the continuation of life.

    Value, good or bad, only enters into it, with regards to how we impact others and they impact us.

    Humans evolved in small tribal groups. We are powerful in groups, and procreation extends that power.

    As such, our primitive tribal groups needed to cooperate to continue to exist and thrive, but we also needed to maintain a propensity for violence to deal with those outside our tribe.

    We are a very successful species, at least short term, and that has lead to a population explosion. Our tribes have expanded... well beyond the point where we can maintain tribal relations with every member. So in order to maintain tribal cohesion we developed things like trade and government to deal with increased numbers and tribal complexity.

    It remains however, violence that benefits the tribe is good, and violence that harms the tribe is bad. Complicating this, is the fact that somethings are beneficial short term, and some are beneficial long term. Also, as individuals we often have differing ideas about who is included in our tribe.... ie nepotism, racism and nationalism... etc..
  5. Jun 16, 2010 #4


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    These seem like bad things that should not be allowed, and indeed society generally does not sanction this kind of behavior

    It seems that way .. I suppose .. but state sanctioned violence, terrorism and war, seems to be de rigueur throughout the ages. Far more people have died a violent death caused by the state (some state) than by individuals acting alone.
  6. Jun 16, 2010 #5


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    You're offering reasons why Hobbes' social contract does not have to apply internally, but why are you choosing to make the distinction?

    If the social contract benefits us, why would we not apply it? Establishing as system where we can be reasonably certain that we've quelled threats to our security from within benefits us as inidividuals and as a whole. (It even benefits the criminals. In a totally anarchist society, criminality would simply be an arms race of violence, cruelest crushing the less cruel. For criminals to survive, they must have a stable society to do their work in. Like a virus has to keep its host alive, or it dies too.)
  7. Jun 16, 2010 #6
    I have to agree with Joe Dawg. alt and DaveC on this. "Bad" is a value judgment. It doesn't exist in nature except insofar that humans, and our ethical principles, exist in nature. Nature is "cruel". It is the law of the jungle; the survival of the fittest.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2010
  8. Jun 16, 2010 #7
    From a purely natural point of view, every action is an event, and all events are just cause and effect.. There is no inherent moral value attached to any event in the universe.
    So in that sense violence is just a process..
    I'm actually quite "shocked" personally because violence is about one of the easiest things a human can do just purely physically speaking.

    On a purely personal note, I believe violence is crude and taking the easy way out.. Instead of debate we could just hit someone in the face, but that would not be a productive society at all. An anarchy, as stated above.. So in that way violence is like a cancer that permeats through the otherwise rational human.
  9. Jun 16, 2010 #8


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    Bad? From whose point of view? Personal? Society? Aggressor, or victim? I think "violence is bad" is way too general to be true.

    If resources are limited and violence is the only way to survive, is it bad, or not?
  10. Jun 16, 2010 #9


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    The trouble is that violence is a very natural and effective way for an individual to get what they want. So how do we get from there to a society, wherein we actually must eschew this highly-effective strategy?
  11. Jun 16, 2010 #10
    Society does sanction this behaviour, but only from the state. Laws are basically threats of coercion. Some people claim that having a "monopoly on violence" is the definition of a state http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monopoly_on_violence.
  12. Jun 16, 2010 #11


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    Well I see your point but it's hard to swallow. Laws are unilateral, not specious. We agreed to them by electing a government and we agree to the pre-set conditions wherein they apply.
  13. Jun 16, 2010 #12
    Nope cos I didn't vote.
  14. Jun 16, 2010 #13
    Why is it hard to swallow? Governments do have a legal monopoly on the use of force, elected or not. So possible violence, in the name of the law, is a part of our social contract.
  15. Jun 16, 2010 #14
    Define the concept of "bad".
  16. Jun 16, 2010 #15
    My understanding is that even in the most "effective" state wars (viz. WWII) the death rate due to violence was lower than that due to violence in primitive (stateless?) societies, and that this has been a positive trend through the ages. No doubt there exists archaeological data on the question.
  17. Jun 16, 2010 #16


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    Then you agreed to them through inaction by choosing to remain living in a country where governments are elected by vote. :smile:
  18. Jun 16, 2010 #17


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    Hm. OK, granted.
  19. Jun 16, 2010 #18


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    Without reading the thread, it strikes me that you have improperly used words in your definition of "violence" that make it by-definition bad. For example, would you agree that a boxing match is violent? Is it non-consentual?

    ....so the discussion must begin with a proper definition of violence and once a proper definition is agreed-upon, the discussion may just have nowhere else to go....
  20. Jun 16, 2010 #19


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    I've attempted to clarify my request in response to various questions below. Many thanks to everyone participating on this thread; you have not let me down with your multiplicity of viewpoints. And special thanks to the moderators for keeping this thread open.

    For the purpose of this thread, a boxing match would not be violent. Please feel free to suggest a better term.

    `When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

    `The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

    `The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'​

    The distinction is *extremely* important to the situation to which I intend to apply this discussion. I appreciate any efforts you make in helping me make sense of what is (for me, at least) a complicated scenario.

    Of course my question is precisely about human society and in particular ethics, so I'm not willing to discount them here. :)

    I find that there is substantial sanction in everyday life against the use of violence (as I have defined it). I bought groceries today and I paid for them rather than attempt to steal; why? In the short run, no doubt it is conditioning; but why does this system persist?

    I think that is the heart of my question. Violence is natural and would seemingly be common, but for our social contract and mores.

    Society. I'm mostly concerned with what actually happens in society.

    Please, by all means, elaborate! And pretend I'm stupid, or maybe that I'm 'not from around here'; I'm looking to understand the very basic fundamentals.

    Yes, there are many discussions that this could lead to. I'm interested merely in the behavior of individuals from a societal perspective. In particular, I'm interested only in the 'states deny people the right to use violence' since of the monopoly of force.

    In this thread, I'll limit myself to "unsanctioned by society", and leave the definition of society intentionally vague: governments, vigilante groups, normal people looking down on people 'not acting the right way' (e.g. distancing themselves from a rapist or a shoplifter), etc.
    Last edited: Jun 16, 2010
  21. Jun 16, 2010 #20


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    Please correct me in my interpretations of posts. I rephrase to simplify, but mostly to see if I understand your arguments.

    I assure you I have not intentionally misrepresented anyone; any misinterpretations come from my lack of competence, not my malice. :shy:

    Your answers are:
    1. People migrate from societies that fail to protect their citizens to societies that protect their citizens, presumably because people dislike having violence used against them (at least more than they like using violence against others).
    2. People protect others because they perceive that others prefer not to be subject to violence.

    Your answers are:
    1. Violence isn't bad because it's natural and necessary
    2. Violence that perpetuates the group (presumably, this could be as small as a family unit and as large as humanity; your examples are the tribe, the family, the racial group, and the nation) is good, and violence that hinders the group's survival is bad.

    Your answer is:
    1. Violence is and has always been common; there is no strong sanction against it.

    Your answer is:
    1. Individuals benefit from a prohibition against violence. A society permitting one type of violence would (inevitably?) move to forbid it because all members -- even those comitting the violence -- prefer a state where violence is prohibited, even if it occasionally occurs. ('Criminals', that is those comitting violence, don't want other criminals to exist; they're competition.)

    This seems incomplete. If everyone had license to use violence the state would be anarchy, yes; but we don't have anarchy. Why? And why forbid all of it... why not "no stealing, no killing, no rape, but if you don't like what someone says you can punch them in the face"?
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