“Violence” is derived from the Latin violentia, “vehemence,” which itself comes from vis (force) + latus (to carry) and means, literally, intense force. Violence shares its etymology with violate, “injure.” Violence is used to refer to swift, extreme force (e.g., a violent storm) and to forceful injurious violation (e.g., rape, terrorism, war).
Violence has received some philosophical consideration since ancient times, but only since the twentieth century has the concept of violence itself been of particular concern to philosophers.
Perhaps this is due to the exponential growth in the efficiency of and access to the means of violence in the modern era, to the unprecedented carnage the twentieth century saw, or to the emergence of champions of nonviolence such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Beyond clarifying the concept of violence, philosophical argument has turned to the moral and cultural justifiability of violence to achieve personal, social, or political ends.
Philosophers do not achieve consensus about the concept. Often, violence is taken to consist in overt physical manifestations of force. These may be on the scale of individuals (e.g.,mugging) or of nations (e.g., war). In its primary use violence refers to swift, extreme physical force typically involving injury and violation to persons or property.
There is increasing philosophical interest in a wider use of the term extending beyond the overtly physical to covert, psychological, and institutional violence. In this broader sense racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and ethnic and religious persecution all are possible examples of violence; that is, all involve constraints that injure and violate persons, even if not always physically.
Concerning the moral and political justifiability of using violence to achieve personal or social ends, again philosophers disagree. Some have taken violence to be inherently wrong (e.g.,murder), while most have taken it to be an open question whether violence is normatively justifiable. Terrorism presents a special case.
It is aimed at randomly selected innocent victims in an effort to create general fear, thus sharpening focus on the terrorists’ cause or demands. This random targeting of innocents accounts for the near universal moral condemnation of terrorism, despite the dominant view that violence in general is not inherently wrong.
Arguments purporting to justify violence do not value it in itself but as a means to an end sufficiently good to outweigh the evils of the injury or violation involved. Often, such justifiable violence is seen as a necessary means to important ends; that is, the good achieved by justifiable violence could not be achieved without it.
Arguments challenging the justifiability of violence tend to reject the claim to necessity, arguing for nonviolent means, or to deny the claim that violation and injury are outweighed by the ends achieved. Such arguments may be against violence per se or merely against particular violent acts.
Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908) is the earliest extensive philosophical work devoted to the subject.While Karl Marx saw a role for violence in history, it was secondary to the contradictions inherent in collapsing systems.
Sorel synthesizes Marx’s proletarianism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchism and Henri Bergson’s voluntarism, defending revolutionary trade unionism in its efforts to destroy the existing institutional order. Sorel advocates the violent general strike as the means of class warfare against the state and owners of industry.
In On Violence (1970) Hannah Arendt reviews the twentieth-century apologists for violence in an effort to explain the increasing advocacy of violence, especially by the new left. She questions Mao Zedong’s “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and articulates the position that power and violence are opposites.
|What violence is|
For Arendt the extreme of violence is one against all while the extreme of power is all against one. Power is acting in concert with others while violence is acting with implements against others.
Loss of power leads some to try to replace it with violence. But violence is the opposite of power and cannot stand in its stead. Arendt concedes that violence can be justified but insists that it is only in defense against clear, present, immediate threats to life where the violence does not exceed necessity and its good ends are likely and near.
Newton Garver’s “What Violence Is” (1975) extends the discussion to covert, psychological, and institutional violence. According to Garver, “Any institution which systematically robs certain people of rightful options generally available to others does violence to those people”. Despite his sympathy with nonviolence, Garver claims that it is not a viable social goal. Violence between nations may be reduced but not eliminated.