There are several competing definitions for violence. This paper will examine a “legitimist” definition such as that put forth by Robert Paul Wolff, a “wide” definition such as that put forth by Johan Galtung, and a “restricted” definition such as that put forth by C.A.J. Coady. An analysis of these definitions will show ways in which they are all similar, ways in which they are different, and then conclude that there no possible definition that does not in some way rely on some presupposed moral notions through which the term must be defined if it is to be understood in any way similar to the way it is commonly understood now. Furthermore, this paper will show how each of the authors apply their own normative moral judgments to the concept of violence: each seeking to promote a view of violence that supports what is arguably a conception that agrees with each author’s particular political bias. However, each author provides valuable insight into the concept of violence and how it operates within a socio-political framework. The end result will show how the definition of violence, assuming compromise between two extreme understandings of the same word is a virtuous goal, should be one that more resembles the one provided by Newton Garver. While his definition is also problematic in some areas, it serves as the most reasonable one overall, most closely accords with what people believe violence is, and seems to be a workable midpoint between those presented by Galtung and Coady even if it is somewhat closer to the wide definition than it is to the restricted.
THE LEGITIMIST POSITION
Robert Paul Wolff, in his essay On Violence, opts to use an operable definition of violence, and states “Strictly speaking, violence is the illegitimate or unauthorized use of force to effect decisions against the will or desire of others” (55). His essay is a criticism that violence itself is an inherently confused term which relies on the notion of there being a legitimate authority. Wolff denies there is such a thing as legitimate authority, politically (57). This is unsurprising considering he is an anarchist and claims there is no such thing as a right of command by the state, and without such a right of command political violence cannot exist as the illegitimate use of force because state legitimacy does not exist.
The use of the word “illegitimate” in his definition is only relevant when considered a characteristic present when there is such a thing as a political authority: an authority of the political, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “of, belonging to, or concerned with the form, organization, and administration of a state, and with the regulation of its relations with other states” (“Political” def.1.a.).
Wolff’s position is absolutist in terms of moral autonomy. He argues that moral autonomy and a state having de jure authority (the right to command and be obeyed) are antithetical to each other. His a priori position that all people have a duty to exercise full autonomy is such that it denies the existence of any external de jure authority, at least insofar as a government is concerned (56). Wolff argues there are four basic views on violence, depending on one’s position in society and the financial or political aims present. However, only the first view comes with a definition and it is the legitimist definition he is arguing against (61-62). The other views are mere assertions which serve his own interests, which he may feel justified in doing as he states, “The concept of violence serves as a rhetorical device for proscribing those political uses of force which one considers inimical to one’s central interests” (61).
The OED lists twelve entries for defining violence (“Violence” def.1.a.-6.). None of the entries use legitimacy as a characteristic of differentiation between applied force that is violent and applied force that is not violent. Wolff has, in this author’s opinion, put forward a straw man argument in support of political anarchism by making the assertion that violence, defined such that legitimacy is a component, is an incoherent concept. The response to this should be, “That’s nice, but violence is not defined in this way, so arguing against such a definition is really only a ploy to serve the author’s rhetorical purpose of promoting anarchism by way of an absolutist view of personal autonomy which is antithetical to coercive force of any kind, especially governments; but also includes the force applied through social opinion.” Wolff knows his position is likely an exercise in futility as he finds what is necessary to realize his utopian ideal is highly improbable. What he seeks as an end is an actualization of the following, which can be found in his book, In Defense of Anarchism:
When rational men, in full knowledge of the proximate and distant consequences of their actions, determine to set private interest aside and pursue the general good, it must be possible for them to create a form of association which accomplishes that end without depriving some of them of their moral autonomy (78).
THE WIDE POSITION
Legitimacy is not a concern for Johan Galtung, who says in his essay Violence, Peace and Peace Research, “Violence is present when one is being influenced so that actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (80). Galtung came to this definition as the logical conclusion of two asserted premises:
1. The term ‘peace’ shall be used for social goals at least verbally agreed to by many, if not necessarily by most.
2. The statement peace is absence of violence shall be retained as valid (79).
It is unlikely that the word “retained,” in the second premise, means anything comparable to “kept and continued to be used,” as prior to this publication the word peace was rarely, if ever, commonly defined to be the absence of violence. It is much more likely that the word means “employed,” which makes this conception of peace either rare, or unique, at the time of the writing. However, by choosing to make the assertion that peace is the absence of violence, Galtung is able to create a conception of peace and violence where each is the logical opposite of the other, being two sides of the same coin. This is problematic, as Galtung admits when he says it is clearly an obscurum per obcurius (defining the obscure through the use of the more obscure), but he also continues and makes the claim that such an understanding accords with common understanding: which is arguable because, as has already been stated, his conception of peace in his essay was either rare or unique at the time of its publication (79).
While Galtung’s conception may help in the overall promotion of peace, his definition of violence is so broad that some may see this view of peace as being synonymous with perfect justice and violence synonymous with injustice. This interpretation has some support, as Galtung uses the terms structural violence and social injustice interchangeably (84). This understanding of violence, like Wolff’s relies on normative issues relating to justice, and is likely to be, as Wolff said, another rhetorical device which serves the author’s central interests. However, a literal application of Galtung’s definition of violence is also problematic as it will lead to some very unusual acts being considered violent/unjust, as C.A.J. Coady identifies in his essay, The Idea of Violence. For example, a person who gives another a sleeping pill upon request would be committing an act of violence since the act will result in the recipient losing some somatic and mental realizations and therefore be below their potential, at least for a time (249). Such an understanding in this way is not in accordance with “common understanding.”
THE RESTRICTED POSITION
J.A.C. Coady, in his essay The Idea of Violence, uses an appeal to authority to support his argument against both wide and legitimist views of violence. Specifically, he quotes the OED definition, which he seems to rely on mostly for criticism against Galtung’s wide definition, “The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on or damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this” (“Violence” def.1.a.). While the definition provided does serve as a fairly strong starting point to criticize the expansive definition of violence put forth by Galtung (as well as Wolff’s due to the lack of reference to legitimacy), either Coady was being disingenuous with his use of the source, or the source has changed since the time he quoted it. The OED provides a different definition than the one Coady used. The correct, or new, definition from the OED is the same as the one used by Coady except for the ending which, picking up from within the definition used earlier, adds “treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom” (“Violence” def.1.a.). In Coady’s defense, he equivocates somewhat by saying of the OED definition that he wants to endorse something like it, and admits “it faces certain difficulties and requires some clarification” (247). He points out that the definition relies on an understanding of force, which an emergency medical responder might use to save the life of a dying person, and to call such a use of force violence does not accord with a common understanding. He attempts to resolve this by positing that there is a need to distinguish between force and coercion, claiming that, “Violence is, of course, one way of coercing, but only one,” implying that coercion is a necessary consideration for determining whether violence is present, though coercion being present does not, in and of itself, mean that violence is necessarily present (259). He does not make the claim that violence is ever not coercive, which leaves open the possibility that violence is always coercive in some way.
Another consideration left unaddressed by Coady is the idea of whether or not a threat of force is a de facto use of force. This author is inclined to believe that threats, explicit or not, are acts of force. One potential problem with this particular understanding is whether the threat needs to be intended, or if the perception of coercion by another is enough to claim the other has used force, though unintentionally. While Coady did not define force, here is a workable definition from the OED: “An influence operating on a body so as to produce an alteration or a tendency to alteration of its state” (“Force” def.11.a.). This definition of force would allow for the possibility of violence being done on a subject strictly through the force of words and their effect (influence) on the subject. However, Coady’s preference for a strictly physical understanding of violence would likely cause him to reject this understanding of force.
THE COMPROMISE POSITION
Newton Garver, in his essay What Violence Is, explores the etymology of the word violence before attempting to define it. He says the word comes from the Latin words ‘vis’ (force) and ‘latus’ (to carry). He then shows how those two words come together in the present participle ‘violans.’ Another word that comes from this source is ‘violation,’ giving the sense that the force being carried is to be used to violate something (171). Assuming this is true then violence is the application of force that violates someone. To understand the idea of violating a person requires an acceptance of the idea that people possess rights that are inextricable from their personhood. Garver is “forced to accept natural rights in order to understand the moral dimensions of violence,” and goes on to assert that “the most fundamental right a person has is a right to his body.” Garver further claims that in addition to this fundamental right, there are things apart from one’s body that are necessary to one’s being. One such thing is “a kind of dignity or ‘autonomy,’ as Kant put it,” an aspect of which is one’s right to the product of one’s labor, including the normal consequences of one’s actions (172). Garver then proceeds to discuss a typology of violence that centers on whether it is personal or institutionalized and whether it is overt or covert (173). This typology results in violence being defined as force directed at a person which results in a violation of the person (including their property, tangible and intangible), whether overt, covert, personal, or institutional. Even with this definition there is the same problem as mentioned previously regarding whether or not the violence needs to be intentional or not. As stated, unintentional violence could be nothing more than a less than kind word spoken to the wrong person, at the wrong time, resulting in that person committing suicide because of the immense emotional pain they suffered as a result of those words. While unlikely, the fact is that from the suicide’s perspective, they were violated. A possible definition of violate that may mitigate this problem would need to revolve around the idea of harm, damage, or injury. One thing this particular view does is ignore whether an act is justified or not, as in the case of capital punishment and murder respectively, but would require one to determine whether or not it was the spoken word that did the damage to the suicide victim, or whether the suicide wrongly perceived a harm that was not truly present and then harmed themself.
This conception of violence is substantially broader than Coady’s, and somewhat narrower than Galtung’s. Garver also addresses two very important ideas about violence, only one of which was given any real focus by the other authors discussed. Like the others, Garver states that violence is inherently a moral concept, but in his case the moral notion is a result of the idea that violence is a violation, though the violence may or may not be justifiable or excusable. Unlike the others, however, he states that what is clear to him is that there are varying degrees of violence. Everyone will have a sense of where a violation will fall along the scale even if they differ greatly in where the violence should be placed on the scale. This is merely the result of people having different experiences and different ideas about what is and isn’t a violation and how bad a particular violation is in relation to other, different violations. I agree with Garver that “it is possible to achieve considerable intersubjective agreement about comparisons of pairs of cases” when judging the relative degrees of those violations (181).
Coady, J.A.C.. "The Idea of Violence." Violence: a philosophical anthology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 249. Print.
Galtung, Johan. "Violence, Peace and Peace Research." Violence: a philosophical anthology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 80. Print.
Oxford English Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. <http://www.oed.com/>.
Wolff, Robert Paul. "On Violence." Violence: a philosophical anthology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 55. Print.