Main Site

Threads on Violence

Last week I had a particularly ‘philosophical’ day and it's had me stumped for a while; thus the delay in posting. Several different threads of thought emerged at once, and the contradictions between them made me question my ideas about violence and pacifism. After considering these ideas for a while I finally came up with something presentable, even if tentative:

Thread 1: Pacifism as Impractical
I have long held that pure pacifism is impractical. While I greatly admire the nobility, good intentions, and self sacrifice of notable pacifists, I think these good people are simply making an error in reasoning. While I respect pacifists, I have condemned pacifism as actually being unwittingly unethical. This, because it is a prescription for eternal human enslavement by whomever is not a pacifist. It is a behavioral algorithm, if you will, that guarantees only the most vicious and brutal will lead humanity.

Thread 2: Jesus and Escalating Cycles
In a recent presentation I gave at the Houston Church of Freethought, I stressed the importance of Compassion. In one section on Compassion for enemies, I stated that “we must face up to the fact that there are times when compassion should be given when it is not deserved.” In a blog post called “Forgiveness Is A Gift To Ourselves” I noted Biblical scholar James Robinson who said that Jesus’ teaching that we love our enemies and not return violence for violence was revolutionary because he realized that forgiveness for violence was the only way to break an escalating cycle of it. I then noted Professor Axelrod’s computer simulations which proved the most successful behaviors are those which included the possibility of forgiving wrongdoing from others.

Thread 3: The Muhammad-Violence-Ethic (MVE)
I recently saw a program on the History Channel called Decoding the Past. The specific episode was called “Secrets of the Koran”. This documentary covered the origins of the Koran’s teachings in the story of Muhammad. It noted that many have called the Koran a violent book, and provided a quote saying that Muslims should fight non-Muslims. But then the program noted this behavior was only in response to being attacked and provided another quote showing that if an enemy wants to be peaceful, that Muslims should be peaceful as well. The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed a local Muslim cleric, Imam Naser Khatib, on violence and the Koran, who said that the Koran says people should be peaceful to non-Muslims, but it says that if they try to “fight you or kick you out of your homeland” then you should fight back.

Thoughts On These Threads
There is debate over what the passages in the Koran really say, what they mean, and what they inspire. But none of that is relevant to my topic. The fact is, you have two approaches to violence in the Jesus-Violence-Ethic (JVE) and the Muhammad-Violence-Ethic (MVE), as I have termed them here (even though both ethics have been expressed by other people before them).

The completely pacifist JVE states that we should never use violence, turning the other cheek, while the MVE states that we should be violent only when others are violent toward us. I suppose another “ethic” (if you could call it that) might state that we should always use violence whenever it suits us and the most powerful should get their way. Perhaps I’ll call this the Extreme-Violence-Ethic (EVE). Seen in that light, the MVE could be viewed as a middle-ground attempt to allow for the use of violence, but only in certain ethical conditions, while the JVE discards it altogether, regardless of conditions.

One of the more remarkable things is that Muslims are not the only ones who operate by the MVE. In the vast majority of cases, and certainly in the case of major governments, nearly the entire world operates according to the MVE even if they haven’t received it from Muhammad – including nearly all devout Christians. I have heard voices critical of Islam say that Muslims make war in nearly every nation they inhabit. But, could our own adoption of the MVE in the West be a reason why the globe, in general, has known so much war?

Meanwhile, very few people have actually lived according to the JVE; Christians included. Even the pacifistic Buddhists have their history of past and present warriors. I heard one modern rationalization for this by the Christian author of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren. He said on the Fox News television program DaySide, that there are personal ethics and government ethics. This sounds very similar to the Muslim cleric Khatib’s response when asked about the extremist Wahhabis sect. He said despite what the Wahhabis believe, “the decision to go to war or not is by the hand of the caliph, and we don't have a caliphate right now.”

I’m not sure what the biblical justification is for the distinction between the personal and government ethics that Warren claims. By all modern (and decent) models of political authority, as the U.S. founding fathers believed, authority flows from God to man, and then from man to the State. The State cannot therefore have ethical authority that hasn’t been given to it by man, and man cannot give what it doesn’t have. But it is not surprising to see a modern Christianist with a medieval view of politics (in which authority allegedly flows from God, to the State, to man).

The absence of practicing the JVE among Christians leads one to wonder just what a Christian meaningfully is, apart from whatever’s going on inside their skulls. President George W. Bush claims to be a Christian and many conservative Christians seem to talk about Bush as though he were some sort of prophet. However, Matthew 7:16 says of false prophets that you will ‘know them by their fruits’. Certainly, Bush doesn’t live by the JVE. In fact, he doesn’t even operate by the MVE like the rest of Christianity and the world. The BVE (Bush-Violence-Ethic) states that you use violence if there’s a chance another might use it against you in the future (see Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine which I haven’t read, but have read of).

But all of these issues of what the Koran really says, why Christians live by the MVE rather than the JVE, political matters, and what Bush is, are distractions in my search. That is, the search for the truth when it comes to the proper violence-ethic. To glimpse it, we must look above and beyond such transient issues.

My question now is this: Has the MVE that the entire world operates on been proven a failed experiment? Can we say that any of our previous wars were ever really won? How can we consider WWI to have been won if it set up the conditions which lead us to WWII? How can we say that WWII was won when it gave us conditions which lead to the Cold War and the conflicts in the Middle East? All of these names and titles we give conflicts distract us from the reality that we have been in one long conflict throughout our history, from neighbor to nation, with only brief and sporadic pauses. Given Earth’s history of war, we must eventually wonder when someone is finally going to win – win in a way that leads to lasting peace? It seems to me that humanity’s experiment with the MVE has been a failure, and our continued use of it may spell our demise.

Does this lead us back to the JVE - to complete pacifism? One obvious figure that comes to mind whenever pacifism is discussed is Mohandas Gandhi. When one reads of Gandhi’s life, his sacrifices, his simplicity, his strength, and his values, how is it not possible to love this man? Upon his death, Albert Einstein remarked, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.” More to the point then, how can one not want to become more like that which one loves?

This alone, least of all the puzzles of our time, is enough to give reason for me to seriously reevaluate the merits of pacifism; this time absent what may have been a nearly glib dismissal in my earlier years. But how can I ignore the seemingly obvious conclusion that pure pacifism will allow the vicious to overrun the world and rule it in their vicious way?

Consider examples of pacifist movements which have succeeded, such as in Gandhi’s India. Surely pacifism has not worked in all cases; but then, neither have all wars been won. Still, if that seemingly obvious conclusion of the futility of pacifism were true, the fact that it ever worked is remarkable. Why did it?

Axelrod said that the most successful programs were those with a combination of forgiveness and retaliation. When discussing this with a friend, and wondering about pacifism, he asked, “What happened to the programs that always forgave?” I told him I imagined they’d been less successful – probably along the lines I describe in Thread 1 above.

But do these computer simulations really capture all of the subtleties of the real world? It seems to me by the descriptions I’ve read that the simulations look at survival rates of the individual units and compares those with differing behaviors. Or, perhaps they look at which behaviors become more widespread as an indicator of selective success. They might even measure the overall survival of a population of those with a shared behavioral program.

In all of these cases, it seems to me that one important factor might be absent from the simulations. That factor would be the emotional effect of inspiration through example; i.e., the ‘human heart’. It could be that, logistically speaking, pacifism doesn’t work, but in practice it can work because people are inspired by the example of others, and feel empathy for others’ sacrifices. It might also be the case that sympathy for the non-violent by third parties creates pressures on the violent to stop, making him look like the bad guy even when his position is the correct one. Perhaps it might be the case that pacifism is illogical, but because people are illogical, it can work? If so, some might say, “let us all be illogical together, in peace”. Maybe there is some other explanation for the examples of success in pacifism?

Still, there seems to be something noble in a person willing to fight for a just cause or to vanquish malicious people who would otherwise harm the innocent. How can we ignore what seems to be the noblest of character in these actions? The encompassing factor in both heroic fighting and pacifism seems to be self sacrifice. Both of these tactics include a willingness to give up one’s life and safety for a higher cause. There are many ways to sacrifice.

Likewise, both noble fighting and pacifism also have an ugly side: both also involve sacrificing others. In noble fighting there is the inevitable harm that comes to innocent bystanders as conflict ensues. Similarly, it’s one thing for a pacifist to sacrifice his own life, safety, or freedom for a cause, but this nearly always makes a sacrifice of his neighbor, who often shares in his fate - lacking the pacifist’s aid in resistance or suffering retribution for the pacifist’s passive resistance.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t the use or non-use of violence that is the issue, but choosing rightly in each case and living according to our proper natures (as the Stoics would put it). Borrowing perhaps from Stoicism, the fictional Jedi of the Star Wars films (who often used violence) would say that what is important is following the will of the Force, rather than looking at violence in the abstract. Even in Buddhism, known for its peaceful nature, there is a ‘right way’ to perform violence in some schools of thought. Once when I was in a Buddhist temple, the teacher told us of a monk who was asked, “if there were a problem with pests over the crops, would it be bad Karma to spray the crops and kill the insects?” His reply was, “as long as it is done without negative feeling, there would be no bad Karma.” If you are unaware of my non-supernatural use of the Karma concept, please see A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth.

The aim of Buddhists are to learn to see things clearly, as they really are, without bias, desire, or fear. Terrorists and Politicians alike, intentionally or not, tend to play on our fears. Non-violent democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said in her speech Freedom From Fear:

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

In the film “V for Vendetta” the character of Evey Hammond learns through a particular set of hardships to ‘see without fear’. In that same film, Inspector Finch says that he had a brief glimpse that the past, present, future, and all of the various events in and around are lives are interconnected. In our world, 9/11, the presidency, homeland security, what we do and don’t allow in terms of our personal liberties, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, the ecology, are all connected and we view them all through the filter of our desires and our fears. What would we think if we could glimpse it all without enslavement to our desire or fear?

I don’t know. Maybe I should stop there, and I encourage the reader to take off from there. But I have a possible guess.

It seems to me that some combination of retribution and forgiveness is suitable, as in Axelrod’s computations. While the MVE seems to be an attempt at allowing for violence and forgiveness in some combination, its demonstrable failure over history and throughout all of our nations indicates its particular formulation is flawed.

I would propose the “Avoidable Violence Ethic” (AVE). The AVE is similar to the MVE, in that it allows for violence (unlike the JVE) and also demands restrictions on it (unlike the EVE). However, it is different from the MVE in important ways.

The MVE states that you should be peaceful to your neighbor unless he is aggressive toward you. In that case, Muhammad allows a variety of hostile actions in fighting aggressors, infidels, etc. Both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have taken this ethic on fully. Concepts of Justice include retribution for wrongs done and demand equilibrium.

The AVE would say that we should use violence when it is absolutely necessary to defend the innocent (be they ourselves, if innocent, or others). However, equilibrium is irrelevant, and thus so is retribution. In cases where violence can prevent harm to innocents, or shift harm from the innocent to the aggressor, it would not only be permissible but considered a duty. But as soon as the physical threat is over or halted, non-aggression is demanded.

Many might say, “this is what we operate by now”, but not really. Let’s take World War II – the attack of Pearl Harbor for example. The AVE would say that, during that attack, we should have fought back as best we could (which we did). But the AVE would also say that, immediately after the attack was over, we should not have started to counter-attack. The same thing goes for 9/11, the invasion of Kuwait, etc. The concept is that we build up military force to protect. Then, if attacked, we fight to protect. But if we fail in that task, we don’t seek to level things back out or get back what was lost through counter attack. At that point, the tactics of pacifism should come into play. In other words, you don’t ‘turn the other cheek’ but rather attempt to stop the slap. But if you can’t, then you don’t slap back. In fact, you forgive – a thousand times if you must. In a nuclear conflict, you might return fire if you think doing so will take out missile sites or stop the volleys from your enemy. But once they stop firing, you don’t return fire out of spite, for purposes of justice, or for longer term tactical purposes.

This approach requires a degree of risk-taking and trust. If we hadn’t attacked back after Pearl Harbor, we would have been in a less advantageous position, tactically speaking, with the Japanese Empire. This will always be the case. But at the same time, the AVE doesn’t prescribe that we lay down and surrender to enemies when violence is immediate and immanent. It’s called the “Avoidable Violence Ethic” because we should seek every moment to halt violence if it is at all possible to do without immediate harm to innocents. Might the use of AVE after 9/11 allowed the U.S. to capitalize on the massive outpouring of sympathy from across the world for America, rather than squandering it? The basic concept is to remove all sense of vengeance, pridefulness, demand for equilibrium, or fear of loss from the formula - to see things without fear of either the enemy or fear of the use of violence.

-JVE (Jesus Violence Ethic) = no violence ever.

-AVE (Avoidable Violence Ethic) = violence only when absolutely necessary for immediate defense.

-MVE (Muhammad Violence Ethic) = violence when attacked, for justice, and in long term struggles.

-BVE (Bush Violence Ethic) = violence when attack seems likely or even possible.

-EVE (Extreme Violence Ethic) = violence at all times for domination.

It’s a difficult concept and I’ve yet to fully consider it’s implications. But I mention it here to log and share one step of my thinking on these things. I would like to learn more details about simulations such as Professor Axelrod’s, about applied pacifism in real world historic situations, and about theories on violence. I’ve heard that Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You contains Christian arguments for pacifism I’d like to read as well.