When is violence appropriate?



In what situations would violence be appropriate?

The way I see it, the only excuse is as a response to violence (self-defense).

Am I missing anything?

Joe Flynn

Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 311


Violence is often linked in with political philosophy. In particular, the question is often asked, "what justification is there for the state to have a monopoly on the use of violence?" See here for some details.

– boehj – 2011-06-18T06:40:11.540

"Wrong" question, although it leads to true philosophical problems such as judgment, morals, freedom, goodness, etc. – slashmais – 2011-06-18T07:49:46.720

1Without any context or references, I don't see this as a particularly constructive question... – stoicfury – 2012-01-26T16:20:21.873



This is a very, very good question, and a discussion that is a critical cornerstone in formulating and ethic which governs social interactions among men. The conclusions that we reach regarding social ethic will apply from the smallest interaction between to neighbors to the largest policy decisions implemented by governments.

We all can agree that "violence" is generally undesirable and unpleasant. I believe it is critical to distinguish between the INITIATION of violence, and the use of defensive or retaliatory force. It is, in my view, always unjustified to INITIATE violence / force against another person, specifically, against another person's life, liberty, or property. It is, however, appropriate to engage in a proportional use of defensive or retaliatory force.

I highly recommend a viewing of the following short flash animation created by economics professor Ken Schooland:


John Connelly

Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 142

4Let's say we are both boxers. Are you saying that it is always unjustified for you to throw the first punch? – boehj – 2011-06-19T01:38:39.443

1Sort of, but the analogy is not very strong for a couple of reasons. Number one, and most obvious, is that we are engaging in mutual combat, similar to a dual. Due to the fact that we are both willing participants, there is no initiation of force against life, liberty, and property. There is no aggression or coercion. Just as mutual consent turns an act that would otherwise constitute theft into trade, it turns what would otherwise constitute murder or assault into a duel or an athletic contest. – John Connelly – 2011-06-19T16:33:59.103

Secondly, defensive or retaliatory force is justified. Defining the precise moment when force is initiated is not as simple as waiting to be hit. Once a man advances upon me in a threatening manner I am going to assume that he has already made the decision to initiate force against me and I am going to respond appropriately. This, taken to its conclusion, illustrates the difficulties and complexities with agreeing upon how these principles are implemented, but they do not invalidate them. Agreeing on the non-coercion principle is logically required of us...agreeing on how to implement – John Connelly – 2011-06-19T16:37:09.350

is something that can be complex...but we would do well to start with this principle as a foundation and a goal that governs all of our ethical conclusions pertaining to social behavior. – John Connelly – 2011-06-19T16:38:13.343

Once we agree that it is wrong for us to INITIATE violence / aggression against one another, and that it is our right to defend ourselves from the same, then we can go about the business of trying to determine and define the exact precise moment at which an act comes to constitute the initiation of force. – John Connelly – 2011-06-19T16:40:30.313

OK, fair enough. Now switch the players. I am a person with psychosis. I haven't committed any crime as yet, but my doctor has informed the authorities that I should be detained. You are the state. Is it unjustified for you to initiate force against me, in particular against my liberty, and lock me up? There's no guarantee that I'll harm anyone. My doctor has estimated that I will. – boehj – 2011-06-19T23:39:04.347

It is fairly common throughout history to see one nation attack another preemptively in order to gain the upper hand, under the assumption that they will be attacked themselves. e.g., Japan and Pearl Harbor, or the US invasion of Iraq... Probably not the best examples, but couldn't this be justified? One agent initiates force, but claims to be acting in defense under the circumstances. – Jeff – 2011-06-20T01:21:34.873

Boehj, yes, I believe it would be unjustified for the state to lock you up in that scenario. – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T03:51:34.300

Jeff - one area of contention with this concept is whether or not there should be a fourth category of force, preemptive. In that case you would have defensive, retaliatory, aggressive, and preemptive. I think a good argument could be made that most examples of preemptive force would ultimately fit into the categories of defensive or retaliatory force. It would depend upon the particular scenario. For example, if two guys kick my door in in the middle of the night wielding shotguns, I believe they have ALREADY begun to initiate force against me, despite the fact that I haven't actually... – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T03:54:47.810

been shot yet, and I am going to engage in defensive / retaliatory force and shoot them first. – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T03:55:32.163

So I would argue that if you have credible intelligence that an opposing force is gathering for an invasion, and you decide to drop some bombs on their ass first, that this would be an example of defensive force. – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T03:56:54.907

However, I am not entirely dead set against the concept that preemptive force could be another justified category of force. It would certainly have to be exclusive of aggression, and merely constitute a response of early defensive force in cases where it is a matter of certainty that your opponent is indeed in the process of initiating force against you. In which case, it begins to sound a lot like defensive or retaliatory force, which we've categorized already. – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T04:04:50.817

1How about if you and I do a deal. I buy your house for $100 000 and we agree that I'll take the house now, but give you the money a year from now. A year passes and I haven't given you any money. Does the state have a justification to use force to put me in jail or make me attend court? Or is this use of force unjustified? – boehj – 2011-06-20T10:11:55.300

Yes, they would be justified in using force to either return the property to me, make you attend court, etc. Why wouldn't they? – John Connelly – 2011-06-21T16:24:04.360

You initiated force against my life, liberty, or property in the scenario you have given. You did so by taking my property according to mutually agreed upon terms, and then did not fulfill your end of the bargain. That is a form of force, because you took my life, liberty, or property without my consent. – John Connelly – 2011-06-21T16:25:25.187


Does violence always constitute physical force? Is a threat (of force) also a violence? Is it violence when you talk harshly (to a big brute; to a defenseless old lady; to a peer; a child, an animal)?

Is violence "appropriate": in a life-threatening situation? when someone else's future plans may cause you hardship? when access to a resource you need is denied?

This all leads to the hard questions of values and the nature of judgment and freedom and ultimately the nature of goodness - this is what your seemingly naive question is actually all about; it touches on the heart of philosophy.

And there is no simple answer.


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 421


Violence is not applied philosophy, although that is a funny thought.

Many people have investigated this question before, and the consensus of the wise seems to be preserved idiomatically in "Violence is never the answer." An answer is a form of a response, so if you asked me "when is violence the appropriate response?" I would say "never."

Why? Well, from the perspective of "self" it is painful to get hurt or to be the victim of violence; however, from an all-encompassing perspective, you are spreading more violence. If everyone held the view that violence was an OK response to violence then how would we ever achieve peace? The only true way would be for even those that are victims of violence to not act aggressively towards their attackers. That is, even if someone is hurting you, you should not hurt them back. You may think this outrageous from the point of view of "self" which is natural, but it is easy to see that with a greater goal in mind this solution is untenable, even in the perhaps 'limited' case of self-defense.

Why? If you condone violence in one aspect, you effectively condone it in all aspects. By saying that you will only harm those that harm you, you are saying that you will harm everyone, because we are all guilty of helping and harming each other, always. Someone drives a car? They create pollution that reduces your oxygen supply. Should you destroy them, in self-defense? Someone eats an apple, reducing the possible number of apples in the world for you to eat! Depending on how you take it, this could be an act of aggression. Really, any exception you add to the general Rule of Peace will facilitate the absence of peace, so I would say that violence is never acceptable, even in self-defense, and I am aware that most will disagree with me perhaps, but this is my view.

If anything, I think you would be interested to read about Karma, as it is quite a fantastic way of bringing together these ideas.


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 382

2+1. Not because I agree with you, but because I find your argument to be both philosophical and sound. – Toby – 2011-06-17T16:58:35.657

I can see the humor in the tagging, however, I do think it is appropriate. The question is about how to put philosophy into practice in your own life. Is that not applied philosophy? I tend toward pacifism as well and am very pleased to hear the answers leaning that way. I tried tagging with "violence", "self-defense" and "non-aggression-principle" but I do not have the reputation required to create new tags. – Joe Flynn – 2011-06-17T17:04:33.727

3-1 clichéd, avoids the hard problems for this position. – Ruben – 2011-06-18T11:55:56.033

1@sova: -100 if I could. You don't even attempt to deal with the issue of proportional force – Casebash – 2011-06-19T04:13:12.580

"If everyone held the view that violence was an OK response to violence", but what if everyone held the view that violence is an OK way of prevention even greater violence? "That is, even if someone is hurting you, you should not hurt them back", not back, but forth to show them that it is not going to end well for them to hurt you more. – rus9384 – 2018-09-13T20:24:50.130

@Casebash: what's proportional force? – sova – 2011-06-20T18:07:35.997

@sova: The idea that the amount of appropriate force depends on how much force is being used against you – Casebash – 2011-06-20T21:19:14.437

1@Casebash - it is irrelevant if you recognize no enemy. – sova – 2011-06-22T14:02:15.517


I'd look at it in terms of game theory....

so, violence tends to be a "move" that's made to increase your chance of "winning".

so the biggest factor is what happens with the other game participants when you act violent. If you can gain significant advantage, then violence is worth it.

When the other people in the game react negatively to violence by "self defense". Then the utility of the violence is greatly reduced. If all players can't see any significant advantage, then violence is only justified as a mechanism to stop other violence being a "winning" strategy (self defense).

now what "winning" is can vary from "player" to "player". Which represents different sets of values.

So violence could be seen as appropriate as a means to gain power and control. It's been proven to be very effective. (whether you think that is 'right' or not depends on values). But has great costs.

so, if, for instance, you are in a society controlled by a dictator, who suppresses your freedoms ( but is not actively violent against you ). You may decide that 'fighting' to gain power and control is your best option to gain the significant advantage of "freedom". Even knowing that the "dictator" will use self defense to neutralize violence as a winning strategy.

Keith Nicholas

Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 553

1I would argue that "self defense" is an inappropriate term to apply to the dictator. The fact that you are not free, by threat of force or coercion, means that the dictator has already initiated force against you, and your revolution would actually constitute defense force / self-defense. – John Connelly – 2011-06-20T04:07:16.307


Violence is appropriate if you can justify the actions based on the context. Note that context includes what system of justice you have in place.

I believe violence should be used as last resort with the intent of minimizing collateral damage.

The defender should not exceed the amount of violence used by the opponent provided that life is not threatened.

Someone who helps out someone in need should be rewarded with appropriate privileges such as recognition, compensation if severely wounded from the fight, etc.

The system should ease the process of denonciation and take care of the protection which might be needed by the individual.

Failure to engage a fight by negociation is better than winning a fight because no physical damage was done to anyone. It can even solve the problem! Do fights solve any problems? If yes, does it do so with no harm done?

The human society is an ecosystem and a healthy ecosystem must protect its people so that the society may prosper free of external threats. Failure to do so will result in a crippled society, either free or in prisons, non productive and unhappy. You don't want that do you? ;-S

Samuel Duclos

Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 11


This really depends on your definition of appropriate.

  • If your imperative is to survive and violence is the only way you will escape a situation then that is appropriate.
  • If your imperative is to provide food for your family then violence against an animal may be appropriate.
  • If you are in the mob and you have been ordered to whack somebody then violence is appropriate.
  • If you are Jesus then violence is never appropriate.


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 1 512

I'd be happy to modify "appropriate" with "moral" or "just" if that would improve the question. – Joe Flynn – 2011-06-17T16:46:34.423

Actually it would probably take it from on the line to of off topic to the wrong side of it. – Chad – 2011-06-17T17:05:17.847

Don't forget about Jesus and the moneychangers! (There are different types of violence, of course.) – Ben Hocking – 2011-06-17T17:53:55.277


The answer that violence is never the answer does have a rich literature behind it; pacifism is not foolish and it does have the virtues of both clarity and consistency. It is also a minority view.

More common is the view that the proportional use of violence is justified in defence of self and of others. Consider two cases:

1) I am attempting to stab you in a circumstances where you cannot reasonably expect to be able to run away from the threat.

2) A police officer arrives at the scene of one of the lamentably common "school shootings" to see the perpetrator firing an automatic machine gun at a crowd of students. The perpetrator is over 100m from the police officer.

On most views, in (1), you'd be justified in using a level of force against me that a reasonable person would think necessary to neutralize the threat I pose to you as it is reasonable for you to fear that I am attempting to cause you serious harm or death. If and when you have managed to effect a situation where a reasonable person would no longer perceive me to pose a threat (say you broke my arms or rendered me unconscious), no further use of force would be justifiable.

On most views, in (2), the police officer would be justified in shooting the perpetrator. By hypothesis, the perpetrator is in the middle of killing other people and is too far away for any other means of stopping that killing to be available to the police officer. Even here, if the police officer has a choice between shooting to kill and shooting to incapacitate the perpetrator, most views would have it that the police officer ought to aim to incapacitate. Of course, in the nature of the circumstance, it might well be that a shot aimed to incapacitate does instead kill. Likewise, if a shot aimed to incapacitate does wound the perpetrator but does not succeed in stopping their efforts to fire into the crowd, most views would have it that the police officer then may shoot to kill, the lesser use of force having manifestly failed to preserve the lives of those the perpetrator is attempting to kill.

Common features of both cases are that 1) there is a risk of serious harm to someone, 2) no non-violent method can be reasonably expected to prevent that harm, and 3) the harm threatened is threatened due to the actions of a bad actor. ((3) is intended to distinguish cases like (1) and (2) from ones where Pat's actions pose a serious risk of harm to Sam, but Pat could not have reasonably been expected to foresee that Pat's actions did pose a serious risk of harm.)


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 1 614

This sounds more like a legal discussion than a philosophical one. – Toby – 2011-06-17T16:59:07.683

-1 Shooting to harm is in most situations (and especially in described one) unethicall, because it does not work (low chance of hitting at all and increased chance of hitting someone else, and when intended target is hit, there is lower chance to stop him). There were cases where police sniper from relaitvelly small distance in relativelly static situation shot to not kill but thats not officer just arriving at scene. – Alpedar – 2014-07-21T08:32:44.397


I found this definition if violence in the dictionary “An unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws.” In such terms if someone where to hurt may kids in all warranted use of force I will defend them. In the most rooted moral sense I’m NOT being violent.


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760


2Recourse to a dictionary is almost never a helpful move in philosophy. – vanden – 2011-06-18T19:42:36.307


Violence is just fine when it is exercised by a highy authority to a lower authoruty. For example: if a man kill a dog, then question of violence doesn't come in picture. But when a dog kill a man, people feel that its too much to bear.

Or if US forces bombed the Afganisthan, then you won't find any violence. Its too violent too imagine the reverse.


Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 101


If you don't mind, I'll actually take what I have learned from God's apparent violent acts and apply that knowledge here.

An eye for an eye example. This statement is very true to Gods nature, meaning that the same kind of evil will be laid upon you that you lay upon others. This form of justice is one that I can see being very effective.

Example of effectiveness: If a violent person has no understanding of what their actions will cause upon themselves, then they will most likely give that cause no thought. However, if a person understands that whatever they do to somebody else will be done to them, then they would definitely rise thought to their actions each time they considered doing violence. This same understanding is taught to us from scripture.

To answer you question, violent situations are appropriate when serving justice against a violent person.

Consider Americans retaliation against Iraq after 9/11, or a Texas courts ruling after a multiple homicide.

continuing my rant: If a person or persons were never willing to rise to the level of violence necessary to defeat an opponent, then they themselves would surely be killed off.

Marketing Consultant

Posted 2011-06-17T15:13:03.760

Reputation: 125