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Three Thoughts on Violence

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. Last week I brought up the subject of violence, and asked “Is violence inherently wrong?” My conclusion was:
Someone who is anti-war needs to come up with something better than “violence never solves anything,” because actually violence does a lot to solve the problems caused by the violations of individual rights… Violence used to violate individual rights is wrong; violence used to protect our rights is good.
There have been many responses to this, which I have grouped into three main categories: 1) Semantic differences about the word “violence” My definition, which I believe is Jonah Goldberg’s (we were discussing his book in the last article), is like the first two definitions on Dictionary.com: vi·o·lence: [vahy-uh-luhns]
1. swift and intense force: theviolenceofastorm.
2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment: todie byviolence.
By this definition, swinging an ax against a tree is violent—as is swinging an ax against a person. There are many examples of what we would call violence that are amoral, neither moral or immoral. Wild animals act violently, weather can be violent, machinery (like motor vehicles) can be violently out of control. These things are violent, but there is no motive involved. When people are violent, it is either for immoral (criminal, unprovoked, unjustified) or moral (self-defense, defense of others, protection) motives. In my opinion, the moral or immoral motive endues the amoral action with its morality or immorality. But not a small number of readers who fall into this first category hold to the third definition:
3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws: to take over a government by violence.
By this definition, swinging an ax against a tree is benign, but swinging an ax against a person is violent. For example, one Twitter follower chimed in that “violence necessitates nefarious intent” and that “it’s not violent if [the] intent is merely to protect yourself.” On Facebook, a reader said:
Creatures or elements lack souls and therefore cannot act morally or immorally. However… a human committing violence against another human is immoral every time. While at times it may be deemed necessary, human violence against humanity is not amoral, in my opinion.
Semantic differences cannot be resolved logically until we are all using the same terminology. I’ll need to put more thought into which is the most appropriate use of the word. 2) Violence causes new problems while solving old ones On Facebook, another reader said:
Violence can solve certain problems, but violence, inherently, also creates other problems. Worse, the outcome of violent endeavors, like war, is highly unpredictable. Hence, violence is something to be avoided until the last possible second. Violence is ITSELF a problem.
While I certainly see the logic here, I’m not convinced that this is a sufficient refutation. This presents a lose-lose scenario. If there exists a problem that has a clear solution through a violent action, our options are to take the violent course of action which has unforeseen consequences or to endure the problem which is known. What are we to do with this scenario? We cannot conduct a cost-benefit analysis because we cannot compare a known with an unknown. In terms of public policy, I’m sure a libertarian would say the government should “do nothing” and let the market figure things out. And I’m inclined to agree with this position on the vast majority of policy issues. But this position does not provide a holistic framework through which an individual can make decisions about their own lives and their own problems. This position also doesn’t address the morality of violence. In fact, it makes it a relativistic condition. If we are to process violence through a post-modern worldview, violence is wrong only because of its utilitarian consequences. But one cannot say that it is objectively immoral. 3) Right on! The third position is concurrence. This reader’s comment addresses the issue of “unintended consequences:”
I consider myself more of a hawkish libertarian. It’s not clear to me why I have to wait until a foreign enemy has explicitly violated my rights through force to retaliate. I think preemptive strikes are often necessary to respond to the “threat of force,” not just actual force. Libertarians too often ignore that there just as there are unintended consequences from war, there are also unintended consequences from failing to act.
In conclusion, I’d like to remind the readers that this discussion is not explicitly about foreign policy. It is about the underlying arguments brought to light in the context of foreign policy debates. My previous conclusion still stands:
Sure, some conservatives will say that a proactive, aggressive foreign policy is a proper use of violence because it preemptively protects our rights. And sure, libertarians will disagree. And that is where there is healthy room for debate.
An argument against a preemptive foreign policy action should consist of why such an action does not protect our rights, or how it unjustly violates the rights of others. But for a libertarian to say that “violence is wrong” and “violence never solves anything” is inconsistent with their philosophy of protecting individual rights.
If you have you have a comment about this article or a question for this column, leave a comment below. Also send your comments and questions to Values & Capitalism or me, Jacqueline Otto, on Twitter.