20 November 2005



Let us take two definitions of violence:

1) aggressive behaviour, usually resulting in harm or injury
to others, with the aim of obtaining something from them.

2) unreasonable behaviour, usually resulting in harm or
injury to others, with the aim of obtaining something from

There is nothing special about these definition, any
acceptable definition would do. But first let's take two
tours around violence.

The first thing that strikes us about violence is that it
comes in degrees and is perpetrated by all human entities,
from individuals to states. Starting, therefore, from the
top we can point out that, at face value, the human race is
violent by nature. All we have to do is to look at the
history of human existence and we'll have no doubt about the
veracity of this statement. There are, of course, those who
might disagree that violence is intrinsically inherent in
human beings, but more about that later.

Moving on, we can consider states as violent entities, and
some would say that even nations could be violent. They
might even conclude that some nations seem to have a
character trait for violence. A popular argument employed to
show that states are violent is to say, for example, that a
legal system is the creation of the state to keep its
members under control by using physical and psychological

Violence might even be perpetrated in the name of religion.
Or more probably, religion is used as a smoke screen to
justify the use of violence for some hidden agenda.
Religious wars are very common in history and have always
proved reliable when people needed some justification for
violence or when their agenda could only be sustained by
violence. Furthermore, violence has often been used by the
officials of a religion in order to make sure that members
conform. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment it is
difficult to separate religion from cultural intolerance or
simple human aggression. Does God really tell people to kill
those who do not belong to their religion or who digress
from their teachings?

The way some institutions are run is quite confrontational,
if not violent. I'm particularly thinking of places of work
and schools. This confrontation can take place as a matter
of policy or as a way of running the institution.
Confrontation can also take place in the manner members of
the institution interact between each other. Slavery or
labour exploitation might be an example of work related
violence. Whilst bullying or aggressive behaviour might be
used by individuals at work or in a school environment to
dominate colleagues and peers. It might be argued that the
competitive system used to organise companies and education
is in fact violent system, because it pitches one person
against another.

Within society, or city life for all intents and purposes,
we have neighbourhood violence and even violence associated
with sports and social events. Aggression is very common in
our society from graffiti writing to mugging and more. For
example, even though hooliganism is not a modern invention,
it has certainly spread relatively unchecked these past
score years or so. But then most popular team sports are
gladiatorial in nature anyway.

Moving down the scale we cross a psychological divide and
look at the family. Of course, violence within the family is
quite common if not normal. Children are subjected to
corrective punishment, such as corporal punishment. Child
abuse is also one of the ugliest forms of domestic violence.
And violence between partners can include partner battering,
sometimes resulting in death, to psychological pressure, the
lowest form of which is called nagging. And to break the
ultimate taboo, we can even say that children are very prone
to be violent. From throwing a tantrum to stabbings in the
school yard, are all known to have happen.

Some would even extend violence to animals and nature. For
example, the media are very fond of describing storms,
earthquakes and volcano eruptions as being violent. Others
speak of humans as being violent to the environment.
However, I would like to focus on violence towards people
and if I consider property, for example graffiti or stealing
from people, it is only because in the end this is an other
way of confronting people.

In the second tour around violence I want to look at the
nature of violence or the forms of violence we come across.
Of course, I'm not going to do a census of all the forms of
violence known to us. What I'm interested in is to identify
the most important forms of violence done by human beings in
our daily life.

By far the most serious form of violence in human history
must be war. In a way, war brings together most, if not all,
forms of violence in one singular event. And in the same
event we probably also find all human emotions taking place
at the same time. In war we have death, maiming, physical
injury, psychological harm, aggression, destruction of
character, it's all there. Like wise, we find fear, terror,
anger, sadness, sacrifice, hate, kindness, altruism, joy,
happiness, love and even pleasure, it's all there. In it's
paradoxical way, war is about life because every one
involved in war is not only trying to live, but their
mission is to survive.

We next find state violence. As I already said, some
consider the judicial system as a form of state violence.
Legal systems rely on a number of forms of violence:
judicial killing (death penalty), loss of freedom (custody
sentences), loss of property (fines) and enforced services
to society (community service sentences). Even in non
criminal cases, the law resorts to various forms of non
physical violence: exemplary damages, compensation,
bankruptcy, disqualifications and so on. Once again, we find
here another paradox. The paradox that justice tends to rely
on violence in order to take place. But state violence need
not only include the legal system, we can include
institutional corruption or mismanagement of the economy as
possible sources of violence.

Economic violence is another form of violence under which I
would include work and education related violence. I have
already mentioned slavery as probably the worst form of
economic violence. But this is not the only serious form of
economic violence. Surely, up there at top of the list is
the absence of opportunity to earn a legitimate and
dignified income. And a close third is the threat of the
loss of one's income. Even when we didn't have to go to the
office, when we hunted prey and fed on berries, violence was
not far away; conflicts between tribes has always existed,
and I'm sure disagreements on food sources were as common
then as they are now.

Why do I think that even the educational system involves a
form of economic violence? As we all know modern education
is supposed to prepare us for our adult life, both in
character forming and by implication for career prospects.
But we also know that children and young people would rather
be free enjoying the wonders of life or burning energy in
adventurous pursuits. However, at this age we are locked up
in class rooms, being told things we are probably not
interested in, and constantly being told to conform. And if
we didn't conform and do what we're told the chances are
that we end up on some economic scrap heap. The fact that
adults know best is besides the point. However, the paradox
of economics is that what should be a means of survival
turns out to be a test for survival.

Mugging, rioting, road rage, shop lifting are all part of
social violence. The obvious reason for living in a society
is to give us security, freedom to build relationships and
prosperity through cooperation. However, social violence is
exactly the opposite. It's like jumping into the sea in
order to stay dry. And if war is the ultimate in violence,
then surely civil wars, revolutions or violent coup d'etat
are the worst form of violence imaginable. Are they? So the
paradox of society is that what ought to be a case of safety
in numbers can just as quickly turn into a danger because of

Some might argue that violence in the family, domestic
violence, might be regarded as a form of social violence.
The argument might even be pushed to the claim that violence
between partners is just another form of social violence,
nothing different than a mugging or murder in the high
street. After all, partners are usually not blood relatives.
Is family violence a form of social violence? Ought we
consider it as such? However, the paradox of domestic
violence is that a family represents the same genes. The
genes of the parents are in the children; even though things
might not be that simple today. So how could there possibly
be violence against one's off springs? Of course, this
argument does not take into account the influence of
nurture, after all it's not only about nature. Even still,
there is another anomaly. Theoretically, we choose a partner
because we think or believe that they are the best partner
for our off springs, if not for us. I am assuming here only
a family setting with children. How can we be violent
towards our partner is they are as responsible for our off
springs as we are? Once again, nurture can explain some
aspects of the problem here. Of course, our problem is not
in explaining these anomalies, but that it does not make
sense to have these anomalies in the first place.

This is a natural end to our tour, but there is one other
type of violence we need to deal with. What sort of violence
is suicide? I am inclined to exclude suicide from
consideration, we already have enough as it is. But we
cannot do that if someone's suicide is a direct result of
aggressive or unreasonable behaviour by others. When this is
the case, we have the ultimate measure of how destructive
violence can be.

I started with these two definitions of violence:

1) aggressive behaviour, usually resulting in harm or injury
of others, with the aim of obtaining something from them.

2) unreasonable behaviour, usually resulting in harm or
injury of others, with the aim of obtaining something from

What do we mean by, ''obtain something''? We have to take
this in the widest possible sense otherwise we'd have a
problem with explaining such ideas as gratuitous violence.
Gratuitous violence can only mean to obtain some pleasure
through violence, or satisfaction of some addiction. We can
understand mugging someone for their money, but what about
beating up someone for no reason at all or no justifiable
reason, for example, road rage? But if we get a high from
violence we can only explain it by some reference to a
physical effect. We know that there is no rational basis for
violence, which is different from rational justification, so
this leaves us with some physical stimulant as a possible
alternative cause. Could it be that violence has some
addictive properties for humans, maybe something like
compulsive sexual behaviour? However, would it be morally
acceptable if there was a cure to some forms of violence
that people were forced to take this cure? The sad thing is
that some societies do seem to regard violence as the norm.
Hence the problem is not only one of cure but also of

As an action or behaviour violence seems to be triggered by
an over reaction to something: for example rejection,
refusal, fear, stress, desperation or even unreasonable
behaviour by others. This list points directly at pain and I
think we can take this as given. Of course, this is not a
justification for violence, but that at the mental /
neurological level there is a direct, one-to-one causal link
between pain and violence. I would even go so far as to say
that pain is both a necessary and sufficient condition for
violent behaviour. I hope to show the importance of this
later on.

Going back to the two definitions I gave earlier, the
difference between aggressive behaviour and unreasonable
behaviour is that with aggressive behaviour we put violence
in the centre of the human being as a physical entity.
Specifically, in the realm of behaviourism. However, we all
know that behaviourism can tell us what a person is doing,
but it is not enough to explain why that person is doing
what they are doing or intending to do. If this is the case,
we might be tempted to argue that violence is something that
is determined in us, and therefore there is nothing we can
do about it.

Unreasonable behaviour suggest that some violence is
justifiable, but that it is necessary to have a good reason.
Is having a good reason a necessary condition or a
sufficient condition? Is it sufficient that one has a good
reason before resorting to violence or that one needs a good
reason plus some other factors before resorting to violence?
For example, before rioting, not only do we have to be
discriminated against, but also to have tried all possible
opportunities to remove this discrimination. But this
supposes that those who are wronged have a duty to fix that
wrong, which sounds quite unreasonable. However,
unreasonable behaviour puts violence in the realm of the
rational human being. And as a consequence, I suppose, we do
have some duty to reason ourselves away from violence. Which
then begs the question, when are we allowed to use violence
given that by definition unreasonable behaviour implies
situations that are reasonable?

One of the important big debates about violence is indeed
whether we are determined to violent behaviour or whether
violence is always a contemplative behaviour. In other
words: is violence an inherent trait in human beings or
something we just pick up in life as we go along? Is there a
violence gene? There are those who argue that if there is a
violence gene then we would be determined and by implication
there is nothing we can do about it. Under these
circumstances, trying to get rid of violence would be futile
and a waste of time.

At the very least this argument (and I want to be very nice
here) shows a high degree of philosophical naivety. If there
is no gene labelled violence, it is probably because we are
looking for the wrong thing. To being with, it is evident
that violence is a public manifestation of a person's
internal causes; anger, fear, hurt and so on. What we see as
violence by others, is the end result of a process that took
place inside the person. So, it is very unlikely that we are
going to find a gene with a label attached to it saying
violence. But if my pain argument is right, then we do find
genes that are responsible for the whole pain system in our
body. If this needs further explanation we can use the
following analogy. If we're interested in the source of
eclipses we don't start by looking for an eclipse producing
tree. At the very least we start by looking at how the solar
system works. And if we are really that keen, we can try and
understand gravity. Therefore, at the very least, we don't
start by looking for a violence gene, but by looking for a
human behaviour gene. The thing that is responsible for
human actions.

But this does not deal with the issue of determinism.
Unfortunately, the argument that if we are determined there
is nothing we can do about it is not all that sound in my
opinion. I will use an analogy to explain why. Let's take
heart disease as an analogy. For example, a heart attack
(cardiac arrest) is determined by the way the heart and the
blood circulation system work. If we load the system with
enough cholesterol, a good dollop of other nasties, and
maybe a handful of inherited genes, the system will sooner
or later collapse if we're not extra careful. But no one
argues that because the heart is so determined there is
nothing we can do about it. On the contrary, because it is
so determined there is quite a lot we can do; and medical
science today tries to do something about it. But the real
advantage is that if we find something that can cure or
mitigate against heart disease, then that would probably be
of a benefit to a really large number of the people in the
world. If we make a serious effort to support democratically
elected governments, then surely this ought to limit the
scope for wars and other forms of social and economic

In the case of violence, I suggest that it is desirable to
have some form of determining cause common to all. If not,
then we would, for example, be justified in discriminating
against people by just saying that they are too violent. And
this slippery slope position might make it possible for us
to be violent against people we don't like. If, therefore,
we can find some underlying determining cause for violence
we would be in a better position to do something about it.
In other words if there is a determining cause for violent
behaviour in humans then no one will be exempt and no one
can pretend to be holier than thou. The analogy with heart
disease can also give us a clue about the nature of the
things we can discover.

The object of all the drugs and treatments for heart disease
is not to eradicate this disease from the face of the Earth;
anyway by today's technology and medical science that's
probably not possible. However, the objective is to help as
many people as possible who might be suffering for this
disease. And this can only be done by providing efficient
medical facilities and offering effective educational
programmes who might benefit from these opportunities. The
starting point is not total eradication, but efficient and
effective access to all those who might need treatment,
total eradication is a result of such policies and not an
objective of such policies. Of course, it is much easier to
analyse diseases and parts of the body, especially when they
seem to be neutral. They do not impinge on our political or
economic powers. Violence is not that simple. With violence
we achieve things so any tampering with it might not be to
everyone's liking; with parts of the body we just maintain a
status quo if we need to fix them.

The unfortunate thing about violence is not the misery it
causes people, but the desperation we feel when we are
unable to control it. Some of this desperation must surely
come from the fact that we really don't know where to start,
never mind what to do.

Take care

Lawrence JC Baron

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