Is Violence Toward Oneself Or Others Ever Justified?
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Violence, or intentional harm towards another sentient being, is and always has been an unfortunate byproduct of human existence. It is so blindly accepted that oftentimes those who openly oppose or resist violent means (pacifists, non violent protesters, etc.) are ridiculed, belittled and even deemed traitors to their friends, families or countries. The nonviolent are taken advantage of because they hold themselves to a different standard of morality, one less instinctual and more intellectual than that of their counterparts. Violent acts are a result of the gap between moral reasoning and impulsive reactions Ð- in other words, a means used by individuals seeking immediate gratification rather than a long-term solution. There is only one situation in which violence is justifiable: when one is defending his or her own life. Otherwise, intended harm towards others or ones self is immoral and inexcusable.
In Moral Literacy: Or how to do the right thing, Colin McGinn argues that any harm dealt to a sentient being without provocation is immoral. Thus, it is morally acceptable to retaliate against violence so long as one refrains from “stepping it up a notch” or inflicting more in return than was initially dispensed. Violent acts in the form of self-defense are wholly acceptable as they allow the weak or passive peoples of the world to survive. The author also contends that suicide is a morally defendable action because each person has or should have the freedom to do to their bodies as they see fit.
While McGinn allows for violence in the instance that one is provoked, I cannot endorse this argument. His ideal of “fair retaliation”, or keeping all insults and comebacks on the same level, is unreasonable. Such fair or thought out reactions rarely occur because people would rather avenge wounded prides than respond rationally. When provoked, most people instinctively fight back with extra tenacity. This is not done to level the playing field in an honorable way (as McGinn prefers) but to gain the upper hand spitefully. This brand of spite serves two purposes Ð- it requires little time and provides a sense of power over the other person. Time is an unworthy excuse; the longer one waits before reacting, the more chance he or she gives themselves to respond in more worthwhile manners (such as a benevolent discussion or simply turning the other cheek). Authority, while desirable to most, is dangerous when obtained or used in the wrong fashion. One who gains authority by bullying another only demonstrates a willingness to exploit the weak. When authority is used as a bandage to ones ego, it serves no productive purpose for either party or the dispute at hand. Thus, retaliation does little more than further escalate problems – whether turning a snide insult into a street brawl or an assassination into a world war. Returning violence with violence only begets further violence Ð- an unnecessary cycle with no permanent resolution.
The consequences of violence often affect parties not initially involved in the acts. For example, on September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists were responsible for the deaths of over 2000 Americans. As a result, the American government invaded Iraq and killed thousands of citizens not associated in any way with the attacks. Angry and grieving families in the United States formed a hateful stereotype against middle easterners not only overseas, but in America as well. It is quite clear then that the actions of nineteen men led two nations to strengthen destructive attitudes towards each other Ð- resulting not only in mass death and destruction, but also a deeply set racism and prejudice towards a set of attitudes dissimilar from our own.
One could make that argument that this example is too extreme and cant be applied to simpler situations. If a black man mugs me, I wont start a war against all black men or automatically come to hate any black person I encounter, thus this act of violence didnt affect anyone other than him and myself. However, when I recount the story to my friends, I will almost surely recall him as a black man and this will trigger a response in their minds Ð- he is black and he hurt a comrade. And while I may not think differently towards black men, a friend of mine may come to fear or resent them on principle. This second party prejudice occurs frequently and while not an exact parallel to terrorism, it still deepens the rifts between races, religions, sexes, groups, etc. and thus allows further opportunities for future violence, physical or otherwise.
Violence towards ones self is generally approached from a different standpoint. Suicide, McGinn argues, is acceptable because each person has individual freedom and personal freedoms should not be suppressed. What McGinn fails to acknowledge here is that suicide nearly always affects