Your Violence Policy

When are you willing to harm another human being?  I hope the diagram below captures your answer to some degree.  Your stance on this question is what I will call your “Violence Policy”.  Some may prefer a positive spin by calling it a “Peace Policy”, but I am just trying to avoid biasing your answer to the question below:

I hope I have sketched out a spectrum of possible positions which capture the main questions behind Violence Policies without breaking into an unmanageable number of positions.  Where do you fall?  Can you give me examples of famous people who fell/fall in the various categories?  Did the various Jesus authors tell us of a Jesus with different policies or do you feel the gospels agree that he had one consistent policy?

Peace PolicyTo tally a simple count, below is a poll of the 4 major positions (but for details, please comment too !)  Please vote on the stance that you desire to practice (for we all slip):



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

70 responses to “Your Violence Policy

  1. ian

    I like the “clear and present danger” form of words, and that most clearly represents my opinion. Though I think wherever you formally pitch your position, it is tempting to move it to the right. Thus I strongly suspect that some of the govt’s decisions about using state-violence (i.e. war) of the last 50 years have been in the “for benefit” category rather than the “clear danger”.

    To me purple is utterly untenable. It would increase the misery and evil in the world.

  2. I voted “In defense only,” but I view myself as a wrathful kind of person in that violence can be met with more violence in kind. Perhaps even lethal violence.

    :3 I think this is because I am not where I should be on the issue, though.

  3. @ Ian:
    ah, ah, ah — let’s keep this personal. I don’t want this thread breaking into political controversy! 😆

    @ Andrew:
    That sounded confused. 🙂 You listed:
    (a) Your ideal
    (b) Your actual behavior
    (c) Where you “should be” <– desire of others?

  4. Ed

    I am in the middle… in defense and if necessary preemptively. Violence is like art… I know it when I need it…. Lethal is permissible and preemptive when the danger is pretty clear…..

  5. In principle, turn the other cheek. I’m pretty sure Christ was consistent on this point, but would be interested to hear arguments to the contrary.

    In practice, I sometimes act according to principle, but sometimes I will reply to threat of deadly force with credible threat of deadly force. Twice I’ve had to protect my family against violent attackers by using a firearm, and at least twice have stood down attackers with confidence, without revealing or deploying a firearm, because I knew the weapon was available to be deployed if the situation escalated. In all cases, there was no emotion or violence on my part; just a very calm assurance of what would happen if the attacker didn’t change course. Technically, in one of the cases, I experienced a very non-Christian twinge of disappointment when the attacker turned and ran, since I had mentally resolved that I would be forced to kill him, and was prepared to do so. In the other cases, I was certain that it would never reach the point of me having to harm the person, and it never did.

  6. Howhard

    Never, if defending only myself. Violence in defense of others is sometimes permissible. Preemptive violence is never acceptable to me.

  7. BorealisMeme

    I don’t believe that violence is something that can be approached dogmatically. While I personally would be inclined to only select violence for self defense, I can see a case for pre-emptive violence if, for instance, I come across an unstable fellow with a nuclear weapon.

    Unfortunately because people have so many options open in interaction with each other, I think it is necessary to evaluate each situation in the light of reason to establish whether violence is in fact the best solution for that particular circumstance.

    That said, due to the irrevocable nature of violence, it is an option that should be used only when better solutions are not practical or have already failed.

  8. I went with never lethal, though force might be necessary for policing and defense.

    I think Jesus is consistently against violence and I think all Christians ought to be as well. They should even quit the military if they’re in a combat wing.

    p.s. (Interesting the “Jesus Authors” instead of the traditional “Gospel Writers.”)

  9. I am the non-violent, but escape if possible sort. Jesus did escape on one occasion. That is for me. If the issue is clearly saving others who are in immediate danger – such as terrorists on a plane or someone running around a school shooting – then I reserve the right to be completely unpredictable! What we do collectively or as soldiers or police is a different matter. An attack on a policeman or soldier is more of a political act against the state, not against the person, thus, I see it as being a separate moral issue.

  10. Im curious, by violence do you only mean the physical kind?

  11. i live as nonviolent as i can yet subscribe to a “Just War” doctrine, which means “peace at all costs until reason fails, the other discards humanity and attacks.” i view Jesus as taking a radical nonviolent stance which opts to remind the aggressor of the share common humanity. like “going the extra mile” and giving a cloak and tunic too, where both creative methods to remind the aggressors of the shared humanity… at least IMO and a few other like-minded theologians.

    i depart from Jesus because i have a family, he didn’t. while i may lay down my life to prevent violence, if some one was attacking them, that’s a different story. and attack and violence is used in the physical and mental kind.

  12. I voted for pre-emptively, thinking of, for example, what would I do if I thought somebody may want to harm/steal my baby nephew.

    But in reality, I am a wimp, and I probably would just try to run away or hide.

    As for Jesus, it’s been a few years since I read the gospels. I don’t know if the different gospels present a different Jesus. But I know for sure that there are personality contradictions in the same gospel.

    “My peace I live you..”
    “Blessed are the peacemakers ..”

    Yet he was rude to his mother and treated people dis-respectfully, like the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. Or even his own disciple Peter was abused when Jesus said, “Get away from me Satan.”

    That reminds me of abusive people, who kiss you one minute and the next they’re insulting you. Then you can’t leave them because, SOMETIMES, they’re so nice.

  13. I voted ‘never’ – but this has to be clarified since this is tough for people to understand what I mean when I say ‘never’.

    I see it this way:

    No violence is the absolute ideal – and should be the way I live my life all the time. Based on – I would not want someone to punch me – why would I punch them? I see no need for violence.

    However, the standard can be broken to ‘save life’ (since life is of more importance than a stupid ideal). In cases like these, helping someone out, I would step in but non-violently at first. If this cannot be resolved in this manner, I would then use violence as a defence but not to ‘threatens one life’ (if it went to that level). Always seek peace, but if peace cannot avail, you have to help how you can.

    It’s kind of a intricate stance to take – but it makes sense (to me). It’s also quite realistic, since life in the West can be lived quite non-violently. There will be small skirmishes here and there, but even then it does not have to lead to furthering the pattern of violence.

  14. Pingback: Adjusting To A Violent World « Losing My Religion

  15. NFQ

    I’m not sure I agree with the continuousness of your continuum. 🙂 I am wavering between “defense-only, non-lethal only” and “pre-emptive, when in clear danger,” and I’m pretty sure the option in between does not describe me. (I suppose if the only way to defend myself was with lethal force, somehow, I would do that, but I would actively seek out alternatives to the extent possible. In a choice between “kill or be killed,” I think lethal force is permissible, but not in general. I would not, for example, permit shooting a trespasser.) I’m also not sure about the distinction between acting in response to a threat and acting defensively. On your scale, does “defense” only refer to actions taken after you’ve been initially injured somehow?

    I guess I’ll vote “in defense only,” but this is my disclaimer, I’m not sure I’ve got the definitions straight.

  16. Wow! 565 took the poll so far!
    Here are my notes on the comments to date:

    Actual vs Ideal: this issue was brought up several times.

    Several Stances: several people put this spin on it. That is, they hold several positions which they value depending on the setting.

    Experience vs Philosophy: Some folks realize that they have not been tested and don’t know how their thoughts will change then.

    “Nuanced”: Even though this survey and the spectrum offer many positions, people want to nuance things far deeper. I get that !

    Jesus: thanks to those who addressed him. as expected, not all agree on his position(s). Not to mention if his positions should be yours.

    I hope to do a few more posts on this theme. Everyone’s responses has made the dialogue fun. Thank you!

  17. In my idealistic phase, aka when I was much younger, I would have probably put myself in the “never” category…definitely on the “escape if possible” side.

    Now that I have kids, I am not so idealistic. I would definitely fall in the defense only category, with lethality being permissible if that were the only way to defend myself, or my family.

    My idealism comes back after that because I would refuse to use “preemptive” violence.

    Preemptive violence relies on too much guesswork and too many assumptions about the motivations of your foe. It would seem to me to leave large room for error or miscalculation.

  18. I’ve always expressed my attitude towards the use of violence by saying, “I won’t throw the last punch, but I will throw the last punch.”

  19. Dammit. That should have been, “I won’t throw the first punch, but I will throw the last punch.”

  20. Ed

    @ Matthew… Thanks for clearing that up… I kept re-reading it wondering what I was missing… :-}

  21. ian


    That’s fine for punches. Doesn’t work so well for bullets. Even less so for nuclear weapons. 🙂

  22. “That’s fine for punches. Doesn’t work so well for bullets. Even less so for nuclear weapons” (Ian)

    Ian hits the nail on the head concerning the use of violence…how much is enough if you are going to ‘use it’? This is always my fear with the use of violence to solve anything.

    I know realistically each situation is different, from a punch, to a shooting, to pressing the button for the big bomb…but they all reveal the same intent…hurt the other person. I still firmly believe violence will not be solved by more violence.

  23. Violence may not be ‘solved’ by violence,
    but it may be stopped by violence.

    We must be careful with our sound bites.

  24. Ed

    Thank you Sabio for your comment about the sound bites. I am appalled at the number of your readers that commented, who apparently have never lived in the real world. In the ideal or theoretical world, violence is brutish and un-evolved and should be avoided at all costs. Whatever. In the real world as your attacker is trying to end your life you will try to kill him. As your country’s enemy is blowing up shopping malls and killing children you will retaliate and bomb them back to the Stone Age. As you wake up on the ground to find your wife and daughter being raped by the gang you will grab the tire iron and go for lights out. Are these idealists kidding?
    One of the downsides of modern society is that those evolution would most likely eliminate from the gene pool are kept alive artificially.
    There. I have made my position more clear.

  25. @ Ed
    Well, I do feel there is something at work in what SocietyVS said. I hope to illustrate that in an up coming post. (Busy on another just now) Smile
    It is just that I don’t like it as a maxim or as a sound bite — shuts down the dialogue: internal and external. Ah, sorry, more later.

  26. “I am appalled at the number of your readers that commented, who apparently have never lived in the real world.” (Ed)

    Interesting. I am one of the people that advocate a total non violence position (as a standard to live by)…I am wondering if it truly is unrealistic? If you want to check the actual stance it is above in a former comment somewhere.

    And I lived in the real ‘harsh’ world. I grew up in seriously violent surroundings (as a kid from 0-12) and then lived in the worst neighborhood in Canada (according to a 2008 McLeans poll) for another 15 years (up until 2002). I’ve seen my share of real violence and it’s effects, damages, and toll.

    Non violence is the only way that I saw work, and I am just being honest. The unrealistic thing of someone to say is ‘I would only be violent in such and such a case’. I say ‘how will you know standard when you see it?’. I find allowing a little of something like this (violence as a means to an end) one would have to ask themselves – when is violence okay and not okay? And that troubles me, because this standard becomes quite erratic quite quick.

    Let me address your real ‘scenario’s’:

    “In the real world as your attacker is trying to end your life you will try to kill him.” (Ed)

    Not neccesarily (again these attacks are not as common in the real world as one would like to think – but they do happen). Why does someone trying to kill you mean you ‘have’ to kill them?

    “As your country’s enemy is blowing up shopping malls and killing children you will retaliate and bomb them back to the Stone Age” (Ed)

    What do you think leads to this type of behavior – people blowing up malls and killing innocents? Is the only answer blood for blood? Is that even an answer or just another power move much like the mode of ‘bullying’ a smaller nation?

    “As you wake up on the ground to find your wife and daughter being raped by the gang you will grab the tire iron and go for lights out” (Ed)

    I personally have never seen this and I know people in ‘gangs’ (but I will go with the idea this does occur – and quite often in the real world).

    This is the case where you call 911 first (we do have law n order)…and possibly wake up the neighborhood by making as much noise as you can for those victims to be left alone – so people notice. You let them know you just called on a cell phone to the cops and they are on the their way (show them the cell phone now). Or how about before it happens by establishing a community group that watches out for one another. If this is sooo common, let’s get more pre-emptive as far as wisdom goes. Have a flare gun, use that to create some serious light and draw attention. There’s a billion solutions, none of mine involve a tire iron, but if you believe that is all that works – you might live through that…but if these thugs have no concern for your wife and child’s life, they’ll have even less respect for yours.

    “Are these idealists kidding?” (Ed)

    Uhm, are you serious with those extreme examples as proof – we need a more violent stance? Those are not even apportioned to the real world in any legitmiate statistical way as the ‘norm’ of what happens in the real world concerning violence. Your cases do happen, but they are quite on the extremes (too much MSNBC for you I think).

    It may not seem plausible, to you, to use non violence as the ‘go to strategy’ and the ‘standard by which you always fall to’ but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s really not a ‘fear’ thing either, God knows I can kick some tail, it’s a concern thing – for the now – and for the betterment of the society I have to live in. I want peace, I will not find it at the end of a tire iron neccesarily.

  27. Thank you societyvs for your defense. Mine would have been very similar. Additionally, as a Christian, we do not fear death and lethal, violent ‘defense’ or even (god help us) pre-emptive violence is anathema because it is exactly a fear of death and a disbelief in the resurrection which is the root of all our non-violence. Death does not have the last word on justice.

  28. Ed

    I appreciate the last two comments and the folks that made them. I still disagree with you both. You are still in “theory-land”. I was trying to move us into “It’s actually happening now land”. Where I am sure you would both behave differently than your theories of nonviolence. As theories and as positions of awakened living they are admirable and praise worthy. But I say again, if you could save the life of somebody you really love by hurting another, you would do it. At the moment of death… all of us get real. Good luck.

  29. “This is the case where you call 911 first (we do have law n order)…”

    I would like to see this poll taken again a few years later when dialing 911 gets you an answering machine!

  30. We must admit, there are hundreds of people who have chosen to live non-violent lives amidst violence. Many were killed and their voice made no difference, some were killed and their voice made a difference. And the choice to not resist from some led to the death of many more. There have been many outcomes.
    Tony seems to believe that there is not worry — the reward is in heaven.

  31. PS — I must say, I think Non-Violence is an extremely powerful tool.

  32. Non-violence(in a group setting) is most powerful when it is used in societies which value human life, or have limits on the amount of force “allowable” against the general public.

    So, Ghandi in India, or MLK Jr. in the US were able to use it effectively.

    Non-violence in other societies is completely ineffective….think Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin;s Russia. In cases where a country has deemed certain humans unworthy of life…non-violence is just a willing march to death.

    How violence plays out in an individual’s life is very different from how it plays out in larger groups.

    And I do think that many people who have the more extreme stances on non-violence might change their tune once they have someone that needs protecting in their lives.

    Being responsible for keeping your children alive feels very different than handling your own life.

  33. @ Terri
    Well said ! However, even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, those who died using their non-violence policy must have cause a ripple which had some effect. So I never want to minimize someone’s non-violent choice.

    Yet, I agree with you. Without context, the choice may not be the best for everyone if we care to survive and protect the good. However, those who feel non-violence should be a universal-all-situation policy would disagree — but that is OK, as long as they don’t make it my country’s policy. Smile.

  34. @ Terri – there were non violent movements in the Nazi occupied Germany territories, in fact, if non-violence was the norm for the society they would have never stood and allowed Hitler to take power. But those times were not exactly like that, especially not in Germany (conditions may have been ripe for this type of leadership).

    @Ed – I have also stated what I mean by ‘non-violence’ as a standard…only if life is in danger then is the standard to be appended for the ‘greater good’ (saving a life). But at all costs, one must admit that even with extreme situation, if it could of been avoided, then violence is still and always wrong.

  35. JS Allen

    While I agree that Gandhi and others have pitched non-violence as a tool, Christ never framed non-violence as a utilitarian tool for achieving earthly aims. IMO such a framing is incompatible with Christianity.

  36. Ian

    “Christ never framed non-violence as a utilitarian tool for achieving earthly aims. IMO such a framing is incompatible with Christianity.”

    Given that I’m a utilitarian, this is a good summary of why I think Christianity is incompatible with morality.

  37. JS Allen

    @Ian – Yep, that’s a perfectly valid position for a utilitarian, IMO.

    FWIW, I realize my comment contrasting Christ with Gandhi could’ve come across as making a value judgment. I wasn’t advocating for one or the other; I just wanted to encourage accuracy in definitions.

  38. @Ian: as long as you treat ppl as ends unto themselves instead of as means, i think we’ll be fine. which i think you do anyway, just wanted to reiterate as many util’s i’ve come across don’t subscribe to that.

  39. Ian

    @zero1 – I’m not entirely sure I know what you mean by that distinction. Utilitarianism deals in the well-being of people. I’m not sure I’ve seen a utilitarianism that has some end beyond that and treats people as a means to that. How would utility be defined in that case?

  40. @JS Allen “While I agree that Gandhi and others have pitched non-violence as a tool, Christ never framed non-violence as a utilitarian tool for achieving earthly aims. IMO such a framing is incompatible with Christianity.”

    That’s an interesting way of looking at it….but I disagree. The “earthly aims”, for which non-violence is typically used, are usually justice and peace, which I don’t think are incompatible with the teaching’s of Jesus.

    Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God, and all that! 😉

    Everything is a tool. The question is what is the tool being used for?

  41. @terri – But that’s exactly the problem. As soon as you start saying that we give to the poor “because it brings peace and justice”, then you open the door for avoiding charity when charity fails to advance peace or justice, or when there are other “more effective” ways of achieving peace or justice.

    Christians turn the other cheek and give to the poor because it’s what God commanded us to do, period. We don’t do these things because we were commanded to bring peace and justice (we weren’t), and these are simply “useful tools”. We do these things because we’re commanded; regardless of any impact on peace or justice.

    Now, if you want to argue that it’s OK to use other tools to achieve charity and turning the other cheek, I’ll agree with you. But let’s not confuse charity and turning the other cheek with tools — they are end-goals.

  42. Hmm..I still don’t agree. 😉

    You are arguing from a standpoint that morality is an end in and of itself…but I don’t know if that is true, not only in a general way, but in a Christian way. If I am commanded to turn the other cheek…is it for my own spiritual gain that I do it, or is it to help contribute to creating a culture that has non-violence a default setting, instead of having reciprocal violence as a default setting?

    In Jesus’ mind is divorce bad just because “it’s bad”….or because easy divorce contributes to a society that is low on commitment and fairness to women who were the ones being divorced?

    Morality is always tied to an end. The principles driving our morality might be more “spiritual” in our own view…but the idea behind even Christian morality is that living a certain way is and following certain principles is a wise way to live and produces mostly good results.

    I’m not saying that it necessarily works out that way. Bad things happen to “good people” all the time.

    Do you really believe that morality is divorced from reality in such a way? That things which are moral aren’t effective in any measurable way?

  43. NFQ

    @terri — I don’t understand the distinction you are making. In neither case does morality seem more or less “divorced from reality” to me. In one case, things are bad because they simply are. There is a list of bad actions, and if it’s on it, it’s bad; there is a list of good actions, and if it’s on it, it’s good. In another case, there is a list of bad outcomes and good outcomes. If an action furthers something on the good outcome list, it’s good, and likewise for the bad outcome list. Both of these are equally valid ways of describing moral systems. (You could argue about which way is superior — philosophers have been doing so for quite some time now — but certainly they can both reflect things you would legitimately describe as “moral systems”.) In both cases, you are doing the things you do because they are defined by your system as moral. Where is the difference?

  44. Years ago when I was at Wheaton College (Evangelical Christian), I took an excellent eye-opening course in “Christian Ethics”. I was naively shocked to find that there is no consensus on ethics in Christianity.

    But the world is full of Proscriptive Christians who tell everyone just why their version of Jesus is right and why their understand of Jesus’ ethics is the only true Christian ethics.

    Since then I have watched Buddhist, Hindus and Muslims (and even Atheists) do the same thing.

  45. NFQ

    Let me take another stab at putting together some coherent thoughts!

    When I said “divorced from reality” I meant a morality which isn’t interested in how the “good” or “bad” things play out in actual life. So if someone commits a “good” action because they think that it’s “good”…but the results of that particular action aren’t good…and usually are consistently not good…then we have a morality divorced from reality.

    Of course…a lot of that is in the eyes of the beholder and what we are defining as “good” and “highest good”.

    If a person has the power to act defensively with violence and save a friend or family member from being murdered, and yet chooses not to do so because of a radical commitment to non-violence and they are killed….is that action “good”?

    If someone responds, “Yes, ” then I think that morality is somewhat divorced from reality.

    It’s not that I think that all of our moral choices have to be utilitarian, it’s just that I hear JS Allen describing a morality that is an end in itself and isn’t anchored in making moral choices because they work, or because they extend the greatest benefit to the largest amount of people and to ourselves.

    Did that make more sense?

  46. NFQ

    @terri: I think I see more what you are getting at, but I am still not convinced that there is a major difference. Correct me if I am wrong, but — it sounds like you’re advocating a moral system which takes outcomes into account. It seems to you to be naive and almost arbitrary to call certain actions “good” and other actions “bad,” without putting them in some greater context. In general, I agree with you there. It’s hard to imagine a standard by which we could declare certain actions good and others bad without thinking about the effects of those actions.

    Nevertheless, how we define good outcomes and bad outcomes is not much better, at least in terms of “being moral for morality’s sake.” What do we use to decide whether something is a good outcome or a bad one? How many individuals’ happiness may suffer, and to what degree, in order to save how many lives? What are our priorities, and in what order, in order to build the ideal society? The ways in which we make these determinations are not clear, and have no real “truth” to them, set in stone. We’re basically just relying on our intuition to help us choose some outcomes that feel best, and trying to achieve those outcomes. Just because achieving those outcomes feels like the moral thing to do.

    I think you’re right in your criticism of the morality JS Allen was describing. The problem is, on some level, you believe in God then “God said so” has to be a compelling argument.

  47. Sabio makes a great point. Whether Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, or whatever, there are so many different approaches we can take in defining a moral framework.

    Christianity can be contrasted with Islam in this respect. The Quran is explicitly about an earthly kingdom and about utilitarian ethics for this life. So it’s very natural for Islamic theologians to appeal to utilitarian earthly motives. In contrast, although some Christians throughout history have argued for utilitarian metrics on morality, the scriptures make it really tricky to do so. You have to be good at pulling scriptures out of context and ignoring others. The case is not nearly as clear-cut as with Islam.

    As Sabio has pointed out, Christ would’ve been a disaster as an economist, and promised nothing but earthly suffering and sorrow. Both Paul and Christ talked primarily about investing in the world to come, and explicitly rejected the idea of an earthly kingdom. Not saying that you can’t get from there to “utilitarian”, but it sure looks like Christ didn’t intend to make it easy.

  48. @ JS Allen

    I think when you said I had a great point, you misquote me.

    The Christian scriptures were not protected by a ghost (Holy Spirit) to assure consistent theology (though editors tried to homogenize when they could get away with it). The scriptures are written by lots of different authors with lots of different theologies and different ethics. Even the authors are not systematic themselves on issues of ethics and theology — most were just looking for a influence.

    History has many examples of failed Christ-centered cults who tried to take Jesus’ word literally and have evaporated.

    Concerning the Quran, I am not very familiar with it.

    So my point again, there are lots of different contradictory moral systems spun by those calling themselves Christians (and Muslims do the same). And each accuses the other of “pulling scriptures out of context”. If you ask me, they all misunderstand the real diverse and human element of their own scriptures.

    So maybe now you won’t agree with my “great point”.

  49. Sabio, I understood you just fine. I sometimes act as if my interpretation of Christianity is the only one, and it’s not. You pointed that out, and I wanted to acknowledge it.

  50. “Utilitarianism deals in the well-being of people. I’m not sure I’ve seen a utilitarianism that has some end beyond that and treats people as a means to that. ”

    utilitarianism linked with economics treats people as means to an end, be it capital or security or whatever. we need labor, therefor ppl will supply that. other than that, they have no intrinsic value other than that. i don’t believe that. i know many utilitarians who go “binary” like this and deny ppl have value in and of themselves, not what they can do. i don’t see you doing this, but i wanted to comment on it.

  51. ian

    I don’t know any utilitarians who deny people have value in themselves, or who have such a fiscal view of people’s worth. I think we might be talking about different things. I’m refering to the moral philosophy of Bentham, of Mill (though my personal take on it is somewhat nuanced from theirs, particularly Benthams). The utilitarianism refined and supported by Popper and argued more recently by Singer and Adams. In none of their writing would you get anything like the caricature you’re painting.

    Your language sounds Marxian, and it is true Marx was a critic of utilitarianism, but his criticism was directed not at the concept (which he thought was tautologically true) but Bentham’s specific measure of utility, which he thought naive. In fact, what you’re suggesting (“utilitarianism linked with economics”) sounds to me more like Marxism than anything. Certainly it would be completely anathema to Mill, for example.

    It is true that economists adopted a kind of utilitarian approach to economics, replacing the greatest good (or greatest happiness) with the greatest profit or revenue, for example. But that doesn’t represent utilitarianism as an ethical theory in any way. Nor was it ever intended to. The colloquial word “utilitarian” meaning “just about fit for purpose, with no frills or personality” is similarly unrelated to the ethical philosophy. And similarly the phrase “means to an end” which is used in other contexts (sometimes negatively) does not in any way sum up utilitarianism. It is used, but only in the specific context that moral judgements are made based on whether actions are means to an end. The end being the greatest happiness or pleasure of the greatest number of people.

    The whole point of utilitarianism is that it is a consequential ethical system (i.e. one that considers the worth of actions to depend on their results) focussed on human happiness or pleasure. I find it hard to see how anyone who has read anything by any major utilitarian could think that people are insignificant except as producers in this model.

  52. NFQ

    For what it’s worth … it can be argued that you’d achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in a technical sense, to pick one person at random to kill in order to harvest their organs and transplant them into a dozen or so people who would die or at least live miserably without organ transplants. Depending on how you define happiness with respect to death (are you unhappy while you’re dying, and then nothing afterward? or does the existence of a dead person contribute a constant amount of negative utility from death onward?) you might improve aggregate happiness by killing all the sad people.

    This is the kind of thing that I’ve joked about with debaters, philosophy geeks, etc., but it’s funny because there’s a grain of truth to it. What “utility” means is pretty vague, and if it just means “good things are good,” then … well, yeah. I agree that a value system that promotes happiness in people shouldn’t really be said to be treating people as insignificant, but still, this may shed a little light on the kind of attitude that zero1ghost was referring to.

    (Though on another reading, I definitely agree with ian that it sounds most like Marxist philosophy.)

  53. ian

    Yes, NFQ, in the concept of utility lies the demons of the philosophy. And there are lots of approaches to trying to solve the issue. None is entirely convincing to me. But yet, I still feel this kind of answer is more satisfying than either virtue or duty-based ethics. Or indeed of the universal tyrant model which is part of some Chrsitian ethics.

    (Not to mention Nietzsche who asked why we would want to favour ‘good’ in any case!)

    But, maybe this isn’t the right place to get distracted into a philosophical discussion of utilitarianism. I was just concerned that zero1 seemed to have misunderstood what was meant by the term in an ethical sense.

  54. you’re right, i must have misunderstood the basic philosophical premise. i haven’t read too much of Mill. i’m more pragmatist, reading John Dewey. Where i got this idea was from Henry Sidgwick in “The Methods of Ethics” and also from Marx.

    but now i stand corrected.

  55. geoih

    Quote from Ian: “The end being the greatest happiness or pleasure of the greatest number of people.”

    And who gets to decide what is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Happiness is a value judgment and strictly subjective. If my concept of happiness is different from yours, will you impose yours on me? Will you resort to violence to do that?

    Sabio: An interesting thread. Unfortunately, I’ve come in at the end of the comments. I have to wonder of all the people commenting for non-violence, or even self-defence, would be willing to take that same stance when it comes to violence perpetrated by the (their) state, in their name.

  56. geoih: i’ve marched to protest the Iraq war multiple times, still unsure about my thoughts on the Afghan war but largely against, and really despise when ppl mention “American Interests” because while ppl are capable of altruism, nations are not. as George Washington stated “Nations are not to be trusted beyond their own interest. No state has ever entered a treaty for any other reason than self interest. A statesman who has any other motive would deserve to be hung.” (Johannes Haller, The Aera Buelow)

  57. ian


    You’re right to some extent. Of course the onus lies on the utilitarian to say what they mean by happiness. In utilitarianism this is called ‘utility’, to avoid the idea that it is supposed to be associated with subjective happiness. It is perfectly valid to make such a definition, and make it somewhat objective. There have been many attempts. None of them entirely satisfactory.

    Still, problems aside – as a moral theory beats the alternatives because it says: 1. you have to take into account the likely effects of an action, actions aren’t inherently moral or evil. 2. it makes morality based on people, unlike other moralities that don’t care much about people as long as rules are followed, or divine command is respected.

    So a utilitarian would see that I did a morally good thing if I killed my wife after she asked me to following a horrific stroke that left her unable to take her own life. A deontologist (rule-based) ethicist would say that murder as an act is wrong, and (even if the mitigating circumstances made me less worthy of punishment) I have weakened the moral imperative against murder and so even my claims for mitigation are an immoral act.

    Of course, in practice we can’t do a mathematical calculation to work out if we’ve optimised utility, but we can use utilitarianism as the basis of a rational and humane way of reasoning about ethics.

  58. geoih

    Quote from zero1ghost: “No state has ever entered a treaty for any other reason than self interest.”

    How do you feel about violence by the state against its own citizenry (e.g., property confiscation, involuntary association, restrictions on expression and free interaction, etc.)? When is violence in the name of the collective OK, but prohibited to the individual?

    Everything enforced by the state, foreign or domestic, is done under the premise of violence.

  59. Ed

    @ Geoih… thank you for the intelligent comment. Most of the idealists commenting here, who are so against violence are, I’m sure, fine with this sort of state sponsored violent behavior.

  60. geoih

    Quote from ian: “In utilitarianism this is called ‘utility’, to avoid the idea that it is supposed to be associated with subjective happiness. It is perfectly valid to make such a definition, and make it somewhat objective. There have been many attempts. None of them entirely satisfactory.”

    It’s either objective or subjective. It can’t be a little of both. The reason attempts at a definition have failed is because happiness, or utility, is inherently subjective.

    No one individual’s idea of happiness is the same as another’s. As soon as you start generalizing to more than one person, somebody’s idea of happiness is being compromised. Can you enforce this compromise through the threat of violence? Who decides?

  61. As one of the hapless and naive ‘idealists’ I am not at all for State sponsored violence.

  62. geoih: “Everything enforced by the state, foreign or domestic, is done under the premise of violence.”

    i don’t agree with that. not everything. there is a difference of living under threat and also living in autonomy and convenant. there are certain rights the individual must sacrifice to live in the collective, this is John Locke, 101. you seem to be more Thomas Hobbes in your statement. i don’t believe government is always violent.

    when they are, i’m not a fan whether it’s foriegn or domestic. Rene Girard would be helpful here in is book “Things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

  63. geoih

    Quote from zero1ghost: “there are certain rights the individual must sacrifice to live in the collective, …”

    Or else what? What happens to anyone who does not give the state its demanded “sacrifice”? Who decides what this “sacrifice” will be?

    All modern state actions are predicated by the words “or we’ll kill you”. If you attempt to defy the state, then you will be crushed. It is in the nature of the state. First they will confiscate your property. If you don’t relent, then they will take your liberty. If you refuse to surrender your liberty, then they will kill you.

  64. Ed

    @geoih… we share the same view of the state… It is a bleak one, but true… Governments suggest nothing. They demand at the point of a gun… nice…

  65. 5 more votes and I get to the magic “666” for participants in the Poll.
    I would love to see among Americans and Brits if those who voted for Preemptive Violence as an option are also those in the conservative parties. (BTW, that carries no judgement)

    @ geoih:
    You may have come late, but you got things rolling again. Did I miss something, or did you share your position? It seems you and adhunt are against State Sponsored Violence but I am curious if he is against it at the domestic level — which you are prodding Zero1Ghost about.
    I enjoyed your challenges, but that is predictable of me ! 🙂

    Again, I hope to put up a post soon to show how I view all of this with a diagram. (just returned from a week of Boy Scout Camp — that could be another post!)

  66. geoih

    Quote from Sabio Lantz: “Did I miss something, or did you share your position?”

    I didn’t (and I didn’t vote). I’ve mentioned my aversion to being categorized before.

    I definitely support self-defense and am not anti-lethality. I don’t generally support pre-emptiveness, but when the wolves move in, I don’t think you have to wait until they are biting you to act.

    Violence, threatened or actually perpetrated, is performed by individuals. There is no hiding behind some collectivist screen to rationalize it.

  67. Quote from geoih: All modern state actions are predicated by the words “or we’ll kill you”. If you attempt to defy the state, then you will be crushed. It is in the nature of the state. First they will confiscate your property. If you don’t relent, then they will take your liberty. If you refuse to surrender your liberty, then they will kill you.

    No pun intended, but you hit the nail on the head with this statement. 😆

  68. Sabio

    I would be interested to see how many of your commenters have been on the receiving end of violence. Also, how many were the givers of it.

  69. Pingback: My Violence Policy « Xn Realists

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