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I had repercussions over an argument in class of the inevitability of war, and violence in some instances. I was on the side that was arguing that violence is never necessary.

My opponent said something that has been clinging on my head ever since. It seems to make logical sense, but I am debating whether such action is morally justifiable and may be fallacious hideously. He stated that: "Violence solves any and all life's problems, if violence does not solve your problems you are simply not using enough of it"

I said that "How do you end world hunger?" -- "kill anyone who is and gets hungry"

Is violence really the ultimate solution? What counter-argument can I use for my debate. That is a very dangerous philosophy

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    If your friend has a serious illness, how violence is going to help him get rid of it ? (assuming he won't commit suicide) And how about needing love, support or any kind of emotional stability ? – Offirmo Jul 31 '15 at 16:08
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    I suspect the underlying problem here is that you haven't really considered how to fairly evaluate violence as an option. If you try to hold the position that violence is not an option, then you'll lose; you have to accept violence is an option that really does solve problems before you can really begin to argue both that it's not a good solution and that there are better available solutions. (both points are important to your position, I think, although I disbelieve they always hold) (note that "look for a better option" is an option itself, and it often solves problems badly or not at all) – user6559 Jul 31 '15 at 20:22
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    #6 from schlockmercenary.wikia.com/wiki/… – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 1:45
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    Violence is necessary because those who are amoral will use it anyway. Unless your moral system has better to die than to risk killing in self defense that's answer enough. – Joshua Aug 1 '15 at 1:48
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    Is that quote not an actual quote, or is it just slightly off and enough for google not to find it? "Violence solves any and all life's problems, if violence does not solve your problems you are simply not using enough of it" – Jonathon Aug 1 '15 at 2:07

10 Answers 10

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First, arguments from your opponents stated motivation are obviously flawed. He is using an inappropriate notion of cause, and therefore of solution:

Follow the argument down to its logical closure: It is likely given the number of minor infraction for which, via this argument, would get you wounded or killed, that basically no one would want to live in such a world. The level of stress and fear would simply be too high. Following the proposed pattern, if no want wanted things this way, we would all just kill ourselves. Problem solved? No. This points up the fact that eliminating a problem is not solving it.

Where does the distinction arise? Fairly early: If I decide to solve a mechanical problem in my car by disposing of the car, I am not solving the problem. The problem is that I do not have a functioning car, and after disposing of the car, I still do not have a functioning car. We need a definition of 'solved' that makes sense, and that involves discerning the functional failure of the system and addressing it.


But thwarting one argument against something does very little toward showing it is actually false.

There might still be some other way in which violence might be applied to every problem. To really undermine the idea that violence solves every problem, you need an important example where violence never really helps. (If it helped at all, it might still be the lynchpin of the application, the thing that tips the balance, breaks the final impasse, and therefore really solves the problem.)

Getting correct information from other people is such an example. Nor is it a trivial example. Much of the functional failure in our society is about ineffective communication. And much of that failure to communicate is based in fear.

For instance, leaders arrange to control the knowledge of their acts so that they will not be held accountable, and the decisions they make as a result create opportunities for corruption and political inefficiency. Producers make sure that others do not know how to truly evaluate the quality of their products so that consequences of lower quality seem accidental and are not traced back to them. This prevents honest competition and makes markets inefficient, as well. So failure to communicate truthfully is a major problem for any political system.

This fear works in a way that is not amenable to solution by creating additional fear. Since most violence short of murder does raise the level of fear, you are caught in a place where violence cannot help you. (And, obviously, killing someone permanently prevents getting any further information out of them.)

To see how adding fear does not help, look at torture. We know from studies of torture that additional fear or pain motivates one to give information, but it primarily motivates lying. If someone will give you truthful information under duress, they would generally have given it to you without the use of violence.

This is disputed at great length, and lied about in Congress and in fiction, but the data are clear. No matter how you abuse or threaten someone, with direct pain, psychological force, threats to loved ones, etc., the primary effect is to garner false information, mostly false confessions or false implications of the guilt of innocent people.

Other uses of violence to get reliable information suffer the same intrinsic failure -- it is far too easy to lie; lying preserves the speaker's worth just as much as, and often more than, telling the truth; and lying makes one feel like one has some control, some ability to thwart the person harming you and get a minimal revenge. So, knowing that adding fear primarily creates lies, instead of more truthful communication, in what way can violence solve the huge number of problems traceable to this single cause?

Since we cannot get better information from others by violence, if violence is to solve our information-related problems, it would have to be by preventing there being information we must acquire from others. We can only have privileged access to all information through some form of totalitarian surveillance.

But again, the data are clear. We have studied police states and surveillance in cults. To the degree that actual violence is a part of surveillance, it creates fear of the consequences of misunderstandings. Even if you are innocent, you can look guilty and get punished. People act on this fear, causing subterfuge, sabotage and rampant basic dishonesty to undercut the effectiveness of the surveillance.

The logical reaction is to increase the consequences of lying, but enforcing those consequences would require knowing who is lying, which involves getting information that is already being withheld effectively. So there is no actual point of application that will make it a better risk for everyone to tell the truth.

So, the problem remains unsolved, and it is hard to imagine better applications of violence that have not been ruled out by what we already know about how people naturally react to being controlled with violence. (We know a lot. We have been doing it for a long time.)

You can escape this by defining down violence to more subtle forms. For example cults can achieve very complete control of truth, and surveillance through authority, guilt, and fanaticism, as long as the enforcement is not seen as violence. Once it is, members naturally collude in resisting it.

But that is just cheating. Social coercion and more subtle means of control simply are not violence. So even in the most bloody-minded, psychopathic picture of the world, violence fails us in addressing one important range of problems.

(Obviously, I don't personally accept this psychopathic, war-of-all-upon-all worldview. But it is part of the general argument for violence, so it is a better frame for an argument toward contradiction.)


But the opposite extreme argument, that violence is unnecessary and can be done away with, which is what you presumably want help defending, is also flawed:

If you don't have organized violence, given that agreement is never total and destruction is always an option you cannot take away from people, you will have disorganized violence. And it may be preferable to go that direction, but then that is not a society where violence is unnecessary, it is one where it is tolerated and shaped, so that it might be contained.

And I am offended that your impossible goal is so strong a thread in our ethical tradition. To me, it betrays a deep, patriarchal Statism based on basic internal contradictions that any clear-eyed ethical thinker should see through.

That entire inclination in Western thought hits me as simply classist/sexist dismissal of the working-class/male role outright. Marcuse aside, we cannot universally adopt the middle-class/female privilege of choosing to put aside aggression and presuming someone else will coordinate protection.

By shifting the duty to protect us up to some idealized proxy Father in the Sky or the Statehouse, we have not eliminated the violence involved, or even reduced it. We have simply concentrated it, and we either encourage specialization in violence, which encourages abuse, or we force a greater duty upon the unwilling.

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    Ah!, the fear -- true perpetuum mobile. – Asphir Dom Jul 31 '15 at 20:06
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    @Malandy You miss the point of the car entirely. The definition of 'solved' by eliminating the hunger person is equivalent to 'solving' your car problem by eliminating the car. As a definition of 'solved' it is simply absolutely wrong. You also miss the point of the torture argument. The point is not that torture is truly necessary, but that you cannot control information with violence, because lying is too empowering. If it is OK for what the bomb destroys to be destroyed, there was no need defuse it in the first place, so that is not a solution to any problem. – jobermark Aug 1 '15 at 14:42
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    There is a clear, succinct and reasonable answer in the sixth paragraph, it starts with the words "If I decide to solve..." The rest of the post, particularly the preface, is digressive, opinionated and overextended. I'm usually a big fan of your work, Jobermark, but in addition to disagreeing with the majority of your arguments here, I also find this post badly in need of a severe edit. At the least, you should move the answer to the head, and save the commentary for the end. – Chris Sunami Aug 3 '15 at 17:34
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    You are not listening to at least six people who have debunked that notion. Being the best physicist is a solution to something that is not really a problem. Low self-esteem is not solvable when it is realistic. Einstein had no intention of being 'the best physicist' -- he had actual ideas, and life goals more refined that a toddler's. So this particular kind of 'solution' is still stupid. – jobermark Aug 4 '15 at 12:43
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    The culture just gives us silly ways of phrasing problems. It would produce the stated result, but it would not solve the problem. Ethics is not like math, motivation and psychology matter. Here, the problem is your own self-image being tied to being the best at something, not anything that would be solved by actually attaining your state goal. Once you are the best physicist, it is pretty obvious you will realize that is not something you actually wanted, especially if it is attained in this manner. – jobermark Aug 9 '15 at 0:01
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To very quickly give you some ideas, you could argue

  • that there are more preferable solutions (preferable for some reason)

  • that even though violence solves problems, it goes against fundamental moral principles and therefore shouldn't be used

  • that his claim is false, by giving a counter example.

As a counter example you could use for example a family crisis. Violence would stop the family crisis in the end (when taken to the extreme of murder, which is what your opponent is likely to argue). You could then say that indeed the family crisis is non-existent after application of violence, but the actual problem (lack of love, ...) hasn't been solved. In other words: find a problem that cannot be solved by violence / disagreement because violence / disagreement is the very problem itself.

  • Properly define the problem that you say violence cannot solve. If it is the elimination of domestic violence, then have all the domestic abusers get suddenly afflicted with a case of "VAPORIZATION" or something else deadly, violent and uncopyable unless the person who attempts to copy can also apply violence omnipotently... – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:34
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    @Malandy - If you wish to eliminate a negative, violence can do the trick. If you lack a positive, it may not. For example, "I do not have a son who loves me." Violence won't create a son, won't necessarily make them love the perpetrator of violence, and if the son already exists and doesn't love the speaker, may not help. You can try to squish violence in anyway ("if you repeatedly save your son from violence, perhaps they will begin to love you"), but then you have not just mere application of violence but extensive social manipulation in which the violence is likely dispensable. – Rex Kerr Aug 1 '15 at 19:43
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One question worth asking is what is the definition of "violence?" It turns out to be a pretty important definition, but that's another question.

There are many subjective things which are generally assumed to be unachievable with violence. Words like "love" and "respect" are very hard to attain with violence, if it is even assumed possible. For many, the definitions of those words are beyond the reach of violence.

In the end, it is fair to say that violence can solve many problems simply by eradicating the observer of the problem, especially if you assume a problem which lacks an observe to measure it is not a problem. However, as you have stated, that is a dangerous philosophy, and it lends itself to the question "is merely solving the problem actually our goal, or do we have a more nuanced goal which is being approximated with a simple problem?"

Then we get to go back to defining violence. It's a fun one!

  • As Cort Ammon noted above, the definition of "violence" is critical and the question cannot be answered without it in my opinion. Whether you approach it from a Religious / Intelligent Design perspective or a Scientific / Evolutionary one, it seems that existence itself is dependent on "violence" if you look to nature. The plant does "violence" to the soil in which it grows, the deer does "violence" to the plants it consumes and the wolf does "violence" to the deer it hunts. – Michael J. Jul 31 '15 at 14:30
  • Perversely, given the nature of cognitive dissonance resolution, it is easier to get "love" and "respect" with violence. Abused children, for instance, attach more firmly to the abusive parent than to the other one. Consider cults, and Stockholm syndrome. Up to a point, behaviors of ones own that feel natural and cannot be rationalized become valued instead. Given no chance to sit back and think it through logically, when escape is too risky or too hard, you can feel like a coward, or you can unconsciously create a reason for staying, and that reason is "love". – jobermark Jul 31 '15 at 15:45
  • Yay! Someone took the "You are a god of violence. You can only do violence, but it can be omnipresent and other omni-stuff. Here's a problem. Solve it." :) – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:40
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There are many great answers here already, but one thing that hasn't been addressed as far as I can tell is what I perceive to be a dichotomy extant in human existence which we seem to be constantly working out for ourselves.

First, I'll assume the following definitions for your terms:

  • Violence: Using force to assert one's will over another (verbal and/or physical) despite their objections to these assertions
  • Ultimate Solution: An ideal way to solve a global problem, usually by ending suffering in order to obtain a state of harmony

(Admittedly, I'm not entirely content with these definitions, but I feel as if I'm understanding you correctly at least, which is my goal. Please clarify if I haven't.)

Now back to this so-called dichotomy...

I believe your opponent is defending violence as the best means of problem solving because he is viewing life from a strictly animal-based perspective. From a purely natural view, only the strong survive. One basic example is that pack animals such as wolves will excommunicate or even kill a member of their own pack if it becomes injured and weakened in some way. From a purely animalistic - and now I prefer the word primal - standpoint, that is the only way to solve the problem.

The other side of the reality, however, is that humans don't live (completely) primally anymore. We couldn't have built civilization the way it exists if we were operating out of a purely primal state. Very sophisticated means of communication and cooperation needed to develop in order for us to have a society as we know it. This could be viewed as another form of evolution, if not actually a clear example of evolution itself.

In essence, your opponent is arguing that the regression of human development back to a primal nature is the best way to solve a problem. While one could define "Ultimate Solution" more starkly than I did by stating that it would be better if no human life existed anymore on the planet, this isn't truly a solution if human life is a desired reality.

Thus the best solution appears to be to learn greater levels of communication and cooperation in an attempt to move further away from a pure primal state and closer towards a "higher conscious" one (or whatever term you want to use).


On a more subtle note, we might look and see that the problem your opponent is actually trying to solve isn't World Hunger or Peace, but rather the difficulty inherent in attempting to move oneself from the primal nature towards the more cooperative one. One reason this is so challenging for many of us is due to the issue of trust. We must trust others if we are to cooperate, and not knowing what others will do nor how they might react given an unlimited variety of stimuli can perpetuate our own fear of such unknowns.

Thus he is concluding that the simplest solution is violence. This does not confer that it is the ultimate one, however, again if the objective is to persist and grow human life.

  • Wha? Who said anything about a Best Solution from Violence, all that was said in the OP was about "Any Solution"... – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:44
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    Quoting a direct question from the OP: "Is violence really the ultimate solution?" Can you clarify where I missed the mark? – etipaced Aug 1 '15 at 9:14
  • No, I can't... facepalm – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 11:56
  • I would say that ultimate and best are not the same thing in this case, in context I take ultimate to mean it is always a viable or possible solution. – Jmoreno Aug 2 '15 at 0:52
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    @Jmoreno I may not be understanding you correctly but I think I disagree with your interpretation of ultimate here. Based on a re-reading of the OP, it seems that ultimate means (quoted from the dictionary), "being the best or most extreme example of its kind". Your version seems to imply that it is one of a plethora of equally valid solutions, but not necessarily a "trump card", as it were. – etipaced Aug 5 '15 at 20:28
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Your friend appears to have adopted the mathematical vs intuitive frame of argumentation and justification; there is a quote from Pascals Pensees that is useful here:

The difference between the mathematical and intuitive mind: in the one the principle is palpable, but removed from ordinary use; so that for want of habit it is difficult to turn ones mind in that direction...

But in the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use; and are before the eyes of everybody. One only has to look, and no effort is neccessary; it is only a question of good eyesight. But it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous that it is almost impossible that some should escape notice.

Solving all problems of the world by a single principle, in Pascals framing is 'mathematical' where such usage is not correct, and is an abuse of this kind of thinking; the thinking that is appropriate to moral considerations is according to Pascal, the second kind - intuitive where it takes into accont principles 'numerous' and 'subtle'.

The argument by your friend is obviously wrong, in the way identified by Plato in the Sophist; though to be fair to this tradition one might suggest dealing with an argument of this type as a kind of training in rhetoric and debate.

It's also a doctrine that's allied with the 'survival of the fittest' in Social Darwinism: one could argue that killing someone who is hungry is simply doing what Nature would have done; except of course one consciously applied this principle in a disciplined and directed way; which isn't how the principle of selection works.

As a possible counter-argument you could use Rawls veil of ignorance which he used in his construction of utilitarian ethics in a Kantian mode:

Suppose before you were born you were allowed to give the world one law, and suppose this law that you give is that the hungry shall be killed.

But in exchange for this power you could be born anywhere at any time; and it turns out that you are born in Ethiopia during the great famine; and due to your proscription no aid is sent...

Another possible solution is that this is no solution because certain background assumptions are made in a moral problem of this kind which are generally accepted; and an argument which violates these background assumptions in a way is playing outside the rules; or just breaking them.

To take a prosaic example: I show you a bag, and say that inside this bag there is some money; you opens it and you look inside it and see that the bag is in fact empty; so you say 'I thought you said there was some money in there'; and I reply, 'well some is a number, and a number could be zero; and in fact, here, it is zero'.

This argument violates the background assumption that in discourse of this kind that some means not nothing and not everything.

A final possibility, I would suggest it is that the problem is not being solved but being eliminated. There is a difference between the two. One might eliminate dealing with this particular moral problem by eliminating your friend - but that's probably uncalled for.

Note: there are theories of violence; for example the doctrine of just war; or in Weber, violence is a monopoly of the state - domestic (police) and foreign (army).

  • Assume you have the ability to inflict any amount of violence in any matter you want, immediately, without moral compunctions ... as a hungry Ugandan Orphan, I'd threaten and demonstrate the validity of my threats to various people in order to get food. Or launch myself towards food by propelling myself with violence... or something. Don't limit yourself to the human. Imagine yourself as a Ultimate God of Violence. – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:29
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You can proof this sentence to be wrong through self-reference. If the problem you want to solve is violence itself, it won't be solved by using more violence. You'll still have violence and the problem will not be solved. This only makes sense considering violence/peace just as a mean, and never as an end.

This does not mean that violence is never necessary, but you can deny that violence is the ultimate solution, unless you don't see peace/lack of violence as a moral end.

Another similar argument: if your opponent were true, you could save your real-life problem ('winning' the debate) using more violence, killing him. And that would not be true, you would lose it if you did. Therefore his claim is false: there are real-life problems that can't be solved using violence.

  • Well, that assuming that violence isn't a solution to everything. The opposite stance from "Violence can solve everything" Is "Everything can be solved without violence", which is true... Godly powers, that cannot be violent, can solve everything... Even personal desire for violence... By giving yourself the ability to do violence. – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:47
  • Also, violence isn't just murder. Shouting at someone for an emotional victory could have you "win" the argument with violence. But, you have to define the win-state first. – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:54
  • I would argue that the opposite of the first section is possibly correct, violence taken to the point of killing everyone who is violent (or perhaps just everyone) would indeed be a solution to violence and would cease all violence, if this is worth the consequence is another matter. – Vality Aug 1 '15 at 19:38
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First, you can bring the type of argumentation of your opponent to the extreme: If it is the goal to solve all life’s problems, than the most effective and enduring way is to extinguish life itself, i.e. to kill all living beings. Possibly this consequence makes your opponent a bit reflective about his type of reasoning.

Secondly, persons concerned will not agree that violence is the general solution for life’s problems. Violence means civil war. Nobody likes civil war because everybody feels unsafe in civil war. In addition, civil war does not stabilize society but destabilizes life for all persons concerned.

Thirdly, I do not expect that violence can be banned from society. This conception seems utopical to me. Therefore I consider it necessary to domesticate violence. And this means that public institutions like UNO for international affairs and police for intrastate affairs should obtain a monopoly on violence. The scope of this monopoly should be fixed by written laws.

And last, I do not think that an ultimate justification for banning violence can be derived from ethics, because I do not know any ultimate justification in ethics.

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You can't define "morally justifiable" without identifying the goal of your system of morality. If the goal is to minimize suffering, then killing everyone would indeed be an optimal solution. Obviously, any useful system of morality needs a more carefully-described goal.

As another answer notes, you'll also need to define violence. But when you've identified the goal and defined violence, it's relatively easy to decide whether violence has any utility in achieving the goal. Then it's just math.

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If your ultimate goal is --for example --for all people to live happy, full lives in which they are allowed to pursue fulfillment of their own individual potential, then your opponent's argument collapses. It achieves an immediate narrow objective without regards to the larger picture. It's no good to win the battle and lose the war.

His argument does have force, however, if there is no larger picture. Without any larger moral framework and commitments, one is left with little recourse against this variety of nihilism.

For myself, as a person committed to non-violence, I would claim that violence is never the best answer to the problems I'm looking to solve. For example, given a situation where I face a home intruder in the middle of the night, it might seem like violence in self-defense is my best and only option. The better answer, however, given my larger commitments, might be to work towards a society where wealth disparity and other socioeconomic conditions don't push people towards crime in the first place. In other words, if my city had never shut down its youth recreation centers, maybe that intruder might have walked a different path in life. The violence in the scenario only seems inevitable because we have framed the situation at the last possible moment before the violence actually takes place.

  • Exactly. Thru the millenia, people seem to have come to believe that life is the most valuable. Life is more valuable than gold, it is priceless. Also, the most celebrated people and events and places were forged in violence, e.g., America (revolution), Texas (revolution), Jesus (martyr), Socrates (martyr), Martin Luther King (murdered), Lincoln (murdered), Crazy Horse (murdered). – Ron Royston Aug 3 '15 at 19:10
  • Socrates, Martin Luther King and Lincoln are celebrated mainly for other reasons than the violence connected to their lives. – Keelan Aug 4 '15 at 13:16
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If your citizens are complaining that you're murdering them, murder more of the citizens to stop the complaining. If other countries step in to stop your genocide, go to war with them to stop them. Ultimately this path only ends with you being dead or every other person on the planet being dead.

Violence is useful only to preserve a state's monopoly on violence, ultimately compelling citizens to adhere to the constitutional framework of their state. If a state does not or cannot enforce its geographical boundaries, it is not the legitimate authority in that area, as anyone else with sufficient force can take over control. If it can enforce its boundaries, then it should only use violence to compel citizens to adhere to the rules governing its boundaries, e.g. social order, policing, courts, laws, political representation and so on.

  • Well, if you care about the opinion of your populace... then your problem wasn't the riots and stuff themselves, but their knowledge that you were causing the violence. Just make the violence invisible... then, problem solved! – Malady Aug 1 '15 at 2:42

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