Philosophical Questions About Non-Violence
Violence is a central concept for describing social relationships among humans, a concept loaded with ethical and political significance. Yet, can human life be void of violence, and should it be? These are the two central questions around which the non-violent or pacifist movement takes shape.
Non-Violence and Human Nature
Whether human nature is fundamentally evil or good is an old vexed question. Authors such as Socrates and Plato notoriously claimed that human actions are always aiming for the good and, when evil is attained, that is out of ignorance on the part of the agent. On the opposite camp, authors such as Thomas Hobbes have argued that human nature is fundamentally evil: unless humans are coerced by some external force (be it simply other humans or a more organized institution), they will aim for their own self-interest, which often does not coincide with that which is good.
Not everyone agrees with such a dichotomy, however. Some authors, such as Spinoza, claimed that evil and good are just the products of human fancy: there is no purpose in the unfolding of worldly events, there is no good and evil; humans simply call good that which agrees with their preferences, and evil that which deviates from their preferences.
More recently, moreover, the very idea of human nature has been questioned – is it really the case that all humans beings share the same nature? There seems to be some good deal of evidence against such a tenet.
To have a philosophy of non-violence rest on a certain view of human nature, therefore, is not an easy task. However, it is not necessary to hold that human beings are naturally inclined towards the good in order to maintain that pacifism is the way to go.
Non-Violence as an Ideal
Non-violence can be an ideal, that is a value inspiring and guiding human action, regardless of whether it is obtainable or not. To hold such a view you need not prove or maintain that all humans share a human nature which is inclined towards the good: all you have to claim is that humans ought to tend towards the good.
A non-violent philosophy would oppose any sort of violence, be it physical, psychological, verbal, or of any other sort. Thus, even violence as a form of self-defense could not be justified.
Notoriously, in the history of philosophy, some authors have opposed any sort of idealistic ethics. This is the case, for instance, of Machiavelli, according to whom if the world would be full of well-intentioned people, an idealistic ethics may be in fact the way to go, but since people are self-interested, an idealistic ethics is destined to fail miserably. Pacifists end up often having to use violence in order to affirm their liberty to be pacifists.
Machiavelli-style objections to pacifism become relevant when considering how non-violence can be practiced. The fame of pacifists, such as Gandhi, is owed to their capacity to live in accordance to their preaching. The philosophy of non-violence is thus an instance of a philosophical position in which theory and practice must run parallel to each other.
Now, a difficulty arises also for pacifists. Indeed, in a well-informed conception of violence, some of the most insidious instances of violence concern non-physical violence: this is the case of psychological or verbal (and not physical) violence. In salient contexts, refusing to eat or to work, for instance, may be regarded as violent acts. Could it be the case that pacifism is, in the end, a form of violence, perpetrated by inaction?