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What Is Physical Violence?

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Philosophical Questions About Violence
Violence is a central concept for describing social relationships among humans, a concept loaded with ethical and political significance. Yet, what is violence? What forms can it take? Can human life be void of violence, and should it be? These are some of the hard questions that a theory of violence shall address.

In this article we shall address physical violence, which will be kept distinct from psychological violence and verbal violence. Other questions, such as Why are humans violent?, or Can violence ever be just?, or Should humans aspire to non-violence? will be left for another occasion.

Physical Violence
Standard dictionary definitions of violence relate it to intentional physical damage: we have an instance of violence when one individual, group, or institution purports to physically damage an individual, group, or institution. Three aspects of this characterization deserve to be stressed.

Violence and Self-Consciousness
First of all, violence seems to require a deliberate action, one that is the outcome of a will. This is not to say, of course, that you cannot have violence unless you have a plan to impart a physical damage: more modestly, violence requires self-consciousness. We call "violent" only actions, that is only those events that result from the agency (roughly, self-conscious behavior) of some individual, group, or institution. Therefore, if machines have no self-consciousness, machines cannot be violent. A gun or a weapon, in themselves, are not violent; however, the creation of a weapon may be a violent act, if the person designing and building it do so with the knowledge that it may b.e

It is important to notice also that violence does not require that the person(s) or institutions exercising it be in control of themselves while carrying it on. The fact that a self-conscious being is perpetrating a violent act does not depend on whether such being is capable of controlling itself. A person under the effect of alcohol, drugs, or cholera, who is unable to control herself and ends up inflicting physical damage over another person, is carrying on a violent act.

Violence and the Body
Physical violence requires a substantial notion of a body in order to be spelled out. What counts as the body of a human being? Is one’s private property, or a subset of it, part of her extended body? For instance, if a person trashes the clothing of another person, yet not the skin, is that an instance of physical violence? Or, consider hair, which is largely made out of dead cells: if I cut your hair against your will, did I exercise physical violence on you? How about if I cut your nails?

From a Cartesian perspective, the distinction between mind and body tends to be clear-cut: bodies are machines, each of which extends as far as its connected parts extend. There cannot be a disconnected physical part of a body.

Nowadays, however, we have come to develop a more sophisticated conception of the human body. We do leave key parts of our bodies, such as teeth or limbs or wigs, on the side of our beds overnight; would any physical damage of those constitute a case of physical violence?

Violence and Assessment of Damage
Another difficulty in assessing whether violence has been perpetrated is to assess whether a damage has been effected. What is physical damage? Clearly, fractures, cuts, or dislocations do count as varieties of physical damage; but how to assess whether pain has been inflicted? There is always a possibility of skepticism regarding the pain that another being is feeling. I cannot feel your pain and I can only tell by your behavior whether you may be in pain; however, of course you may fake your behavior. Since pain is often a key component of physical violence, the assessment of physical violence may be – to some extent – debatable.

Violence and Institutions
In the characterization given above, I included also institutions among the entities that can perpetrate physical violence; that means that a government or a company can be regarded as violent. One may think that, in the end, if a government is violent that is because the people who are in government are violent. However, I think it’s important to maintain a level of responsibility for the violence of institutions: governors, CEOs, military generals come and go, and yet the overall outlook of the institutions they superintend may not change. It is important, at least in principle, to be able to regard actions carried out in the name of an institution as actions of a different sort from those that a person, qua individual self, carries out: the sort of legal, professional, biographical, and social pressures may indeed be quite different.

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