A Humanist Perspective on Force and Violence

Here’s something from the past that adds to my views on self defence. I wrote this article back in the ’90s and it was published in the NZ Humanist magazine and got some good reviews. Reading it again now I would probably use less abrasive language, but there were some things going on in my life at the time that coloured my perspective somewhat. I have left it as I wrote it, partially because I’d like the ideas to be challenging, but also because I think my readers would like to see how I’ve changed over time. It’s good to see people can change for the better

I should explain the rude view of pacifists. At the time I ran a group at University called Pagan Revivalists. We would have regular meetings and invite people of related paths to come and tell us about their beliefs and values. Given the extremely diverse nature of the attendees (from Dianic witchcraft to the OTO), the discussion and questions at these meetings could be quite lively. We had a New Age guru of some kind come to address us. He looked like the Euro vision of Jesus and was acceptance, love and pacifism personified. I watched his followers: these women (all were women) threw themselves in the way of any potential challenge like they were all attacks. They wore the stress of their protective vigilance on their faces. They were afraid he would get hurt and loose his inner calm, and that made them aggressive and frantic to protect this precious soul. My thought was that this is the price of culpable innocence: other people have to pay dearly to protect his purity. Without them he has two choices in an unpleasant situation – lose the pacifism or suffer.

I do think peace is ideal. I’m sure most of my readers have heard the saying “fighting for peace is like f*cking for virginity”. If one thought that virginity was valuable, if one person sacrificed that valuable thing so that those who would fornicate in spite of the loss of value could do so without affecting all those who wanted to stay unsullied, then that person has acted to increase the overall amount of good. Utilitarian argument, but still worth thinking about, since a decrease in acts and victims of violence is usually what we try to achieve, when we promote peace.

A Humanist Perspective on Force and Violence

By Anna Cruse

What is the right stance for a Humanist to take on issues of force and violence? Is ANY such behaviour acceptable to our principles? If yes, in what circumstances? Are there times when a Humanist ought to take such a stance – when it is right and good, necessary and sufficient – or is the proper expression of Humanism to be the ultimate pacifist? Should we accept that “human nature” will never be civilized enough to make such resort unnecessary, or is our rejection of such means the only way to stop the use of force and violence in our society? Is the use of force and violence a) always evil b) a necessary evil c) sometimes right, sometimes wrong d) the last resort e) a tool Humanists have to learn to use appropriately?

I should perhaps start with some real life examples of times when people have to make the choice to use or not use force and violence. As you read these examples, think about what you would do.

  1. Two kids get into a fight in the schoolyard, and force is necessary to separate them

  2. A young adult snatches a purse and runs your way

  3. You catch a stranger in your house

  4. Two men get into a fight outside a pub, and if someone doesn’t drag the bigger off the smaller will be badly hurt, probably hospitalized, maybe killed (it only takes one punch to kill, if it lands just so, and this happens by accident too many times)

  5. Two policemen are beating a cowering student

  6. A 42 year old man with the mental capacity of an 8 year old throws a tanty and starts pummelling his 80 year old mother

  7. Your teenager starts pushing you and your partner around

  8. You are surrounded by a gang of youths. It could even include your teenager. You believe that they intend to hurt you

  9. A 14 year old pulls a gun at the highschool

  10. A neighbour wants to run into a burning building to rescue her beloved poodle

  11. The secret police are dragging off a neighbour in the middle of the night

  12. A man is kidnapping his own child. The mother is screaming for help.

  13. You have a friend trapped in one of those brainwash cults. She has not asked you for help

  14. Your 17 year old offspring is about to get into a car with his / her obviously inebriated girl / boyfriend driving

  15. A load of pipes has come loose and is about to roll over someone. You could tackle them out of the way

  16. Someone is about to take a suicide jump. You could stop them

  17. Someone is trapped in a burning car begging to be killed. You have a gun

  18. Your cancer riddled grandma asks you to help her die. You have a pillow

  19. A colleague is about to destroy the evidence of company complicity in an ecological poisoning issue

That’s probably enough. What would a Humanist do? What levels of force and/or violence are right (if any)?

There is an argument that if one wants to stop the use of force and violence in society, then one should never use it oneself. Indeed, if a Humanist believes that the use of force or violence is wrong it would be hypocrisy if they resorted to its use. But some of the examples above, whilst all suggesting levels of force and violence, have been upheld as human rights or responsibilities. That is what Humanism is about, after all.

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty argues that the only time that a person can legitimately impose their will upon another is in self-defence, and this includes the defence of one’s society (aka the Liberty Principle). But is it self-defence if you throw the first punch? Would you clobber the purse-snatcher, tackle the home invader, or snatch the evidence from the eco-poisoner? I’ve known of people set upon by gangs. Letting them throw the first punch is stupidity bordering on suicide (or is it martyrdom, for pacifists?) The law allows you to defend yourself to the limit necessary to stop the attack, and to make sure it doesn’t restart. Your response is deemed appropriate or not according to your belief about what was necessary at the time. There is no reason why this should be different if the attackers are your children. A law against “reasonable” anything is an unreasonable law, by definition. If teachers can’t use reasonable force, school brawlers can’t be separated.

This doesn’t mean the Law is necessarily right, either. There are several examples above where doing the right thing could easily involve breaking the law.

We are comfortable with the idea of imposing our will on those not capable of making good decisions for themselves (children and the mentally impaired). But what about the 17 year old about to get into a car with a drunk driver. Does it make a difference if they’re not our offspring? What about brainwashed (psychologically dependent) friends? Should neighbours be allowed to throw themselves to their deaths, deliberately or for reasons we don’t accept or understand? And where does suicide become euthanasia? Euthanasia is a hot topic in Humanist discussion. Many argue that active euthanasia can sometimes be the only humane option. Would you be that humane?

There are three hurdles a person has to cross before they act in these circumstances.

  1. They have to know something is wrong. People won’t resist a police state if they believe it to be the way things are supposed to be. Ignorance and naivety can make people think they don’t have to do something. Humanists acting according to the way things “should” be with no regard to how things ARE are guilty of this.

  2. They have to know they can do something. The best way to keep a captive is to make them believe they can’t escape. The subset of people in history who haven’t had a right to defend themselves against another group were called slaves. Take away a person’s choices, and that’s where it leads. People without recourse are the victims to those with no conscience. Those of us who are suitably fit can use force and violence: we have no excuses, here.

  3. They have to choose to act. If we know something is wrong and we can do something about it and we don’t it could be “bystander apathy” (in the case of us watching other people) but I think better words are cowardice, irresponsibility, and laziness. These are not Humanist traits.

I never want to be the kind of Humanist who sits around whining about how bad things are, but never acting to fix it. I don’t want to be so concerned with my own security, social or self-image that I allow myself or others to suffer when I can do something about it, even if it involves force, violence, risk, or legal issues (even for pacifists, who require others to do the dirty work for them, if they’re not to become victims). When the world becomes a perfect place where force and violence are no longer necessary for right ends to come about, I won’t use it. Until then, as a Humanist, I am not going to relinquish that tool.

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