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Coady, C.A.J. (1998). Violence. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Violence is a central concept for much discussion of moral and political life, but lots of debate
employing the concept is confused by the lack of clarity about its meaning and about the moral status it
should have in our development of public policy. Wide understandings of the term for instance,
structural violence not only include too much under the name of violence, but also put an excessively
negative moral loading into the concept. This is also a problem for some other definitions of violence,
such as legitimist definitions, which treat violence as essentially the illegitimate use of force. It is better
to confront directly the important and disturbing claim that violence is sometimes morally permissible
than to settle it by definitional fiat.

1. Definitions and paradigms

In discussing violence, it helps to begin with some obvious pre-theoretical examples, such as knife
attacks, savage beatings, shootings, bombings and torture. Offering such cases may be insufficient for
the definitional clarification of the concept that we seek as philosophers, but these paradigms can fix
our attention on at least part of what is to be made clear. If theorists claim that these are not acts of
violence, then they have some explaining (or theorizing) to do.
In fact, some theorists seem to claim precisely this, while others claim that, although the above list is
correct as far as it goes, there are some more surprising candidates for inclusion as paradigms. Both
groups seem to suffer from a certain disdain for communicative clarity, but, more importantly still,
from a tendency to overmoralize the concept. Since the idea plays a crucial role in a wide range of
significant moral and political debates, it is imperative to be clear about what we mean by the term and
what sort of evaluative loading it carries.

2. Two theories and their difficulties

To elaborate on this point, it is significant that, although the tendency to eliminate some of the
paradigm cases and the tendency to add surprising ones usually spring from very different political
motivations, both draw upon the idea that violence is inherently wrong. We can see this if we examine
two theories that embody these different tendencies. Legitimists about violence instantiate the first
tendency and proponents of the notion of structural violence embody the second. Legitimist definitions
treat violence as the illegitimate use of force. Characteristically such an approach is associated with
politically conservative outlooks, but this is a psychological rather than a logical connection. A major
problem for these thinkers is that they have considerable difficulty explicating a theoretically helpful
sense of legitimacy. Most of them employ a norm of political legitimacy (as is clear in Sidney Hooks
definition of violence as the illegal employment of methods of physical coercion for personal or group
ends (Grundy and Weinstein 1974: 12)), but they also think of this as having some moral
underpinning, and hence tend to treat violence as essentially in the category of wrongs. In a legitimate
state, properly authorized employment of shooting or savage beating by police will not then count as
violence since it is a politically legitimate use of force. But there are obvious problems about
distinguishing its various types (de facto, de jure, internationally recognized though internally
contested, and so on) and it is also hard to avoid the awkward consequences that the state of nature,
even understood in Hobbes extreme terms, cannot be a state of violence (since the ideas of political
legitimacy or illegitimacy do not apply), and that warfare between two legitimate states cannot involve
violence. In the latter case, both states will usually be engaged in the politically legitimated use of force
which, by definition, cannot be violence. It is unlikely that this conceptual apparatus could help in the

practical discussion of moral limits to police violence or the conduct of war (see War and peace,
philosophy of 12, 6). If, on the other hand, in the face of the problems posed by resort to political
legitimacy, moral legitimacy is invoked, then justified killing in self-defence or defence of innocent
others will not involve violence and all violence will be morally illegitimate by explicit definition,
which represents the serious fudging of a central question.
By contrast, the concept of structural violence, much in vogue with the political left, flaunts intuition,
not by excluding what seem to be obvious candidates, but by bringing into the category of violence a
wide range of things that would not, at first, be included. This definitional proposal springs from the
work of the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (1969) and the basic idea is that we should use the
term violence in a very wide and extended way to refer to any form of social injustice whether inflicted
by individuals or by institutions or by the workings of society at large, and whether or not it involves
the deliberate infliction of personal injury by episodes of physical or psychological force. Such
episodes would be merely one type of violence. Advocates of this wide definitional strategy tend to
argue that standard definitions of violence focus too much upon the harms intentionally inflicted by the
personal employment of physical force. Since these instantiate only one type of damage that human
contrivance can inflict, why not use the term violence to cover all such damage? This style of proposal
faces several difficulties: it is confusing, politically unhelpful and evades a central problem about
It is confusing because people do not ordinarily mean by violence any and every form of social
injustice, they mean such things as beating people up or torturing them with electrodes. They do not
mean to refer to iniquitous taxation proposals or discriminatory housing policies. These things may
lead to violence or they may need violence, or the threat of it, to sustain and implement them, but that
is another matter. It may be argued that violence is a bad thing, but it is just confusing to treat every
bad thing as violence. Moreover, the expansive sense of violence does not help with an agenda of
social reform, because it encourages the cosy but ultimately stultifying belief that all social evils are
really one and hence will yield to the one solution. The reality seems far more likely to be that the
various problems we face are genuinely diverse, although related in various ways, and have their own
specific features that call for detailed study with a view to solution. Better gun control legislation might
well alleviate problems of violence in the USA while doing nothing to change poverty levels.
Furthermore, the proponents of the concept of structural violence assume that violence is essentially
morally wrong, and seek broad support for various social reforms by claiming that they will eliminate
(structural) violence. But this assumption is contentious. It may be that there is something about
violence which makes resort to it always, in certain ways, regrettable, while none the less, at times, it
can be argued to be morally legitimate, even morally required. These issues need to be faced, not

3. The restricted definition

It is therefore preferable to operate with a concept of violence which is both narrower than that of
structural violence and less morally loaded than either it or the legitimist definitions. Initial guidance is
provided by such dictionary definitions as that of the Oxford English Dictionary: The exercise of
physical force so as to inflict injury on or damage to persons or property. Yet this is arguably too
restrictive in excluding psychological violence since we can give some sense to the idea of damage
being inflicted by psychological force. Cases of psychological pressure producing overpowering effects
seem close to the paradigms given earlier, as, for example, when a parent cruelly humiliates a
vulnerable child to the point of collapse or great distress. There is a tendency in the literature to slide
from psychological violence to structural violence, but this embodies a confusion since it rests on the
tendency to think of psychological violence as impalpable and then to feel that its admission endorses

the even more impalpable structural violence. However, the examples which make the category of
psychological violence plausible are all very palpable indeed, involving an immediacy and specificity
of pressure producing overwhelming effects on the victim. The term verbal violence is sometimes
used merely metaphorically, but it can make literal sense in contexts where it is a species of
psychological violence, and where the term tongue lashing becomes strictly appropriate.
It is worth noting that a restricted definition of this sort is not entirely descriptive or morally neutral
although it is much less morally loaded than the other definitions discussed above. It contains reference
to the notions of injury or damage which are at least evaluative with respect to some notion of normal
or proper functioning. In addition, these notions have complex relations to such centrally moral
concepts as harm and autonomy. The conceptual structure of the definition therefore allows us insight
into much that is otherwise puzzling about our attitudes to violence, and helps explain some of the
appeal of the structural and legitimist outlooks as well as the nature of the distortions they produce. In
particular, it helps show why many people have a strong tendency to think that violence is always
wrong and that it is none the less sometimes morally right. This tendency is partly attributable to the
fact that violence inherently involves the intentional infliction of injury or damage, and we have a
strong tendency to equate this with the infliction of harm or wrong. At the same time, most of us
recognize that the police, for instance, are sometimes justified in killing or wounding criminals to
prevent violent attacks upon innocent civilians or upon the police themselves. There can be problems
about the too-ready resort to violence by police, but there is nothing imaginary or fantastic about the
circumstances in which such resort seems morally justifiable. In Melbourne, in December 1994, a man
ran amok with a semi-automatic weapon in a suburban street, killed two perfect strangers and kept
firing at police and passing motorists until a police marksman shot him dead. Such criminals are
certainly injured, but they are not wronged or, in the morally significant sense, harmed.

4. More benefits of the restricted definition

Another problem that can be clarified by the restricted definition is that of violent sports that involve
the consent of their participants. Some have thought that boxing, for instance, cannot be violent
because the fighters mutually agree to bombard each other with punches; they are influenced by the
idea that some action affecting another cannot constitute a wrong or a harm if the other consents to it.
Whatever one thinks of that principle, it cannot affect the question of whether hitting someone very
hard on the head with the intention of rendering him unconscious is a violent act, at least if we
understand violence in the restrictive manner. Anyone so acting is clearly aiming to inflict an injury.
Moreover, the restricted definition helps elucidate two other features of violence which are otherwise
puzzling; namely, the point of having such a concept and the fact that even justified violence is
regrettable. On the first issue, it is clear that many of us have a distinctive fear of the intrusion into our
lives of those intent upon the forceful infliction of injury upon us. We also fear the effects of natural
disasters, diseases, social prejudice and injustice, indifference and accident, but our fear of violence
usually has a quite particular significance because we are understandably anxious about damage that is
specifically directed against us and that is aimed at immediate and dramatic impairment of our
wellbeing. This combines with the fact that even justified resort to violence carries with it problems of
misjudgment and escalation, as well as the possibility of disturbing psychological consequences for
those who employ it, to make the use of violence regrettable even where it is not immoral