Violence : Richard Bernstein

Frankly, I do not think that there are any abstract principles or even guidelines about when violence can be justified that do not lend themselves to serious abuse—including the appeal to self-defense. But then it seems we have a new paradox in claiming that there are exceptional circumstances in which physical killing can be justified, though we do not have effective principles or guidelines specifying what counts as such exceptional circumstances. One might say that is precisely what we mean by an “exceptional” circumstance—one that is not anticipated and where existent principles, rules, and guidelines do not apply, or at least it is not clear how they do apply to these exceptional circumstances. But then how we are to respond to this situation where we at once admit the possibility of justifying violence and yet question whether there are any principles, rules, or criteria that can set clear limits to when such political violence is justified.

I think that the ethical/existential solution suggested by Benjamin (and apparently endorsed by Butler and Critchley) is not satisfactory. For this approach tends to transform a political decision into an individual ethical decision. I certainly do not want to deny the intimate connection of ethics and politics, but when it comes to the justification of violence in political contexts, I think it is mistaken and potentially dangerous to think of the permissibility or justification of violence (physical killing) in exceptional cases as an exclusively ethical issue that one wrestles with in solitude.

But there is another dimension of Arendt’s thought that can be helpful. For the justification and decision to engage in violence is (or ought to be) a public political issue—in the Arendtian sense of politics. Considering the dangers of any justification of the use of violence and the ways in which such “justifications” are abused, the only viable constraint on such abuses is engaged public critical discussion where there is vigorous debate about the pros and cons of any proposed justification. This is not a matter “to wrestle with in solitude” but demands opening oneself to publicly sharing and evaluating conflicting opinions and arguments that address the concrete situation. Any justification of the use of violence is a matter of political judgment. There are no algorithms—no clear decision procedures—for making such judgments.

Political judgment is always risky, but its proper exercise depends on keeping alive—or creating new—publics (local, national, and global), committed to serious debate and persuasion, publics that are acutely aware of their own fallibility. When such publics are repressed or are manipulated and distorted by outside interests, when engaged public discussion and debate dies or withers away, there is nothing to prevent the triumph of violence.


Richard J. Bernstein is Vera List Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research.


Published on October 1, 2012

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