Violence : Uday S. Mehta

In this essay I want to outline two broad contexts in which violence is at stake and where it is both sanctioned and limited. By context I mean no more than a way of thinking or a framework of reasoning. The first context is the foundational framework of modern liberal politics, with a special emphasis on the ground of law making that is internal to it; the second, an episode in the context of the First World War, when Gandhi articulated the importance of Indians volunteering to fight in support of the British Empire as a way to create the subjective and collective conditions for the ethic of non-violence. I invoke these two contexts to illustrate, by way of their contrast, how the former context gives violence a broad latitude despite its avowed preference for peace, while the later, by courting and encouraging service in war, attempts to promote an ethic of self-sacrifice and non-violence.

I begin by considering the operative logics of violence in the narratives of the foundations of political society that one finds in Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and which are implicit in much of liberal thinking. I go back to these thinkers not because of any preference for origins, but because I take their views to be still substantially accurate with respect to how we conceptualize violence, war, peace and politics in the modern era. Notwithstanding their considerable normative differences on a vast range of issues, with regard to the relationship of violence and politics, Hobbes and Locke articulate what has become a broad consensus that includes thinkers such as Kant, Hegel, and Mill.

In the narratives that Hobbes and Locke offer for explaining and justifying the origins of politics, human beings are placed in a state of nature. This is an unregulated state with no supervening power or authority. Given human nature and the absence of a supervening power, so the argument goes, this natural condition is likely to descend into a condition of war in which human life and interests are inescapably threatened by the imminence of disorder and the preponderance of violence; and ultimately, those who inhabit this state are threatened by a violent death. It is the prospect of this dire predicament that leads individuals—with a primary interest in avoiding death and securing their interests—to contract out of the natural state, to surrender all or some of their natural powers, thus forming a political society that can deploy the power of the state to regulate the interactions between individuals and between different states.

What is important to note is that in this classic and protean narrative that encourages and justifies the formation of political society and authorizes the power of the state, there is no argument against killing, violence, or war per se. The rationale for political society does not stem from moral disapproval of the fact that human beings are (or as Rousseau would qualify it, have become) trigger-happy and murderous in pursuit of their interests. Instead violence and killing carry no clear moral opprobrium. There is nothing like the Biblical injunction, however attenuated by other claims, against killing or the sanctity of life. Killing and violence are merely indicators of a condition of disorder, or to use Locke’s term “inconvenience,” which vitiates the pursuit of individual interests, including crucially an interest in one’s security and one’s life. Locke does have an argument against killing, drawn from natural law, that enjoins humans to “preserve the rest of mankind.”1 But that argument is qualified by the priority given to “preserv[ing] [one]self,” and as is evident from his chapter on war, the force of that argument does not carry over to the prescribed use of deadly force.2

The arguments that both Hobbes and Locke offer regarding how each of us wishes to avoid painful and violent death have a crucial force in motivating the rationale for political society. But they are prudential arguments, addressed to individuals with a rational interest in preserving their own lives and interests. Yet, violence in the state of nature and the absence of peace are simply conditions in which prudence would be denied and for which political society offers a purported redress. But the rationality of that redress need not be (and typically among modern political thinkers, it is not) part of a general argument against either violence, killing, or war per se.

The state, once it is formed, simply regulates violence in light of the contract that authorizes its power. In an unregulated condition characterized by human equality (and other aspects of the state of nature), killing and violence are merely imprudent. Under conditions where others have similar resources and the same intense desire to live, the strategy of deploying violence to secure one’s own interests, sooner or later, is likely to be self-defeating. This is clearly a conditional argument and not a moral one, in the sense that it is not backed by any moral imperative against violence, killing, or the use of force.

The conditions under which individual and collective interests in security are satisfied, is what Hobbes and Locke (among others) designate as a condition of peace. To secure this condition the use of violence is not itself abridged, but rather transferred to the state. The absence of a moral argument against the use of violence in the state of nature carries over to political society, which also makes no moral or categorical claim against violence per se. It simply limits the unregulated use of violence by individuals and constrains the state’s use of violence by the injunctions that this violence must be authorized, in the public interest, and sanctioned by law or a constitutional exception to law. From the standpoint of the state, violence is conditionally rational as long as it is duly authorized by the appropriate law-making powers and is in the service of the public interest and the security of the political community. In Hobbes, quite obviously, but also in Locke, the original contract does not in any way constrain war, violence, or killing in the face of a threat to the political community.

The conditional rationality of violence that marked the individual in the state of nature, or the Hobbesian axiom homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) now merely conditions the behavior and rationality of the state. The state, once it is formed into a cooperative singular entity must, for the sake of its own preservation—in principle—retain a strictly conditional and hence permissive attitude towards violence. That is the measure of its legitimacy and the legitimacy of violence in the liberal order. This is not to say that the state has some broad reason for deploying violence; it may or it may not. That is where context matters. The only general claim is that once it is formed and has legitimate law-making sanction, from the perspective of law all violence in the hands of individuals is seen as undermining the legal system or the state. But from a legal standpoint this claim is still consistent with a democratization of violence, as is evident from the fact all states retain the right of enforced militarization of the citizenry—the right to impose a general conscription. This is simply an example of legal violence, which has the additional warrant of being for the sake of the preservation of the law-making capacity of the state.

1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II, # 6

2. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, II, # 6: “Everyone as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully; so by the like reason when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice to an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.” See also II, #16.

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