Defining Violence

For the past year and a half, I have been researching and writing a novel that, in very broad terms, addresses problems of evil and violence. The story centers around a particular violent and evil* incident: a mass shooting. It aims to address not only the actual shooting, but the psychologies and motivations surrounding the attack. Thus, defining violence and evil will be a necessity in order for me (and my readers) to unpack this incident.

Both “evil” and “violence” are heavily informed by personal experience. These experiences are often tragic and deeply emotional and influenced by media depictions that aim to sensationalize and encapsulate acts of malevolent aggression. As a result, both terms have become buzzwords that evoke strong feelings without reflective understanding. But to face evil and violence and enact meaningful change, we need satisfactory definitions of these terms. For now, I will set “evil” aside and attempt a better understanding of what we mean by “violence.”

Many people believe that society should aim to reduce violence. In order to achieve this goal, we first need to agree on what counts as a violent act. In the words of philosopher Mark Vorobej, author of The Concept of Violence, “We don’t have much hope of reducing violence unless we have a clear idea of what we’re talking about when we discuss violence.” Without adequately defining violence, we cannot measure it and we cannot determine how violence changes over time.

Defining violence

The problem becomes especially complex when different agencies hold conflicting definitions of violence. For example, what counts as violence may look very different to a police department versus a particular civilian community. (We have seen this disagreement in recent police-involved shootings of unarmed black men). A suitable definition of violence should coincide with our shared understanding of which incidents are violent and which are not. At the very minimum, violence involves actively causing physical harm to another person. But parsing this basic definition raises some immediate questions about how the term handles particular cases:

1. Should violence include non-active harm?

Each year, 400 million people suffer a malarial infection and 500,000 die of the disease. Much of this suffering and death can be prevented by the use of mosquito netting, a relatively inexpensive intervention at $4-$6 per net. Some people may argue that individuals or institutions who neglect those suffering from malaria inflict violence on these victims. After all, this inaction results in physical harm to other people. Others could counter that suffering or death from malaria counts as violence perpetrated by the offending mosquito or virus and not by the inaction of other humans, though those humans may be guilty of neglect or heartlessness.

2. Can an action be unintentionally violent?

Shooting another person seems an unquestionably violent act. Firing a gun at a target range seems less so. Imagine one person accidentally shoots another at a target range, not realizing the victim was standing behind the paper targets. We might say the victim suffers a violent injury, but it is less clear that the shooter acted violently. After all, we may not think he acted violently by firing the gun at the paper target, so it is unclear why his action should become violent only by virtue of unintended consequences. This example also leads to the question of whether or not an action must be motivated by a particular attitude (e.g. anger, malice, desperation, etc.) in order to be considered violent.

3. Is there such a thing as non-physical violence?

Extreme emotional or psychological abuse can cause greater damage to a victim than some instances of physical harm. Certain words, tones of voice and insults may combine to trigger the strong visceral response from a victim that we normally associate with physical violence. In defining violence, we need to decide whether or not violence a) is associated with a particular type of harm (i.e. physical or non-physical), b) acts as an objective measure of the magnitude of damage caused by the action, and c) acts as a measure of the emotional impact of the action on the victim.

4. Can a non-human be the target of violence?

If we say an action like killing is violent, it is not clear why our description of that action should apply only to a human killing another human and not a human killing a non-human animal or an animal killing another animal. Yet the vast majority of reported violence involves human-on-human harm. And in social practice, we are chiefly concerned with reducing human violence. The possibility of non-human violence amidst the primary social concern of reducing human violence raises further questions. For one, should we tailor our definition of violence to fit the outcome we want to achieve? The same question applies to the following concern:

5. Should violence have a moral component?

Violence almost always carries a negative connotation in contemporary use. For this reason, it may be simpler to define violence as a morally impermissible instance of physical harm. Yet the common association of violence and wrongdoing is not always the rule. This connection certainly doesn’t follow from my minimal definition of violence as actively causing physical harm to another person. And Vorobej adds, “How does this [minimal] account of violence relate to ethics? Hardly at all, I think… Sometimes it’s permissible to cause physical harm to another, and sometimes it’s not.” For example, most people would consider American football a violent game. But those same people likely don’t believe the linebacker who sacks a quarterback acts immorally in doing so. And the target of an attack may employ physical aggression in self-defense. Such defensive aggression would meet other criteria for violence but would not be immoral.

“We don’t have much hope of reducing violence unless we have a clear idea of what we’re talking about when we discuss violence.”

6. Is self-harm a form of violence?

Actions usually associated with active self-harm include cutting, enforced starvation and suicide (killing). Independent of their targets, these actions would normally fall under the classification of violent. But we might also think that violence involves an unwillingness on the part of the victim (or even a strictly moral component, as discussed above). One of the reasons we might say a surgeon does not act violently when she disembowels her patient to remove his cancerous lymph nodes is that the patient sanctions this action with the knowledge that the end result will (hopefully) prove beneficial. On this notion of violence, a person who willingly harms himself does not act violently because he willingly becomes a victim of his own harm.

With these considerations in mind, it becomes easier to see the importance of defining violence and to form a path toward a cohesive definition. There are many factors to consider in that definition, but we can now address them one by one instead of casting about in the darkness of emotional buzzwords and mistaken meanings. In my next essay, I propose a definition of violence and examine a particularly thorny problem for any such definition.


*-Any definition of violence would include a mass shooting as an example. The same is not necessarily true of evil. Some theorists prefer to abandon the concept of evil entirely, since 1) “evil” often points to supernatural creatures or forces that lack scientific explanations, 2) “evil” simply refers to a person or action that is inexplicably or extremely bad and doesn’t further explain anything, and 3) calling a person “evil” relegates that person to an irredeemable moral status that prevents cooperative dialogue and risks permanently alienating those who do not deserve the label. For further reading, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.