A Definition of Violence and the Problem of Suicide

In my previous article on violence, I argued for the importance of thinking critically about the definition of violence. If we want to reduce violence in human society, we need to be able to measure instances of violence. To do that, we need a clear definition of this term. One way to go about this project is to decide whether or not specific instances of aggression or harm count as violence. I previously asked several questions about issues in defining violence, and I will propose answers to those questions here.

Active Harm

There are instances when inaction results in physical harm to other people. In The Concept of Violence, Mark Vorobej defines “cultural violence” as a culture allowing “a sentient creature to endure a morally intolerable life of extreme misery.” For example, many individuals throughout the world have more than sufficient funds to pay $4 for a mosquito net that would protect an innocent child from malaria.

The parasite that causes malaria has existed since at least the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) and began to infect humans in large numbers around 10,000 years ago. If in those past 10,000 years any human who was not actively concerned with preventing his fellow humans from contracting malaria was committing an act of violence, then violence is far more prevalent than most people believe.

Today, people living comfortably throughout the world can reduce suffering from malaria, hunger and a variety of other ailments for a relatively small cost. If not doing so is violent, then every action not actively contributing to the well-being of others is violent. But that is not how we think about violence. In fact, thinking of violence in this way would render the term almost meaningless because we would have to apply it with such great frequency. While people who ignore the suffering of those they could easily help may be morally culpable, they do not act violently.

A definition of violence and the problem of suicide

Intentional Action

A violent action (or a brave action, kind action, etc.) should be violent (or brave or kind) across all situations. Hence, an action that was not violent in the days before mosquito netting and quinine should remain nonviolent after they came into use. Likewise, an action that does not intend violent consequences does not become violent if physical harm results accidentally.

Firing a gun or throwing a baseball at an inanimate target are non-violent actions. So the fact that an unwitting human target was struck by one of these projectiles through no intention of the agent does not suddenly make the action violent. Likewise, a person who unwittingly saves another’s life without recognizing the danger of the circumstances does not act bravely. Bravery is exemplary action in the face of appropriate fear. Without fear and intention to act in exemplary fashion, the action is not brave. When we think of violent action, we think of an action that is intended to cause physical harm. Otherwise benign or neutral actions that accidentally result in unintentional harm do not fit our understanding of violence.

Physical Harm

In recent years, we have discovered many reasons to doubt the old maxim “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Verbal abuse, whether in the form of targeted insults or subtle psychological disparagement, can cause severe and lasting emotional and psychological damage. But we tend to think of violence as being purely physical. And if we want violence to include non-human animals, as I will discuss later, we should restrict the definition of violence to behavior which all animals can perpetrate. A lion can violently kill a gazelle, but cannot emotionally or psychologically abuse its prey. We could say that only humans are capable of non-physical violence. But it would be simpler to say that “emotional,” “psychological” and “physical” are all categories of abuse with “violence” only applying to physical abuse.

Sentient Beings

We may be most concerned with preventing human-on-human violence. Yet the actions which constitute such violence may also be applied to non-humans. Animal abuse is a form of violence. And a gazelle who dies in the jaws of a lion certainly suffers a violent death. We can measure and aim to affect whatever type of violence we choose. However, all physical harm to a sentient being should count as violence, regardless of the species involved.


If our goal is to reduce violence, it may make sense to build a moral component into our definition. We could simply define violence as impermissible physical harm and measure only these morally outrageous incidents. But that is not how we commonly think of violence. As Vorobej points out, adding this moral component to the definition of violence, “makes the connection [of violence] to ethics pretty transparent. But it now makes the very concept of violence highly contestable.”

Violence includes physical self-defense and a predator killing its prey. And in recent years, more and more people have come to consider sports like American football and hockey to be violent. Moreover, looking at all types of violence gives us more information about morally impermissible violence. We can examine how often self-defense crosses the line from reasonable use of force to morally objectionable harm. And a broader definition of violence has helped the push to make violent sports safer, especially for children.

“Violence is actively and intentionally causing physical harm to a sentient being.”


The question of whether or not self-harm counts as violence poses a tricky problem. On a first pass, it seems very obvious that physical self-harm is violent. It looks just as violent as if the agent were to perform the same harmful action on another person. The problem comes if we try to build a moral- or approval-based clause into our definition. If we want to exclude cases like surgery and contact sports from counting as violence, we might try to define violence as “unsanctioned physical harm.” Thus, surgery would not be violent because the patient agrees to the procedure in hopes of a better health outcome. Football could be considered non-violent since all participants willingly sanction the physical punishment that comes with the game.

But self-harm doesn’t fit within this definition. Self-harm is sanctioned because the agent permits himself to harm himself. So we may either include an approval clause or we may include self-harm in the definition of violence, but we can’t do both.

My inclination is that physical self-harm counts as a form of violence. That means we will need another way to account for examples like beneficial surgery and contact sports. I propose we say that surgery is not violent, since the end of surgery vis-à-vis the patient is not harm, but benefit. One might argue that physical torture could be non-violent for the same reason in the case where the information gained at the expense of torturing one person benefits many other innocent people. However, the benefit of surgery is experienced by the same person on whom the physical damage is inflicted. Not so for torture.*

A Definition of Violence

With these considerations in mind, I would define violence as actively and intentionally causing physical harm to a sentient being. This definition is broad in scope but I believe it accurately reflects the actions we consider violent. Other definitions may differ slightly in some of the particulars. The important thing is that we think critically about the definition of violence instead of throwing the word around to arouse fear, sympathy and anger without true understanding.


*-Corporal punishment offers another tricky case along the same lines. If the surgeon cutting open the patient for what the surgeon believes is the patient’s benefit is non-violent, then it seems a father spanking his child is also non-violent because the father believes the punishment will ultimately benefit the child. There is no easy reply to this case. I would argue that both the surgeon and patient believe surgery causes benefit and not harm. In contrast, the child likely does not share this view about corporal punishment. For this reason, I consider surgery non-violent and corporal punishment violent. But there are also good reasons to call both surgery and punishment violent or non-violent given a consistent definition of violence.