Some Reflections on Violence (Michael Campbell)

What is violence? Webster has "the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy". Such a definition tallies with ordinary usage; we speak of a violent storm, of rugby as a violent sport, of protests as descending into violence when private property is damaged or destroyed, and so on. However, ordinary usage here misleads, insofar as it invites us to overlook certain important distinctions. In particular, we need to take care to distinguish between damage which is inflicted upon an individual against his or her legitimate wishes; damage which an individual actively and reflectively welcomes; and damage which occurs in a context where it makes no sense to speak of a person's consent. Attention to these differences is important if we are to avoid confusion in our evaluative judgements, for it is widely assumed that 'violence' is ipso facto morally problematic; that it stands in need of special justification. If this is so then it becomes especially important to clarify the concept's proper extension. And, I would like to suggest, we often call things 'violent' when we shouldn't and don't call things 'violent' when we should.

Thus, it is easy to overlook the fact that not all cases of physical harming are properly called violence. Invasive surgery and tattooing both involve damage to the body (in the form of scarification or wounds which take time to heal), but are not therefore violent acts. Equally, exposure to the wind and rain cause damage to the body but are in ordinary conditions (arguably) not a case of violence, but part of the ordinary degradation which arises in the normal life span of our type of organism. And from the other direction, people can suffer violence without its involving anything which we would naturally describe as 'physical harm'. Insulting words and belittling behaviour, when the circumstances are serious enough, constitute a form of violence against another. And, to take a more serious example, when victims of sexual abuse speak up about their experiences, they are often disbelieved. Such disbelief is often experienced as a form of violence; the feeling of having one’s reality questioned and one’s testimonial authority undermined exacerbates the harm of the original attack.

Violence may also take the form of neglect, or of withholding (or threatening to withhold) something that a person needs and to which they are entitled. In a celebrated paper, James Rachels argued against a morally salient distinction between killing and letting die by claiming that there is no difference between 'actively' drowning another person and 'passively' standing by and watching them drown, when a rescue could be easily effected. When the end and the motive are the same, the actual means by which the result is achieved may be irrelevant.[1]

Relatedly, if I have the only supply of a lifesaving medicine but I choose to offer it to someone who needs it only under onerous conditions, then I may be said to inflict violence against them, simply by confronting them with a choice death or penury. The experience of being forced to make this calculation is harmful, because it involves, as we might say, a form of disrespect against the person. By refusing them the medicine for which they have a vital need, I display my sense of the value of their life. I suggest that I am willing to let them die rather than forego the opportunity to profit.

In this case, we are in the realm of what may be called coercive options – where offering someone a choice which was not otherwise open to them has the apparently paradoxical consequence of undermining their free agency. One area where such cases arise is in the issue of the legalisation of organ sales. The idea that people should be given the choice to sell a kidney is pushed by its proponents as an expansion of freedom of choice. Such a claim neglects the fact that the choice forces impoverished people into considering invasive surgery as a potential answer to immediate financial pressures. Before we endorse such a proposal, we must seriously consider what it would be like to face a choice between either suffering in penury, or else offering up one's body as a resource to be added into the mechanisms of exchange.

What connects these disparate cases is the connection between violence and violation, of the boundaries of the self being compromised. Tattooing and surgery are non-violent because (and thus only when) they are invited by the recipient; we choose to experience a degree of damaging physical force because we judge the damage to be necessary to the goods which arise from it, and this judgement is endorsed because the goods which are being pursued can reasonably be judged to outweigh the harms involved.[2] In this way, we may begin to tease out the connections between violence, the self, consent, freedom, and choice. Such a teasing out is very important if we are to understand some of the most pressing ethical issues facing us these days.

An analysis of these issues must begin with an understanding of the economy, of the processes by which material goods are created and distributed, and the mechanisms which determine how they circulate. In this context, it is obvious that we have an economic system which leads to extreme and rising inequalities in both wealth and quality of life. Wealth and income inequality are growing in almost every country in the world, with the newly minted billionaire class emerging at the expense of the working population. In the past thirty years, British and American citizens have seen an actual decrease in their living standards, and even before factoring in the effects of global warming, global health crises and war, this latest generation will have a lower quality of life than their predecessor. A sustained attack on worker's rights in the past forty years, together with the decimation of the tax system upon which the social net depended, has led to an economy where people must work longer hours, for less money, with less job security. Thanks to the privatisation of utilities, the voucherisation of social support schemes, near constant war, and the manipulation of the tax systems by the wealthy, the US and the UK have also reached levels of both private and public debt, unprecedented outside of wartime.

In this way, more and more people are facing insecure employment and living conditions, with no long term guarantee of a stable income. The majority are either renting or are paying mortgages; in the US and the UK only approximately 35% of people own their houses outright. Our economic system has created a new precariat, a large and growing group of people who have to face on a daily basis the pressure of knowing that their physical security depends on their productivity, on their actively putting themselves forward as ready and willing to work, and of being capable of finding an employer willing to hire them on an ad hoc basis.[3]

It is in this background that we may begin to think of the forms of stress and violence which workers are facing in the context of the SARS Covid-19 pandemic. Our 'key workers' – those whose labour is expected even when others may work from home – include not only doctors and nurses, but also cleaners, drivers, warehouse and food processing workers, and so on. Such groups are often in effect being told that they must choose between going to work and facing grave and incalculable risks on the one hand, or losing their livelihood on the other. The pressure to re-open the economy is a pressure to increase the number of people who are forced to make this calculation.

In a sense this has not changed the basic calculation for many workers, who are used to working under conditions that are risky and degrading to human health. Meat processing plants, so often the centre of outbreaks of Covid-19, were already dangerous working environments with conditions which lead to significant risks of both physical and psychological harm. Inequality in the social determinants of health has already ensured vast health disparities within developed nations.[4] The living and working conditions of blue-collar workers often involves exposure to carcinogenic environments, in particular near ubiquitously poor air quality. We are only now beginning to understand the full extent of the health damage that prolonged exposure to such environments causes, but we have known enough for long enough to realise that we are tolerating the intolerable.

However, although Covid has not in one sense fundamentally altered these calculations, in another sense it has, for the fear and anxiety connected to potential exposure to Covid-19 is real, legitimate and potentially debilitating. Our environments are not only carcinogenic but are increasingly traumatogenic as well. We may all rightly fear ending up dying in an ICU unit, deprived of any direct physical contact, intubated and heavily sedated. We may all rightly fear passing the disease on to a vulnerable relative. We may all rightly fear suffering the effects of 'long Covid'.

Of course, I am not here offering solutions, but rather making some sketchy remarks to do with identifying the challenges which workers in the West face in the light of the deteriorating conditions under which work is conducted. I suggest that in an understanding of this, a proper sense of the nature and ramifications of 'violence' is necessary. We do not understand what is at stake in current debates over the nature of work and the proper direction of society if we restrict ourselves to narrow conceptions of violence; if we do not take time to appreciate forms of violence which, being silent, hide in plain sight.


[1] See Rachels, James (1975). Active and passive euthanasia. In Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. Oxford University Press. In the case as so described the intuition is I think a sound one, though what conclusions if any we may draw from it concerning euthanasia is another matter.

[2] The reference to 'reasonability' here builds standards which keep us from having to endorse a milquetoast relativism, according to which a person can, by a word, consent to any degree of harm. Difficulties, both moral and legal, emerge in extreme cases – such as people who 'consent' to being killed and eaten. Whatever we want to say about extreme cases, our philosophy must at the very least recognise them as difficulties – recognise, that is, the fact that considerations may push and pull us in different directions.

[3] As a specification of the injustices of our current global economic system this account is of course woefully incomplete. For instance, it neglects the degrading social and environmental conditions in LEDCs upon which the material prosperity of the UK and the USA so much depends. Slaves are now cheaper and more plentiful than at any other time in human history.

[4] Thus, in the UK living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less. See