The Justified Use of Violence/Power, Part One

It became rather clear (see here and the comment section) given the comments by Bernard and Burk, that both misunderstood my post on ethics and power.  So, here I will attempt to come at the same point but from a slightly different angle.  Rather than go to the issue of whether morality is tied to an objective referent (in an ultimate sense, i.e. God, gods, platonic reality, transcendental reality, natural law, or nature in general) or is purely subjective and relative, invented and created by humans, I want to address the ramifications, revolving around a specific question, of believing in one or the other.  The question is this: What justifies the use of violence/power when two parties cannot come to a peaceful resolution of differences?
For now, we will put aside the question of whether violence is ever justified.  I am not going to address the issues of pacifism or non-violent strategies of individual, community, or political engagements.  We are going to assume a world wherein violence is used as a matter of law, policy, and even individual engagement, whether purely defensive, or otherwise.  We are not going to judge whether this is “good” or “bad”, we are going to assume this just “is” for now.  The question will be: Is the violence however justified in some way and what was the justification.  Now, this sort of begs the question of whether violence needs to be justified, which, I don’t think the relativist has a good answer for, as all he can respond with is, “It depends upon the person asking.”  But let’s also put that aside for now, and assume that we need to justify the use of violence.
One further background point, which I will simply repeat as I have gone over this before but it was clearly forgotten based upon some of the comments in the post referenced above.  From this post, we noted:
“First of all, let’s clear up some common misunderstandings.  There is a subjective component to every choice and decision, whether one believes morality is ultimately linked to an objective referent or not.  For instance, even if I believe that morality is objective, I must still subjectively (meaning personally) make a choice to either recognize such and lived that way (the best one can anyway) or not.  Further, whether I do or not has nothing to do with whether or not an objective morality truly exists.  The same is true if one believes morality to be subjective.  He must still subjectively choose to believe such and make his decisions accordingly, but such has nothing to do with whether or not morality is ultimately objective or subjective in referent.  Thus, the fact we all must subjectively choose to believe what we do (about anything) has nothing to do with whether or not morality is ultimately based upon a meta-physical/platonic/theological objective referent or not (either it is or it isn’t).  We shouldn’t let this process confuse us as to the meta-physical/philosophical question of whether morality is based and founded upon an objective referent or is just the reflection of our subjective desires, wills, imaginations, whether individually or collectively.”
So, let’s hope that no one confuses what is being talked about here when using the words “objective” and “subjective” in a philosophical conversation regarding ethics.  As already noted as well, “objective” has nothing to do with the sort of objectivity associated with physical facts or features of material existence in a conversation like this, as everyone knows we cannot measure, weigh, or test scientifically concepts such as “good” and “evil”.  However, such doesn’t mean they are not objective in the sense of a referent, whether derivative, such as a law or tradition, or in an ultimate sense, as in God or the platonic.  Hopefully, we can put those two commonly confusing aspects aside now and not get side-tracked.  I think it might help to use “relativist” and relative, rather than “subjectivist” and subjective to describe the person and view of interest to me here, and I will do so moving forward.
Moving on: What became clear from the comments in the first post referenced, was the responses seemed to be suggesting I was asserting something like this: Without an objective referent, there is no basis, way, or method, of having an ethical consensus or morality among a group of people (a society, a culture, a civilization).  What is rather amusing is that nowhere did I even hint at such an idea.  In fact, I noted that every organized group of people has an agreed upon understanding or knowledge of what that group has determined is “good” or “bad”.  I asserted this is true whether it is the mafia or a group of single mothers, whether it is ISIS or the Red Cross.  What I was told over and over was that a group of people can decide upon an ethics, mutually share those values, and nowhere in that process need there be an objective referent.  And I noted over and over that no one disputes such.  Of course that can happen (in a hypothetical sense at least, whether one can point to a culture or civilization having actually intentionally done such is another question).  In fact, I think it impossible, whether a criminal gang or a library association, to come together and work toward common goals without a shared sense of values and basic “morality” or sense of what the group considers acceptable or unacceptable behavior.  So I was constantly being told something that, one, I had never disagreed with or asserted otherwise, and two, was entirely irrelevant to the questions and assertions I was making, which ended up never being addressed.  One can look back through the entire thread of conversation of the first post referenced and they will see my main points and questions were never addressed.
The fact a group of people can come together, decide upon what they value, decide what they consider flourishing means, share those values, and live them out tells us absolutely nothing, zero, as to whether or not morality is objective in referent or subjective/relative; it tells us nothing about what those values might be (they may be the values of Monsanto or Donald Trump—one would think this omission rather important!), nor does it tell us anything regarding whether or not the group’s use of violence/power is justified.  This group of people could be Buddhist monks or a society of assassins.  Why in the world would anyone trot out the mere observation (A group of people can share values—really?), without addressing the key questions and issues noted in the post?  It leads me to believe they either didn’t understand the issues and questions to begin with, or they did, but didn’t like where the logic was leading them.
Another irrelevant point was to note that violence is often the last resort, regardless of whether the group (or individual) using the violence holds their morality to be objective in referent or subjective/relative to them only (or a combination thereof).  This was the “you too” response.  But this is saying nothing more than that in each case, someone died (if we are speaking of capital punishment).  This is like saying both groups (the relativist and objectivist) reside here on the earth or the same sun rose on the days of the deaths.  Or, it would be like making the trivial observation that in both the Nazi death camps and in Allied prisons, people died—that people died on both sides.  No one is asserting that violence is not often resorted to, regardless of one’s view of morality.  It is not disputed, one, because it is an obvious fact and, two, it is entirely irrelevant to the points under discussion, which are: the justification for the use of violence/power; and, whether or not under one view the use reduces to power alone (whom is the more powerful, whether firepower, technology, material resources, a majority, knowledge/education, etc.), and so on, or not.
So, let’s try this again.  What justifies the use of violence or power when two parties cannot come to a peaceful resolution of differences?  My original assertion was that without an objective referent, if morality is relative to each party, then the justification for the use of violence/power is simply the fact one party is trying to impose his private, relative, morality on the other and that person will not allow it.  If both parties believe their respective moralities are private, personal, subjective, and relative therefore only “good” or “true” relative to them, then the resolution is not about who has the “better” or “truer” morality (each believes such is only true, relative to each—they don’t presume to call the other’s morality “bad” or “wrong” it can only be “different” to the relativist) then the resolution reduces to who is more powerful, who can enforce, impose, or simply hold off the other.  This would hold whether it was individuals in a dispute, or two groups of people.  I don’t think I am asserting anything radical or controversial here.  I don’t even think the relativist disagrees with me.  This observation, the reduction to power under such a scheme, seems a matter of straightforward logic to me.
One objection raised was—what if one party believes their morality to be objective, ISIS for instance.  My point in response was that but if the other party (or neutral observer) is a relativist, he doesn’t believe such is the case.  He thinks ISIS is mistaken.  Like Nietzsche, he thinks such (religion) is a mask, something to justify the “will to power”, just a ruse to hide what is really happening which is their telling us “this is what we want—this is what we desire.”  So for the relativist, regardless of what the objectivist tells us, he too (the “you too” argument) is operating from a personal, private, and relative morality (masked as objective) and this too reduces to power as to who at the end of the day will have their “values” become the reigning paradigm, even if the objectivist believes his values prevailed because they were the “true” and “good” values.
The relativist will tell us the same thing is happening even if both parties believe their morality is objective and the “True” morality.  Here too, both are just masking their will and desire and telling us it is actually what Allah wants, or Jesus, or Zeus, or what have you, when it is really just what they want—what they desire.  Again, the relativist tells us that any resolution will come down to who is more powerful, not who has the “better” or correct morality because there is no such thing, there are only values relative to each group, whether the Nazis or a group of nuns.  This is a basic, fundamental, belief of the relativist—why he is a “relativist”.
Just as an aside, in telling us this, the relativist begs the question of God’s existence.  The only way he can presume to tell us this is what is “really” going on between one party and another (where one or both believe morality to be objective), is if he already believes morality to be relative, personal, private, subjective, and invented by humans, and not sourced in some objective referent (like God).  This is why most relativists are atheists/materialists/naturalists—it is a derivative belief to those larger frameworks or narratives.  In either case, he thinks a resolution came about because of power—even if that power was masked as having an objective referent (God, etc.).  Let us not pretend relativism is not a derivative belief to the larger narrative of materialism/naturalism/empiricism.
Another objection was that I was giving only one option for the relativist.  However, I was never told what the other option was—I was simply told, again, that people could share the same values without believing in an objective referent, which as already noted, tells us nothing about anything, let alone anything about another option.  A true relativist believes that morality is exactly that—relative to each group or individual.  It is only “good” or “bad”, right or wrong, flourishing or not flourishing, relative to each group or individual.  Thus, we cannot point to the other person or group and say their morality is wrong, we can only say it is wrong “for me”.  So, what is the other option?  The only other option is for the relativist to say something like, “Not only is this wrong for me, but it is wrong for you too.”  But then he wouldn’t be a relativist—he would be claiming a universal or objective standard.  If someone can tell me what the other option is for the relativist, without repeating the same irrelevant points already addressed, please do.
Again, my assertion is fairly simple.  Hypothetically, I am taking the side of the relativist.  Morality is neither good, bad, right, wrong, moral, nor immoral by itself (objectively—by referent) but only in relation to each different group or person.  Therefore, when two groups or two people have a dispute that cannot be resolved peacefully, the appeal cannot be to a better or superior morality or ethics (such doesn’t exist for the relativist), it can only be to power, unless one side simply decides to adopt the other’s morality (which realistically only happens because one side realizes it is too weak and will not “win” this battle anyway, so better to exist than to get wiped out completely).  So, I think based upon my premise (morality is relative) my “therefore” or conclusion (reduction to power) is a logical one.  Can someone show us otherwise?  So far, no one has.  Where do I get the relativist wrong?
Again, so there is no confusion, for the relativist, even if one group, or both, appeal to a better or superior morality or ethics, in an objective sense, such is a mask, simply a cover for what is really going on, which is the assertion of “our will or desire” and therefore such still reduces to power because neither has the better, superior, or “True” morality, such is only relative to each group, regardless their mistaken belief what they are asserting is “objective”.
My point is that is doesn’t matter either way to the relativist.  He doesn’t care if a person (or two parties) claims their morality is objective.  He knows they are wrong.  He thinks a resolution of differences will come down to who is more powerful.  He thinks if the Nazis prevail in World War II, the generations afterward would have come up believing in the Nazis’ “morality” and such would have become the “truth”, the “good”, the ethical, the norm.  These turn of events would not be “bad” or “good”—they would just “be”.  They would become the “is” of life, as there are no true “oughts” only differing life choices and events.  Where is the logic wrong here if we take the relativist view?  I’m not asking if one agrees with the relativist (I do not); I am asking where his logic is wrong if we take his view?

With that background and context in place, my next post will address more specifically the original question and issue: What justifies the use of violence/power when two parties cannot reach a peaceful solution?
This entry was posted in ethics, morality, power, relativism, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.

106 Responses to The Justified Use of Violence/Power, Part One

  1. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Well, Boghossian himself says that his discussion of relativism is nonsensical:”

    “Denial of moral absolutism leads not to relativism, but to nihilism.”-Boghossian

    Such does not mean it is nonsensical in the least. Your gift for miss-reading, not getting what is being asserted is truly amazing.

    “So he has built up a straw man, as you have, only to call the position nonsense.”

    He has done no such thing—either way. Wow. Read.

    Anyway, for anyone out there who actually understands the essay, this is a rather standard discussion of the moral relativist position. And what we normally find is either the willingness to accept that such (nihilism) is where it logically leads (Nietzsche) or the attempt to hold onto some semblance of universal moral “oughts” so that it is not a true relativism (Bernard). Regardless, please let us have no more of this nonsense that I haven’t been clear about the relativism of which I speak.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    “There's no logical contradiction here.”

    Of course there is. If we are defining ethical as “assent” and “do no harm” then if the opposite is done, it is, by definition, not ethical and to assert it was ethical would be to contradict.

    Sorry Bernard, but your rambling reflection upon my relativist never touched upon the questions I am asking. And it is clear you still don’t understand what I am asking by this remark:

    “Now, we can have a clash about how people want things to be, which is indeed a potential power clash.”

    The above says nothing about what I am asking. Further, it applies to any model, yours included. A clash where your model is in play is a clash about “how people want things to be.” Putting that aside, you still don’t get it. Wow.

    Try this: Try reading my post and simply answering the questions directly, in context. You may find it quite liberating.

    Oh well, I guess you could have been doing that all along, but here we are again 100 comments in and still not touching the post. I will allow one more try (if you wish) and then we must move on.

    Cheers.

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  3. Hi Darrell

    That's not an assertion I make. Rather in the case where no harm is done without agreement of those affected, then contradictory systems can both be judged ethical (euthanasia is the example I offer).

    As to your post, we have been trying very hard to get clarity from you. Here's what you write:

    “He (the relativist) thinks a resolution of differences will come down to who is more powerful. He thinks if the Nazis prevail in World War II, the generations afterward would have come up believing in the Nazis' “morality” and such would have become the “truth”, the “good”, the ethical, the norm. These turn of events would not be “bad” or “good”—they would just “be”. “

    There is no reason the relativist would believe that the victor in the power struggle would subsequently win a battle for hearts and minds. And futher, if the coeity's view differs fomr the relativist's, the individual will still favour their own view, and hence pronounce the alternative less desirable (on he relativist's terms bad). this was the point of my irrelevant ramble: the relativist still has a conception of 'good'. It is just not an objective description. To say I do not believe in objective good does not mean I do not have an alternative notion of goodness to offer. This, I believe, has been one of Burk's point, and why you've been accused of a straw man argument.

    Consider a feminist relativist who defines good and bad in terms of their preferred world outcome. So, they regard rape culture as bad in the sense that their preference is to live in a world where rape is neither common, nor culturally supported. Now, they do not believe this objectively true, but it is something they desire and believe in with a passion. Do they, by any logic, have to say 'of course, it's not really bad to rape people.' Of course not. They do not believe it objectively bad, because they do not believe objective morals exist, and if they are right the phrase is meaningless. But they may mean something quite different by bad, as in personally abhorrent to me, or detrimental to the collective potential of humanity, or whatever their personal belief is. They can still use the terms good and bad meaningfully.

    Your instinctive response will be to say, yes, but what of those who do not desire to see humanity flourish? Who is to say their view is any worse? Well, the relativist is. They say the other view is worse because, by the criteria by which they understand ethical, it simply is. Of course others will have different criteria, just as the objectivist will meet others with different beliefs. But the objectivist does not say 'I can not use the term good meaningfully, because others believe other things are good, and so I must refrain from forming my own personal view.'

    In each case, the individual forms their own view of goodness, based upon their own personal criteria and beliefs. This is the problem you are going to hit as you attempt to work through your justification of violence theory in the nest post. And I'm not sure you have a handle on it yet.

    Bernard

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  4. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    “That's not an assertion I make. Rather in the case where no harm is done without agreement of those affected, then contradictory systems can both be judged ethical (euthanasia is the example I offer).”

    Right, but it goes to my post and the point of the discussion. Euthanasia is not an issue where violence is justified against those who disagree with us, so it doesn’t address anything pertinent to the post or conversation. A culture who believes in an objective morality still allows for differences of opinion on issues where violence is not an option as far as holding the others to our view. So your example tells us nothing and would be possible in an objective view of ethics as well. But, going to the point, we cannot have contradictory view of ethics when it comes to the point of justifying violence against those who disagree with us. So why not address that point? You held two values you felt violence was justified in defending—that is the assertion you did make and the only one pertinent to the conversation. Your other examples are a complete diversion.

    “To say I do not believe in objective good does not mean I do not have an alternative notion of goodness to offer.”

    And no one has said otherwise. In fact, I have pointed out now several times that I believe every individual and every group has a notion of the good, whether ISIS or Canada. And the essay I just gave you makes it fairly clear my relativist is not a straw-man in the least. The issue is you are trying to be a relativist about witches, but this will not do once we no longer believe witches exist. You miss how deep the critique goes or how deep the problem (unlike Nietzsche). This is clearly what you have no handle on yet.

    Bernard, you fundamentally are missing the point. No one is suggesting that a culture hypothetically (because in real life we have no examples) couldn’t exist who doesn’t believe in an objective morality. You seem to be trying to say, “But, here is a way for a culture to have a conception of the good, but is not based upon any objective referent.” And then all you are doing is describing the desires (which could be anything from holding slaves to not holding slaves) of a group and noting, oh, by the way, they don’t believe in an objective morality. Well, again, that describes any group (we like this, but not that other thing) and whether they believe their morality to be objective or not does not matter to my case. It has no bearing whatsoever.

    (Continued)

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  5. Darrell says:

    (Continued)

    You forget the relativist does not care about the model or desires of each group. If he sees a group who claim their morality is objective, he thinks them mistaken and believes they are using objectivity as a mask for power because they are really just asserting: This is what we desire. If he sees a group who claim their morality is relative to them alone, he agrees with them, and sees they do not mask their same claim: This is what we desire. He thinks all groups, regardless, are simply asserting: This is what we desire. But as long as we leave what we “should” or “ought” to desire unaddressed, meaning a “should” or an “ought” that applies to everyone universally, such a scheme reduces to power, in my view.

    Therefore, when a conflict comes, it is not about whatever the desire may be. Each is relative to the differing groups. So that cannot be the focus of discussion as if we could determine which was “better” because we can only determine that relative to us and we have already done that, thus the conflict. We already know it is “better” for us. Each side knows the other thinks their morality is “better” than the other’s. Thus, what is left? All that is left then is power.

    You, without realizing it I guess, note the same yourself: “They say the other view is worse because, by the criteria by which they understand ethical, it simply is.” Thus, the reduction to power. It “is” because we say so. It just “is”. You may disagree with the objectivist, but at least they are not saying the same thing–they are not saying it “simply is” because we say it is.

    You still have not touched on the core or main point of the post. You have tried to propose alternatives that no one disputes are possible. You have tried to tell us that people can have a conception of the good, but not believe in an objective morality, which no one disputes. You have yet to speak to the relativist and his premises described in my post, which is the same relativist, noted in the essay I just gave you.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I doubt my next post will help because clearly the first wasn’t understood, but oh well. I write these for myself mostly as catharsis but I appreciate any engagement as it helps me clarify and even change my mind, as much as you might find that hard to believe. Cheers.

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  6. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    “You forget the relativist does not care about the model or desires of each group. If he sees a group who claim their morality is objective, he thinks them mistaken and believes they are using objectivity as a mask for power because they are really just asserting: This is what we desire. If he sees a group who claim their morality is relative to them alone, he agrees with them, and sees they do not mask their same claim: This is what we desire. He thinks all groups, regardless, are simply asserting: This is what we desire.”

    Now we may be getting somewhere. You are quite right that a subjectivist views all these assertions of ought, morals, etc. as expressions of desire. But that does not imply a reduction to power, as you seem to be so fixated on. Just look at our political system.. it is a negotiation of desires, among lots of people. Whether you put aside the cloak of objective claims or not, the outcome is the same.. that all our various desires are being related, argued about, and finally compromised to come up with a mutually more or less agreeable system. This reduces to power and violence quite rarely.

    ” But as long as we leave what we “should” or “ought” to desire unaddressed, meaning a “should” or an “ought” that applies to everyone universally, such a scheme reduces to power, in my view.”

    This is, unfortunately, nonsense. What people desire does indeed differ. Telling them what they “ought” to desire is rarely effective, even in quite young children. Yet it remains empirically evident that we can come to various non-violent agreements and norms nevertheless.

    “You may disagree with the objectivist, but at least they are not saying the same thing–they are not saying it “simply is” because we say it is.”

    But putting what they assert aside, what else backs up this claim? Nothing, really. If I told you my desires were all objectively right and true, would you believe me? Or if I had a musty scripture to back me up? In the end, it is objective assertions of this kind that reduce to the very same thing of asserting desires, if you think about it carefully and historically.

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