Friday, September 15, 2006

Threads on Violence

Last week I had a particularly ‘philosophical’ day and it's had me stumped for a while; thus the delay in posting. Several different threads of thought emerged at once, and the contradictions between them made me question my ideas about violence and pacifism. After considering these ideas for a while I finally came up with something presentable, even if tentative:

Thread 1: Pacifism as Impractical
I have long held that pure pacifism is impractical. While I greatly admire the nobility, good intentions, and self sacrifice of notable pacifists, I think these good people are simply making an error in reasoning. While I respect pacifists, I have condemned pacifism as actually being unwittingly unethical. This, because it is a prescription for eternal human enslavement by whomever is not a pacifist. It is a behavioral algorithm, if you will, that guarantees only the most vicious and brutal will lead humanity.

Thread 2: Jesus and Escalating Cycles
In a recent presentation I gave at the Houston Church of Freethought, I stressed the importance of Compassion. In one section on Compassion for enemies, I stated that “we must face up to the fact that there are times when compassion should be given when it is not deserved.” In a blog post called “Forgiveness Is A Gift To Ourselves” I noted Biblical scholar James Robinson who said that Jesus’ teaching that we love our enemies and not return violence for violence was revolutionary because he realized that forgiveness for violence was the only way to break an escalating cycle of it. I then noted Professor Axelrod’s computer simulations which proved the most successful behaviors are those which included the possibility of forgiving wrongdoing from others.

Thread 3: The Muhammad-Violence-Ethic (MVE)
I recently saw a program on the History Channel called Decoding the Past. The specific episode was called “Secrets of the Koran”. This documentary covered the origins of the Koran’s teachings in the story of Muhammad. It noted that many have called the Koran a violent book, and provided a quote saying that Muslims should fight non-Muslims. But then the program noted this behavior was only in response to being attacked and provided another quote showing that if an enemy wants to be peaceful, that Muslims should be peaceful as well. The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed a local Muslim cleric, Imam Naser Khatib, on violence and the Koran, who said that the Koran says people should be peaceful to non-Muslims, but it says that if they try to “fight you or kick you out of your homeland” then you should fight back.

Thoughts On These Threads
There is debate over what the passages in the Koran really say, what they mean, and what they inspire. But none of that is relevant to my topic. The fact is, you have two approaches to violence in the Jesus-Violence-Ethic (JVE) and the Muhammad-Violence-Ethic (MVE), as I have termed them here (even though both ethics have been expressed by other people before them).

The completely pacifist JVE states that we should never use violence, turning the other cheek, while the MVE states that we should be violent only when others are violent toward us. I suppose another “ethic” (if you could call it that) might state that we should always use violence whenever it suits us and the most powerful should get their way. Perhaps I’ll call this the Extreme-Violence-Ethic (EVE). Seen in that light, the MVE could be viewed as a middle-ground attempt to allow for the use of violence, but only in certain ethical conditions, while the JVE discards it altogether, regardless of conditions.

One of the more remarkable things is that Muslims are not the only ones who operate by the MVE. In the vast majority of cases, and certainly in the case of major governments, nearly the entire world operates according to the MVE even if they haven’t received it from Muhammad – including nearly all devout Christians. I have heard voices critical of Islam say that Muslims make war in nearly every nation they inhabit. But, could our own adoption of the MVE in the West be a reason why the globe, in general, has known so much war?

Meanwhile, very few people have actually lived according to the JVE; Christians included. Even the pacifistic Buddhists have their history of past and present warriors. I heard one modern rationalization for this by the Christian author of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren. He said on the Fox News television program DaySide, that there are personal ethics and government ethics. This sounds very similar to the Muslim cleric Khatib’s response when asked about the extremist Wahhabis sect. He said despite what the Wahhabis believe, “the decision to go to war or not is by the hand of the caliph, and we don't have a caliphate right now.”

I’m not sure what the biblical justification is for the distinction between the personal and government ethics that Warren claims. By all modern (and decent) models of political authority, as the U.S. founding fathers believed, authority flows from God to man, and then from man to the State. The State cannot therefore have ethical authority that hasn’t been given to it by man, and man cannot give what it doesn’t have. But it is not surprising to see a modern Christianist with a medieval view of politics (in which authority allegedly flows from God, to the State, to man).

The absence of practicing the JVE among Christians leads one to wonder just what a Christian meaningfully is, apart from whatever’s going on inside their skulls. President George W. Bush claims to be a Christian and many conservative Christians seem to talk about Bush as though he were some sort of prophet. However, Matthew 7:16 says of false prophets that you will ‘know them by their fruits’. Certainly, Bush doesn’t live by the JVE. In fact, he doesn’t even operate by the MVE like the rest of Christianity and the world. The BVE (Bush-Violence-Ethic) states that you use violence if there’s a chance another might use it against you in the future (see Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine which I haven’t read, but have read of).

But all of these issues of what the Koran really says, why Christians live by the MVE rather than the JVE, political matters, and what Bush is, are distractions in my search. That is, the search for the truth when it comes to the proper violence-ethic. To glimpse it, we must look above and beyond such transient issues.

My question now is this: Has the MVE that the entire world operates on been proven a failed experiment? Can we say that any of our previous wars were ever really won? How can we consider WWI to have been won if it set up the conditions which lead us to WWII? How can we say that WWII was won when it gave us conditions which lead to the Cold War and the conflicts in the Middle East? All of these names and titles we give conflicts distract us from the reality that we have been in one long conflict throughout our history, from neighbor to nation, with only brief and sporadic pauses. Given Earth’s history of war, we must eventually wonder when someone is finally going to win – win in a way that leads to lasting peace? It seems to me that humanity’s experiment with the MVE has been a failure, and our continued use of it may spell our demise.

Does this lead us back to the JVE - to complete pacifism? One obvious figure that comes to mind whenever pacifism is discussed is Mohandas Gandhi. When one reads of Gandhi’s life, his sacrifices, his simplicity, his strength, and his values, how is it not possible to love this man? Upon his death, Albert Einstein remarked, “Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood.” More to the point then, how can one not want to become more like that which one loves?

This alone, least of all the puzzles of our time, is enough to give reason for me to seriously reevaluate the merits of pacifism; this time absent what may have been a nearly glib dismissal in my earlier years. But how can I ignore the seemingly obvious conclusion that pure pacifism will allow the vicious to overrun the world and rule it in their vicious way?

Consider examples of pacifist movements which have succeeded, such as in Gandhi’s India. Surely pacifism has not worked in all cases; but then, neither have all wars been won. Still, if that seemingly obvious conclusion of the futility of pacifism were true, the fact that it ever worked is remarkable. Why did it?

Axelrod said that the most successful programs were those with a combination of forgiveness and retaliation. When discussing this with a friend, and wondering about pacifism, he asked, “What happened to the programs that always forgave?” I told him I imagined they’d been less successful – probably along the lines I describe in Thread 1 above.

But do these computer simulations really capture all of the subtleties of the real world? It seems to me by the descriptions I’ve read that the simulations look at survival rates of the individual units and compares those with differing behaviors. Or, perhaps they look at which behaviors become more widespread as an indicator of selective success. They might even measure the overall survival of a population of those with a shared behavioral program.

In all of these cases, it seems to me that one important factor might be absent from the simulations. That factor would be the emotional effect of inspiration through example; i.e., the ‘human heart’. It could be that, logistically speaking, pacifism doesn’t work, but in practice it can work because people are inspired by the example of others, and feel empathy for others’ sacrifices. It might also be the case that sympathy for the non-violent by third parties creates pressures on the violent to stop, making him look like the bad guy even when his position is the correct one. Perhaps it might be the case that pacifism is illogical, but because people are illogical, it can work? If so, some might say, “let us all be illogical together, in peace”. Maybe there is some other explanation for the examples of success in pacifism?

Still, there seems to be something noble in a person willing to fight for a just cause or to vanquish malicious people who would otherwise harm the innocent. How can we ignore what seems to be the noblest of character in these actions? The encompassing factor in both heroic fighting and pacifism seems to be self sacrifice. Both of these tactics include a willingness to give up one’s life and safety for a higher cause. There are many ways to sacrifice.

Likewise, both noble fighting and pacifism also have an ugly side: both also involve sacrificing others. In noble fighting there is the inevitable harm that comes to innocent bystanders as conflict ensues. Similarly, it’s one thing for a pacifist to sacrifice his own life, safety, or freedom for a cause, but this nearly always makes a sacrifice of his neighbor, who often shares in his fate - lacking the pacifist’s aid in resistance or suffering retribution for the pacifist’s passive resistance.

Perhaps, then, it isn’t the use or non-use of violence that is the issue, but choosing rightly in each case and living according to our proper natures (as the Stoics would put it). Borrowing perhaps from Stoicism, the fictional Jedi of the Star Wars films (who often used violence) would say that what is important is following the will of the Force, rather than looking at violence in the abstract. Even in Buddhism, known for its peaceful nature, there is a ‘right way’ to perform violence in some schools of thought. Once when I was in a Buddhist temple, the teacher told us of a monk who was asked, “if there were a problem with pests over the crops, would it be bad Karma to spray the crops and kill the insects?” His reply was, “as long as it is done without negative feeling, there would be no bad Karma.” If you are unaware of my non-supernatural use of the Karma concept, please see A Naturalistic Approach to Buddhist Karma and Rebirth.

The aim of Buddhists are to learn to see things clearly, as they really are, without bias, desire, or fear. Terrorists and Politicians alike, intentionally or not, tend to play on our fears. Non-violent democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, said in her speech Freedom From Fear:

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”

In the film “V for Vendetta” the character of Evey Hammond learns through a particular set of hardships to ‘see without fear’. In that same film, Inspector Finch says that he had a brief glimpse that the past, present, future, and all of the various events in and around are lives are interconnected. In our world, 9/11, the presidency, homeland security, what we do and don’t allow in terms of our personal liberties, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, the ecology, are all connected and we view them all through the filter of our desires and our fears. What would we think if we could glimpse it all without enslavement to our desire or fear?

I don’t know. Maybe I should stop there, and I encourage the reader to take off from there. But I have a possible guess.

It seems to me that some combination of retribution and forgiveness is suitable, as in Axelrod’s computations. While the MVE seems to be an attempt at allowing for violence and forgiveness in some combination, its demonstrable failure over history and throughout all of our nations indicates its particular formulation is flawed.

I would propose the “Avoidable Violence Ethic” (AVE). The AVE is similar to the MVE, in that it allows for violence (unlike the JVE) and also demands restrictions on it (unlike the EVE). However, it is different from the MVE in important ways.

The MVE states that you should be peaceful to your neighbor unless he is aggressive toward you. In that case, Muhammad allows a variety of hostile actions in fighting aggressors, infidels, etc. Both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds have taken this ethic on fully. Concepts of Justice include retribution for wrongs done and demand equilibrium.

The AVE would say that we should use violence when it is absolutely necessary to defend the innocent (be they ourselves, if innocent, or others). However, equilibrium is irrelevant, and thus so is retribution. In cases where violence can prevent harm to innocents, or shift harm from the innocent to the aggressor, it would not only be permissible but considered a duty. But as soon as the physical threat is over or halted, non-aggression is demanded.

Many might say, “this is what we operate by now”, but not really. Let’s take World War II – the attack of Pearl Harbor for example. The AVE would say that, during that attack, we should have fought back as best we could (which we did). But the AVE would also say that, immediately after the attack was over, we should not have started to counter-attack. The same thing goes for 9/11, the invasion of Kuwait, etc. The concept is that we build up military force to protect. Then, if attacked, we fight to protect. But if we fail in that task, we don’t seek to level things back out or get back what was lost through counter attack. At that point, the tactics of pacifism should come into play. In other words, you don’t ‘turn the other cheek’ but rather attempt to stop the slap. But if you can’t, then you don’t slap back. In fact, you forgive – a thousand times if you must. In a nuclear conflict, you might return fire if you think doing so will take out missile sites or stop the volleys from your enemy. But once they stop firing, you don’t return fire out of spite, for purposes of justice, or for longer term tactical purposes.

This approach requires a degree of risk-taking and trust. If we hadn’t attacked back after Pearl Harbor, we would have been in a less advantageous position, tactically speaking, with the Japanese Empire. This will always be the case. But at the same time, the AVE doesn’t prescribe that we lay down and surrender to enemies when violence is immediate and immanent. It’s called the “Avoidable Violence Ethic” because we should seek every moment to halt violence if it is at all possible to do without immediate harm to innocents. Might the use of AVE after 9/11 allowed the U.S. to capitalize on the massive outpouring of sympathy from across the world for America, rather than squandering it? The basic concept is to remove all sense of vengeance, pridefulness, demand for equilibrium, or fear of loss from the formula - to see things without fear of either the enemy or fear of the use of violence.

-JVE (Jesus Violence Ethic) = no violence ever.

-AVE (Avoidable Violence Ethic) = violence only when absolutely necessary for immediate defense.

-MVE (Muhammad Violence Ethic) = violence when attacked, for justice, and in long term struggles.

-BVE (Bush Violence Ethic) = violence when attack seems likely or even possible.

-EVE (Extreme Violence Ethic) = violence at all times for domination.

It’s a difficult concept and I’ve yet to fully consider it’s implications. But I mention it here to log and share one step of my thinking on these things. I would like to learn more details about simulations such as Professor Axelrod’s, about applied pacifism in real world historic situations, and about theories on violence. I’ve heard that Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You contains Christian arguments for pacifism I’d like to read as well.


Anonymous HolyRomanEmperor said...

Good stuff.

Just out of curiosity, how does the AVE mesh with a criminal justice system?

If someone is in the act of committing a murder, obviously the AVE says you can use violence to stop that action.

If, however, the crime is committed and done and the criminal is caught after the fact, then wouldn't the AVE prescribe that no punishment (at least not violent punishment) be handed out to the murderer?

Also, there seems to be some crossover between the AVE and the BVE.

If I understand correctly, the AVE says violence is ok to "stop the slap", and the BVE says violence is ok if you "think you are about to get slapped in the near future". Clearly, it seems like there could be some overlap there where might think you are about to have violence committed against you, so you act (even before that violence is ACTUALLY committed).

If someone walks up to you and says "I am going to stab you". then they pull out a knife and walk towards you, you would be foolish to wait for them to physically land the blow before taking action. In this case, it seems like the BVE is more appropriate. If you truly believe that violence is ABOUT TO BE DONE, then you can act.

Those are some initial thoughts. I am interested to hear your reaction.

1:15 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks for the comments. Those are good questions.

With a justice system, although I have been for the death penalty in principle, I must admit that the AVE would seem to suggest that only containment for defense of the public, and reform should be taken into account. Any notion of punishment in the form of visiting displeasure or harm on the offender would need to be disregarded. Keep in mind this is all in flux in my mind, but that seems to be what AVE suggests anyway.

As for stopping incoming violence, I would say that the AVE has a very strict definition of that. On a personal level, it would be equivalent to the guy coming at you with a knife, and *not* your knowledge that the guy has plans to do you in. On the global level, it would be the immanent launch of missiles or invasion, and not merely the knowledge of plans for such.

In other words, it must fit these requirements:
(1) Is it possible that my violence against the offender will stop the impending harm to innocents?

(2) Is it possible that the offender has the time or the ability to revert course himself?

#1 ensures that our violence is not after-the-fact retrobutive in nature. #2 ensures that the violence is taken only out of response to a reality, and not the *fear* of a future reality.

This means that, as long as there is a space of time which allows for even the possibility of a change of heart or some other effect to prevent the harm, we must risk ourselves to allow for it. Surely, this is a risk or even sacrifice, but then, so is fighting in a preemptive war. At least the former risk is trying something new than the MVE the world has operated by so far. That's my thought in this anyway.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my game theory class, we recently went over the hawk-dove problem (of which you might be aware).

The best course of action ended up being a mixed strategy of violent strife and passive attempts for a "resource". The "resource" or goal had value p. There were four scenarios.

If player I and II took violent action (A,A), then there was 1/2 probability that either would win obtaining the resource p, while the other suffered a cost c of losing the conflict (damage, ect). 1/2(p-c).

If either player I or II took a violent course of action, while player II or I took a passive course of action, then the violent player wins the resource, and the passive player retreats. (A,P) => (p,0). (P,A) => (0,p)

If player I and II both take a passive course (P,P), then each player has half a chance of getting the resoure (or they both share or something). 1/2(p). However, neither player is in danger of suffering the cost c.

The mixed strategy was dependent on the ratio of p to c. If c <= p, then the best strategy was to always be violent, averaged over the course of repeated games.

If c>p, then the best strategy ended up playing aggressive p/c times, and passive (1-p/c) times.

Anyway, in this simplistic scenario, at no time did a strategy of total pacifism make sense (unless the cost of losing was infinite).

I would guess that as your model ends up becoming more elaborate, and if it's close enough to real world conditions, then you would get something like what you see in nature for competitive confrontations. You'd better either be 1 of 3 things: An effective predator, nasty enough to defend yourself in a fight, or able to pick up and flee in general (and weather the inevitable losses and retreats). Predators exist because predation works. Barbarians exist (once existed? may yet exist under future conditions?) because barbarism works. I've yet to see a nation that wasn't a protectorate work on principles of pure pacifism.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. Got my term backwards. I meant nation that wasn't effectively being defended by a stronger power work under pacifism long term.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comparing the AVE to BVE - assume you were in a scenario where you could defend yourself to good effect against an enemy advance. If you were in a medieval-warfare scenario where the means of attack allow you to do little damage against entrenched defenses, and the defenders could repel you and make attacking them cost you more than you would gain, then AVE seems more rational than BVE. Just turn your country into a fortress an repel all belligerent parties over the course of months and years.

However, if you were in an offense dominated scenario, where relatively simple means of offense can overcome all available means of defense and inflict deniable, extensive, or otherwise unanswerable damage to the defender, then BVE begins to appear more necessary. After all, AVE would have you wait until the attack has already, occured, or is imminent, to attempt thwarting or answering it. You would incur the loss anyway. In a scenario such as the cold war, where each wanted to win, but each party placed greater value on survival than "victory", mutually assured destruction was accomplished, though the "stability" of the strategy is still somewhat doubtful.

In this war, the conservative's main fear is that the enemy is not a rational actor. He may value "victory" over survival, or may doubt our will to retaliate in a sufficient manner to completely destroy him. After all, one of Al-Qaida's original demands for the US was to withdraw all cultural influence and contact from the ME and cease subverting their citizens. A society that is sufficietly threatened culturally by our involuntary influence may choose to assault us because it won't survive us in the long run anyway. (Fundamentalist Islam may lose it's grip on the minds of it's citizens as external world culture progresses, and thus will not "survive" in a gestalt sense, and thus be desperate to attack us while they can). I think this is the basis for some of the pre-emptive offense of BVE. The conservative's strategy is to try to speed up the fundamentalist gestalt's collapse by creating liberal societies that, in theory, won't go running for a Taliban-state, and will help infiltrate the surrounding cultures with liberal ideas. (PS, I'm defending this strategy because I'm a conservative, just so my bias is out in the open. I sympathise with it).

PS. Isn't part of the MVE (as historically practiced by islamic societies) to wage a long term perpetual war of expansion with whoever you can get away with waging it on? Hopefully we can convince muslims to give that part of it up.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for the extended posts. I'm just commenting on things as I read your post.

I might point out that not all fear is irrational. Fear exists for very good reasons. While unwarranted fear can distort your perception of reality, something that makes you want to fight or flee is relevant to bring to your attention matters where violence or harm is likely to be imminent. The same is true of all of our emotions. They all exist to prompt behaviors that are valuable to the survival of ourselves and our families/tribes/nations.

8:47 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks for the comments. I’m going to assume that the last four posts were all by the same person. In the future, it would be appreciated to put some sort of name, even if a screen name, so I know for certain :)

In your thoughts on game theory, I think you may be logically correct. But there are two problems with limiting one’s self to thinking in this manner. One, all of what you have defined with your if/then statements and the parameters of the game are givens. But in real life, we don’t usually know exactly what the parameters are. So, not only do we have the puzzle of playing the game, but we can’t even begin to play the actual game until we can know the parameters. For example, we don’t know what the probability is of obtaining our goal while taking various actions, unlike your exercise, in which we know the probability is 1/2.

The second problem with this way of thinking is that it only looks at probabilities of success, cost/benefit analysis, and so on. This would be fine if all other participants were robotic game-players too. But what about obtaining massive empathy from third parties who then add costs onto your enemy for taking certain actions? What about situations where you affect the hearts and minds of your enemy through your compassion? Even if the cost (c) is less than the resource (p), what about situations where the aggressor stops and thinks, “we don’t want to be that kind of people” and then decides not to use violence even though it computes as being logical (“always” as you put it)? These sorts of things are not anomalies or exceptions - they are an integral part of the usual complexities of human and state interactions. Game theory just doesn’t provide that subtlety it seems to me. Or, perhaps our ability to plug the right variables into game theories doesn’t often account for such subtleties.

In any case, I’d be interested to see how such game theories take the conclusions you mention, and extrapolate them out over the long term. In a system of actors going by the same evaluation process, do they result in continual sporadic fighting? If so, then there is something wrong. The point of the AVE is to continuously look for opportunity to halt escalating cycles of violence.

Also, in your considerations you look at whether the other party values victory more than survival, or the reverse. What if the party doesn’t value victory *or* survival most? What if that party values the contentment of doing the right thing for its own sake, regardless of the outcome? You can compute that they wouldn’t survive, but then, if that is not their ultimate goal, then they haven’t really failed have they? These models you present seem to only value survival and rank everything according to that. But:

(1) On an individual level, we all die. What we will find more important is to live a contented life of deeper happiness while we *do* live. This cannot be achieved with a value system that ranks survival as #1. What we need as intellectual beings is not always the same as what biological organisms may have evolved to seek. In fact, I’d say that any value system that ranks survival as the #1 goal is corrupt and inherently unwise.

(2) The effect of living for the right thing has a demonstrable effect that inspires other individuals and cultures. This contagious virtuous action can have rippling psycho-cultural effects throughout the system, not usually appreciated.

(3) As intellectual beings, it is not merely our individual physical survival that is important, but our intellectual survival. A nation can live on through its influence on other nations and peoples. We are entering a world where passing on our thoughts is more important than passing on our genes. So, looking only at physical survival is limiting and not robust enough to give us a world in which it will be worth surviving *in*. If we use logical systems that only take into account our animal instincts and function, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they yield to us a world of animalistic behaviors – not worth surviving in, in my view.

Lastly, as for fear – yes, there is much fear that is rational, in the sense that it inspires action that may be necessary for survival, as are other emotional instincts. That works fine for fruit flies and baboons, but human life is more complex. It is the case that it is not always the wise choice to survive. Therefore, as rational as fear or desire may be in terms of their existence in biological life forms, they always necessarily cloud our perception and judgment from objective reality. It may be the case, after a wise and contemplative look at the situation, that the proper course of action happens to be consistent with what our instincts may push us to do – but not always. Therefore, they are an incidental impulse, correct by happenstance at best - and a nuisance to our understanding at worst.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous qwerty said...

(Yep. All four were mine)

I admit the earlier game theory scenario is simplistic. It's the easiest well defined model that I could pull from my memory. Later on in class we will be going over iterated strategies for games where things like forgiveness or tit-for-tat retaliation come into play, but we're not there yet. Of course, for human behavior, any model we develop is going to be simplistic. If it gets too complicated or hairy, if it has too many knobs, then the guidance it provides is likely to get equally unclear and sensitive to the conditions and assumptions provided.

On the placement of other goals higher than survival:

I suppose that personal survival for a person may or may not be the goal which he most highly values. In some cases, other concerns may trump personal survival and lead to behavior to accomplish some greater goal or aim. However, many personal motivations do not translate at all into collective motivations. While any given individual may be willing to pursue a higher goal than his own life, the majority of people at any given time are going to be pursuing and valuing life and happiness first and foremost. Furthermore, there isn't any way to agree on what or predict or control what this higher goal than life and happiness is supposed to be. This can't be worked out collectively, and must be done individually if at all.

And so, for representative governments constituted to look after the interests and security of their citizens, as defined by their citizens; they cannot simply choose to "take losses" like 9/11 or any other random attack in stride for some greater purpose. While these losses might not be threatening to national survival, they are of extreme importance to the people that convened the government. The losses that must be borne for some greater good are people's friends, children, and grandparents, and hence there isn't any good great enough to justify it (especially not sympathy in world opinion! Many people like myself hold that goal in low regard because we can't see what we're supposed to be able to do with it, seeing as how it is only offered on the condition that we do nothing), from the perspective of these people, whose goals are, on average, life, liberty, and happiness. Our government does have to be concerned first and foremost with the survival of its citizens for this very reason. It can't operate with any higher goal that requires the random sacrifice of it's citizens. Something like Maslow's heirarchy of needs, only the government is forced to operate on the lowest level common to its citizens. Even majority rules is not enough, because the minority are still in line to be sacrificed, and have their fundamental goals subverted.

Soldiers on the other hand are somewhat different. These are people that have individually made the decision to place the greater goal of the nation's security before the security of their own lives. Basically, the only people a representative government can conciously and legitimately decide to sacrifice for another goal are people who individually volunteer for it and concur with that goal.

So this is one reason why government ethics and collective ethics might necessarily be different from personal ethics. It also goes back to the government properly deriving it's purpose from the purpose's of the individuals composing it. For the government to demand sacrifice from it's people for a goal that they don't share would be to reverse the direction of authority.

PS. I agree on your post on emotions. Still, in the case of the Burmese rebels, is there any good non-tactical reason why they shouldn't be frightened? They've chosen pacifistic course to oppose a ruthless police state! They're on course to get rubbed out. Fear is the natural result of placing your life in jeapordy. My father's airborne instructor once said: "Jumping out of an airplane is a highly unnatural act. If you're not afraid, we don't want you - you're an idiot!"

8:48 AM  
Blogger Humāinism said...

Excellent work, Daniel. I like your concept of AVE, since it has pretty much been my viewpoint for awhile, though I tended to call it 'pragmatic pacifism'.

It is a difficult subject with no easy answers. It's a question I've asked myself for a long time... How do civilized, kind and peaceful people defend themselves against savagery without becoming savages themselves? How do the non-violent defend themselves against the violent without becoming violent themselves. I don't think it's possible.

I am generally not a proponent of Gandhi-style absolute pacifism, because it will only work if your enemy has something like a conscience. Even Gandhi admitted that his tactics would not have worked against the nazis. If we make ourselves like domesticated sheep, we will be easy picking for the wolves. Better to be like a great stag; never deliberately harming any other being, but being ready and able to defend oneself if attacked. Still... which rain drop is more responsible for the flood, the first to fall or the last?

We need to lose this concept of preemptive strikes. Preemptive strikes have started every war in history. While a good offense might be the best defense from a military standpoint, it is usually bad from almost ever other standpoint. Winning wars is no accomplishment. Somebody always wins them. Winning a long term peace hasn't been done very much, and when it has been so, usually under threat of war. Can human-kind do any better than peace enforced by duress? I don't know. I wish I could say otherwise, but I frequently have my doubts.

I remember all the things about 9/11 that everyone else remembers... Where I was, the horror, the death, the initial dumbfounded shock followed by sadness and crying. But I remember something else that most people didn't notice, perhaps because they were part of it... the hatred and desire for revenge that swelled up in almost everyone I knew. I remember watching the towers burn on a TV at work, and I said to a coworker "Many people will die because of this", and he replied "God, I hope so." I remember gas station attendants, which we still have here in Jersey, and which are often turban wearing Sikh's. They replaced their turbans with baseball caps, least they be mistaken for Arab and be harassed, or worse.

I don't know were I'm going with this... sometimes I just despair that, despite all our technological progress, we haven't really evolved much at all. How little we've changed since the days when we used to club each other with mastodon tusks. The only difference is that now we use self-guided smart tusks, and we make up fancy terms like 'just war' to rationalize our violence. *sigh*


5:44 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...


Thanks again for your comments. I'd somewhat agree that values like those I'm talking about do not naturally exist on the collective level, but I think they must be something that begin on an individual level, and become manifest in a society. Whole nations do frequently act according to the viewpoints of their people (whether due to representative government, or the fact of rulers having grown up in those cultures). As such, if something like AVE were to become part of the mindset of individuals, it could conceivably effect what that society does on an international level.

I would agree that governments should be concerned with the happiness and survival of its citizens. But governments already *do* operate with higher goals that require the random sacrifice of its citizens. The sacrifices simply take a different form (such as soldiers or collateral damages), and the goals are different (such as freedom or protection of the economy). You make a good point about the fact that military people are volunteers, but what about the effects of their actions on the non-volunteers in their society, should they fail? Or, even, the effects *during* their operations?

I'd stress that the thought behind AVE is not simply that the peaceful people be sacrificed only - but rather that these tactics will result in greater gains overall (thus the talk about garnering sympathy and support from third parties or changing the hearts of one's enemies). If AVE is a tactic that results in a more peaceful world, then the end result would be more prosperity for that nation. The government would be fulfilling its mandate just the same, only more wisely and effectively than its usual tactics. Again - that's what I'm considering, but not fully convinced of myself yet :)

Thanks for your comments. I think you're right that we've a long way to go. But when I imagine nuclear weapons in the hands of any societies before, say, 1500 CE, it seems to me *more* likely we would have seen global devastation sooner. Not that human nature has changed, but maybe some of our ethical concepts *do* seem to have developed.

But also, we are under different pressures, given that our international situation now means nations economies are more intricately tied together. Maybe under those same pressures, our earlier ancestors would have become more cautionary. It could be that getting nukes is like the common situation of an irresponsible delinquent young person who suddenly finds themselves a parent and then begins to shape up. Necessity is the mother of invention, and perhaps that goes for the invention of the various forms of responsibility?

5:17 AM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Michael Darley wrote:
"Perhaps I have overlooked it, but it seems that no one has posted much of a reaction to your MVE analysis, so I will volunteer by submitting some material from miscellaneous sources. I agree with these conclusions..."

Mike, many thanks for reading and for your comments. As you might see, I have deleted your last two, but this is only because I don't think the comments function of these pages is very well suited to cut & pastes of long articles. Instead, I'd prefer comments to be in the commenter's own words, and any outside sources to simply give links to them. This would probably also please those sources. But both of the articles you posted were excellent - please *DO* repost their links! :)

Oh, by the way, there were several comments on this post before yours so I'm not sure if you couldn't see them or if you meant that there hadn't been any comments on that one specific element of my post on MVE.


12:12 PM  
Anonymous Michael Darley said...

DT Strain wrote:

“….there were several comments on this post before yours so I'm not sure if you couldn't see them or if you meant that there hadn't been any comments on that one specific element of my post on MVE.”

Yes, I read each posting with great interest.

To quote from the great works of moi: "Perhaps I have overlooked it, but it seems that no one has posted much of a reaction to your MVE analysis.”

There are a couple of references to MVE, but not what I consider a refutation of your analysis, which is what I intended by my postings.

As to the “copy and paste” portions of two of my postings, I readily accept your policy. The main reason I did that was for the convenience of your readers within the context of the subject matter at hand.

And, after all, the one time I did post a link, you couldn’t find it. There are, I am sure, better ways of “linking” within a blog, and perhaps you can instruct me on how to go about it.


1:57 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

I think most of the time, it shouldn't be a problem to paste in a URL address (the error before was my own, not yours). I wasn't sure if making an actual link is possible in these comment boxes so I just tested it out and deleted the comment, but it is. You just type in the HTML code and it should work. Example:
Example Link Here

< a h r e f = "address here" > text to appear here < / a >

3:14 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...


I've had a chance to read all of what you originally posted here (and hope you'll put the address to it for others). I don't see much that is a refutation of my use of the MVE term though. I too doubt that, read in detail, the Koran suggests a religion of peace (and certainly not tolerance), and I'd say the same for the Bible.

But my primary concern was characterizing the MVE according to how it is commonly interpeted by moderates. Extremists in any religious group don't really fit into anything except the EVE. Rather than scripturally, historically, or in theory, here I was more concerned with addressing how typical, 'normal' people in most places on the planet choose to behave in actual practice.

3:36 PM  
Anonymous Michael Darley said...

Daniel wrote:

“Once when I was in a Buddhist temple, the teacher told us of a monk who was asked, ‘if there were a problem with pests over the crops, would it be bad Karma to spray the crops and kill the insects?’ His reply was, as long as it is done without negative feeling, there would be no bad Karma.”

Perhaps the monk should have let the other sandal fall by explaining that there also must be no positive feeling. In order for there to be no bad Karma, the conscious, intentional act of killing must be performed with no feeling at all. (One might envision the Samurai, the Jedi, or the Stoic in this light.)

At the end of the Paul Scofield version of “A Man For All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More says to his executioner, “Be not afraid of your office,” thus absolving him of bad Karma (as long as the executioner performs his “office” with neither regret nor spite).

States’ “vengence,” on the other hand (capital punishment), besides being unnecesary and ineffective, creates bad Karma, even if the whole world rejoices.

If a pilot in a war were to say (as doubtless many have), “Let’s drop the bomb on the ‘insects.’ Maybe some napalm or agent orange while we’re at it,” and proceed to perform his “office” with a song in his heart, he should not expect to fly away with his Karma unscathed.

On a separate topic in this essay, Mr. Strain asks: “Consider examples of pacifist movements which have succeeded, such as in Gandhi’s India. Surely pacifism has not worked in all cases.... Still.... the fact that it ever worked is remarkable. Why did it?”

As you probably are aware, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King cited Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” as the impetus for their movements. The reason they succeeded is not because of pacifism: They were well conceived political ploys. Gandhi and King understood that if they could keep the jails filled beyond capacity, create enough fuss, and draw sufficient attention to economic and political inequities, their "movements" would stand perhaps their only chance for success. In their cases, force and violence would obviously have been counterproductive.

These men, in my view, were political pacifists, not religious ones. If the political benefits of pacifism had dissipated, they would have been abandoned. Gandhiji even stated that if violence became necessary for self-defense, he was not against it. (Paradoxically, these were religious men, and not political ones.)

8:23 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Mike: "Perhaps the monk should have let the other sandal fall by explaining that there also must be no positive feeling."

Ah yes, quite true! An excellent point, including what you elaborated on after that.

Mike: "...both Gandhi and Martin Luther King cited Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience”..."

Yes I recall reading that - thanks for reminding me, because that's something else I should become more familiar with.

Mike: "The reason they succeeded is not because of pacifism... Gandhi and King understood that if they could... create enough fuss... their "movements" would stand perhaps their only chance for success."

To me, this would be part of the pacifism I am considering, rather than considering it some external "political ploy". Surely, there are religious reasons people might be pacifists, but my aim here is to look at the pragmatic effects of it and not merely try to promote it for personal or spiritual reasons. I think, if there are some subtle benefits to pacifism as a tactic, that allow us to avoid violence (even if only in some cases) then that is worth understanding more. This is in line with my belief that there is no distinction between what is virtuous and what is wise. So, you make wonderful points about Gandhi and King's tactics, and I think this might be an excellent part of an argument for 'pragmatic pacifism'.

Thanks much for these comments - they have enhanced thought on this greatly! :)

6:07 AM  
Anonymous Michael Darley said...


Continuing the discussion of violence:

You wrote,

“I don't see much [in your posting] that is a refutation of my use of the MVE term…”

Were you describing MVE? I somehow misread it as MTV :)

You might agree, as you say, with the basic premise of my responses, but you nevertheless define MVE as “violence when attacked.” Though that description is true as far as it goes, it does not, in my judgment, go nearly far enough towards an accurate depiction of Islam, and falls sufficiently short of the mark to render it dangerously misleading.

You continue with-

“…my primary concern was characterizing the MVE according to how it is commonly interpreted by moderates....I was more concerned with addressing how typical, 'normal' people in most places on the planet choose to behave in actual practice.”

Do you mean in “actual practice,” or in actual lack thereof? I believe that a fair definition of a “fundamentalist” is that extremely rare religious person who actually walks the talk (thus the term “extremist”-------:)

Sam Harris believes that it is the so-called “moderates” of any religion who, in the long run, pose the greatest threat. Not only do they inadvertently provide “cover” for the “extremists,” but they also betray both reason and faith.

G.K. Chesterton’s observation about Christianity equally applies to many other religions: “It’s not true that for most people (what you, Daniel, describe as ‘normal’ people) Christianity has been tried and found wanting: It’s not been wanted, and so has never been tried.”

Other observations:

JVE (Jesus Violence Ethic) = no violence ever:

This brings to mind Colbert’s recent interview with Sam Harris. Colbert asks, “If there is no Jesus, then who was that who carried me on the beach?” I now ask, “If JVE equals no violence ever, then who was that who, in a rage, smashed his way through the marketplace at the temple? (And that was just a warm-up for the Second Coming.)

Using Merriam-Webster as a reference—or choose your own—“violence” is defined as:

1. exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house). [or, perhaps, as in smashing your way through a temple?]
2. injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation.
3. intense, turbulent, furious and often destructive action or force.

By this measure, I think it's fair to say that our friend from Nazareth acted with violence on at least one occasion, or so the story goes (and God only knows what the story leaves out), which contradicts your ‘no violence ever’ definition as to Jesus.

So, if not Jesus, then who, if anyone, might convincingly represent the “no violence ever” category of human behavior? Gandhi? No, he went on record as saying that he was not opposed to violence when necessary for self defense. (He personally chose non-violence because he felt it would further his political agenda as well as his religious one, but he did not advocate it for everyone.) I would nominate Thich Nhat Hahn, that benevolent but hopelessly naïve “engaged” Buddhist.

AVE (Avoidable Violence Ethic) = violence only when absolutely necessary for immediate defense.

Keeping in mind that we are in agreement that “in order for there to be no bad Karma, the conscious, intentional act of killing must be performed with no feeling at all,” and that “one might envision the Samurai, the Jedi, or the Stoic in this light,” one could, and I believe should, extend this principle to any act of self-or-other defense, whether or not it results in injury or death. This is something more, and at the same time less, than violence (as defined above).

MVE (Muhammad Violence Ethic)
This we have already discussed, and the term “violence” certainly applies.

I always suspected that EVE was up to no good. (No point beating around the Bush-:)

I’m not trying to remove any bricks from your well-constructed edifice. These are merely passing thoughts which, needless to say, are matters of opinion, and certainly not offered as anything definitive.

It’s awkward at times being in a position of not believing in God, especially when confronted with conundrums for which only God holds the answers.


9:11 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks Mike. Again, niether the MVE nor the JVE have much to do with what Muhammad or Jesus actually taught, nor are they an attempt to capsulate or make claims about their teachings. Many practice the MVE who have never heard of Muhammad, and it's quite possible that Jesus hadn't practiced the JVE. These concepts are much more abstract and not an attempt at religious history or study. Rather, they are basic distilled approaches to violence, divorced from context, labeled as such for iconic and comparative reasons.

The post is about ways of approaching violence and thinking about how we should best proceed as a species. It was not about religious groups, what they did or didn't do, and what their dogma consists of.

For my thoughts on Harris, see:
Respect: What it Means to Me
Non-Religious Buddhism?

5:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice article, Daniel. I am quite impressed with your AVE creation. As you know, it closely matches Ayn Rand's Objectivist view on violence, i.e. the only proper use of violence is in retaliation against its initiation. And I like your adding that violence needs to cease once the threat has been eliminated.

I would add one other point. The United States has rarely practiced AVE (or even MVE) since the Revolution. I think if you examine every war we've begun, you will be hard pressed to find a direct threat to the US. The South had a c onstitutional right to ceced; WW I was clearly a European affair. Even in WW II, we initiated force by imposing an oil embargo on Japan. 9/11? How in any way did that act justify attacking any sovereign nation?

12:03 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Thanks for the comments anonymous person :)

I'm no expert on Rand, but I would say that AVE might be a little more radical than her position. For instance, the AVE would never advocate "retaliation" even when another party initiated the violence. But it would advocate fighting to resist that initial incident of violence. Of course, events can be broken down into individual bullets and then you get 'retaliations' in there, but you get the idea.

I would say, overall, I'd agree that the U.S. has rarely used AVE. However, I think I might say that it is acceptible by the AVE to use force to resist the initial incident of violence, whether that is directed toward yourself -or- another innocent. So, in the case of 'Euopean affairs' for example, the AVE wouldn't keep us from fighting to resist attacks against allies, but it *would* prevent us from carrying on the fighting in counterstrikes. Instead, the AVE would advocate continual dialogue, even while our forces are fighting off attacks.

As I mentioned, the AVE is in its formative stages, and I'm not even commiting to it personally yet (still much to consider). But it may be that occasional forward strikes would be needed under a continual assault, but always with opportunities to halt conflict whenever possible. It can get rather fuzzy unfortunately.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Art said...


I am the "anonymous" one with reply #19, but I did not intend it to be so. I picked"'other" as I wasn't sure what "blogger meant" (I'm now on this one). In any event, I'll be following your AVE development as it progress.

BTW, Rand's use of "realiation" was only meant to identify the clear distinction beween it and "initiation." Nowhere does she define the extent such retaliation need go; only that one has the moral right to repel or retaliate force and not a right to initiate it.

Art Fay

12:08 PM  
Blogger DT Strain said...

Ah, got it. Thanks Art :)

4:51 PM  

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