Violence: How to respond to it ethically?

violenceThroughout history human beings have been fighting, maiming and killing each other. If you wish to think about an ethical response to violence then the Viking invasion of Britain over 1000 years ago is as relevant a period in history as any for consideration.

For their story is one of pillage and slaughter, destruction and extortion. The country was devastated. The raiders were cruel and treacherous. Should the response to this terror have been one of violence?

Pacifism and violence

In Western religion, Jesus Christ’s injunction to “love thy enemy” and his asking for forgiveness for his crucifiers “for they know not what they do” have been interpreted as calling for pacifism. For example George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, utterly rejected war as being incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Doing no harm is also a core philosophy in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism.

King Ethelred I of Wessex inclined to a religious view that held that faith and prayer were prime agencies by which the invader would be overcome.

Another response of the English was to buy off the Vikings with money rather than continue the armed struggle. This practice of paying a ‘tribute’ was common by local inhabitants throughout Europe where the Vikings had used violence to invade foreign lands.

However it seems that these payments encouraged further threat of violence and further extortion so that over 100 tonnes of silver were eventually shipped back to Scandinavia from England. And so another response was to stand and fight. This tough attitude is expressed in Kipling’s verse.

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”
(Rudyard Kipling)

Alfred’s military action

Ethelred’s younger brother Alfred, although also devout, laid the emphasis upon policy and arms. At the battle of Ashdown, Alfred led his forces boldly against the army of the enemy and the fight was long and hard until at last the invaders gave way and fled. If the West Saxons had been beaten at this battle, all England would have sunk into uncivilised anarchy.

Many battles with the Vikings were lost. However, a second crucial battle later took place at Eddington: on this everything was at stake. For several hours the men on each side fought with sword and axe and many were killed. Eventually the Vikings fled only to be surrounded. They were hungry cold and fearful and Alfred had them in his power. He could have slaughtered them to a man.

Ethical limits to violence

But even if you are a non-pacifist are there not important ethical limits on how one should use violence? The way Americans waged war in Vietnam in the 1960s has been criticized. Their express desire was to ‘incapacitate’ as many civilians as possible and by so doing put intolerable pressure on hospital and health facilities. Rather than bury her, it takes time, resources and energy to attend to a 12-year-old Vietnamese child with napalm burns all over her body.

Many have questioned, too, the ethics of the huge bombing raids of the Second World War, when British and American bombers rained down fire and destruction on millions of German women and children, and also the use of atomic bombs in Japan.

Today the problem is even greater, as nuclear, biological and chemical warfare are capable of eliminating not just combatants but the entire human race.

Some guidance from a ethical perspective is provided by a Christian writer of the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas, in his idea of a ‘just war’. He laid down certain conditions. His view was that violence should only be used where peace and justice is restored afterwards and where the war must be the last resort. In addition he said there must be proportionality in the way war is fought. For example innocent civilians should not be killed: only enough force may be used to achieve goals, not more.

Emanuel Swedenborg on violence

The 18th-century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg suggested that wars which are intended to protect one’s country are not necessarily contrary to the notion of ‘loving one’s enemy’. To him it depended on the purpose for which the violence is undertaken. For example he maintained it is unethical to use violence in order to seek glory for the sake of glory, for this springs from a love of self that rules all motivation. Likewise the use of force is said to be unethical where there is a vicious disposition of mind where soldiers even after a battle want to “terrorise the … defenceless and in their fury murder and rob them.”

Alfred in victory

After the battle of Eddington, instead of taking revenge on the foe, Alfred took the longer view and in a time of much uneasiness and disturbance he prioritised a hoped for peace so that all might live together with reasonable relations rather than mutual hostility. So, on grounds of humanity, instead of destroying the opposition fighters he worked towards dividing the land between the two sides. The anarchic conditions of the times were likely to continue to produce murders and physical injuries and so later he negotiated a truce with the invading forces defining a political boundary dividing Mercia from Wessex. Nothing would stop the Danes from killing and robbing the English and vice versa and so he got agreement between the two sides about a system of equal financial compensation should any lives be lost as a way of creating a disincentive for violence.

He applied a version of the Golden Rule. Instead of “do to others as you would that they should do to you”, he adopted the less ambitious principle, “what you will that other men should not do to you, that do you not to other men”: this law of Alfred continually amplified by his successors became the common law of the country.

No wonder he was called Alfred the Great. He was both a great warrior and a great forger of peace.

Copyright 2014 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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