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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018

PART ONE: VIOLENCE

There is no problem that violence solves.

Violence is the problem.

 

CHAPTER 1

Problem

We have reached this dire point in human history, a point at which our own self-destruction seems imminent if dramatic change does not soon intervene, because of a tragic flaw in our nature. Our tragic flaw is violence, and particularly a feature embedded in the structure of violence that I call the logic of violence. This chapter explores that logic in some detail, with the aim to persuade you that violence does indeed possess something like the logic I describe, and that this logic has a strong tendency toward self-destruction. Once that has been established, we can proceed to explore in subsequent chapters the existential, psychological, evolutionary-historical, and political implications of the logic of violence.

But first, what exactly do we mean by the word violence? When one asteroid crashes into another, although we might describe the collision as violent, this is not the kind of violence we’re to deal with here. When a lion chases down a gazelle and devours her, even given the struggle, the gore, and the terror written on the smaller animal’s face, this too misses the meaning of violence I intend. An event may be explosive or an act aggressive, but it does not become violent until it makes sense to think of it as an intentional act. In other words, violence is here defined as a moral category. The asteroid simply follows its momentum along a trajectory; if it happens to run into another asteroid, it’s not as if the asteroid could have done anything about it beforehand. Lions predate on smaller game. That’s how they live. Even if a lion could reflect on the suffering of the gazelle, it’s not as if the lion could elect to forego its prey and expect to survive.

Somewhere along the evolutionary trajectory of Homo sapiens an astonishing event occurred. At least as long as 45,000 years ago, or even earlier, we humans became capable of knowing when we are choosing to cause suffering when we could have chosen otherwise. Not too much later, it could have become an expectation to desist from causing avoidable harm, to which we held ourselves and others. In this way, humankind stumbled headlong and irreversibly into the moral realm.[1] Only then were we capable of violence in the moral sense, the sense used in this book. Only then were we capable of inflicting suffering knowingly and willingly—that is, despite being capable of choosing not to.

We see a similar developmental trajectory in children. Early on they may hit or pinch without any awareness that they are causing another to suffer. But at some point a child can begin to comprehend that when he hits another child, the other experiences the same kind of pain he would. Thenceforth, when the child hits his playmate he is, on some level, capable of knowing that he is inflicting suffering. From there, it is but a short developmental step for him to know that he is choosing to inflict it. Parents generally intuit that this is something we need to teach our children. We actively make the child aware that he is responsible for the harm he causes and is expected not to inflict it. This is a cultural intervention, wherein we induct the child into social life. If the child chooses to inflict suffering anyway, we can begin to say that he intends harm, or is at least indifferent to it. This is what we mean by violence.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as, “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”[2] This definition aptly captures the importance of the intentional use of physical force or power to inflict harm, acknowledging violence as a moral act. It also takes a broad view of harm, recognizing that even just the threat of violence is harmful, and that harm can occur in the body or psyche, by virtue of abuse or neglect, and in the present or future. As comprehensive as this definition is, I wish to extend it one step further. The WHO definition leaves out of account whether the harm caused is or is not justified or legitimate in the context in which it is deployed. For example, violence in self-defense or in pursuit of some meritorious cause, as in “just war,” still meets this definition of violence.

Since I want to make a moral argument about violence, we need to distinguish between harm that is not justified or legitimate and harm that can be morally justified. I reserve violence for the former case. So, by that understanding, violence is never justifiable; that is what makes it violence. I reserve mere aggression for harm that is justifiable, or does not fall into a moral category, such as lions devouring gazelles. All infliction of harm is aggressive, but only some aggression is violent; or, in other words, violence is here understood as unjustifiable aggression.

Let us consider the following definition: Violence occurs when one being or group inflicts unnecessary suffering on another, when that entity is capable of knowing both that it is inflicting suffering and that the suffering is unnecessary. In this formulation, being capable of knowing that one inflicts suffering upon another captures the principle of “intention” in the WHO definition. The concept of suffering is here intended to stand for the list of harms offered by the WHO definition, and quite a lot more. What is new is the principle that the suffering inflicted is unnecessary.[3]

This definition forces us to make two moral judgments about every act. In the first place, we judge the likelihood that our act will cause suffering immediately or into the future, directly or indirectly. Second, we judge whether any such suffering is actually necessary. And further, if we are to take these standards seriously, we need to make these judgments both in prospect and retrospect. We have an obligation to guide our actions with reference both to past experience and likely future outcomes.

Of course, slippery slopes abound. Pretexts and rationalizations for the infliction of suffering are common and cheap. Human history is littered with them, including the ubiquitous rationales of self-defense and national security. To be meaningful, then, the moral judgment that an act is or is not violent requires a rigorous standard around what constitutes suffering and what constitutes necessary suffering. Any time suffering is inflicted by one being (or group) on another, the burden of proof falls on the actor to demonstrate that the suffering is truly necessary.

The judgment of what is necessary requires, furthermore, that we take a wide view of the circumstances. If we were to focus too narrowly on the decisive moment when physical force is used, almost always deep into a series of events, the use of aggression might seem more reasonable than it would if the whole sequence were taken into account. Consider the famous instance of George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Zimmerman’s case, based on Florida’s generous right of self-defense, relied entirely on how reasonable it was for Zimmerman to believe his life was in danger at the moment he pulled the trigger, killing the unarmed black youth. Even if Zimmerman’s defense were perfectly genuine (which seems unlikely), it does not satisfy the standard of proof I am proposing. Zimmerman would need to show not only that he felt his life was in grave danger at the moment he fired his weapon, but also that he had no other alternatives at any point in the development of the incident but to follow the course that resulted in his lethal act.

Violence, as we will explore in Chapter 2, is a dynamical process, an unfoldment, a way of being, replete with its own gravitational forces. Zimmerman, in all likelihood, entered that process well before the fatal shot was fired, choosing to follow its seductions and momentum through a series of choice-points that might otherwise have led to a range of non-injurious outcomes. We must ask: Could the actor have known that this path was likely to lead to the infliction of suffering? Were other paths available to him? Almost without doubt, the answer would have to be yes, there were.

Though we may regard George Zimmermann, not to mention the whole lot of vicious brutes who have committed all manner of heinous crimes, with revulsion, we too easily forget that each one of us is capable of violence in some measure.[4] We usually regard the perpetrators of violent acts as evil, fanatical, or mentally ill. We distance ourselves not only from their acts but from their humanity. When we look more closely at perpetrators of violence, however, we begin to see that they are not, most of them, so very different from us.[5] We can begin to appreciate their rage, disappointments, and yearning, even their tenderness, and see how very similar all that is to our own. In this likeness we all have to one another, we can begin to recognize some common patterns, ones we all share, that can be discerned in the background of all violent acts.

I submit that these patterns emerge from an underlying logic presumably universal to all humankind. This logic is specific, can be stated explicitly, and carries implications that largely explain the crisis in which we now find ourselves. It boils down to a series of five simple propositions. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: The Logic of Violence in Five Propositions

 

  1. My survival depends on meeting certain basic needs, and
  2. Those needs depend on limited resources, and
  3. Other beings partake of the same resources, therefore
  4. I am in competition with others for those resources, and therefore
  5. My survival depends on prevailing over the competition

 

At first, this series of propositions may seem self-evident and even benign, especially in the context of modern platitudes ritually offered in defense of capitalism. It will be my task over the next several chapters to make the case that from this apparently unobjectionable rationale and its underlying emotional implications the whole catastrophe of murders, wars, dictatorship, oppression, and ecocide all inexorably flow. When we fully grasp how this could be so, we have begun to understand the problem of violence in earnest.

The Logic of “Violence Begets Violence”

Martin Luther King once wrote, “hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.”[6] And thus the phrase “violence begets violence” resoundingly entered the culture, even if few have paused long over what it really means. King had detected a feature of violence, something about how it operates in the real world, and asserted it directly. This leaves us with the question of why violence should be like this. Specifically, we would want to know how a set of propositions as seemingly innocent as those just given could produce violence at all, much less a violence that can only propagate itself until it destroys us all.

To begin to see how this might be so, let us reach much farther back in time, to the 17th Century, when the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (famous for the phrase, “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”) gave an account of violence still cited with admiration today. Though I wish to bring out additional features of the logic of violence, Hobbes aptly names three of the most important:

 

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence;[7] thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.[8]

 

Hobbes’ first cause, “competition...for gain,” aligns exactly with the fifth proposition in the logic of violence I am proposing: “My survival depends on prevailing over the competition.” Ethologists have found that normal intraspecies aggression in the animal kingdom, including humans, typically begins with a sense of scarcity of needed resources for which there is competition.[9] Hobbes offers a short list of such resources, “other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle.” But we can imagine a much more varied list running from celebrity status or precious jewels to mating opportunities and true love.

The logic of violence implies a certain hierarchy of valuation across the range of resources. Because violence is costly—I could lose my life, suffer injury, or inspire future retaliation—my willingness to use it will depend on how dear I believe the resource to be. When my own survival hangs in the balance, when the resource in question means the difference between life and death, the logic of violence compels me to gain that resource by any means necessary. At other times, I may be willing to risk less and, consequently, use less violence. We may even sometimes leave aside the stick altogether and opt for the carrot. Nevertheless, the logic of violence still operates: I only limit myself to the carrot so long as it works; when it doesn’t, I likely revert to the stick.

While competition for gain represents the basic framework of all violence, it immediately involves us in a certain kind of complexity. If I am willing to plunder your resources for my own gain, then it follows that you might be willing to plunder mine. This brings us right to the second of Hobbes’ categories of quarrel, “diffidence...for safety”—or, to put it most plainly, defense. To safeguard my “persons, wives, children, and cattle,” the logic of violence demands that I vigorously defend them from attack. Indeed, the logic of violence automatically assigns enemy status to anyone who may be seen even as a potential competitor. In an unvarnished context, the logic of violence would keep us vigilant for attack from any quarter at any time. But we do sometimes varnish this uncomfortable situation with the veneer of feigned goodwill and social conventions of courtesy. Though these social practices probably do mitigate the expression of violence to a significant extent, they nevertheless occur within a continuous framework of threat. These conventions, in short, create the kind of peace that is not really peace at all but merely the temporary suspension of violence.

The requirements of defense, moreover, immediately introduce a fierce feedback loop into our violence, known as the Hobbesian Trap. If I can expect my neighbor to attack me, might it not prove advantageous for me to attack first? As they say, the best defense is a good offense. In this way the logic of violence gives us reason to attack even when we do not need something our neighbor has, but solely to dissuade our neighbor from attacking us for something that our neighbor might think she needs. And now we are fully in the clutches of the Hobbesian Trap, for if we can imagine preemptively attacking our neighbor we can presume that our neighbor can imagine preemptively attacking us. This further adds pressure on us to prepare for our neighbor’s preemptive attack, or to pre-preemptively attack our neighbor. Thus, not only does attack beget counter-attack, but the mere prospect of attack begets the prospect of preemptive attack, and so on, in a deadly spiral that makes violence more and more likely as it goes. The Hobbesian Trap represents the cycle of violence in one of its more insidious forms, brought to its most diabolical in the Cold War with its multiples of overkill and policies of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The tendency of violence to feed back on itself brings an additional complication, the pressure to escalate. If someone hits me hard on the arm I am inclined at least to hit him back in the same way, following the maxim of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”[10] In accounting terms, I am repaying a debt incurred by the original act of violence. But I am highly tempted to pay it back with interest. Not only might I feel that a punch to the arm deserves the same in return, but I might also feel that he ought to pay a penalty for his unprovoked attack. So I hit him a little harder than he hit me; or instead of hitting him back on the arm I aim for his jaw. Of course, my adversary is likely to think that my added interest (or any retaliation at all) was entirely uncalled for, and thus deserving of the same back—plus interest. And so on. In this way, the quantity of harm rises until someone recalculates the value of the confrontation and backs down.

This, in turn, creates an incentive to charge a very high interest rate right from the start—that is, to retaliate right away much more aggressively than might seem fair. I do this in hopes that my adversary will back off immediately, before we have traded too many costly rounds of a more gradual escalation. Here we find ourselves again in the clutches of the Hobbesian Trap, in which we both anticipate not only that our potential adversary will attack us first, but might attempt an already-totally-escalated knock-out blow—which gives us incentive to preempt this by doing it first to the other guy.

The dynamic just described introduces an inflationary pressure on our violence over time. Because I want to make violence prohibitively expensive for any potential rival, I am tempted to start the cycle of violence at a higher intensity than I think she is willing to tolerate; but then, so is she. And around we go again. Violence is inflationary in another sense, too. As the level of violence escalates and intensifies, the culture becomes more and more desensitized to it and less horrified by it. We can see an example of this in the period since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, an event that jolted us to our roots at the time, but which has become so commonplace in the years since that we collectively shrug and move on, feeling powerless. After that it took the slaughter of very young children at Sandy Hook to arouse similar disgust. And so on again.

Hobbes’ third category of violence—“for reputation...for trifles”—alludes to the inflationary effect of its logic. When I present myself as recklessly willing to use maximal violence for minimal reasons, “a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue,” what today we might call disrespect, I am resorting to the ultimate extreme of preemption. My goal is expressly to dissuade anyone in the future from contemplating aggression toward me. By wildly discounting the costs of violence, thereby seeming to value my own life and anyone else’s so cheaply that you cannot expect me to make rational choices in a contest. This is an extremely risky approach, but apparently it works well enough; evolution has favored this strategy in many species.

The logic of violence as I have presented it here clarifies the logical relation between what we normally think of as violence and what has become known as structural violence. This term refers to the suffering caused to many people, and other beings, as a direct result of how a society is structured. We often hear the term in the context of economic inequality, where gross disparities of wealth are seen as systematically reinforced, as in “the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.” This principle extends to the whole range of oppressions that have gotten encoded in the dominant culture, whether based on gender, race, and so on. The systematic degradation of the natural environment—monocropping, deforestation, burning fossil fuels, and the like—also represents an example of structural violence. Ecological degradation harms those (human and wildlife) with the misfortune of finding themselves in the direct path of destruction; it impoverishes the human experience of nature; and it passes more extreme suffering along to future generations of humans (and other beings) who will live in an increasingly diminished world and may, in the event, meet horrible deaths in a nightmare scenario of ecological and social collapse.

Structural violence meets the proposed definition of violence.[11] It represents one being or group inflicting unnecessary suffering on another, even if that infliction occurs indirectly, or diffusely over space or across time. Because suffering is inflicted, and because that suffering may be judged unnecessary, we are morally bound to ask whether those inflicting it are capable of knowing both that they are inflicting suffering and that the suffering is unnecessary. Indeed, today there can be little doubt that those imposing, or benefiting from, structural violence are fully capable of knowing about it, even if they often act as if they don’t know. Once the critique emerged that identified and described structural violence, and clear causal lines could be drawn between economic practices or other systemic phenomena and unnecessary suffering, the society and all its members became capable of knowing. At that moment, the moral burden of proof fell on them (us) to show either that no suffering is occurring or that it is strictly necessary; or, better, simply to desist from those practices that inflict such suffering. It follows, therefore, that whole societies can be morally obligated to correct any known or knowable structural violence, including every individual member of that society, but particularly those who benefit most from that violence or who have more power to impose it or not impose it.

The five propositions of the logic of violence apply quite elegantly to structural violence. Following the dictate that “my survival depends on prevailing over the competition,” we all strive to maximize every advantage, including forming cliques and covenants that work to our benefit. Over time, certain fruitful pathways of advantage become established and then, in due course, codified in a system of values, customs, and laws. Eventually, this produces whole societies characterized by powerful interests continually reinforcing their advantage at the expense of the less-powerful. This expense can be measured in suffering. In this way, the structure of violence impresses its own image on the structure of society. What was originally a struggle between two individual competitors over one resource or another becomes a vast mechanism in which all (or nearly all) resources are systematically appropriated by a minority at the cost of suffering by the majority.[12]

The Logic of Self-Destruction

Even if violence tends to beget more violence, somehow we as a species have managed to survive millennia of this vicious cycle of begetting. And if violence has a structural tendency to escalate, somehow we have managed to survive two world wars without a third and 70 years with nuclear weapons but no nuclear winter—so far. Indeed, as Steven Pinker is wont to point out, in many respects we have seen a diminishment of violence over time, especially in recent centuries and decades.[13] Given these facts, clearly we cannot argue that the logic of violence leads straightforwardly to inevitable self-destruction. I want to make a probabilistic argument, however, that violence relentlessly tends toward self-destruction and in the fullness of time is bound to achieve it, absent some intervening force. But we cannot always discern this tendency. To glimpse it, we need to attain the right perspective, a vantage point from which the larger picture can come into view.

On the local scale, when someone strikes me I am likely to strike back. This may peter out quickly or it may go on for a while and probably escalate. Rarely, however, will this continue until someone dies. At some point one person or both will withdraw, judging the contest too costly. If we graphed such local-scale events, we would see a waxing and waning of violence with infrequent peaks of fatal violence and a strong tendency for the violence eventually to exhaust itself and return to zero.[14]

But if we pull back to gain a somewhat larger view, where the local-scale eruptions of violence fade into the background noise, and take the measure of violence across larger swaths of time, say in century-long chunks, a different pattern would emerge. At this level some centuries, such as the twentieth, prove much bloodier than others. To understand this, we need deeper explanations than the local-scale waxing and waning of squabbles. Larger historical forces may be at work, such as the power of states to suppress violence in its people. Over time, this suppression may result in an accumulation of ill will that festers and seethes and eventually bursts dangerously into the world. By mechanisms of this kind, rates of violence could appear low for long stretches of time without meaning that violence has been mastered, and could appear very high at other times without meaning that violence has randomly materialized from nowhere.

The force of suppression brought to bear on violence can either increase or decrease over time. The Hobbesian Leviathian—the state with a monopoly on violence—tends to increase the suppression of violence, as if keeping the lid tighter on a boiling pot. This only defers the eventual explosive release of violence into the world, but can defer it effectively for long periods of time, even centuries—think, for example, of the long dynasties of China. At other times, the state is relatively weak or unstable, and therefore unable to suppress violence to the same degree—consider present-day Syria or Iraq, for example. Or a state may be very warlike (such as Nazi Germany) or violently repressive (Stalin’s Soviet Union) and thereby drive up rates of violence in the world for an extended period.

Another dynamic in play at this level concerns actual improvements in the human condition. In addition to the trends of violence we have been enumerating, other historical trends simultaneously unfold and interact with the trajectory of violence. Various of these can materially reduce the build-up of violence festering in the collective human heart. Pinker carefully catalogues and describes many of these trends, such as the invention of the printing press and the popularization of reading, developments in scientific reasoning, the emergence of individual rights and the proliferation of that idea across various domains. These advances in the dignity and equality of persons (and other beings) relieve rather than exacerbate the accumulation of suppressed violence in society. Between these various dynamics, we can see a medium-scale waxing and waning of violent expression across the centuries of human civilization such that violence looks intermittent, episodic, and unpredictable.[15]

If we pull our perspective back still further, however, to the most macro scale possible, a still different picture emerges. This picture involves two large-scale forces that mutually inhibit one another. One is the force of violence, and the other is the force of peace. When the force of violence predominates, violence increases and intensifies steadily over time for as long as this condition persists (with smaller-scale fluctuations on the surface of the curve, as we have just discussed). If not overtaken by the force of peace, this trajectory ends with social and, very likely, ecological collapse.

By this analysis, we can see how the logic of violence begetting violence may look none too frightening at the local scale (at least for most of us most of the time), more problematic but not fatal to civilization at the medium scale, and terrifyingly ecocidal at the largest scale. Locally, violence flares up and exhausts itself regularly; over centuries, violence can erupt explosively, killing vast numbers, but also can seem to resolve itself to some degree for decades or longer; but in the fullness of time, violence can go nowhere but to a bitter end in which everyone dies—unless it is decisively overtaken by the trajectory of peace. Sometime over the last two centuries we have rounded a bend in the road, revealing how the violent trajectory could end for us as a global civilization. From this place, the three perspectives described begin to telescope together. Our doom is no longer unthinkably remote. It no longer requires thinking in terms of millennia. It lies just ahead. Others have been to this place before us and have met a grim fate indeed. Consider, for example, the collapses of Easter Island, the Anasazi and Mayan peoples, or Norse Greenland.[16]

Let us now examine in brief the mechanism by which the logic of violence advances inexorably toward self-destruction, so long as nothing else interrupts it. I explain this process in two parallel and interconnected ways, first using the metaphor of economics, and then speaking more philosophically. Violence always carries a cost. It requires energy, entails risk, and invites retaliation. The perpetrator of violence, at least in theory, calculates the cost in advance and compares it against the benefit sought. If we were all perfectly rational actors and the costs were all perfectly transparent, violence would only occur when the reward outweighs the expense. Violence would never get out of hand and our world would not be imperiled today.[17]

As we have just seen, however, violence has a structural tendency to feed back on itself, escalate, and become inflated over time. Rarely do these dynamics get figured into the cost of violence in advance. Violence may seem a good investment when we take short-term costs and benefits into account, but if we were to consider the likely long-term expense, violence begins to look foolhardy. Imagine that A attacks B for gain, figuring that B is weaker than A and will not fight back, at least not very much, and the prize is worth the scuffle anyway. But A does not realize that B will later respond by planning a devious attack on A to recover the stolen prize (feeding back), and incur some additional penalty (escalating) on the way. Now A must retaliate against the retaliation and escalate even further, perhaps much further (inflating), to dissuade B from continuing. This may go on for any number of rounds. With each round, the cost of violence rises sharply, but the benefit does not.

Before long, with each renewed round of violence, A is operating at a loss. In principle, we expect rational actors to stop the tit-for-tat of violence at the point when the cost begins to outweigh the profit. In practice, however, two factors inhibit this pragmatic policy. First, we often become emotionally involved in the struggle. We become so offended and enraged that the recovery of our honor and dignity becomes worth a great price not calculated from the beginning. Second, we tend to be very bad at tracking the costs of violence as they mount. The causal relationships are complex and diffuse, and the costs difficult to quantify. As a result, we tend to pass the point of diminishing returns very early in this process without any awareness that we have done so.

But even when we do know that we have passed the point of diminishing returns, we tend to throw good money after bad. Known as the sunk cost fallacy, we tend to prefer to keep spending money on a losing proposition because to walk away is to admit that all the money already spent was wasted.[18] What’s more, the inflationary feature of the logic of violence means that, over time, the starting bid of our violent exchanges rises, representing a long-term deferred cost to any violence we might contemplate now.[19]

Lurking within all of these confounding aspects of violence lies an insidious relentlessness. The logic of violence will out no matter what, going underground when it cannot prevail in the open. This follows directly from the five propositions upon which our violence is based. We are, after all, pursuing what we regard as a need without which we cannot survive. No price is too high to pay for our very survival, so the logic goes. If we meet a stronger opponent and lose in direct competition, our campaign nevertheless continues if only by indirect and more devious means. And if even that effort is thwarted, the need and its associated fears and rages merely get suppressed, where they ferment, toxify and, in the fullness of time, find violent expression.[20] In sum, even when the strong triumph over the weak and the battle is won, the war often rages on. While we may be tempted to close the books on the encounter, the costs continue to mount.

For all these reasons rooted in its structure, our decision to rely on violence likely results in operating at a loss. That is, violence will almost certainly cost more in resources than it brings in. A person can only afford to operate at a loss for so long before her assets become totally depleted. If we continue to get drawn into violent conflicts and nothing else interrupts this process, we are bound to continue to throw good money after bad until, sooner or later, we go broke altogether. Our pursuit of some limited benefit ends up costing us everything. In this way, violence ultimately proves prohibitively expensive. In the absence of some counterveiling influence, violence ends in bankruptcy, which is here just a euphemism for social collapse and mass death. Such is the economic argument for the intrinsic self-destructiveness of violence.

The philosophical argument focuses on the internal cost of violence carried by the perpetrator. We begin with the principle that a human being palpably feels a sense of connection to the whole world and all its beings, especially those most similar to himself. This reflects an existential fact, one we explore in detail in Chapter 2, that the whole universe is one unitary entity that includes us in exactly the same way that it includes every other being. In order to harm another, we must deny our intrinsic connection to the other, meaning that we must deny a part of ourselves to ourselves. To harm another being when we know it is not necessary therefore violates something within ourselves.

Because we find it unbearable, we put our own self-induced suffering out of awareness or project it onto those we intend to harm. The more we deny our own sense of violation as we violate others, the more numb we become to this act of denial, and the easier it becomes to violate both ourselves and others. We become increasingly alienated from ourselves in tandem with our alienation from those we harm. Our violence requires and cultivates a loathing for those we harm and also, in lockstep, a loathing for ourselves. What we do unto others we do unto ourselves. In the fullness of time, so long as no other force prevails over this fierce feeding-back process, it can only culminate in suicide. In the mass shootings that have become an almost daily occurrence in the United States in recent years, we know too well the pattern of killing many before turning the gun onto oneself. It is obvious that these events are really just floridly elaborated suicides. I am arguing here that all violence, no matter how subtle, is the same—an elaboration of self-harm that is ultimately suicidal. It is to this strong existential relation of inside and outside, self and other, that we now turn.




[1] It is entirely possible that other animals have evolved a moral sense, to some degree. I make no effort to judge this question. For purposes of simplicity, I will restrict my discussion of violence to humans.

[2] As quoted in Liddle et al, 2012, p. 3.

[3] In Chapter 5 I offer a broader and more philosophical definition of violence, one that applies not only to humans but accounts for violence perpetrated against other species or even the planet itself. It proposes that violence is the act of one being infringing on the given mode of existence of another when the actor is capable of knowing that this infringement is not necessary. I take these two definitions to be totally compatible. I submit that we (like any sentient being) suffer when our mode of existence is infringed upon. Not all suffering is due to such infringement, but all such infringements cause suffering of one kind or another.

[4] Some famous psychological experiments show this clearly. See Zimbardo, 2007 and Milgram, 1975.

[5] Even Hitler, of all people, starts to look at least somewhat more familiar at closer inspection. See Miller, 1990.

[6] King, M. L., 1958, p. 87.

[7] While the word diffidence now connotes timidity, Hobbes probably meant something closer to distrust.

[8] Hobbes, 1651/1957, p. 185. This quote came to my attention from Pinker, 2011, p. 33. Pinker leans heavily on this analysis of violence, and seems to accept it without reservation.

[9] See Liddle et al., 2012, p. 18: “In a broad sense, violence can be viewed as a strategy employed in the competition for resources.” Here the authors use the word violence where I would have preferred aggression, applying this principle to non-human animals.

[10] Exodus 21:24.

[11] This whole category of violence is completely absent from Pinker’s (2011) rosy account.

[12] The ultimate expression of this logic, of course, is totalitarianism (see Arendt, 1994). See Chapter 4 for my remarks on technotalitarianism, an updated variant of totalitarianism custom-made for the faux-democratic milieu of the information age.

[13] Pinker, 2011.

[14] Closer examination usually reveals, however, that the story is not over—that more violence will likely ensue between the two adversaries if the opportunity presents itself, or will get displaced onto some other person or situation that does present itself.

[15] For the statistical implications of this argument, see Appendix A.

[16] Diamond, 2011.

[17] By my definition this would be considered mere aggression, not violence.

[18] Arkes & Blumer, 1985.

[19] And this cost is perhaps never taken into account at all. See Kahneman, 2011.

[20] Alternatively, suppression can turn toward “learned helplessness” (Seligman, 1972), which carries different costs