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



“There is no way to peace.

Peace is the way.”

A.J. Muste



If violence is almost always prohibitively expensive, as we have seen, and if violence leads with inexorable certainty toward our collective doom, as I have argued, then our daily well-being and our long-term sustainability hinge on confronting violence in ourselves and the world. Violence represents a terrible risk to our collective future, and for that reason alone we should seek to mitigate it at all costs. But the deeper reason to overcome violence in the world is that it hurts. Of course it hurts to suffer harm; but it also hurts, perhaps in a deeper and more insidious way, to wallow in, and give vent to, our own violent impulses. No one wants to indulge these corrosive emotions, not really, and no one wants to inflict, let alone be afflicted by, the consequent violence. What we all want, both now and for the sake of our future, is a world without violence—a truly peaceful world.

A truly peaceful world requires much more than an absence of violence. Overtaken and distorted by the logic of violence, many today take peace to mean the suppressive force of superior violence inhibiting the inferior violence of the less-powerful.[i] By this understanding, peace is that vacuum of violence that occurs under the threat of even worse violence. Taken to its logical extreme, a world living under the pall of mutually assured destruction (as we did for several decades of the 20th Century) is considered a peaceful one.

Hardly. No one in her right mind wants to live like that. We all carry a deep desire to live in a world that is truly safe for us, not “safe” because n’er-do-wells are too intimidated by armed police to give in to their nefarious impulses, but actually safe because there are no n’er-do-wells to arm ourselves against. We want to live in a world in which it would not occur to anyone to harm another, because there would be no reason to. Thus, peace does not refer to the mere absence of violence but to the active presence of a general sense of safety and care. In a peaceful world we do not feel secure because our neighbor’s violence is constrained but because he actually knows and cares for us.

In our lived experience, peace and suppressed violence bear no resemblance to one another. I can see the difference clearly in the work I do as a couple therapist. The warring of two fearful and defended lovers runs deep, but is rooted in vulnerable feelings of yearning and sadness that run deeper still. Peace comes when they can recognize these softer, more connective feelings in themselves and one another. Typically, once this becomes fully and mutually realized, the lovers collapse tearfully and tenderly into each other’s arms.[ii] This experience could not be more different from the enforced civility under which many couples suppress roiling mires of rage and resentment. Our goal here is peace in its real meaning, one that is felt immediately in our bones with profound gratitude.

Just as violence springs from a deep logic of the human spirit, so does peace. Likewise, the logic of peace can be described by a series of propositions that form its basic structure and carries a range of implications for the potential trajectory of humankind in the world. This chapter introduces the logic of peace and develops some of its key themes, paying special attention to the problem of carrying peace forward from within a world mired in violence. Let us first enumerate the five propositions of the logic of peace. (See Table 2.)


Table 2: The Logic of Peace in Five Propositions


  1. I am an individual AND I am embedded in a community and a world, and
  2. I have certain basic needs AND I hold those needs in common with all who comprise my community, and
  3. Among those basic needs is the need to belong in my community and world, therefore
  4. Our common needs are best met when met in common, and therefore
  5. My thriving depends on working collaboratively with my community and world



If we compare the logic of violence (see page 30) with the logic of peace, a few key differences come into focus. Violence starts with “my survival depends on meeting certain basic needs.” That I am an individual is given (note we consider only my survival), and my embeddedness in a community and world, while not explicitly denied, is simply left out of account. The logic of peace, by contrast, right away asserts our fundamental interconnectedness with our community and world, setting us on an entirely different path.

The second proposition of peace extends the principle of interconnectedness one step further. Where the logic of violence refers only to “certain basic needs” held by the autonomous individual, the logic of peace accounts for the commonality of these basic needs: “I have certain basic needs AND I hold those needs in common with all who comprise my community.” On the other hand, just as violence does not account for our interconnectedness, peace makes no explicit reference to the theme of scarcity. The second proposition of violence posits that our basic needs sometimes “depend on limited resources.” The logic of peace, meanwhile, passes over this without comment. As we will see, the problem of scarcity, when it arises, inspires a very different kind of response in the context of peace.

By omitting any reference to the commonality of needs that we share with all those with whom we are embedded, the logic of violence (as stated in the third proposition) regards others as nothing more than those who “partake of the same resources”—which is at once both bland and menacing. Nowhere does the logic of violence take into consideration that other beings partake in these resources because they also need them; leaving in view only the threatening aspect of a limited resource under great demand. The logic of peace expands our perspective, taking fuller account of the actual situation at hand—we are all in this together. In these ways, the first two propositions of peace correct the skew built into the first three propositions of violence. There is not only my survival and my needs, but an us and a we who share all of these needs together.

The logic of peace takes a final step in the direction of correcting the distortions of the logic of violence in its third proposition. It claims that among the basic needs shared in common is “the need to belong in my community and world.” This step combines our embeddedness with one another and our commonality of needs and assigns to that combination the same status enjoyed by any other basic need, such as food, water, or shelter. This proposition suggests that our interconnectedness and commonality are the point of it all, not a side issue that can be ignored in pursuit of other more-basic needs.

The fourth propositions of each logic follow directly from the previous three. The logic of violence asserts that “I am in competition with others for certain basic resources”—this seems the most important thing based on what came before. Meanwhile, the logic of peace meets the same challenge with the more expansive principle that “our common needs are best met when met in common.” If belonging is just as important as my other needs, we all share the same needs, and we are all thrown into the same world together, then of course our best chance lies in meeting all of our needs at once—that is, to embark on a positive-sum path rather than the grim zero-sum path of violence.

From the fourth proposition in each system, the fifth is but a short step. The violent mind concludes, “my survival depends on prevailing over the competition.” From this follows directly the whole catastrophe described in Part One, including our own self-destruction. And thus, the trajectory that begins with “my survival” ends with my suicide, exposing the tragic flaw of violence. The peaceful mind, by contrast, reaches the conclusion that “my thriving depends on working collaboratively with my community and world.” As we explore throughout Part Two, an entirely different world and relation to self can emerge from this working-collaboratively, a world I think we would all prefer to live in. Note, too, that the fifth proposition of peace emphasizes my thriving, rather than my survival. The goal of peace is loftier than the goal of violence. And whereas violence misses its own goal in its eventual descent into annihilation, peace achieves much more than mere survival. Peace moves logically toward thriving, flourishing, blossoming. Violence implies death; peace implies life.[iii]

Given this understanding of violence and peace, we still need to define exactly what nonviolence is. I will not rehearse the old and reliable memes of nonviolence that will be familiar to readers of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Those ideas are fully formed and well elaborated.[iv] Instead, I explore nonviolence as an existential category of human experience. This exploration allows me to focus on what lies at the heart of nonviolence, as I see it, while bracketing off a host of side issues. For instance, I mostly ignore what is commonly known as practical or strategic nonviolence, which regards nonviolence as a set of tools that may be more or less effective in a given situation.[v] The conception elaborated here most closely resembles principled nonviolence, which emphasizes that nonviolence is as much the end as the means of revolutionary struggle—in other words, nonviolence goes to the core of social change, regardless of other strategic or tactical considerations. But even this is not quite right. I want to say that nonviolence is the means, but peace is the end—as long as we understand that nonviolence is, above all, an expression of peace.

As I use the term, nonviolence is neither antonymous with violence nor synonymous with peace. Violence and peace cannot co-exist simultaneously in the same social space, much like matter and anti-matter in physical space. Each perfectly negates the other. But between these opposites, as a catalytic social force that draws us away from violence and toward peace, we find nonviolence. Nonviolence is precisely that which is applied to violence to transform it into peace. Nonviolence has no meaning without the presence of violence. It is a very specific remedy to a particular kind of problem.

I advertise in these pages a brand of nonviolence I would call radical nonviolence, in the sense of going to the root. By this I mean that nonviolence possesses a special and specific relationship to our existential situation. Radical nonviolence by its very nature calls on the whole of us, challenging us each one to our roots. It involves us in a whole-body and whole-being commitment to making and keeping peace. Far from being understood as an optional method whimsically chosen by starry-eyed idealists, we see nonviolence as a deep and consuming response to the world, one that our actual existential situation demands of us and that, if not supplied, ultimately brings death.

Nonviolence is a form of life. It must become universal, or nearly so, to meet the crisis of our time in the world. The existential imperative of nonviolence requires us, first, to establish a peaceful world in place of the violent one we now inhabit, and second, to recurrently return to peace as violence continues to irrupt within each one of us and throughout social space. Such is the existential demand of our moment in history that we evade at our peril.

In the Prologue, I proposed a mathematic equation to specify the function of nonviolence. It is:

V + (-V) à E

This reads: Violence (V) plus nonviolence (-V) produces our actual existential situation (E). This equation implies that our actual existential situation does not include either violence or nonviolence. Violence gets added to our existential situation and nonviolence subtracts it. This is the precise meaning of nonviolence as we explore the concept and its applications for the remainder of the book. But first, let us explore more deeply our equation’s final term, E.

Our Existential Situation

Being is peace. When we simply abide in the world, we are peace. If we’re paying very close attention, we can even perceive this—though most of us, most of the time, don’t. This is the secret we discover in meditation.[vi] When we slow down and listen carefully, when we let the chatter of thought die away for a moment or two, a most surprising thing can (and eventually will) happen. We suddenly feel very complete and connected, and with that a powerful sense of gratitude breaks over us. This sense of wholeness is our actual existential situation all the time, even if our glimpses of it come only fleetingly.

But, as we have observed, our existential situation contains a paradox. We are whole, and we are also autonomous beings with a tenuous hold on our existence—which is to say, we persist in a continual state of endangerment. Here it would be easy to slip into the notion that maybe some of the time we can simply and wholesomely be, but at other times we must fight for our very lives, tooth and nail. This notion, however, misses the actual structure of paradox. It is not that at some times we are at one with the whole and at other times we are alone in a hostile universe, as if these were two states that alternated one after the other. In a paradox, both senses apply at once, all the time. This suggests that our actual existential situation is that we are always and ever both one with the whole and alone and apart. These seemingly opposite poles represent two persistent aspects of our condition, regardless of momentary circumstances.

If this were true, then it should be possible to find both sides of the paradox of existence in any condition, no matter how extreme. A simple exercise of imagination shows how this could be so. First, we can imagine two star-struck lovers falling into each other’s eyes in a moment of rapturous connection. From the report of many who have found themselves in just this position, not only do the lovers feel profoundly connected to one another, they feel warmly about the whole world. The skies are bluer, the crowds more friendly, even the rain becomes sweet. But in that very same moment lurking under all that bliss a fear forms, the possibility of loss. My connection with my lover implicitly—indeed, paradoxically—exposes my vulnerability not only to the pain of its eventual severance, but to the existential fact of my fundamental aloneness. I am happy now because she is here by my side; but this will not always be so.

Similarly, we can imagine that we have just received a terminal cancer diagnosis and given weeks left to live. Most of us would react to such news with horror, panic, and depression. We would struggle to find pleasure in anything. Suddenly with little to look forward to but a painful descent into oblivion, we might feel a temptation to become angry and bitter. Despite this—or rather, in addition to it—many in this position somehow arrive at a deeper appreciation of life than they ever had before. They often feel a new closeness to their family and friends. Their experiences become more vivid and vibrant, not unlike those falling in love. They often report a deep sense of peace and acceptance, a sense of being at one with the whole cosmos. This is the other side of the same coin. With the imminence of loss comes the tender regard for what is being lost, and a sense of gratitude for having had it.

The moment of falling in love and the moment of receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis are extreme cases, but one can extrapolate from these that at any given moment, and in any particular circumstance, both senses of the paradox of existence are in play. And this is our actual existential situation. Even love does not save us from our aloneness, and even looming death does not rob us of our profound connectedness. We always live in some dynamic tension of both. Violence occurs when we give in to the horror, panic, and depression of our aloneness, having lost touch with the warmth and goodwill of our interconnectedness. Peace occurs when we keep the whole dynamic tension of our situation in view.

I want to be perfectly clear about this point. It would be easy to think that violence correlates to one side of the paradox (I am alone in a hostile universe) and peace with the other (I am interconnected with the whole). This is not what I mean to suggest. I am saying something more subtle and much more hopeful. I am saying that violence correlates to seeing one side of the paradox (I am alone) at the expense of the other; and peace correlates with seeing both sides at once. In this respect, peace is not the opposite of violence. The opposite, where we see only our interconnectedness at the expense of our aloneness, yields a kind of mythology every bit as wrongheaded as violence, and maybe just as dangerous.

Peace involves finding equanimity in the tension between our aloneness and our interconnectedness. As the anxieties of our endangerment rise, we remember our interconnectedness, tempering our anxiety with gratitude, keeping it aligned with our actual existential situation. As the bliss of love and fulfillment wash over us, we remember our aloneness and the inevitability of loss, tempering our giddiness with a reflective bittersweetness, keeping it aligned with our actual existential situation. In peace, we neither push away what we find aversive nor hold on to what we find attractive. We allow ourselves to flow and drift with circumstance’s momentum from one side of this spectrum to the other, but always maintain anchor in the center, yielding to the underlying gravity of our actual existential situation.

The real significance of the dawn of our moral sense, all those millennia ago, was that it began to be cognitively possible to hold in mind both sides of the paradox of existence at once; and with that, it began to be possible for our burgeoning awareness to modulate our responses. Thus, the prospects of violence and peace popped into the world at the very same instant and have advanced in perfect lockstep ever since. We cannot commit violence until we have the alternative to commit peace; and once we have the possibility of peace, we admit the possibility of violence.

In Part One, we surveyed the history of violence across the breadth of human existence. We saw how we emerged from the pre-moral stage with a certain repertoire of aggressive tendencies, likely somewhere on the spectrum between chimps and bonobos. We speculated that the emergence of a moral sense moderated our aggressive tendencies and enabled us to live in relatively peaceful multi-family bands for tens of thousands of years. We considered how the explosion of population that followed the advent of agriculture would have catapulted us out of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, stirred our fears and dread of strangers, and resulted in a deep descent into violence. We saw how states emerged to monopolize violence and appropriate it to the powerful. And we reflected on the stages by which violence was controlled, in some senses reduced, and in other senses merely diverted into new forms over time. Finally, we concluded that we have arrived at a point where much violence that was once commonplace is now unthinkable and where ecocide, which would have been unthinkable for the vast majority of human history, is now not only thinkable but nearly inevitable.

By this account, the rise of agriculture loosed the catastrophe of violence upon the world and we have been working to tame it ever since. We have come a long way, as Pinker argues. But we have far to go with perhaps the greater part still ahead of us. In all of this struggle, I mean to say, we have been clawing our way back toward a healthy relation to our actual existential situation, a condition we likely enjoyed (with undoubtedly mixed success) for tens of thousands of years when we lived in a far simpler world, the world to which we had adapted over millions of years.

This taming, this clawing-back, this struggle—this process of recovering our ancient relation to our actual existential situation—is what I am calling nonviolence. Peace, though far from effortless, is not struggle. Nonviolence is always struggle. Nonviolence is that precise historical force, that singular impulse rooted deep in the human psyche, that meets violence with truth—the core meaning of Gandhi’s term satyagraha or “truth force”—such that we can rediscover and renew our basic existential condition, which is one of peace.

A Moral Framework

I have asserted that violence, as we are using the term, is a moral category. Violence involves an intention to harm that we choose to follow and could choose not to. Peace and its special case, nonviolence, are likewise moral categories. This way of framing these terms raises a host of philosophical questions. To answer all of them, or even to fully answer any of them, lies beyond the scope of this book. Nevertheless, much of what we consider here reflects a specific way of thinking through some salient moral questions. So, it may be helpful to make all of this somewhat more explicit.

Allow me a cautionary word about the nature of morality. We tend to think of morality as shoulds and should-nots imposed from on high, whether by God, parent, or super-ego. My conception comes from an entirely different place. What is moral is what works.[vii] Morality, in this view, is a kind of science of living. When I do this, good things happen; when I do that, bad things happen. The framework offered below suggests certain patterns of what really works. When I speak of a given act as moral or immoral I only mean that when we do the former we get the result we want, and when we do the latter we do not. All this begs the question, of course, of what it is that we really want. My intention here is to go for the deepest possible layer of wanting, far below our whimsical hankering for passing pleasures or fanciful myths.

Let us sketch out some of the philosophical terrain so far only implicit in our discussion.[viii] I present twelve principles, culminating in formal definitions of violence, peace, and nonviolence. For each principle I offer a short explanatory note, fully aware that a whole chapter could easily be devoted to each one.


1. All beings have an equal claim to the bounty of existence, that is, to persist in their given mode of existence.


This principle flows from the elemental intuition, available to most children beyond a certain age, that we are all in this thing together—that a bird’s life, say, is every bit as valuable as a person’s. It also seeks to acknowledge that each creature has its own way of being in the world that is, to one degree or another, specific to it. In other words, none of us are special but all of us are unique. Our moral framework begins, then, with the idea that we each have a right to our natural way of life as long as we acknowledge that every other being possesses the same right.


2. A being is any part of the universe that exists, and so is comprised of subordinate levels of being and participates in superordinate levels of being.


Here I take the broadest possible sense of the word being. A being is anything that exists, not limited to living creatures. Moreover, I aim to embed our understanding of being in a dynamical systems perspective,[ix] which means that we are all involved in a system that determines us and that we determine. We are all in it together. This principle attempts to account for both sides of the paradox of existence—that a being is a distinct entity but also involved in a collection of being that ultimately includes all beings (i.e., the whole cosmos). For example, a person is a collection of atoms, molecules, cells, and organs, each of which has its own being; and a person participates in a family, a community, an ecosystem, and a world, each of which also has its own distinct being.


3. In proportion to its capacity to participate in the space of reasons, a being incurs a measure of moral responsibility.


Kant argued that humans are, generally speaking, moral equals by virtue of having a (more or less) equal capacity to reason. Wilfred Sellars improved on Kant’s understanding by describing a “space of reasons” in which we humans have a more or less equal capacity to participate.[x] The “space of reasons” incorporates the idea that reason is, after all, a social construction rather than an Ideal in the Platonic or transcendental sense. Where Kant believed reason to be a God-given capacity to make inferences about Truth (upper case T), Sellars sees reasoning as a more human process in which we all participate in the co-creation of truth (with a small t). Here, I propose to further improve Kant’s original idea, by suggesting that our capacity to participate in the space of reasons is not the source of our equality (which I have located in our very existence), but the source of our moral obligation to honor all beings’ equal right to exist. We become morally obligated because we become capable of knowing and reasoning about what we do.


4. Our maximal moral responsibility is to treat all beings not merely as means but as ends (maximal in the sense that this corresponds to an ideal capacity to participate in the space of reasons that we strive to achieve, although we are unlikely ever to succeed), such that the community of moral beings co-creates a ‘collective of ends.’


Here, I continue to follow Kant (with Sellars’ twist), combining two of his categorical imperatives: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end;”[xi] and the idea that, when we all follow this imperative, “there arises a systematic union of rational beings” that spontaneously produces, in Kant’s language, a “kingdom of ends.”[xii] By this, he imagines a world where everyone is treated, and treats others, as an end-in-herself—what I am calling the maximal, or ideal, intention. To improve on Kant’s anachronism, I substitute the word kingdom with collective, where we understand the collective to be an assemblage of equal persons mutually engaged in the space of reasons.


5. All beings, by virtue of their existence, have dignity in equal measure, that is, they are ends; to treat another being as an end is to act with dignity.


This principle proposes that all beings possess dignity not, as Kant argued, because of their capacity to reason,[xiii] but simply because they exist. In this way, we can acknowledge that an elephant or beetle, tree or mountain, has intrinsic dignity. Our acts, however, acquire the quality of dignity only when they are moral. When we treat others out of respect for their intrinsic dignity, we demonstrate our moral capacity and act with dignity. Acting with dignity expresses our awareness and orientation to our exact existential situation. Our behavior flows from a deep understanding of our relation to ourselves and others—of our uniqueness as a being and our intimate participation in the wholeness of being.


6. A being’s moral responsibility involves balancing the demands of its particular mode of being with that of all other beings, including those subordinate and superordinate to it.


This principle acknowledges that the various claims of the world’s many beings often come into conflict, and to some extent each being finds itself in the position of determining, either by design or by default, how these conflicts are resolved. To act at all implicates us in a cascade of consequences that emanates out through space and time from the moment of action.[xiv] By our very existence, we cannot help but infringe more or less continuously on the mode of existence of one being or another. In short, we live in a constant state of moral compromise. This cannot be helped. Nevertheless, our responsibility (by virtue of our capacity to participate in the space of reasons) is to avoid unnecessary harms, and reduce the harm when we cannot avoid it altogether.


7. Where conflicts between these demands are necessary or unavoidable, it is more moral to infringe (1) to the least possible degree, (2) upon the smallest possible number of beings, (3) over the least possible period of time.


This principle defines a loose metric by which we can compare different courses of action and their likely consequences.[xv] Given that all beings have an equal claim not to be infringed upon, the calculus of this principle focuses on doing the least possible harm to the smallest possible number of beings, making no distinction about the relative merit of different beings, and weighting equally harm in the long-term with harm in the short-term.

In combination with the previous principle, which alerts us to our embeddedness in superordinate levels of being, the present principle suggests some degree of moral preference for the higher-level assemblages of being in which we participate. If harm at a superordinate level of being might impact many of its participating lower-level beings, it would be regarded as more immoral than equivalent harm at a lower level of organization, if a smaller total number of beings would thus be affected. Of course, this does not mean that it is moral to infringe unnecessarily on the mode of existence of lower-level beings, only that it may be less immoral to do so. For example, in the context of nonviolent struggle, if faced with a choice between putting myself in harm’s way and putting a large group in harm’s way, it may prove more moral to put myself on the line, sparing the larger number. On the other hand, if my sacrifice is unlikely to help very many people, but the sacrifice of the whole group is likely to help many people, then it may be more moral for the whole group to expose itself to harm, rather than just me.


8. Death is part of the mode of existence of any living being, as is sickness, trauma, and injury. Each of these can be, and death is necessarily, a transition from one mode of existence (such as that of a living organism) to another (such as a mass of inanimate matter). Transitions of mode, when imposed by one being upon another, represent a high degree of infringement.


This principle aims to put death and other serious harms into proper perspective, striking a balance between their subjective severity and their objective ordinariness. A moral judgment of the significance of death must somehow account for both of these perspectives. To any given being, but especially to a sentient one, death is the worst possible kind of harm (or close to it); but viewed at a superordinate level, death is an essential process for the renewal of life, enabling the superordinate being (e.g., humankind, or a given ecosystem) to thrive.


9. The infliction of death or any other significant constraint on another being’s mode of existence is moral only to the extent that it is necessary or unavoidable; the voluntary and willing giving of one’s own life or some other significant constraint on one’s own mode of existence is moral to the extent that (1) it directly serves the purpose of peace and nonviolence, and (2) it infringes as little as possible on self and others.


This principle makes a crucial distinction between the morality of harming others and allowing oneself to be harmed. If the purpose of exposing oneself to harm is to reduce a greater harm to others while making every effort to minimize the harm to oneself, then this may be a moral act. To harm oneself for some other reason (e.g., self-loathing) is not moral—by which I mean that it is likely to unleash a cascade of suffering in its wake greater than the suffering saved. Similarly, this principle suggests that it is never moral to inflict unnecessary harm on another.


10. Violence is the act of one being infringing on the given mode of existence of another (treating the other merely as a means) when the actor is capable of knowing that this infringement is not necessary.


This re-states the definition of violence given in Chapter 1, now in the larger context of the other principles.


11. Peace is the act of honoring the dignity of all beings, without infringement of any being’s given mode of existence, including one’s own.


Plainly, peace as here defined is an ideal. Although we will never fully attain it, it represents the True North toward which we continually strive. This definition of peace also helps us distinguish between acts of peace and acts of nonviolence, as defined in the final principle. While all nonviolence functions in the service of peace, and all nonviolent acts are peaceful, the special conditions of nonviolence involve additional risks and responsibilities.


12. Nonviolence is the act of honoring the dignity of all beings, but especially those beings who infringe on the given mode of existence of other beings (i.e., who are violent), even at risk of one’s own mode of being, in just such a way as to invite those who do violence to become peaceful.


Nonviolence entails the contradiction of violence not only by honoring that which violence transgresses (that is, the dignity of beings) but by focusing specifically on the dignity of the transgressor. Moreover, where violence involves the projection of hostility onto another, nonviolence requires the acceptance of another’s hostility onto oneself—I would rather you harm me than I harm you. But the intention and function of this stance is not to invite harm to oneself for its own sake, but to invite the other to act differently, that is, with dignity toward all beings. Nonviolence should never be confused with masochism. The nonviolent actor never enjoys her suffering, but endures it as a courageous act of vivid and embodied truth-telling.

I began this section by positing that ‘what is moral is what works.’ But this only offers a kind of shorthand. Perhaps it would hew closer to the mark to say that what is moral is that which reflects our actual existential situation. This chapter has offered an extended meditation on our actual existential situation and proposed a moral framework for living in that precise situation. The remainder of the book tries to imagine what it might be like to live out of those moral, which is to say existential, imperatives.


[i] Pinker, 2011, devotes an entire volume to defending this conception of peace exactly, leaving me rather underwhelmed by his optimism.

[ii] Arms here as those appendages that embrace, rather than those instruments that stab, shoot, and wound.

[iii] I use the word imply here in the sense developed by Eugene Gendlin, 1962/1997, and 1996/2018. What is implied is what wants to come forward. For example, hunger implies eating, or a feeling of adoring implies coming into proximity with a loved one. See also Burgess, forthcoming.

[iv] Neither Gandhi nor King fully developed their own ideas in a systematic way, but others have done so in the intervening years. See, for instance, Bondurant, 1969, and Nagler, 2004.

[v] For an encyclopedic account of these tools, see Sharp, 1973.

[vi] This idea is fully developed in Chapter 8.

[vii] This is a kind of philosophical pragmatism. See Bernstein, 2010.

[viii] In this discussion, I am especially indebted to the work of Todd May, 2015, for his own thought and his able descriptions of the work of Kant and Wilfred Sellars.

[ix] See Varela & Thompson, 1991.

[x] Sellars, 1997.

[xi] Kant, 1785/2009, p. 96.

[xii] Kant, 1785/2009, p. 101.

[xiii] See May, 2015, p. 110ff. for a discussion of the role of dignity in Kant’s moral philosophy.

[xiv] See Nagler, 2004, p. 93 for a discussion of the “event cone” as it applies to violence.

[xv] This is a utilitarian approach. For a current defense of utilitarianism, see Greene, 2013.