Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Shopping for Non-violence

by Katie Bignell, presented at the Santa Clara University Student Ethics Research Conference May 26, 2004

Introduction

Last quarter in my ethics and society class, I found myself in a personal dilemma: As we read and discussed non-violence, I found myself increasingly siding with those philosophers who say that non-violence is impractical in our society today, mostly because they had concrete evidence that non-violence doesn't work, and I didn't have any concrete evidence that it does. Indeed, non-violence looks good on paper, and seems like it would function well; there would be less blood in our world, and instead more conversations, more peace between people and nations. But I found myself asking, "if non-violence is so great a philosophy, why hasn't it caught on?" As a person who has always considered herself a peacemaker, I didn't like that I felt forced by my society to claim that non-violence is a lost cause; I refused to admit that there was no hope for the theory of non-violence in this world. This paper is an attempt to reconcile my personal inclinations towards non-violence with a society that constantly tells me that my non-violence, and non-violence in general, is a waste of time.

In the paper, I use arguments from moral philosopher Michael Walzer's book, "Just and Unjust Wars" to discuss why non-violence is impractical, and then in contrast, I use selections from Mahatma Gandhi's "Love Versus War and Dictators," to discuss why non-violence, though seemingly impractical, is actually the more desirable path to follow.

Main arguments:

The views of these two philosophers are simple: When confronted by an aggressor, Gandhi thinks that non-violence is the only path of action to follow, even if following it means death, whereas Walzer thinks that to act non-violently is impractical in the context of a complex society such as ours.

Gandhi's psychological argument:
One of Gandhi's main arguments for the belief that non-violence is preferable over violence in every situation is a psychological argument. This argument is rooted in the belief that human nature is fundamentally good. That is, every person can only kill so many innocent people before going insane with guilt. Therefore, reacting to aggressors with violence is simply unnecessary; there is no need to stop with violence what will eventually be stopped by pure good will alone.

In addition, Gandhi points out that a non-violent people resisting an oppressor would be very difficult to rule. Their boycotts and protests would set the economic and political systems of the society askew, …and "the tyrant (would) not find it worth his while to go on with his terrorism" (Gandhi 332).

Furthermore, suppose these oppressed people not only refrained from violence, but actually loved their oppressors, and let them see that they "(had) not a trace of ill will against" them (Gandhi 334). Gandhi argues that this love would "reach up to (the oppressor) and his eyes would be opened;" he would eventually stop his aggression out of love (Gandhi 334).

Once again, Gandhi's psychological argument claims that non-violent resistance is just as effective, if not more effective in the long run, than taking up arms, for inherently good people can only do so much evil.

Walzer's argument:
Walzer, on the other hand, challenges us to ask ourselves how practical Gandhi's psychological argument is in the reality of our world today, focusing on the plausibility of successful non-violent resistance in situations of war. He states many reasons why Gandhi's pacifism is impractical, including the fact that non-violent resistance would need tremendous leadership and publicity to successfully organize the people. He is also skeptical about Gahndi's non-violent resistance because we have no proof, no history to look back at and say, "yes, that worked for them. Why don't we try that?", because non-violence has only ever been used as a last resort, never as a preventive strategy in war.

But Walzer's most convincing argument against Gandhi's psychological argument is simply that there is no way we can ever be sure of every man's inherent goodness; that to ensure our eventual safety by trusting in the good human nature of any and all human beings would be a very big risk. In other words, Walzer is not ready to gamble the entire existence of a people on the good will of oppressors.

Finally, Walzer argues that it is just not likely that a people, faced with violence, will be strong enough or organized enough to stand up for their country and fellow citizens. People get scared. And in a basic, biological sense, even if the people are committed to non-violence, their fight/flight reflex is going to activate in the threat of danger whether they want it to or not; In other words, in order for non-violence to work effectively, its supporters must have a very strong will. Many people, Walzer argues, are simply not that mentally strong.

With all these arguments against the practicality of non-violence, Walzer might say to Gandhi, "What is the point of even attempting non-violence?" for Walzer's argument about the impracticality of non-violence focuses on its plausibility in war situations, in which large groups of people would be needed for a resistance. Indeed, Walzer convinces us that in the reality of our world today, in which the good will of every person can never be assured, and in which it would take a tremendous amount of effort to first inspire, and then organize a people into non-violent resistance, which has never even been proven to work in the past, Gandhi's argument for non-violence grows weaker and weaker, at least in the situation of preventing or stopping a war.

Gandhi's eudaemonist argument
Here, however, with the mention of our world as it is today, we come to Gandhi's main argument, a point that Walzer completely ignores: the eudaemonist argument, which calls us to question whether or not this world really matters. First, we must re-examine our goals. We might say Walzer considers the psychological argument for non-violence impractical because we could never be sure that it would help us arrive at our goal. Yet, that is assuming that our goal is to stay alive, to protect our country and our fellow citizens, to win the war. The eudaemonist argument calls us to forget all that. It calls us to forget we even belong to a specific society, country, or even family. All the eudaemonist calls us to do is be the absolute best human beings we can be, regardless of what world we live in, the society to which we belong, or whether the violence we face is small or massive.

What does it mean to be fully human, to be the best humans we can be? Gandhi says that one characteristic sets human beings apart from all other creatures: our dignity. Without our dignity, we cease to be human. Therefore, we must demand our dignity from others. Our goal, then, changes from surviving in this world as long as possible to surviving and living with dignity in this world as long as possible; a short life well-lived is better than a long life badly lived.

For many eudaemonists, motivation to live a life committed to dignity lies in the belief that one must earn passage into the next world by acting a certain way in this world. For other eudaemonists, the motivation simply lies in a yearning to live a life that is focused on quality, not quantity. But no matter what our motivation for living life as the best humans we can be, Gandhi argues that violence is simply incompatible with building a "pure, strong, beautiful character," and that therefore we should avoid being violent no matter what aggression comes to face us, for "(violence) is not the pathway to our goal" (Gandhi 332).

It is here that Gandhi's argument really begins to gain credibility in the face of Walzer's argument. For if we are to be the best human beings we can be, we must take the non-violence versus violence discussion beyond just the situations of war that Walzer discusses and bring it into all parts of our lives. Gandhi challenges us to ask why acting less violently in all parts of our lives would not improve the situation of the world. For instance, if we acted less "violently" in our economic policies, Gandhi supposes that we would have a fewer number of big cities and large corporations, thus opening up the door for smaller, more intimate communities and more personal social relations. Furthermore, the strategy of non-violence would work towards more long term improvements, for the spirit of the eudaemonist is progressive and endless, even past the life of that believer (Gandhi 331).

Gandhi further points out that this loving non-violence holds a tremendous power for transformation of the world because where as violence must be taught, every person has an endless power to do good acts; all we have to do is awaken the power and use it.

With that in mind, the eudaemonist argument is encouraging. Indeed, it calls us to be courageous, to be heroic, as Gandhi puts it. But Gandhi argues that what is so special about this courage is that…it is contagious. In this way, "if (merely one person) were to adopt the matchless weapon of non-violence…their case would be the world's" (Gandhi 330). …One person's bravery, if she is truly committed to the eudaemonist way of life and will even die before giving up her dignity, inspires many others to be brave as well.

Real-life evidence of how inspiring non-violent resistance can be is present in the martyrs of El Salvador. These individuals, who stood up for what they believed was just during the twelve-year civil war without raising arms, live on in the spirit of the Salvadoran people today. Their portraits and quotes can be seen on every bus, store window, and living room wall. Their acts, which are witness to their conviction for human dignity, constantly remind the people of El Salvador what can be done to combat injustice, whatever its caliber, without violence. The martyrs are no longer alive, but their stories and the message that they sent live on.

Of course, Gandhi is careful to point out as well that living a truly eudaemonist life would not be easy, but he calms us by saying "are not all great and good things difficult to do?" We shouldn't expect non-violence to be easy.

In fact, Gandhi claims that suffering for justice actually builds the "strong, pure, beautiful character which is our aim…" (Gandhi 326), for "suffering voluntarily undergone will bring (a person) an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed…can" (Gandhi 329). If suffering instead of resisting with arms does not bring an external, physical victory to the victim, it does bring an internal, moral one, which, in the end, is our only goal.

Therefore, Gandhi says that all we need to conceive of a world of non-violence is education for the people, tempting them with the personal fulfillment that non-violence brings, with the prospect of finding our what it means to be truly human. But again, Walzer might say that this idea is impractical, asking, "how many people are really going to think about being their most human selves when an army invades their city?"

Again, if we are to believe Gandhi's eudaemonist argument, we have to answer Walzer that even if we lost our bodies in that non-violent fight, our battle would be won. In the end, then, in deciding whether or not Walzer's or Gandhi's view is more preferable, the issue is whether or not people in today's society are willing to "find life by losing it" (Gandhi 333). For me, perhaps a closet eudaemonist, Gandhi's argument is water for a thirsty soul; the thought of truly experiencing what it means to be fully human is intriguing, inviting, and almost seducing. We live in such a present-centered society, constantly focused on the here and now, gobbling up fast food and always searching for instant satisfaction.

Relating to Society
As a society, we have bought into the glory and sometimes the gain that violence offers, straying from the eudaemonist core that resides in the center of all of us, ignoring, or perhaps placing lower on our list of priorities, that deep desire to be the best humans we can be. I see examples of this lack of eudaemonist values all around me. On a national level, I am confronted with the recent happenings in the prisons in Iraq, a complete abandon of respect for other's dignity. But while events like this are serious issues that demand our attention, they lie more in Walzer's realm of violence versus non-violence in a war situation. What concerns me most, and what ultimately inspired me to write this paper, is the lack of eudaemonist values in our everyday lives, in the areas in which Gandhi believes non-violence must have it's roots. The most visible example that has taken our country by storm in the few years is the increasing popularity of reality TV. Games like these in which people are encouraged to win at any cost, to place themselves or others in a spotlight that does not always honor their dignity, may be entertaining, but they leave something to be desired.

Conclusion

Therefore, while Gandhi may be an idealist, I find it hard to believe that if many of my fellow Americans, or any human being for that matter, truly reflected on the personal satisfaction and dignity that his or her lifestyle offered, they would not also be tempted into non-violence by Gandhi's arguments for a more peaceful and loving world.
Indeed, "I am convinced that, if someone with courage and vision can arise among (us) to lead (us) in non-violent action, the winter of (our) despair can…be turned into the summer of hope" (Gandhi 329). Non-violence is conceivable, practical, and desirable, we've just got to find a good way to market it in today's society.

Read more ethical articles.


New Materials

Center News