Violence Justifiable?

In reading the last two authors for our course, Henry D. Thoreau and President Abraham Lincoln, several questions were raised on the issue of violence.  Is violence justified? If it is, how so or in which cases? Why some violence ok and some isn’t?  If it’s not justified, what are other courses of action that an individual can take? 

While reading these two authors I couldn’t help but to think about a speech I heard a few weeks again given by Dr. Cornel West.  Though his speech many focus points, there was one in particular that relates to the questions mentioned above.  He referenced what he called the “new, new school” and claimed he was from the “old, old school”.  He seemed absolutely bothered by the fact that many young people are afraid to act.  So many people of our younger generation commonly accept the status quo rather that standing up for what they believe in.  He also mentioned that today’s young people are starting to engage in debating, discussing and taking action for or against societal issues they believe in.  But similarly to Thoreau, Dr. Cornel West doesn’t think this is enough.  During his speech, which I would call quite motivational, he declared that in order to live you must be willing to die not only for yourself but others because we are all connected in a much larger sense.  You have to be able to accept that you could die in fighting a cause that you believe in.  At first I was taken aback by this broad and very liberal statement, but after reading Thoreau I understood what Dr. West meant by this.

As mentioned in lecture, Thoreau clearly felt that slavery was a pure injustice of not only the government but all citizens involved with this servitude system.  Although Thoreau gives us several options of what one can do when they feel the government is practicing unjust activities, for the sake of this post, violence is of most significance.  So is violence justified? Thoreau thinks it is or it can be a viable option amongst others.  Thoreau states, “It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave.  I agree with him.  They are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others” (Thoreau 132). So this leaves the question does a violent injustice legitimize a violent response?  Thoreau would argue yes.  He then states on page 133 that, “A man may have other affairs to attend to.  I do not wish to kill not to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these things would be by me unavoidable.  We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence everyday”. Let’s be clear.  Thoreau is arguing that individuals have the right to react violently but are not obligated to do so.  But like Dr. West, if one stand back and does nothing like being indifferent, withdrawing from society, breaking the law or having a Transcendent Experience, you aren’t living.


On the other hand, President Lincoln would argue differently.  Lincoln argues that violence is never justifiable.  Lincoln is a strong believer in obeying the law even though he recognizes that there are some bad laws.  He argued that violating the law: 1) ruins the attachment of the people to their government, 2) sets an example of lawlessness, 3) violates the success of the American Experiment, 4) has the contagion effect of violence.  He argues that violence punishes the innocent and only creates violence.  This may sound cliché but Lincoln believes that burning fire with fire only creates a bigger fire. 

As for me, I believe that in modern times one should obey the law and do something, legally, if you don’t like what your government is doing.  Slavery was purely different, different time and different matter.  In my opinion there was really no other effective way to create a shock factor on the argument of slavery.  But I would not defend violence as justifiable against government acts in the present day.  What do you think violence justifiable and if so in what instances?

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5 Responses to Violence Justifiable?

  1. Robert Tepper says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more that violence really isn’t justifiable today. As you said, slavery was a very different issue and took place during a very different time, and everyone understands today why some violence was necessary then. However, nothing is accomplished today through violence — I can’t name a single group of people that gained legitimacy through violent acts in recent years. The only way to truly stand up and make a change is to do so legally and respectfully, or else be dismissed as violent and unorganized.

  2. paranpi says:

    I agree with you that violence is becoming more and more unjustifiable mean to an end today. Legal alternatives offer a less violent way to solve social problems, whether effectively or not. Similar to slavery, violence would only be justifiable if the victim had no legal alternative to protect themselves, or if the government or the legal system actively persecuted an individual because of prejudice. I think the key word is “self defense”, of oneself and a group they identify with. For instance, I think it was justifiable that there was a civil rights movement, but I don’t think the violence some of the activist groups used were a little less clear on whether or not they were justifiable. It is true that in many scenarios, the government either looked the other way, or even abused it’s power in some scenarios (police brutality, unfair charges/punishments), but was violence the only alternative in this situation? These people technically had a “citizenship”, and I feel like the peaceful protests had more impact than the violent ones, as much as government/authority seemed to be unfair. And as Lincoln has said, it is the duty of the citizen to be educated and stop “bad laws”. So it is much better for citizens to be educated to help create a better society and keep a watch on our legal system, then to turn to violence.

  3. drullis says:

    I think that over time we have seen that violence, even when it may produce a favorable outcome, is still not an option the masses would like to see chosen. We have seen what violence produces and society has shifted away from notions that violence is a viable solution. I agree that in today’s times it is much less likely to see events come down to violence. I find it interesting the Cornell West said that our generation is less likely to stick up for what we believe in. It is almost that he correlates sticking up for what you believe in directly with acts of violence. I understand that his generation is more old-school and Cornell West comes from a time when violent means were used to gain independence and advancements in society. Thoreau and West seem to agree that violence is a solution to gain acknowledgement in society and it seems that both come from backgrounds of being used to very cruel and unfair injustices in society. Thoreau talks about seeing injustices in slavery and West grows up during the civil rights movement, both very big examples of injustices in American history. It seems that both have a strong feeling towards using violence being as they witnessed major struggles of battling injustices. I feel as is Abraham Lincoln takes a much more civilized approach to the matter. His theory on violence looks as a model of what society now thinks about violence.

    I think that today violence is rarely justifiable. Certainly in cases of police brutality and injustices such as that, violence is still justifiable to me. I do believe that matters of injustices as severe as slavery or civil rights, then justice would be viable. Maybe we just come from generations who witnessed what violence does to societies so we stay away from violence and declare it as unjustifiable.

  4. eakunne5 says:

    I think when oppression and a restriction of natural rights occur than violence can be justifiable. So basically in extreme cases it is okay to do. But I do want to emphasize why i feel that Lincoln’s insistence on abiding to the law isnt really American. A democracy is meant to represent the peoples ideals. Their thoughts and opinions greatly shape how the government functions and protects the people. If the government becomes this iron law that doesnt listen or adjust to its people then it isnt democratic in any sense

  5. newbieblogster13 says:

    If you are talking about violence purely against the government to achieve an agenda, I agree with you to a point. In this era, violence has no place and situations should be dealt with only in legal manners. There are set laws and regulations to do so. However, if the government were to be resorting to violence, then I think the people has a right to violence as well. If a government starts to become hostile to it’s governed, the government would not listen to voices of reason or follow laws they set themselves. Take the Arab Spring as example. The people had to resort to violence because their oppressive government were already committing heinous acts. There is no legal way to deal with such a situation and the people had to overthrow the government to start anew. Though a peaceful protest worked with Mahatma Ghandi, I doubt the same would have worked for the Middle East as the leaders has no such regard for its citizens as the British did for people of another country. I’d say that speaks volumes as one government cared for the people of another country while another government didn’t even care for their own citizens. In conclusion, I think violence is justified if a government was the one to start it.

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