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At a time of defensive wars of aggression, what constitutes ethical violence?

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By Hugh Breakey

As the title suggests, Carlo Bordini’s "Ethical Violence" studies the ways different forms of violence – especially but not only, war – come to be accepted as morally legitimate.

The book builds on the Italian sociologist and journalist’s prior work examining social forces and changes unfolding in modern times.

For Bordoni, “ethical violence” is violence that, though dangerous, has become legitimized and accepted by a community as permissible or even necessary.

Bordoni explores the horrors of Nazi Germany and considers the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the book does not touch on the current conflagrations in the Middle East, these provide all-too-clear examples of brutality that is accepted and even celebrated by different sides.

It is a basic moral tenet and enduring concept in ethics that life is sacred and worthy of respect. So how might the known, intentional killing of thousands of human beings, such as in a war, be morally accepted? Or even seen as rational?

Bordoni surveys a myriad of hypotheses, traversing sociology, philosophy, political theory, history, legal theory and the social sciences. He brings into discussion thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, Steven Pinker and Zygmunt Bauman.

The German sociologist Weber, for instance, viewed war as a beneficial catalyst for change. German philosopher Georg Simmel speculated on war’s capacity to create valuable internal cohesion among nation states.

Sifting through various views, Bordoni reflects that even in a single case there may be multiple answers. Leaders may have rational reasons (moral or self-interested) for going to war. Yet solidarity, heightened emotion and even irrationality might also be required to ignite the popular will to wage war, with all its sacrifices and brutalities.

Self-defense

The late 20th century saw the fitful development of the view that wars must not be fought for a state’s general political or economic interests, but only in self-defense. As Bordoni observes, this shut the front door to war only to allow it in through the back. Today, he writes, “we only have defensive wars.”

The current conflagrations in the Middle East support Bordoni’s insight. Israel and Hamas, the United States and Yemen, Iran and Pakistan: all these very different conflicts are, in the eyes of those fighting them, defensive wars. Each side sees itself as justifiably responding to a past or present attack.

Even Russia dubiously justified its invasion of Ukraine by claiming it was defending citizens against “Nazis”, describing NATO’s expansion as “a serious provocation.”

Bordoni’s work helps us understand the many reasons why societies might adopt a war footing. It is less useful, though, in trying to think through the ethics of these conflicts, if by ethics we mean what we should do.

Bordoni suggests that if we truly acknowledged the ethical value of all human life (including that of our enemies), war would not be possible.

He draws on Judith Butler’s idea of “grievability”, where communities determine whose deaths are appropriately mourned. Some lives will not be seen as valued and their deaths not worthy of grieving. If all lives were recognized as grievable, Bordoni argues, it would be impossible to accept war’s human costs.

But Bordoni’s argument here seems flawed on two important counts.

First, it is not necessary to dehumanize someone to decide they must be killed. It is entirely possible to cleave to a moral principle – such as everyone’s right to life – and at the same time to neutralize the principle’s applicability in the present case.

This can be done in selective and hypocritical ways. Our ingenious human brains can confect reasons why this case is an exception to a rule we otherwise righteously acknowledge. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a plausible example. Russia never claimed state sovereignty was meaningless or Ukrainian citizens deserve to be slaughtered. Instead, its claims about Nazis and NATO sought to show the Ukrainian context created an exception to the widely accepted prohibition on military aggression.

Second, there is one case where that “exception” does seem justified, namely, in genuine cases of self-defense. Most contemporary ethical thought – in particular “just war theory” – allows the use of war, and even collateral damage, in self defense against aggressors.

This is an important point: “ethical violence” is not merely a sociological process of building popular legitimacy for mass violence (Bordoni’s focus). It is also the demand to temper our violence until it can pass ethical muster. This involves providing strictures on when actions like war are permissible (the “jus ad bellum” of just war theory). It also requires respecting laws like the Geneva Conventions and the Genocide Convention, that protect civilians during war (the “jus in bello”).

Still, a counter argument here is that, while genuine claims of self-defence are pivotal in ethical decisions to visit violence on others, it may be that the social and psychological weight of actually inflicting the brutal violence demanded by war requires a dehumanized and hated foe.

If this is the case, even the most justified war carries a profound moral risk. We must demean the enemy, seeing human beings as obstacles requiring elimination, rather than intrinsic sources of value.

Modernity and mass violence

How is it that modernity – since the Enlightenment – has not consigned war and terrorism to the barbaric past? Bordoni develops a complex picture of modernity – or rather modernities, following Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt in seeing a series of sociological and economic upheavals over recent centuries. These included the creation of state sovereignty, the rise of reason and science, industrialization and the proliferation of technology.

To these we must add the crises of modernity in recent decades, with its values of progress, human equality and rationality being questioned.

Bordoni sees our current times as characterized by a push back against rationality and science, with the embrace of emotions (including resentment). We take rationality for granted, he warns, but in truth it is a cultural achievement – a “precious plant”.

Even so, Bordoni cautions against the comfortable view the excesses of 20th century violence were departures from modernity. For modernity promises an orderly, standardized world, governed and controlled by precise rules to achieve conformity, security, safety and prosperity. This demand for control and perfection characterizes the totalitarian impulse. Totalitarianism inevitably produces enormous violence.

Hugh Breakey is Deputy Director, Institute for Ethics, Governance & Law. President, Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics., Griffith University, Australia.

Bordoni’s book is intellectually refreshing in its willingness to marshal many different ideas and to resist definitively choosing one theory or approach over another. But this very feature can make Ethical Violence a challenging and at times frustrating read. The book doesn’t have a central driving thesis or overarching argument the author systematically pursues. Many ideas are raised, briefly discussed, then left aside.

Bordoni’s sociological and historical approach helps the reader stand back from the headlines to consider the modern world’s large-scale structures and disruptions.

He gathers disparate threads together meaningfully, allowing us to recognize key changes and see our present moment anew: a time when, he suggests, technology is trusted but science is not and emotion and individuality have superseded rationality and competence.

Yet there are worries with this broad-brush approach. A focus on the differences across generations and centuries can obscure the continuities. It can also simplify. After all, in every era there are dissenting voices and rival movements. Modern societies – like, perhaps, all societies – have threads of rationality and irrationality, domains where emotion is praised and times when it is repressed.

As a result, a very different story of modernity could be told, arguing modernity actually represents the dawning awareness we must relinquish control and divide power. After all, modernity gave us the toleration valorised by Locke and Voltaire. The distrust of government that delivered the U.S. Constitution. The elaboration of the separation of powers and democratic accountability. John Stuart Mill’s celebration of human diversity. And the creation of institutions (such as the United Nations), developed not to build heaven on earth, but merely to save us from hell.

In Bordoni’s book, “ethical violence” is a recurring theme rather than a singular focus. He engages in many intriguing discussions. It is impossible in a review to even mention the myriad ideas he raises. Indeed, in the book’s final chapter, the topic of ethical violence is entirely left behind, as Bordoni ruminates on technology, science, rationality, human individuality, loneliness and alienation.

Still, "Ethical Violence" is a valuable book for those who want their thinking to be challenged and enriched, to reflect on the modern condition, and to consider where we might all be heading.

Hugh Breakey is Deputy Director, Institute for Ethics, Governance & Law. President, Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics., Griffith University, Australia.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

13 Comments
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What the UN charter says: basically objectively necessary self-defense only. Not made up or potential attacks.

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Someone will immediately bring up the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From my brief reading of the history, Saddam was in violation of many UNSC resolutions but the UNSC was failing to act. If you want to be against the Iraq War and call for Bush Jr. to face war crimes charges, fine, but you should condemn the much greater permanent violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity and economy even more so.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Ethical violence ? ? ?

Whoever dreamed up that term has serious issues

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Someone will immediately bring up the 2003 invasion of Iraq. From my brief reading of the history,

No Need to announce your brief reading of history.

A quick Google Wikipedia education isn't valuable

Do you still believe NATO isn't in Asia ?

Even tho Turkey is western Asia and the second largest member of NATO !

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

It is seen as ethical to ignore the laws given to Moses, such as "thou shalt not kill" and "thou shalt not covet (basically anything of thy neighbors)....when it's your neighbor's land you want, it's okay to ignore God's laws !

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

It's ethical to protect your lands when invaded by 5 Arab countries, and to protect those lands for the next 80 years and ultimately defeat 11 different Arab nations that are committed to genocide against your people.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

PseudonymouseToday 09:31 am JST

Do you still believe NATO isn't in Asia ?

Yes

Even tho Turkey is western Asia and the second largest member of NATO !

Nobody refers to "western Asia" but please feel like you got me in some sort of faux pas.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The more I think about it, the more I am starting to realize that we are kind of living in the breakdown of the UN as a legal body and that is unfortunate. It will take another world war to create a UN v2 and the current major powers won't be around to see it.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

First, it is not necessary to dehumanize someone to decide they must be killed.

And yet it is the first tool that nearly all leaders reach for, dehumanize the enemy, enabling people to do unspeakable things that they would not normally consider.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Violence justified If Seeking Independence for Cause.

For those Russian speaking former Ukrainians that have pursued and achieved their LEGAL independence for CAUSE from Ukraine, their ethical violence a function of established human, property and citizenship rights abuses they suffered under the current Kiev regime.

Ongoing bloody civil war in Ukraine started 10years ago and continues today, massively escalating due to Biden Admin. arming & training Kiev as NATO proxy force, forcing Russia & Pres. Putin to respond to defend those seeking LEGAL independence from KIEV for CAUSE.

-4 ( +1 / -5 )

Ethical violence or war?

As in the US making a lie to justify their invasion of Iraq and subsequent murder of hundreds of thousands?

More egregious though is that after the lie was exposed it was still perfectly alright to many people.

Now that is just isn't unethical, that's downright corrupt and evil

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Mr. Putin is the enemy of free people everywhere.

Putin's Puppet is no better.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

HopeSpringsEternalFeb. 4 10:17 pm JST

Violence justified If Seeking Independence for Cause.

For those Russian speaking former Ukrainians that have pursued and achieved their LEGAL independence for CAUSE from Ukraine, their ethical violence a function of established human, property and citizenship rights abuses they suffered under the current Kiev regime.

It's clearly not legal what Russia is doing.

Ongoing bloody civil war in Ukraine started 10years ago and continues today, massively escalating due to Biden Admin. arming & training Kiev as NATO proxy force, forcing Russia & Pres. Putin to respond to defend those seeking LEGAL independence from KIEV for CAUSE.

Still Putin's War.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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