Physical Violence and Mental Coercion: What is Pacifism?

As someone with pacifist tendencies I’m asking myself “is physical violence different to other forms of coercion”?

Physical violence, or the threat of it (usually a combination of both), is often used as a way of control – getting someone to do what you want them to do. However, there are many other forms of coercive control, for example, withholding of privileges, refusal to trade, lending, mental torture, etc., etc.

In an escalation of attempts to control, physical violence is the ultimate weapon as it is physical violence which can control physical outcomes which are usually the purpose of coercion. Whilst the withholding of privileges may not force someone to do something, physical violence can. If we look at society and culture we see that physical violence is used when other forms of coercion are inadequate – hence the ultimate fallback of war.

Physical violence is often the last resort after other attempts at control have been tried. However, this isn’t always the case, sometimes physical force or violence is a first choice for some.

So are my pacifist tendencies to do with exercising non-violence or are they to do with choosing not to control?

Well, personally speaking, I’m not sure that there is much to separate violent from non violent coercion. The physical pain of violence isn’t necessarily much different to the mental factors we apply during other forms of coercion. In fact, as a child I often preferred physical punishment (bear in mind that this is within limits, within a loving relationship and with many other positive factors) to other forms of punishment – particularly ones that were more drawn out. Really my preference of punishment was simply a cost benefit analysis of what was available, with physical punishment, where pain was experienced, being a valid alternative to other punishments.

If we look at punishments of different societies, or through history, we see a correlation between increased civilisation (as we define it) and reduced physically violent punishments. Many societies still practice physical punishments, whilst we have moved on to detention and removal of rights and privileges (admittedly backed by the force of violence – one cannot simply walk out of prison after all!).

Why is it that physical violence is seen as being worse than other forms of punishment and coercion?

I imagine that part of the reason is that the ultimate physical violence is killing, which is a rather permanent state of affairs for the recipient. Also, many other forms of physical violence are permanent and might be regretted after the fact, whereas there is always the idea that non-physical punishment is temporary and can be put behind one. However, many forms of physical violence are more temporary than many forms of non-physical coercion – what implications does that have?

Here we can read an argument about ‘what is coercion’, where Hayek believes it is wider than simply physical violence, but Rothbard saying that coercion is limited to violence.

After having had a look at this I tend to side more with Hayek, but I would go on to say that whether something is coercion or not must depend on the intent of the person who may be exercising control. I come to this conclusion by looking at trade: If I choose not to trade with someone (this refusal could be construed as coercion if you take the broad definition), I would say it is only coercion if I am doing it in an attempt to control the behaviour of that person. There may be other reasons for refusal to trade, for example I might consider the other person in the trade to have immorally acquired the thing that he wishes to trade – so I refuse to trade, not to try and get him to change his behaviour, but because I don’t want to get caught up in the problem. Hayek pointed out that, should a great artist refuse to paint a portrait of Hayek for Hayek then this is not coercion – I would have to conclude that it is the perceived motive that makes this act, by the artist, something that is not coercion.

So, my conclusion is that the pacifism I tend towards is not so much violence versus non-violence, but is rather a choice to avoid controlling others. My pacifism is actually, when I peel back the layers, a choice towards non-coercive behaviour on my part.

Personally I see little merit in drawing a line between violence and non-violence, but rather I see great merit in making a distinction between a motive to control and a choice to not control.