In Gaudino forum, Bufacchi analyzes political violence

Vittorio Bufacchi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cork in Ireland, delivered the year’s first Gaudino lecture on Wednesday to a sparse Griffin Hall crowd. His lecture, “Violence: A Philosophical Analysis,” sought to answer the question of what exactly violence is.

Bufacchi began by discussing the existing philosophical literature on violence. He explained that there are essentially two approaches in the attempt to define it. First, he said, is the “comprehensive approach”: definitions so broad that they attempt to cover every single potentially violent act. Second are definitions that try to pinpoint the core issue of what makes an act violent, the “core intuition approach.”

Bufacchi mentioned the work of the philosopher Robert Audi as an example of the “comprehensive approach” before offering his two objections to it. He explained that comprehensive definitions of violence will always fail for one of two reasons.

The first potential flaw of a comprehensive definition is that it will have gaps. If this is not the case, he said, then it risks being “like a map of 1:1 scale – so descriptively rich that it becomes practically useless.”

Bufacchi then turned his attention to the core intuition approach. He quoted the work of Jamil Salmi, the Moroccan philosopher who has written one of its most accepted examples. “Violence is any avoidable action that constitutes a violation of human rights,” Bufacchi said. “Intuitively, it seems to work.” But, he said, this definition leaves itself open to three major criticisms.

Bufacchi referred to his first objection as the “over-inclusive fallacy.” Quite simply, he suggested that the definition is just too broad.

His second objection to the core-intuition approach he defined as the “Pandora’s box of rights fallacy.” In the attempt to define something as complex as violence, this definition introduces a new term which is equally difficult to define: “human rights.” To understand Salmi’s definition, there needs to be agreement about what is and what is not a human right, and Bufacchi said that this is simply not the case.

Bufacchi’s final objection was to the “omnipresence of rights fallacy.” Offering the example of a boxing match, he said that violence can sometimes occur even when rights aren’t violated.

After expressing his frustration with the existing definitions of violence, Bufacchi offered his own. “Violence is the voluntary or involuntary harmful act or non-act of violating the status quo,” he said.

Bufacchi said that, in addition to having “no disadvantages whatsoever,” his definition had several advantages. First, he said, his definition avoids the sticky human rights issues that plague the core-intuition approach. Second, it allows for people to voluntarily partake in violence as a victim, as is the case in a boxing match.

The term “status quo” is also helpful, Bufacchi said, because it allows us to measure the seriousness of violence by measuring the amount of work necessary to return to it.

After defining violence, Bufacchi turned his attention specifically to political violence. Seeking to define it, he offered, “Political violence is the act or non-act of violating the status quo for the sake of altering (strengthening or weakening) the existing power relations.”

Bufacchi again said his definition has several advantages. He said first his definition is helpful because “it makes an act of political violence neutral from a normative perspective.” Political violence can be the Allied invasion of Normandy or a white policeman attacking a black civilian in 1950s Mississippi.

“Violence seems to have a negative connotation, but I think it’s important to come up with a definition that’s not biased against violence,” Bufacchi said

Also helpful about his definition, he added, is that it includes more than just violence against the state.

After offering his definition of violence, Bufacchi spent a few minutes at the end of his lecture discussing the philosophical ramifications of Sept. 11. “If you look at the literature on political violence over the last 40 or 50 years, there has been a shift from a very narrow understanding of political violence to a broader understanding of political violence,” he said. “One possible consequence of Sept. 11 is that within a day we’ve returned to a narrow understanding of political violence,” that is, violence against states.

Because the audience at the lecture was so small – about a dozen people attended – a lively question and answer session followed Bufacchi’s lecture. One student asked whether the term “harmful” in Bufacchi’s definition was any clearer than the term “human rights” in Salmi’s. “Harm, too, is a complex issue,” Bufacchi responded. “But harm is more manageable than rights theory because of the metaphysics of rights theory.”

The final question was about how it was possible for a non-action to violate the status quo, as Bufachi’s definition of political violence suggests that it might. After a few minutes of give-and-take with the audience, Bufacchi said, “I’m not sure I have an answer.”

Even if concrete answers cannot be found, Bufacchi said the work of looking for them is of paramount importance: “If we want to defeat violence,” he said, “we have to know what it is.”