In the last post, I referenced a social practice that I referred to as Rational Violence by Duel, a practice underscored by the recognition that human beings do not (and in some circumstances, cannot) always get along. In certain disputes, violence may be the best (perhaps even the only) recourse. Naturally, as with most any social practice, Rational Violence by Duel would be circumscribed by rules, rules the following of which would guarantee (to some degree) constraint on the overall effects of the confrontation, control over the measures the participants might take in order to exact satisfaction, and an insurance that certain aims are achieved (involving the greater good). I will address certain proposed rules of Rational Violence by Duel later. For now, let’s return to Jack Burton’s situation. In particular, what I would like to assess is the character – the virtue or lack thereof, we might say – of one who earnestly and, to his mind reasonably, believes that Rational Violence is the appropriate response to such a dispute as I have outlined. Does (or can) the virtuous man have justification for Rational Violence?
First, what might be the justification – if any there may be – for Jack Burton’s choice to engage in a violent reaction? Historically, the answer was (perhaps deceptively) simple: Jack’s reaction falls under self-defense. How? Well, as best I can tell, the reckoning went something like this: (a) if a man attacks me with a knife with the intent of disabling me so that the attacker may abscond with my money, I may defend myself. This is self-defense in the following obvious way: it is defense of my body against probable injury (and, secondarily at least, it is a defense of my property against being wrongfully taken from me). Indeed, this is rather simple and commonplace, particularly today, and is recognized as a legitimate (i.e., legal) response. Yet, now consider (b), what is likely not considered to be so familiar today: if a man publicly insults me, my spouse, or my children, he has engaged in an attack. Of course, his attack is not aimed at my body or my property. No, this time the attack is simultaneously more subtle and possesses more depth: the attack is aimed at my self – my character, my integrity, my honor, what it is to be me. Once again, self-defense is justifiably called for.
What is it for a man to not find his own character, his integrity, his honor, worth defending? [After all, if such things are not of grave importance to a man, we might wonder: “What, then, is?”] The man might be dumb, as are many human men. He might not understand that such things are important simply because he, woefully, doesn’t really understand anything as significant. Or, the man might be indifferent. Again, many men are like this. They do not recognize themselves as essentially social animals, as beings who are very much dependent upon, for their own (and their loved ones’) well-being, others and, consequently, the favor and good-standing of others. He thinks of himself as a solitary, isolated being; whenever public transgression strikes, he thinks to himself, “Well, who cares what anybody else thinks of me? What does that matter?” Or finally, for all I know, the man might have taken seriously School Marm’s indictment of violence in his 3rd grade Social Studies class, and genuinely (though ridiculously) took to heart the repeated (and foolish) mantra: “Violence is never the answer.” Oh well, so much the worse for him.*
For my own part, I’m not sure – that is, absolutely certain – what to make of a man who refuses, even on principle, to defend his honor or integrity. Perhaps such a person confuses honor/integrity with glory, and believes that a violent reaction would be viciously motivated by little more than a Hobbesian thirst for competition and the urge to glorify himself by combat at the expense of another. While I have no doubt some individuals are like this, I do think that it’s intellectually dishonest to believe that all such circumstances can be reduced to glory-seeking. In any case, here is what I am sure of: traditionally, such a man who refuses to defend himself has a name – coward. Here is Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations 5.1): “But a coward, a man incapable either of defending or of revenging himself, evidently wants one of the most essential parts of the character of a man. He is as much mutilated and deformed in his mind as another is in his body, who is either deprived of some of its most essential members, or has lost the use of them.” Wow, that’s a serious indictment: dude is lacking “one of the most essential” components of manhood, has a “mutilated and deformed” state of character. Oof!** This is a serious charge, and one that ought (by my lights) to be taken much more seriously than it currently is. Unfortunately, some think that Smith is overcome with an out-dated machismo that “civilized” men no longer espouse. That may very well be the case, though I have my doubts as to whether it should be the case.
In any event, I don’t wish to take any particular position on the “coward” label. Of course there definitely are cowards amongst us; even still, we ought to be very careful here. Suppose that Seedy Gang Member #1 does not confront Jack & Gracie, but whispers to his friends, all of whom turn around and laugh at Jack. We’re all pretty confidant – and Jack is damned confidant – that sentiments of abuse have been voiced at Jack’s (and perhaps Gracie’s) expense. And yet, ought or should Jack respond? If he doesn’t, is he a “coward”? I say “no.” Jack can be certain neither of what precisely was said, nor can he be sure that what was said was directed at him and was intended as an insult. But most importantly, the remark(s) was not public. To respond violently would not be, to my mind, a genuinely rational response. Instead, it would be rash. And if Aristotle has taught us nothing else, it’s that virtue resides in the mean.
Yet, in our original situation wherein Seedy Gang Member #1 has publicly insulted Gracie (and by virtue of that, Jack), and has done so repeatedly, maybe it’s the case that courage – as the mean between cowardice and rashness – demands that Jack respond. Indeed, Jack can respond even though – perhaps even in virtue of the fact that – he demonstrates self-control, a genuine measuring of his emotional reaction by engaging in the variety of practical reasoning mentioned previously. Such practical reasoning – taking into consideration past acts, the likelihood of repeated occurrences in the future, along with the appreciation that serving civil papers to Seedy Gang Member #1 would probably be met with hilarity – may result in the course of action most likely to effect the most beneficial state of affairs – Rational Violence.
More, of course, needs to be said. And I do intend to say more about the justificatory features of Jack Burton’s response by way of Rational Violence. However, I will end with an anecdote with which all – particularly males – are familiar: the elementary school playground. We are all familiar with “the bully,” that mean-ass kid who picks on pretty much everyone, though who spares his most spirited animus toward the weakest kid. We’ve all seen it. Hell, some of us may have been either “the bully” or “the weakling” in our past. We’re also all familiar with the universal advice administered on such occasions of bullying: “Go tell the teacher that you’re being bullied.” Meh. Perhaps such a course of action is prudential in some cases, but (again) I think that this is not so in all cases. [Maybe the kid has tattled before, to no avail?] As such, appreciate this: once the weaker kid responds, once the weaker kid defends himself (whether successfully or no), some measure of respect is won. That is, both the bully and the witnesses come to see that this kid is a worthy adversary, one who takes no shit. And we all know the bully isn’t after a worthy adversary; the bully wishes to dominate, and once he recognizes that his “dominance” is without acknowledgment, likely moves on. Perhaps as important, however, is “the weakling’s” realization that he has self-respect, and that this self-respect is worth defending, independently of how his response is viewed by others. This is just to say that there are times when the deliverance (or acceptance) of an ass-whoopin’ may be in order.
It may be that Jack’s situation in the bar with Gracie mirrors this situation on the playground. Here, of course, there are no teachers with whom Jack may engage to “tattle”…Jack may not necessarily be concerned with winning respect so much as he is with retaining respect, respect for himself and continued respect from Gracie and his peers.
(*) Even still, there are of course many other possible ways of understanding such a man’s reaction to an assault on his integrity or self-worth. Another way of cashing this out would be to suggest that the man’s priorities are improperly askew in certain ways. Yet another response may be pacifistic, whereby the proponent may provide an argument as to why their self-worth isn’t appropriately tied to their reaction to an attack on their self. Fair enough. I take seriously Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek,” though I do seriously question the pacifist who believes that this is the most reasonable – indeed, the appropriate – response in all situations. While interesting, I leave these possibilities to one side. After all let’s remember, dear reader, that this is a blog post, not a treatise. I don’t pretend to deal with all relevant possibilities.
(**) Now, was Adam Smith advocating immediate reaction by way of fisticuffs, wild haymakers thrown in anger and ill-controlled rage? Absolutely not. Smith recognized – as should we – that the passions in themselves ought to be resisted. A measured response is called for, and the passions under one’s rational control may in fact demand that the response be a violent one.
- I Demand Satisfaction (Part V) - February 27, 2017
- I Demand Satisfaction (Part IV) - February 4, 2017
- I Demand Satisfaction (Part III) - January 22, 2017
- I Demand Satisfaction (Part II) - January 6, 2017
- I Demand Satisfaction (Part I) - December 29, 2016
- The New Jim Crow: Introduction - October 20, 2016
- The (Oh Too) Common Assumption - October 9, 2016