Code: TP - 13


TITLE:  Violence as Self-Sacrifice:  Creative Pacifism in a Violent World


PAPER TYPE:                Traditional paper



This essay examines absolute pacifism in personalism (represented by E.S. Brightman and Martin Luther King, Jr.) and its main rebuttal in the tradition, violence as self-defense (represented by Charles Hartshorne and Malcolm X).  I suggest a synthesis, violence as self-sacrifice, which realizes violence’s depersonalizing effects on oneself as well as the other, but concludes that sometimes one must sacrifice oneself to keep aggressive violence from destroying the entire community.  Violence as self-sacrifice synthesizes the violence debate in personalism because it can be seen as a form of both violence as self-defense and King’s nonviolent social action.


E.S. Brightman said that both individuals and communities have moral experience, a proposition more easily understood concretely than abstractly.[1]  Regarding violence, it takes whole communities to build bombers, but it only takes a few individuals with box cutters to turn a plane into a bomb.  As President Bush realizes, either could be an act of war, but as he probably does not realize, either could be construed as terrorism as well.  Brightman’s postulate is thus illustrated in the terrible arena of violence, and it connects his pacifism with Martin Luther King’s nonviolent social action.  However, the sword cuts both ways.  A consistent argument for nonviolent action must deal not only with Bull Conner in Alabama but also with Adolf Hitler in Germany.

                Violence is a cancer.  Insofar as both societies and individuals are persons, violence destroys both and perpetuates itself.  Like cancer, which sometimes is overcome through damaging treatments like radiation and chemotherapy, sometimes violence is overcome only with more violence.  For this reason, I will argue that absolute pacifism, while ideal, is not tenable in a world where violence exists.  Though Brightman and King rightly observe that violence damages the perpetrator’s personhood more than that of its victim, there are times when the loving act is to sacrifice one’s person and end violence violently.[2]

                My position includes Brightman’s pacifism and King’s nonviolence without completely agreeing with them, so I will explore Brightman and King’s pacifism, followed by rebuttals from Charles Hartshorne and Malcolm X.[3] Both sides of this debate, I will argue, are fundamentally correct in their observations, but neither fully realizes itself as a complement to the other.  Personalist pacifism’s weakness lies in its inadequate account of violence’s effects in the real world.  Hartshorne and X correct this weakness through their limited justification of violence as self-defense, but they fail to capture the bitterness of their medicine.  Violence, even as self-defense, destroys persons.  If we lose sight of this fact, violence as self-defense may aggressive violence; it may become part of the problem. Though King is right that we choose between nonviolence and nonexistence, sometimes free, otherwise nonviolent persons must choose nonexistence for themselves to keep violent aggressors from choosing nonexistence for all.

Brightman and King on Persons and Freedom

                To understand how violence destroys persons, one must first understand the personalist notion of person in community common to both Brightman and King.  According to Brightman, persons are the primary moral agents.  Only persons make moral choices, and personal beings are those capable of moral experience.[4]  However, persons are not atomic individuals. Abstractly, shared value structures define personal choice.  Concretely, no person could survive childhood, much less adulthood, without community.  Persons are always persons in community.[5]         

The person is free in several senses.  If persons are beings capable of moral experience and if moral experience consists of voluntary behavior, then metaphysical freedom is built into the structure of the person, a freedom that, for Brightman, is the condition for the possibility of ethics.[6]  This freedom grounds the more concrete freedom of choice whose external manifestation is negative liberty.[7]  Society should provide a minimum level of negative liberty to all metaphysically free persons to recognize their dignity and worth as persons, but metaphysical and moral freedom still exist, according to Brightman, even if society grants no such liberty. Even if all my life circumstances are externally determined, I still choose my attitude.  I can resist in my will, or I can resign myself to oppression. For Brightman, this choice is morally significant.[8]

                King agrees with Brightman that the person is metaphysically free and therefore worthy of dignity, moral value, and political liberty.  However, King thinks some dignity and political freedom must be afforded a human before he/she can become a person.  King sees Brightman’s metaphysical freedom as possible rather than actual.[9]  Because King grew up a victim of violence, he could not take his personhood for granted, which made him realize that personhood is mere possibility if dignity and political liberty are withheld from individuals in community.[10]  This stance strengthens the community’s role in personal development.  While political freedom’s value depends on metaphysical freedom, metaphysical freedom’s relevance depends on dignity and political liberty.

                From Brightman’s and King’s common outlook on persons in community and freedom springs their common opposition to violence.  When violence harms any person, it harms all persons because each person’s possibilities for becoming are bound by community with those of everyone else.  Thus, violence against another is violence against one’s community, and violence against one’s community is violence against oneself. 

The Violent Reduction

                Before exploring the aspects of violence relevant to non-violence as a theory for social action, I need to begin with a disclaimer:  violence is not primarily a concept.  I conceptualize violence not to trivialize its effects but try to make sense of it, to contribute a creative response to it.  Having said that, the relevant aspect of violence for this essay is its forceful reduction of possibility to actuality.  This structure works on many levels, some more concrete than others.  If I kill you, I concretely end your possibilities for becoming in this world.  If I maim you, physically or mentally, I impair your future by reducing your physical and/or mental capabilities for future action, perhaps handicapping you or traumatizing you such that you think of nothing except ways to get even.  More abstractly, forcefully reducing your possibilities for becoming characterizes your possibilities as unworthy of realization or less valuable than mine.  I limit your freedom of personal becoming by telling your possibilities are no better than your actuality and your actuality is not valuable enough to exist.  Any act that has this effect or intent is at least abstractly violent, regardless of its level of physicality.

                However, the violent reduction is reflexive—in reducing another, I reduce myself.  If I reduce another’s possible becoming, I reduce another’s capability to shape my becoming. This reduction is unmitigated by its community-mediated aspect.  Every moral choice implies community.[11]  Calling violent reduction "community-mediated" is simply a more concrete way of saying that a person implies a community.          

Reduction also explains violence’s self-perpetuating tendency.  Violence objectifies persons, and objectified victims, as they choose or are forced into the reduced possibilities left to them, are more likely to react violently to their situation.  King thus warned Montgomery, Alabama, saying, "If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos."[12]  Violence is an ever-widening circle, one that Brightman and King thought could only be broken by self-sacrifice.  Someone must suffer without inflicting suffering.

This sentiment developed differently in Brightman and King, according to the circumstances of each thinker’s life.  Brightman formed his pacifism more abstractly than King.  However, to call Brightman’s pacifism abstract is not to call it a priori.  Brightman stressed that the only good pacifist arguments were empirical.[13]  He believed that the consequences of war would never justify it.  Brightman’s pacifism was abstract in that the main violence of his time was World War II, in which he was not a direct player.  It was absolute in that though he believed in judging violence consequentially, he thought there were consequences that violence’s consequences always make it morally unacceptable.

King’s commitment to nonviolence formed under more concrete circumstances.  Though Brightman and King shared assumptions about persons and freedom that grounded a commitment to nonviolence, King’s development of nonviolence as social action came not from Brightman but from Mohandas Gandhi.[14]  For this reason, and because King spent his adult life in the civil rights movement, King had a more concrete idea of nonviolence as social change and a way of life.  King was as interested in what nonviolence can do in this world as what it might mean in an ideal world.[15]  When King says, "The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence," he means something slightly different than Brightman would by the same statement.[16]  Violence destroys possibilities of personhood for everyone, so a violent choice is a choice against personal existence.  King would agree with this Brightmanian notion, but this is not King’s primary meaning above.  King is mindful of the realities of contemporary existence: 

In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war…. I am no doctrinaire pacifist.  I have tried to embrace a realistic pacifism…I see the pacifist position not as sinless but as the lesser evil in the circumstances.  Therefore I do not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian nonpacifist confronts.[17]


Both thinkers agree that violence is always consequentially wrong because it always reduces possibilities for personal existence and experience.  Therefore, a violent act always involves a loss of personhood, both for the agent and for the victim because the seat of personhood is ideal and structures possibility.  However, King’s increased concern for actual evil increases his reluctance to embrace pacifism.  This concern also grounds other personalist thinkers’ rebuttals against personalist pacifism.

Dealing with Actual Evil in the World:  Hartshorne and Malcolm X Respond

                Charles Hartshorne is as committed as Brightman to the relationship between person and community.  Hartshorne does not dispute the person as primary moral agent or metaphysical freedom and possibilities for becoming as necessary for personhood.  He would no doubt agree that violence damages possibilities for personal becoming and that in a perfect world everyone would be pacifist.  However, Hartshorne did not see ideality as the most relevant issue.  If all agree to pacifism and everyone knows that everyone has agreed to pacifism, then pacifism would be a workable social ideal, one that would be preferable to any state of affairs that includes violence.  However, it does not follow that unilateral pacifism will keep violence from destroying everyone.  Today, as in Hartshorne’s day, violence, sadly, exists.  Thus, Hartshorne says, "…if all good men adopt the principle…that they will never use force, then force will be left as the monopoly of any men not good enough or wise enough to abstain from it."[18]  For Hartshorne, a consequentialist argument for pacifism must prove not only that the nonviolence’s results are always preferable to those of violence but that, where violence is given, nonviolent response to violence is always preferable to violent response.  Hartshorne challenges Brightman, saying, "In any case, the primary consequences to be considered are those likely to follow from an Axis victory compared to those likely to follow from an Axis defeat."[19]  Though Hartshorne, in 1942, probably did not envision the Cold War that followed the violent end of the Axis, his point cannot be brushed aside.  Would we not like to believe that the Cold War and its aftermath were preferable to the world a thousand-year Reich would have wrought?

                Malcolm X makes the same point as Hartshorne, but like King in relation to Brightman, X does so as a victim of violence, one who could not take personhood for granted.  Though X does not share all of the personalist assumptions of these other three thinkers, he realizes the power of violent reduction in community:  "When you let yourself be influenced by images created by others, you’ll find that oftentimes the one who creates those images can use them to mislead you and misuse you."[20]  Like Hartshorne, X concluded that some people are so ossified by and intent on violence that the only way to overcome them is more violence.  For X, one must, regrettably, speak the language of violence to those who understand nothing else.  Practically, one of the ways to actualize one’s personhood is to fight for it when attacked:

It is inhuman, absolutely subhuman, for a man to let a dog bite him and not fight back.  Let someone club him and let him not fight back, or let someone put water hoses on his women, his mother and daughter and babies and let him not fight back…then he’s subhuman.  The day he becomes a human being he will react as other human beings have reacted, and nobody…will hold it against him.[21]


X, like Hartshorne, limits violence’s scope to reaction, to self-defense, though he might differ from Hartshorne on the circumstances that warrant self-defense.  Hartshorne and X share Brightman and King’s goal of actualizing the dignity and worth of all persons, but they see a limited notion of self-defense as a critical means toward that end, given that violence exists in the world.

                Hartshorne and X present almost too-solid rebuttals to the pacifist position.  In their presentation of violence as necessary evil, they emphasize necessity too much at the expense of the fact that violence is still evil.  A synthesis is needed—if personalist pacifists must deal with violence in the real world, personalist nonpacifists must deal with what pacifists understand—that violence, regardless of its ends, destroys possibilities for personal experience.  Hartshorne almost gets there with his realization that "To oppose by force is not necessarily to fail in social appreciation; one may be sorrowfully aware of what the force means to its victims, innocent or guilty."[22]  This realization grounds personalist nonpacifism.  However, to synthesize both sides of this issue, one must account not only for violence’s effects on another but also of its effects on oneself.

Violence as Self-Sacrifice

                Neither Hartshorne nor X adequately assimilates the pacifist argument that violence objectifies both the oppressor and the oppressed.  X realizes it somewhat, but he applies it to the oppressor’s moral depravity and inability to judge the nature and scope of oppression. X’s observation is correct, but his application of it is not broad enough to account for all the effects of violence on society.  The broader point that must be made is this:  if violence destroys the personhood of both the agent and the victim, then violence as necessary evil, the only loving violence, would take the form of socially aware self-sacrifice.  Pacifists correctly observe that unmerited suffering is redemptive, that the circle may be stopped when someone receives violence without returning it, but they are wrong to limit artificially the possible modes of self-sacrifice.  Nonviolent resistance does not always work, which King realized, even if many of his followers did not.[23]  Sometimes the biting dog, if it is big enough, simply eats you alive.  If it ended there, it might be right to let the dog eat you, but "dogs" like the Nazis never get full.  In these cases, Hartshorne and X rightly assert that it is better to shoot the dog than to let it eat everyone.  However, the one who violently ends violence must realize that in so doing, he/she asserts that the enemy is and forever will be a violent, rapacious dog—nothing more.  Moreover, the dog shooter must realize the shooting’s impact on him/herself.  There is a sense in which that person will forever be the one who shot the dog, so the shooting harms the shooter as well as the dog.  Violent response may be justified if and only if a person can appraise both these terrible effects of self-defense and find them still preferable to the advancing aggressive violence.  In shooting the dog, the defender must assert, "I sacrifice both the person that this violent aggressor might have been and much of who I might have been because the violence at work here is so dangerous to other persons in creation that there is no other option."

                Violence as self-sacrifice is superior to violence as necessary evil because it limits violence’s justification externally and internally.  Externally, violence as self-sacrifice is limited by a rigid consequentialism that applies neither to nonviolence nor to violence as necessary evil.  When faced with violence, we may "rush into" various nonviolent options to curtail it, with pure motives but methods of dubious efficacy.  However, before violently ending violence, we must confirm that our violence will end not only aggressive violence but also our violent response and that our violent response will not provoke retaliation. 

Violence as self-defense does not provide this rigid consequentialist limit.  It sounds fine to say that violence is only excusable as self-defense, but the personalist view of person in community does not provide an atomic individual around which to draw the relevant battle lines.  It is hard to say where my self, which I may violently defend, ends and where my community begins.  In personalism, selves are not usually located in specific organisms, so violence as self-defense is hard to consistently apply.  Moreover, Malcolm X, by saying that a person must be willing to fight for his/her own personhood, seemingly builds violence into the structure of the person. Thus, X’s violence as self-defense can never rid us of violence.  Even if X is correct that all persons in the past had to assert their personhood by fighting for it, it does not follow that moral persons must fight in the future.  Thus, violence as self-defense sends us down a slippery slope that violence as self-sacrifice does not.

Complementing this advantage is an internal limit to violence as self-sacrifice.  If one understands that violently ending violence will harm one’s own personhood, one will not act violently before exhausting all other options. Violence as self-sacrifice would not become aggressive violence because the ideal self-sacrificing violent agent realizes that one possibility, among others, from which violence precludes him/her is the possibility of judging whether violence is necessary in the future.  The end of violence as self-sacrifice is not power, ego, or the expansion of one’s personhood.  The end is the community’s collective good, from which other, fuller persons may spring if self-sacrifice is successful, making violence as self-sacrifice a form of King’s creative nonviolent social action.


                Obviously, I cannot solve the problem of violence in one essay.  The more I limit and idealize acceptable forms of violence, the more I risk ignoring actuality myself.  Even as I speak of the "ideal self-sacrificing violent agent," I wonder if I have ignored actual power as much as some pacifists have ignored some of the effects of actual violence.  Could a violent agent willingly put down the sword and wait for others to decide when to take it back up?  I do not know.  What I do know is that if not, the pacifists are right, and we must keep on trying to contain violence without resorting to it, no matter how badly we are bleeding from dog bites and no matter how many of our children the dog decides to eat.


[1] Edgar Sheffield Brightman, Moral Laws, (New York:  Abingdon, 1938), 57-64.

[2] Mark Davies concludes his "The Pacifism Debate in the Hartshorne-Brightman Correspondence," Process Studies, 27 (Fall-Winter 1998):  200-14, with the following challenge:  "One hopes that by wrestling with the issues that Hartshorne and Brightman were struggling with over half a century ago, we will be able to derive some lessons for the construction of a more peaceful world, where the language of war will be heard no more, or at least less often than is presently the case."  Though I do not quite see King as the answer to the conflict between Brightman and Hartshorne on this issue the way Davies seems to, this essay proceeds in response to this very laudable challenge.  Davies’ article is reprinted as Appendix 5 in Hartshorne and Brightman on God, Process, and Persons:  The Correspondence, 1922-1945, Eds. Randall E. Auxier and Mark Y.A. Davies, (Nashville:  Vanderbilt UP, 2001).  Hereafter, references to the correspondence will be abbreviated HBC.

[3] By this, I mean not that there is some explicit or implicit relationship between Hartshorne and X that mirrors that between Brightman and King.  Rather, Hartshorne served as Brightman’s foil in this discussion in a way similar, on a conceptual level, to the way X’s ideas interacted with those of King.  I know of no evidence that should lead us to strengthen the comparison or relation of Hartshorne to Malcolm X.

[4] Brightman, Moral Laws, 58.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 74.

[7] For more on the connection between metaphysical and political freedom, see Luca Parisoli’s "The Anthropology of Freedom and the Nature of the Human Person," The Personalist Forum, 15:2 (Fall, 2001), 345-63.

[8] Moral Laws, 75-6.

[9] Among others, see King’s article "Nonviolence and Racial Justice," reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 5‑9.

[10] For more on the differences between Brightman and King, especially as concerns King’s concern for actuality in relation to possibility, see Davies’s previously mentioned "Pacifism Debate in the Hartshorne-Brightman Correspondence.

[11] For an extension of this mediation to include even the seemingly isolated "relation" of self-knowledge, see William Earnest Hocking’s Man and the State, (New Haven:  Yale UP, 1926), esp. 315-7.

[12] Excerpt from a 1956 sermon in Montgomery, Alabama, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 10-11.

[13] HBC 47-8.

[14] Among others, see "An Experiment in Love" and "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 17-20 and 35-42, respectively.

[15] For the idealist, in the sense of abstract, nature of Brightman’s opposition to World War II, see his comments on the subject in HBC; Mark Davies discusses Brightman’s position in the aforementioned article that appears in the book as Appendix 5.  Brightman makes the (probably true) observation that World War II would never have been if people of good will on all sides had shaped and kept the Treaty of Versailles.  For all its truth, it is not clear that this comment was terribly applicable in 1942.  As we shall see in the next section, Hartshorne takes him to task in the correspondence for, in essence, refusing to deal with actuality.  Davies presents King’s position as a synthesis between Hartshorne and Brightman, but I am not sure, in the end, that King sees just how bad actuality can be either, though he seems to get closer later in life.

[16] King, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence," A Testament of Hope, 39.

[17]  Ibid.

[18] HBC, 53.

[19] Ibid., 54.  For Hartshorne’s more complete discussion of this issue that started the argument in the correspondence, see Hartshorne’s Man’s Vision of God, (Hamden, CN:  Archon Books, 1941), 166-73.

[20] Quoted from Malcolm X’s Dec. 16, 1964 speech to the Harvard Law School Forum, reprinted in Malcolm X:  Speeches at Harvard, Ed. Archie Epps, (New York:  Paragon House, 1991), 162.

[21] Ibid., 171.

[22] Man’s Vision of God, 168.

[23] For King’s continued commitment to nonviolence even in the face of its impracticality, see Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community? reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 555‑633.