Violence is related to voluntaryism in that we can roughly define choices influenced by threats of violence as non-voluntary. Violence is not a uniquely human experience. In fact, human social interactions are remarkably non-violent by comparison to the rest of the natural world. Violence between biological organisms manifests in every conceivable manner but always has a singular aim: control and use of physical resources for the benefit of the organism and its offspring or other kin.
From the perspective of a Martian scientist, all organisms within Earth’s biosphere are simply heat engines that employ physical resources to convert free energy into work (plus waste energy) with the ultimate aim of reproducing. By the first law of thermodynamics, we know that matter and energy are scarce. Hence, competition over the use of physical resources and access to energy sources is a matter of survival. Free energy is free only in the technical sense used by physicists – it is not available at no cost. All biological organisms stand in contention with one another for use of free energy and other scarce physical resources.
Life can be defined by the ability to metabolize and reproduce. Metabolism is the ingestion of high energy state matter or other physical resources which can be used by the organism to convert matter from a low energy state to a high energy state or utilize free energy to perform work.
The simplest act of violence in nature is that of ingesting another organism. The gazelle ingests parts of grass and digests the nutrients present in the grass for its own sustenance. The lion then eats the gazelle by killing it and progressively ingesting the edible portions of its body. By digesting the proteins, sugars and other useful nutrients in the gazelle’s body tissues, the lion is sustained. From the point of view of the Martian scientist, the grass has captured free energy from the Sun and, through photosynthesis, has converted physical resources available to it (molecules in the dirt) from a low-energy state to a high-energy state. The gazelle then consumed the grass containing high-energy molecules and digested those to build its own high energy structures (sugars, cells, etc.) The lion repeated this process once again. Ultimately, all the energy in the biosphere is either converted into work or expended into the environment as heat loss.
Some organisms live parasitically. They do not kill and ingest the organism from which they derive their sustenance. Rather, they siphon a portion of the host’s total available energy through one means or another. Viruses are the smallest parasites. They reprogram a cell to use its resources to produce more copies of the virus. In the process, the cell itself will be destroyed but this is not an act of ingestion since viruses have no metabolic pathways. However, viruses illustrate the fact that violence in the natural world is not limited to overt acts of mechanical violence, such as, a pack of wolves attacking a caribou. The utilization of physical resources for the purpose of reproduction can be accomplished through either subtlety or mechanical violence.
Most people recognize a clear distinction between two types of violence – legitimate and illegitimate. Sociopaths and pacifists see no such distinction. That is, the sociopath sees all violence as legitimate and the pacifist sees no violence as legitimate. Voluntary actions are those which are not compelled by illegitimate violence. The criterion of legitimacy is a separate topic that is outside the scope of this article.
Can we draw any insights into the nature of voluntary action from the observation of violence in nature? I think the first lesson we can draw is that violence is an integral part of life for any organism. Nearly every human eats plants and/or animals on a daily basis and will die in a matter of a few weeks without engaging in this act of violence. Philosophies or religious beliefs that center around doing no violence under any circumstances are either confused, contradictory or both.
The second lesson I see is that there is a tug-of-war between the integrity of organisms and the ongoing process of life. In order to survive, the lion must eat something. The integrity of the organism that is eaten by the lion is compromised – it is killed. As a rule, the natural world is zero-sum. In the competition of the natural world, animals are also injured. For example, when a predator attempts, and fails, to eat its prey, or when the prey is injured by stumbling.
It is well known that human relationships are not necessarily zero-sum. Trade and specialization give rise to the division-of-labor and permit whole societies to prosper simultaneously. I think this reinforces the idea that the kind of violence in view in voluntaryism is human-on-human violence and its legitimacy. In other words, it is not violence per se (including the violence implicit in eating a meal) that is problematic, it is violence against other human beings.
The integrity of the human organism is analogous to that of any other organism. Humans do have natural predators. If the body is mechanically torn or penetrated, death will likely ensue. The human body can also be the victim of parasites, such as ticks.
But one of the things that makes human beings unique is our capacity to “extend the body” through the construction and use of novel tools. We’re not completely alone in using tools – there are other animals that do so but only in a very limited, instinctual way.
Human-on-human violence is ultimately motivated by the same competitive urge that drives all organisms – the urge to metabolize and reproduce. While we cannot draw any lessons regarding the legitimacy of violence from observing its operation in nature – even among humans. However, we can still assess its effects and the mechanisms that drive it, to the extent they are observable. For example, tribal raids in the ancestral environment to capture fertile women is behavior clearly driven by the urge to reproduce.
A final observation is that theft – from the point-of-view of our Martian scientist – is a kind of violence, not completely unlike injury in the animal kingdom. Consider the caveman with his flint knife and without it. With the knife, he is able to quickly and efficiently flay game. Without it, the amount of the game which he can use is significantly reduced and the time required to process the game is increased. Depending on how difficult it is to find a replacement, he might be better off losing a finger than losing the knife. Given that a thief can immediately begin using the knife, the incentives to commit this act are much greater than injury in the natural world because the predator who merely injures his prey gains nothing from this.