Dennis Bradford

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Restricting it here to non-killing, non-violence is a noble ideal — and it cannot be anything more than that.

In Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, David Chadwick tells a story of Suzuki’s going with a student to a hamburger joint in Carmel. Being a vegetarian himself and knowing that Suzuki was primarily vegetarian, the student was shocked when Suzuki suggested going to that restaurant. Suzuki ordered a hamburger with double meat and, when it arrived, gave it to his student to eat!

According to Chadwick, “Suzuki would remind his students that in order to live we had to kill, and that we shouldn’t feel morally superior because we didn’t eat meat. ‘You have to kill vegetables, too’ . . .”

Life devours itself. That fact is why it is impossible to practice non-violence completely.

To think otherwise is to fail to recognize the reality of moral dilemmas.

For example, suppose that you are committed to nonviolence as a way of life. Unfortunately, to drink water is to kill and not to drink water is also to kill. Therefore, your commitment to non-violence must be undermined.

To drink water is to kill the micro-organisms in it. (Obviously, it wouldn’t help to boil the water before drinking it to purify it because that, too, would simply be killing them.) To fail to drink water is to commit suicide, to kill yourself. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If this offends you, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it much of a moral dilemma whether or not to drink water. It’s a natural necessity that I commit frequently.

Furthermore, as thoughtful moralists like Gandhi understand, even though, to quote him, “non-violence is infinitely superior to violence,” it is nevertheless true that, when caught in a relevant moral dilemma “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Surprised?

If you disagree, you are probably thinking in terms of all or nothing, in terms of black or white. Real choices always appear in terms of shades and shades of grey.

Of course, you may not like the fact that life devours itself. As you have surely realized since you were a child, your preferences do not dictate reality. Reality is what it is. The sun will set whether you like it or not.

I myself like the ideal of non-violence. In practice, for about a decade I didn’t eat flesh foods; I was the kind of vegetarian who ate eggs and dairy products. For me, such a diet proved unhealthy in the long run, so I abandoned it.

What about the moral ideal of being as nonviolent as possible? What about the ideal of avoiding killing when it’s possible to do so?

That, at least, is more realistic. If understood as stepping from the abstract domain of good and evil to the concrete domain of right and wrong, it’s a useful step. It gets the mind out of abstractions.

The key point about the domain of right and wrong is that there is no knowledge (demonstrative evidence) of right and wrong. I have argued for this elsewhere (e.g., 5 Ways to Dimninish Failure Almost Instantly, p. 19). Since it is actions (not moral agents) that are right or wrong, since the consequences of actions are relevant to their moral evaluation as right or wrong, and since it is impossible to know the consequences of actions (in advance), it is impossible – always! – to know whether some act is morally right or morally wrong.

We might wish that actions manifesting non-violence were always morally right, but that is false. A moment’s thought should yield counter-examples.

What, then, are we to do?

I don’t know what to do. If the argument that I have just alluded to is sound, nobody else knows what to do either.

However, I offer an important suggestion. Here’s the rule: “Never react, always respond.”

You are a good shot who happens to be standing with a loaded rifle near a busy playground. You see a rabid dog heading towards the children. Should you shoot the dog?

For no discernible reason, a stranger shoots and kills your companion and then aims his weapon at you. If you are able to kill him before he kills again, should you?

There’s no need to multiply examples.

Do whatever a sage would do in any morally similar situation. What’s that? Sages live in Becoming while being centered in Being. The more enlightened or awake they are, the more they are free to respond without automatically reacting in accordance with their conditioning.

By way of contrast, the rest of us live in Becoming while being seemingly oblivious to Being. As a result, we react predictably to events following our conditioning.

A realistic ideal is to respond with respect to the dog or the stranger rather than to react.

What does this mean? What should you do? Again, there is no knowledge of right and wrong. Nobody knows what you should do. All our acts are shots into moral and epistemological darkness.

What should you not do? What not to do is simply to react, which may only perpetuate unnecessary cycles of violence. What to do is to respond, to act with responsibility in accordance with your True Nature.

Responding with non-violence is not always right. It’s not always morally or even practically appropriate. Again, even thoughtful people committed to non-violence such as Gandhi recognize this. Life isn’t that easy.

Similarly, responding with violence is not always right.

Isn’t this what any adult who isn’t a fanatic should expect?

There are no absolute rules of right and wrong. Acts are becomings; they are at home only in Becoming. There is nothing absolute in Becoming.

Being fanatically attached to non-violence is not only deluded and impossible, but it’s still fanaticism.

Vegetarians who look down on the rest of us because they judge themselves morally superior because of their theoretical attachment to non-violence are being dishonest as well as unjustifiably smug.


As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.

Related post: Knowing What To Do.

Recommended resources: Butchvarov’s Skepticism in Ethics, The Penguin Gandhi Reader (Mukherjee, ed.), and Chadwick’s Crooked Cucumber.

3 thoughts on “Non-Violence

  1. carlo

    Hello Prof. Bradford,
    unfortunately I cannot agree with part of this essay. I agree that doing violence (causing harm, including killing) is part of living. But the principle of doing no unnecessary harm, or of minimizing violence does hold. And it generates many likely right sub-principles of morally binding behaviors. For instance, those who can be relatively healthy with either a vegetarian or a meat-eating diet should opt for the former. Even if that means killing plants (and even if plants are conscious beings), one would likely kill a lot more plants by eating animals than one would by eating plants directly. Many more examples can be given.

    07/08/2012 at 11:16 am
  2. Dave


    I liked the post. I never thought about how drinking water kills organisms. Good example. You have argued elsewhere (I believe in 5 ways) that nobody is morally superior to anyone else. Based upon those arguments it doesn’t make sense for anyone to look down upon anyone else (vegetarian or non vegetarian)

    Also, if the argument that there are no separate selves holds true then what exactly is killing or violence? If I killed a plant in reality all I did was end the physical form of the plant. The form of “Dave” ended the form of the “Plant”. I did not end being. One cannot kill being.

    If you look at the vegetarian issue from the perspective of being vs becoming, vegetarians appear to be simply preferring to eat some forms over other forms.

    It is like opening up a pack of M&M’s and only eating certain color M&M’s and refusing to eat other colors. What is the point?

    From the perspective of being (i.e. if we conclude that there are no separate selves) the to be a vegetarian or not to be a vegetarian problem is not really a problem at all. (in my opinion). The to be or not to be a vegetarian debate is a fruitless game played by the ego ( in my opinion). A person’s ego will never come to a correct answer about the vegetarian debate because at its core the debate is centered around conceptualizing and preferring some forms to other forms. I ,of course, respect anyone who makes the choice to be a vegetarian.

    Feel free to provide comments on my reasoning as you see fit.

    – Dave

    07/08/2012 at 3:33 pm
  3. Dennis E. Bradford, Ph.D.

    Exactly, Dave. Morality is always relative; it’s never absolute. Once one adopts the Being/Becoming distinction, moral dilemmas disappear. For example, sometimes vegetarians argue that the same arguments that work against cannibalism also work against eating non-human flesh foods. In fact, understood absolutely, there is no other to eat! To eat anything is to eat part of my own True Self. Since the ego is separation, to reduce ego or to let go of ego is to dissolve separation and automatically to promote union or love. In that sense, too, there is no other to love! To love anything is to love part of my own True Self. Spirituality is a conceptual solvent; it dissolves conceptual issues. Killing is impossible to avoid, which leaves us only with preferences. Also, as you mention, there really is no other to look down upon — or up to! Sages identify with everything else, which is why I suggested that we emulate them. Morally, it’s impossible to do any better than that.

    07/08/2012 at 4:08 pm

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