Advocates of nonviolent action seriously question the statement “the ends justify the means,” when the means under consideration are violent means. Those who are pacifists would say that violent means are never justified. But you do not have to accept the moral argument of pacifism to advocate nonviolence. Many who choose nonviolence are not necessarily pacifists, but choose nonviolence on pragmatic (rather than moral) grounds.
Those who advocate nonviolence might instead say:
- “The use of moral means ensures a moral end” (David Cortright).
- “One cannot achieve a just result with unjust means, a peaceful result with violent means” (Cortright).
- “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself” (Gandhi).
- “Destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends because the end is pre-existent in the means” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The first two statements still look like moral statements, but they express a structural (almost mechanical) relationship between means and ends that itself is more pragmatic than moral. The latter two statements show this structural relationship more clearly.
Many of the methods of nonviolent action display and hence bring into being the new and better (more just) structure of power that is in fact the end of nonviolent struggle. The work of bringing people together to work nonviolently against oppression itself builds the cooperative relationships and shared power that are required in a just power structure. And the actions often symbolize and dramatize what the new world will look like.
For example, Gandhi’s salt march showed an aspect of what Indian independence would look like: the Indian people producing their own salt. The clothing that most of the participants wore also symbolized and demonstrated independence, because it was clothing they made themselves (instead of clothing they bought from the British). In the Civil Rights era, the lunch-counter sit-ins demonstrated an aspect of what racial equality would look like. Black students and white students sat side by side at the counters, chatting with each other and studying together. Their very action showed the world what racial harmony can look like.
These were symbolic and dramatic, but they were not fake. They were the beginnings of bringing the new reality into being. The students at the lunch counters really did enjoy each other’s company. The clothing the Indian protesters wore was clothing they really did make. The water they boiled really did leave a residue of salt that they could use without paying a tax on it first to the British.
These are vivid illustrations of the ends being inherent in the means. In these cases, the means really did directly create the intended ends.
From this perspective, it is hard to see what violence actually accomplishes.