Legitimate and Illegitimate Uses of Violence

A Review of Ideas and Evidence
  • Robin M. WilliamsJr.
Part of the The Hastings Center Series in Ethics book series (HCSE)


It is possible to take the position that no violence is ever legitimate under any circumstances. It is possible to take the position that all violence is legitimate. Both views are rare. Most people most of the time do make some distinction between legitimate and illegitimate (or nonlegitimate) acts of violence. In addition, there is often an overlapping but distinct discrimination between justified and unjustified violence; for example, a particular act of violence may be judged legitimate (“he had a right to do it”) but not fully justified under the circumstances (“but he shouldn’t have done it”). It is immediately evident that the relations between the two distinctions, although real and important in everyday affairs, are complex and often ambiguous. The main axis of contrast is between social right—“validated” by law, status, custom, or general acceptance—as opposed to moral justification—validated by appeal to religious precepts, ethical principles and reasoning, or consensual moral judgments. A legitimate but immoral act may be performed by a duly invested incumbent of a legally established position. An illegitimate but moral act may be carried out by a principled opponent of an evil political regime. In this chapter, we must put aside a fuller conceptual analysis. Instead our primary task is empirical: we seek to find out what main orientations actually do exist, and how beliefs and evaluations concerning violence vary at different times and among different subsections of the societal community.


Social Control Corporal Punishment Retributive Justice Motor Vehicle Theft Hastings Center Report 
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Copyright information

© The Hastings Center 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robin M. WilliamsJr.
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SociologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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