Defining Peace

The word “peace” carries distinctly positive connotations. It is a word that, when used today, conjures all sorts of wonderous images; a word that has come to mean much more than its rudimentary definition of “the absence of conflict.” As such, it is hard to find any reasonable individual who does not believe that “peace” is a worthy goal; for governments, peoples and even individuals. Indeed, many IGOs and NGOs claim peace to be the primary, noble goal towards which they strive. The UN, for example, states on the “what we do” section of their official website that they have one central mission: “the maintenance of international peace and security.”[1] Similarly, on its welcome page, NATO states that it is “committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes.”[2]

The International Peace Bureau, as its name would suggest, states on its website that it is “dedicated to the vision of a World Without War.”[3] As the movie Miss Congeniality wittily jibes, “world peace” is also the stated goal of many a beauty pageant contestant. 

Foto: Wikimedia Commons

But, for all the enthusiasm surrounding peace, the positive images and connotations and advocations the term conjures, it is a term so rarely defined. While identified by many as a desirable state of affairs, most possess only a vague notion of what peace is. The UN, NATO and even past Miss Americas have failed to offer up a solid, useful definition of the term “peace” to give shape to the goal towards which they so valiantly strive. Instead, there seems a general consensus that peace is good and that we all want it and that we all should, subsequently, just get on with attaining it. As founder of peace and conflict studies Johan Galtung observes, “the use of the term ‘peace’ may in itself be peace-productive, producing a common basis, a feeling of communality in purpose that may pave the ground for deeper ties later on.”[4] But, as he continues, while this word brings a sense of togetherness and commonality, it is too often left undefined.


Meriam Webster and Martin Luther King jr. 

A quick thumb through a dictionary or a search online all reveal a similar definition of peace: the absence of war or conflict. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, defines peace as “freedom from civil unrest or disorder.”[5] A Google dictionary search reveals a similar definition: “a state or period in which there is no war or a war has ended.”[6] This seems fair enough. The UN explains that it achieves its goal of peace and security “by working to prevent conflict; helping parties in conflict make peace; peacekeeping; and creating the conditions to allow peace to hold and flourish.”[7] The first two elements of this work align rather neatly with the aforementioned definitions of peace. There is conflict and it is being stopped. The latter idea of peace holding and flourishing, however, hints at a definition of peace that goes beyond this. The Meriam-Webster Dictionary echoes this sentiment by going slightly further than other dictionaries, defining peace as “a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom.”[8] This definition is intriguing as it defines peace positively, as the presence of security, order and law, rather than negatively, as the absence of conflict or violence. It also resonates with the famous, iconoclastic quote of Martin Luther King Jr that claims that “peace is not just the absence of tension but the presence of justice.”[9]


Peace is not just the absence of tension but the presence of justice.


King’s positive definition is particularly pertinent as it echoes the indignance at the injustice of his time. The Jim Crow laws that had plagued the United States from the late nineteenth century sparked great racial tension that desperately needed a resolution. By positively defining peace as the “presence of justice” King seems to be implying that simply ending the state of internal racial war was not enough – although that was one of the Black Civil Rights movement’s key goals. No, any “peace” achieved would have to be maintained, with appropriate consequence and punishment for those who committed racial crimes.


Both this quote and the Meriam-Webster definition, however, suffer from an obvious semantic issue; what is justice if not the means by which peace is maintained? Thus, defining peace as the presence of justice is like defining Netflix as the presence of wi-fi. The latter allows the former to function but is not an integral part of defining what it is.


While such a semantic quibble may seem quite trivial, it touches the surface of a bigger problem: the fact that, despite such contradictions, the word “peace” appears to have taken on new properties; new positive definitions. To be sure, I am not against the meaning of words changing or the coining of new terms. Had Shakespeare subscribed to rigidity the English language would have been deprived of many a catchy phrase, to tell the truth and shame the devil.


These new colloquial and even academic definitions of peace, however, are instead making the term synonymous with another. Those who describe a “peaceful world” positively as one that is just and happy and lawful are instead referring to a societal state commonly referred to in political philosophy (and of course, in common parlance) as “utopia”.


Ursula K. Le Guin.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not only could political philosophers elucidate theories surrounding utopia with stronger

efficacy than most others, but they would also be the first to highlight the intensely subjective nature of such a term. Such a point is stressed in Ursula Le Guin’s important work of philosophical fiction The One’s Who Walk Away from Omelas. In the beginning of this short and profound book, Le Guin asks the reader to imagine a utopian city. For some, she acknowledges, such a city may be a noble and chaste one. For others, an orgy and roaming naked goddesses may by more appealing.[10]


While Le Guin’s work goes on to meditate on the role of suffering in maintaining utopia (an interesting subject, but perhaps for another time) it highlights the subjective nature of utopias. What may seem idyllic to myself may be repugnant to you. And this goes beyond simple tastes. You and I may have differing opinions on ethical matters regarding the chastity of your naked goddesses and other matters. If utopianism is in danger of becoming synonymous with peace, we are left with intensely subjective goals for NGOs, IGOs and the common man.


Peace as the absence of violence

The term peace would be perhaps be better served, then, when used in tandem with a host of others to describe elements of a utopian society. This would allow the term’s basic definition of “the absence of violence or conflict” to stand and allow us to work towards a more minimalist and realistic goal with more tightly drawn (and hopefully more objective) definitional lines. Unlike other murkier ethical issues, peace may have the power to produce such unanimity because it has the potential to be more objectively measured and its grounds may be things we almost all agree upon.


Here we once again turn to Johan Galtung. In a seminal work entitled Violence, Peace and Peace Research Galtung tentatively sketches a definition of peace in an attempt to lend some clarity to the term and thus aid students studying it and organisations working towards it to know what they are aiming for. Galtung begins by claiming that the most helpful definition of peace is “the absence of violence.” He tends towards this succinct explanation for two reasons: the statement is “simple and in agreement with common usage” and it describes peace not as a point but as a “region” – multiple areas in which violence is absent.[11]


Galtung offers a broad definition, claiming that ‘violence is present when human beings are being influenced so their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations.'


The obvious and important next step is to define precisely what constitutes “violence.” Galtung offers a broad definition, claiming that “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations.”[12] So for example, if a young man is killed in war, this is considered an act of violence. The present-day potential of this young man, thanks to developments in modern medicine, better sanitation and so forth, was to live for eighty or so years. But this potential was not met.


Isola di Utopia as depicted in Thomas More's classic. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galtung insists that these potential realizations must be grounded in the present. So, if said young man had instead been killed by an earthquake this would not constitute violence. This is because we currently do not have ubiquitous effective means to prevent earthquakes or stop almost all people from dying as a result of them.


So far so good. A young man dying in war is an example of violence. Young men not dying in wars is the absence of that violence. Those striving for peace should aim to stop young men dying in wars. This is hardly revolutionary but is certainly quantifiable and already agreed upon. Similarly, we should not, as yet, condemn a society as not peaceful because it suffers from earthquakes. Once again, this is hardly novel. But a step in the right direction.


As the reader may have noticed, however, Galtung’s definition of violence is exceptionally broad. There are countless potentialities that are not met for the populations of each country around the globe. And, while some constitute violence, others seem to overstep the term “peace’s” definitional boundaries and slide once more into utopianism.


One example of such overstepping is Galtung’s inclusion of literacy rates in violence. “We would talk about violence”, he writes, “if the level of literacy is lower than what it could have been.”[13] This does fit Galtung’s definition of violence. But this intuitively seems absurd to the reader. While improving literacy rates is indeed a noble endeavour, considering it the work of peace to reverse low literacy rates seems a bit much. Would this not be better understood as an element of utopia?


Galtung openly acknowledges that his definition “may lead to more problems than it solves.”[14] But what the definition does allow, that others may not, is the introduction of psychological violence into the picture. This more elusive form of violence has long been absent from common conceptions of peace. However, countries not engaging in acts of physical violence may still find several members of their population falling prey to abuse that does not break the skin but rather the mind.


This psychological dimension of violence is absent in many historical narratives.


In his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon offers a deep analysis of the psychologically damaging dimension of colonialism. He writes that “colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’” This breaking down of identity, as well as the helplessness induced by imperial military dominance, can cause “the sum total of harmful nervous stimuli [to] overstep a certain threshold” leading the defensive attitudes of the natives to “give way” until they “find themselves crowding mental hospitals.”[15] This psychological dimension of violence is absent in many historical narratives.


It thus seems reasonable to include such non-physical forms of violence when considering how to attain peace. As shown in figure one, Galtung sketches a further typology of the term violence that allows for personal and structural violence in both physical and psychological forms.


The Global Peace Index - quantifiable peace?

The question that haunts such an approach, however, is one of quantifiability. Organisations and governments who wish to attain peace, even defined as the absence of violence, need numerical systems to help them know which areas of the globe need attention, what that attention is and whether or not their interventions are working. And, in this regard, there is one major tool available that helps remarkably with such a mission: The Global Peace Index.


The Global Peace Index was first published in 2008. The index ranks the “peacefulness” of over 150 nations across the globe by measuring a vast number of indicators. Such indicators include perceptions of criminality, security officers and police, homicide, incarceration, access to weapons, intensity of internal conflict, violent demonstrations, violent crime and a handful of others.[16] Most indicators are ranked from one to five, one being very low and five being very high.


As mentioned, the index’s greatest strength is its basis in numbers. Organisations such as the UN and NATO can use it to measure whether or not they are achieving peace. The indicators themselves seem geared towards a more pragmatic definition of violence. The index is, of course, not perfect. Exactly how well certain indicators are represented by the small scale of one to five can be questioned. Further, indicators such as “military expenditure” (an indicator that particularly condemns the USA in the index) do not directly fall into a definition of violence but rather the collection of the means of violence. If such means are never deployed then it seems unfair to give a nation a lower ranking. But that is a heated discussion for another time.


Where the index may profit, however, is by incorporating the psychological forms of violence mentioned by Galtung. As already mentioned, such forms of violence are difficult to quantify, not only because of their abstract nature but because instances of such violence so often go unreported. Nonetheless, the index would no doubt be enriched by an attempt to collect data on such cases so as to broaden its definition of violence beyond the physical.



Overall, it seems clear that a more minimalist definition of peace as “the absence of violence” is the most sensible road to avoid inflating the term. Violence itself is still in need of defining, but that definition should be broader than the Global Peace Index’s indexes and narrower than Galtung’s notion of unmet potentialities. Such a definition should incorporate physical and psychological factors. Moreover, we should work to quantify such elements of violence. It is only when quantified that we can begin to see whether or not our peacekeeping efforts really are changing the world.


Paul Retallick received a BA in History from the University of Birmingham. He is currently a Philosophy MA student at the University of Durham and a former MITRA student at the University of Oslo from 2018-19.



[1] (Accessed: 28 August 2019).

[3] The IPB notably received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910. (Accessed: 12 September 2019).

[7] (Accessed: 28 August 2019).

[11] Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research”, 167.

[12] Ibid., 168.

[13] Ibid., 169.

[14] Ibid., 168.

[15] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963): 249-50, (Accessed: 12 September 2019).

[16] (Accessed: 28 August 2019).





Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth (1963): 249-50, (Accessed: 12 September 2019).

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research6(3), 167–191.

Le Guin, U. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (Accessed: 28 August 2019). (Accessed: 28 August 2019). (Accessed: 28 August 2019). (Accessed: 28 August 2019). (Accessed: 28 August 2019). (Accessed: 28 August 2019).


Av Paul Retallick (MA in Philosophy, Univserity of Durham)
Publisert 16. okt. 2019 16:14 - Sist endret 16. okt. 2019 16:15