The neutrality of this article is disputed.

Property damage is often confused with violence, doing bodily harm against living beings. In certain ideologies, e.g. capitalism, all infrastructural capital is assumed to be important to human life, unless and until its "owner" decides that it is not, at which point that "owner" may dispose of it even if it is deemed useful by others. In the broader ideology of humanism, which includes most types of capitalism, socialism and anarchism, there is a general bias towards believing that everything built and used by humans is in fact useful to the human species, no matter how destructive it may be to other life. As all these ideologies allow for some form of property damage when opposed, e.g. in warfare, arguments that all "property damage is violence" are clearly inconsistent.

Most people, however, would agree that certain types of damage or denial of access to life-sustaining capital, e.g. poisoning a well, electronically jamming a pacemaker, is clearly violent, and that certain forms of property damage, e.g. breaking a lock on an isolated cabin in a blizzard, clearly cause less harm to life than failing to do so.

Beyond this broad ethical distinction, the definition of related words like vandalism, violence, terrorist tend to be hopelessly political.

For example, the Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of incidents of property damage, but has never harmed a living being, and has a doctrine forbidding this. However, the U. S. FBI classifies them as a "terrorist" group ostensibly because they send a political and ideological message with this destruction. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense restricts the term "terrorist" to groups that do actual violence, i.e. bodily harm.

Some argue that property damage signals willingness to do bodily harm or otherwise intimidates the free flow of communication in political or economic debates. Mohandas Gandhi was of this opinion, but nonetheless differentiated doing bodily harm from property damage, even if he thought both to be violence - which also he thought admissible in certain dire circumstances.

Property damage tactics have been part of the labor movement, peace movement, ecology movement, environmental movement and anti-globalization movement. The infrastructural capital of loggers, miners, fishers, suburban housing developers, the mass media, employers who are subject to strike actions, and even military forces have been targeted. The property so targeted, in most cases with the notable exception of labor actions, tends to be that which is deemed to be causing or threatening some form of damage to living beings. Typical examples include Greenpeace sabotage of bulldozers, peace movement activists entering NATO bases by breaking fences, and Earth Liberation Front destruction of empty new homes that they deem to be imposing on the Arizona desert ecoregion.

When property damage is systemic and solely motivated by the desire to harm the interests of the owner or their allies, it is often called vandalism. And indeed, it is often so characterized regardless of the political motives - when the motives are recognized as such, it is also often called terrorism.