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A Defence of Pacifism

The question of pacifism might be thought never so irrelevant as at a time in which the most powerful nation in history considers itself in a state of permanent war. Terrorism is the new face of evil, which has dutifully replaced communism. I do not suppose that the war on terrorism will ever be won, just as there will never be victories in the wars on drugs and on poverty. In each case there is at best a metaphorical war. But, of course, the question of pacifism is not irrelevant, given the near universal skepticism outside the U.S. regarding its so-called war on terror. Daniel G. Jennings’ brief article, “A Few Moral Problems with Pacifism,” provides the occasion for my discussion. Jennings’ objections to pacifism do not seem to me particularly strong. I first define “pacifism” and then deal with each of his three objections in turn. Finally, I discuss some background issues, specifically WWII and political realism.

Defining “Pacifism”

Before I turn to the objections, I want to point out that Jennings does not define “pacifism” and that had he defined the term his objections might have been more focussed. There is the danger of a strawman attack based on a misrepresentation, or at least on an uncharitable reading of pacifism. For example, say we define “pacifism” as the refusal to kill any organism. In this case, pacifism would be physically impossible to carry out, since our immune system and the very act of walking on grass kills all sorts of microscopic organisms and insects, respectively.

Is pacifism is the refusal to use force of any kind, the refusal to kill, or just the refusal to participate in war (organized and massive killing)? Jennings’ article would have benefited from consideration of these optional definitions. In discussing the question of hypocrisy, for example, he talks about both military force and police force (domestic law and order). Need the pacifist prohibit the capture and imprisonment of criminals so long as the criminal isn’t killed? And how should “force” be defined? My Webster’s New World dictionary, for example, defines “pacifism” as “opposition to the use of force under any circumstances; specifically, refusal to participate in war.” (I appeal to this definition only to give an example, not to settle the philosophical issue.) Does “force” here mean physical force or also what Ghandi called nonviolent resistance? Again, were “force” defined sufficiently broadly, pacifism would simply be impossible to adopt, since walking and breathing involve the use of force in some sense.

I will define pacifism primarily as the refusal to kill, especially the refusal to participate in war (massive killing), and secondarily as the allowance of minimal violence in self-defence. This definition, at least, gives us an interesting, defensible position.

First Objection

I turn now to Jennings’ specific points, the strongest of which, I think, is the first one. Given every societies’ past killings, where can the pacifist live without being a hypocrite? I say “every” and not just the “free” societies, since Jennings’ claim can be easily extended. We can go back to prehistorical times when all of our ancestors, in the form of primitive tribes, lived in a most brutal fashion with perhaps daily killings. Surely, we wouldn’t be around today had our ancestors not survived at all costs, as it were. Does this make the pacifist a hypocrite?

Not obviously. Hypocrisy is doing the opposite of what the doer says. So, were a so-called pacifist to preach nonlethal force, but secretly to kill people herself, she would indeed be a hypocrite. But that’s not Jennings’ point. He talks not about the pacifist’s own actions but those of her ancestors. Should the pacifist be blamed for her ancestors’ activities? There is the danger here of the genetic fallacy, reducing the value of something to the quality of the thing’s source. To take the extreme example, Hitler might have painted a beautiful picture even though he himself was a monster. Should the pacifist be frowned upon or judged harshly because she depends on previous acts of extreme violence? The pacifist may, for example, have parents who themselves participated in war; in a sense, then, this pacifist is strongly tied to people who committed lethal acts. Yet this strong tie–whatever the tie may be–does not negate the value of the pacifist’s ideal or her commitment to nonlethal violence. Pacifism itself can be evaluated.

At most, the pacifist might approve of her ancestors and of the war-won benefits which she enjoys. In that case, perhaps the pacifist would indeed be inconsistent, yet the pacifist could simply make her approval more nuanced. She might approve of some but not all of her ancestors’ activities; in particular, she might disapprove of their extreme violence. She would also have to try to forego any of the benefits afforded by her country’s killings; otherwise, her intentions themselves would be inconsistent; that is, she would be a kind of deceiver.

I say the pacifist need only try since this, I think, would be sufficient to escape the charge of hypocrisy. Take a pacifist who is coerced into killing someone, but who struggles as much as possible to prevent this action. Such a person would hardly be hypocritical. So long as the pacifist were to intend to give up the fruits of war, she would not be a hypocrite even were she to fail to trace the ancestry of all the things she does enjoy.

Here, however, Jennings’ point about hypocrisy merges with the charge of parasitism. Perhaps the pacifist is not a hypocrite, since her intentions may be pure; nevertheless, in actually failing to sustain herself purely on nonviolence, the pacifist depends on violence in the manner of a parasite, which itself is immoral. After all, the pacifist swims in a sea of extreme violence, so how can she avoid its taint? If she pretends to owe nothing to what she despises she is simply wrong. She needs war to survive, but she is so timid that she also needs others to carry out the necessary task. The pacifist’s flaw is weakness of character.

Again, to clarify the issue, I put aside Jennings’ point about law enforcement, since my definition of “pacifism” allows for the use of minimal (certainly nonlethal) physical force in self-defence. We are talking, then, about killing and especially about war. Does the pacifist depend for her survival and for her standard of living on war? I quote Jennings: “The pacifist can only survive in a society in which others are willing to fight and die to protect his right to be a pacifist” (my emphasis).

What Jennings does not consider is that, on the contrary, the wars in which the pacifist refuses directly to participate may actually endanger her life. There is, for example, what the CIA calls “blowback.” Terrorism, for example, seems to me the military strategy of militarily weak groups which suffer at least in part from wars fought by militarily strong groups. Take the American pacifist whose country arguably helped produce terrorism, largely by its involvement in Israel’s military actions and by the CIA’s armament and training of the mujaheddin themselves during the Afghan War.[1] In this case, we cannot say that the pacifist is a parasite who has to credit her safety to other people’s military actions. On the contrary, her life is endangered at least in part by these very military actions.

Do the benefits of war outweigh the costs? I hardly know and I doubt that anyone knows. Nevertheless, Jennings’ charge of parasitism assumes that the benefits outweigh the costs. I would need to see empirical data in support of this claim. What if the reverse were true and the costs were to outweigh the benefits? In that case, the pacifist would be stoic rather than parasitic; that is, her safety and quality of life would persist in spite of war. There are many different costs of war. There is the economic cost–just imagine the goodwill and other benefits the U.S. might achieve by converting much of its enormous military budget to foreign aid or to domestic social programs. There is the personal cost–a pacifist might lose a family member directly to war, making her life harder not easier. There is the dehumanization of soldiers and of anyone else directly involved in war.[2] There is the threat of the Third Worldization of wartorn countries. Such costs must be weighed against any benefits to determine whether those who refuse to participate in war are significantly inferior. To my knowledge, no one has performed this calculation nor does the calculation seem practical, which means that Jennings’ first objection is at best premature.

Second Objection

Jennings’ second objection is particularly weak, even strange. His objection is simply a false dichotomy. When faced with the threats of evil and violence, the pacifist’s response may be much more imaginative than appeasement or allowing her own death. Jennings seems to work with a very broad definition of pacifism; specifically, he assumes that the pacifist rejects the use of any sort of force, even nonviolent resistance, in which case Ghandi himself would not have been a pacifist, which is absurd. Is there no other way to defeat evil people than by killing them? Assume that the pacifist wants to help stop evil rather than to allow herself to be killed. (Assume, therefore, that the pacifist wants to help stop evil other than by allowing herself to be killed.) There are effective types of force other than the lethal kind, such as the boycott, civil disobedience, debate, perhaps even systematically ridiculing and shaming the opposition instead of fearing it. Take the enormous sums of money currently involved in the purchasing and use of arms and spend it on researching nonlethal solutions to international conflicts. I hardly think the result of this research would be Jennings’ dichotomy of appeasement or death.

Third Objection

Jennings’ third objection clearly presupposes the false dichotomy proposed by his second objection. He assumes that in shutting down the military, there would be no way of dealing with evil people other than by killing them and that therefore the pacifist would be guilty of the deaths resulting from this inaction. Were Jennings’ dichotomy a false one, no such negative evaluation of the pacifist would automatically be justified. Perhaps there are effective nonlethal forms of resisting evil people. If there were, no massacre of innocents need be forthcoming, in which case the pacifist need not be guilty of this consequence of war.

Jennings concludes with the claim that pacifism destroys peace. Yet what more likely destroys peace, war itself or the holdout that there is a nonlethal way of handling evil? Were there no effective nonlethal way, then Jennings’ point would follow. Yet whether there is such an effective nonlethal way is surely one of the questions at issue.

WWII and Political Realism

Most wars are not fought between forces of good and of evil. This Manichean oversimplification is itself a cause of war and is surely an assumption that would need to be rejected by any research into possible nonlethal forms of resistance. First, the complexity of war’s causes needs to be recognized, then we must think about moral solutions, which solutions, I would have thought, would not include the taking of life, that is, the destruction of what is most precious of all, the right to which is surely the basis of any moral theory.

Assume the contrary, that some people do not have the right to live but may permissibly be killed at someone else’s discretion. (Does Jennings make this assumption with his appeal to the “real” world?) In other words, consider war permissible, since this is precisely the assumption at work in war. Can a moral theory be based on this realist assumption? Surely in this case we have dispensed altogether with moral justification and have resorted instead to pragmatic, social Darwinian, or an otherwise amoral form of reasoning. Once killing is considered necessary, we need not pretend that morality is even desirable. Surely morality itself is for the weak, following Jennings’ Nietzschean lead.

This is why, I take it, Jennings’ strategy is to mount an internal criticism of pacifism. Jennings claims only that pacifism is not a moral position, since it is supposedly incoherent, not that the defence of war is itself moral. He is interested in defending war not morality, the two being mutually exclusive; in particular, he rejects the claim that the pacifist is superior to the political realist, or pragmatist. Note that the realist cannot consider war moral, since the realist does not think in moral terms. Morality is a form of delusion or rationalization for timid people.

I point all of this out mainly to make the following point: the pacifist may be a realist rather than a moralist! The pacifist might not aspire to moral superiority, contrary to Jennings’ target, and might claim instead that the cessation of war is merely useful. Put aside moral principles and focus only on the practical benefits of preserving life. Surely the pacifist might adopt this strategy. Again, though, there is no available calculation as to whether the costs of war outweigh its benefits.

Returning to the question of evil, the main reason for using this term in a debate about pacifism is likely to leave open the argument that since war was necessary and quite justifiable to stop Hitler who was evil, pacifism is defective. I would agree that Hitler and the Nazis were evil if ever there were evil people. I would point out, however, that WWII was itself in large part blowback from WWI, which was not so obviously a justifiable war of good against evil.[3] The reasons for Hitler’s rise and for the scapegoating of the Jews are complex and might have been dealt with in a way that would have forestalled the Nazis and WWII. This point ducks the inevitable objection to pacifism, which is that given that Hitler got into power, then surely war was justifiable to stop him. This objection loads the issue against the pacifist, by assuming that Hitler’s rise was not itself preventable, that there will inevitably be insane and evil dictators who need to be stopped by lethal force. The pacifist can always respond that in any such situation war is not morally justified because the encroachment of this dictator’s army could and should have been forestalled. Why must Hitler’s rise simply be given as though this rise were inevitable?

There is a confusion here between what is morally justified and what is necessary. To choose the lesser of two evils is still to make an evil choice. Granted, the lesser of two “evil” choices may be justified in realist terms. The realist contends that talk of truth and of morality is idle and deluded, and that a judgment is properly grounded only by utilitarian calculation. Of course, in this case the choice will not be between two “evils,” since there is no good or evil for the realist who evaluates a situation in amoral terms. A necessary, forced choice, too, is not the same as a moral one. Perhaps war against Hitler was necessary, given his rise to power, but this is not to say that this war was morally justified or in line with principles of truth, that is, with principles of an objective moral dimension. As I suggest above, I don’t know if war is ever even necessary. We need to research nonlethal alternatives to dealing with evil. Since this is an unknown area, however, Jennings’ argument cannot be accepted. Were pacifism the position that this research needs to be done, rather than that we should always leap to war, then pacifism may indeed be wise.

On the other hand, if the research in this area is actually insufficient, and if the pacifist cannot offer an effective alternative to war against something like Hitler’s invasion, then war may be practically necessary, in which case pacifism would be impractical. So does the pacifist have an effective nonlethal alternative to defeating a Hitler? Here is one alternative. Perfect the large-scale use of a nonlethal weapon, such as rocket-propelled knockout gas, a Weapon of Mass Immobilization, as it were.[4] As Hitler’s army invades Poland, cover the area with the WMI. Transport the army to a gigantic court, built for the purpose, and scrutinize the Nazi belief system using some or all of the funds that would otherwise have gone to a massive military buildup against Hitler. Did the Jews take a lot of jobs from non-Jewish Germans? Are the Jews an inferior race? Is there a superior, “Aryan” race? Is there even such a thing as a human “race” in any biological sense? Such questions are entirely empirical and could have been debated on a much larger scale. Assume that Hitler was wrong about all of these things and that the demonstration of his errors were able to be broadcast far and wide, around the world and all throughout Germany, again using the funds diverted from military purposes to those of the court designed and built for the prevention of war. What would have happened to Hitler’s public support, given widespread demonstration of his flatly erroneous belief-system? Could Hitler himself have been shamed into changing his mind? In hindsight, a favourable sign is that rather than confidently facing his opposition, in the end he took his own life.

But, my opponent will say, scientific experts at the time themselves subscribed to Hitler’s views. I don’t know whether the Nazi scientists were opportunistic pragmatists or true believers who thought that the Jews are an inferior race. In any case, given that there is no genetic basis for talk about race in humans, that “race” is a social not a biological term, surely intensive study of the question would eventually have convinced these scientists to abandon Nazism, especially were the Nazi military threat nullified. Were “race” a scientific term, experiments could have been performed to test for the presence of racial differences, and these tests would not have been able to pin down variation explainable by anything physical corresponding to the meaning of “race.”

But, my opponent will say again, Hitler and the Nazis would have disregarded empirical evidence in favour of a strong will to power. People simply had to have the courage to “seize the moment” and to grasp power regardless of what was merely empirically true. In other words, the Nazis were political realists. Public demonstration of their errors would have been irrelevant to persuading the Nazis, since the Nazis didn’t care about the truth. The only way to stop a realist who values nothing so much as power is to pummel him with greater force.

Maybe the Nazis were realists in this sense. Still, the Nazis could have been immobilized and imprisoned, again using some or all of the money that would have been spent on WWII. Such may have been the worst case scenario under pacifism, but keeping the Nazis alive while striving to convince them of the importance of the question of Nazism’s truth as opposed just to Nazism’s usefulness to power-hungry people, would have been preferable to the massive killings, according to the idealistic pacifist. On the other hand, were the pacifist herself a realist she would have to show the Nazi that war would be impractical, given the rest of the world’s determination to use the WMI.

Perhaps the details of this scenario are far-fetched. In any case, with current technology, at least, and with the promise of more options in the future, the availability of effective nonlethal weapons will make the warmonger’s insistence on using lethal weapons for the traditional military objective perverse. Nonlethal weapons may come in many forms, from rubber bullets to knockout gas to a device that causes sonic overload to a genetically engineered microorganism that corrodes metal. Instead of a battlefield strewn with dead soldiers and civilians, imagine the field occupied by temporarily immobilized aggressors who are then imprisoned and given the opportunity to debate on a massive scale and to redirect some or all of the money that would have been spent on war to a nonlethal resolution of the conflict. In any case, the pacifist does have the burden to offer some such alternative to dealing with an advancing evil army.

Granted, the point of war is to have the other side surrender as a result of casualties, rather than to arrive at a political compromise or some other nonlethal solution, whereas nonlethal weapons by themselves would not inflict the necessary casualties. Yet this is just to say that pacifists, with their nonlethal weapons plus their other forms of conflict resolution, such as a well-supported judicial system, could not fight a traditional war, or war as such, which is obvious. The pacifist challenges primarily the purpose of war, not just the means by which it is waged. What is perverse is not the use of lethal weapons in pursuit of the traditional military objective–the two are tailor-made for each other; rather, what is perverse is this military objective itself together with the brutal way in which it is pursued, given the availability of something like the above alternative.

Granted, too, many post-WWII “wars” are not traditional wars at all, but First World massacres of Third World soldiers (and civilians) by means of vastly unequal force. This only confirms my point. For something like the recent “removal” of the Taliban from Afghanistan, the military’s stated objective, perfected nonlethal weapons would have been ideal. The underequipped, Third World forces could have been immobilized and imprisoned for crimes against humanity. On the other hand, were the true objectives to vent American anger about 911; to test new weaponry; to follow the warped, technocratic rules of warfare;[5] to help an otherwise dubious Republican president win reelection; to conduct a cryptoreligious crusade against Muslims; and to terrify any country that doesn’t agree with American foreign policy, by way of a neoconservative (protofascist) plan for world domination, then indeed lethal weapons would have been necessary and pacifism would hardly have been to any advantage.


[1] See the Washington Post article, “Anatomy of a Victory: CIA’s Covert Afghan War.”

[2] See, for example, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges.

[3] See The Causes of World War One. The extent to which WWI helped cause WWII is controversial. On the Treaty of Versailles, see and .

[4] On nonlethal weapons, see Future War: Nonlethal Weapons in Twenty-First-Century Warfare, by John B. Alexander and Tom Clancy. The book does not argue for pacifism or for the replacement of conventional weapons by nonlethal ones. Some nonlethal weapons, such as the stink bomb, contravene the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, which prohibits “any chemical which … can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm.” The organized, international use of nonlethal weapons which I propose would render this Convention obsolete. See “Nonlethal weapons kept secret.”

[5] On problems with the technocratic method of warfare, see John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards, especially chapters 8 and 9.

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