Friday, December 15, 2006

Some Thoughts on Pacifism

One good thing about pacifism is that the view is perfectly universalizable: if everyone were committed to avoiding war, that would be just fine. The problem, of course, is that pacifism is not actually universalized. And, given that some are entirely willing to achieve their ends through violence, it seems like others will need to stand up to them in order to protect the innocent. So goes the standard objection. Is there anything wrong with it?

Let "absolute pacifism" be the claim that engaging in warfare (or, in the strongest version, violence of any kind) is intrinsically wrong, always and everywhere, without exception. I don't know if anyone could defend such an extreme view, so I'll set it aside for now. We might do better to consider a more moderate position, let's call it "epistemic pacifism", which claims that in practice it is never advisable to go to war. The consequences are so predictably awful that we should always prefer to find some alternative instead. Perhaps we can point to a rare case where going to war turned out for the best (though can we really be sure there wasn't any better alternative?), but the epistemic pacifist will nevertheless insist that we couldn't have known this beforehand, so the original decision was criminally reckless, albeit lucky in the end.

I think the standard objection is enough to refute the absolute pacifist's attribution of intrinsic wrongness. As a matter of principle, fighting for the innocent seems a noble enough endeavour. The epistemic pacifist can grant all that though. They simply point out the problem of implementation, and worry that the cure will likely turn out worse than the disease.

It's no doubt a good rule of thumb to be very reluctant to go to war. But it's not so obvious that the rule should be exceptionless, as pacifists demand. There may be clear cases (Rwanda? Darfur?) where humanitarian intervention is justified, and would predictably do more good than harm. If we could set up trustworthy (preferably international and/or deliberative-democratic) institutions that reliably identified such cases, then following their recommendations would be a better approach than straight pacifism. Leaving such decisions to the executives of individual nation states is probably not, however. So we may do best to commit to pacifism in the meantime, and work to create the improved political institutions that are a precondition for making legitimate declarations of war. Sound plausible?


  1. How is this 'epistemic pacifism' any different from a strict just war theory, whether in the Augustinian or Thomistic vein, or in more contemporary versions elucidated by Walzer and others? If it does resemble some kind of strict just war theory, does this 'epistemic pacifism' say anything about jus post bellum, or does it concern only the way a state decides how to go to war and the way that they conduct themselves within war?

  2. Hmm, the way you have presented the issue suggests that aggression precedes involvement, as if the choice to go to war occurs after aggression seems immanent or already under way. If my reading of your comments is correct, then I the absolute pacifist as someone who looks to negate the pretext of aggression, so that the choice of to fight or not needn't be made.

  3. 1) the classic example would be you are attacked by the axis powers
    2) your close ally is attacked by the axis powers

    Surely it is either irrefutable that we should have attacked germany earlier in WWII (unless we propose that we should have surrendered unconditionally) from a utilitarian point of view.

    It would also seem very dubious to say "you could not have known that war would be required with germany". maybe there was but I dont think your average pacificst was proposing it and opposing the best solution on the table by proposing no other is a negitive strategy.

    A similar argument could be made for most of the major wars in history. It is a fairly new event that we can have a war which you can avoid as easily as for example "not going to iraq".

    a furture example might be.
    1) China invades the USA (and I think there is a fair chance they will) - should the USA
    A) surrender unconditionally
    B) fight back

    interestingly as a utilitarian I'm may well favour option A because inhabiting a nuclear wasteland just ain't my cup of tea, but I expect it to give others pause for thought.

  4. Typo correction to the second sentence of my above comment: "...then I interpret...".

  5. BTW, who makes the strongest arguments for pacificism? Who are the philosophers of pacificism?

  6. The argument against absolute pacifism seems to depend pretty strikingly on the notion that in any situation there will be an available morally right (or at least permissable) action. Why should we grant that?

    Pulled out slightly, I don't see that there's any problem in saying something like "war is always awful, morally, and some times all the alternatives are also morally wrong." The result as far as I can tell from talking this way would be to assert that a lot of the time what we see are tragic dilemmas, and unless there's good reason to believe that these are impossible (I don't know what this would amount to - why couldn't it be the case that sometimes we're just, you know, fucked?) then that isn't much of an objection.

  7. Pretorius - I guess my problem with "moral dilemmas" is that morality is supposed to be action-guiding. We have to do something, after all, which raises the question: what is it that we should do? To say "no" to every possible option is not very helpful guidance. Even if all the options suck, we might at least find that some of them are less bad than the others. (Or if they're all equally bad, then that's another fair result: it means there's nothing wrong with picking any one of them over the others.)

    A-train - I haven't a clue. Anyone else know?

    Anon (GNZ?) - you pose a false dilemma between "surrender unconditionally vs. fight back". Cf. Gandhian non-violent resistence. If enough of the population was on board, they could soon make themselves completely ungovernable. This won't work in cases of, say, genocide, where the invader's only objective is to kill you anyway. But if they're trying to achieve something else through their aggression, such non-cooperation could screw up their plans quite nicely. (The main difficulty is getting enough of your fellow citizens on board in the first place, I guess. Depending on the invaders, surrender might not be such an unattractive option.)

    Jared - I dunno, I expect everyone would prefer to avoiding the need to fight in the first place. What sets the absolute pacifist apart is that they think it's necessarily wrong to fight even if the threat can't be pacified.

    Peter - I know very little about just war theory. You'll have to explicate those positions you name before I can make any comparison.

  8. Richard - I think this may just be one of those intractable differences in moral intuitions. ("The strength of my theory is that it tells you what to do in case X!" "My objection to the theory is that it tells you what to do in case X and there isn't something to do!" etc.)

    I can't help but suspect though that your response just depends on the same denial of moral dilemmas (in a more sophisticated way) as above. Firstly because I'm not sure I agree that morality has to be action guiding in what I think you mean by that (in a strong sense, that is). More importantly, though, because I'm not sure there's too much distinction between saying of two options that one is the least bad, and saying that it's the permissable one (at least if we take morality to be the sort of thing that tells us what to do in various cases). There would have to be some sort of implicit "And if you have to do something do the least bad thing" rule, or a willingness if a utilitarian to allow negative happiness into calculation (this is standard, right? something like -50 hedons is greater than -70 hedons, so the first action is the better one, or -50 hedons is the same as -50 hedons so the two actions are morally indistinguishable), but that looks to me to just be denying dilemmas again.

    I think it's perfectly plausible that there could be cases where all the available actions are ones that are indefensible. As far as those go, then, the most that we could say is that we have very, very, very good reason to do what we can to avoid those situations, but we couldn't say much about what to do if they show up.

  9. > Anon (GNZ?)

    > Gandhian non-violent resistence.

    Do you think that is a good strategy against the NAZI? maybe. But the problem is who are the decision makers here

    > If enough of the population was on board, they could soon make themselves completely ungovernable.

    the problem (which I note that you seem to have noticed at the end) is that the decision I was propsing was a decision that could be made by the government. a decision to "get the population on board and resist is one that needs to be made by the population as a whole which is a different body (one cyou can influence but dont directly control and cant exactlly predict). Anyway resistance to me seems similar to war except worse the way it usually happens (eg an iraq/vietnam sort of thing).

    But of course it MIGHT be the best option definitly there might be a better way than war, but i wouldnt say it was always predictably the best.

  10. Richard: Let "absolute pacifism" be the claim that engaging in warfare (or, in the strongest version, violence of any kind) is intrinsically wrong, always and everywhere, without exception. I don't know if anyone could defend such an extreme view, so I'll set it aside for now.

    A-train: BTW, who makes the strongest arguments for pacificism? Who are the philosophers of pacificism?

    Well, people have defended such a position, so if actuality entails possibility then people can defend it. The most famous defender of such a position is probably Leo Tolstoy (cf. for example The Kingdom of God is Within You). It was also defended by the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and his comrades in the American "non-resistance" movement (cf. for example ). On the interpretation of both Tolstoy and the Garrisonian non-resistants, a similar view was advocated by Jesus Christ.

    A lot of their defense of absolute pacifism is scriptural, and insofar as it is scriptural, it can't be expected to carry much weight with non-Christians. But they do also make some arguments that attempt to appeal to common sense, or to the ethical sense that underwrites the New Testament injunctions.

    In particular they would not at all be convinced by your claim that the defensive use of violence is a regrettable necessity in a world where not everyone is a practicing pacifist. The standard response to the standard objection is that the fault for aggression lies on the aggressor, not on those who refuse to use violence to stop him. They generally held that everyone has a moral duty to stand with the innocent and to do what you can to help them avoid or frustrate their would-be persecutors. But not a duty to do so by absolutely any means necessary; the idea is that if you practice or endorse violence as a just means of protecting the innocent you cannot consistently condemn violence against the innocent as an evil--they object to the principle that it's O.K. to shove people around to achieve your ends, however noble those ends are. In this connection they often stressed their opposition to the idea that anyone can permissibly do evil so that good may come; however noble the end, it cannot be achieved through ignoble means.

    It's important to note that the idea here is not just that universal peace is a constituent of an ideal world but also that peace is a constituent part of a virtuous human life. If you think that a virtuous human life just consists in doing whatever is conducive to producing an ideal world, and that producing an ideal world just consists in globally maximizing goods and minimizing evils, then this position will not make any sense, with or without the Christian underpinnings. But that's just to say that absolute pacifism is incompatible with conventional consequentialism. True, but so are lots of things, and since the pacifists in question explicitly rejected consequentialist calculation, pointing out the incompatibility doesn't provide a non-question-begging argument against them.

    I reject absolute pacifism, but I don't think that the main defenders of the position are foolish or refuted nearly as easily as most non-pacifists tend to think.

    Richard: Anon (GNZ?) - you pose a false dilemma between "surrender unconditionally vs. fight back". Cf. Gandhian non-violent resistence.

    Bertrand Russell wrote an interesting article on just this subject in 1915 ("War and Non-Resistance," Atlantic Monthly 116, 266-74). Here are some excerpts:

    Let us imagine that England were to disband its army, after a generation of instruction in the principles of passive resistance as a better defense than war. Let us suppose that England at the same time publicly announced that no armed opposition would be offered to any invader, that all might come freely, but that no obedience would be yielded to any commands that a foreign authority might issue. What might happen in this case?

    Russell noted that withdrawing from international power politics would make any threat of war immediately much less likely. But even supposing that some ravenous aggressor was hell-bent on invading and conquering England,

    ... Some of the more prominent would be imprisoned, perhaps even shot, in order to encourage the others. But if the others held firm, if they refused to recognize or transmit any order given by the Germans, if they continued to carry out decrees previously made by the English Parliament and the English government, the Germans would have to dismiss them all, even to the humblest postman, and call in German talent to fill the breach.

    The dismissed officials could not all be imprisoned or shot; since no fighting would have occurred, such wholesale brutality would be out of the question. And it would be very difficult for the Germans suddenly, and out of nothing, to create an administrative machine. Whatever edicts they might issue would be quietly ignored by the population. If they ordered that German should be the language taught in schools, the schoolmasters would go on as if no such order had been issued; if the schoolmasters were dismissed, the parents would no longer send the children to school. If they ordered that English young men should undergo military service, the young men would simply refuse. ... If they tried to take over the railways, there would be a strike of the railway servants. Whatever they touched would instantly become paralyzed, and it would soon be evident, even to them, that nothing was to be made out of England unless the population could be conciliated....

    In a civilized, highly organized, highly political state, government is impossible without the consent of the governed. Any object for which a considerable body of men are prepared to starve and die can be achieved by ... [nonviolent] means, without the need of resort to force. And if this is true of objects desired by a minority only, it is a thousand times truer of objects desired unanimously by the whole nation.

    In one sense what Russell advocates is a universal policy "unconditional surrender" -- i.e. just sitting by and letting any invader that wants to take the time and effort come over and take control of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. But since just taking over the buildings would convey no actual power and no mass concession of authority, what was "surrendered" would in the end be completely irrelevant.

  11. Dr P,
    Id say there is a situation in which the best polict for a society is to punish the individual no matter what action he takes - for example where he has been faced with a dilema and took the least harmful option but where it would be a terrible precident to allow him to 'get away with it'.

    But I'd feel pretty hard hearted to do that. Wouldn't everyone?


  12. Well, I'm personally of the opinion that these sorts of dilemmas are less rare than most people like to think as well - not just odd philosophy examples, in other words, but things like having morally unfortunate children would seem to me to count.

    And, as it turns out, I think there's a valid case to be made that too might count as a tragic dilemma, depending on the situation. (There's still, of course, a difference here between ethical and legal - so nowhere near all ethical dilemmas would breed more, but I can certainly imagine that there are some.)

  13. "There may be clear cases (Rwanda? Darfur?) where humanitarian intervention is justified, and would predictably do more good than harm."

    I am not what you call a pacifist, but I would like to hear more about why you think that in Rwanda and Darfur the intervention is justified. I also think it is, but I am aware there are a lot of different types of justification for such acts. And I am curious to know which justificatory method you have in mind.

  14. "I am curious to know which justificatory method you have in mind"

    Basically utilitarian.


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