Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Critique of Pacifism

Pacifism holds the use of force to be morally impermissible. The use of force inflicts a particular outcome upon another being against his or her will, a type of force that causes direct harm to another. Pacifism holds it is morally wrong to use force even in response to violence, based on the high value of human life. No end can justify violence. Absolute pacifism rules all uses of force morally wrong.

To whom does pacifism apply? One argument is that while it is not morally wrong to not live as a pacifist, nonviolence is a morally preferable, doing good that goes beyond the requirements of universal duty.

But different versions of pacifism vary on the degree to which they prohibit the use of force: absolute pacifism at one extreme and just war theory at the other. These two extremes also differ fundamentally in how they relate means and ends when considering the value of human life. Just war theory holds that force may be necessary when there is a goal more important than individual life or well-being. Absolute pacifism denies that any goal can justify the use of force. Is force is permissible if it is not lethal? If so, this view recognizes both the value of human life and practical challenges to absolute pacifism. But it opens up a slippery slope of violent actions.

Don’t all versions apart from absolute pacifism allow for a single human life being overridden by other concerns, and doesn’t every view except absolute pacifism justify force in some situations?

One theory permits the use violence only to defend other people, thus prohibiting force in self-defence. But what differentiates one's self from all other people? And how is a threat to others enough to justify the evil of using force while a threat to self is not?

It may be argued that force may be used only in defence of the defenceless. But doesn’t this say that all should be like the defenceless? So if this rule was universally applied then all would be unable to defend themselves but be obligated to defend everyone else. If we are individually denied self-defence in principle, then the general use of force for defence must be denied.

Each less than absolute theory demonstrates that absolute pacifism is the most coherent and philosophically relevant expression of the pacifist ideal. An answer may be that pacifism is a tactic promoting nonviolence. But the tactical refusal to use force may lead to bad consequences, has the problem of consequential unpredictability and loses principled grounding. After all, just war theorists principle recognize nonviolence is morally necessary in most cases and even when war is just, non violence may be tactically better in some instances.

Absolute pacifism is consistent because it holds simply and without qualification to the view that the use of force is morally wrong, the true spirit of pacifism. Absolute pacifism uniquely challenges violence and force as necessary human interactions. It asserts an individual and social moral ideal and a criterion for judgment.

Absolute pacifism, however, is fundamentally inconsistent. It denies violence, but force often is the only means of preventing it. Violence is wrong, and one has the right to be free of it, a right to prevent it. That right, to be meaningful, entails its functionality, including proportionate force. So that functionality means if a person believes violence is wrong, his use of force is justifiable. A person may choose to reject his own right to self-defense, but, if opposed to violence, cannot in logic refuse to defend the rights of others.

Moreover, the absolute claim that it is always wrong to use force is problematic. Force is not inherently morally right or wrong, say using force to prevent a suicide or harm to an innocent. That would also not necessarily be morally wrong. Absolute pacifism may not privilege human life. And it can conflict with other duties such as the well-being of a friend. It, as a criterion for judgment of actions, can’t resolve conflicts between duties.” A moral account must consider consequences: absolute pacifism asserts its means and ends regardless.


The absolute claim that it is always wrong to use force is problematic. It is at least equally problematic to claim that it is sometimes right to use force. One big problem is the harm done and its poisonous legacy. Another big problem is that it is impossible to establish coherent rules for the use of violence, except under tightly constrained circumstances that cannot be generalized. For example, no pacifist thinks that it is wrong to shoot someone who has his hand on the detonator that will blow up a hospital, but the minute a situation like that serves as the principle for resolving political conflict, you have utter incoherence and a recipe for disaster (i.e., war).

Force is not inherently morally right or wrong, say using force to prevent a suicide or harm to an innocent. I'm talking about deadly force, not mere coercion. Again, I know of no pacifists who reject all coercion. It is ridiculous, for example, to argue for a society in which we would simply open all the prison gates for violent offenders around the world and see how things go. Gandhi didn't propose that, nor did MLK. Second, pacifism is a combined philsophy of pragmatic political action and ethics. It has to be judged on both grounds, not just one. (The same goes for Just War theory). That provides an additional reason why examples like "What if Charlie Manson invaded your home and was about to carve up your pregnant wife?" are silly. Pacifism does not rise or fall on the action or inaction of a victim suffering a home invasion by a psychopath. Gandhi and King advised passive resistance and civil disobedience in the context of a political movement, in accord with the fundamental principles of that movement.

A moral account must consider consequences: absolute pacifism asserts its ends regardless... That also seems to me to be the case with Just War theory. Warists rarely give a full account of the consequences of their violence. First of all, such consequences are in great part incalculable. But second the immediate causus belli always magically trumps the potential evil of the consequences: If Saddam Hussein takes one step into Kuwait, we will blast him into the stone age with the full support of the UN, consequences be damned. Our "just war" rules (bad guy crosses border and we kill him) have painted us into a corner. Another problem I have with just war theory is that our aggressive impulses are neither morally nor intellectually trustworthy. All participants in wars believe the other side to be evil, wrong, insane, intolerably unjust, etc. But no one who pauses for an instant to seriously think about things can possibly buy into that theory. What you invariably have, even with the Nazis, is a set of historical grievances on both sides, a game of chicken and finally the schoolyard brawl. It is very difficult to argue that wars among nations or between nations and non-state players have a greater logic than wars between prison or street gangs. There's a lot more, but I'll leave it there for now.


Your first point is that “It is at least equally problematic to claim that it is sometimes right to use force” in response to me asserting, as you quote me, “Moreover, the absolute claim that it is always wrong to use force is problematic.” You stipulate, in responding to a different quote of mine which you cite, that by force you mean “deadly force, not mere coercion”. And your reasoning is the harm and poisonous legacy issuing from the sometimes use of force.

Then you make two different arguments, interrelated to make one point:

1. There are no generalizable rules effectively constraining the use of force; and

2. No pacifist, you say, would oppose the use of deadly force in a ticking time bomb type situation.

There is to my mind something gnawingly out of kilter in these arguments. Firstly, you are equating my sometimes use of force with the absolutist’s never use of force, except when the time bomb is ticking. Secondly, you are confusing, I think, deontological arguments with consequentialist arguments.

Part of the thrust of your latter argument is, as I construe it, that the ineffectuality of war rules to discipline the due use of violence leads not only to harm done and a poisonous legacy, but to those consequences exceeding in the harm done what benefits derive from the use of deadly force, say as in fighting a war. And the implication in this weighing argument is that if the latter outweighs the former, then the latter is justifiable.

That is a different order of proposition from the straight deontological assertion the absolutist makes regardless of the weighing of harms and benefits.

A problem you need to confront in both the moral argument and in your weighing argument is counterfactuals given certain historical examples of aggression. You need to confront defensive wars justifiable on just war criteria and ask yourself, what consequences would flow from a pacific posture. You need to confront instances of genocide, now an emerging causus belli overriding sovereignty in international law, and face the consequences of non intervention on the ground of harm overriding the benefit. You need to confront, for one example, the concreteness of the doomed Warsaw Ghetto and argue for the utilitarian and moral superiority of those Jews’ non violent resistance. And you need to confront, I argue, the example of someone threatening or causing serious harm to your wife, children, others dear and near to you, your fellow citizens even, and argue for the superiority of a pacific stance.

You need to commit yourself, in maintaining your position, to an acceptance of, and living with, all these counterfactual consequences.

Generally, your reasoning here partakes of the fallacy, I think, of the perfect being the enemy of the good, but, here, adapting the fallacy’s terms, of the terrible being the enemy of the even worse.

You cite my statement “Force is not inherently morally right or wrong, say using force to prevent a suicide or harm to an innocent.” I’ll start by agreeing with you on two things:

1. as mentioned, I’m happy to confine our terms to deadly force, not mere coercion, though I observe:

1(1) the seeming bright line between them—sheer lethality—isn’t necessarily coherent—what about bludgeoning and maiming; and

1(2) anything less than lethality as a bright divider leads to a lot of problems with cases being assigned to which side of the line;

2. I’ll stipulate that pacifism is a proactive and philosophical measure, though I observe:

2(1) it seems to me there is a tension, verging on incoherence (in the logical sense), between its absolutism—the underpinning of my entire argument against it— and your characterization of it as pragmatic. If it’s to be used pragmatically, then isn’t its absolute position defined out of existence and then doesn’t it become one more peaceful arrow, one more strategy and tactic, to be chosen amongst an array of means, the others involving the use of deadly force when pragmatically justified?

This last observation goes to your dismissal of what of your own described Charlie Manson example. I’m not sure I understand your dismissal, which is put by you in big terms—“passive resistance and civil disobedience in the context of a political movement, in accord with the fundamental principles of that movement”—the size of which evade, it seems to me, the brunt of the argument you face.

I mean what do these big words amount to? And what consistent principles does this disobedience rest on? I’ve already shown, I suggest, that to the extent your claim is for the pragmatic use of pacifism, civil disobedience—call it what you will—to be used in some situations and not in others, you are no longer a pacifist, just someone who will counsel the use of pacifism in some situations. But if pacifism isn’t to be used in “others”, then what is? Like pregnancy, you can’t be just a little bit pacific in the terms we are mooting.

If the principles of pacifism, non violent resistance, don’t allow for that stance in the face of discrete instances of violence against individuals, as opposed to large instances of violence or oppression, I need to know why in principle. Why don’t the moral imperatives and first principles driving its philosophy negate the use deadly violence in the more homely instances of violence, when that use would be proportionate in the circumstances?

Interestingly, there is a telling, though not complete, consanguinity between just war theory and the criminal law of self defence. Self defence becomes a criminal act when the use of force is not suitable, reasonable or proportionate in the circumstances. I suggest to you that as against your dismissal of a discrete instance of harm—Charlie Manson, or, say, not a psychopath—there is a principled relation between the use discrete use of force in the homely example and the use of it—war essentially—in the more grand examples

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