Final Thoughts on Pacifism

by Bob Murphy

In two previous articles (1 and 2), I described my evolving opinion of pacifism. Since my childhood (and no doubt due to my Catholic upbringing), I had always viewed pacifists as courageous people, but thought that their philosophy was hopelessly naïve. But lately, the more I think about it, the more I believe that pacifism works. I tried to explain this conversion in my previous articles. I’d like to take this final installment to address some lingering issues (many of which came up in discussion of the first two columns).

Now, before I get going, a disclaimer: In this article, I am going to talk about what "the pacifist" would do or say in a certain situation. That doesn’t mean I necessarily endorse his actions, nor does it mean that I myself would behave as the pacifist. (For example, if someone were attacking my younger brother, I would probably use violence to assist him if I saw no alternative.) My point with these articles has never been to lecture the reader on the morality of pacifism, but merely to show that an individual pacifist or society of pacifists could get along just fine. I am not arguing (here) that the virtuous person must become a pacifist. (Hopefully this caveat will forestall those emailers who politely informed me that I am "the lowest form of evil.") All I am arguing is that the standard dismissal of pacifism as "impractical" is not as obvious as it first seems.


At this point, some distinctions are in order. I define a pacifist as someone who refuses to engage in violence. In arguments over my original articles, I realized that many people thought the "true pacifist" had to basically roll over and die at the hands of evildoers. But this doesn’t follow at all. Although actual pacifists (such as Jesus) believed that you should love your enemies, strictly speaking the pacifist as such need only refrain from using violence against his enemies; he is perfectly free to resist and/or avoid them in any nonviolent way.

This definition of pacifism requires a precise concept of violence, in order to know exactly what sorts of actions are permitted. Although actual pacifists may disagree with me, I believe there is an important difference between force and violence. I take force to mean the application of physical pressure, while violence is force that causes bodily harm. And to relate to the libertarian reader, I can make another distinction and classify violent acts that violate property rights as aggression.

(In this framework, then, armwrestlers would use force against each other, professional boxers would engage in violence against each other, and barfighters would engage in aggression against each other.)

The significance of these distinctions is that it allows pacifist police agencies to use force against suspects. For example, suppose we have a community committed to pacifism. Nonetheless, a certain individual finds this philosophy absurd, and holds up a convenience store. As I have defined pacifism, it would be perfectly consistent for police to respond to the scene. Although they couldn’t carry conventional weapons, they could still protect themselves with body armor. Moreover (and more controversially), I am claiming that they could use nets, foam spray guns, or other devices to restrain the suspect, or could even form a human shield (perhaps with bulletproof sheets of glass) to bring him into custody. The point is, I am claiming that a police department could get by without ever inflicting actual harm on anyone, that is, without ever using violence.

True Pacifism?

A few of my critics claimed that what I am advocating isn’t "true" pacifism. To the extent that my position differs from that of typical pacifists (who might, e.g., not condone the existence of a police force at all), then I agree. Were I writing for something other than the Internet, perhaps I’d use a more accurate term for this philosophy of life, such as nonviolence.

But before leaving this issue, I want to point out a certain inequity. One of the techniques that my critics used to point out that I personally wasn’t a "true pacifist" was to ask, "Suppose your wife were going to be raped. Would you still refuse to use violence?" To this, I had to admit that I would not.

But why does this disqualify one from being a pacifist? If someone claims to be a vegetarian, i.e. one who refuses to eat meat, it is common for skeptics to ask, "What about eggs? Would you eat fish?" But I’ve never heard anyone say, "Suppose someone were going to rape your wife unless you ate a burger. Would you still be a vegetarian?"

In fact, it is only because historically there have been many pacifists who were just that committed in their refusal, that we hold "true pacifism" to such a higher standard than "true vegetarianism" or even "true libertarianism." (On the last point, I asked my critic – a self-professed anarchist – if he would rather allow the existence of government than allow his wife to be raped. He answered yes, and so I pointed out that he’s therefore not really a "true anarchist.") The fact that many people have been willing to die rather than use violence shouldn’t somehow discredit pacifism; it should rather strengthen it.

Now, there is a sense in which my critic’s question was more legitimate than if he’d used the same technique against a professed vegetarian. Most people generally condemn the use of violence, except in certain situations. Therefore, if one is going to call himself a pacifist, the critic wants to know exactly how his stance differs from the typical one.

I would answer that the pacifist is one who views violence as unsavory per se. If you like, we can say that the types of cases in which such a person would actually use violence would be a gauge of the "purity" of his pacifism. But I don’t think it’s helpful to merely divide the world into "those who wouldn’t use violence to prevent the rape of a spouse" and "those who would."

To illustrate: Libertarians agree that it is immoral to initiate aggression. But the pacifistic person would say that this principle, though valid, is too permissive of defensive violence. He would not, for example, shoot someone for breaking into his car. The extremely pure pacifist wouldn’t even punch an attacker to avoid a vicious beating. And of course the purest of pacifists (many of whom have actually lived and died) wouldn’t use violence even to save their lives.

Gun Control

For some reason, many people who read my original articles thought that the pacifist must advocate gun control. But this is quite false. The pacifist believes that violence is an unacceptable tool to achieve one’s ends. And so, even though the pacifist would prefer a world without guns, he cannot condone the use of violent gangs of government employees to (attempt to) bring about such a world.

Private Defense

Some of my readers were puzzled that I had defended pacifism, shortly after writing a pamphlet that discussed the advantages of private (versus government) military defense. But this is similar to the confusion over gun control: In order for the government to engage in "national defense," it must use (the threat of) violence to keep out competitors, and to extort revenues from taxpayers. So the pacifist must obviously object to government defense.

Now, as a value-neutral economist, I can predict that in the absence of government militaries (and prohibitions on private counterparts), the free market would provide efficient defense services to (non-pacifist) customers. This involves no contradiction on my part. I can advocate the legalization of crack cocaine, while at the same time preach that consumption of such a drug is immoral and counterproductive to one’s "true" aims in life.

Moral Reprobates?

Some people accept that pacifism is a viable strategy, but only if the pacifist relies on the (defensive) violence provided by others. I argued in my first two articles that this claim isn’t true; I claimed that pacifism becomes more practical the more people who adopt it.

In this article, I want to add that I see nothing hypocritical about a pacifist taking advantage of the current situation. For example, I claimed (in on-line debates) that a pacifist could reduce the chance of muggings by living near police departments. Critics objected that this was pure hypocrisy.

But why is this so? Suppose a pacifist is being chased by a mugger who can’t swim. Is the pacifist allowed to jump in a lake, knowing that his predator dare not follow? If so, then why can’t the pacifist run to the nearest police department, knowing his mugger dare not follow? So long as the pacifist believes that the police officers ought to resign, I see no reason he has to ignore the fact that, in the present world, police officers do not share his opinions on nonviolence.

I must say that I was surprised at the disgust with which some people met my original articles. As I said in the beginning, I had always respected pacifists; I just thought they were naïve. This clash is illustrated by an exchange I had with one of my on-line critics:

Critic: Someone asked Tolstoy [a pacifist] if he would use force to stop a drunk from kicking a child to death. He thought about it for a while and then answered, "No." But, what kind of person wouldn’t use force to stop a drunk from kicking a child to death? [bold original]

Murphy: Simple:  The kind of person who writes War and Peace and The Kingdom of God Is Within You.  Now that I’ve answered your question, are you still so sure the pacifist is a coward…or a moral degenerate?

And of course, those who embrace pacifism on religious grounds certainly shouldn’t be accused of moral degeneracy. After all, God Himself allows evil things to happen.


My reflections on pacifism have led me to reverse my childhood opinion. There is no reason that a society of pacifists couldn’t function. Even if they were occasionally prone to invasions, their superior technology and economy would allow them to ultimately outbreed rival cultures.

As I have stressed in each of these articles, I am not claiming that pacifism is the only way to live. I am claiming that it is an entirely practical option. The power of violence is greatly overrated. Pacifism works.

June 29, 2002

Bob Murphy [send him mail] is a graduate student in New York City. He has a website,

Copyright © 2002

Bob Murphy Archives

Help LRC

Back to Home Page