Thoughts on Pacifism
two previous articles (1
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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]
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?
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.
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
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.
Murphy [send him mail]
is a graduate student in New York City. He has a website, BobMurphy.net.
© 2002 LewRockwell.com