Some Thoughts on Pacifism


Christian Michel has posed the question: “Is pacifism not only inept, but also morally abhorrent (evil everywhere should always be fought)?”

This question isn’t as simple as it sounds. For a start, my dictionary gives three different meanings of the word “pacifism.” (1) Opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes. (2) More specifically, refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds. (3) An attitude or policy of non-resistance.

My comment on (1) is that war rarely settles a dispute between nation states. Often, as the loser grows stronger with time, resentment and desire for revenge grow too, and the end result is another war. Thus, this kind of pacifism can be justified on practical grounds, if not also on ethical ones.

As to (2), I think that for an individual to refuse to bear arms in an aggressive war is ethically sound. If a war is wrong, to take part in it is also wrong. However, if the war is defensive, it will often make ethical and practical sense for those capable of it to join in the defence; if only on the grounds that “the devil you know” is probably less evil than the attackers. And so, regrettably, military preparedness will remain necessary, as long as nation states exist.

There are also more difficult cases, such as a war to halt a genocide. So, I won’t try to lay down any hard and fast rules about whether this kind of pacifism is justified or not. Each case can only be decided by each individual, according to the detail of the situation.

As to (3), non-resistance can indeed be an inept response to aggression. For me, both individuals and societies have a right to defend themselves, and to retaliate in proportion where that is necessary. I can see the attraction to some of the idea of “turning the other cheek,” but after you’ve been hit on both cheeks, in the butt and in the wallet, what do you offer next?

I note, in contrast, that there are countries in the world that don’t have militaries. But almost all of them are part of some larger defence federation. Costa Rica may be an exception; but I suspect they have a tacit agreement with the US to defend them if they need it.

So while I, as a libertarian, agree with a pacifism based on non-aggression, I think that non-resistance, even if it sometimes makes sense for individuals, can’t work for nations.

Which brings me to what I see as the root of the problem. War is built in, at the most fundamental level, to the political system we all suffer under. Jean Bodin, the 16th-century architect of the system that became the nation state, regarded making war as one of the basic rights of sovereignty. (The French have a lot to answer for!) It seems incredible to me that, despite the Enlightenment, and despite bags on the side like parliaments and “democracy,” we’re still using a 16th-century political system that, ultimately, is based on the “divine right of kings.”

So as I see it, if we truly want to be pacifists, we should be exploring and working towards alternative systems of political organization. We should be looking at how to deliver the benefits of good governance, such as peace and objective justice, without any need for “sovereignty” or a state.