Is pacifism a defensible moral position

Essay 2002 9 Pages

Philosophy - Theoretical (Realisation, Science, Logic, Language)


Is pacifism a defensible moral position?

There are plenty of ideas in international ethics which indicate how states and individuals should behave and interact. The belief that the use of violence in contact with others is wrong, represents one of those. Pacifists, fascinated by a world without war or violence, formed different moral positions according to that vision. To have a moral position means that a person or a state must have general kinds of reasons "for supposing a certain type of act to be his [or its] duty, in a moral sense" (Wasserstrom R., p. 66). Pacifism describes a duty that might range from non-resistance to any sort of physical attack, up to the attitude to use force only in case of self-defence. In the first part of this essay the debate will therefore focus on the individual and whether or not pacifism can be made a plausible moral principle for our private lives. Passive and active non-resistance and self-defence will be the main viewpoints discussed in this section. It will be followed by debatable moral standpoints for a nation as a whole in the second chapter. We will determine, if it is imaginable and desirable for a state to adopt perspectives like 'no force at all', 'no war' or 'wars only in the case of self-defence', as its righteous. To provide evidence for the moral verification of pacifist views, we firstly have to prove whether or not they can possibly be moral positions and secondly if they are defensible. However, it will be shown, that moral positions are defensible, if one has plausible reasons to believe that this specific vision is likely to be realised.

People's aversion against violence varies in intensity from passive non-resistance, over active non-resistance, to the use of force in the case of self-defence.

In this first paragraph the following discussion will be based on religious ideas because the radical moral doctrine of passive non-resistance roots largely in the belief in the sanctity of life. This notion in our moral thinking that not only "violence is evil but also that it is morally wrong to use force to resist, punish, or prevent violence" (Wasserstrom R., p. 63) has developed separately in various religions. In Europe reasons to embrace pacifism, as our moral guideline through life, are shaped by Christianity. Jesus presents himself as an uncompromising pacifist. He told us to love our enemies and to be absolute in our disapproval of violence. His doctrine stands for passive endurance. To turn the other cheek when somebody slaps us is a great humiliation, which one can only bear if he/she is free from the feeling of revenge. Reprisal can be seen as immoral as it leads directly into the vicious circle of violence. Instead of physical bravery to fight back, moral courage is needed to master the temptation of using the same means. 'Passive non-resistance pacifists' have confidence in the moral conclusion that one is not permitted to employ the same methods one condemns, otherwise non-resistance could not be a moral position. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you are not allowed to defend yourself or others with force. For this consistency to suffer for something one believes to be morally right, religions like Hinduism and Christianity, promise compensation in a next or in eternal life. Even if this religious idea constitutes a moral duty, it is still difficult to justify because no resistance at all leaves pacifists extremely vulnerable and creates perfect victims for aggressors. On the one hand there might exist the possibility that a pacifist´s and his friends´ sacrifice would alarm the international community. As a consequence the state might be liberated and the spiral of violence be stopped. On the other hand, cases like the genocide in Rwanda show a horrifying example of the uselessness of silent suffering[1]. Furthermore pacifism cannot be seen as natural response. Ones first reaction is trying to protect his/her body from physical violence. It would be an understandable reflex to stab a man who tries to rape you. Not to kill him will result in an immense self-sacrifice. Consequently one must have good reasons to live with non-resistance and to endure cruelties. This all comes down to believing in justice, justice of court, of an international institution or the punishment of aggressors in a next life or an after life. Without the belief in "justice at last" passive endurance cannot be a defensible concept. However mainly religions are strong enough to establish such a moral obligation for some of us. Therefore only under the light of this faith can passive pacifism be a defensible moral position.

Instead of relying on the strategy of passive endurance many people would rather favour more active methods, though still without using physical force. To overthrow a tyranny, for example, the active pacifism of Ghandi demands engagement and contention with the violent society and its oppressive institutions in order to succeed. Ghandi with his goal of India´s independence is the most important example of an active non-resistance pacifist in the last century. He fought for and with the people in his country but without arms or any other military means. His spirit encouraged many people to suffer and sacrifice their lives in order to reach their goal without killing or injuring others. Still believing in passive endurance, he however had to realise that as soon as a person tries to achieve a political goal, this method does not have the power to change the opponent´s position all by itself. Non-violent actions like fasting, rational persuasion, strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation and civil disobedience extended the passive approach. The question arises whether Ghandi´s methods would have led to success under an extremist government. Hitler would not have cared about strikes or demonstrations but destroyed them. However eventually the dictator must have given in because military force is helpless facing united and motivated masses. Those techniques make his form of pacifism as useful or even more effective than violence, according to Ghandi. Comparing the Algerian to the Indian liberation, India suffered minimal losses. Also even if such non-violent 'experiments' fail, they might fail less disastrously than violence (Hungary in 1956). Active non-violent resistance also produces more stability in the long term because it has to be supported by many people to become victorious. Force, to the contrary, mostly provides short-lasting solutions and generates an inflationary spiral. Besides practical considerations of long-term achievements, pacifism rather than violence is legitimate. There cannot be any real justification for violence because of the impossibility of a hundred percent truth. Ghandi states that "in order to be justified in taking the extreme step of harming or killing someone, one must assume that one´s objectives are absolutely right...and that one´s opponent is totally mistaken...such infallible moral and empirical knowledge is denied to man" (O´Sullivan N., p. 183). Therefore, the pacifism Ghandi proclaims, is a moral position because it places real constraints on one´s response towards aggressors. Furthermore it is also morally defendable because violence can never be absolutely justified and methods of active non-resistance can be as powerful as violence.

Another way to interpret the pacifist view is to endorse non-violence in all cases except self-defence. Yet literature is divided whether or not self-defence is a pacifist view at all. This section will therefore examine the question if fighting back is a morally defensible position and whether it is suitable for pacifists. One should have the permission to protect himself from being harmed by any means[2]. This claim is supported by Wasserstrom´s argument that physical force can be regarded as inherently evil. Assuming that one has this moral justification to protect oneself by force, one should consequently be allowed to defend others as well. It might reduce harm done to innocent participants if one has the moral admission to protect loved ones, for example wife and children, with physical enforcement. For consequentialists this establishes a moral right to use force on some occasions because it results in the lowest sum of overall violence: "one´s overriding duty is to do that act which would have better consequences than anything else one could do" (Ihara C., p. 372). Certainly not all moral considerations referring to this topic can ultimately be seen in an utilitarian light because it is questionable whether pacifism or violence produces the best outcome with the least amount of violence in the end. For example, self-defence can encourage potential attackers to use even more dangerous weapons while at the same time it possibly can produce deterrence. However, according to the deontological approach, cost-benefit considerations are irrelevant for a moral principle. For them the use of force demonstrates an inconsistency in relying on a mean that one condemns and defence can be rather regarded as an understandable instinct of self-preservation. Yet even if we do believe in non-resistance and therefore have no right to secure ourselves, it still could be morally obligatory to protect others by force. Yet a pacifist is a person who is committed to non-violence in a way in which the rest of us are not and has to put his moral duty of not using physical force over the positive duty to aid others in distress. It is therefore true that "the position that pacifists have special moral rights and obligations with regard to the commission of violence that most moral agents do not have" (Ihara C., p.374). However, pacifists are also ethically required to use every mean available to them to help others. They are therefore able to protect others as long as any possible alternative to violence is available, for instance, to interrupt a fight by attempting to step between the attacker and the victim. Although self-defence is morally wrong for a pacifist, one has simultaneously shown that it is a justifiable proportional response and therefore a defensible moral position for non-pacifists. However, for a declared pacifist, self-defence or protection of others by force cannot possibly be moral positions because of his special moral responsibilities.

The challenges for an individual to live a completely non-violent life are immense. For a whole state, however, it seems still more demanding. Pacifism as an idea for a whole state developed different notions over the centuries, ranging from 'no force at all', 'no war' to 'war in defence'.

If the state would make no use of force at all, it would be a community in which no citizen could expect institutions to offer sufficient protection as a part of their community responsibilities. It means, for instance, that we would not possess the same possibilities to sentence criminals as we have now. States, first of all, would have to abolish the death penalty as a non-pacifist punishment. Only robbers, murderers and rapists could be captured who voluntarily surrender because the police would be forbidden to employ any sort of violence. As most people believe, the pacifist principle would be misrepresented through violent escalation following forceless penalties. Force used by state institutions is necessary to avoid social disorder and anarchy, otherwise chaos will eventually produce more violence. Ghandi knew "that while a private individual might be able to afford the moral luxury of a puristic attitude to non-violence, a political leader could not" (O´Sullivan N., p. 195). Pacifism needs legal enforcement, a certain amount of strict rules or even violence, to be sustained because an overall consensus to create a pacifist nation is highly unlikely. Realising that some people are not suitable to be part of a pacifist nation because they are not willing to live without attacking others, means that this form of state pacifism cannot be possible. ´No violence at all` used by the official institutions can scarcely be translated into practise. This position is an moral utopia for existing states and, therefore, not defensible.


[1] This silent suffering was born out of helplessness and not from a pacifist belief but it still can be regarded as a valid example.

[2] “To say that it is wrong is to say that those to whom it is done have a right not to have it done to them...What does follow logically is that one has a right to whatever may be necessary to prevent infringements of his right” (Wasserstrom R., p. 72).


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University of Southampton – Politics Department
1,7 (A-)
Political Philosophical Theory



Title: Is pacifism a defensible moral position