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War & Peace

Pacifism Is Not Passivism

Duane Cady tells us why pacifism isn’t sitting back and letting the masters of war have their way.

Pacifism rarely gets taken seriously due to a widespread cultural bias: ‘everybody knows’ that pacifism is hopelessly naïve and idealistic. Meanwhile, war is accepted as normal, practical and realistic. And although pacifists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are respected for their moral strength, they are often dismissed by the dominant culture as unrealistic. However, when ‘warism’ – taking war for granted as morally acceptable – becomes recognized to be, like racism and sexism, a prejudice that distorts our better judgment, then we can try to set the bias aside and openly consider varieties of pacifism.

‘Pacifism’ means ‘peaceloving’. It should not be mistaken for ‘passivism’, which means being passive, suffering acceptance, not resisting evil. Because the two words sound alike, people occasionally confuse one for the other. In fact, pacifists rarely are passivists; more often they are activists, working for peace.

Pacifism takes many forms, all of them opposing war and other forms of violence. Beyond this negative position of being anti-war, pacifism involves various positive strategies for making peace. So there are two sides to pacifism: the negative, anti-war, anti-violence side; and the positive, offering peaceful, nonviolent alternatives, side.

Let’s begin with anti-war pacifism.

Anti-War Pacifism

Most people believe that depending on the situation, war can be morally acceptable, even morally required. Since St Augustine, over the past 1,500 years, a just war tradition has developed in the West. Those who believe that a just war is possible do not say ‘all’s fair in war’ or ‘anything goes’; rather, they have ethical criteria that guide their decisions about war. These amount to guidelines for answering two basic questions: When is it justified to go to war? and, What moral restraints are required within a just war?

Regarding the first question, going to war justly requires meeting six conditions:

1) The war must be made on behalf of a just cause;

2) The decision to go to war must be made by proper authorities;

3) Participants must have a good intention rather than revenge or greed as their goal;

4) It must be likely that peace will emerge after the war;

5) Going to war must be a last resort; and

6) The total amount of evil resulting from making war must be outweighed by the good likely to come of it.

Once all six conditions for going to war justly are satisfied, we can turn to the second question: What moral restraints limit fighting a war justly?

There are two principles to meet here: discrimination and proportionality. First, a war is fought justly only if those making war discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets. Children, the elderly, those hospitalized or in nursing homes, even ordinary citizens, all are illegitimate targets. Only soldiers and citizens working to advance warmaking capabilities can be targeted. The second standard, proportionality, requires that the evil of each individual act of war will be offset by the good it brings about. Those supporting just war allow for ‘spillage’, where bombs may target weapons factories or enemy soldiers and accidentally injure or kill non-combatants; but such ‘collateral damage’ must be offset by the good accomplished.

For a war to be just, it must meet all of the conditions and answer both questions. Meeting just a few of the just war conditions is not enough. We must be justified in going to war, and we must exercise moral restraint in making war once we go.

Portrait of Gandhi © Omar Delawer 2014 Please visit facebook.com/delawer.art

Forms of Pacifism

Pacifism emerges as people take these moral restraints on war ever more seriously. Varieties of pacifism differ by degree. It is helpful to understand the various forms of pacifism by thinking of degrees of moral restraint along a continuum between accepting the just war tradition and absolute, unqualified pacifism.

The weakest form of pacifism, operating alongside versions of just war thinking, is called ‘pragmatic pacifism’. Here war is not opposed in principle, but is opposed in a particular case because violence is not likely to work in the situation at hand – because resorting to violence would only make matters worse. Pragmatic pacifists sometimes oppose and other times support war, depending on their judgment concerning the most practical solution to the problem at hand. So pragmatic pacifists will grant that war can be justified in some cases, but hold that, as a matter of practical utility, avoiding war is more likely to be effective in achieving the goals of a given conflict. For example, one might find slavery sufficiently evil to warrant war to free the enslaved; or one might think that violence would only give slave owners an excuse to crack down on any resistance movement for freedom.

A somewhat stronger view along the scale is ‘nuclear pacifism’. Here nuclear war is prohibited because it cannot meet the just war conditions of discrimination and proportionality. There is no way to hit only legitimate military targets with nuclear weapons; they are inherently indiscriminate, destroying children, the elderly, hospitals, and homes as readily as military installations and weapons factories. And nuclear war is never a pragmatic solution. Nuclear pacifists often absolutely reject the nuclear option on moral grounds, yet cling to conventional warfare as sometimes justifiable.

This brings us to ‘technological pacifism’. This is the view that the technology of modern war has made conventional warfare nearly as indiscriminate as nuclear, so that the just war requirements for waging war are never met nowadays, due to the inevitable collateral damage – modern war frequently spills over to harm more innocent bystanders than legitimate military targets. Perhaps war was justifiable many years ago, when armies of volunteers met on remote battlefields; but war as we know it today is just too big and too hard to control. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century most casualties of war were military, but by the end of the twentieth century, most war casualties were civilian. So if we rigorously enforce the just war guidelines, modern war doesn’t qualify as just, since modern war inevitably violates the principles both of discrimination and of proportionality. The methods of modern war have therefore made the idea of a just war obsolete.

Increasing awareness of the fragility of our environment has also resulted in ‘ecological pacifism’ – a version of technological pacifism where moral concern goes beyond the impact of war on people and society, to focus on the implications of war for our planet, its ecosystems, and the host of species they support, as well as for the sustainability of air and water quality for current and future generations of all living things. Ecological pacifists point out that the largest single threat to the global environment is military, not least because the Earth’s military systems are the greatest sources of environmental contamination, including consuming the most fossil fuels. While individuals worry about their personal carbon footprints, their taxes support carbon footprints made by militaries powers of ten beyond the impact of individuals. If restoring or preserving our environment is a concern, then curbing the pollution and consumption by the world’s military organizations must be paramount. Such concern often leads to ecological pacifism.

‘Fallibility pacifism’ is the view that even if some modern wars could meet the just war conditions in principle, our knowledge is too limited to substantiate their application in fact. Due to the sheer scale of war, we cannot know relevant factors with sufficient confidence to warrant violent actions between nations. Given the subtlety and complexity of issues too: the history of tensions; the biases of involved parties; propaganda; vested interests; the manipulation of news media, and the various inequalities among nations – economic, political, geographical – our knowledge cannot be sufficiently secure to justify war, even if war might otherwise on the face of things seem theoretically justifiable.

‘Collectivist pacifism’ is the position that violence may be morally justified in particular small-scale situations, such as in the execution of a convicted murderer, or fending off a violent attacker by force, but that war cannot be justified due to its sheer magnitude. For instance, although collectivist pacifists always object to the mass killing that characterizes war, they may allow defensive or penal interpersonal violence when an individual does something so evil that they thereby putatively forgo any legitimate expectation of the upholding of their human right to be protected from violence themselves. There is no inconsistency in the collectivist pacifist allowing interpersonal violence but rejecting war, as using personal weapons to defend one’s family from attack is sufficiently different from participating in war, with its mass violence and enemy anonymity.

Finally as we describe the range of anti-war pacifist positions, we approach ‘absolute pacifism’. On this position it is wrong always, everywhere, for anyone, to use violence against another human being. We can also imagine even more absolute pacifisms, where all violence, including violence against non-human living things, or against everything, living or not, is prohibited. Few pacifists espouse such an extreme view. Even Gandhi said that if the choice is between violence and cowardice, he would choose violence. The pertinent point is that pacifism admits to degrees along a continuum between pragmatic and absolute pacifism, and that most of us find ourselves somewhere between the extremes of the scale.

Positive Peace

Having described the range of anti-war pacifism, let’s now turn to the other aspect of pacifism, the commitment to positive peace. Pacifists do not merely oppose war and violence to varying degrees, they promote a range of alternatives to violence – a range of practices that contribute to peace. By ‘peace’, they mean not merely the absence of war and violence, but the presence of harmonious and cooperative social order. This order must arise from among the participants rather than being forced on them from outside: positive peace is characterized by cooperation within groups. The Cold War was well-named: ‘cold’ because overt violence (i.e., bombing and other killing) was avoided; yet ‘war’ because relations were deeply strained, and overt violence seemed to be held at bay only by each side threatening the other with annihilation. The uneasy lack of overt violence in Eastern Europe from the close of World War II until the collapse of the USSR in 1989 was ‘negative peace’ at best. By contrast, positive peace involves no threats, no massing of weapons or troops, no coercive force.

Peace – literally ‘agreement making’ (from the Latin pax + facere) – happens when a sense of community, shared purpose, and mutual interest, all prevail over divisiveness, opposing purposes, and disunity. This is why people of common heritage, shared values, and familiar experiences usually find it easier to be at peace with one another than with those of different traditions, religions, cultures, or ethnicities: getting along by self-control from within groups comes more naturally when groups are, or seem to be, more alike than foreign. But whether they are as large as nations or as small as nuclear families, when groups are at odds with one another, tension and conflict inevitably arise. For pacifists, the better people understand one another the less likely their conflicts will result in violence. The challenge is to foster a sense of community, of participation, sufficiently strong to overcome divisiveness, differences, and misunderstandings. This harmonious ideal is anchored by a spirit of tolerance and respect, where differences are seen as enhancing possibilities for human experience rather than as threats that must be dominated or destroyed. Pacifists try to internalize practices to foster within themselves, and within their communities, the ideal of cooperative community. Such practices are nonviolent because violence always ruptures relationships – the basis of community – and because violence is incompatible with an internally ordered, peaceful whole.

All of us succeed at living peacefully to some extent, in any context dependent on cooperative behavior: perhaps with immediate family, close friends, co-workers, team members, neighbors, customers, or even with drivers with whom we share the roadways. One of the fascinating features of positive peace, when it happens, is that it rarely occurs to those living peacefully that they are making peace: it is simply how they live and interact – it is habitual, and taken for granted. Positive peace is nearly invisible. Unfortunately, there are limits to our peacefulness, and few of us can take cooperation for granted as how we can interact with everyone. Ignorance, fear, impatience, intolerance, all get the upper hand at times, and some individuals are disruptively self-interested, putting themselves above others, even bigoted and disrespectful. In the extreme this becomes criminal behavior, and those who rupture the peace in this way must be dealt with. The mark of truly peaceful people is whether their methods of dealing with peacebreakers are consistent with their visions of peace.

Of course, the most obvious peaceful method to resolve conflict and achieve agreement is discussion. Where individuals and groups cannot work out agreement by discussion, resolution may be achieved by appeal to an impartial third party. When arbitration fails, courts may be used to settle disputes. But some conflicts do not get resolution by various legal means.

I cannot delineate all the various methods of nonviolent peace-building here due to space limitations, but in The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), Gene Sharp cites nearly two hundred techniques. All are ways to confront power nonviolently by taking advantage of power’s main vulnerability: that ruling requires the consent of the ruled. Beyond discussion and arbitration are political protest and persuasion – acts demonstrating support or opposition. Personal and group letters, lobbying, petitioning, picketing, wearing symbols, marching, singing, and teach-ins, are all examples of this level of struggle. Beyond protest and persuasion are methods of noncooperation: strikes, boycotts, slow-downs, withholding funds, reporting ‘sick’, walk-outs, and embargos. Moving beyond noncooperation, are methods of nonviolent intervention: sit-ins, fasting, forming shadow governments, underground newspapers and electronic media, and acts of civil disobedience. All of these methods of nonviolent direct action can be seen as acts along a spectrum expressing increasing degrees of physical confrontation, from cooperative discussion to nonviolent intervention. Just as pacifists may inhabit any point along the anti-war continuum, they may inhabit any point on the positive peace-building spectrum. (There seems to be no necessary link between positions taken on the two scales.) The next step would be violent intervention, which is outside the pacifist range of peace-building options. For the pacifist, leaving the nonviolent range of peace-building options appears to be tantamount to surrender, because it amounts to betraying one’s ideals in pursuit of them; but perhaps this is too quick. After all, there are legitimate versions of pacifism where a small-scale personal resort to violence, whilst never desired, can be warranted – such as force used by the police to apprehend a criminal for trial. Still, no pacifist can resort to war.

When warism is recognized, and taking war for granted is challenged, a variety of pacifist positions become possible. And as it turns out, pacifism is not naïve and unrealistic at all. In fact, all of us are pacifists to some degree, since all of us oppose violence as a means of interaction in many aspects of our lives. Building on this active nonviolence can expand our capacity for peace-building and make us increasingly wary of war as a solution to conflict.

© Prof Duane L. Cady 2014

Duane L. Cady is Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Hamline University, Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is author of From Warism to Pacifism: A Moral Continuum (1989; 2nd ed. 2010), coauthor of Humanitarian Intervention (1996), and author of Moral Vision (2005), plus three anthologies and more than fifty articles on ethics, history of philosophy, and nonviolence. He is a past President of Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and served six years on the National Council of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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