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War & Peace

The “Ugliest of Things”?

Anja Steinbauer considers some criticisms of pacifists and pacifism.

When Immanuel Kant wrote his 1795 essay Perpetual Peace, he thought about what it would take for nations to coexist peacefully. While he did this by applying the principles of his moral philosophy, he is clear throughout that war and peace are a matter of politics, not of private ethics. Nonetheless, confronted with the reality of war – and there always are wars – it would be strange not to think about the rightness or wrongness of our individual responses to armed conflicts.

In a spectrum of possible standpoints the extremes at either end always stand out. Those who subscribe to an uncompromising embrace or rejection of warfare – militarism or pacifism – are under particular pressure to justify their positions. The problem is that too often this discussion is conducted in an atmosphere of political mudslinging.

Pacifism has had some fervent defenders (Einstein referred to himself as a ‘militant pacifist’) but has also been fiercely condemned and ridiculed. Pacifists have been on the receiving end of insults, white feathers and courts martial. Even politician, philosopher and pioneer of European integration Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi complained that “the trouble with pacifism are pacifists.” Yet pacifists are generally motivated by noble concerns – by a profound respect for life and a commitment to peace and human rights. Furthermore, as pacifist Bertrand Russell once pointed out, participating in a war is not just a matter of nobly risking your life, which is a moral act, but also of being willing to take lives, which is not: “Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.” So what are the objections to pacifists and pacifism?

One popular criticism is that pacifism ultimately amounts to a ‘clean hands’ approach to war, where pacifists allow others do the dirty work for them but reap the benefits. Pacifists are seen to give priority to their own lofty moral principles over the defence of their family, neighbours and country. To avoid this accusation, pacifists need to show that there are constructive alternatives to armed resistance. Alternatives exist, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King have demonstrated, but whether their approaches will serve in every circumstance – for instance in the face of a sudden brutal invasion – isn’t clear.

Yet pacifists hold that war is never morally justified, regardless of the circumstances. Their refusal to participate in armed conflict would seem to make them principled moralists, but are they eschewing their civic responsibility? Many critics contend that although war is an evil, it is sometimes unavoidable. As A.N. Whitehead put it: “The absolute pacifist is a bad citizen; times come when force must be used to uphold right, justice and ideals.” Even no-harm philosopher John Stuart Mill rejects uncompromising pacifism: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.” Is peace an important, but not the most important, value?

Moreover, pacifism isn’t the only principled moral position in this debate. It shares its concern for the moral principles behind warfare with a very different position: Just War Theory. While pacifism condemns all wars as immoral, Just War theorists from Aquinas through to today’s Michael Walzer argue that while we would all prefer a non-violent world, this is merely a utopian dream, and as wars with their terrible consequences will always take place, waging war, depending on the specific circumstances, may sometimes be ethically preferable to not doing so. So, they say, we must work out when it is morally justified to wage war, and how.

Where does political responsibility for such decisions rest? After the First World War, Max Weber introduced the concepts of an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and an ‘ethic of responsibility’, a distinction which he developed directly from the conflicting views of that war. The ‘ethic of responsibility’ is based on a concern for real politics, for what is practical, with a willingness to go to war when necessary. The ‘ethic of ultimate ends’, on the other hand, is about the moral principles underlying political action. It is associated with a position of protest, with pacifism. Though there is an irreconcilable tension between these two positions, Weber argues that a good politician should be able to do justice to both concerns – a tall order. Weber’s distinction reflects a much-voiced concern over the limits of pacifism: that it is not tenable as a universal doctrine blind to actual historical conditions. It is for this reason that many critics perceive pacifism as rigid.

While peace-loving individuals can reject war and live up to their pacifist principles, would the same be possible for a nation state? Pacifism would only work as a policy if other states also committed to pacifism. In the absence of such a general commitment, adopting a blanket pacifist policy will mean defencelessness and expose that country to the danger of being overrun by an external aggressor. It has also been pointed out that refusal to fight an aggressor in the international arena means a failure to protect innocent individuals. Rather than signalling rejection of aggression and violence it in fact rewards an aggressive approach by not offering armed resistance. Pacifist ideals, however, do inspire real politics. Efforts of cooperation and of finding peaceful solutions to disputes have been an important feature of international politics, such as in the work of the United Nations.

Respect for human dignity and human rights is often accompanied by a profound dislike of those who violate them. Interestingly this sentiment, shared by many, can work both ways: on the one hand it can lead to efforts to prevent war, which, after all, very obviously endangers humans and human rights. On the other hand, it can contribute to generating hostile images, to thinking of the violator of rights as our enemy and thus moving us towards a willingness to fight this enemy. Motivated by this kind of thinking as well as the consideration of our advantages in modern weaponry and intelligence technology, ‘liberal intervention’ has become an option that democratic societies have been more willing to consider in recent times than ever before.

You don’t have to agree with pacifism to see its value in public discourse. We need the voices of unyielding pacifists in our discussions of contemporary political challenges. The ethic of responsibility is not everything.

© Dr Anja Steinbauer 2014

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