Philosophy Weekend: Pacifism’s Coma

The greatest philosophical mission of our time, as far as I can tell, is to rescue a belief system — Pacifism, defined on Wikipedia as “the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining advantage” — from its death bed.

Pacifism is not quite dead yet, but it must be in a coma. In any typical conversation about international politics, the mention of peace talks or agreements will be laughed or scoffed at. It’s our conventional wisdom that meaningful compromise will never be found between Israel and Palestine, or India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea. It’s widely accepted that various African failed states like Somalia, Congo and Sudan are beyond repair. Even my favorite President Barack Obama, who has clearly learned a lot from the great pacifist Martin Luther King, has not found a strategy for the US war in Afghanistan that differs significantly from George W. Bush’s.

How has this hopelessness come to dominate our public consciousness so completely? The famous pacifist Mohandas Gandhi walked on this earth only 62 years ago. John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s good-humored, artistic gestures for peace — a Bed-in, fifty acorns tied in a sack — made newspaper headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. These brave activists faced the same kind of strong resistance any pacifist will face today, but still managed to find threads of hope. Where are the voices of inspiration today? Has humanity’s most vital cause actually taken a step backward since these decades? It appears to be so, at least among the people I speak with.

The ideology most often cited as the humane realistic alternative to pacifism might be called benevolent militarism. Modern democratic nations must continue to dominate the troubled regions of the world through force and intimidation, according to this doctrine, and will be appreciated for doing so because we carry the promise of freedom and prosperity. Only the threat of overwhelming destruction can keep evil-doers at bay. These principles for global politics are widely accepted today.

The key historical event that will always be cited in support of benevolent militarism is the Munich peace treaty of 1938. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a historic (historically bad) decision to appease Hitler’s forcible annexation of parts of Czechoslovokia, thus giving Nazi Germany a critical advantage in the war that quickly followed. It was the Munich peace treaty, more than any other, that gave peace a bad name.

However, the doctrine of benevolent militarism does not work as well as its enthusiastic practitioners like to believe. The two biggest problems with benevolent militarism are that malevolent states are capable of amassing just as much strength as benevolent states, and that benevolent military occupations, no matter how well-intended, have a history of degenerating into corruption and oppression.

Benevolent militarism scores even worse as an ethical or philosophical proposition. It’s unbalanced at the core, and thus violates the widely accepted Kantian doctrine that any ethical principle must stand up as a universal law. This is no small failure for benevolent militarism. It might even be fair to say that the unphilosophical nature of global politics since the human disaster of World War II is the cause, rather than an effect, of today’s crisis in philosophy.

It’s barely worth trying to explain the doctrine of benevolent militarism in philosophical or universal terms — it just won’t stand up. Yet the principle has strong appeal, because it makes citizens of prosperous Western nations feel safe. Perhaps a pattern can be discerned in the combined history of philosophy and politics: philosophy will be considered most relevant by societies as a whole during those eras when it supports a practical political need (say, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, when books by Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Hume helped to enable the American and French Revolutions).

Conversely, an era when logical philosophy does not seem to point to a palatable political doctrine will be a kind of philosophical dark age. Schools and universities will treat the subject as if it were quaint and irrelevant. A person will be considered unfashionable and tiresome for attempting to discuss ideology at a party or gathering.

If we live in a philosophical dark age today, it’s because we have still not yet emerged from the shadow of Munich, and have not yet recovered from the incredible trauma of World War II. Every major political event since then seems to have emanated from that disaster. World War II still haunts our literature as well, as can be seen in the work of W. G. Sebald, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Littell, Daniel Mendelsohn and so many others.

It’s because of the darkness of Munich’s shadow that I say the greatest philosophical mission of our time is to wake pacifism from its moral coma. World War II delivered the world a hard, hard lesson. No pacifist will ever have an easy job of explaining Adolf Hitler away.

But the challenge Hitler’s legacy presents to pacifism cannot have been a death blow, because even the best alternatives to pacifism will not sustain our planet. There’s something strangely circular about the philosophical situation we’re in: a new movement to raise a universal sense of ethical awareness will not only help the world. It may also be the only thing that can save philosophy itself.

16 Responses

  1. Great post Levi,
    I see a lot

    Great post Levi,

    I see a lot of similarity between benevolent militarism and capitalist colonialism (which might take a post to dig into all by itself). Threats or not, the current wars in he middle east have economic benefits (access to oil for the US, construction contracts for the private sector etc.). Benevolence always comes at a cost.

    How do we reconcile a pacifist approach with the nature of threats in this era? The big players (China, Russia) are almost less of a threat than the numerous terrorist groups abroad and at home. How do countries reach agreements with splinter groups and those fueled by religious hatred?

    Lots to think about. Thanks for the post.

  2. “In affairs so dangerous as
    “In affairs so dangerous as war, false ideas proceeding from kindness at heart are precisely the worst. As the most extensive use of physical force by no means excludes the co-operation of intelligence, he who uses this force ruthlessly, shrinking from no amount of bloodshed, must gain an advantage if his adversary does not do the same. Thereby he forces his adversary’s hand, and thus each pushes the other to extremities to which the only limitation is the strength of resistance on the other side. This is how the matter must be regarded, and it is a waste — and worse than a waste — of effort to ignore the element of brutality because of the repugnance it excites.”

    Granted, I’m not nearly as hopped up as Clausewitz, but the quote does confirm, from an altogether different vantage point, the futility of benevolent militarism and permitting yourself to feel inferior through your own “peaceful” or “resistant” actions. Why do so when your opponent can walk all over you? Why maintain some foolishly naive exploration of the human condition when you cannot consider the element of brutality within the complex equation. (I see no such mention of belligerent militarism in your post. Is it not necessary in extraordinary cases?)

    Because of this, pacifism, denuded of these human realities, can very easily be interpreted as a quaint and outmoded ideology — particularly in an age where the police will respond to peaceful assembly with brutal force (see the recent G20 episodes), harass innocent bystanders, and the like. Now if you have some pacifist solution here that accounts for ongoing brutality, by all means, trot it out. But unless you account for the fact that some people are aggressive assholes, then I can’t see how your philosophical series can hold up. By all means, please elaborate!

  3. Thanks for the feedback. Ed,
    Thanks for the feedback. Ed, I’ll try to answer your question in two ways.

    First, let’s look at how we manage to get along in civil society, in the towns and cities where we live. There are aggressive assholes among our neighbors, wouldn’t you agree? There’s plenty of hostility and conflict around. We don’t have to look too far among our friends and relatives to find spurned lovers, mistreated employees, jealous family members, individuals with sociopathic or psychotic and violent tendencies. And yet … we all manage to get along. Occasional violent outbursts occur, but the fabric of society is strong, and we manage to handle each crisis without allowing society itself to fall apart. If we can handle aggressive assholes in our everyday lives without slipping into deeper cycles of violence, why shouldn’t we be able to do the same internationally?

    Second, I just want to mention that a person does not need to be able to answer every difficult challenge to the theory of pacifism in order to be a pacifist. There are some difficult questions that no pacifist can easily answer — just as there are difficult questions that no military hawk can easily answer, that no religious person can answer, that no atheist can easily answer. In the end, it may require a leap of faith to declare oneself a pacifist. The reason to do so is that one feels strongly enough that it is right, and that no other alternative can be equally right. Along with this leap of faith comes the conviction that we will deal with the inevitable problems and limitations and shortfalls as they occur, one by one, one day at a time.

    I suspect that my first answer here may be more satisfying to some than my second. But I want to give the most truthful personal answer I can to Ed’s question, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Levi.
    Thanks for the comment, Levi. However, when you say that “we all manage to get along,” even accounting for the most committed optimism in the world, nothing could be farther from the truth. You or I may very well be inclusive or nonjudgmental towards certain people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we “get along” with Manson, Fred Phelps, David Berkowitz, or countless others who have committed terrible acts, and are now either incarcerated or in the streets. And aggression often arises when two people are at loggerheads or violence proves to be the only way to break up a bad situation. Let’s take a man who is beating his wife or abusing his children or assaulting another for his wallet. You can’t very well talk this guy out of committing this behavior, which often repeats itself and is very often committed in the unthinking heat of the moment. Thus, self-defense or a violent response sometimes becomes necessary to prevent the wave of violence from perpetuating. But if you’re a pacifist, and you are thoroughly opposed to war or violence as a means of resolving an issue, then what are you supposed to do? Stand there while the man continues to escalate in violence? Physical force or violence IS necessary in situations when all other forms of resolution have failed. So I ask again: is not violence necessary in extraordinary cases? And if so, is not the pacifist ideal corrupted by responding to the inevitable human element of brutality?

  5. I’m not really sure I
    I’m not really sure I understand what you put behind the concept of pacifism, to be honest — Gandhi and Chamberlain are both evoked, but we’re talking about wildly different actions and situations here (in one case, refusing to fight at all, versus in the other, fighting by non-violent means). Conflating pacifism with fatalism or non-violence with non-intervention seems a tad confusing — maybe we could dive into definitions a little more?

  6. In response to Ed: well, I’m
    In response to Ed: well, I’m talking about a practical and realistic pacifism, not an idealized or absolutist position. There are some overly idealistic pacifists who would prohibit any kind of self-defense in the face of violence. But really, this type of approach makes the idea of pacifism impossible.

    Why don’t we assume for the purpose of this discussion that any notion of world peace must be understood to be fallible, vulnerable and incomplete — we are human beings after all — and that there would be a constant need for law enforcement, conflict resolution, justice? Any other expectation is really too unrealistic to be considered.

    Ed, you bring up Charlie Manson and David Berkowitz (pardon my ignorance, but I don’t know the name Fred Phelps!). I think these examples actually serve a positive purpose here, because the crimes of both Manson and Berkowitz were successfully investigated and prosecuted, and both are spending their lives in jail.

    The international situation in the world right now, on the other hand, offers no such satisfaction. Governments who inflict mass murder upon internal or foreign populations are rarely stopped. Look at Darfur today. It’s as if Charlie Manson had been allowed to set up shop and keep it running for years. It’s a pretty significant difference, don’t you agree?

    So, one might ask, why is it currently possible to keep the peace between citizens of a nation, but impossible to keep the peace between nations? I think the phrase “fabric of society” is very helpful here. When a person commits a crime, it is immediately recognized as an aberration by society at large, and is treated as such. Within a city or a town, the fabric of society is strong. What’s needed worldwide is a “fabric of society” — not a world government, not an all-powerful international police — that can be trusted to recognize and fairly deal with the crimes that will eventually occur in even the most peaceful world.

    Does that answer suffice?

    In response to Charlotte: yes, I know I am speaking in broad terms. Your question is a good one, but I’m not sure if I can give a fair response in the space of a blog comment. We will be returning to this subject here regularly, though. I will keep your point about precise definitions in mind for future posts …

    Thanks again for the feedback!

  7. I guess it’s an idle fantasy,
    I guess it’s an idle fantasy, but I wish that the pacifist movement could somehow join forces with the new grow-it-yourself movement. Especially in the dry Mideast, offering people vegetable gardens rather than guns could be a quiet but eloquent statement of investing interest in a different direction.

  8. Levi, I think your definition
    Levi, I think your definition of pacifism is the only acceptable one. I believe Bertrand Russell had a similar definition and called it relative pacifism, which meant essentially war is undesirable unless it is the lesser of two evils. Pacifism would indeed be an idle fantasy if its objective was the garden of Eden, but I don’t think anybody is arguing that.

    The dichotomy between pacifism at a personal level and a state level is at the heart of the matter, I believe. Most of us generally live our lives as pacifists, we shun violence, abhor it when it’s inflicted on others, and desire justice for the victim. Of course humans are humans and violence does happen, but on an individual level there is usually accountability , and a strong mechanism (law enforcement, prison) to discourage said violence.

    On the state level, the situation changes dramatically. Most people, especially Americans, are so far removed from war that the word has no meaning. I’d argue that the word evokes more fascination and nostalgia (Hollywood being exhibit A) than it does horror. Americans reacted to 9/11 like such a thing had never happened before, but really it had just never happened to America before. Terror happens everyday, in Darfur, Gaza, Congo among others. These aren’t as sensationalistic as flying planes into a tower so they tend to go unnoticed, uncommemorated. Americans had a few days of feeling vulnerable, but by and large we went back to living in bubbles after that.

    I believe that most people don’t desire war (though obviously some do) and they have to be coaxed, lied to, and bullied into it. A state desiring war merely plays upon peoples’ fears of rejection. Here is where there is strong coercion NOT to be a pacifist, where that odious, ignorant concept of nationalism raises its ugly face. Us or them. Good vs. Evil. You’re with us or against us.

    The state also manipulates peoples’ fear and ignorance of the unknown–the bogeyman. The state draws a caricature out of whatever threat there is, however negligible it may be, and makes it so pervasive that people actually look for it in shopping malls.

    When all that is established, young men and women are inspired and sanctioned to kill far away people in a far away lands without having to worry about consequences. People that normally would never think about killing someone in everyday life are brought to do it by virtue of that very fact–they don’t have to think about killing in war, the state has thought all that out, removed the last iota of moral culpability.

    I think the biggest obstacle to pacifism is nationalism, which always seems to be bought into blindly. If the motivations and reasons for asked for and sought out, I believe people would be far more reluctant to go through with it. Instead, we’re encouraged to turn off our brains and stop questioning, and we’re told that it’s the most American thing we can do.

  9. The Clausewitz quote from Ed
    The Clausewitz quote from Ed Champion makes a very good point; which is, we should rarely even get started in a war. Once we get started, the same thing almost always happenes:

    The United States has a standard procedure when they want to send the military into another country. We find a group of people in the other country who are willing to be on “our side” and then accuse the other side of being tyrants; therefore, we say, we are not attacking the other country – we are helping our friends defeat the tyrants.

    After several dismal years of not winning, two schools of thought develop. One side says, “We shouldn’t be holding back! We can’t win this thing unless we bomb the hell out of the entire country!” The other side says, “Maybe we should just cut out losses and pull out now.”

    Neither of those choices would be necessary if we hadn’t gone in to begin with. After 9-11, people were angry and horrified and wanted to do something, but has our invasion of Iraq really helped? What has it accomplished? We’re selling more and more government bonds to China to finance the war because the average U.S. citizen doesn’t believe enough in the war to finance it themselves. How many people reading this post would like to send money to the Federal Government to finance the war?

  10. Although it was not the major
    Although it was not the major focus of the article and it has been years since I’ve tried to raising anything to universal law, here are my two cents. I think that old Immanuel Kant wouldn’t agree with the concept of pacifism because he believed in the concept of jus talionous (that is probably misspelled), whereby a criminal or responsible party need to punished for the sake of justice. Kant only wanted to raise the maxim – or idea – of people’s actions to universal law, not the action itself. So while “Every country should go to war when a crime or threat of war exists in another country” could not be raised to universal law, “Justice should be due to the oppressed if they cannot defend themselves” might be legit. The idea of jus talionous also kinda explains why it is so difficult as a peace-loving liberal to watch “soft” methods of diplomacy fail to staunch the massacres in Sudan or East Timor. Clearly, sometimes intervention is the only option, especially when the dictator or government isn’t rational or to be frank, just doesn’t give a shit what sanctions or rhetoric is slapped on them. We want to see justice dealt but sometimes we don’t feel justified to intervene. I’ve strayed quite a bit here, but Kant was a pretty brutal guy when it came to justice, advocating capital punishment and other such noise – nevertheless, I do understand why he felt justice would need to be enforced, even at the cost of lives (such as in Somalia) or sovereignty.

  11. I don’t think one can be a
    I don’t think one can be a ‘relative’ pacifist. You are either a thing or you are not. A pacifist, when confronted in an alley by a swordsman, is willing to have his or her arms and legs cut off before pulling a gun to shoot the swordsman. That’s a pacifist. There is no other kind of pacifist that has ever existed. There may be generally peaceful people, but those are not pacifists. A pacifist will always be killed rather than kill. A pacifist will also always allow others to be killed before killing. There’s absolutely no exception to that rule.

    There’s no such thing as a ‘relative murderer.’ One has either murdered or one hasn’t.

    Someone who is not a pacifist will usually defend against harm. So I think that nations simply cannot ever be pacifist. For if they attempt it, they go out of existence quickly. In fact, throughout history I suspect that there have been very few pacifists. Perhaps fewer than ten.

    I think people don’t like talking about pacifism because it is terrifying. It is suicidal. To be a pacifist on an individual or a national level, you must be willing to obliterate yourself. You must be willing to die for your pacifist belief in doing no harm.

    I cannot entertain the notion of pacifism on any level. It’s too disturbing. I do not have the Buddha in me. I will not render myself defenseless in order to do no harm. But I will certainly look for the nearest exit and try to run away. But that’s not pacifism. Not at all.

    I don’t think one should confuse pacifism with peacefulness. They are different things. The effort toward peace and the prevention of harm is a relatively simple concept, though it is difficult to achieve. I actually think that a general regard for other people and a respect for life is far superior to rather intellectual exercise of pacifism.

  12. Well, Alessandro, it’s very
    Well, Alessandro, it’s very interesting that this is how you see the meaning of the term “pacifist”. I see it completely differently.

    The definition of “pacifist” that you describe really has no practical application in real life. I don’t see why we should bother having theoretical discussions of virtual positions that ideal human beings might someday take. I’m interested in grappling with the question of why militarism has such a strong hold on our civilization today, and what we can do to combat this sickness. As such, I have not the slightest interest in “perfect” pacifism. I think it’d be a big step up for humanity if we could even reach the level of a highly imperfect pacifism.

    But. Alessandro, I do think many others may share your idea of the meaning of the term “pacifist”. This seems to be what Ed Champion was asking about, and I also wonder if this was also what Charlotte was referring to here, when she asked if pacifism implied fatalism in the face of violence (I certainly don’t think it does).

    I could see this discussion going in a lot of different directions, but, as far as I’m concerned, “pacifism” in international relations has a simple and clear meaning. The quote from the Wikipedia page I mention above states it well enough: “the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining advantage.” Nowhere in this definition does it say that compromise is impossible, or that one cannot hold the position to varying degrees.

  13. Alessandro, you’re arguing
    Alessandro, you’re arguing for a world in black and white, all or nothing, when in reality there are a million shades of gray in between. You mention that there is no such thing as a relative murderer. Well, there is, we just don’t call it by that name. Instead, we use degrees of murder. We assign more moral blame to a man who has meticulously thought out his crime than one who has done it in the heat of passion.

    Let’s not forget that Gandhi chose sides in virtually every war in his lifetime.

  14. Levi,
    In general, I agree


    In general, I agree with you and the looser interpretation of pacifism. Life is lived in all the gray areas and by degrees. But I think that in the realm of philosophy terms must be robust and stand for themselves without much wiggle room. If philosophy is the goal, then I would try to take pacifism in its fullest expression as a word – like Buddhists do – or at least like they say they do.

    I think that a philosopher would simply say that we are not talking about pacifism at all, but politics instead.

    I agree that in a diplomatic or political sense the word ‘pacifism’ should be treated more loosely as Wikipedia does. It’s difficult to live in extremes. But once we get into a philosophical area, then I think words should make us follow them out to their logical conclusions or limits.

    And I’m not sure about the argument against no such thing as relative murder. Legal degrees of responsibility still do not in any way strip the word ‘murder’ of its unequivocal meaning. If you have murdered, then you have done so whatever degree a court assigns to that murder. There is a certain base meaning that the word maintains. Ultimately, if you get into degrees of murder or degrees of pacifism, then Predator drone strikes could be interpreted as pacifist acts simply because they are executed by remote control. We could set up computer networks that handle all violent acts of war without any human intervention at all and still define ourselves as pacifists.

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