Is Pacifism Really a Virtue?

Part III of Stephen Carter’s The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama deals with “The Rights and Dignity of Strangers,” particularly asking questions about a country’s moral obligation to intervene on behalf of others. He addresses the genocide that has taken place in Rwanda and Darfur (and Bosnia before that) and juxtaposes one’s responsibility to act (a responsibility that the WWII allies put upon themselves with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948) with pacifism.

A decision to intervene in the affairs of another country is no doubt in the end a matter of politics. But the arguments for it are moral. Not every form of government is equal. One thinks here of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Pacifism either tempts us to make no judgments at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny in comparison with the momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.”

Whatever the attraction of pacifism when you alone are under threat, there is less virtue in being pacifist when called upon to defend someone else.

Carter’s point is a tough one to combat. For indeed, it is one thing to choose not to defend yourself when you are being attacked on the grounds of pacifism, but it is another entirely to stand by and watch others (whether one, thousands, or millions) be attacked (raped, killed, slaughtered) and do nothing because you are a pacifist.

Is pacifism, then, really a virtue? How do the examples of Gandhi and King play into your answer?


6 thoughts on “Is Pacifism Really a Virtue?

  1. Yes, it is. As a big fan of the Niebuhrs, I disagree with Reinhold. Choosing pacifism is not choosing to sit out while others suffer, it is also not choosing to allow tyranny. There is the alternative action of working through peaceful channels to address suffering and tyranny. Granted, it takes longer, and while it plays out suffering continues, which I hate, but there are processes that allow one to address situations and not go to war (or armed-conflict, as very few people actually declare war anymore).

  2. Hmmm, I’m going to say yes with a caveat. I understand that you can’t just lay down a general rule like “there’s no time to fight ever,” that’s the caveat. It would just be crazy. But yes, when working through peaceful channels doesn’t work, you can at least try to get creative and find other peaceful channels. War/military action should be a last resort, and most of the time, when people say it was the last resort, it wasn’t really. Your question definitely gave me a lot to think about, but I believe my conclusion is that it comes down to how committed one is to pacifism. Would one be committed enough to say “I will be a pacifist even if it kills me?” (insert silly and over Christianized reference to Jesus here, actually don’t because that will make me hulk-style angry) I don’t know of anyone, including myself who would do that. But fighting to survive is a far cry from the usual fighting enemies that need not be fought in the name of “defense.” Committing one’s self to be a pacifist should be a legitimate commitment. I am not Polianish enough to imagine that a world exists in which atrocities do not, but we are responsible for our own actions where making peace is concerned. Intervention does not always have to consist of radioing in remote controlled bombers, or 5.56x45mm rounds wizzing by at 3100 feet per second… I suppose that’s all I’m saying. Forgive the ramble. To summarize, teleologically speaking, I suppose preemptive strikes are in order the world over… but I don’t think that allows anyone to claim pacifism at all.

    1. Oh, I forgot to sign that…
      The most well armed pacifist the world has ever known.

  3. To insist that pacifism means to be passive is a gross misunderstanding of the clear history of pacifism as nonviolent resistance. There have been few pacifists throughout history who have not believed (almost as a matter of doctrine) that pacifism also involves nonviolent resistance. Pacifism does not mean “doing nothing” when others are suffering. Rather, the pacifist says, “I will die for you but I will not kill for you.” There are plenty of people in the world who say, “I will be a pacifist even if it kills me” — they’re called Christian Peacemaker Team members and Catholic Workers (among many, many others).

  4. Thomas, I’m glad you directed me here. I’ve been away from the internet a lot lately and would have missed this post and the opportunity to flesh out some thoughts that have been shifting around in my mind for a few months now. Also, my apologies for not being able to give exact references; I’m away from home currently and, even if I waited until I returned home, all but a few of my books are packed in boxes.

    John Caputo made some evocative remarks in his What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (which is so much better than it sounds) about ethics. More or less, he says ethics are something for ideal situations, or, perhaps, idyll situations. As much as I hate war, violence, and suffering, perhaps pacifism finds its home not in any ideology, but rather in “idealology.” Pacifism is orthodoxy and orthopraxy when in times of peace and under the reigns of virtue and love.

    Obviously, we don’t live in that time or place. Still, we can learn from Gandhi’s satyagraha or nonviolent resistance, which greatly influenced King’s movements towards equality.

    First, idyllically, we hope for peace, love, and justice. When we discover violations of this Holy Trinity, satyagraha is ideal. Humans can make a difference without violence. In this way, pacifism is a virtue, because it can pacify the bringers of injustice. The world could have stepped in before World War II happened, before the concentration camps, before the ghettoes, and even before the bloodshed. The UN could have been a useful arbiter of justice in Rwanda before Paul Rusesabagina needed to hold up in Hôtel des Mille Collines. True missionaries could have brought gospel instead of various Christianities and Occidentalisms years before violence erupted between the Hutus and Tutsis.

    Perhaps, and unfortunately, the sun set on satyagraha in those situations. I cannot say whether violence was right or wrong in World War II. When the opportunity for the ideal is past, when ethics are no longer possible, actions either bring about justice or they don’t. World War II brought about some justice, both retributive and social. I am certainly not suggesting retributive justice should ever be a goal or motive of any action, especially war. If war occurs–rightly, wrongly, or otherwise–its goals, motives, and methods should always be focused on social justice and equality.

    I dare say that some injustices require physically violent responses. That said, I believe the sun does not set swiftly on satyagraha. Humans, myself included, rely too heavily on violence to respond to injustice. Gandhi and MLK brought about justice with innovation. Pacifism needs imagination more than violence. We’re used to war and violence. We know how to vary violence and develop weapons technology. We don’t know how to create justice, to be creative with justice. If we tried more, nations would see more options than merely war and diplomacy and they would be much less influenced by money, capitalism, and power in their decisions.

    Unfortunately, when we miss even the opportunity to be creative and enact justice, then, perhaps, violence is the best option. Again, I will not say violence or war is a good or right option, but neither will I saw pacifism is a good or right option. Sometimes we must surpass right and good, hoping for, perhaps, best, perhaps justice.

    To be repetitive again: although war and violence might be the last options, they can likely be avoided with preemptive actions–not strikes–and they can likely be avoided with creativity, but people seldom try, myself still included.

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