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Pacifism: Good, Bad and Bogus

A few provocations for my pacifist friends:

1. Call pure pacifism the view that no one ought ever to engage in violence. (This includes the threat of violence.) Pure pacifism is a kind of anarchism, since in asserting that violence is always morally impermissible it denies legitimacy to all possible governments, on the supposition that a government is an institution that has a monopoly on the use of violence in some region. It proscribes the use of military force in war for any purpose, and the use of domestic police forces to keep the peace, to prevent evildoing, or to marshal a society’s resources to some putative good end, such as collecting tax revenues to fund a welfare system. It has the advantage of being honest and coherent, but the disadvantage of being morally bad. It is morally bad because it counsels that we refrain from counteracting evil by means that are, on occasion, both morally permissible and necessary.

Whether this form of pacifism is, despite its moral badness, a reasonable—or even a necessary—Christian practice is a further issue. There’s no a priori guarantee that our free vocation as persons of faith will coincide with what morality requires in a particular context, though the burden of proof falls to anyone who proposes something immoral as what the gospel calls us to do. Moral principle, insofar as it demands minimally decent treatment of human beings, is congruent with the aim of the God who loves, and wills good for, all human beings. Pure pacifism is morally bad, though the possibility remains open that all things considered, it’s what we ought to embrace.

2. What can also be regarded as a form of pacifism, though it usually is not described this way, is classical liberalism (nowadays often known as libertarianism), insofar as it contends that it is morally wrong to initiate violence (or the threat thereof) while also contending that it is morally permissible, and in some instances obligatory, to respond with violence to those who initiate the use of violence. This does not call for anarchism, though it imposes stringent moral constraints on the scope of governments’ use of their military and police powers. While allowing for the state, this view denies it the prerogative of regimenting human individuals in pursuit of the good. Instead, it conceives legitimate government as helping to sustain a neutral framework within which individuals pursue the good as they conceive it.

Insofar as this conception has a claim upon Christians, it is presumably principally because it insists on minimal respect for individuals as capable of peacefully pursuing their own ends, i.e. because it is prima facie morally mandatory.  If there is a good pacifism this is it.

3. A third pacifism is by far the most widely subscribed. This is the idea that the use of governments’ military forces in war is always morally wrong, but that it is morally permissible, indeed obligatory in some instances, not only for governments to pursue their domestic ends by means of violence and the threat of violence, but actually to initiate the use of violence to achieve those ends. This species of pacifism condemns as morally wrong the use of military power to extirpate a murderous foreign tyrant, but commends the use of police powers to compel certain forms of behavior from individual citizens, even when they are pursuing their ends peacefully. Conceivably, proponents of this hybrid pacifism can show that it is not incoherent, and that there is a principled moral distinction between violence perpetrated by the military and the police, and that it is morally permissible to initiate the use of force against human persons. A plausible defense of these claims has yet to be made. Nor is there a plausible case that this pacifism, irrespective of its moral dubiousness, is consonant with the Christian gospel. Absent either the moral or the theological case, we are entitled to regard this an unprincipled, bogus form of pacifism, not to be taken seriously.

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