Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Pacifism: An Inconsistent Doctrine

by Jamie McCall

Pacifism is an ideology held by all those who are wholly against waging warfare. Beyond mere opposition to warfare in general, pacifism asserts that even the action of repelling force with force is immoral, regardless of circumstance or reason. This contemporary view of pacifism seems to be opposite to more antiquated varieties, where pacifism was presented as an idea which did not renounce physical force when used in “the interest of moral government” (Buckham 89). In Jan Narveson’s article “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis,” the philosophical validity of contemporary pacifism in its many forms is examined and shown to have significant problems that threaten the doctrine’s legitimacy. I support Narveson’s assertion that only one type of pacifism is logically consistent. However, as Narveson shows, even this brand of pacifism contains core problems which make the theory hard to sustain regardless of attempts by others to redefine the doctrine.

The only logical form of pacifism is the moral principle which asserts all people have a moral duty to not repel force with force, unconditionally. Under such a sweeping theory, people have no right to self defense and our entire criminal justice system has to be dismantled, as all murderers, rapists, and robbers are to be set free. Anticipating the objection to this claim, Narveson asserts that the pacifist will then say that he has no right to defend himself, but may legitimately fight to defend others (Narveson 264). The key issue becomes what is it about other people that gives us to the right to defend them when we cannot defend our own person? This would require some characteristic which uniquely distinguishes every single person from everyone else, but is also a characteristic which everyone else has that I do not (because I can defend everyone else). Such a characteristic is internally inconsistent. There is certainly a property everyone else has that I do not: they are not me, but such a characteristic has no moral value and is not a valid reason to explain why they may defend me. Simply because everyone else is not me does not give them a moral reason as to why they can or should defend me against violence. The characteristic required here would have to have an intrinsic value unique to everyone but me, and yet still be such that I had some version of it so that I could defend others. Such a characteristic containing moral distinction does not appear to exist.

The next step for the pacifist is to assert that only the defenseless should be defended. But then we have a logical problem of people defending the defenseless, who will end up defending themselves as part of defending. In the end, those who cannot defend themselves are helpless, and those who can defend ought not to because in the process they will defend themselves as well (Narveson 437). This of course will be refuted by the pacifist as the double effect – even though the defense of the defenseless may result in the foreseen consequence of defending myself, my intent was not to do such and so the action is still morally justifiable. However, the principle of the double effect contains a logical problem. Mainly, the double effect assumes that as long as the end result is good, actions taken to achieve this good are justifiable even if they are evil and are foreseen. In the context of a philosophy based on non-violence, the problem occurs in those situations where the defense of myself while defending others could result in much greater evils being perpetrated. The most obvious cause of this happening is when my defense of others drives me to do extremely violent things out of necessity, but other problems could also arise.. For example, if I am morally obligated to defend the defenseless around me, but I have something the enemy wants, I am to defend them even though defending myself will result in much greater evils long term. I could simply surrender myself, but that could also cause the slaughter of innocents in many war-time situations.

Beyond such logical problems, we are faced with a more fundamental issue: if it is fundamentally evil to resist violence, why should the defenseless be defended at all? If that defense of the helpless involves violence, no matter how legitimate, it would seem as though it is wrong for the pacifist to defend them, especially considering the ongoing problem of defending oneself in the process. This is one of the fundamental problems of pacifism.

In general, mankind characterizes its opposition to any given issue by the length that he is willing to go to stop it from happening. A pacifist is set completely against violence, and yet will not use violence to stop violence from happening. The pacifist will claim that there are other non-violent ways to defend their rights. However, there are forseeable instances when all non-violent attempts to defend my rights fail and I am faced with the option of doing nothing or using violence. In this instance the pacifist will claim that we are to do nothing to retaliate. However, we should have a right to defend ourselves and our rights when all other means have failed. What if the thing we are defending affects not only us, but those around us? By virtue of the pacifist principle we are to do nothing because we are the ones being directly threatened with violence, but what about the consequences of that violence which may in the long term result in the suffering and death of others? Such situations are easy to imagine in cases of war, where failure to defend yourself and others will result in the death and torture of everyone else.


In response to these arguments, many advocates of pacifism insist on creating “newer” form of the doctrine to satisfy the above objections. In the 20th and 21st century, the evolution of the pacifist doctrine has attempted to move it away from an individual context and into the realm of generalities and institutions. This new pacifism is an ethical model that stresses social organizations over indidivudal contact. Thus, the individual must no longer act as though peace is a realizable idea in all situations:

The newer pacifism does not say that war, and still less force generally, is the greatest evil, overshadowing all practical cocnerns, even justice, so that men are obliged unconditionally to abstain from it; rather it says that war is an evil – an assertation seldom seriously contradicted – an evil sufficiently serious under present conditions to warrant effort and reasonable sacrafice of group interests in order to establish a stable international order (Stevenson 445).

There is one main area of concern with this definition – evil. What is evil? This is a question that has been debated since man began thinking. There have been countless answers throughout the ages, and many have been agreed on and many have been dissmissed. The pacifist may say to this objection that while there may be disagreement, in most instances what is truly evil can be asertained and thus the problem of defining the concept poses no real problem. However, there are instances where what is evil when dealing with groups and insitutitons are not so obvious. When the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, it is clear that atleast the premesis for the war was that Japan had iniatied evil actions first. But was the dropping of the bomb a equal or greater evil? If it was, would pacifists agree that we should have done nothing and taken the chance that the War would have ended differently? If the Japense had been able to shoot down the airplane, should they have done it? After all, in this instance merely running couldn’t save an entire city of people – the only way to truly save everyone would be to use violence against the plane carrying the bomb before it arrived at the target. The essential problem with the “new” pacifism is that it is impossible to truly categorize evil in all situations which leads to inevitable situations where it becomes impossible to tell which side is really being the “greater evil.”

To conclude, the doctrine of pacifism presents a perspective that, upon examination, proves to be literred with internal inconsistantices and logical problems. As pacifism continues to grow as a popular doctrine and as a movement (Kirkendall 223), it has proven to be highly interesting to examine exactly what pacifism means and what its applications are. In general, the pacifist movement has moved in three stages, the second and third which are examined here. Moving from the antiquated version of “pacifism is advocated in all instances except when the state has just cause” to “pacifism means not resisting to all forms of violence,” Jan Narveson examines the contemporary meanings of pacifism and nulifies each version until coming to the only version of the doctrine which truly operates as a moral theory.

From this premis, Narveson then shows how the very concept of pacifism is internally inconsistent because it requires some intrinsic moral value unique to everyone and between individuals. Even accepting this, pacifism requires that we defend everyne else without defending ourselves. While such might be technically possible, what happens if our death (by not defending ourselves) results in the death of our group, since it is almost always the case that the death of the defender results in very bad things for those being defended? New approaches to the pacifist doctrine present a different perspective but continue to have many similar problems. While the "new pacifism" now allows for warfare, its definition requires a concrete understanding and categorization of evil, a term which has eluded man since time began. Even though many situations can be understood as being obviously evil, there are still many instances when what is evil and what is not proves to be elusive.

12 Comments:

Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I have, more or less, two comments to make. First, though, let me say that the paper itself is pretty good and I'm not attacking prime principles of the paper.

The first comment is more a question than commentary. I would like to know why there is no distinction between fatal force and forceful detainment. It would seem perfectly tenable to arrest people who break the law and to incarcerate them without killing them.

You know, I'm going to retract my second comment, because it is totally precluded by the first and, as such, is superfluous.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Jamie McCall said...

Do we have to comment on our own papers? If so, my comment is:

It's brilliance.

Seriously though, I would like to point out that this particular paper drove me crazy and is probably among my worst. Not to say I didnt try here, but I was not very happy with what I ended up with. That said, all may begin dismantling it.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

This paper addresses some of the issues that I have with pacifism. I see the same kind of problems of inconsistency within a pacifistic argument as those you state here. The point on which I agree with you the most is when you bring up the issue of something that harms you, but will have repercussions on others. I think that the argument by the "newer" pacifist doctrine fails to these issues adequately. You did a very good job in pointing out some of the flawed areas of this new doctrine.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Wesley Frazier said...

In response to mitch :

According to Narveson there is nothing with wrong with being anti-death penalty. And pro froceful detainment. Just that it isn't genuine pacifism.

My thoughts :

I am unfamiliar with the specific people Narveson is contrasting himself with. I assume their is a targetted family of moral theorists as his deffinition of Pacifism is quite narrow. One can imagine many deffinitions of Pacifism that may be immune to many if not all of these objections. He seems to indicate that these are not moral claims as they can not be universalized. But I am not convinced that this is the only requirement which makes moral claim, a moral claim.

I wonder how legitimate it is to equate force violence and pain, in the way Narveson does. I find it interesting that his ussage of the word force seems to trail off near the end.

He poses the question early on, asking if painless force could be legitimately used by a pacifist, or under the banner of pacifism. Something I wish had been explored more in depth.

Honestly Narveson's argument on the paradoxically circular nature of the deffinition of Pacifism, seems a bit of a waste of time. It is not clear to me what he is attacking. And then he immediately presents a deffinition of Pacifism which most would find identical in meaning to the previous one, which avoids the circular argument.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous jimi said...

perhaps i am flogging a dead horse, but i believe there is a level equovacation between passivity and pacifism. as mitch has already pointed out, some nonlethal force may, and incarceration definitely does, fall within the parameters of pacifism. the claim that pacifism asserts that "all people have [an unconditional] moral duty to not repel force with force" is questionable. the "moral wrong" pacifists wish to avoid is violence. it is not entirely clear that all force is violence.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

Pacifism is an interesting concept for a couple of reasons. I agree with Narveson that pacifism is self-defeating, and Jamie points out many of the reasons I feel that way.

I find it entertaining that we often praise those who practice pacifism despite its lack of pragmatic value. One problem is that it could actually prompt violence rather than prevent it. If someone knows that they can wrong you without physical retribution then they are far more likely to do so. If the reason behind pacifism is to reduce violence then the pacifism defeats itself.

Also, in a pacifist society, there could be no keepers of the peace, because the only way to enforce a person to take a particular action is by threat of physical force. Without that threat a pacifist society would be quickly overrun by non-pacifists. As this paper points out, pacifism is either unnecessary or it causes harm to yourself (and possibly causing indirect harm to others in the process).

In response to previous comments:

Incarceration seems like a non-violent way of enforcement, but how do you plan on getting someone to a detainment facility? I suppose you could find clever ways of physical resistance that are technically not violent, but then it feels like you're just looking to exploit a loophole rather than maintain the spirit of pacifism. I suppose it all depends on how you want to define certain terms.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

After reading Narveson's article and this paper I can come to only one conclusion, pacifism seems to be one large fallacy (or collection of fallacies). I can't imagine how anyone can be a full fledged pacifist and not be confused over what they truly believe is right. This paper was well written and pointed out many of the problems that need to be dealt with in pacifism. I'm curious about something...would protesters be considered pacifists? Of course I suppose it would depend on what and how they were protesting. So how about the protesters during the Vietnam War. Many were protesting against our presence in Vietnam but not all were doing it in a manner that was completely free of non-violence. And then of course there is the other side of that coin, the force used by the police to control them. At some point I believe mob mentality can overcome even those with the purist intentions, as when a peaceful protest becomes a riot.

I'm not sure whether or not that made sense but that's where my thoughts took me. Something I found very interesting was the fact that pacifism says you can't defend yourself but you can defend other unless in doing so you would also be defending yourself. Well, duh! Jumping into a fight to defend someone would ultimately mean you would end up defending yourself from the punches. Unless of course you just stand there and take it. But then you would now be the one needing defense and so the person you were defending could step in to defend you but would end up defending themselves. Am I wrong or does pacifism just seem like one very large continuous circle?

3:24 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I agree with with the evaluation of pacifism when it is within initial the paramaters Jamie/Narveson discuss. It's fairly obviously impractical and self destructive in the long run. Likewise, there are definite internal inconsistancies with a doctrine of letting violence happen in the name of abstaining from violence. However, I feel the 'newer' pacifism was dismissed too soon. Indeed, choosing to respond with force to mitigate violence certainly seems to answer the complaints of the unpramgatic and inconsistant nature of the old doctrine. Truly, it can be amazingly difficult to pinpoint the greater evil and the exact conditions which must be met before resorting to force, and yes some mistakes will be made. Yet, no doctrine that I'm aware can escape the domain error and instead ascend to the realm of absolute perfection, so I hesitate to dismiss pacifism on those grounds. Also, I personally hold intention to play a large role in morality rather than pure consequentialism, so the new pacifism also gains favor with me in that respect.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

I take issues with pacifism similiar to your's, Jamie. I find pacifism seems to be some sort of a pipe dream. It seems that the biggest issue, as you said, with new pacificism is the idea of evil. I think philosophy has a knack for defining "good" and "less good," but not necessarily evil. The word evil seems to have more theological weight than philosophical weight (I'm probably going to be smacked down for this...). And because new pacifists mkae use the word evil, I find their ideas even less useful.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

I'd like to second Adam's point about Narveson's dismissal of "new" pacifism. I don't think that even this version of pacifism is correct, but I'm inclined that way largely because I'm a consequentialist and thus tend to reject grand deontological theses. That said, however, Narveson doesn't really offer consequentialist grounds for rejecting new pacifism. Rather, he rejects it on the grounds that it is internally inconsistent. I'm pretty sure, though, that his arguments in that regard simply don't work, which is why he slides covertly from talking about coherence to consequences and then back again.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

The idea of force and what the idea of pacifism is are connected pretty good in your essay. i agree with Wes i see the same issues put sometimes we have to look at different situations and can not generalize what we might do or should do when we are faced with something that has to deal with pacifism.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous big jim "Jimmy Moore" said...

Narveson defines a version of pacifism that is easy to take down, put for the most part I still don’t think that pacifism works in the long run. In Jamie’s paper it was brought back to my attention that Narveson seems to think that under a pacifistic society we would be forced to let all the criminals loose. He comes to this conclusion by saying that, if a pacifist can’t defend himself then he can’t place an individual in jail to defend himself against physical harm. This is obviously a different form of pacifism that we talked about in class. I was wondering, though, if we go with the definition that Narveson gives could we still say that a pacifist could use jail time in order to protect the principle of pacifism. The pacifist would not be concern with the physical threat of the criminal, simply the sheer disregard for the principle of pacifism. This is just a thought, rip me apart at your will.

7:13 PM  

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