The Absolutist Moral Principle of Pacifism

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Extreme or absolutist views of pacifism advocate for the complete rejection of violence and war and perpetuate the view that under no circumstances can these be morally justified; this obviously includes cases of self-defence as well as defence of others. This form of moral thought can be traced back to several religious doctrines, for instance, in the West, early Christian thinkers like Origen and Tertullian advocated for an “absolute ethic” whereby despite violence being inherently evil, it is morally impermissible to use force – in the form of self-defense- to retaliate against it, and instead promotes the idea of “turning the other cheek”. 

Christ is seen as the ultimate pacifist promoting the idea of passive endurance, since retaliation, revenge and punishment are all immoral acts that lead to violence, hence building, not physical courage but a moral one. In the modern world, these extremist views have transcended into smaller religious groups, the most prominent example being that of the Quaker communities. (Howes, 2013). It further establishes the idea that it is morally defensible to suffer for what one believes in, but at what cost? And who benefits from this suffering? How can an ideology be morally permissible if its commitment to it would entail a duty to suffer? 

At this point I’m trying to build a case to link pacifism and self-defence and establish whether the latter is morally defensible and if it can apply to pacifist principles. We’d like to think that all human beings live on the basis of certain rights and values, the most important one being the right to life. Jan Narveson makes an interesting evaluation related to the idea of rights (mainly in relation to their defence) and pacifist postures towards them. 

Generally speaking, if we stick to the absolutist moral principle of pacifism that states that fighting back in order to resist violence being inflicted against you is morally wrong, essentially implies that we in fact to not have a right to self-defence, and hence it is in our wrong to take preventive measures against criminals, rapists, robbers etc. with this in mind, pacifism, in the absolutist sense, cannot be morally defensible because despite recognising the right to live it rejects the importance of fighting for that right when necessary. Furthermore, Narveson argues that having universally recognized rights and protecting those, are enough to legitimize the use of force when necessary, and opposing to do so is, according to him morally inconsistent (Narveson, 1965).

An individual should and has a moral justification to defend his rights from being harmed, and if this principle is recognized at an individual level, then it can also transcend to justify the use of force to protect others; a claim that according to Narveson, is rejected by pacifists. One argument in favour of the pacifist that counters Narveson could be that even though the right to life is universally recognized and morally permissible to defend it, we also have the right to live in as we choose as long as we don’t inflict harm on others. 

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That being said, a pacifist may choose a non-violent way of life because he/she deems it morally worthy of living. This kind of life goes beyond what Narveson considers a “matter taste”, but rather a commitment to an ideal more important than the right to life or property, as it would be for a non-pacifist. This is because pacifists are held under different moral rights and duties, to the point where they are willing to sacrifice themselves than violate their commitment to non-violence. Therefore, you could argue that forcing a pacifist to act in accordance to violence is like forcing him to give up those rights (Ihara, 1978). 

However, what happens when we extend this away from the pacifist himself and into the duty of protecting others? Would he betray his commitment to non-violence in order to save innocent lives? Pacifism, like any other ideology has its extremes, just because they morally condemn the use of violence doesn’t mean they aren’t rational human beings. In extreme circumstances, at least when other lives are at stake, some schools of pacifism put certain limits to their ideals, for instance, conditional pacifists recognize the need for violence and war only when the outcome is better than any other alternative, and it doesn’t mean that they are any less committed to their cause (BBC, 2014). 

But since we are talking about the ideology behind pacifism and not its different schools of thought, its general commitment to non-violence precedes their duty to defend themselves and others, unless they can do so through non-violent means (Ihara, 1978). Nonetheless, if an aggressor is willingly trying to cause harm and the only way of preventing this harm is by inflicting force, by consciously abstaining from force to resist this violence he/she is allowing whatever immoral act the aggressor is conducting to happen and that in itself cannot be morally permissible, whether or not you are held under different moral obligations, as pacifist claim to be.

Another way in which we can analyse the moral sense of pacifism is by looking at it from a more active perspective. War and conflict aren’t the only legitimate ways to achieve social and political ends. The Women’s movements, for instance, grew certain pacifist organizations such as “The Women’s international League for Peace and Freedom”, after the disasters caused by WWI several anti-war organizations were founded in order to resist future protects and participations in wars, such as the War Resisters’ International. 

Other, more famous, examples of non-violent movements, are the American Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther king, or the Indian Independence Movement led by Gandhi. This branch of pacifism is often described as active non-violence that proves that recurring to peace is an effective way to fight for the greater good (Howes, 2013). However, one important thing to establish here is that in order for social change to succeed under peaceful means there has to be a certain level of mass organization and cooperation; Martin Luther King and Gandhi didn’t achieve change simply because they were pacifist, but because they managed to mobilize the masses into believing that non-violence was a better alternative for their cause, than violence, which has also proven to bring about change – the American civil War, Russian revolution etc. 

Active non-violence can take many forms, strikes, boycotts, peaceful protests, rational persuasion etc. and people that believed in King’s and Gandhi’s cause didn’t engage in violence or inflict harm upon others, they did endure a great deal of suffering themselves, whether it was from civil defence forces, hunger-strikes, or violent opposition groups. There is no proof that their followers followed pacifist principles themselves or not, but there is proof that they believed in a cause greater than themselves, but to what extent does non-violence justify the endurance of suffering? 

Or, in other words, were these two leaders morally justified to ask such large groups of people to endure this suffering with them? One this is to follow an ideology that entails a certain amount of self-sacrifice, but another thing is to project this upon others to do the same, even if done so though non-forceful means (Schuster, 2020). Furthermore, there is also the idea that engaging in pacifism to achieve a goal, doesn’t not necessarily mean that you believe in the moral principle of pacifism as an ideology, but rather as a means to a specific end (Narveson, 1965). Pacifism and the commitment of a non-violent life comes at a much higher cost for these individuals than for those who deem themselves as non-pacifists. 

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