NOTES / Notes about pacifism in order to reconcile my own beliefs on the subject.

May 31, 2020 
Created this page (copied from the entry by the same name in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) after realizing I may have some unexamined pacifist tendencies. Hoping to annotate and better understand the history of this stance, and refine my own position. 


On Pacifism

Pacifism is a commitment to peace and opposition to war. Our ordinary language allows a diverse set of beliefs and commitments to be held together under the general rubric of pacifism. This article will explain the family resemblance among the variety of pacifisms. It will locate pacifism within deontological and consequentialist approaches to ethics. And it will consider and reply to objections to pacifism.

The word “pacifism” is derived from the word “pacific,” which means “peace making” [Latin, paci- (from pax) meaning “peace” and -ficus meaning “making”]. Modern usage has been traced to 1901 and Émile Artaud’s usage of the French term pacifisme. But the basic commitment to peace is an old idea. Pacifist sentiment can be found, for example, in the West in early Christianity. Perhaps the most famous use of the word pacifism is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), where Jesus claims that the “peacemakers” are blessed. In this passage, the Greek word eirenopoiosis translated into Latin as pacifici, which means those who work for peace. The Greek eirenopoios is derived from the Greek eirênê [peace] in conjunction with poiesis [to make].

Philosophical discussions of pacifism have clarified the concept by distinguishing the more general commitment to nonviolence from a narrower anti-war position. A related term, “nonviolentism,” has been coined by Holmes (Holmes 2013: 157), to describe a position that goes beyond anti-war pacifism in its opposition to violence in all of its forms. Pacifism has often been defined dialectically in relation to the idea of justified violence that is found in the Western just war tradition.[1]Pacifism is often located on a continuum for assessing the morality of war that includes realism, just war theory, and pacifism. Indeed, there is an ongoing debate about the proper relation between just war theory and pacifism that focuses on the question of whether the just war theory begins with a pacifist presumption against war. Some authors have used the just war theory to derive a version of pacifism described as “contingent pacifism” (May 2015, for example) or “just war pacifism” (Sterba 1998). Authors such as Cheyney Ryan and Robert Holmes more strongly maintain that the just war framework is flawed. Holmes argues that the just war tradition typically ignores the central moral issue in war, which is about the presumptive immorality of the “massive, systematic and deliberate killing of human beings” that occurs in war (Holmes 2017a: xvii). Ryan argues that although the just war tradition and pacifism developed through “mutual critique” pacifism has often been marginalized as an “outcast tradition” (Ryan 2017: 125). 

Some have tried to distinguish “pacific-ism” from pacifism, where pacific-ism is a commitment to peace and peacefulness that is not strictly opposed to war while pacifism is a more principled or absolute rejection of violence. But this distinction is not widely accepted (although Dower 2009 employed it). William James used the term “pacific-ism” in 1910 to describe his rejection of militarism (James 1910). The shorter term, “pacifism,” has become more common in English usage to describe a variety of views that are critical of war. 

Generally pacifism is thought to be a principled rejection of war and killing. Oddly enough, terminology related to pacifism has occasionally been used to describe a pragmatic commitment to using war to create peace. Thus a term like “pacification” can be employed in military usage to describe a violent process of suppressing violence, as when an enemy territory is “pacified” by killing or disabling the enemy. While George Orwell (2002) complained about such euphemistic descriptions of violence, the just war tradition does hold that war can be a suitable means to bring about peace. Despite these complications, pacifism generally connotes a commitment to making peace that rejects violent means for obtaining this end. One reason to reject violent means is the fact that might does not make right. While violence can destroy an enemy, victory does not amount to justification.

Pacifism, as it is understood in ordinary discourse today, includes a variety of commitments on a continuum from an absolute adherence to nonviolence in all actions to a more focused or minimal sort of anti-warism. In contrast to the just war tradition, pacifism rejects war as an acceptable means for obtaining peace. Pacifists will often refuse to serve in the military. And some refuse to support political and social systems that promote war by, for example, withholding their taxes. Pacifists have been associated with quietistic withdrawal from political life and even outright anarchism. But pacifists need not be “passive”: many committed pacifists have been actively involved in nonviolent social protest. Pacifism can be used to describe a commitment to nonviolence in one’s personal life that might include the attempt to cultivate pacific virtues such as tolerance, patience, mercy, forgiveness, and love. It might also be extended to include nonviolence toward all sentient beings and thus result in a commitment to vegetarianism and what Albert Schweitzer (1967) called, “reverence for life.” Pacifism can be connected to a larger project of spiritual transformation, as in Gandhi’s commitment to ahimsa or nonviolence. And as the author of the present entry has argued, pacifism can be understood as offering a comprehensive normative framework (Fiala 2018).

1. Defining Peace

Pacifism is the broad commitment to making peace. The idea is complicated by the fact that peace is a family resemblance term: there are many varieties of peace. Peace is easiest to define dialectically as the opposite of war or violence. Pacifism has thus been described simply as anti-warism or as commitment to nonviolence. One conceptual difficulty here is that when peace is defined negatively, pacifism appears as a reactionary response to war and violence. Discussions of peace thus often employ negative terms and creative neologisms to express the concept of peace: “nonviolence,” “nonwar,” “nonkilling,” “nonconflict,” or “nonwar.” Peace advocates will however insist that peace should be understood as a primary concept connected to cooperation, harmony, and positive human relations and that it is a mistake to understand peace in merely negative terms (see Fox 2014). At any rate, peace scholarship has long emphasized the distinction between negative peace and positive peace: negative peace is the absence of violence or war while positive peace encompasses cooperative, tranquil, and harmonious relations and the broader concerns of human flourishing and integration (see Galtung 1969; Boersema 2017).

When pacifism is defined as anti-warism, we encounter the difficulty of defining war. War is usually thought of as violence between states or, more broadly speaking, political communities. But the term “war” can also be applied to violent conflicts among individuals, as in Hobbes’ idea that the state of nature is a state of war. Similarly, although peace is usually thought of as a political condition of amicable relations between states, terms like “peace” or “peaceful” can also be used to describe a relation between individuals or even a person’s state of mind.

If pacifism is defined as a commitment to nonviolence, we encounter the same problem of definition. Violence usually has a normative value and is defined as something like “an unjustified injury or harm.” But it is possible to speak of justified violence—as in the just war ideal; so not all violence is unjustified. The concept of violence can also be extended metaphorically and used as an adjective—“violent”—to mean something like unbridled, uncontrolled, rough, or intense. Thus we speak of “violent storms” or “violent emotions.” A commitment to nonviolence is, at least, a commitment to avoiding unjustified intentional injury. Pacifists will tend to think that most intentionally caused harms are unjustifiable. But the ideal of nonviolence might be extended to include the idea of controlling rough and intense emotions. In his essay, “Journey to Nonviolence,” for example, Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that a commitment to nonviolence required overcoming the “internal violence” of hatred and anger by cultivating love and compassion (King 1986, 46).

There are a variety of possibilities for thinking about the nature of peace and thus for understanding what pacifism aims at creating.

1.1 Peace as Slavery or Submission

Peace can result from submission to power; and war can end with unconditional surrender. Rousseau maligned this sort of peace by calling it the “peace of Ulysses and his comrades, imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops and waiting their turn to be devoured” (Rousseau 1917, 125). We might claim that absolute rule and absolute submission produce a sort of peace. But this is peace conjoined with injustice. So it is clear that the sort of peace that is worth pursuing is peace that is also linked to justice. The idea of justice is at the heart of the just war tradition, which claims that we are entitled to fight back against injustice. As Patrick Henry asked in his famous “Give me Liberty or Give me Death Speech”: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” One might claim that the peace of the Cyclops’ cave is not peace at all but a state of war.

Most pacifists will claim that the peace of slavery is not what they have in mind. Rather, for the majority of pacifists, pacifism is not simply acquiescing passively to evil—pacifism is not passive-ism. Rather, pacifism involves actively but nonviolently resisting evil. Nonetheless, some pacifists, such as Tolstoy, do advocate nonresistance. Nonresistant pacifists in the Christian tradition often base the idea of submitting to evil on Jesus’ ideas as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not resist one who is evil” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5.39 and 5.44; Luke 6.27–30). Some Christian martyrs take this ideal seriously and look to Jesus’ life and execution as a model of pacific virtue.

1.2 Peace as Modus Vivendi or Truce

The dialectical definition of peace as the absence of war can encompass the idea of the armed peace of the Cold War. Peace as the absence of war may be a mere modus vivendi in which armed opponents refrain from attacking one another out of fear. This sort of peace is the peace of a truce or stalemate. While it is true that in such conditions, there is no overt damage done, the opponents have not been reconciled and hostile intentions have not been eliminated. Some may claim that the best we can do to make peace is to reach a state of detente that is made possible by mutual deterrent force. Related to this is what might be called, following Raymond Aron, “peace by impotence” or peace by exhaustion (Aron 1966, 159 ff). In this sort of peace, the antagonistic parties are simply no longer willing to fight. Hostile intentions may persist; but the will to fight can no longer be actualized. Kant rejected this sort of peace, claiming that peace means “an end to all hostilities” (Kant 1991, 93). This is why Kant maintains that the first principle of perpetual peace is that states should not make “secret reservation of the material for future war” (93).

Those who call themselves “pacifists” will usually agree with Kant that a mere modus vivendi produced by impotence or exhaustion is not actually peace, since hostile intent remains. And pacifists will argue that the peace of deterrence and detente are not really peace either, because they are the result of an increase in armaments and the threat of escalating violence. 

1.3 Peace of a Just and Tranquil Order

Opposed to peace as modus vivendi is what Aron calls, “peace by satisfaction” (Aron 1966, 160 ff). This is a peace that results from a lack of grievances and hostility. In the history of the West, this sort of peace is often linked to what Augustine called the “tranquility of order” (Augustine 1958, Book 19, Chapter 13) In recent Western thought, this idea often follows Kant in claiming that liberal democracy is the key to such a tranquil order.

Francis Fukuyama’s Hegelian idea about the “end of history,” for example, hoped that the end of the Cold War would bring about the end of war in general, as liberal-democracy spread (Fukuyama 1992). Similarly, Michael Doyle has claimed that democracies do not go to war with one another (Doyle 1997; see Gursozlu 2017). John Rawls has explained the stability of well-ordered democratic states as follows: “There is true peace among them because all societies are satisfied with the status quo for the right reasons” (Rawls 1999, 47). More recently, this idea about the stabilizing and peace-making power of democracy has influenced neo-conservative ideas in U.S. foreign policy, where the hope is that peace will occur as democracy is spread.

The idea that peace is founded in a just political order is connected to the ideas of the just war tradition. Defenders of the just war tradition—from Augustine to Walzer—argue that occasionally it is necessary to make war in order to establish such a tranquil and just social condition. More recent defenders of the just war idea have argued that interventionist wars should be fought in order to create stable conditions by defending human rights (see footnote 1).

Pacifists will disagree with those who claim that wars should be fought in pursuit of the ideal of a just and stable social order. Proponents of humanitarian intervention maintain that war is a suitable means for attaining the goal of respect for human rights and satisfaction of human needs; but pacifists will argue that only nonviolent means are coherent with the these intended ends.

1.4 Positive Peace

Positive definitions of peace go beyond merely dialectical definitions of peace as the opposite of war and instead focus on peace as a state of rest, wholeness, or completion. The peace of a just and tranquil order points toward something like a condition of wholeness in which there is solidarity, mutual respect, and satisfaction of needs. In this vision of peace there is genuine community and human flourishing. One central concern from the standpoint of positive peace is the work of peace education, as well as work on nonviolent conflict resolution and mediation (see Fitz-Gibbon 2010). Related concerns point toward the importance of justice, with a special focus on restorative justice and community building. However, recent work (Davenport, Melander, and Regan, 2018) in the field of peace studies has argued that positive peace is both too broad and too vague to be of use for empirical work in peace studies. The worry is that the notion of positive peace includes a broad range of social and political concerns (equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and so on) that stray far from the core idea of peace as the absence of direct violence. Despite this criticism, the notion of positive peace remains in use.
The positive ideal of peace can point beyond the merely political realm and aim toward spiritual transformation. In Christian contexts this is related to the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (as in Philippians 4.7). In Buddhism, this is related to the idea propounded by Thich Nhat Hanh (1987) of “being peace” that is connected to Buddhist practice. The Dalai Lama claims that peace is more than the absence of war and he connects his vision of world peace to peacefulness as a state of mind: “peace is a state of tranquility founded on the deep sense of security that arises from mutual understanding, tolerance of others’ point of view, and respect for their rights” (Dalai Lama, 202). This is closely related to the ideal of social stability; but the Dalai Lama also connects it to the deeper process of personal transformation. Building upon these ideas, Michael Fox has described “peace as a way of life”: “a peaceful way of life will be such as to incorporate nonviolence toward oneself and others, and will be guided by cooperation, mutual respect, creative problem-solving, negotiation of differences, and caring concern or compassion” (Fox 2014, 202).

Positive peace can be best understood from the tradition of virtue ethics, where peacefulness is understood as a virtue that is connected to other virtues such as modesty, tolerance, and mercy. It is important to note that peace is not mere quietism and the passivity of meditation or contemplation. Jay McDaniel (2005) has argued in favor of a notion of “creative peace” in which there is tension and activity as individuals and cultures must learn to listen to and interact with one another.

2. Varieties of Pacifism

Pacifism includes a wide variety of ideas and commitments. Pacifism has typically been understood as a critical or negative argument against war (or violence), even though the author of the present entry has argued that pacifism could be understood as a comprehensive normative theory that postulates peace as the highest good (Fiala 2018). Pacifism in its broadest sense can be distinguished from application of pacifist critique to particular issues such as: domestic violence (Hall Fitzgibbon 2017), environmental issues (Woods 2017), the death penalty (Steffen 2017), nonhuman animals (Chapple 2017), and so on. This article will not focus on those applications. Rather, it organizes the variety of pacifisms in several ways according to interrelated conceptual distinctions: absolute and contingent pacifism; maximal and minimal pacifism; universal vs. particular pacifism. These distinctions overlap, as we shall see here.