Monday, January 5, 2009


The pacifist believes that one ought not engage in problematic violence in war even if all the standard jus ad bellum conditions are satisfied. "Problematic violence" here means the level of violence that is prohibited. Probably few pacifists would think it would be wrong to push violent foreign soldiers away without hurting them. So, presumably, pushing someone painlessly away doesn't rise to the level of "problematic violence." Where the pacifist draws the line may differ from pacifist to pacifist, but I take it that lethal violence, i.e., violence that, if successful, has a high probability of resulting in the opponent's death, counts as problematic, even when the death is not intended. Thus, I take it that the pacifist will be opposed to shooting at an enemy soldier's heart even when one is using double effect and intending the disablement rather than the death of the enemy soldier. This is all stipulative of what I mean by "pacifist".

Question: Can the pacifist consistently permit problematic violence in law enforcement situations?

If not, then pacifism is seriously problematic, since it seems pretty clear that it is practically impossible to have a decent, self-sufficient community enduring over time without lethal violence to contain violent criminals.

But I think the answer to the question is in fact negative. For how could one draw a line between war and law enforcement? When the invading army marches in, burning crops and murdering citizens, they are breaking the victim country's laws. If problematic violence is permitted to enforce the laws of one's territory, it should be permissible to use problematic violence to stop them. But this seems to be a case of war. Hence, some lethal violence is permitted in some wars, contrary to what I stipulated as the view of the pacifist.

Perhaps, though, the pacifist could claim that it is only permissible to enforce a country's laws with problematic violence on the country's subjects, and an invading army does not consist of subjects. But this is deeply implausible. If it is permissible to use problematic violence to stop a citizen wife from murdering her citizen husband, it should also be permissible to use problematic violence to stop a non-citizen woman who sneaked into one's country to murder her citizen husband. Moreover, this should be permissible even if the woman was commissioned by another state to kill her husband. But if we allow that it is permissible to use problematic violence against criminals acting on behalf of foreign states, then there seems to be no way to deny that it is permissible to use problematic violence to stop invaders.

There is, though, a consistent position the someone could hold here: Problematic violence by agents of a state must be confined to that state's territory. This is not a pacifist position by my stipulation of what a "pacifist" is. But it may be thought to be a pacifist position in a broader sense. But I am not so sure. It seems that this is not so much a position against violence, as a position about jurisdiction.


Sardonicus said...

Prof. Pruss,

It seems to me that defining any given nature of pacifism must be much more difficult than defining the nature of vegetarianism.

Though you have worked possibilities as to what pacifism could be, I think the predicate question to "what pacifism" is "why pacifism?"

I have no doubt that there are those who are pacifists for some deeply held religious belief, and also those who are pacifists because of personal dislike of violence qua violence, and so forth.

It seems to me that the nature of one's pacifism would then determine what sort of actions would be permissible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that is a helpful way to focus the question.

Actually, defining vegetarianism is not all that easy, either. :-)

Consider the moral vegetarian who thinks it's impermissible to eat animals. (There will also be people who do not think it's impermissible, but think it is inadvisable for health reasons, or who simply find meat disgusting.)

I assume that just about any grain product will include some dead insect pieces. Perhaps one needs to make a distinction between intentional and non-intentional eating of animals and say that the vegetarian is only opposed to intentional eating of animals. One may further wish to distinguish the eating of animals that were deliberately killed from the eating of animals that died non-intentionally. (Thus, a certain kind of vegetarian may have no intrinsic moral objection to eating a deer that walked off a cliff. But a vegetarian who thinks of eating mean as akin to cannibalism, will object to it.) Or a vegetarian might, or might not, believe it is permissible to kill animals in self-defense and she might, or might not, further believe it is permissible to eat the animal thus killed.

Some people whom one might call vegetarians may also make a distinction based on the intellectual complexity of the animal, thereby allowing the eating of insects or even fish.

Moreover, we need to distinguish between absolute and circumstantial forms of vegetarianism. The absolutist believes that it is never permissible to intentionally eat an animal. This implies that groups of people, such as the Inuit, who settled in areas of the world where one cannot survive without eating animals did wrong by settling there, and their descendants should have refused to eat and starved to death (the alternative of moving back to greener areas would not be viable, because one would need to eat meat to make it through the journey).

Circumstantial vegetarians believe that there is a set of circumstances which actually obtains for them under which eating animals is wrong. These circumstances may be such as: the availability of adequate alternate forms of nutrition, the cruel way in which food animals are treated, a present need for a strong witness for the value of all life, etc. (The claim that the circumstances actually obtain is important, since everyone reasonable agrees that there are possible circumstances where it is wrong to eat meat--such as when one has promised not to!)

Sara Pickell said...

I consider myself to believe in a form of pacifism, perhaps my understanding of what I believe may be of use to you.

The basis of my understanding is thus, humans are given a natural panic response of fight or flight, with the additional possibility of freezing up entirely. On top of this there is a common predisposition to believe that the only effective form of retaliation is physical. Finally, it is human nature to place one's own (or one's group's) survival over all other considerations.

Therefore pacifism is, to myself, a mastery over self to the point of understanding and controlling those internal forces. It is the ability to choose neither fight, flight, nor freezing, but to rationally analyze the situation and determine a best course even if it lies beyond all three options. Also to combat an opponent first and foremost in their own worldview, such that rather than attaining a momentary victory over your opponent you instead permanently convince them to respect you and your wish for peace with them. The third part, is to understand one's own mortality, and rather than holding the pursuit of survival above all else, to hold as one of many important goals.

It is dealt with entirely on the level of individual, and to my mind is more similar to a martial art than a political philosophy. This is why I do not refer to myself as a pacifist. Until I proven mastery of those things, I cannot carry the title.

As to the why, I don't have a religious reason, instead I have one that is built from my own logic.

First and foremost, the goal of "survival" is literally a losing proposition. All people die, all nations and empires fall, and eventually all races pass to extinction. Living for survival can only extend the time allowed for us to determine what else is worth living for. While extending that time is a worthy goal, if we never actually find an answer the extended time is moot. War since the invention of the atomic bomb is simply a march towards inevitable self-destruction. Even if we do not drive ourselves extinct, we will still waste intense amounts of resources on all levels towards something that can only consume.

Pacifism is not a cure, it is merely a different approach. A reorganization of priorities and acceptable outcomes. Ideally this would then spread and humanity as a race will begin to advance without letting some of our vice's control our civilizations development.

There is much more to my personal philosophy that informs this than I feel would be useful to go into here. If you feel the need for further discussion you can always email me at my gmail account sara.pickell (at gmail dot com). Please pardon my intrusion if my writing is not academic or well enough founded for this discussion.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Sara (if I may):

Thanks for the very thoughtful remarks.

Don't you think, though, that sometimes when once one rationally analyzes the situation, one might conclude that violence is the right solution? One sees someone starting to commit a rape (one can make this even more horrifying--maybe the victim is child). One has tried to reason with him, but he didn't even pause--maybe he just chuckled. But there is a two by four on the ground. On your view, could the rational analysis reveal to one that the right course of action is to pick up the two by four, and hit the rapist over the head?

I think that the best justifications of war are not in defense of self or of those close to one as such, but in defense of the innocent (who might happen to be someone close to one or who might happen to be someone far from one).

Sara Pickell said...

Actually, yes, I do think there are times when violence could be the right answer. The problem is knowing when that is the case.

I really can't speak for anyone else, perhaps it's very common for a person to know with a great deal of precision when violence is the answer and when it isn't. I personally have my own problem that makes finding that line exceptionally difficult. I suppose the best way I can put it is, when you know the difference between a situation that honestly calls for violence and your own innate desire to be violent you can make the correct call pretty much all the time. If you don't know the difference though, you significantly increase the chances of choosing incorrectly. By swearing off violence entirely, you force yourself to control the urge as thoroughly as possible.

As I would say, pacifism, as I see it, is an imperfect means in the pursuit of perfection. But it is a means, and for some it may be the only means.

I believe this article I found the other day explains fairly well my views of pacifism on the political level.

By the way, I suppose I'm not really here to argue as to the rightness of pacifism or to convert you to it or what have you. I'm more just hoping that you can form a "more perfect" model of pacifism for you to work with in your own thinking.