“The False Choice of Pacifism”


By Nick Li


pacifism_large.jpgThis is a comment on the section "The False Choice of Pacifism" in Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. Sam Harris writes:

Pacifism is generally considered to be a morally unassailable position to take with respect to human violence. The worst that is said of it, generally, is that it is a difficult position to maintain in practice. It is almost never branded as flagrantly immoral, which I believe it is. While it can seem noble enough when the stakes are low, pacifism is ultimately nothing more than a willingness to die, and to let others die, at the pleasure of the world’s thugs. It should be enough to note that a single sociopath, armed with nothing more than a knife, could exterminate a city full of pacifists. There is no doubt that such sociopaths exist, and they are generally better armed.

Fearing that the above reflections on torture may offer a potent argument for pacifism, I would like to briefly state why I believe we must accept the fact that violence (or its threat) is often an ethical necessity…

[I omit a personal anecdote of Harris’ involving his actions, or lack thereof, upon witnessing a struggle between some drunks and a woman in Prague.]

Gandhi was undoubtedly the twentieth century’s most influential pacifist. The success he enjoyed in forcing the British Empire to withdraw from the Indian subcontinent brought pacifism down from the ethers of a religious precept and gave it new political relevance. Pacifism in this form no doubt required considerable bravery from its practitioners and constituted a direct confrontation with injustice. As such, it had far more moral integrity than did my strategem above. It is clear, however, that Gandhi’s nonviolence can be applied to only a limited range of human conflict. We would do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence." We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown "aroused" – commit suicide as well? Gandhi was a religious dogmatist, of course, but his remedy for the Holocaust seems ethically suspect even if one accepts the metaphysical premises upon which it was based. If we grant the law of karma and rebirth to which Gandhi subscribed, his pacifism still seems highly immoral. Why should it be thought ethical to safeguard one’s own happiness (or even the happiness of others) in the next life at the expense of the manifest agony of children in this one? Gandhi’s was a world in which millions more would have died in the hopes that the Nazis would have one day doubted the goodness of their Thousand Year Reich. Ours is a world in which bombs must occasionally fall where such doubts are in short supply. Here we come upon a terrible facet of ethically asymmetric warfare: when your enemy has no scruples, your own scruples become another weapon in his hand. It is, as yet, unclear what it will mean to win our war on "terrorism" – or whether the religious barbarism that animates our enemies can ever be finally purged from our world – but it is all too obvious what it would mean to lose it. Life under the Taliban is, to a first approximation, what millions of Muslims around the world want to impose on the rest of us. They long to establish a society in which -when times are good- women will remain vanquished and invisible, and anyone given to spiritual, intellectual, or sexual freedom will be slaughtered before crowds of sullen, uneducated men. This, needless to say, is a vision of life worth resisting. We cannot let our qualms over collateral damage paralyze us because our enemies know no such qualms. Theirs is a kill-the-children-first approach to war, and we ignore the fundamental difference between their violence and our own at our peril. Given the proliferation of weaponry in our world, we no longer have the option of waging this war with swords. It seems certain that collateral damage, of various sorts, will be a part of our future for many years to come.

Dictionary.com defines Pacifism as

1.opposition to war of violence of any kind 2.refusal to engage in military activity because of one’s principles or beliefs 3.the principle or policy that all differences among nations should be adjusted without recourse to war.

A more nuanced view of what Pacifism means as an ethical stance can be found from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article makes it clear that there is no single definition or "degree" of pacifism. I would argue that there is also not even an obvious sliding scale from "I wouldn’t swat a fly and would sit idly by while a maniac killed an entire city at knifepoint" to "yeah, let’s nuke Iran now" – like the arbitrary "left" to "right" political spectrum, there are a lot of differences among people in the same "camp." I think two self-declared pacifists would often find themselves in disagreement about what to do when facing different historical or concocted scenarios, and they may also differ in their reasons for being pacifists. RussellBertrand.jpgBertrand Russell who is in many ways Sam Harris’ philosophical grandpa was an ardent pacifist for most of his life, was dismissed from Trinity college and spent six months in prison during World War I for his anti-war activism. Although he supported appeasement until 1940, even he was forced to change his mind by 1940 due to the exceptional threat posed by Hitler. [He later opposed the Vietnam war and all nuclear weapons.] I believe he would argue that his pacifist position was based on "reason" and a rational moral philosophy. Gandhi, on the other hand, exemplifies a more extreme brand of pacifism that opposes violence under any circumstances. Gandhi and other religious pacifists are driven to pacifism by a desire to earn favor in the afterlife or due to strict prohibitions in religious texts or customs, at least in the eyes of Harris. Finally, one can imagine a third kind of pacifism, that is rooted as much in feelings and emotion as in reason. I would put myself in this category, and appeal to what I find to be the validity of the arguments made by Adam Smith in the theory of moral sentiments when he wrote that most men would rather see a hundred men die in a far away land then lose their own little pinky (or to be less selfish, the pinky of one of their co-bloggers, especially the one I know from high school). This brand of pacifism does not oppose violence at certain times, as it is not based on some kind of Kantian categorical imperative but rather a more pragmatic view of `affect’ and morality based on feelings. That is, I believe that I would certainly commit violence to protect my own life if it were immediately threatened, as I would to protect my family and close friends. Would I kill a busload of innocents to save them or myself? I don’t know, I can’t predict my reaction, but it probably wouldn’t be based on reason. Now this may seem like a strange position, since "do what you feel like" is hardly a way to convince others (and why else am I writing this blog?). In a strange way it is deeply cynical, unlike the typically "idealist" pacifism critiqued by Harris. In my case, it is born largely out of tiredness with the moral calculus of war and violence championed by people like Harris. There was a time when, like him, I would philosophize about all the great moral dilemmas of history, and what was the right thing to do – to drop the A-bomb on Japan or not, was appeasing Hitler the right thing to do, was the American civil war really required to end slavery (a point argued by Ron Paul on Real Time with Bill Maher earlier this year), is it ever right to kill bad men (even at Nuremburg), does the humanitarian or economic effect of invading or leaving a country justify the bloodshed (Vietnam, Iraq, Korea, Chile, Cuba)? I would weigh x deaths now against y deaths later, integrate population times quality of life over time, subtract costs and add benefits. And I would feel very certain about my judgments, and just like that justify or condemn acts of massive violence. And to some extent, I can’t escape from that logic. I appeal to a host of rational arguments – based on "effectiveness" and "consequences" – to oppose violence and war. The death penalty has no proven deterrent effect and in the US it is actually more expensive than life imprisonment. Torture is not useful because it puts friendly troops in danger (John McCain’s argument) or the information gained is unlikely to be reliable. Violence breeds blowback, unintended consequences, and a cycle of violence. War and military build-ups are a huge waste of resources that could be devoted to more positive ends – even if invading Iraq or Afghanistan made life better for most people, the human and financial resources could have been more productive elsewhere (saving millions from Aids or Malaria in Africa for example). The last one is one of my favorite counter-argument to the humanitarian justification of the Iraq war (the only one left standing after Weapons of Mass Destruction and ties to Al-Quaeda were thoroughly debunked), since I believed it to be true at the time (even before the bodycount and financial mess added up over the last four years) and it could be valid even if we had adopted the "right" strategy that many Democrats and pro-intervention liberals continue to rely upon to justify their support for the war. But ultimately, the situation would be different if it were my family at stake. I would feel differently if I was an Israeli who felt threatened by Saddam’s scuds (it is perhaps no surprise that Israel is one of the only countries that still has a favorable view of the war). I’m sure I would feel different if my family was wiped out on 9/11. The power of nationalism was never on display like after 9/11 – long after the rest of the world had moved on, millions of Americans (but not so much New Yorkers surprisingly) feel deeply threatened by terrorism and motivated by feelings of revenge and hatred for people who did this to us. The people who continue to volunteer for Army service are largely not the families or friends of people killed in that attack, but folks from small towns and rural America thousands of miles away. But to me, making the leap from a real community – my family and friends – to the imaginary community of the nation state is impossible (except in that other realm of violence, the only one where the nice Canucks have been "thugs," international ice hockey). I hope none of this is construed to imply that I advocate the "do nothing" strategy, Harris’ straw man. I believe in law enforcement, and I believe that police officers who kill criminals in self-defense are among the most justified in using violence. I believe we should do everything we can to relieve human suffering in the world through non-violent means. With regards to the Jews, Palestinians, and other people who have been displaced, threatened with violence, and had their human rights violated by oppressive regimes, I think we should have a much more lenient refugee policy. There are defensive policies, such as the Israeli security wall, that I support because they are pragmatic solutions to tough problems and have reduced conflict. There are so many other ways to alleviate human suffering that seem better than pre-emptive wars of liberation, pre-emptive wars of "self-defense" (based on perceived current or future threat potential), or wars to ensure the survival of "our" civilization against "millions of Muslims around the world? [with] a kill-the-children-first mentality." I daresay this is true even of many genocides – why is no one talking about bringing more refugees from Darfur to the West? Am I being presumptuous that they would rather stay in Darfur? 3907FB3.jpgIt breaks my heart to see what is happening in Myanmar/Burma right now (see here, here, here, and here.) It is all the more difficult because I have family there. My grandfather was born there and my father lived there until he moved to Canada in his teens. One of my great uncles is actually a retired member of the military – not one of the higher ups in the ruling junta (I conjecture this only based on having seen his house and car in Yangon/Rangoon), but certainly someone whose family is middle-class by Burmese standards, someone who has benefited from his connections and place in the social hierarchy. Nothing is as black and white as it seems. I am torn by outrage and feelings of helplessness at the repression rained down on the students, monks, and protestors. But I cannot advocate violence or humanitarian liberation. I have only met my family there once, and don’t even speak their language. I don’t know whether violence would improve their welfare in the long run (and I suspect this is true of almost every war that has been fought in human history ex ante). Since I am not prepared to lay down my life or kill others for this cause, I can hardly condone such action by anyone else, though I understand that their feelings may be very different. I will continue to be wary of anyone who sells wars based on speculation regarding motives, unknowable consequences, what-if scenarios, and appeals to human rights, democracy and the noblest of human ideals. Especially those like Sam Harris (or the humble-pie eating Michael Ignatieff ), who are so certain of their intellectual ability to discern intent from consequence, threat from phantom, and ideals worth killing and dying for from those worthy of a sit-in or even a prison sentence (see the lives of Bertrand Russell, Mohatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Henry David Thoreau among others). And I advise you to do the same, though I understand if you feel otherwise. – Nick

6 thoughts on ““The False Choice of Pacifism”

  1. I can’t access your link to Hitchens, Richard, could you try re-posting?

    Harris refers to millions of people. You refer to two people. I guess that is the difference. If it really is just two people, we can treat them much like we would treat individual criminals, or like we would have treated the IRA or ETA in our own midst. Much like a standard law enforcement exercise (and yes, sometimes this predictably amounts to effective extra-judicial executions Israeli style – think of Waco).

    Who advocates this “do nothing” approach? Everyone I know who opposes the war in Iraq or the “war on terror” thinks we should be engaging with and strengthening moderate muslims through non-violent means and addressing the sources of grievance that are not based on our being infidels. I don’t think anyone is that completely isolationist, not even Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan. Certainly no one advocates pretending that no threat exists, and reversing all of the security improvements put in place since 9/11.

    Russell advocated war when the very existence of Western democracies was at stake, something which goes to Randy’s point. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that point, which is why I don’t feel threatened at all. I agree that the argument in the public sphere is largely a tactical one – do most Iranians really hate us? If not, does going after the ones that do help us or hurt us? How does that affect home-grown terrorists? That’s why I believe that there are rational arguments, not against violence of any kind, but against a large part of what we have done in this “war on terror” as well as against well-meaning humanitarian liberations. But that is another article, and another debate as you say (and yes, probably the more important one.)

    Perhaps you misunderstood the basis of my argument – it was more a personal argument based on what “I” would do or not do on the basis of perceived threats. I understand that many people have, or believe they have, clear enough vision to make the kinds of grave moral decisions of the kind you are talking about when the threat they face is not an immediate threat to personal security (like whether to bomb Iran, withdraw from Iraq, fight communists in Vietnam, etc.).
    I’m just saying that I don’t have that kind of confidence, and I don’t really understand people who do (but this is not a call for you or the Congressman’s son to join the army- please don’t!). Everyone will say that “violence is a last resort” – I guess we just have different interpretations of what that means.

  2. That is a very important point. The fact that no major terrorist attack on has occurred on U.S. soil in the last six years, should lead to a evaluation of the threat actually posed by Al-Qaeda. So far so good, is the line of thinking. But both Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri continue to exist and plot and until either or both of them are eliminated I think the strongest defence is offence. Just because Saddam didn’t have WMDs doesn’t mean they don’t exist in the world…

  3. “There is a serious threat facing the West–an implacable enemy who has dropped a fatwa on every Western man, woman, and child.”

    True. The second part of that observation should relate to the question of whether or not this fatwa can be implemented, and to what degree it can be implemented.

  4. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for preserving my pinky…I would let those other people die for yours too. It might not surprise you that I agree word for word with Harris.

    You make a philosophical argument about what it is possible to know and what actions should be taken on the basis of that knowledge. But I don’t think Harris is saying his knowledge is perfect; he is saying based on what he knows of the enemy, this action must be taken. There certainly are demagogues out there who make up facts or slant them to encourage violence–I’m sure these are people Harris hates, but I don’t think he should be counted in their company. Because knowledge isn’t perfect is not a reason not to act. Because you don’t know for sure what the consequences of your action would be isn’t a reason not to act. Both of these things are reasons to be CAUTIOUS, to be considerate, to use violence as a last resort, but not to abstain from it absolutely.

    There is a serious threat facing the West–an implacable enemy who has dropped a fatwa on every Western man, woman, and child. The urgency of this threat has been lost in the controversy over Iraq. I don’t think “do nothing” is a straw man. That is the policy that many people advocate. Withdraw. Give up. Close the borders (at least this one is defensive). There really aren’t degrees of pacifism. Russell was a pacifist except for WWII when he wasn’t one.

    Where degrees come into play is when you choose action, including violent action in response to the threat. This is the important part of the debate, I think. What are your tactics, what are your goals, what losses are you prepared to take and to inflict? To win you have to be smart, not necessarily brutal, and you have to recognize that the enemy doesn’t care about pacifistic rationales–it’s outlawed open debate of any kind…

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