Pacifism: Its Moral Value and Insufficiency
As an action aimed at social betterment, pacifism–the refusal to return violence with violence–almost always fails miserably. In his essay “Non-violent Man and History,” philosopher Paul Ricoeur, himself a pacifist, shined a light on why this is so:
“Failing to consider the broadest dimensions of violence, pacifism thinks itself humane and benign. It believes it is already in the world, that it has come from the world, the result of the natural goodness of man which is simply masked or hindered by some few evildoers. It is not aware that it is actually very complicated, that it has history against it, that it can only come from elsewhere, that it summons history to something other than what is naturally intended by history.
Pacifism is not, as they say, natural: human beings have a proclivity toward violence. We glorify it, mythologize it, or at the very least legitimize it through concepts such as “just war” and institutions such as democratic government. More importantly, pacifism perpetuates the history of violence by refusing to stop the violence of another. To be sure, the response to violence with violence also furthers this history. Both the choices to use violence and to refuse violence result in bloodshed. Neither of these is a bloodless choice. Ricoeur continues:
It seems to me that non-violence can be a valid attitude only if one can expect from it some influence–perhaps quite concealed–upon the course of history. What advantage is there for a man to refuse to kill and accept death in order not to soil his hands? For what does his purity matter? Is he pure if all others are unclean? And doesn’t his act fall back into history with the deadly effects which he did not intend but which nevertheless fulfill the meaning of his act? Thus the violence which one refuses to embrace turns to the profit of another violence which the former did not prevent or perhaps even encouraged. Hence if non-violence is to have meaning, it must fulfill it within the history which it at first transcends. It must have a secondary efficacity which enters into account with the efficacity of the violence in the world, an efficacity which alters human relationships.
To be valid, pacifism has to mean more than the refusal to return violence with violence. It must have an efficacy upon history other than the perpetuation of violence. This efficacy, said Ricoeur, must alter human relationships for the better. Pacifism, I submit, is completed by love–by the willful and passionate striving for the good of others, even and especially one’s enemies.
What does it mean to love one’s enemies? Max Scheler was correct in observing that the precept of loving one’s enemies presupposes the existence of hostility, but I don’t feel he went far enough by speaking of the precept as an absence of hatred in the midst of the struggle. The absence of hatred in favor of a recognition that one’s enemy should be one’s brother or sister does not, on its own, bear the fruits of love. Love is aimed at transformation, not merely the transformation of the individual, but a communal transformation, a conversion of the self and the other together as one. In a word, peace.
The history of violence can be broken only from outside that history–outside of human history. What is outside of human history? The world’s faiths and religions each suggest an answer. The Franciscan sister Ilia Delio, for example, speaks of the call for Christians to “christify” the universe by their actions of love, by which she means their participation in the progression of the universe towards its completion in Christ. Other religions, of course, have their own way of expressing humanity’s participation in what they call the love of God.
As I am a Christian, I pray you will forgive me for quoting the words of another of my confession, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.” It is these energies of love that come to us from elsewhere, from beyond the “normal” course of human history. It is in harnessing these energies that human relationships, historically marked by strife, may be transformed into communities of peace.
“Love is aimed at transformation, not the transformation of the individual, but a communal transformation, a conversion of the self and the other together as one.”
Where is it written that one man’s commitment to love is contingent on his love being requited, or imitated? I may be my brother’s keeper, but I am not his conscience. I can choose love (and pacificism) unilaterally. In fact, that’s all I can do–other than hope that I will be imitated and requited.
Where is it written that one man’s commitment to love is contingent on his love being requited, or imitated?
It certainly isn’t written in my post.
“It certainly isn’t written in my post.”
It seems to be suggested by the use of the word “communal.” To be “communal” it would have to be either requited or imitated. Any number of persons doing the same thing entirely independently are not doing that thing communally, even if the larger effect should turn out to be similar. Since, as you point out, peace movements–organized pacificism–never works, my position would be: do what you have to do, and hope that the latter miraculously turns out to be the case.
Community is an aim of love, not its prerequisite.
But community is not necessarily the only aim of love. We are talking about love aimed at pacificism in this case. You have said that organized (community) pacificism always fails. Therefore, it follows that aiming love at community for the ultimate purpose of effecting pacificism is a mug’s game. Pacifism happens one moral agent at a time. It may, or may not, have a cumulative, societal effect. But, even if it does, the effect will not be great enough to put an end to war. Even if one belongs to a pacificist community, one must make up one’s own mind whether or not to take part in any given conflict upon the occasion of that conflict. There is never any way to fob personal responsibility off on the group.
We are talking about love aimed at pacificism in this case. You have said that organized (community) pacificism always fails.
You may be talking about love aimed at pacifism, but I’m not. I’m saying that for pacifism (the refusal to return violence with violence) to become effective, it has to evolve into a kind of love aimed at bringing peace to human relationships and communities.
Sharon Salzberg, writing about Buddhism and lovingkindness, mentions an experience she had while in India studying meditation. She had taken a few days to visit a friend in another city and was taking a rickshaw to catch the train back. On the way, a big menacing man forces the driver to stop the rickshaw and then tries to pull her out. Her friend manages to push the guy away and yells at the driver to go on, and they get to the station safely.
When they got back she was still upset, and she told one of her meditation teachers what happened. He told her, “Sharon, with all the lovingkindness in your heart, you should have taken your umbrella and hit that man over the head with it!”
The lesson, of course, is that it’s possible for act to be violent but also compassionate. The trick is to make sure you’re acting just out of compassion and wisdom, rather than anger, selfishness, etc.
I don’t disagree. I mean by violence that which is aimed at the destruction of the other, but I may not have made that clear.
A storefront fundie preacher once gave me the most interesting take on Jesus’ “turn the other cheek.” Actually, Jesus says to offer him the other cheek as well. This is an action, not an impotent ignoring of the slap. Presumably, it would shame the offender or at least take all the fun out of slapping you.
This goes to your exc essay here, I believe, Kyle, that
To be valid, pacifism…must have an efficacy upon history other than the perpetuation of violence. This efficacy, said Ricoeur, must alter human relationships for the better.
Even Gandhi’s most controversial, radical, brilliant or perhaps downright stupid proposal says the same:
“Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
Of course, Jews aren’t Hindus and neither are they Christians. To them—and many non-Jews—this advice seems absurd.
For me the problem of pacifism is this: sometimes, somebody’s going to die. If I’m in a dark alley with a pacifist, I’d fully expect him to fall on the bad guys’ knives so I could get away. Now that’s some righteous pacifism.
As for the ethics of pacifism, I have two major stumbling blocks: the right of self-defense and our duty toward the weak—women and children. I can see waiving the first for oneself, but not denying or obstructing the right of self-defense for others.
Or letting wife and child die for one’s own beliefs. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is the only myth I can think of that parallels this, and G-d doesn’t even let Abraham go through with such an abomination.
Or letting me die in a dark alley for your beliefs. How could I want such a person as a friend, a brother, a father? I’d be better off without you, because I’d feel a duty to stay and save you, even if I could outrun you. [If you remember the old joke about the bear—I don’t need to outrun the bear to survive, I only need to outrun you…]
Provocative post, Kyle. As you see, I’m not convinced that Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” necessarily leads to Gandhi’s Jews jumping off the cliff. I think we’ve not done the necessary and proper moral reasoning on all this.
Gandhi’s reasoning is consistent and powerful. But what would we think of this man if he watched his children be slaughtered rather than raise his hand to stop it?
Courage or cowardice?
I’ll note, as I have before when the “turn the other cheek” line has come up: Jesus is talking about taking a minor assault meant as an insult with magnanimity, really.
Somebody trying to cut your face off one half at a time isn’t exactly someone slapping you as an insult.
> But what would we think of this man if he watched his children be
> slaughtered rather than raise his hand to stop it?
> Courage or cowardice?
This probably depends on whether or not he could do anything to stop it. If he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and was in fact watching to burn vengeance into his brain so that a decade later he could wreak horrible consequences upon the perpetrator(s), I wouldn’t exactly call that courage *or* cowardice.
Scare the crap out of me, though, that’s for sure.
What if Gandhi could have saved his family? Or what if he just took one of the murdering bastards with him?
Scare the crap out of me, though, that’s for sure.
Don’t get what you meant by this part, PatC, if it’s of import. BTW, who do you want to be with in the dark alley? [You know, besides Blaise, master of six martial arts, a dozen weapons systems, and seventeen languages.]
Does the dark alley scenario enter into your equation of friendship? I’ll give away my answer here—well, the gentle reader knows I already have.
[Yah, Pat, I have heard the interpretation that Jesus was referring only to minor offenses against one’s dignity: a slap in the face is meant to insult your dignity, not to impair your health. That can sit alongside what the storefront fundie preacher (he was holding Bible class at his optical shop when I stumbled in) said, that to offer the other cheek takes gumption. Ignoring the slap–or trying to—is not a positive act, it’s a denial of your own humanity. Anybody who gets slapped is hurt, and he is angry. To offer the other cheek as well is a positive act.
Since that day with the storefront preacher, I’ve thought that the popular Catholicism that I grew up with, with its martyrdom and “suffering in silence” dynamic have this part wrong.
Catholic thought certainly does hold that suffering has value, metaphysically speaking, but that does not apply here.]
Tom, I’m friends with a lot of people. A fairly small subset of them are ones I’d take voluntarily into the dark alley or the zombie apocalypse.
I like lots of people. Not very many people, generally (in my experience), have the capacity for violence. The ones that I know that have both the capacity for violence and a truly selfless sense of camaraderie are one-hand material.
I also know a decent chunk of people who are loyal enough to stick by me in that alley, but they’re the sorts who would just wind up with both of us being dead, or me getting myself killed trying to save *them*… or a decent chunk of people who have enough capacity for violence that they might get me out of there alive, but they’re also the sorts that probably landed me in there in the first place.
“Or what if he just took one of the murdering bastards with him?”
My pacifism has limits, which may be a sign of weakness. Or maybe not. I’m not morally opposed to the use of force, even force that may result in death. I am oppose morally to deliberate killing, even if the killing is done for a good end. I’m anti-death penalty and anti-war, but I wouldn’t fault someone for shooting or clubbing an intruder if her intention was to stop the intrusion and not to bring about the death of the intruder.