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The Injustice of Pacifism

[T]here is something obscene in the attitude of those […] who are willing to condone the slaughter of defenseless victims, but march in protest against wars between the well-armed.
Ayn Rand. ‘The Roots of War.’ Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (p. 39). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wikipedia defines pacifism (links and formatting removed):

Pacifism is the opposition or resistance to war, militarism […] or violence.

The same article elaborates (links and footnotes removed, italics mine):

Historians of pacifism Peter Brock and Thomas Paul Socknat define pacifism “in the sense generally accepted in English-speaking areas” as “an unconditional rejection of all forms of warfare”. Philosopher Jenny Teichman defines the main form of pacifism as “anti-warism”, the rejection of all forms of warfare.

Wikipedia also includes as pacifist stances the “the obliteration of force, and opposition to violence under any circumstance, even defence of self and others.”

In violent conflicts, there’s usually an aggressor and a victim. The aggressor initiates violence against the victim, who may in turn use retaliatory violence to defend himself. Think of a robber and the robbed, or a murderer and his victim.

Note that the above definitions reject all forms of violence unconditionally, including defensive, ie retaliatory force. That means a defining attribute of pacifism is that it does not differentiate between aggressive and defensive force but condemns both. This lack of nuance makes pacifism worse than worthless – it favors aggressors.

Condemning both the aggressor and the victim for their use of violence is the mirror image of moral agnosticism. Where moral agnostics equally refuse to judge good and evil, pacifists judge the two sides the same. Pacifists will grant that an aggressor is wrong to use violence to begin with, but they will also condemn the victim for using violence to defend himself.

In other words, pacifists do pronounce judgment, but their pronouncement is unjust: evil does not deserve the same judgment as good; while the robber and murderer deserve condemnation, their victims do not; aggressive force is different from defensive force.

I don’t know which is worse – moral agnostics’ refusal to identify evil as evil, or pacifists’ attempt to place good and evil on an even moral footing – but the outcome in both cases is injustice. Both favor evil over good. While moral agnostics favor evil by default, as Ayn Rand explains, pacifists favor evil by condemning the good the same and actively denying it the means of defense.

An example of pacifism in present-day international relations is the reaction of some to Israel’s defense against Hamas’s genocidal attempt to eradicate the Jews. It’s not the case that the ‘pacifists’ protesting against Israel want good to triumph over evil while merely being mistaken about who is which. And it’s not true that these ‘pacifists’ want peace – if they did, they’d advocate a swift victory for Israel. No, they feel an unidentified uneasiness at the sight of good having the gall to stand up against evil. Pacifists do not want good to have the ability to defend itself against evil.

An historical (though ever-present) example of pacifism is the opposition to the development of the atomic bomb. The bomb provided a clear way for good to swiftly and decisively triumph over evil. As Mike Coté argues, “Dropping the Atomic Bombs Was Good, Actually”. Another historical example is the pacifist call to mutual disarmament between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. Which side do you think would cheat and keep their weapons, and which would honor the agreement and be left without means of defense? In this regard, pacifism is not even internally consistent: mutual disarmament would need to be enforced somehow. With what? In the limit, with guns.

Bans on guns are a domestic example of pacifism. As opponents have argued, these bans favor violent criminals by disarming law-abiding citizens and robbing them of their ability to defend themselves effectively. What do you think happens when you ask both a murderer and his victim to put down their weapons? Conversely, advocates of gun bans do not actually want to ban guns: they want evil – in this case, government, as libertarians commonly point out – to have all the guns. The same internal inconsistency applies: a ban on guns would need to be enforced somehow, with guns if necessary.

Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the best-known pacifist to have ever lived, said in an interview with his biographer (brackets mine, links removed):

[The holocaust] 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…..It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany…. As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.

Once aroused, what could the people of Germany and the world have done without weapons? Absolutely nothing. Gandhi’s stance, including thinking of Jews as lemmings rather than people, is disgusting; he may as well have held the butcher’s knife he spoke of.

Europeans still have not learned one of the key lessons of WW2 and the holocaust: that disarming the general populace paves the way for an evil government to enslave and murder good citizens. Politely asking Genghis Khan to stop killing people is pointless. Civilization requires weapons in the hands of good people; peace cannot be brought about by trying to disarm everyone. The proper response for any Jew who had the means and ability to fight the Nazis would have been to arm himself to the teeth and shoot Nazis on sight.

Ayn Rand writes:

[U]nilateral pacifism is merely an invitation to aggression.

Ayn Rand. ‘The Roots of War.’ Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (p. 36). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Many people still have not grasped this truth. In a world where evil exists, or might exist, pacifism is always unilateral; it’s always an invitation to aggression. Rand also writes:

The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.
   If some “pacifist” society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral. Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage and reward it.

Whether they realize it or not, pacifists don’t recognize man’s right to life. They don’t want peace – on the contrary, as is evident in Gandhi’s quote above, pacifists want bloodshed. A world without weapons, without borders, means carnage.

There are bad wars, but not all war is bad. Defensive violence is good because aggressive violence is bad. If you want to live in a world where good has a chance against evil, where peace can triumph over war, you need to differentiate.

There are ‘pacifists’ who take a more reasonable stance and ‘allow’ retaliatory force, though not without hesitation. Thus, they advocate a form of ‘pacifism’ that is so diluted as to be meaningless, while still reaping the social status of being goody two-shoes. When peaceable, legal means of resistance such as non-violent protests effectively combat evil, I agree they should be preferred – but almost everybody already thinks that anyway. And, when in doubt, pacifist hesitation still affords evil a crucial advantage. Good is typically already hesitant to use weapons for self-defense, whereas evil has no such reservations and is happy to use violence to achieve its ends. So even ‘limited’ pacifism has a stifling effect on good and an encouraging effect on evil. Rand also writes:

[T]he partial victory of an unjust claim encourages the claimant to try further; the partial defeat of a just claim discourages and paralyzes the victim.

Ayn Rand. ‘The Cashing-In: The Student “Rebellion.”’ Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (p. 290). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That is precisely the stifling effect even ‘limited’ pacifism has. Good must be locked and loaded if it is to triumph over evil.

I’ve always shuddered at the sight of hippies who, never having outgrown a teenage girl’s politics, wield the peace sign. But I wasn’t always able to make that emotion explicit. Now I am: it’s disgust over the injustice and hypocrisy of pacifism.

The question is not whether the peaceful protests in East Germany that contributed to the fall of the evil, socialist regime should have turned violent unnecessarily – of course they shouldn’t have. The question is whether something like the massacre at Tiananmen Square could have been prevented if peaceable citizens hadn’t been disarmed in the first place. The question isn’t whether diplomacy should be preferred over violence – of course it should be. The question is whether good should be able to defend itself when evil has already chosen violence.

My answer is a resounding ‘yes’.


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