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On Pacifism and Pragmatics

On September 22, 2014, Jeffrey Goldfarb published a pained meditation on the quest to reconcile one’s attraction to pacifist principles with a simultaneous sense that not all events can be responded to appropriately without some form of violence. Goldfarb specifically raised this question in the context of the recent rise of the ISIS terror group in Syria and Iraq and the United States’ military campaign against them. He concludes that while pacifism is a worthwhile ideal to be used in a careful critique of the propriety of force, he cannot stand by it as a matter of absolute principle.

In a comment on the article, Chiara Bottici remarked that her pacifism had shifted from one of “principle” to one of “skepticism.” Though the end result is the same, she admits, the motivation is quite different between the two. Where principled pacifism condemns violence outright because it abhors it, skeptical pacifism speaks against the use of force because it does not believe that force actually achieves anything beyond the violence that characterizes it. The former treats violence as an evil to be rejected regardless of what ends it may achieve — and here we may think of Goldfarb’s example when he says, “I couldn’t convince myself that I wouldn’t fight against Hitler” — while the latter fundamentally questions the validity, in fact the existence, of those ends. Bottici muses that this skeptical take on pacifism may be considered a pragmatic approach, and indeed, there is a parallel: Bottici’s skepticism has no faith in violent action because it appears not to result in anything that could justify it.

At the same time, while this skepticism takes a step toward placing pacifism as a moral stand on a more rational platform, it does leave raw the quandary of whether or not there are situations in which one’s dedication to remaining peaceful must become untenable. Violent action is considered a priori inefficacious. A skeptical pacifist would answer Goldfarb’s example by arguing, “We mustn’t fight Hitler because nothing good will come of it.” Is this true?

I am similarly sympathetic to this question and the battles of self to which it gives rise. I have identified as pacifist in the past without knowing whether or not I could truly support non-engagement in a unilateral fashion. My sense of principle makes me feel dirty at the suggestion of admitting a legitimate purpose to force, while my sense of reason begs me not to close the door on the matter without considering it fully. The two constantly mitigate each other and threaten to prevent me from ever reaching an actual conclusion.

Let’s be honest — we’re not going to get away from principle here; we cannot ignore that all our discussions are rooted in the nebulous, irrational, unscientific, wholly impractical notion of morality. There would be no reason to debate violence as a means if we truly accepted the possibility of amoral, fully rational action. Our judgments are not oriented only to results; they take into account the behavior that precedes the end.

Even the most amoralistic opinions on the matter cannot possibly hope to achieve the transcendence of principle for which they hope. This is because there would be absolutely no point to engaging the question of violent action in the first place were it not for the moral sense that some injustice needed to be stopped. When questioning whether or not attacking ISIS is justifiable, the debate is not one in which “means” represent “principle” and “ends” represent “pragmatics.” It is all principled. We want to see an end to the murder and oppression the group is causing. If we did not believe in this fundamentally moral notion, the problem of engagement would not come up at all, and we would simply go about our business — producing, consuming, tallying ledgers, conducting experiments, and doing whatever else a fully rational society might presumably do with its time, all without regard to the human consequences of any of it. That society, of course, is not ours. The question of means vs. ends is a question of which approach best represents, and most fully respects, the requirement of morality in a given situation. To bring this back to Goldfarb’s initial question, the debate is always one of pragmatics in the service of principle.

In this, my thinking runs along similar lines to those traced by Max Weber in Economy and Society . Therein, he distinguishes instrumental rationality (action in which “the end, the means, and the secondary results are all rationally taken into account and weighed”) from value rationality (action “determined by a conscious belief in the value for its own sake of some … form of behavior, independently of its prospects of success”). In doing so, however, he points out that the two are not strictly separated:

Choice between alternative and conflicting ends and results may well be determined in a value-rational manner. In that case, action is instrumentally rational only in respect to the choice of means … The orientation of action wholly to the rational achievement of ends without relation to fundamental values is, to be sure, essentially only a limiting case.

This mixture of the pragmatic and the value-driven is how I have chosen to navigate the tricky obstacle course that is my simultaneous admission of the rightness of principled pacifism and the need for practical reason. My understanding is guided by the knowledge that all decisions on the matter are decisions of morality, and my task is to determine what course of action — or non-action — is most consistent with that morality. To that end, I ask myself these questions:

1. What would be the likely result of action?

2. What would be the likely result of non-action?

3. Which result causes greater suffering and leads to a greater likelihood of future suffering?

4. Which scenario (viz., that furthered by action vs. that furthered by non-action) is characterized by a greater degree of violence upon its victims?

The answers to these questions should determine whether or not force is appropriate, i.e., moral. They allow one to consider the fact that in situations where one’s moral obligation appears to be action, the consequence of that action may indeed lead to greater calamity than abstention would have. The prime example of this is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Goldfarb points out in his original article, at the time of the invasion, it seemed as though toppling Hussein and attaining security was absolutely imperative from the perspective of justice. That quickly proved to be incorrect, as the invasion led to a destabilization that has ruined the nation of Iraq, creating a chaotic space in which terrorism — that which we ironically professed to be dismantling in the region — has been able to take hold as never before, resulting in immensely exacerbated suffering for Iraqis and now Syrians and Kurds as well. A critical forecasting allows us to rein in the inspiration of our outrage and realize that the end we seek may actually be contradicted by the action we are about to take.

On the other hand, these questions allow us to consider the fact that sometimes non-action, though well-intentioned, actually leads to a greater degree of suffering and is therefore counterproductive to the embrace of morality. One interesting way to illustrate this is through an engagement with the anarcholibertarian concept of the “non-aggression principle.” This principle is thoroughly pacifist, holding that no one should do any thing that violates another’s will. While noble in intention, it runs into severe limitations when it encounters matters of policy. The libertarian position, recognizing that any policy of the state is only meaningful insofar as it is enforceable, and that enforceability rests upon the threat of the state’s use of its legitimated claim to violence (cf. Weber again), condemns all political intervention as violent. But what of, say, the employer who, following the rational principle of the free market, maximizes his profit by endangering the physical and psychological wellbeing of his employees? Is this not a situation in which the refusal to bring force against the employer actually results in a greater degree of violence — to his numerous employees? Here, a temporary indulgence in force (and, we must admit, a force that remains theoretical in most cases of this sort) actually may serve the cause of non-violence better than obeying the principle of pacifism would have. We see here what I said before: that qualification of the means is dependent upon the degree to which those means respect a base concept of morality.

At this point, it is essential to recall what Goldfarb said in his article:

I am not a pacifist as a matter of principle, but I still am trying to learn. When I was a young man, I couldn’t commit myself to pacifism, because I appreciated that there were limits to non violent resistance. Now I see, rather, the limitations of violence, drawn to that position, not because of absolute conviction, but for practical reasons. For in the militarized response to fanaticism in Afghanistan and to tyranny in Iraq, the limitations of military action have become quite apparent …

While I still can’t convince myself to be a pacifist as a matter of principle, there are powerful arguments to consider pacifist insights for the critique of military action.

His reflection here reminds us that while pacifism (as generally understood) has its practical limits, this admission of the need for pragmatic consideration does not and should not constitute an excuse for violent action. The decision to use force must be made when all other options fail, when all forecasts predict that the consequences of non-action will be (more) disastrous (than those of action). And that forecasting, to avoid being no more than a formality or a sham (for who really engages in war for the sheer love of it?), must take place honestly with input from critical analysis and debate, and must seek the knowledge that can be gained from science and history. To protect the integrity of our endeavor, we must begin with the recognition that nonviolence will be the preferred path in almost all situations; that there are ways of acting outside the realm of force that have real, significant, transformational effects on the world, and that force is by its very nature hard to exercise without making severe mistakes. We should not be hungry for aggression and we should shy away from it, approaching it only with regret. Violence is a conclusion to be arrived at in defense, and only where there is no other way to ensure that the victimization in question will not go unchecked. It does not remain justified where the selfishly righteous desire to combat evil, due to the practical or political implications of our action, actually results in a greater and more severe amount of it.

It is this perspective and this process of “forecasting” that has led me to oppose violent revolution, the war against ISIS, and the torture and detention of Arabs in Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities. It is also this outlook that allows me to know that I will defend my life if threatened, and to understand that I could not condemn the military for going to war with an ISIS that arrived on U.S. soil. In every case, my interest is in finding the honest route to a maximization of peace. I am therefore comfortable calling myself a “pragmatic pacifist.”

Zachary Sunderman

  • Zachary Sunderman

    I didn’t include this in the piece, in order to keep it on the rails (or at least, on a short ride), but I want to add that the aversion to “grayness,” as Jeff called it in his introduction to this series, in the intellectual community is extremely frustrating. I hope that my contribution here is not taken as a condemnation of action. When the cause of peace and justice is served by our action, we should wholeheartedly take it or at least support it. But that is actually the case far less than we are given to believe.

    As people who have dedicated ourselves to the pursuit of special knowledge, I believe the intellectual community should be using that knowledge, and the insight gained in its pursuit, to direct political debate away from the black-and-white, and steer social action away from rashness. We should be able to provide a sober analysis of complex social situations such that we contribute to the actual implementation of justice, peace, etc. We should do more than just answer the immediate call of righteousness as dictated by political sympathies. We should be able to understand, and help others understand, where our principles and sympathies are undone by a proposed course of action, even if it seems right at the time.

    I am sure my position will be criticized, but I hope at all times it is understood that it comes not from conservatism or weakness, but rather a dedication to what I see as the true route to the realization of the values I, and many of us, hold.

    • Chiara Bottici

      this is an interesting take on pacifism, but your pragmatic pacifism seems to be too much dependent on a moral one. and that is where i disagree: i think it is perfectly possible to reject the recourse to violence on political or even on just juridical grounds, without calling in morality ( not all values are necessarily moral values!). and the reason for this is that i think the recent recourse to moral reasoning in order to justify war (so called “just war theory”) has been a giant step back into what has been called the “new medievalism”. so rather than engaging in endless debates about morality and justice, i think it would be better remain at the political level and reject the military intervention on that ground. the fact that in the last two decades a few states have self-appointed themselves the “world police” is illegitimate on the political and juridical level, well before the moral one.

      • I agree Chiara. My limited pacifism is also primarily

        pragmatic and not moral, as I indicated in my original reflections. My challenge to my friends on the left that the same pragmatic qualifications on violence as it applies to super powers, both regional and global, i.e. the Israeli and the United States, also, I believe, applies to effectkve resistance.

        • Zachary Sunderman

          I think that’s more than sensible.

      • Zachary Sunderman

        I agree that there are multiple types of value and legitimacy at play. But I think that politics and jurisprudence are only constructs rooted in something more essential. My point was that there is no moment at which the issue is not ultimately moral. Without a root moral concern, the question of action would not even arise. The pragmatics we are debating are always in the service of solving some breach of morality.

        Perhaps “morality” is too charged a term — too Enlightenment of me. But this is also part of what I’m getting at: we shouldn’t be afraid of the fact that we are moral beings. People without ethics, we call sociopaths. It is crucial to our lives. I think we spend so much time trying to be rational about such questions that we forget we are ultimately humans trying to understand what is the right thing and to do good. In our day to day life, we don’t detach ourselves from ethics like that — we only do so when we are purposefully being critical. If we were truly supramoral, then all pragmatic questions would be nothing more than questions of efficiency and efficacy. If violence fit those criteria best, it would not be a cause of discomfort. I can’t imagine the kind of wrangling with oneself that Jeff described in the absence of a deeply moral inspiration.

        In other words, my argument is that nothing is ever truly pragmatic — it is only pragmatic in the service of principle (morality, ethics, etc). The principle is the motivating factor and is the issue upon which the rest of the debate turns. And this is why I am uncomfortable setting aside the moral aspect: it is remembrance of the root devotion to an ethical principle in these decisionmaking processes that provides the guidance by which we can avoid offending that very principle in our actions. When a group of oppressed freedom fighters slaughters a person in furtherance of its cause, it violates the very value that motivated it to action in the first place. I believe in bringing these root moral motivations back to the fore in order to remind actors of their duty to obey something beyond the pressures of the immediate and desperate moment.

        And, interestingly enough, it appears to me that following this course of conscious, principled action is actually more pragmatic in the long run, because it prevents fallout from evils committed in the process of engagement (e.g., the exacerbation of terrorism in the Middle East as the result of careless U.S. intervention in Iraq). And yet there are limitations to this course where the principle being served is actually harmed by non-engagement. So the pragmatics of my approach is the degree to which action, or non-action, furthers the principle that inspires it — again, without the principle, the pragmatics don’t exist. And therefore, in order for my decision to be truly pragmatic, it must take account of what it does to the principle to which it responds.

        • Zachary Sunderman

          Although, Chiara, as I think about it, I understand your assertion that the discussion should be kept pragmatic so as not to become lost in an endless sea of moral reasoning. I think you mean that comparable decisions will be made on the pragmatic level as would be made on the principled level, with the benefit that the decision does not become mired in an attempt to agree on something so nebulous as morality (especially if morality itself can be corrupted in favor of undesirable action). Political and, especially, juridical constructs give us guidelines and frameworks with which we can make much simpler decisions about what is legitimate and what’s not.

          I still fear losing sight of principles, though, and I think this is particularly salient in the case of grassroots resistance, where codes cease to exist, where legitimated politicality is suspended in struggle. In these situations, I think it is particularly crucial that something other than pure effectiveness be indulged. And even in the case of State action, the rules don’t always necessarily prevent unnecessary harm; while they approximate ethical guidance without invoking morality per se, I don’t think they can be relied upon to carry the day all by themselves. That morality is sometimes perverted to be used as a justification for something that is not actually ethical only makes it more important than ever that honest principles be defended.

          • Chiara Bottici

            you seems to speak as if morality is always a good thing, but even the principle according to which all unfit human beings should be eliminated is a principle, and even a moral one. and you will not get away from that by simply saying that your morality is better than that. that’s why i suggest to go minimalist, pacifist on skeptical or “merely pragmatic” grounds, rather than moral

          • Zachary Sunderman

            A challenging point. But in those cases, a moral position is taken against genocide. Perhaps it is possible to rationalize the moral after all, and maybe we have to. I’m working from an idea of morality that means not doing harm to others. Where harm is inherent in the “principle” itself, let’s say in ethnic cleansing, the principle is unsupportable. This is why I mentioned input from science and knowledge at the end. A principle that is just a prejudice, or is based on mis- or dis-information, is not a valid one.

            Part of what I set out to do in the article was address the hole that still existed in the conversation: does a skeptical pacifist automatically disavow all engagement? As I read them, your arguments lead to a default of inaction. This is why I introduced the concept of judging action vs. inaction on the basis of its fulfillment of a root principle. I’m curious to hear, from your position, does skeptical pacifism admit any use of force/violence and if so, how does it make this determination?

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