LettersLiberal Democracy in Question

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.”

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Zachary Sunderman

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