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The arrogance of warmongers: Pacifism for the 21st century

The world has turned mad; we need to sober up. It is 2014, and we have recently marked the First World War Centenary. Commemorating a past filled with suffering and loss should be a time to remember the horrors, and to take a firm stance against wars. Yet, we mark the First World War Centenary, and our increasingly unstable world scares me. A ceasefire has just been reached after yet another outburst of excessive violence in Israel/Gaza. Russian troops have entered Ukraine, and the West has responded not only with economic sanctions, but also with increased military (NATO) presence in Europe, and in many cases by decisions to expand military budgets, because a widespread conviction that Russia is a real military threat also to countries such as Denmark. Some commentators seem to think we should prepare for a full war in Europe. The Syrian Civil War is in its third year, and the death toll surpasses 190,000, the cause for which is doubtlessly partly involvement of other countries. A new state, which in its brutality reminds all of us of the history of man, and of what all human babies are capable of developing into, has been declared, the Islamic State, in areas that were previously part of Iraq and Syria. The United States of America responds by gathering an international coalition with the seeming, medium-term, purpose of waging a war, comparing their intentions to those that led to the “quick victory” in the Gulf war in 1990-1991. Meanwhile, the silent drone war that consists of attempts to systematically assassinate terrorists continues. In all this madness, we need to a make plea for peace.


Let’s start by stating the obvious: it is beyond any doubt that wars and armed conflicts are (at the very least prima facie) inherently bad from any reasonable ethical perspective, and should be treated as such. War is the large-scale use of arms and violence in ordered to reach some objective. Everything else equal, the use of violence, the use of arms on a human being is an evil. Violence and arms inflict physical and psychological harm. Victims are maimed, traumatised, and killed. This violates autonomy, infringes on rights, undermines individual freedom, and creates significant suffering, or if one so prefers: negative utility. This means that the burden of proof falls upon proponents of violence. Always. It is he who suggests the use violence, that we engage in warfare, that must show us why it is justified, what it is that makes up for causing the bad that he promotes. This is as true for those who say that we should go to war, intervene militarily, use violence, as it is for those who suggest that we should engage in activities that increase the risk of war and armed conflict. And, it is not sufficient justification to show that the intended victims are evil persons. Without having access to a convincing justification, we need to categorically object to all wars, and we have sound ethical grounds to do so. Now, producing a justification for engaging in the evils of warfare is very, very difficult. Let us look at the, as far as I can tell, most common attempts of doing so.


One way to offer a justification for war is by claiming that the ethical rights of the victims have been forfeited by previous actions, present, or future actions. Perhaps the most common idea here is that an individual forfeits her right to autonomy if she poses a threat to you, and so you have a right to violate this autonomy. This line of reasoning faces two problems. (1) To react against potential threats, or punish past misdeeds, with warfare violates the principles of humanism that modern societies rest on. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that “The universe has as many different centres as there are living beings in it. Each of us is the centre of the universe.” When we take the right to wage a war, we take the right to shatter a centre of the universe. This is a right that we could only have in very extreme circumstances, if ever. (2) There are no wars in which all casualties have forfeited their rights. There are no wars without innocent victims, no wars without civilians dying, no wars without children suffering. These bads cannot be justified in terms of forfeited rights. Killing innocent civilians, killing infants, can only be justified by consequentialist reasoning.


A second way of offering justifications for engaging in the evils of war is by pointing to how the war will create goods that outweigh its innate bads. This appears to be how most of those who voice opinions in the public reason, it is a necessity as soon as one recognises that there will be innocent victims, and it is in my experience the standard explanation for why pacifism is an unreasonable position to hold. Wouldn’t it have been better to raise an international coalition and start a war against Hitler in, say, 1933? Yes. Or? The problem with this type of reasoning is that it reveals irrational overconfidence in our capacities to predict consequences of our actions. Common to all who engage in the debate is a strong belief that we can make good predictions about the future. But who saw Al-Qaeda coming after the United States? Who saw the Islamic State rising in the ashes of Iraq and Syria? Who predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea? If history shows us anything, it is that things do not unfold the way we intend them to, and we are notoriously bad at predict the consequences of our actions. This is a general problem with consequentialism that might or might not be appreciated enough. However, because warfare is innately bad, the issue is more pressing in this case. We have no reason to be confident in predictions that we can create goods by engaging in warfare, but we know for a fact that any time we do engage in warfare, we create enormous amounts of suffering.


When we engage in activities that are not innately bad, it suffices, from a consequentialist perspective, if our predictions are better than pure guesses, or predictions generated randomly. When we engage in activities that are innately bad, our predictions need to be so much better than randomly generated predictions so that the innate badness of the activities are fully outweighed. Are we so much better at predicting the outcomes in terms of goodness so that it exceeds the actual, inevitable costs of war? Is the degree of certainty that our predictions are correct so high so that it justifies creating the enormous suffering that wars generate? Perhaps in some situations, but history warrants that it is extraordinarily rare.


Much of what we today see as reasons to wage wars is in fact caused by wars. The atrocities of the Islamic State, a phenomenon that would not be possible without the Syrian Civil War and the American invasion of Iraq, is of course the prime contemporary example of this. A good runner-up is the reasons given for assassinating people with drones. Generating a worse situation than the status quo by engaging in an activity that is bad in itself is the risk. Improving the status quo is the potential gain. If we assume that the sizes of how much worse the situation can get and of how much better they can get are the same, the probability that we will see the gains must be commensurate with the evils of the war. In all other cases, waging a war cannot be justified on consequentialist grounds.


The default standpoint ought to, instead of arrogant overconfidence in our capacities to create goods, be strong skepticism about our capacities to predict the future, reluctance to use weapons, and pacifism.


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10 Comment on this post

  1. “Much of what we today see as reasons to wage wars is in fact caused by wars. The atrocities of the Islamic State, a phenomenon that would not be possible without the Syrian Civil War and the American invasion of Iraq, is of course the prime contemporary example of this.”

    Hmm… not really convinced by this. Previous wars are not the sole (or even primary) cause of the next war. I’m sure they’re deployed as justification for the next war, but that doesn’t mean they are actually causally linked as simply as you seem to suggest. I agree that we are bad at predicting the outcomes of our actions, but this is not limited to the waging of war. Experiments in economic policy (post-war compact in UK, shock-therapy in post-Soviet societies, GFC precursors, etc) also lead to unexpected results. While you could make arguments about the scale of an intervention (declaring war vs deregulating the banking sector) and the scale of unintended consequences, I don’t see why war would be inherently worse in terms of creating unexpected outcomes than lots of other things. If this is so your point is really anti-hubris rather than anti-war, I’d have thought.

    Personally I’m kind of sceptical of strong commitments to pacifism. For most of human history a strong commitment to pacifism would have been a very bad strategy. I agree there are polities and people which have been too fond of waging war (sometimes to their own detriment). And I agree that arrogance and hubris are dangerous. But I think Solzhenitsyn’s point is too fluffily cosmopolitan to be of any use – states have an obligation to defend some of those centres of universes against threats, frequently arising from others of those centres of universes. That obligation is one of the first obligations we require from a (legitimate) state. If a state abrogates that duty (to protect its citizens) then it’s hard to see why its citizens would concede to it a monopoly on force.

  2. I like the idea that perhaps the basic premise should not be that war is a neutral means to reach an end, making it easier to justify, but that war has definite negative effects and anyone arguing for it has to counter them and deliver stronger arguments for why it may be justified.

    @ Dave Frame

    I understand you skepticism and I think it is a common objection to pacifism. The point of division is that where you say a state needs to defend its people, I believe that the best defense is non-violent. You say that pacifist behavior would have been a bad strategy for most of human history, I argue that it would have been the best strategy. My thinking behind this is that if everyone believes war may be ok sometimes, we will always have it, if everyone regards it as unacceptable, we won’t.

    I’m engaging with some of the criticisms of pacifism on my blog

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for the comments. My impression is that states that include credible threats to defend their peoples tend to fare better than states that cannot make those credible threats. I can’t think of too many actually existing states that simply pass on the right to defend themselves in the face of aggression. Can you give me some historical examples that would let me see what you mean?

      I think we probably simply disagree over the usefulness/practicality of “if everyone believes war may be ok sometimes, we will always have it, if everyone regards it as unacceptable, we won’t”, since I think that the odds of everyone accepting that war is unacceptable are zero.

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  3. Hi Dave,

    I agree pacifism is not part of the way states usually behave, in fact some people believe the state is part of the problem. Charles Tilly said ‘war makes the states and the states make war’. Others such as Kenneth Waltz believe it is not because of the state but because of the international system, or that states can never trust each other. I think the question is therefore how fixed you are on the state? Are the states the only actors that make, will make or should make international politics?

    It is, however, fairly easy to see an example of how situations escalate when states make strong and credible threats towards each other, even though they perhaps do not think a war is the most favorable outcome, including World War I. How well did the populations of these states do?

    Anyway, just some thoughts. Thanks for the inspiration, I might think some more and write a blog post on it.

  4. You begin your essay by stating that the world has turned mad, as though this is a recent event. Why does the date make a difference? Surely this madness, as you put it, has existed throughout human history.

    You seem to equate a lack of armed warfare as peace. How can that possibly be true? When a tyrant brutalizes a country’s citizenry, there is no peace there. The Soviet domination of the Russian people was hardly peace. There was no personal autonomy. Rights were infringed, individual freedoms were undermined and significant suffering ensued. Mr. Solzhenitsyn was just one of the millions of those who endured that significant suffering.

    You defined war, specifically, as “the large-scale use of arms and violence in ordered to reach some objective.” By that definition, war within the Soviet Union did not exist, yet all the evils of war that you listed, did exist.

    There was no war, there was no peace. Pacifism as you have stated thus far, has no answer to the tyrant, other thaa people should simply endure the tyranny.

    That the people of Russia eventually overthrew the tyranny (to have it replaced by the current tyranny) is no answer to the 20-40 million who died, and the other uncountable millions who suffered under the Soviet tyranny until it was finally overthrown.

    You accept one non-peaceful situation. What makes tyranny acceptable, and war unacceptable, since they involve the same violations of the individual?

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