Essay Against Pacifism



There are several different sorts of pacifism, but they all include the idea that war and violence are unjustifiable, and that conflicts should be settled in a peaceful way.

The word (but not the idea) is only a century old, being first used in 1902 at the 10th International Peace Conference.

People are pacifists for one or some of these reasons:

  • religious faith
  • non-religious belief in the sanctity of life
  • practical belief that war is wasteful and ineffective

Many believe that pacifism is more than opposition to war. They argue that it must include action to promote justice and human rights. (Consider for example whether the preservation of peace throughout the British Empire justified the human rights violations of that colonial regime.)

Levels of pacifism

It's important to see the difference between the morality of pacifism as it applies to an individual, and the application of that morality to the behaviour of a nation-state.

Not appreciating this difference can lead to real difficulties in discussing pacifism and non-violence.


Pacifists are often thought of as totally opposed to killing, but they don't have to be. A pacifist can logically support euthanasia and abortion, although they would need to have thought their position through very carefully.


Types of pacifism

Types of pacifism

Absolute pacifism

An absolute pacifist believes that it is never right to take part in war, even in self-defence. They think that the value of human life is so high that nothing can justify killing a person deliberately.

To stick to this principle consistently is hard. It views it as unethical to use violence to rescue an innocent person who is being attacked and may be killed, and this is not a comfortable moral position.

Absolute pacifists usually hold this view as a basic moral or spiritual principle, without regard to the results of war or violence, however they could logically argue that violence always leads to worse results than non-violence.

Conditional pacifism

Conditional pacifists are against war and violence in principle, but they accept that there may be circumstances when war will be less bad than the alternative.

Conditional pacifists usually base their moral code on Utilitarian principles - it's the bad consequences that make it wrong to resort to war or violence.

Selective pacifism

Other pacifists believe that it is a matter of degree, and only oppose wars involving weapons of mass destruction - nuclear or chemical and biological weapons - either because of the uniquely devastating consequences of such weapons, or because a war that uses such weapons is not 'winnable'.

Active pacifism

Pacifists are heavily involved in political activity to promote peace, and to argue against particular wars.

During a war many pacifists will refuse to fight, but some will take part in activities that seek to reduce the harm of war; e.g. by driving ambulances, but other pacifists will refuse to take part in any activity that might support the war.

Not all pacifists are brave enough to act according to these beliefs and to refuse to fight, but many have, bravely choosing punishment, and even execution, rather than go to war.

Nowadays most democratic countries accept that people have the right of conscientious objection to military service, but they usually expect the objector to undertake some form of public service as an alternative.


Arguments against pacifism

Arguments against pacifism

Pacifism cannot be national policy

Pacifism as national policy for a nation is almost unheard of, for the obvious reason that it will only work if no-one wants to attack your country, or the nation with whom you are in dispute is also committed to pacifism. In any other circumstances adopting a pacifist stance will result in your country rapidly being conquered.

However, the idea of pacifism, and of seeking non-violent solutions to disputes between nations, plays a significant part in international politics, particularly through the work of the United Nations.

The logical case against Pacifism

Those who oppose pacifism say that because the world is not perfect, war is not always wrong.

They say that states have a duty to protect their citizens, and that citizens have a duty to carry out certain tasks in a Just War.

It doesn't matter that pacifists are motivated by respect for human life and a love of peace. The pacifists' refusal to participate in war does not make them noble idealists, but people who are failing to carry out an important moral obligation.

A second argument says that pacifism has no place in the face of extreme evil.

The war against Nazi Germany was a war against extreme wickedness, and in 1941 an editorial in the Times Literary Supplement wrote:

Pacifism and remembrance

Because most societies regard going to war as fulfilling a citizen's ethical duty, they honour and remember those who give their lives in war.

If we believe that war is governed by ethics we should only honour those who give their lives in a Just War, and who followed the rules of war.

So, for example, it should be wrong to honour dead soldiers who killed the enemy or wounded or raped enemy women. (But this distinction is not usually made about those who fought on 'our' side.)

A more tricky moral dilemma is presented by the case of soldiers who died while fighting 'justly' for an unjust war.

Many soldiers died fighting honourably and decently for Germany in World War II. But since the war was a blatantly aggressive and unjust war would it be wrong to honour such soldiers for their sacrifice?


The UK Experience

The UK Experience

Pacifism became widespread as a reaction to the scale of killing in the First World War and the use of universal male conscription, and gained further support after the creation of nuclear weapons.

However, the Holocaust, and other industrial scale abuses of human rights, caused many to think that there could be cases when war was the least-bad course of action.

In World War 1 those who refused to fight were known as 'conscientious objectors'. They numbered about 16,000.

While the name was intended to make it clear that it was conscience not cowardice that kept pacifists out of the military, it was rapidly shortened to 'Conshie' and used as a term of abuse.

Some pacifists were prepared to work in non-combat roles as medical orderlies, stretcher-bearers, ambulance drivers, cooks or labourers, while others refused to do anything that might help the war effort. Over 500 of these were imprisoned under harsh conditions.

There were two major pacifist organisations in World War 1: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the No-Conscription Fellowship (both founded in 1914). In 1923 a Christian Pacifist MP was elected to parliament. In the middle 1930s the Peace Pledge Union gained wide support.

Pacifism gained great publicity from a 1933 student debate in the Oxford University Union that voted for a resolution that 'this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country'.

In World War 2, there were 59,000 British conscientious objectors, who received rather better treatment than in the previous war.

Religion and Pacificism

Some religions, such as Buddhism, promote pacifism. Others have strong pacifist elements, such as Christianity, but have accepted that war is inevitable and sought to provide moral guidance in dealing with conflict.

Judaism, like other religions, is strongly opposed to violence, and where violence is permitted the minimum necessary should be used.

But Jewish law does occasionally argue that violence may be the only solution: it imposes a moral obligation to save the life of a person who is being killed, even if the only way of doing so is to kill the attacker. (This demonstrates that Judaism regards going to the aid of someone who is being attacked as a higher moral duty than not injuring people.)

Jewish law also specifically obliges Jews to use violence on the Sabbath as a response to an invasion.


In the frequently debated essay in The Weight of Glory titled “Why I’m Not a Pacifist,” Lewis asks a simple, provocative question:  “How do we decide what is good or evil?” It seems easy enough. It’s our conscience, right? Lewis says that’s the usual answer, breaking it up into what a person is pressured to feel as right due to a certain universal guide, and what a person judges as right or wrong for him or herself.

The first is not arguable given its universality (something some argue nonetheless), but Lewis warns that the second is often moved and sometimes mistaken.

Enter Reason. We receive a set of facts, we have intuition about such facts, and we have need to arrange these facts to “produce a proof of the truth or falsehood,” Lewis says. This last ability is where error usurps reason or simply a refusal to see and understand the truth.

Most of us have not worked out all of our beliefs with Reason. Rather, we lean in on the authority on which those beliefs are hinged and we are humble enough to trust it.

Why not pacifism then? Here’s his rundown, in brief.

First, war is very disagreeable in everyone’s point of view. The pacifist contends that war does more harm than good, that every war leads to another war, and that pacifism itself will lead to an absence of war, and more, a cure for suffering. Lewis is pointed in his  response:

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terribly by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

Lewis left, taken during WWI

In other words, doing good in tackling immediate evils with deliberate force, does more good than setting up position statements based in some humanistic view that improvement will inevitably come just because… it’s suppose to come.

Hold on. Jesus says a person should turn the other cheek, right? Lewis presents three ways of interpreting Jesus. First, the pacifists way of imposing a “duty of nonresistance on all men in all circumstances.” Second, some minimize the command to hyperbole. The third is taking the text at face value with the exception toward exceptions. Christians, Lewis says, cannot retaliate against a neighbor who does them harm, but the homicidal manic, “attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, [so] I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” asks Lewis, who answers his own question with a resounding, “No.”

Further, Lewis says, “Indeed, as the audience were private people in a disarmed nation, it seems unlikely that they would have ever supposed Our Lord to be referring to war. War was not what they would have been thinking of. The frictions of daily life among villagers were more likely on their minds.”

Lewis ultimately lands on authority, referencing Romans 13:4, I Peter 2:14, and the general tone of Jesus’ meaning.

Here’s Romans 13:3-4: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

And I Peter 2:13-14: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”

Do you agree with Lewis’s rationale?  How does your understanding of the Bible and Christian faith influence your feelings toward war?

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