06 May 2011

On Pacifism (part I of III)

Pacifism 2 Comments

[This was an article I originally wrote for LewRockwell.com in grad school.]

I have always been fascinated by pacifism.  We all know that if everybody refrained from violence, we would all be much, much better off.  But pacifists go further and say that even if other people are going around stealing and killing, you will still always be happiest (or most successful in whatever way you define success) if you renounce the use of violence.  I enjoy bold conjectures in general, and in particular ones about society; and there is nothing bolder than the theory of the pacifists.

Yet, although fascinated by pacifism, I could never fully accept its conclusions.  I knew that pacifism was where I was “headed,” that it represented the logical fruition of my intellectual development.  I had started out by studying free-market economics, then became slowly convinced that the government shouldn’t do much of anything, and finally started thinking the government shouldn’t exist.

But if you step back and look at it, I was really just limiting the scope of acceptable uses of violence.  In the first stage, I realized that it’s counterproductive to use men with guns to threaten people into paying unskilled workers a certain minimum for their labor.  In the second, I realized that it’s even counterproductive to use men with guns to collect money from everyone in order to pay companies to build fleets and nuclear bombs.  And in the last step, my acceptance of full-blown anarchy, I realized that there’s no need for an institution of organized violence (i.e. government) at all; we can get along just fine without one, thank you.

These political (or anti-political) views could be subsumed by the ethical doctrine of (radical) libertarianism.  The non-aggression axiom ruled out the initiation of force, and oops! there goes the State.  But it went further and proscribed a whole class of actions in one’s private life, too.  The non-aggression axiom forbade the institutional theft of taxation, yes, but it also ruled out theft on an individual scale.

However, even radical libertarianism allows for the use of defensive force.  But not pacifists.  Even if someone is punching and kicking you, the true pacifist says, you should just sit there and take it (or perhaps run away if you can).  But never are you justified in injuring (or even threatening to do so) your attacker to get him to stop.

Now, most people probably respect the courage of the true pacifist, but nonetheless think that he’s being naïve.  Most people would argue that cold hard reality makes (at least the threat of) defensive force necessary.

*  *  *

This is actually one of those situations that could benefit from formal analysis.  So with apologies to any Austrian economists who may be reading, I’m going to look at this from a typical game theorist’s point of view:

Let’s suppose the world is populated by agents who can pick one of three “strategies”: Hawk, Dove, and Snapping Turtle.  If you’re a Hawk, you spend your time enhancing your strength, and you use your power to intimidate those weaker than you.  If you’re a Dove, you are completely helpless in the event of an attack, and so you spend your days building alliances and learning how to avoid conflict.  Finally, if you’re a Snapping Turtle, you spend all your time preparing for your retaliation against any attack.

Now, to figure out what the “optimal” strategy is, we need to know how these agents interact with each other.  If Dove meets up with another Dove or Snapping Turtle, they engage in peaceful cooperation and gain some utility.  If Hawk runs into Dove, Hawk gets a lot of utility and Dove loses a little.  If Hawk runs into Snapping Turtle, the stronger Hawk gains just a little utility (since even a successful mugging is stressful if the victim resists) while Snapping Turtle loses a moderate amount.  Finally, if two Hawks run into each other they both lose a tremendous amount of utility.

Now if we chose “reasonable” numbers to plug into a model along these lines, we would find that a society of Doves is unstable.  In a world of Doves, any individual could defect and become a Hawk, and thereby take whatever he wanted from anyone he met.  Since there were only Doves around, he would never be punished for this aggression.  Therefore (the standard game theorist would argue) pacifism as a universal code of conduct is impractical.

(Incidentally, I point out that even in this standard setup, the libertarians could defend their view.  Given appropriate numbers, it is entirely possible that the unique equilibrium occurs when everyone is a Snapping Turtle.  Anyone who turned into a Hawk in such a world would instantly lose out on the large benefits from cooperation with all his neighbors, and every one of his encounters would be a battle against a foe who resisted.)

The implication one draws from this analysis is that the present society—with its mixture of Hawks, Doves, and Snapping Turtles—is in equilibrium, that on the margin there are individuals who are indifferent between the various strategies.  Even if we believe that childhood rearing and other social forces limit the discretion over the lifestyle “strategy” one chooses, nonetheless we would expect (so says the typical game theorist) the success of the various populations of Hawks, Doves, and Snapping Turtles to compensate for this lack of choice on the individual level.  Simply put, there aren’t more Doves because too many of them die at the hands of aggressors.  And there aren’t more Hawks because too many of them are killed out of fear or vengeance, often by subordinates who despise them.

*  *  *

But does this really stand up to scrutiny?  Is it really the case that a child destined to be a peacemaker is expected to have the same fortunes in life as a child destined to be a bully?

To ask the question is to answer it.  In purely “material” terms, the Doves of the world earn much higher “returns” than anyone else.  Just because you are a Dove doesn’t mean you need to advertise the fact, and so Doves are no more attractive to a mugger than a Snapping Turtle.  And during the course of a mugging, the “safest” strategy we can recommend ex ante is to give the guy your money.

The reason many people would resist the mugger is to uphold the principle of the matter; but these are not monetary considerations.  And the standard objection against pacifism is that it’s idealistic.  Well, what’s more pragmatic than recommending losing face in order to stay alive?  All of the “glamorous” professions of violence—such as politics and drug dealing—have a much lower life expectancy than the “weak” lifestyle of the schoolteacher or priest.  In a sense, the person who lives the life of violence takes an incredibly risky gamble, a gamble where the odds are (at least in the modern world) heavily stacked against the player.

Not only does the average pacifist prosper more, but the most “successful” people the human race has ever produced are pacifists.  Jesus and Gandhi will have a far greater impact on humanity than Hitler or Stalin.   People have said that entire villages would change when Mother Theresa walked through.

Clearly then, the standard game theoretic analysis is leaving something out.  And I think one neglected factor is that a true pacifist signals to others his integrity.  People aren’t really divisible into three broad types like Hawk or Dove; it would be more accurate to classify them on a spectrum ranging from evil to honorable.  And there are certain types of cooperation (e.g. marriage) that can only work if there is a sufficient degree of trust in the character of the other party.

It would thus appear that the pacifists are sitting on one of the best-kept secrets ever discovered.

*  *  *

It’s rather ironic, when you think about it.  The basic idea of pacifism is so simple and intuitive, that skeptical humans reject it as too good to be true.  But it clearly “works” if a few implement it, as proved by Gandhi (I leave out Jesus because one could argue that He had an “advantage” since, e.g. He could conquer death).   Now surely pacifism can become only more “practical” as greater numbers adopt it.  In the limit, if virtually everyone were a pacifist, then a group of totalitarians couldn’t possibly hurt many of them, since the would-be tyrants would have no soldiers to carry out their orders.

In a very literal sense, the peacemakers shall inherit the earth.

2 Responses to “On Pacifism (part I of III)”

  1. Blackadder says:


    First of all, thanks for doing this.

    The main problem I have with your argument here is that while you claim to show the superiority of the Dove lifestyle over the Snapping Turtle all you really show is that the Dove lifestyle is superior to that of the Hawk. For example, you say that “the ‘glamorous’ professions of violence—such as politics and drug dealing—have a much lower life expectancy than the ‘weak’ lifestyle of the schoolteacher or priest.” But most school teachers (and even a lot of priests) are not Doves but Snapping Turtles. They don’t absolutely reject violence; they just don’t use it habitually. Likewise, drug dealers tend to be not Snapping Turtles but Hawks (I leave the issue of how to characterize politicians to one side).

    I see no reason to think that Doves have a longer life expectancy than Snapping Turtles (incidentally, while Jesus and Gandhi may be moral exemplars, they aren’t really the best models of how to avoid violence and live a long life). Indeed, to the extent that Doves don’t have a shorter life expectancy than Snapping Turtles, I think this is because in societies like ours they can free ride on the majority of Snapping Turtles in their midst. Some of your own comments are suggestive of this. For example, you say that “[j]ust because you are a Dove doesn’t mean you need to advertise the fact, and so Doves are no more attractive to a mugger than a Snapping Turtle.” But if the way a Dove avoids violence is by pretending to be a Snapping Turtle, doesn’t that suggest that Snapping Turtle’s lives are pretty violence free? If being a Dove leads to being subjected to less violence because it signals integrity on the part of the Dove, then wouldn’t Doves *want* to advertise their pacifist stance? Similarly, one thing that prevents people from using violence against each other in a society like ours is the knowledge that even if the person you attack is a pacifist, there are other people (e.g. the police) who will respond with violence on behalf of the pacifist. So again, it is the fact that the Dove lives in a society of Snapping Turtles, rather than one of Doves, that is protecting him.

  2. Cody says:

    Is it true that the doves are the peacemakers?

    Peace is not what they make, it is what they practice.

    Hawks are what they make.

    And it seems like hawkmakers are more likely to inherit hawks than the earth.

    Also, there is no logical reason turtles lose a moderate amount to hawks while doves only lose a little. If the turtle is prepared to defend its utility, and the dove not, the logical progression is that the turtle will intimidate a hawk (and lose no utility) some percentage of the time and lose an equal amount to the dove the rest of the time.

    Assuming that the turtle will lose more in the hawk-mugging does not make sense. In reality, a Christian dove should lose more than a turtle to the hawk, because if the hawk takes his utility, he has scriptural obligation to give also his cloak; turn the other cheek and all that. No?