06 May 2011

On Pacifism (part II of III)

Pacifism 3 Comments

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

In my last article I shared my thoughts on pacifism.  Judging by the response I received—one longtime reader told me it was the worst article he had ever seen by me—I thought a second essay was in order.

First of all, my main point was not to lecture everyone on the sins of violent behavior.  I realize I may have come off like that, but it was truly not my intent.  Rather, all I was trying to show was that the ostensible “noble but naïve” doctrine of pacifism was not so impractical, after all.  I argued that pacifism, the refusal to engage in violence for any reason, was an effective approach to social affairs.  Although many actual pacifists adopt their stance for religious reasons, this was certainly not the argument I was making.

Second, I was not using a game theoretic model—in which I viewed people as agents choosing whether to be Hawks, Doves, or Snapping Turtles—in order to “prove” the case for pacifism.  On the contrary, I was showing the limitations of such an analysis.  A typical objection to pacifism is that it could not serve as a universal code of conduct; if everyone were a pacifist, so the thinking goes, then a few strong individuals would easily exploit such a population of Doves.  Thus it is only “natural” for Hawks and Snapping Turtles to evolve, until the point when an equilibrium is reached, and individuals on the margin are indifferent between a life of violence or a life of pacifism.

Again, I objected to this game theoretic treatment, on the grounds that one of its conclusions is empirically falsified.  I argued that the Doves of this world earn much greater lifetime “payoffs” than Hawks or even Snapping Turtles.  For normal people, this is evident in the greater life expectancy of people who lead peaceful lives, and eschew all conflict.  For extraordinary people, this advantage is demonstrated by the superior influence of pacifists such as Jesus and Gandhi versus aggressors such as Hitler and Stalin.  Because of this empirical evidence, I argued, the standard game theoretic analysis—and hence refutation—of pacifism was thrown into doubt.

*  *  *

Now for some more interesting objections:  One guy told me I was a hypocrite, because everyday my immune system engages in “warfare” with deadly microbes.  Just as I repel micro invaders with “violence,” he claimed, it is only natural to treat macro invaders (i.e. aggressive humans) the same way.  Well, all I can say is that by pacifism I mean the refusal to engage in violence against fellow human beings.  If you want to come up with a more specific term (that explicitly allows “violence” against parasites and, I suppose, allows violence against farm animals) be my guest.

A related objection was that a society of Doves is clearly unnatural, since we do not see this in the animal kingdom.  In other words, if I’m right, how come there are still predators and prey?  I think this objection takes the terms Hawk and Dove too literally.  There is a qualitative difference in the cognitive and communication abilities among human beings versus other animals, which makes the strategy of pacifism far more effective for homo sapiens.  After all, a communist could just as well argue that money is clearly “unnatural,” since other animals manage to feed their young without its use.

Another popular criticism of my last article was that the examples of Jesus and Gandhi were far from typical.  (No kidding.)  My critics claimed that Gandhi and Martin Luther King were only able to achieve their political objectives with nonviolent civil disobedience because they lived in democratic societies. [Correction: The critic meant that Gandhi was appealing to the conscience of democratic Brits.]  Had such people lived under Stalin, their weak defiance would have met with instant death, and no one today would know their names.

This may be perfectly true, but so what?  All the critics have shown is that pacifist activists will sometimes meet with failure. The critics did not show that violent resistance would have been more prudent in the Soviet Union.  Indeed, the absolute worst thing to do in a repressive regime is take up arms against the government, unless one is assured of military victory.  No, the prudent thing to do is to follow the example of Ludwig von Mises when he was threatened by the Nazis: run like a gazelle.  (Mises and his wife fled Europe and immigrated to the United States, where he led a productive career advancing the cause of liberty.)

I find this alleged counterexample of the Soviet Union to actually strengthen my case.  How was the Evil Empire actually brought down?  Was it through violent insurrection?  Or was it through a gradual (and peaceful) erosion of the ideological support for the communist regime?  Opinions will differ, and no doubt many angry readers will email me and claim, e.g., that without a hawkish U.S. foreign policy, the Soviets would have taken over the world.  Even so, in the end it was not Air Force bombers, but the Russian people who had finally had enough, that spelled the end of the U.S.S.R.

The best objection I received concerned the truly nightmarish scenarios when (defensive) violence seems to be absolutely necessary.  To be blunt, many people wanted to know if I were advocating pacifism in the face of someone raping a daughter or beating a child.

Of course one shies away from even thinking of such cases, but they are an unfortunate fact of life.  But let’s be logical about it:  Most rapists (or child abusers or kidnappers) do not perform their dastardly deeds in front of the victims’ parents, or anyone else for that matter.  And those that do—for example soldiers in Bosnia or other areas suffering civil war—are heavily armed, and the parents can’t do anything about it, anyway.

Whether or not you as a parent own a gun and are prepared to kill to defend your family, the very best thing (it seems to me) you can do to protect your children is to teach them to use their head in order to avoid such situations in the first place.  Instructing children to avoid strangers, stay in groups, learn to identify suspicious behavior, etc. is far more important than keeping a gun in the house, for the simple fact that all of the awful scenarios described above will probably not happen in the household, but out in public.

But what about the home intruder?  Isn’t a gun necessary to repel him?  No, not necessary.  Pacifist families can move to rural areas where crime is nonexistent.  If that is impractical, they can have alarm systems, watchdogs, and “panic rooms” installed.  Plenty of households currently manage to get along without guns.

(To forestall any hostile emailers:  Please, for those of you who own gun(s) and feel very strongly about it, I am not saying you are immoral or endangering your family.  I am merely pointing out that the pacifist lifestyle doesn’t leave one nearly as vulnerable as it first appears.)

*  *  *

The above reasoning may strike some readers as a bit odd.  Yes, they may say, pacifists can get along in the modern world.  But that’s only because people are rarely called upon to use defensive violence.  And in those rare cases—such as being stuck on an airplane with hijackers, or on a train with a crazed gunman—it is certainly better to be armed and willing to kill.  After all, the Snapping Turtle acts like a Dove most of the time, except when he needs to use violence to defend himself.

I believe that this argument leaves something out: the corrupting effects of violence.  Even before I had adopted my current stance, I decided I would never carry a gun on me.  I have lived in some fairly sketchy neighborhoods in my day, but nonetheless decided that it would be safer for me to remain unarmed.

Why?  Because I knew that carrying a gun would give me a heightened sense of security and confidence.  There have been days when I, in a particularly pissy mood, have walked around dangerous areas almost hoping someone would mess with me, so I could (with justification) fight the guy.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There’s no way I would ever have shot someone who wasn’t immediately threatening my life.  But the point is, having a gun would have made me more likely to encounter such situations in the first place.  When I lived in Crown Heights, for example, the young punks there would often swear at me, spit in my general direction, and even (on one occasion) threaten to shoot me.  At the time, I simply ignored the affronts, or otherwise defused the situation as quickly as possible.  But if I’d had a gun, I may have “stood up for myself,” and ended up shooting somebody.

Now here’s the point:  It’s not so much that I would have felt bad for killing somebody; like I said, I wouldn’t shoot anybody unless he were threatening my life first.  But nonetheless, I would have had to move immediately.  For the rest of my life, I would have worried that the deceased’s family or friends might hunt me down.  And of course, no matter how “justified” the shooting may have been, I probably wouldn’t go a day without second guessing my actions.

So for these reasons, I decided I would never carry a gun.  Now I’ve come to realize that this reasoning holds for the use of violence in general.  Simply put, if you promise yourself that you will never, under any circumstances, cause injury to another human being, then that stance forces you to reevaluate your lifestyle.  You choose which routes you walk home more carefully, you choose not to go to certain neighborhoods, you don’t go to a poker party if you know your buddy cheats people, etc.  And, I would venture, in the long run it’s just possible that taking away the option of violence makes you safer.

(For the skeptics out there:  You needn’t adopt full-blown pacifism to see my point.  Perhaps a simpler step would be to promise oneself never to kill another person, or never to use violence unless one’s life were in immediate danger.  Thus, shooting a thief as he runs away would be unacceptable.)

We see that pacifism is not nearly as crippling as the critics would have us believe.  In fact, precisely because it is so underrated, its practitioners enjoy a tremendous advantageous when they interact with “normal” people.  This is why Gandhi and others like him wielded such tremendous moral authority.

*  *  *

The above has demonstrated that pacifism can work on an individual level.  That is, I have argued that someone who immediately switched from Snapping Turtle to Dove in the game of life would do much better for himself.

But doesn’t this philosophy lack integrity?  After all, the only reason pacifists currently avoid domination is their protection from others who are willing to use violence.  Without police and armies, the argument goes, pacifists living in prosperous regions would soon realize the weakness of their approach.

I believe this argument is incorrect.  As I explained in my previous article, surely pacifism can only become more practical as greater numbers adopt it.  That is, as more and more people became Doves, the world would become a less violent place.  It would seem less and less foolish to become a Dove and (supposedly) leave oneself at the mercy of Hawks, because fewer Hawks would be around.  As more and more individuals unilaterally “disarmed,” the cycle of violence (a trite but accurate expression) would be reversed, and pacifism would no longer seem to be “for suckers” as it is now.  Every succeeding generation would see less and less violence first hand, and thus would be less likely to find it normal and “acceptable.”

“But what if everyone became a pacifist??” the critic demands.  I respond that that would be wonderful!  In such a world, there would be no governments at all (since government relies on an initiation of force to collect taxes).  There would be no need for armies or weapons.  Such a world would enjoy prosperity and tranquility that almost defies modern comprehension.

But why wouldn’t new Hawks emerge in such a world, to dominate the weak and establish a new government?  Simple: a group of Hawks would be unable to do this.   Without the ideological support for government given voluntarily by the masses, no government is sustainable.

And what of common thieves?  Well, there are plenty of “defensive” measures that people can take, short of violence.  Houses could still be locked, banks would still have safes, and police (unarmed, of course) could still track criminals.  An extensive rating system could be developed, to notify areas when violent people entered their midst.  Economic sanctions and other nonviolent responses could be used to punish violent offenders and thus deter their behavior.

*  *  *

I hope the above has demonstrated that, contrary to popular belief, pacifism is a practical lifestyle, and only becomes more so as more and more people embrace it.  It is true, a world of pacifists would occasionally endure theft, rape, and murder at the hands of evil and sadistic individuals.  But this happens in the present world, too.  I am not claiming a pacifist world would be perfect, merely that it would be better than the current one.

Finally, let me reiterate that I am not claiming any flaws in the standard libertarian position, which claims that defensive force is justified.  All I have shown is that a rival philosophy—that of pacifism—is internally consistent and also pragmatic.  (In a sense, pacifism is like vegetarianism:  You may think it a sissy lifestyle choice that’s not for you, but you can’t prove that those who adopt it—whether for moral or simply health reasons—are in any way making a “mistake.”)

The power of violence is greatly overrated.  Pacifism works.

3 Responses to “On Pacifism (part II of III)”

  1. Blackadder says:


    While I think there is truth in a lot of what you say in this article, I think the basic thrust of it serves to undercut what you were arguing in Part I. Most of the article consists of explaining ways in which you can minimize the disadvantage of being a pacifist. That, however, presumes that being a pacifist is a disadvantage, whereas your previous article argued that it was (contrary to appearances) actually an advantage. Sure, a person can minimize his risk of being attacked by having “alarm systems, watchdogs, and “panic rooms” installed,” or by “mov[ing to rural areas where crime is nonexistent,” or by “[i]nstructing children to avoid strangers, stay in groups, learn to identify suspicious behavior, etc.” But of course Snapping Turtles can (and do) all of these things to. The only reason such tactics would be particularly appealing to the pacifist is if they need to compensate for the dangers involved in rejecting violence in all cases.

    As for your gun example, it is of course possible that having a gun might make a person more cocky, and thus more likely to get into a dangerous situation. Likewise, I’m sure that wearing a seat belt might lead you to drive more recklessly and increase the odds of you getting in an accident. If you don’t wear a seat belt, you could end up safer (for that matter, if you replaced your car’s airbag with a giant spike that would impale you in a crash this would probably make you a very careful driver who is much less likely to get into an accident). Then again, maybe not. Lots of people make the calculation and conclude that they would be safer with a gun, and lots of people make the calculation that they would be safer without. I see no reason to think that it is always one or the other.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Blackadder I just don’t have the energy to argue this stuff again. I went through all of it back when the articles first ran. I’m not saying your objections are bad, just that I can’t get hip-deep into this right now.

      On a personal level, the difference between being a pacifist and Snapping Turtle might not come up often, it’s true. But I think a lot of people were moved by the Amish story I linked to in the “Is Coercion Inevitable?” post. People really do give off different “signals” if you will, if they live as a pacifist versus a “don’t tread on me” lifestyle.

      But more important, institutionally the snapping turtle strategy I think is definitely inferior. I think a society that eschewed prisons in favor of “voluntary” restitution penalties for criminals–which were only “enforced” by ostracism etc.–would have much lower crime, especially after a few generations, than even a society that had prisons for Rothbardian type crimes.

  2. Anon says:

    “…as more and more people became Doves, the world would become a less violent place.”

    That would only follow if HAWKS became doves. If snapping turtles became doves, the cost of aggression would decrease and the incidence of aggression would increase.

    Or is your point that there would be more aggression but less violence because doves don’t resist?