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Moral Justification for Pacifism: Important Concepts

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Pacifism is a spectrum of views centered around the notion of anti-violence, whether this is absolute pacifism to relative pacifism. This raises a series of moral questions of “what-if” scenarios in which violence may be a last resort, or a deterrent, in other words, in what scenario is violence acceptable or not acceptable. This relates to the Just War theory as the Just War theory seeks to establish the parameters of making war and the parameters of conduct during warfare. This essay seeks to explore the argument of whether pacifism is morally defensible or not, as pacifism covers such a wide spectrum of thought, it must be examined before a conclusion can be drawn.

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To explore pacifism in proper context, the Just War theory must first be discussed and examined. The Just War theory is a tradition of thinking of military ethics to ensure any war waged can be morally justified. The Just War theory is often split into two parts: jus ad bellum or the right to make war, and jus in bello or proper conduct in war. Essentially, the Just War theory postulates that though war is horrible, there are cases in which war is not the worst option, but in fact something that is obligatorily undertaken, whether it is to prevent atrocities, to undertake responsibility, or to prevent undesirable outcomes in the world.

In the Christian world, most traditionally in the Bible, what is taught by Jesus is a philosophy of absolute pacifism. The famous proverb of “turn the other cheek” is an example of such absolute pacifism, in the sense that absolutely no violence had any such justification. In the early days of Christianity, a follower of Christ would never strike out violently in any way. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he faced an issue. Rome was an empire built on war, and for emperors to remain favored by the people, conquest is essential. Therefore, there needed to be a religious justification on the premise of making war. 

Furthermore, the fact is that Christ and his followers were far removed from political strife and “normal” life, and for rulers like Constantine, violence and warfare was just daily business. St. Augustine of Hippo was the first to coin the term “Just War” in The City of God and promoted a more nuanced view of the absolute pacifism preached in the Bible. St. Augustine postulates that though individual citizens should not resort to violence, the sword was given to the government by God and postulates that Christian individuals should not feel ashamed of fighting “to protect peace and punish wickedness” if the government is waging war. He also asserts that even if the government is engaged in immoral warfare, Christians have a divine obligation to follow their political masters, but should also take care to carry themselves as justly as possible in an immoral war. St. Augustine criticizes pacifism in the face of a wrong that could be stopped by violence or in cases of self-defense, especially when sanctioned by a legitimate authority, saying

“They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’” His views could be summed up in his work Questions on the Heptateuch in which he states that for a war to be just, it must be waged in order to create peace and to be punitive and retributive in nature.

Following in St. Augustine’s footsteps, St. Thomas Aquinas came up with three conditions a Just War must have in the Summa Theologica. The first is that a just war must be waged by a legitimate authority such as the state, striking a contrast between a public war, or bellum, or a private, individual conflict, or duellum. The second is that war can only be waged for the right reasons, for a “good and just purpose” or as an exercise of power. So a nation cannot claim a war is just simply because the war is in the nation's interest, but it can exercise its power to restore good that has been denied (e.g. lost territory, lost property, punitive war against evils committed by states, military, or even people). 

Thirdly, a war can only be just if peace is the central motive to the war being waged, in other words, a war must be waged under the right and proper intentions. It is worthy of note that both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas makes the distinction between a just war and a divine war. A just war is a war waged on earthy authority (i.e. the state) and a holy war is a war waged on divine edict (i.e. God.) though historically, holy wars and just wars have been conflated and the lines have been blurred.

Pacifists who follow the doctrine of absolute pacifism or any stricter form of pacifism reject any form of the Just War theory. Returning back to Jesus Christ and his teachings, the teaching of “turn the other cheek” is an endorsement of passive non-resistance, as reprisal can only spark a never ending cycle of violence. Followers of passive non-resistance conclude that one cannot use the methods that one condemns for any purpose, as that would defeat the point. The problem that arises is that essentially it means that those who follow this doctrine become unable to defend themselves through force, no matter what is done to them. It is an extremely tall order to instruct a person to let themselves be robbed or assaulted, when the natural instinct is to fight back or defend oneself. 

Christianity compensates for this by ensuring the suffering of the mortal life is only temporary, and if one is willing to suffer now, an eternal life of bliss is what awaits. For non-religious followers of this concept, they must be extremely confident in the belief that eventually justice will be meted out by the state, while they themselves will still have not compromised their morality. Followers of this concept must also not physically interfere when others are being attacked, they may call the authorities, or verbally interject, but they cannot violently or forcibly physically defend the victim. If one is not religious, or does not have the confidence that justice can be meted out by the legitimate authority, or feel an obligation to violently and forcefully interject while horrible are things being done, the concept of absolute pacifism or passive non-resistance cannot and never will be morally defensible.

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