A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Friday, December 08, 2006


“What if everyone did that?” is a simple commonsense question that many people use to tell the difference between right and wrong. The basic idea is expressed in all the great religious traditions as well as in Kant’s categorical imperative. It seems simple enough but it is surprising what people come up with when they try to apply it.

Applying this question to participation in war the answer to me seems obvious. What would happen if everyone refused to participate in war? Well, there would be no more wars and that would be very good. Clearly, that is not how most people see it, since they are convinced that pacifism is actually a bad thing. How can they apply the Golden Rule and come up with a different answer? The thought process goes like this I think. The larger community thinks pacifism is naïve. It is obvious to them that everyone is not going to be a pacifist and so they cannot take the possibility of everyone being a pacifist seriously. Instead they take it to be more realistic to consider what if all Americans were to refuse to use violence in self-defense against bad people. What if every American refused to defend his country? The result of that would be very bad, they think. The difference between my application of the Golden Rule and the average person’s in this case seems to be that I take “everyone” more broadly to mean all human beings and not all Americans. The ordinary person thinks it’s naïve to take “everyone” to literally mean everyone. War, they think, is just a given. The only ethical question they are willing to take seriously is which wars a responsible person will agree to fight.

So I’m convinced that pacifism satisfies the Golden Rule but still I must recognize that I live not only in a small community of fellow pacifists but in a larger community of people who believe some version of just war theory. How can I live simultaneously as a member of two communities which embody conflicting values? I want to be a good citizen of both communities yet I also want have the integrity of a life lived from one set of values.

The opinion that pacifism is unrealistic makes sense. I agree that war is going to be around for the foreseeable future. I also agree that if war is not eliminated then if some societies unilaterally reject the use of force and their adversaries do not then they will become victims of international aggression. Can a pacifist admit all this and still defend pacifism as a reasonable position? I can.

The problem with pacifism is not with the idealistic future in which everyone is a pacifist. That would be fine. The problem is with getting there. But just as it is unrealistic to assume that everyone in the world will embrace pacifism tomorrow, it is also unrealistic to assume that all Americans will do so. No, the majority of Americans will continue to believe in the use of force for self-defense when I wake up tomorrow and for as many tomorrows as I have left. So, realistically, my witness for pacifism will continue to be a minority witness for as long as I can foresee. Is such a witness within a just war community good or bad for the larger community which rejects pacifism? I think it is good for the larger community. It serves as a witness for peace. It serves as the gadfly which stings the lazy conscience of the mass of Americans who take the rationalizations of their leaders all too uncritically. It forces them to at least take their own just war theory a little more seriously and to actually ask the sorts of questions which their own values demand of them: is there a peaceful alternative to this war? Will this war prevent more harm than it creates? The more real pacifists there are in a society the louder these just war questions become when the issue of going to war becomes a live option. As pacifists we are making a real contribution to the larger community even if we do not share their values.


Blogger Dave Carl said...

All well and good, but if we live in a "just war" community, how did we wind up in Iraq?

3:32 PM  
Blogger Heather Madrone said...

I see pacifism as a guiding light. Not so much an absolute as a direction in which to move.

Yes, there are wars now and there will be wars in the near future. Wars, however, don't fix anything. They don't solve problems. They don't resolve conflicts. They just sow seeds of death and destruction.

Pacifism says that there exist peaceful, real solutions to human problems. We can find ways, as a species, to create a world in which war is unthinkable.

We have to start from where we are. We can work to resolve some conflicts peaceably and to point out when peaceful solutions work. We can work to make war less common. We can work to replace war with systems to resolve conflicts that don't involve killing people.

When the war in Afghanistan started, my husband said, "I can understand using war as a last resort. What I can't understand or accept is going to war without considering other options. Maybe war is necessary sometimes, but we'll never know if we don't try something else."

I think that's the heart of pacifism, that belief that there are other options, and, if we look hard enough for them, we'll find them.

Personally, I'd consider a just war doctrine a step in the right direction. Once you start applying morality to warfare, you're on a path that undermines the whole basis of war.

When someone argues that war is necessary, I say, "You might be right. But is this war necessary? Is there some other way to address this problem?"

It might take hundreds of years for us to discover and implement alternatives to war. But step by step, the longest march can be won.

10:43 PM  
Blogger david said...

Kant's system is a deontic ethic. Based upon duty not on consequences. If in a particular set of circumstances, pacifism would expose us to harm, under a deontic ethic, you would still choose pacifism.

So one answer to your question is to move out of the specific circumstances you live in and ask a conceptual question: given a conflict between perceived moral responsibility and prudence -- which do you choose? And why? Then bring the fruits of that enquiry back into the specifics of your situation, both to test you abstract conclusion and to seek new insights into the specifics of your quandry.

Me? I'm a pragmatist mostly. I lean toward prudence, knowing that in most situations there's stuff I dn't know that would make a big difference in how I might otherwise respond.

3:55 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


Because people who believe that only some wars are just didn't take their own principles seriously enough. The Iraq War clearly violated just war doctrine--in my opinion. We did have peaceful alternatives and the likelihood that the war would cause more harm than good was great. If there were more pacifists in America it would have made the just war people pause and think a little more.


Some folks I know scorn just war theory but I'm with you--it's better than the "all's fair" view that there are no ethical constraints on warfare. We need to stick to our ideals and show the world that peace is possible. We should be satisfied to make progress now while keeping the vision of a world without war clearly before our eyes.


You are certainly correct that Kant was not a consequentialist, he wasn't a pacifist either. I try not to get deeply into the philosophy on this blog because it puts most people to sleep. Personally I think Kant's ethics is ultimately incoherent. What makes sense in my opinion is rule utilitarianism. If you are interested in philosophy it doesn't take much to push my buttons and get me to elaborate.

6:48 AM  
Blogger david said...

I'm VERY much a pragamatist. Moreover I think everyone else is too -- even when they don't know it.

Reality is, in a given situation I go with my gut (which is usually force of habit -- though occasionally I surprise myself and follow a Higher Power). Bottom line is Kantian or Rule Utilitarianism, are heuristics not coherent systems -- guides we can use or not.

Commitment to the Rule/System to the exception of all else is utimately violent.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Bowen said...

Your reply to dave doesn't go far enough. Just war theory hold that a duly constituted magistrate can/must wield the sword to defend the weak. The problem with even considering the Iraq war as a candidate is that sinse 1945 the only duly constituted magistate is the United Nations Security Council. This is what the U. N. Charter means!

We are at one of those rare points when geopolitics and prophecy come into conjunction. Ending war is on the agenda for the Twenty-first Centuary.

If you think war will be with us for the forseeable future, you arn't looking far enough.

6:13 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


There's no doubt you are somewhat more optimistic than I am. When early Friends like Woolman began carrying their leading against slavery in a generation they were able to convince the rest of the Society of Friends. But it took quite a bit longer to convince the rest of society that slavery was wrong. I think our testimony against war needs to be held onto and I don't see the rest of the world going along with us for at least another century.

I agree that international agencies will eventually be able to replace nations. But this will also, I think, plot a zigzag course through history. Remember that the national representatives speaking and voting at the UN are selected by their governments which very imperfectly represent their people. How well does John Bolton represent America? The problem is even worse for governments that rule without any elections at all. I am hopeful of a world that comes to resemble the peaceable kingdom but I don't expect to see it in my lifetime.


The classic American pragmatists--Peirce, James and Dewey held rather different views from each other. Many philosophers equate pragmatism with a view of language that denies or radically reinterprets the concept of truth. I see myself as a sort of pragmatist (though I'm conservative about the nature of truth itself).

More of my views about ethics are sketched in the post on the Legal, the Ethical and the Moral. For ethics I think it best for communities to rely on rules and for these rules to be subject to what you might want to call a pragmatic test. Does the rule actually help the people in the community to live together in harmony? However, when it comes to morality--something higher than community standards--I think we have to transcend rules.

6:17 AM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

I guess I struggle with just how the early Christians and early Friends viewed pacifism. Were they pacifists because this idea was rooted in their faith? I think so.

Did they expect the everyone in their country, thier world to become pacifists? I don't think so.

I could be wrong here, but I believe the early Friends were pacifists because they saw themselves as members of a different Kingdom, one apart from the world's powers. Perhaps they were the first anarchists :-).

It is important that we witness for pacifism, but more importantly we must be able to ground our convictions in our faith. For me, that faith is drawn from the teachings of Jesus. It was quite clear that Jesus did not condone violence (with the exception of turning over the tables in the temple...hey, we all screw up from time to time).

Peace, simplicity, equality and integrity, the Quaker testimonies, were products of a different life...the life of one who has committed to a return to primitive Christianity.

Perhaps the hardest thing is not witnessing for pacifism (although I am well aware of "let our lives speak"), but being able to explain that our view of violence and peace is grounded in our faith. Pacifism is a product of our faith it is not the faith itself.


6:38 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

"Turning over the tables in the Temple" was probably not "violent." The way it looks from what I've learned so far is that Jesus went into the Temple at the Feast of Tabernacles (when the king was required to show up and read a certain passage from the Torah) with a large and orderly crowd of followers, and took charge of the area in a manner that discouraged the recognized authorities from massacring the lot, at least not until further investigation. John's notion of him personally grabbing a whip to chase out the animals doesn't fit, sounds like emerging legendary detail, sorry.

Why he sent the money changers away--stopping the ongoing normal business of the Temple--is less clear.

I can't point to any result from standing in the (sometimes) cold every week with a group carrying peace signs. Person's gotta do what a person's gotta do. Yes, the week after the 9-11 thing struck me as a bad time to try to reach another in that self-righteous state of panic, but I know someone who went right ahead and--without noticeable result--brought peace signs to the local They're-so-bad-and-we're-so-good rally, where people's responses were often in fact friendly.

War is not just the visible bombs and maimings. There's a spirit at work, even during our periods of "peace", which is fundamentally violent; William Stringfellow called it the worship of "death." War is the most spectacular manifestation. But there's another spirit having a different influence, so that when the country is most visibly aimed towards mass violence, there is not only widespread public support, but also widespread revulsion and sorrow.

So the purpose of witness is not anyone's expectation that we by our own power will bring the war(s) to a speedy end, but to facilitate the efforts of Christ, that other spirit, towards ripening us all. The darkness is still very dark and persistent in all of us, but the light will have its own word to say.

There may be much suffering still to come before we're ripe enough to reject the view that we "have" a "self" that we can and should "defend" by hurting other people. But that is an element of our ultimate direction.

8:02 AM  
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9:11 AM  
Anonymous Bill Samuel said...

Yes, Craig, the origin is in being in a different kingdom. Fox, "I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were.” This meant it was not possible for him to be part of an army.

Our peace testimony at its strongest does not come from an analysis of what is better. It comes from being transformed so that we live in a different reality than the world thinks it is in.

And the world's reality is a dismal place of continual warfare. It is not very practical. It is a vicious cycle leading to further wars. In the meantime, it results in starvation, separation of families, destruction of infrastructure, environmental disaster, and so many other things in addition to the loss of life and the injuries. But people remain locked into the idea that wars are necessary.

6:54 PM  

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