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.