Pacifism and Nonviolence as a Form of Human Collective Life

  June 21, 2021   Read time 3 min
Pacifism and Nonviolence as a Form of Human Collective Life
Peace and hope can be discussed either as human ideals or as a practical form of life the universalization of which would lead to a fairer and more just world. True pacifists are those who believe in the possibility of the setting up of a peace grounded nonviolent form of life.

Pacifism is a complex topic comprising a variety of arguments, commitments, and applications. Nonviolence is a closely related and similarly complex idea. Pacifism is typically used in a narrow sense to mean opposition to war, while nonviolence typically describes a method and means, and in some cases a virtue or even a way of life. Many of the greatest proponents of pacifism and nonviolence have been religious: Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. But opposition to war can also be grounded in nonreligious moral argument. Significant secular pacifists and critics of war include William James, Jane Addams, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein.

Pacifism often begins with a basic presumption against war. Robert Holmes—an author whose work is included in the present volume—states, “There is a moral presumption against war, and unless that presumption is defeated, war is wrong”. Such a claim runs counter to those who would defend war and who see defensive violence as justifiable. Jan Narveson—another author whose work is included here—has argued that when pacifism is understood as complete rejection of war and violence, it is self-refuting, self-defeating, and potentially self-contradictory. Other critics (see Orosco in the present volume) have worried that pacifism allows injustice to proceed. Defenders of nonviolence and pacifists have responded by qualifying, justifying, and explaining the critique of war and the war-system—and by demonstrating the power of nonviolent social protest. Diverse forms of pacifism have emerged in the literature: personal pacifism, contingent pacifism, just war pacifism, and so on.

One important question in all of this is how deep a commitment to nonviolence ought to go. Some argue that it should extend all the way down to animals and ecosystems. We might also wonder how nonviolence connects to moral education, child-rearing, theories of punishment, and issues related to gender and sexuality. Pacifist insight and critiques of violence also connect to political issues such as theories of liberal democracy and historical progress, human rights concerns, worries about atrocities and genocide, and critiques of warism and the military-industrial complex. At the same time, nonviolence can be understood in connection with religious traditions, spiritual practices, and virtue ethics.

There is a rich and well-established tradition that builds upon the work of Gandhi and King in order to advocate for the use of nonviolence as a strategy of political activism. This approach is not passive or inactive (and pacifism is often unfortunately conflated with a kind of passivity). It is also possible to imagine a way of life that is based in nonviolence—and in the affirmation of values that are positive and life-affirming. Thus we can recognize nonviolence as a broader concept that is connected to ideas about human flourishing and the good life. Nonviolence has often been understood in relation to a larger account of the moral life. As Martin Luther King explained, “Nonviolence in its truest sense is not a strategy that one uses simply because it is expedient at the moment; nonviolence is ultimately a way of life that men live by because of the sheer morality of its claim”.

Nonviolence is a negative term: it rejects or condemns violence. Pacifism appears to be more affirmative: it espouses peace or peacemaking. The term comes from the Latin pacificus—or as employed in the Bible’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9), pacifici—which means to make, build, or create peace (pax- means peace; -facio means to make). The Gospel text says “beati pacifici”—blessed are the peacemakers. Despite this heritage, we still need further explanation about what counts as peace, what counts as war, and what counts as violence or nonviolence. Once we understand the concepts in question, it remains to be seen whether there are good arguments to be offered in support of these ideas and commitments—from the standpoint of moral theory, religion, culture, and so on. It is easy to see that pacifism and nonviolence demand careful thought and critical reflection.

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