First of all, although many linkages can be made between pacifism and economics, the environment, spirituality, and so forth, the focus here is primarily pacifism, that is a commitment to peace and opposition to violence and war. Not to say that I don’t want to discuss other aspects, but that they are secondary.
Second, the word “pacifism” is often preceded by other words: Christian pacifism, Buddhist pacifism, absolute pacifism, conditional pacifism, pragmatic pacifism, selective pacifism, active pacifism, socialist pacifism, deontological pacifism, utilitarian pacifism—the list goes on and on. The focus here is just pacifism. Certainly there will be lots of discussion about the different traditions, histories, philosophies, and perspectives of particular forms of pacifism. But there will also be discussion about pacifism in more general terms. I believe that the divisions among pacifists are minor compared to the divisions between pacifists and those who argue for violence. I also believe that pacifists of all stripes would benefit from sharing amongst themselves ideas both theoretical and practical. Pacifism is much maligned and an apparent lack of progress can lead to discouragement. We need to be supportive and encouraging of each other.
Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, it is not possible to talk about pacifism without discussing justice. After all, tyrants and oppressors love peace, as long as it’s on their terms! The Just War tradition argues that under certain conditions war can be justified. The arguments here can be challenging, but they urgently need to be addressed. Attacks on pacifism are a source of confusion, distraction, and—as I believe history both recent and past clearly demonstrates—they provide cover for war mongering. Pacifist concerns for justice go far beyond just war theory to exploring and working to remedy the root causes of violence.
I see pacifism as a direction of thought and action rather than a fixed point, as I have illustrated below:
At the far right-hand side is what some have termed “absolute pacifism”. In its strongest form such a commitment would prohibit violence even in self defense, and perhaps violence against non-human living things. At the other extreme is a total lack of concern about violence. Someone holding this view might oppose a given war, but not because it involves violence. For example such a person might object that this particular war is not cost effective.
I suspect that not many people hold to one of the views at either end of my diagram. Instead, most of us fall somewhere in between. If it were possible to formulate a “pacifism index”, then someone with no concern at all about the use of violence would score a 0%, and an absolute pacifist would score a 100%. I would be interested in where readers would place themselves (or perhaps historical figures) on such a scale. Of course it’s just a thought experiment, but it demonstrates how pacifism is not a fixed point, but a tendency. To the extent that you believe that your society is too ready to use violence, I would say that you have pacifist leanings.
What I find particularly striking however, is that discussions of pacifism so often gravitate towards debating the absolute pacifist position. Although I recognize the philosophical value in considering the boundaries of an issue, I think that one must not ignore the domain where most choices are actually faced. One shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about scaling Mount Everest if one has trouble climbing a couple of flights of stairs. And yet pacifism is routinely dismissed based on this sort of reasoning!
I’d be very interested in hearing from readers about their understanding of pacifism and the connections between pacifism and justice. I’d also be interested if you have any discussion ideas for JustPacifism.