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Reply to Bob Murphy on Pacifism

In a series of articles Bob Murphy defends the doctrine of pacifism against his various critics (See his "Blessed Are the Peacemakers," "Pacifism Works," and "Pacifism Makes Sense," no longer online.) Murphy defines pacifism as "nonviolence," and, because he believes that the state ought to be held to the same moral standards as individuals, as "opposition to war." He further states that his version of pacifism does not mandate "passivism," i.e., that it allows one to take precautions against aggression, hide, run away, etc. It appears that Murphy's goal is to show that 1) a society of pacifists is not unstable, and 2) it is in the interest of each person to become a pacifist.

In support of these views Murphy's offers a number of curious arguments. To use his own terms, it seems that the Doves, having become more cooperative by adopting the pacifist lifestyle, are now in the position to benefit from other people's greater eagerness to associate with them. They also experience less stress and possess a good deal of moral authority. To counter these claims I note the following:

  1. First, some people may actually prefer the life of violence. Their decisions could certainly prove foolish in some ultimate sense, but does Murphy really believe that an average gangster or rapist could be persuaded to change his ways by the argument that his life expectancy might be greater if he were a peaceful citizen? Further, it is no doubt true that "Jesus and Gandhi will have a far greater impact on humanity than Hitler or Stalin" if by impact he means "ideological influence," but so what? Is Murphy arguing that Stalin wanted to impact humanity in this way but failed because he did not know how? This is rather hard to believe.

  2. Second, when the emperor throws one to the lions for refusing to be drafted, one tends to reevaluate the efficacy of pacifism as a means of raising his standard of living. If the Hawks, faced with mass but uncoordinated disobedience, decide to burn everyone in one village as a warning to others, the victims, too, will experience doubts as to the correctness of pacifism. It seems that a commitment to nonviolence sometimes requires heroic self-sacrifice.

  3. Third, most people, when wronged, do not resist with direct violence but instead go to court. But as Tertullian wrote,

    Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?

    Is Murphy willing to argue that "in purely 'material' terms" one would be better off if one never even defends oneself in court? Does his definition of pacifism permit legal battles in which one enlists the state to inflict violence on his behalf, and if so, why? Obviously, in this situation running away may not be the best option, especially if one has a family to take care of or if the court's decision may cause one to lose one's business or house.

  4. Finally, if a Dove does not advertise his gentle nature for fear of muggers learning of his defenselessness, does this also not make it so much more difficult for him to advertise his integrity? It is also doubtful that avoiding stress is best facilitated by adhering to an ideology that leaves one to rely to such an extent on the kindness of strangers. Could one perhaps achieve an even greater life expectancy by becoming a wise Snapping Turtle?

Murphy's reference to the "corrupting effects of violence" is even less successful. Is it possible, he seems to ask, to hate the sin, love the sinner but also intentionally harm sinners as the state or private security guards do on a regular basis? The answer is yes, and it is precisely the challenge to retain love in the fallen world, as it is a challenge to understand the world that is so complex and in which liars go unpunished. Has Murphy also considered what the psychological effects on one of failing to restrain the criminal or to defend one's own life would be? Will one not hate oneself for allowing evil to triumph?

It seems therefore that Murphy's pacifism testifies only to the excessive fragility of his spirit. In fact, one standard argument of the Second Amendment advocates is that anti-private-gun-ownership liberals do not trust themselves. But is Murphy really willing to sit under a tree feeling compassion for all living creatures when those living creatures are in danger? Also, as pro-gun activists never tire of pointing out, very often it is the mere brandishing of a weapon that causes the criminal to run away. Perhaps Murphy will interject that intimidation and bluffing up to and including firing a gun with an intention to miss, even if one is committed to never shooting to harm, is still nonviolence. But how effective would they be once it becomes common knowledge that one is a Dove?

In short, concern for one's purity of conscience is a bad argument in favor of pacifism. Besides, other people are less vulnerable to the negative effects of violence than Murphy is and are therefore more qualified to do police work, whether armed or unarmed. Consider, for example, the case of a bouncer who works at a bar. If he sees a drunk who is looking to pick a fight, is it not entirely proper for the bouncer to kick him out, rudely, if necessary? Or must he allow the drunk to kill someone inside? Michael Levin chided left-liberals for being too clever for their own good; must Murphy, too, deny what is perfectly obvious?

Furthermore, it is unclear how our bouncer, the various security guards, the corporate security departments, the city cops, etc. will benefit from becoming Doves. Well, Murphy writes, at least they can start using nonviolent means of dealing with the bad guys. First, this benefits those bad guys, not them. Second, this advice only strips pacifism of all meaning. Is punching a man to subdue him and using the "nonviolent" means that Murphy recommends to put him in a holding cell really so different? I am sure that the man will disagree that being imprisoned is not an act of violence on the part of the police. If by nonviolent Murphy means "just," then some violence is just. If he means "non-physical," then this makes any kind of guarding impossible.

Now violence and justice are separate variables.

Thus, some nonviolent actions, such as cat burglary or pilfering office supplies at work, are unjust. Suppose further that lots of people in a certain still-capitalist society are communists who do not believe in private property. Whatever their eyes see and covet, they let their hands grasp it. So, they just "peacefully" and nonviolently help themselves to other people's stuff as they flutter about, blithely taking what they please with no one to stop them. Society falls apart concomitantly, countering Murphy's point that a fully pacifist commonwealth is always stable. Nonviolence is no guarantee of justice.

Nor vice versa. Murphy's pacifism seems to come down to the injunction: "In defending oneself against an unjustly aggressive attack by another man, do not harm the attacker." (A pacifist is still allowed to save himself by any nonviolent means. He could persuade or convert the aggressor, for example.) Now harming the attacker in self-defense is just according to law, both natural and positive. The pacifist then takes upon himself an extra supererogatory duty, i.e., not to harm another human being even when doing so is at least morally permissible. But there are numerous other times in life when just harm must be inflicted by one person on another. Thus, the builder of a better mousetrap puts the producer of old inferior mousetraps out of business, thereby harming him. We praise him for this feat, because his actions are utilitarian, promote general welfare, etc. The Earth obstructs Marvin the Martian's view of Venus, but we Earthlings don't care, because it is not unjust for us to displease Marvin in this manner. Where in terms of not inflicting just harms does the pacifist draw the line and why?

Again, it is just both to kick a mugger in self-defense and to run away. The first features an instance of "physical" harm. Both also produce "non-physical" harm to the mugger, namely, the ruination of his plans to spend your money. If Murphy argues that pacifism proscribes only just physical harm, then he may be able to escape. But how solid is this hair-splitting in this case? It is indeed important to distinguish between physical vs. non-physical invasive acts for libertarianism. It seems like a distinction without a difference for pacifism.

In other words, call an action "z-permitted" or similar if it is permitted by the ideology or moral system z, even if it may be forbidden by other ideologies. Then libertarianism proclaims that some physical harm is unjust and l-forbidden; some physical harm is just and l-permitted; and no non-physical harm is l-forbidden. We justify this attitude by saying that once a person has satisfied his duties to fellow men of non-aggression, he is left alone by the state to pursue his happiness in life as he sees fit. The government cannot arrest and imprison him for causing any non-physical harm. Pacifism proposes instead: all physical harm is p-forbidden; no non-physical harm is p-forbidden. But why is that? I don't know, and it seem that pacifism is convicted of an inconsistency.

Murphy admits that if it were his brother who was being assaulted, then he would help him. But are not all men brothers? It seems that his decision to get involved depends on the intensity of his emotional attachment, i.e., on how the harm done to another human being affects him personally. If it is his close relative, then he will help; if it is, say, his uncle's third cousin, then he might help; and if it is a stranger, then he will observe his being murdered with scientific detachment. But it is difficult to see what pacifism has to do with any of this.

Even a society full of Doves would not be stable. The reason for this is not that some people would "rationally" choose to be Hawks. On the contrary, moral evil is oftentimes due to ignorance or "irrationality." Thieves become thieves not out of self-interest but out of failing to understand their self-interest. There are people whose minds and spirits are too dull, who neither understand nor sense the multiplicity of the unifying forces that bind all men, such that by harming others unjustly they harm themselves. One of the reasons why we must have the police is so that such people are restrained. The precise methods by which the cops apprehend criminals are immaterial (of course, they should try to avoid shooting people!).

Finally, Murphy asserts rhetorically that "God Himself allows evil things to happen." But is that not so only in order to give us a chance not to?

To sum it up: Murphy's "materialist" arguments in defense of the practicality of pacifism are unconvincing. This is not to suggest that pacifism might not be right for other, e.g., religious, reasons (although faith and reason ought not to conflict); merely that Murphy has not succeeded at his task.


Another way to justify pacifism seems to be that moral evil is amenable to improvement only by truthful persuasion. But moral sins have both internal and external consequences, and the latter are instances of physical evil which can be dealt with by appropriate social institutions. I would, however, certainly agree with Murphy on the duty to oppose war, for a just war is such a rare occurrence that both pacifists and non-pacifists can easily work together.

In theory, a war can be just. One can, for example, defend against a barbarian invasion. It is only now, when the word "invasion" is close to becoming an anachronism and when social cooperation and trade are about to make the world one that all war is finally obsolete and evil. (Primitive, i.e., pagan and pre-capitalist, warfare was at least as brutal and violent as "civilized" warfare.)

The sole cause of modern wars is the state, or more precisely, the power that the citizens have permitted certain men to acquire over them and to use to harm their rightly understood interests. (I cannot in good conscience suggest that it is in someone's "true" interest to be entertained by a 24-hour CNN broadcast of some "Nintendo war".)

But from the understanding that we must set up incentives such that the market can never be disrupted by would-be dictators it does not follow that unconditional pacifism in all situations is true, nor that it is cost-free.

September 22, 2002

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