Wise Pacifism

I am pacifist. I have met many pseudo-pacifists out there and I wish to provide you a basic understanding of pacifism because people operate too much from stereotypes formulated by observing the pseudo-pacifists in action.

Pacifism does not mean nonviolence. Violence is simply rapid or drastic action, often with some potential for destruction. Boxing is violent. Hockey is violent. Ripping a poster off one's own wall is violent. Deciding your computer has crashed on you for the last and smashing it to bits with a sledgehammer is violent. Pacifism does not require one to swear off violence. This is a crucial point.

Pacifism is not passivism. Pacifism seeks to pacify. Both pacifism and pacify come from the latin word pacificare meaning "to make peace". Pacifism is simply the philosophy of peacemaking. Peacemaking requires activity not passivity.

I want to be clear on language because people get easily confused when speaking of war and peace. I was not always pacifist. Prior to pacifism, I adhered to militant surivalism. As far back as second grade, I viewed the world including my day-to-day interpersonal interactions through the lens of a mind at war. I had a short temper as a youth, but I was much smaller than other people my age. So I had to learn strategy and tactics to gain the upper hand.

By junior high, I found Sun-Tzu's Art of War and studied intently for some time. I did not realize it first, but this work set me on the path to pacifism.

The general rule for military is that keeping a nation intact is best, while destroying a nation is next; keeping a militia intact is best, destroying a militia is next. Keeping a battalion intact is best, destroying a battalion is next. Keeping a company intact is best, destroying a company is next. Keeping a squad intact is best, destroying a squad is next. Therefore one hundred percent victory in battle is not the finest skill; foiling others' military operations without even fighting is the finest skill.

First paragraph of third chapter "Planning Attack" of The Art of War by Sun Tzu

What I learned from The Art of War and from my study of history is that wars do not originate out of declarations. I could go out on the street corner and say "I declare war on Andorra." That would not mean that a dynamic of war existed. War is the absence of justice. For the past twelve years, we have been involved in war in Iraq.

Peace is the harmony present when justice functions properly. Pacifists seek to end wars and establish such dynamics as to secure the justice which ultimately leads to that harmony generally recognized as peace.

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It has to be asked: as a

It has to be asked: as a pacifist, what do you do when confronted by someone who intends to make war on you and will not be persuaded otherwise?

"...but I was much smaller

"...but I was much smaller than other people my size."

I imagine you were closer to their size than you remember.

Charles, if they aggress

Charles, if they aggress first then it's simply self-defense.

Andy, LOL.

Pacifism, as it is generally

Pacifism, as it is generally understood, entails the rejection of all coercive action, including self-defense. Is this what you mean by pacifism?

Incidentally, here is a good intro to the subject.

Words tend to mean what

Words tend to mean what people think they mean.

George W. Bush sold the war

George W. Bush sold the war in Iraq as self-defense and ordered a pre-emptive strike. Is that pacifism? For argument's sake let's ignore that WMD haven't been found. I'm just wondering how a pacifist views a pre-emptive strike?

I agree we've been at war with Iraq for the last 12 years. Is Operation Iraqi Freedom simply a way for George W. Bush to seek an end to the war?

Is W a pacifist?

Spoonie You are using


You are using "preemptive strike" to imply the intiation of force. By that definition it is not a "preemptive strike" if you are already at war. It's an escalation. Pre-emptive in this context implies that state of war did not previously exist and the other side had not previously attacked.

Charles, That is a great


That is a great question. It gets to the heart of what pacifism means. Of course the answer will vary somewhat from pacifist to pacifist, but I can give you a direct example from my own life.

I have been selling hot dogs as a street vendor since around 1998-99. About two years ago as I was walking home around four in the morning, I encountered some young teenagers one of whom seemed convinced that my tip jar should belong to him.

In this situation, most people would take one of two courses of action:

1) Physically attack the young criminal. Who knows that might be adequate to deter the young punk. Even if it didn't, one could at least tell oneself that they didn't go down without a fight.

2) Hand over the tip jar. No amount of money is worth putting one's life in jeopardy. Hey, that kid possibly needs it more than you and you can always file a report with the cops later. That'll sure solve everything.

As you may guess, I chose neither of the above. (It is important to note before I go on that most people in this country are actually advised to follow the second course of action.) Neither of the above choices can be considered pacifist.

Here's what I did:

I gripped my tip jar tighter and attempted to continue walking past. I then got smacked down and briefly lost grip of my tip jar. I immediately focused on grabbing my tip jar again and keeping as much of my funds as possible from being accessible by my adversary. All the while, I was being fairly ruthlessly beaten to the point that it disturbed the belligerent's friends. They then restrained their friend. I collected what tips had escaped my protection. The friends of the belligerent gave me out of their own pockets an amount equal to what they thought their friend had gotten from me.

When I got home and counted my tips, I discovered that I now possessed more money in my tip jar than I had had before the attempted mugging. (In fact, I would have no negative feelings about the event if not for my treatment by cops in regards to this event. They tried to say the whole altercation was my fault for making myself an "easy target" but that's another story for another time.)

A comparable historical example is the Indian Indepence Movement of the mid-twentieth century headed by Ghandi. The conducted themselves pacifisticly on the battlefield. The Indians assembled together and approached the British troops. There were several lines of Indians. The British warned them that if the Indians remained standing there they would be fired upon. They stood their ground. The British officers ordered their soldiers to fire. The soldiers fired. The frontline of Indians fell down dead. The line behind them stepped up into the places their dead compatriots had previously stood. That line was then ordered shot and it was shot. This sequence of events was repeated multiple times until the soldiers could no longer stomach firing upon these unarmed Indians. It was thru such methods as these that the subcontinent of India achieved it's independence.

I know no real pacifists who do not believe Man has a fundamental right to defend himself. We are extremely cautious about how we exercise that right. Most people are simply cautious about whether they exercise that right. It's important to emphasize that any so-called pacifism that is inapplicable in a war dynamic is unworthy of the term.

Thanks for the question, Charles. In any discussion of pacifism, it is important that someone brings it up if it is unclear.

Mr. Swanson, I know what to

Mr. Swanson, I know what to term violence that is in response to violence. I wanted to know what Mr. Miller had to say, since although he said his pacifism isn't explicitly nonviolent, he didn't address a pacifist's respones to violence in his post. Given that is usually the first thing asked of pacifists, I figured I'd get it out of the way. :)

Your tipjar story is interesting. Ignoring the punks and proceeding on your way is always an option. It doesn't imply criminals have the right to your property and it doesn't provoke violence.

On the other hand, you are damn lucky that jerk had semi-decent friends.

I think pacifism on an

I think pacifism on an individual level is not ideal. For example, had any of mr.tip stealer's friends have been pacifists they would not have been able to coerce him. Being a pacifist who doesn't defend himself may be admirable, but one who wouldn't defend an infant from attack is not. On an international sacle though, pacifism makes more sense. While I'm not entirely in agreement, a guy named AJ Muste argued that international affairs were too complex for the usual cause and effect justification for violence. Given the uncertainty inherent in international interventions (not knowing whether you're doing more harm than good), it's better to just never do it.

Matt, Although I agree that


Although I agree that international conflicts are necessarily murkier and more complicated than individual conflicts, the same "defend an infant from attack" reasoning still applies. Does it make sense that defending an infant from domestic aggressors is justified but defending the same infant from foreign aggressors is not?

Although I agree that

Although I agree that international conflicts are necessarily murkier and more complicated than individual conflicts, the same ?defend an infant from attack? reasoning still applies. Does it make sense that defending an infant from domestic aggressors is justified but defending the same infant from foreign aggressors is not?
I think this is a terribly interesting question, I hardly claim to be right on this matter but... While my intuitions are definitely on your side, I think a good case can be made that:
a. there are no "infants" on the international scale
b. violence on an international scale may be just as likely to harm the "infant."

Iraq makes a good recent example of this, if you buy the doctrine that we invaded with "blundering efforts to do good." A good counter-example of this is probably the holocaust, though there are some good arguments on the other side for this. A pacifist might well claim that non-violent action like the kind made by Denmark at least could have saved more jews (probably true) though defeating hitler is another story altogether.

I think the lesson learned from this strain of pacifism is that resorting international violence requires extraordinary justification, far beyond Iraq or Kosovo. Especially given the lack of control citizens have over certain countries right now.

The friends of the attacker

The friends of the attacker were not coercive, nor do we have reason to believe that they coerced their friend from BilLee's post. We are discussing non-violent resistance. It is resistance nonetheless, just as self defense is. In the case of the infant, if it were treated as the tip jar was in this case the person would have cottled the infant in their arms, protected it with their body, and exposed their back to the attacker. This would be defending the life of an infant. Pacifists are not opposed to self defense. And though I cannot speak for all pacifists, I do know that the brand of which BilLee speaks would not be against violent self defense if it were the only option. The purpose of non-violent resistance is in part to expose others to their own brutality. As in the example of the British army in India if you can get the aggressor (oppressors etc.) to refuse to continue their own aggression you can reduce the number of casualities that would have resulted on both sides in a violent battle without becoming killers yourself.

well rainbough, he said the

well rainbough, he said the friends "restrained" the man. While I suppose it's possible that they verbally restrained him or set themselves on fire in protest or something, but I simply assumed that they grabbed him. As with Micha, the philosophies of pacifism to which I have been exposed (with the exception of Muste's, above) have rejected all physically coercive action.

I don't imagine many pacifists would criticize sheilding a tip jar with ones body, but beyond that there are problems. Certainly every circumstance does not present the "shielding with your body" option, and supposing that that option is not effective in one case, then is violence justified?

The Self Defense option sounds like a copout- the US military has been "defending" itself for 50 years, no problems? In fact we only have a department of defense- we'd hardly know how to do anything else. The Soviets bravely defended afghanistan aginst its own people, etc.

The non-violent action in India of which you speak is a great example of pacifism in action. However, George Orwell has a nice oppsing interpretation of that very thing.

Restraining someone who has

Restraining someone who has already initiated force against someone else even if done forcefully is not coercion in my opinion.

that sounds like a

that sounds like a misleading definition to me. Declaring force "self-defense" is probably the most common excuse for violence, at least on a nation-state level. Russia was always defending a country from the CIA, and we were always defending a country (like Nicoragua or something) from the horrible soviet menace.

I agree with Matt: using

I agree with Matt: using force in self-defense is still coercion; it is justiable coercion. Unjustifiable coercion is aggression.

A man who defends himself with force is coercing the aggressor into doing something the aggressor does not want to do.


I was not using the term "infants" figuratively. I mean literal infants; if a foreign country announces its plan to invade your country and enslave or excecute everyone within it, I don't understand why anyone would remain a pacifist in this situation. And while I agree that many wars in recent history were unjustified, despite claims to the contrary by the aggressors, that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as a justifiable war.

I was not using the term

I was not using the term ?infants? figuratively. I mean literal infants; if a foreign country announces its plan to invade your country and enslave or excecute everyone within it, I don?t understand why anyone would remain a pacifist in this situation.
it'd be tactical pacifism. The idea would be that your nonviolent resistance would trigger sympathy on the part of the attacker and they would cease. The argument is mainly that nonviolence is always the best strategy on a larger scale, because you can't know whether you're doing long-term good or bad, but you know you're doing short-term bad. I think there are exceptional cases, and like Orwell I think the success of nonviolent action relies on
a. the attacking country being a democracy with a semi-independent media
b. there being large countervailing powers in the international community
c. direct one on one personal confrontation in the violence. i.e. people dropping cluster bombs from 30,000 feet are unlikely to be swayed because they don't experience it.

Given that these empirical requirements (in my estimation) don't hold, I am not an "international" pacifist. So I treat the justification of international violence (provided the country is not under direct attack- as the US hasn't been since the war of 1812) the same way I treat "no means yes" defenses of rape: with extraordinary scepticism.

If you call self-defense

If you call self-defense coercion you are getting awfully fuzzy about the distinction between attacking i.e. aggressing, and defending oneself. Protecting yourself may involve forcefully stopping someone from doing what they want, namely attacking you, but I think the term "coercion" is only meaningful outside the context of self-defense.

For example if you said "that person was coerced into stealing." The meaning, and reason for using the term is fairly clear. On the other hand if you said "that person was coerced into not killing his roommate." What exactly do you mean, and why use the term? They were forced not to use force? Wouldn't it make more sense to say they were prevented from using force, or that they were prevented from killing.

I think that when we use the term "coercion" in the context of prevention and or self-defense we lose at least part of the distinction the term is alluding to. In any case I prefer a more libertarian definition of coercion where there is an implicit initiation of force. Self-defense is not an initiation but a response to the initiation of force by someone else.

Matt, We are in agreement.


We are in agreement. While tactical pacifism is sometime advisable, tactical coercion can be advisable as well.


The distinction between aggression and self-defense is not always clear, as any first year law student can tell you.

As for the definition of coercion, here is a recent excerpt from Roderick Long's blog:

    [Tibor Machan writes:] This is confusing: ?he would be justified in using coercive measures to eject these trespassers...? What it should say is that ?he would be justified in using forcible measures to eject these trespassers....? Coercion is by definition the use of force that violates rights, especially within the framework of libertarianism. Force, on the other hand, may or may not. Along similar lines, then, ?justified coercion? is an oxymoron ? it means ?justified initiated force against another.?

    [Roderick Long replies:] Not in my dictionary (or any dictionary I?ve ever looked at). The word ?coercion? means any kind of force or compulsion, whether initiatory or not. The word for initiatory force is ?aggression? or ?invasion,? not ?coercion.?

Understanding Libertarian

Understanding Libertarian Philosophy

I am a libertarian pacifist. I arrived at libertarian pacifism from a survivalist variant of militant libertarianism.

With all due respect to Roderick T. Long (and I do have a great deal of respect for him), if we permitted dictionary publishers to dictate meaning, then we have abdicated our responsibility as freethinkers.

The job of dictionaries are to aid diction (hence the name) and provide a guide to spelling words in a manner that they can be generally read. Meanings change and dictionaries only put what they believe to be the most common meanings at the time and maybe some of the more archaic uses of the term. I still have an old dictionary that simply defines libertarian as "advocate of free will". If that were still the definition, then "calvinist libertarian" would be a contradiction in terms. The Oxford English Dictionary is best at keeping it clear that language is in a general flux. Our responsibility to language simply is logic and consistency within a given context.

Please don't take offense Micha. It's just that I know I'm a freak and it is easy to define away freaks.

I don't have a problem with

I don't have a problem with you defining the terms "coercion" and "aggression" synonomously. Up until reading Long's post on the matter, I did the same. But upon thinking about it, it does seem like the term "coercion" applies to self-defense, insofar as a man who defends himself from an attacker is forcibly compelling the attacker to refrain from doing what he wants to do. I think the term "aggression" is more useful for present purposes as it implies initiatory force.

Still, if you wish to use your preferred terms, so long as you make yourself clear as to what you mean by them, I don't have any objection.

Actually I do not think

Actually I do not think coercion and aggression are synonymous. "Aggression" is a broader concept. The term is not restrained to merely initiatory force. Some can be called aggressive or said to be aggressing (i.e. committing aggression) without using initiatory force (sexual aggression, social aggression, political aggression).

Someone could be aggressively defending their self without using initiatory force. Whereas if someone were coercively defending their self, it would imply that they were bringing some innocent bystander into the mix. Using someone as a human shield for example. "Aggressive" is often used to mean the opposite of "passive" which is why most people think pacifists are opposed to violence. They are using "violent" as a synonym for "aggressive" and believe that "pacifist" means "passive."

I realize that you are using a contextually limited definition of aggression, which in the context of an attack the "aggressor" is the person who initiated force. My point is that the term has a broader meaning, and is only restrained to the defintion of "initiating force" within certain contexts. Whereas I think the term coercion only makes sense when discussing an initiation of force. Saying someone was "coerced" implies that their actions were involuntary, on the other hand saying someone was subject to aggression leaves the issue of choice ambiguous.

In the context of an assailant attacking someone we already know that they are choosing to attack someone (unless they were coerced into attacking), and if they are stopped there is no reason to make the distinction that they were "coerced" into stopping. It seems to me that you are using "coercion" as a synonym for "force."

By your defintion "they were forced to stop attacking", means the same thing as "they were coerced into stopping their attack." But they are very different to me. The latter implies something about the broader situation involved, whereas the former leaves the broader situation ambiguous.

Anyhow I agree with BilLee in that, saying "no dictionary I've ever seen contains that defintion," is not a convincing argument. In fact it is not an argument at all. Lexicographers are not masters of semantics, and dictionaries are meant to be a tool and a reference not the ultimate authority on the meaning of a term. If we were to consult a dictionary in the course of a debate the purpose would be to make our terminology clear by finding definitions for our terms that we can agree upon. Saying "no dictionary matches your definition" is simply a way of saying I disagree with your definition but I'm not going to bother to critique it nor point out why." It is a cop-out (and I'm not meaning this as a personal attack on you or anybody else that's just how I feel).

Effectively it's saying "since no dictionary definition matches yours you are automatically wrong." I believe this is called an appeal to arbitrary or inappropriate authority.

Anyhow I agree with BilLee

Anyhow I agree with BilLee in that, saying ?no dictionary I?ve ever seen contains that defintion,? is not a convincing argument. In fact it is not an argument at all.

It was not meant to be an argument; it was an observation about the usage of a word. There is no other source to turn to in order to resolve questions about language other than the community of people who use that language. A dictionary is like a reporter for this community.

One can claim that one word is better than another word for describing something, and can present reasons for this choice, but it ultimately comes down to personal preference and the the preference of that particular community.

"When I use a word, it means

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - no more, no less"

- Humpty Dumpty

It's not the use of the word

It's not the use of the word exactly that is a matter of preference but rather the level of precision a person wishes to use. Some words are more precise than others, and there is overlap between the meanings of different words yet they may still make distinctions that the overlapping words do not make. Consider:


All of these words overlap each other in their meanings but are subtley distinct from their neighboring terms. For example Assertive is very like aggressive and aggressive is like invasive, and invasive is like coercive but assertive is not synonomous with coercive.

In the context that you presented professor long's statements, he presented a definition and the usage of certain words in response to the argument put forth by Tibor Machan. He may have simply been making an observation about why he disagreed, but why make an observation regarding your reasons for disagreeing with someone while critiquing and/or debating them if you do not intend that observation to be interpretted as an argument. I have not read the whole post so maybe the problem is simply that it's out of context, but it seems to me as if he is clearly trying to refute tibor's arguments by saying that the definition on which he based his arguments is wrong.

This seems silly. Who is

This seems silly. Who is your arbiter of justice in this case? Supposing it's the supremecourt or something, then an action could be both "coersion" or "self-defense" in a Schroedinger's cat kind of why until they decided. Defining it in such a way manages to avoid the real issue of the justice of the action- it shortcuts the conclusion as I was trying to point out with my US/USSR examples. Obviously nearly every person and nation state would become pacifists who act only in self-defense.

More to the point, what we should really be arguing about is whether a person can be a pacifist if they need reject only "unjust violence." I mean in that case pacifist is completely synonymous with "mentally stable human being" and we've lost the meaning of "pacifist." Who's in favor of unjust violence in the abstract? I don't know anyone, nor would I want to.

Oh, by the way, the ?but I

Oh, by the way, the ?but I was much smaller than other people my size? was supposed to be ?but I was much smaller than other people my age?. I did change it in my post. Thanks for pointing it out. With all the comments, it took me a little while to actually notice the one pointing out this mistake I made. I thought about leaving it unchanged, because it was a rather amusing mistake to make and I always love to add to the humor in the world. Yet, I did change it, because this was a very important subject to me which I thought such accidental comedy might undermine.