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Pacifism and Just War: What’s the Big Idea?

April 29, 2013

In this article I wish to follow up on the previous article by discussing the large-scale ideas behind just war and pacifism. As I mentioned in that article I believe it is easier to grasp the basics of this debate by first understanding the big ideas behind each position and then looking at the evidence for each position than by constructing each big idea from the component data.

The large-scale idea of just war is relatively simple and straightforward, so much so that it is almost a default human position: love for one’s neighbor requires action to be taken against someone who wishes to harm your neighbor.

While this basic idea is simple it rests on a number of other ideas. One of these ideas is the idea that the good done for people is arithmetically quantifiable. While this seems abstract an example should make this simple: doing X amount of good for one person is half as good as doing X amount of good for two people. Even if you don’t believe that the scaling factor is quite that simple the idea that X good done to two people is better than X good done to one person is necessary. This sets the stage for negative good: if X good is done to two people and X bad is done to one person is the net result good? Large parts of the justification of just war rest on this idea. I worry that I have made this arithmetic system sound far too sterile and unspiritual and so a real example is in order. Imagine that you are out in a public area, armed, and a good shot with your weapon (perhaps you are a police officer) when a madman appears with a rapid-fire weapon and begins to shoot people with wild abandon. Most people would agree that it is moral to shoot this madman. In fact, most people would insist that it would be your moral duty to stop the harm he would be inflicting by taking whatever action necessary against him. This is a real example of arithmetic good: the deliberate killing of multiple people is more evil than the deliberate killing of one. Therefore preventing the deliberate killing of multiple people outweighs deliberately killing one person. Stated like this this basic idea is much harder to disagree with.

The second basic idea underlying just war theory comes into play when the numbers of aggressors and victims are more evenly matched. If we imagine a scenario in which one person is attempting to kill another (innocent) person with a knife and you can again intervene by shooting the assailant we have such a situation. (Warfare may also involve such situations where the battlefield death tolls may add up to similar numbers no matter which side wins.) In these scenarios we must invoke a second principle: those who deliberately try to kill others without provocation have a reduced right to their own lives. The commission of evil in this case causes us to see the right the assailant has to live to be less than that of his victim and if we must pick one we side with the victim, killing the aggressor.

I do not wish to immediately render judgment on either of these ideas. Instead, I wish to point them out so that we may ask whether the Bible supports not merely just war but the philosophical preconditions that just war theory requires.

The case for Christian pacifism is also quite simple, although much less widely embraced. I mentioned part of this when I argued for my “bookend” ideas for this series of articles: it is possible to argue for Christian pacifism much more plausibly than it is to argue for pacifism in many other religions. For instance, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed all fought battles. Arguing for Jewish or Muslim pacifism is inherently very difficult because the central figures in the religion (I list both Abraham and Moses because either might be plausibly called the central figure in Judaism) engaged in warfare. Jesus didn’t.

In fact, this can be extended much further. Jesus not only didn’t fight wars, he actually died for his enemies. The direct opposite of dying for your enemies is making them die for you. This pacifist case is very simple: warfare is inherently an anti-Christian act, a reversal of Christ’s own revelation of the Godhead and a denial of the central truth of the action by which we are saved. To take Jesus seriously means dying for others not killing them.

Obviously, pacifism also rests on some philosophical assumptions. In general pacifism must reject the arithmetic logic of just war and also the premise that a person’s actions determine the moral value of their life. However, more centrally than this pacifism must insist on one’s responsibility for one’s own actions. One could be a pacifist who agrees that it is much more evil for two people to be killed than one and that someone who plots murder devalues their own life as long as one also argues that this is someone else’s business and that one’s own business is not to be involved in killing people. Under this view when a terrorist starts spraying a crowd with an automatic weapon one’s question isn’t “Do I allow this or act to stop it?” but “Will I personally kill anyone?” Just war would generally see inaction in this scenario as granting permission to the terrorist to kill (itself a crime) while pacifists would generally claim that it is not for us to decide who lives and who dies and if a terrorist breaks that rule my breaking it as well doesn’t make things better but just entangles me in evil as well. A slight variant of this would be to argue that inaction in the face of violence does constitute permission to be violent of some sort but that this connection is weak enough that the crime of permitting violence to continue is less than the crime of engaging in violence oneself.

Honestly, one of the main issues I have with the whole just war versus pacifism debate is that both large-scale ideas make some good points. Yes, it seems deeply immoral to allow someone to murder others but it also seems anti-Christian (or, if it didn’t have completely different resonances, anti-Christ-like) to inflict suffering on others rather than suffer oneself. (Of course, some of the earliest forms of just war theory prohibited self-defense for this reason and allowed only the lethal defense of others.) Given this it seems imperative to move on to the Biblical evidence. Which set of ideas is best supported within the New Testament?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2013 6:43 pm

    A very interesting read. I find that both ideas make good points, too, so I look forward to the rest of the series.

    • Eric permalink
      April 29, 2013 9:53 pm

      Yes, that’s the whole problem, isn’t it?
      Ironically, this series (now probably in the six-article range and growing) was originally intended to be a single article until I began to actually try to write about these issues intelligibly.

  2. Eric permalink
    April 30, 2013 4:14 pm

    I already wrote a dissertation once. Let’s hope this isn’t #2.

  3. Ronnie permalink
    May 1, 2013 9:38 am

    “Of course, some of the earliest forms of just war theory prohibited self-defense for this reason and allowed only the lethal defense of others.”

    This is actually probably closest to what I believe for the reasons you have outlined.

    • Eric permalink
      May 1, 2013 8:13 pm

      This ends up getting rather complicated, of course, since someone could potentially threaten you first while remaining a future threat to others once you’re incapacitated or dead.


  1. Pacifism and Just War: The Sermon on the Mount | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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