Pacifism may be based on moral principles (a deontological view) or pragmatism (a consequentialist view). Principled pacifism holds that at some point along the spectrum from war to interpersonal physical violence, such violence becomes morally wrong. Pragmatic pacifism holds that the costs of war and inter-personal violence are so substantial that better ways of resolving disputes must be found. Pacifists in general reject theories of Just War.
Pacifists follow principles of nonviolence, believing that non-violent action is morally superior and/or pragmatically most effective. Some pacifists, however, support physical violence for emergency defense of self or others. Others support destruction of property in such emergencies or for conducting symbolic acts of resistance like pouring red paint to represent blood on the outside of military recruiting offices or entering air force bases and hammering on military aircraft. However, part of the pacifist belief system is taking responsibility for one's actions by submitting to arrest and using a trial to publicize opposition to war and other forms of violence.
Dove or dovish are informal terms used, especially in politics, for people who prefer to avoid war or prefer war as a last resort. The terms refer to the story of Noah's Ark in which the dove came to symbolize the hope of salvation and peace. Similarly, in common parlance, the opposite of a dove is a hawk or war hawk.
Advocacy of pacifism can be found far back in history and literature. Compassion for all life, human and nonhuman, is central to Jainism, founded by Mahavira 599–527 BCE. This doctrine values human life as a unique opportunity to reach enlightenment and regards the killing of any person, no matter what crime he may have committed, as unimaginably abhorrent.
In Ancient Greece, however, pacifism seems not to have existed except as a broad moral guideline against violence between individuals. No philosophical program of rejecting violence between states, or rejecting all forms of violence, seems to have existed. Aristophanes, in his play Lysistrata, does create the scenario of an Athenian women's anti-war sex strike during the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BCE, and the play has gained an international reputation for its anti-war message. Nevertheless, it is both fictional and comical, and though it offers a pragmatic opposition to the destructiveness of war, its message seems to stem from frustration with the existing conflict (then in its twentieth year) rather than from a philosophical position against violence or war. Equally fictional is the nonviolent protest of Hegetorides of Thasos.
The Moriori, of the Chatham Islands, practiced pacifism by order of their ancestor Nunuku-whenua. This enabled the Moriori to preserve what limited resources they had in their harsh climate, avoiding waste through warfare. In turn, this almost led to their complete annihilation in 1835 by invading Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama Māori from the Taranaki region of the North Island of New Zealand. The invading Māori killed, enslaved and cannibalised the Moriori.
Throughout history, many have understood Jesus of Nazareth to have been a pacifist, drawing on his Sermon on the Mount (see Christian pacifism). In the sermon Jesus stated that one should "not resist an evildoer" and promoted his turn the other cheek philosophy. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well... Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. The New Testament story is of Jesus, besides preaching these words, surrendering himself freely to an enemy intent on having him killed and proscribing his followers from defending him.
There are those, however, who deny that Jesus was a pacifist and state that Jesus never said that you should not fight, citing examples from the New Testament. One such instance portrays an angry Jesus driving dishonest market traders from the temple using a whip, despite the absence of scriptural evidence that indicates Jesus used the whip on people. A frequently quoted passage is Luke 22:36: “He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.’” Others have interpreted the non-pacifist statements in the New Testament to be metaphorical and state that on no occasion does Jesus shed blood or urge others to shed blood.
The early Christian church practiced Jesus' pacifist teachings quite literally. However, beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine I in the 4th century A.D., the church not only began to be integrated into the rest of society, but to assume positions of power and authority. The strict practice of pacifism began to be viewed as impractical and even irresponsible when Christians could use such power to confront evil and injustice. Early church leaders such as Augustine and later Thomas Aquinas justified the use of arms as a last resort in the protection of innocent life from attack and injustice, what now often is called Just War Theory.
Bohemian Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848) taught about the social waste of militarism and the needlessness of war. He urged a total reform of the educational, social, and economic systems that would direct the nation's interests toward peace rather than toward armed conflict between nations.
Leo Tolstoy was another fervent advocate of pacifism. In one of his latter works The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy provides a detailed history, account and defense of pacifism. The book was a major early influence on Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) and the two engaged in regular correspondence while Gandhi was active in South Africa.
In Aotearoa aka New Zealand during the latter half of the 19th century British colonists used many tactics to confiscate land from the indigenous Māori, including warfare. One Ma-ori leader, Te Whiti-o-Rongomai, inspired warriors to stand up for their rights without using weapons, which had led to defeat in the past. He convinced 2000 Maori to welcome battle-hardened British soldiers into their village and even offered food and drink. He allowed himself and his people to be arrested without resistance for opposing land confiscation. He is remembered as a great leader because the “passive resistance” he practiced prevented British massacres and even protected far more land than violent resistance.
Mohandas K. Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India, and of the Indian independence movement. Grateful Indians christened him with the title “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.” He was the pioneer of a brand of nonviolence (or ahimsa) which he called satyagraha -- translated literally as "truth force". This was the resistance of tyranny through civil disobedience that was not only nonviolent, but sought to change the heart of the opponent. He contrasted this with duragraha - “resistant force” - which merely sought to change behavior with stubborn protest.
During his thirty year leadership of the Indian Independence Movement from 1917 to 1947 Gandhi led dozens of nonviolent campaigns, spent over seven years in British prisons, and fasted nearly to the death on several occasions to obtain British compliance with a demand or to stop inter-communal violence. His efforts helped lead India to independence in 1947, and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom worldwide.
There was strong anti-war sentiment in Western Europe during the 19th century. Many socialist groups and movements were antimilitarist, arguing that war by its nature was a type of governmental coercion of the working class for the benefit of capitalist elites. French socialist pacifist leader Jean Jaurès's assassination on July 31, 1914 was followed by the socialist Second International's dissolution into chauvinism and militarism as international socialist groups supported their respective nations in war. Nevertheless many groups protested that war, including the traditional peace churches, the Woman's Peace Party which was organized in 1915 and led by noted reformer Jane Addams and the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace (ICWPP), also organized in 1915. Other groups included the American Union Against Militarism, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the American Friends Service Committee. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, was another fierce advocate of pacifism, the only person to vote no to America's entrance into both World Wars.
In the aftermath of World War I there was a great revulsion against war, leading to the formation of more peace groups like War Resisters' International and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
The Spanish Civil War proved a major test for international pacifism, and the work of pacifist organisations (such as War Resisters' International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) and individuals (such as José Brocca and Amparo Poch) in that arena has until recently been ignored or forgotten by historians, overshadowed by the memory of the International Brigades and other militaristic interventions.
With the start of World War II, pacifist and anti-war sentiment declined in nations affected by war. Even the communist-controlled American Peace Mobilization reversed its anti-war activism once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, mainstream isolationist groups like the America First Committee, declined, though many smaller religious and socialist groups continued their opposition to war. Bertrand Russell argued that the necessity of defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazis was a unique circumstance where war was not the worst of the possible evils; he called his position relative pacifism. H. G. Wells, who had joked after the armistice ending World War I that the British had suffered more from the war than they would have from submission to Germany, urged in 1941 a large-scale British offensive on the continent of Europe to combat Hitler and Nazism.. Similarly Albert Einstein wrote: "'I loathe all armies and any kind of violence; yet I'm firmly convinced that at present these hateful weapons offer the only effective protection.
Conscientious objectors and war tax resisters were active in both World War I and World War II. The United States government did allow sincere objectors to serve in noncombatant military roles. However, those draft resisters who refused any cooperation with the war effort often spent much of each war in federal prisons. During World War II pacifist leaders like Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker Movement urged young Americans not to enlist in military service.
Martin Luther King, Jr (1929 - 1968), a Baptist minister, lead the American civil rights movement which successfully used Gandhian nonviolent resistance to repeal laws enforcing racial segregation and work for integration of schools, businesses and government. In 1957 his wife Coretta Scott King, Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Benjamin Spock and others formed the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (now Peace Action) to resist the nuclear arms race. In 1958 British activists formed the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with Bertrand Russell as its president.
In 1960, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton University, and subsequently was appointed lecturer in Buddhism at Columbia University. Thich Nhat Hanh had written a letter to Martin Luther King in 1965 entitled: “Searching for the Enemy of Man” and during his 1966 stay in the U.S. met with King and urged him to publicly denounce the Vietnam War. King gave his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in 1967, his first to publicly question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Especially famous for leading a pacifist movement, Tenzin Gyatso is the fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, and as such, is often referred to in Western media as simply the Dalai Lama. On November 17 1950, at the age of fifteen, he was enthroned as Tibet's Head of State and most important political ruler, while Tibet faced occupation by the forces of the People's Republic of China. After the collapse of the Tibetan resistance movement in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso fled to India, where he was active in establishing the Central Tibetan Administration (the Tibetan government in exile) and preserving Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees who accompanied him. A charismatic figure and noted public speaker, Tenzin Gyatso is the first Dalai Lama to travel to the West, where he has helped to spread Buddhism and to publicise the cause of Free Tibet. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Catholic Worker Movement is concerned with both social justice and pacifist issues, and voiced consistent opposition to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Many of its early members were imprisoned for their opposition to conscription. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the Pax Christi organisation is the premiere pacifist lobby group. It holds positions similar to APF and the two organisations are known to work together on ecumenical projects. Within Roman Catholicism there has been a discernible move towards a more pacifist position through the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Popes Benedict XV, John XXIII and John Paul II were all vocal in their opposition to specific wars. By taking the name Benedict XVI, some suspect that Joseph Ratzinger will continue the strong emphasis upon non-violent conflict resolution of his predecessor. However, the Roman Catholic Church officially maintains the legitimacy of Just War, which is rejected by some pacifists.
In the twentieth century there was a notable trend among prominent Roman Catholics towards pacifism. Individuals such as Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen stand out among them. The monk and mystic Thomas Merton was noted for his commitment to social justice and pacifism during the Vietnam War era. Martyred Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero was notable for using non-violent resistance tactics and wrote meditative sermons focusing on the power of prayer and peace. School of the Americas Watch was founded by Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois in 1990 and uses strictly pacifist principles to protest the training of Latin American military officers by United States Army officers at the School of the Americas in the state of Georgia.
The Greek Orthodox Church also tends towards pacifism, though it has accepted defensive warfare through most of its history. However, more recently it took a strong stance towards the war in Lebanon and its large community there refused to take up arms during its civil wars. It also supports dialogue with Islam. In 1998 the Third Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference drew up a text on ‘the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the achievement of peace’ emphasizing respect for the human person and the inseparability of peace from justice. The text states in part: “Orthodoxy condemns war in general, for she regards it as a consequence of the evil and sin in the world.”
The Southern Baptist Convention has stated in the Baptist Faith and Message that: "It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.
On the level of society, Bahá'u'lláh promotes the principle of collective security, which does not abolish the use of force, but prescribes "a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice. The idea of collective security from the Bahá'í teachings states that if a government violates a fundamental norm of international law or provision of a future world constitution which Bahá'ís believe will be established by all nations, then the other governments should step in.
Today the United States requires that all young men register for selective service, but does not allow them to be classified as conscientious objectors unless they are drafted in some future reinstatement of the draft. It does permit enlisted personnel to become conscientious objectors, allowing them to be discharged or transferred to noncombatant status. Some European governments like Switzerland, Greece, Norway and Germany offer civilian service. However, even during periods of peace, many pacifists still refuse to register for or report for military duty, risking criminal charges.
Anti-war and “pacifist” political parties seeking to win elections may moderate their demands, calling for de-escalation or major arms reduction rather than the outright disarmament which is advocated by many pacifists. Once in power, parties have been known to drop their anti-war leanings. Green parties list "non-violence" and "decentralization" towards anarchist co-operatives or minimalist village government as two of their ten key values. However, in power, Greens like all politicians often compromise. The German Greens in the cabinet of Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder supported an intervention by German troops in Afghanistan in 2001, but on condition that they host the peace conference in Berlin. However, during the 2002 election Greens did force Schröder to swear that no German troops would invade Iraq.
The controversial democratic peace theory holds that liberal democracies have never (or rarely) made war on one another and that lesser conflicts and internal violence are rare between and within democracies. It also argues that the growth in the number of democratic states will, in the not so distant future, end warfare.
Some pacifists and multilateralists are in favor of the establishment of a world government as a means to prevent and control international aggression. Such a government would not have to worry about the UN veto being used by one of its members when it or one of its allies decides to agress on another nation, as currently is the case. While some unions, like the European Union, have been brought together peacefully, most large nation states have been united through war and held together by military action against secessionists. So it is questionable whether a world government devoted to peace could be formed without years of warfare.
The Italian Constitution enforces a 'mild' pacifist character on the Italian Republic, as Article 11 states that "Italy repudiates war as an instrument offending the liberty of the peoples and as a means for settling international disputes [...]". Similarly, Articles 24, 25 and 26 of the German Constitution (1949), Alinea 15 of the French Constitution (1946), Article 20 of the Danish Constitution (1953), Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (1947) and several other mostly European constitutions correspond to the United Nations Charter by rejecting the institution of war, and favoring collective security and peaceful cooperation.
Still more pacifists would argue that a non-violent reaction may not save lives immediately but would in the long run. The acceptance of violence for any reason makes it easier to use in other situations. Learning and committing to pacifism helps to send a message that violence is, in fact, not the most effective way. It can also help people to think more creatively and find more effective ways to stop violence without more violence.
Japanese, Italian and Nazi aggression that precipitated World War II often is cited as an argument against pacifism. If these forces had not been challenged and defeated militarily, the argument goes, many more people would have died under their oppressive rule. A frequently used quote is the apocryphal quote often incorrectly attributed to Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Pacifists can claim that the United States' entry into World War I broke the multi-year stalemate between Germany and the allies, ensuring an overwhelming victory rather than a negotiated settlement. This permitted the victors to bankrupt Germany with war reparations, leading to economic unrest that hastened the rise of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Pacifists also might note that Japanese imperialism against China only mirrored the centuries of European imperialism in the Asia and that United States economic and military actions towards Japan provoked it to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. Also pacifists would point out that the "something" good men must do is not necessarily violent.
Some commentators on the most nonviolent forms of pacifism, including Jan Narveson, argue that such pacifism is a self-contradictory doctrine. Narveson claims that everyone has rights and corresponding responsibilities not to violate others' rights. Since pacifists give up their ability to protect themselves from violation of their right not to be harmed, then other people thus have no corresponding responsibility, thus creating a paradox of rights. As Narveson puts it, “the prevention of infractions of that right is precisely what one has a right to when one has a right at all." Narveson then discusses how rational persuasion is a good but often inadequate method of discouraging an aggressor. He considers that everyone has the right to use any means necessary to prevent deprivation of their civil liberties and force could be necessary.
Many pacifists would argue that not only are there other ways to protect oneself, but that some of those ways are far more effective than violence, and that physical harm is not the only variety that can be done. Often pacifists would much rather take the physical harm inflicted by another rather than cause themselves emotional or psychological harm, not to mention harming the other.
The ideology and political practice of pacifism also have been criticized by the radical American activist Ward Churchill, in his essay, Pacifism as Pathology. Churchill argues that the social and political advancements pacifists claim resulted from non-violent action always have been made possible by concurrent violent struggles. In the late 1990s Churchill's work convinced many anarchist and left wing activists to adopt what they called "diversity of tactics" using "black bloc" formations that engage in property destruction and scuffles with police at larger mainstream protests. The most powerful of many pacifist replies to Churchill was from American activist George Lakey, a founder of Movement for a New Society, in a detailed response to Pacifism as Pathology. Lakey quotes Martin Luther King in entitling his year 2001 article Nonviolent Action as the Sword that Heals. However, he takes on Churchill's assumptions and reading of history from a pragmatic viewpoint, arguing the superiority of nonviolent action by describing "some movements that learned, from their own pragmatic experience, that they could wage struggle more successfully through nonviolent direct action than through violence."