Viewpoint: The Perils of Pacifism


Against the hopes and predictions of many, nuclear missiles have been placed in Western Europe by the US government as a part of NATO's defense of the area. But calls for nuclear disarmament by the West continue.

I am not about to defend the controversial decision by the NATO governments to deploy those missiles. That is a matter for military strategists, whose province it is to figure out the best way to defend the citizens of a given area, if defending them is indeed a legitimate purpose. But is it? That is precisely what is at issue in the disarmament debate—what may individuals do, or have done for them, in the defense of their lives and property? And to whom may unpleasant, indeed lethal, things be done?

At one extreme on these questions is the pacifist, who tells us that nothing violent may be done even in the defense of life and freedom. We are, in essence, counseled to surrender before evil, to let the aggressor prevail. At the other extreme is the advocate of whatever force is necessary to protect life or freedom. If destroying 25 million Soviet children will effectively secure our lives and freedoms, advocates of unlimited defense would accept such destruction. Thus, we are counseled to surrender to evil—to adopt the same murderous mentality we propose to resist in others.

If these are our only alternatives, it's no wonder there's considerable sympathy for the pacifism that is so often to be found behind calls for disarmament. Fortunately, these are not the only alternatives.

Pacifism, in spite of its initial appeal, is incoherent. It is incoherent because it both insists that we all have rights—for instance, rights to life and liberty—while denying that we could have a right to defend our lives and liberties. Yet a right is something one may require others to respect. If we possess rights to life and liberty, as most pacifists believe, we may require that others respect our rights. Sometimes the only way to accomplish this is to resist persons forcibly and even lethally. When force, even lethal force, is necessary to defend basic rights, the use of such force is morally permissible.

Against whom? Clearly, the guilty aggressor, acting freely and intentionally, is fair game. But what about the innocent aggressor forced into aggression by his own immoral government? Certainly the innocent aggressor does not deserve to be killed. Yet equally clearly, the potential innocent victim need not accede to death or enslavement by an innocent aggressor. Potential victims have a right of self-defense, a right to resist the destruction of their basic rights. It is a great evil that the government of an innocent aggressor has forced him into attacking others. But that evil does not strip the potential victims of their right to resist.

But what about the hardest case of all—innocent bystanders? What about, for example, Soviet children—may they too be killed in order to secure our rights? If we accept this position, we embrace the murderous doctrine of unlimited defense. However, we need not embrace this brutal alternative.

An attack on innocent bystanders such as Soviet children would not be an act of self-defense, since those children would be no part of any Soviet attack on us. Thus, no right of self-defense could justify directing an attack upon them or could justify strategic policies involving such attacks.

Unfortunately, for decades preparations for such attacks have been central to the US strategic stance, which calls for deterring Soviet attacks by threatening massive retaliation against Soviet population centers. A moral person could not seriously contemplate such strikes nor credibly threaten them.

There is, however, a morally permissible alternative. The most obviously acceptable form of defense would be one designed simply to destroy incoming missiles or bombers (antiballistic missiles, etc.) or to protect us from the effects of an aggressive attack (civil defense). But it is not likely that a purely protective system could be completely effective; so it would have to be supplemented with a strategic counterstrike system capable of destroying the military means by which an aggressor might seek to follow up and profit from his first strike. To be acceptable, a responsive counterforce system must be directed only at military targets and must consist of weapons developed and employed, as much as possible, to destroy only such targets.

A responsive counterforce system might still result in the tragic deaths of many innocent bystanders. Nevertheless, the use of weapons designed to inflict damage on military targets would be justified in the face of aggression. Responsibility for the deaths of, for example, innocent Soviet children killed despite our efforts to achieve a purely counterforce response to aggression would lie with Soviet leaders who had decided to locate their instruments of aggression in the midst of innocent bystanders.

We do not have to be pacifists and bow before evil. Neither must we surrender to evil by seeking the deaths of innocents. To avoid the latter we must adopt a strategic policy radically different from current US policy—one that centers on purely protective capacities and counterstrike weapons that aim only and precisely at the aggressor's military.

Eric Mack teaches philosophy at Tulane University and contributed the chapter "The Moral Basis of National Defense" to the Reason Foundation book Defending a Free Society.