Pacifism: Is not wanting to kill people self-centered?

Pictured above: We get it pacifists; you vape. 

7 September 2017

The Philodemic Room

On the back of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea, the Philodemic Society gathered for the second time this school year to debate “Resolved: Pacifism is ultimately self-centered.”

Kicking off the arguments for the affirmation, Mr. Thompson explained that since pacifism, at its core, relies upon a person saying that they “refuse to violate [their] own moral compass,” it can only exist when “others aren’t a part of the equation.” This, he argues, ignores real world necessities to act violently in defense of ourselves and of others in the face of evil, noting that, as Elie Wiesel explains, “neutrality helps the oppressor.” This leads, Thompson argued to a free-rider problem where pacifists “enjoy the same world peace that soldiers help protect” without contributing to its defense themselves. Therefore, he argued, pacifism both ignores the human rights of others and is, in essence, a position built on privilege. Mr. Thompson finished by clarifying that the affirmation is, and must be, oriented against the ideology of pacifism, not pacifists themselves.

Mr. James rebutted that in order for pacifism to be the “deferral of responsibility” implied in the affirmation, pacifists would have to believe that violence is actually necessary to solve problems, which they very strongly do not believe. Clarifying that pacifism “is not neutrality,” Mr. James noted that pacifists are often among the most willing to “disrupt the injustice in some other way” than violence. He also pushed back against the idea that any earnest ideology can be self-centered. After all, he questioned, “are you self-centered for not giving in to others ideas on what the best way is?” Hoping that the Society would “give peace its due,” Mr. James noted that disagreeing with a “principled stand” is no reason to believe it self-centered.

Beginning the floor speeches of the evening, Mr. Sloan, a member of the United States Armed Forces, noted that he and his fellow soldiers work to “defend moral choice entirely,” a burden which is unfairly excluded from pacifists, who “ask you to defend them” and to protect their beliefs. After twenty-five minutes of non-pacifists talking about pacifism, Mr. Zuegel decided to share his perspective on the issue as a pacifist himself. He explained, sitting on the floor, his belief that “you cannot take in life, only give,” which makes killing, not pacifism, self-centered because it requires you to “put your wishes, your ideas in front of others.” Even bad people are “afforded dignity” in Mr. Zuegel’s world view, but that doesn’t exclude people from the responsibility to act. Rather, he noted, “you should be angry at non-interventionists,” not pacifists.

Mr. Musgrave, who explained that the world would be much better if we were all like Mr. Zuegel, countered that “peace is the presence of justice, not the absence of conflict” and that justice, at times, requires both violence and people willing to kill. The non-member Mr. Alex Mitchell (‘21), however, disagreed that justice requires violence. Jesus, Gandhi, King and others all created effective change without violence, he argued, because true pacifism requires incredibly bravery, not cowardice, that makes one “willing to die for” their cause, not just to kill for it. Sgt. Finkenthal, questioning the moral arguments of the affirmation so far, noted that this debate isn’t about arguing the merits of the moral character of pacifism but about whether pacifism, as a moral choice, is a self-centered one. In fact, she noted, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a self-centered decision to “remove the onus from oneself” when it comes to potentially immoral actions. However, pacifism, as she argues, only considers “whether I kill, not whether others are killed,” a distinction which is built on preserving the purity of oneself over preventing the most evil in the world. Mr. Marrow disagreed, noting that pacifism can’t be judged from its treatment of costs and benefits because pacifism is “a morality of action that transcends cost and benefit” calculations. If there is, he contends, an inherently right and wrong in the world, it’s not self-centered for a person to behave in a way that’s in accordance with the right.

Ms. Provost noted that the world’s a violent place, so there’s a need for people to defend it violently. At the same time, she argued, cognitive science has shown it “really difficult to define the self,” challenging the notion that anything can be truly self-centered. Ms. Reilly, a self-described “deep lover of the military,” clarified that pacifism isn’t about inaction but, rather, about recognizing that there may be “other means to handle a situation than dropping bombs.” Hoping to refocus the affirmative on the word “ultimately,” Mr. Boling argued that in the end, even if you “throw yourself in front of a gun, the gun still remains,” leaving the problem of violence unsolved unless we are willing to stop those who commit it.

Next came two challenges to Sgt. Finkenthal: one argumentative and one violent. First, Ms. Li challenged Sgt. Finkenthal’s paradigm of what makes a moral choice self-centered. She noted that by extending Finkenthalian logic, “the very fact that you make a moral choice makes it self-centered,” a position that, while potentially true, would make the debate absurd. Next, Ms. Fisher, after arguing that many pastors in Charlottesville saw their role as “outsourcing violence to other people,” demonstrated her point that violence is necessary at times by approaching the chair of President Ernst. Sgt. Finkenthal reacted swiftly, bravely defending the President after about 15 seconds of trying to escape the back row.

Ms. Cooke, refocusing the floor, contended that US tax dollars largely fund violence, the primary reason she doesn’t like to pay them. By refusing to be complicit in violence, she argues, pacifism can’t be self-centered. Ms. Pravecek rebutted that we shouldn’t “demonize people who seek to do good,” since, after all, the American military typically deploys for peaceful purposes. Still, she was careful to note, “self-centered and self-interested” are not the same. Intending to “spit some Christian theology,” Mr. Musser explained his belief, as a pacifist Mennonite, that sin “actually harms others,” including God. Therefore, “to kill another person is the same as killing God.” He challenged the affirmation to explain how his ancestors, many of whom were burned at the stake for their pacifism, could possibly be considered self-centered for refusing to harm God. Challenging the notion that violence is inherently bad, Ms. Smith argued that military action is often a moral good since “it’s not about war; it’s about protecting.”

Beginning the non-member speaking time, Ms. Ellie Yang (COL ‘21) noted that, if the goal is to protect, “sending troops isn’t the only way to do this.” In fact, she explained, pacifism doesn’t bring the personal benefits that some on the affirmation have said it does. Rather, it “drove Thoreau to hardship” and has proven a difficult moral stand for many others. Mr. Jonah Zinn (COL ‘21) noted, however, that it’s “not enough to not do bad.” Rather, people must affirmatively do good, which pacifism doesn’t, because it ignores the reality of violence and merely chooses “between one type of violence and another.” Reminding the Society that this debate isn’t about whether pacifism is good or bad, Ms. Kathryn Blanco (COL ‘21) explained that pacifism is rooted in a personal moral compass and a deep belief that nonviolence is simple more effective, neither of which are self-centered. However, Ms. Tori Nagudi (MSB ‘19) contended that “everything we do is self-centered,” since all moral decisions are rooted in our desires to be good people.

Ms. Pippa Leigh (COL ‘19) explained that pacifism cannot, at any rate, be more self-centered than the decision to enter into conflict itself because “the decision to enter into conflict falls upon more than just pacifists.” Agreeing that the decision to go to war is self-centered, Mr. Ryan Wallace (COL ‘21) noted that the United States entered into WWII to protect ourselves, which, while noble, was still self-centered. So too, he claimed, can the decision to be pacifist be both noble and self-centered since “everything comes down to what we want.”
Harkening back to Mr. Zuegel’s rhetoric of givers and takers, Ms. Wu noted that the truly selfish are those who take, not those who give. In fact, she explained, not all things can be selfish since there is such a thing as altruism. Concerned that pacifism is a type of political hardlining, Ms. Corona noted that the ability to say that you’ll never commit violence is based on privilege, which is why she noted that true “pacifism doesn’t exist.” Challenging the notion that pacifism is inherently inactive, Vice-President Griffin reminded the society that pacifism doesn’t “require us to be passive.” Rather, she argued, pacifists work against structures “which perpetuate structural violence,” making their contributions far from insignificant.

Mr. Hamilton pushed back on the altruistic view of pacifism, noting that there can be privileged pacifism based on the notion that “my comfort takes priority over others discomfort.” Still, he explained, being self-centered doesn’t make pacifism bad. However, Sgt. Hu reminded the Society that just because some pacifists may be selfish doesn’t mean that pacifism is inherently self-centered. The striving for “something greater than themselves” marks most pacifist movements, she argued, a fact that “[adds] value to the whole society” by encouraging “self-expression.” Arguing that self-centered would be best defined as self-interested, Mr. Lark explained that those who choose pacifism neglect the fact that “those who were left unprotected” by that choice “couldn’t make the same choice.” This is not enough to prove that pacifism is self-centered, Mr. Mullaney argued. Just because other solutions might be more effective doesn’t mean that pacifist movements are self-centered. In fact, he noted, pacifist movements like the Montgomery bus boycott have long fought for the dual purpose of helping “future generations” and to “expose the perpetrators [of injustice] as shameful,” both of which are markedly altruistic. Calling back into question the world “ultimate,” Mr. Eli Manaker (SFS ‘21) considered the extreme, ultimate cases of pacifism, noting that, just like in Nazi Germany, “when you refuse to stand up for others, no one is left to protect you.”

Using his perogative, President Ernst explained that he is not “strong enough to be a pacifist.” Rather than simply “stand there and die,” Pres. Ernst explained, pacifists choose to “fight through peace,” a position that requires one to be one of the most “ethical people you could imagine.” Because pacifists are focused on the maxim that “it is immoral to cause harm,” he contends, the decision to be pacifist isn’t based on the self; it’s based on “the Platonic good.” Still, as Mr. Pullin argued, “you don’t win against violence through pacifism.” So, while pacifism may be a noble ideal, it still assumes that “my value is more important than facts on the ground.”

Returning to the keynoters, Mr. James reiterated that pacifism is “a particular kind of action,” not just “standing by.” In fact, he explained, pacifism requires “no less commitment to righting injustice” than other other forms of action. Calling on the Society to “consider the magnitude of this insult” if the Society affirmed the resolution, Mr. James lamented the “serious accusation” we would be making if we said that “those who disagree with us are self-centered.” To do so would be to declare that pacifism “isn’t a serious belief,” a statement which would be, in his eyes, “unconscionable.” Mr. Thompson, acknowledging that there are many strong emotions behind the term “self-centered,” reiterated that the core of the affirmation’s arguments isn’t an attack on pacifists, just a conclusion that pacifism is based on “thinking about your own morality.” Ending by calling pacifism “admirable,” Mr. Thompson noted that, at its core, pacifism places one’s own moral purity above necessary reality.

By a vote of 19-3-29, the Society negated the resolution.


Marshall Webb

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