What Is Pacifism (and Being a Pacifist)?

Pacifism can be understood as both an opposition to war and a field of philosophical study. We take a closer look at both stances.

Jul 24, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

what is pacifism being a pacifist


Pacifism in its simplest terms is the opposition to war and violence – pacifists believe instead in peaceful means of settling disputes on both a national and international level. However, pacifism is also undoubtedly the subject of philosophical study, which centers around similar schools of thought. The conflation of pacifism in the philosophical sense and the related but distinct forms of pacifist political action requires some straightening out, and poses a real challenge to understanding pacifism in any sense. So what is pacifism, and what are the variations of philosophical pacifism? We take a closer look.

Pacifism Can Be Both Thought and Action

The Warrior, Jean-Honore Fragonard, 1769, via WikiArt


Pacifism is a philosophical doctrine with a close (perhaps intractable) relationship to a way of acting. To be a pacifist is to take a stance against war. It is possible to be a pacifist in the context of a specific conflict, or to be a pacifist in general. Sometimes, being a pacifist refers to what one does, and there are a range of things one can do which might make one a pacifist. So, one is a pacifist when one declines to fight in a war (of course), but one can also be a pacifist by participating in anti-war organizations, attending demonstrations, and withholding a portion of one’s taxes (a common strategy among Americans opposed to the Vietnam War was to withhold the proportion of their taxes equivalent to the cost of the war). 


Pacifism Is a Philosophical Stance

Peace, British anon, 19th century, via The Met


Pacifism as a philosophical stance has various different forms. As we have indicated, opposition to war is the unifying idea which various actual pacifist behaviors are organized around, and so the varieties of philosophical pacifism are to be differentiated, in part, by the varieties of justification for that opposition (as well as a characterization of what opposition means). However, given that the term is derived from the Latin term for peace, no account of pacifism would be complete without an account of peace, whether of an acceptable peace or peace as such.


Absolute Pacifism vs. Contingent Pacifism

Allegory of Peace by Domenico Tibaldi, c. 1560, via National Gallery of Art


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One of the main debates among pacifists revolves around the following question: how total should the pacifist stance against war be? Although some pacifists have attempted to argue for absolute pacifism – opposition to all wars, everywhere, no matter what caused them or what might result from the failure to oppose them – many pacifists do attempt to negotiate a more moderate position. ‘Contingent pacifism’ is the conventional term for this point of view, but it captures a number of separable positions. On the one hand, pacifism can be contingent in the sense that it can be suspended in exceptional circumstances. On the other, pacifism can be contingent in the sense that a defensible war is theoretically conceivable, but unlikely or unable to emerge in the present political circumstances. 


Pacifism Equals Political Peace

Battle of Franklin, Kurz and Allison, c. 1891, via Wikimedia Commons


Those who oppose pacifism often characterize the pacifist position as one which supports peace above war, no matter how terrible or unjust the peace. Most pacifists, in contrast, are very interested in distinguishing a good peace from a bad peace. Indeed, many pacifists would go so far as claiming that a peace which relies on sustained or systematic injustice is not worthy of the name peace.


The Opposition to War

Here pacifists can be separated into those who see pacifism as an opposition to war, and those who oppose violence. A truly unjust peace will almost inevitably rely on violence or the plausible threat of it. Of course, what constitutes a situation of insupportable oppression will depend on a wider set of political commitments, but there is clearly a pacifistic position which does not see serious injustice as a preferable alternative to warfare.


Peace (and Pacifism) Can Present a Positive Ideal

Beda Dalam Damai (Differences Within Peace), by Putu Sutawijaya, 2003, via Christie’s.


Pacifism does not require one to be blind to an unjust peace. Beyond what we might call the ‘demonstrably unjust’ or the ‘tyrannical’ form of peace, pacifists have characterized peace as a positive ideal in a number of ways. Certain pacifists, who tend to stress a kind of realism and a focus on the dynamics of international relations, characterize peace in terms of accord or détente. Others focus on peace as a more positive ideal, or even a social ethos. Philosophers working after the Second World War have learned that violence and strife can imbue whole societies. Many pacifists (Michael Fox would be a good example) would argue that only a parallel kind of total commitment to peace can prevent atrocities. 

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.