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This is a crosspost for The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism and Pacifism Defended, published in 2010 and 2011 by Bryan Caplan. The 2nd post was a reply to critics of the 1st. Tyler Cowen blogged about Bryan's posts.

The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism

I used to call myself an isolationist, but I recently realized that pacifist is a much better description of my position.  All of the following definitions aptly describe what I believe:

  • pacifism: The doctrine that disputes (especially between countries) should be
    settled without recourse to violence; the active opposition to such
    violence, especially the refusal to take part in military action
  • pacifist: opposed to war
  • pacifist: one who loves, supports, or favors peace; one who is pro-peace
  • pacifist: An individual who disagrees with war on principle

Some definitions of pacifism specify opposition to all violence, even in self-defense, but these strike me as too broad.  I’m a pacifist not because I oppose self-defense, but because it’s virtually impossible to fight a war of self-defense.  Even if militaries don’t deliberately target innocent bystanders, they almost always wind up recklessly endangering their lives.  If a policeman fought crime the way that “civilized” armies wage war, we’d put him in jail.

But isn’t pacifism, in Homer Simpson’s words, one of those views “with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work in real life”?  No.  Here’s my common-sense case for pacifism:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

Are there conceivable circumstances under which I’d break my pacifist principles?  Yes; as I explained in my debate with Robin Hanson, I oppose “one-sentence moral theories”:

It is absurd to latch on to an abstract grand moral theory, and then defend it against every counter-example.

In the real-world, however, pacifism is a sound guide to action.  While I admit that wars occasionally have good overall consequences, it’s very difficult to identify these wars in advance.  And unless you’re willing to bite the bullet of involuntary organ donation, “good overall consequences” are insufficient to morally justify war.  If the advocates of a war can’t reasonably claim that they’re saving five times as many innocent lives as they take, they’re in the wrong.

I suspect that economists’ main objection to pacifism is it actually increases the quantity of war by reducing the cost of aggression.  As I’ve argued before, though, this is at best a half-truth:

Threats and bullying don’t just move along the “demand for crossing you” curve. If your targets perceive your behavior as inappropriate, mean, or downright evil, it shifts their “demand for crossing you” out. Call it psychology, or just common sense: People who previously bore you no ill will now start looking for a chance to give you a taste of your own medicine.

The upshot for foreign policy is that people who warn about “sowing the seeds of hate” are not the simpletons they often seem to be. Military reprisals against, for example, nations that harbor terrorists reduce the quantity of terrorism holding anti-U.S. hatred fixed. But if people in target countries and those who sympathize with them feel the reprisals are unjustified, we are making them angrier and thereby increasing the demand for terrorism. Net effect: Ambiguous.

Rebecca West once wrote that, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”  Pacifism, similarly, is the radical notion that before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.  That’s a one-sentence moral theory even I’m comfortable embracing.

Pacifism Defended

It’s time to reply to my critics.  Here goes:

Mike DC writes:

Suppose some jerk burns a Koran, and devout Muslims respond with by killing every American they come across. Should I, and other Americans not organize for our collective defense?

Whether we agree with Koran burning or not would be irrelevant once people that violently oppose Koran burning (but support all sorts of other violence against me) decide to target me.

If you’ve got a plan for “collective defense” that doesn’t involve reckless endangerment of large numbers of innocent bystanders, I’d like to hear it.  But modern warfare sadly doesn’t qualify.

Steve_0 writes:

You’re normally an excellent philosopher, but here you seem too close to straw man arguments, unjustified equivocation, and the fallacy of the excluded middle. The right to defense in the face of initiated violence does not mean unleashing WWIII. But the answer doesn’t have to mean pacifism to the extent of losing ones own right to life.

There’s an enormous middle ground between those two…

Defensive response may be messy, and I agree with the urge to minimize the collateral damage. But we don’t become pacifist martyrs simply because the outcome isn’t perfect.

I deny that pacifism makes us into martyrs.  The long-run consequences of war are sufficiently unpredictable that pacifism could easily be in our narrow self-interest.  Consider: If any of the main players in World War I – billed as “the war to end all wars” – had simply surrendered, even the “martyr” nation would likely have been better off than it was by the war’s end – and World War II would have been avoided.

Lester Hunt writes:

The reason for the “not quite” is the doctrine of Double Effect. I see a difference between and evil effect which is intentionally brought about and a evil effect that is brought about as a foreseen but unavoidable side effect of pursuing a legitimate goal.

Is there a difference?  Sure.  But we greatly exaggerate the moral difference when foreigners are the ones who suffer the “unavoidable side effects.”  If the police firebombed a domestic apartment complex to pursue the legitimate goal of killing Charles Manson [context], few people would consider the doctrine of Double Effect a strong defense.  Would you?

Kevin asks:

Would you say that the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto were morally in the wrong? That wasn’t literally a *war* of self defense – it would be more accurately classified as a *battle* of self defense, but does that create a substantial moral distinction?

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising was about as close to a true battle of self-defense as you’re likely to find in modern warfare.  But I’d still say that it recklessly endangered large numbers of civilians.  And it’s a perfect example of my point that the consequences of war are hard to predict.  The uprising (a) led to another 150,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths (most at German hands, of course), (b) didn’t free Poland from the Germans, and (c) allowed Stalin to indirectly eliminate most of the Polish resistance while the Red Army sat on the sidelines.  Not worth dying for, not worth endangering bystanders for.

One-Eyed Man writes:

Recognizing that you have the right to something is very different from saying such conduct is obligatory or desirable. It might be morally permissible to kill thieves but still better to avoid doing so when possible.

Again, I’m not objecting to killing thieves.  I’m objecting to killing innocent bystanders while thief-hunting.

hsearles writes:

And what would a pacifist do when there is an army storming through one’s homeland? Is it wrong to unite and join an army to oust the invaders? Is he just going to hope for the best and believe that the invaders have no ill will against him?

“Unite and join an army” always sounds good.  But what exactly is this army going to do?  Judging from virtually every army around, it’s going to recklessly endanger large numbers of innocent bystanders.  And what are the odds its actions actually improve matters, rather than provoking reprisals and worse?  My complaint is that proponents of war “hope for the best” rather than facing these hard questions.

It is very easy to consider pacifism in an age where there is no threat of invasion, but one ought not forget that wars have had to be fought to reach this peace.

And I say that most of these wars were themselves caused by earlier rejection of pacifism.  To repeat, consider World War I.  Any major power that swallowed its pride could have averted not just the horrors of World War I, but the subsequent rise of Communism, Nazism, World War II, and more. 

Aeon Skoble writes:

The sad moral compromise we’re forced into when we choose option 2 is both the lesser of two evils, and an evil the responsibility for which lies with the aggressor.

Question: What’s the furthest you’ll take this argument when the innocent bystanders aren’t foreigners?  And if detailed historical study revealed that our government was the aggressor, do you think the other side would be justified in doing horrible things to us?  Consider: Suppose two countries are run by adherents of your position.  But one of them mistakenly believes the other country “started it.”  The bizarre result: Both sides can keep escalating their level of brutality in good conscience.  Note: This isn’t just a weird trolley problem; in the real world, both sides usually sincerely think “the other side started it.”

Mark Brady writes:

This is akin to bait and switch. Although all the examples you have in mind concern states fighting states, you are a libertarian anarchist and as such reject statism in all its forms. What then is the relevance of these examples for your own political philosophy?

Plenty of relevance.  I also oppose guerrilla warfare and violent revolution on the same grounds.

Randy writes:

It seems to me that we’re debating something that most of us learned in the schoolyard, i.e., it is possible for large numbers of semi-rational human beings to coexist in a limited space, but bullies do exist. And because a bully recognizes no limits, he or she must be taken out, by any means necessary.

But we patently don’t take out bullies on the schoolyard “by any means necessary.” We don’t throw a grenade into a room of kids to make sure the bully dies.  And the reason isn’t just that an easier way to remove bullies exists.  If the only solution to the bully problem were throwing a grenade in a crowded schoolroom, we’d just learn to live with the bully’s abuse.  Why?  Because the innocent bystanders aren’t foreigners.

Doug MacKenzie writes:

To send a signal that one wont fight back against agression does more than allow thugs to walk all over others. Cowards who would normally remain at bay will take advantage of those who play the Amish strategy of pacifism. Individual rights have no practical meaning in such a context.

As I’ve explained before, this microeconomic analysis is woefully inadequate.  Yes, fighting does raise the cost of attacking you; but it also increases the demand for attacking you by making others angry.  The net effect is theoretically ambiguous and empirically unclear.

Matt writes:

I think that if I were about to be attacked in an alley and I pulled out a handgun, in self-defense, and started shooting, there is a small chance that a stray bullet will kill an innocent bystander. I want to minimize that chance, but it won’t prevent me from pulling the trigger.

I agree with you.  I’m not objecting to responsible risk-taking.  I drive.  My claim, rather, is that modern warfare is almost always irresponsible.  What militaries do isn’t like taking a shot with a 1% chance of accidentally hitting a bystander.  It’s more like throwing a grenade at a crowd because the gunman’s somewhere in the middle.

A challenge to my critics: I’ve carefully stated my argument here [1st post].  The argument has three premises.  Please succinctly tell me what premise(s) you reject and why.





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The arguments above are “cost benefit” arguments, that is, arguments that make sense for an small individualistic agent, that do not take into account the systemic consequences of its decisions. For policy making you need equilibrium game theoretic arguments.

History show that aggressive states conquest their neighbors (often enslaving or killing their populations). How “the other cheek” strategy can stop that? After some interatioms, pacifists are all conquered. That is why do not observe much pacifism in commanding positions.

Well, of course pacifism is very successful in the following sense: herbivores and slaves represent between one and two orders of magnitude more biomass than carnivores or masters. So yes, pacifism works to fill the ecological niche reserved to pacifists.

Thanks for commenting, Arturo!

The arguments above are “cost benefit” arguments, that is, arguments that make sense for an small individualistic agent, that do not take into account the systemic consequences of its decisions.

Why would cost-benefit analyses only work for a "small individualistic agent"? Cost-effectiveness analyses are often done at a national and multi-national level, so they can encompass the welfare of many agents.

History show that aggressive states conquest their neighbors (often enslaving or killing their populations). How “the other cheek” strategy can stop that?

I think aggressive states today rarely hold killing people as an intrinsic goal. They will only kill people as a means of e.g. acquiring control over territory. If the invaded party only resists non-militarily, killing people will become much less instrumentally useful for the invader (in the same way that a burglar has much less incentive to be violent if the victim just hands over money without resistance). So I am pretty confident that a priori we should expect pacifism to result in less killing.

After some interatioms, pacifists are all conquered. That is why do not observe much pacifism in commanding positions.

The way I see it, pacifism is not about being against all wars. It is about having a prior that war is pretty bad, such that non-trivial evidence is required to justify it. For example, Russia had been expressing their intention to invade Ukraine for a while, but I do not think they have explicitly said they would like to take control of all European countries. If Russia had said that, then one should update on the margin towards supporting Ukraine militarily being good.

Why would cost-benefit analyses only work for a "small individualistic agent"? Cost-effectiveness analyses are often done at a national and multi-national level, so they can encompass the welfare of many agents.

 You don't ask what is "the cost" of war, because as romans said "non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro". Once you have loss freedom, how will you keep the gold? This is strategic thinking. The dominant issue is incentives and reactions. The reaction to pacifism is perhaps not "more killing" but for sure more "empire building". Why not? It is for free!


"The way I see it, pacifism is not about being against all wars."

Caplan is against all political coordination! Wars are only a particular case. 

On the other hand, Russia is a classic imperialist state and it wants to control as much as possible. This is a quite a natural thing for small oligarchies. If you invade and do not grant political rigths to the invaded, where is the limit? A drive for unlimited conquest is the natural state of affairs; what make democratic states less prone to it, is that when you get the place, you also get the voters: the fiscal assets are earmarked with political liabilities. In fact, democracies can be quite imperialistic, if conquest does not imply voting rigths...

Executive summary: Pacifism is morally superior to war because modern warfare inevitably causes massive loss of innocent life, has highly uncertain long-term benefits, and rarely passes a reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

Key points:

  1. War causes huge immediate loss of innocent life and wealth, while its long-term benefits are unpredictable. For war to be justified, its benefits must substantially outweigh these immediate costs.
  2. Threatening retaliation often increases others' desire for revenge, so the standard economic analysis that pacifism encourages aggression is inadequate.
  3. While self-defense can be justified, modern war almost always recklessly endangers innocents, like throwing a grenade into a crowd to stop a gunman.
  4. Historical examples show even "just" wars often lead to worse unforeseen consequences. Preventing WWI through pacifism could have averted WWII and later horrors.
  5. Pacifism argues we should be very confident of large net benefits before killing innocents, especially foreigners. It is a "radical notion" that human life deserves great moral weight.



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