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Blaming Pacifism for Torture

That pacifism can be “blamed” for torture is a strange idea. Yet Matthew Schmitz made just this claim yesterday at First Things. I hesitate to call Schmitz’s assertions an “argument,” since the connection between pacifism and torture is (ironically) left to linger somewhat tenuously in the end.

Schmitz’s case hinges on Elizabeth Anscombe’s analysis of justifying the unjustifiable (in her day, using atomic weapons) as “in part an effect of the existence of pacifism, as a doctrine which many people respect though they would not adopt it.”

Schmitz points to the same “demonic mistake” identified by Anscombe as a framework for today’s use of torture—namely, acquiescing to evil (presumably moral evil) as a necessary feature of war. The “ticking time bomb” scenario we’re endlessly fed engenders not only a reluctant acceptance of normally unthinkable human harm, but even the idea—as Charles Krauthammer suggests—that torture can be “a moral duty.” This, Schmitz rightly says, is a slippery slope where no one is safe.

And that’s sort of where it ends.

But what about the real culprit—pacifism? I’d like to know just why I should detest it so, and specifically on the grounds that it cultivates (apparently very clearly) such unspeakable evil?

I’m left to surmise that pacifism, as it turns out, is not really a very serious contender for blame from the start. Drawing on Anscombe—a philosopher of remarkable brilliance—is never a bad idea; but presuming too much upon her thought—or that of any reputable scholar—is always a bad idea. Being, as Anscombe puts it, “in part an effect of the existence of pacifism, as a doctrine which many people respect though they would not adopt it” is not to say that pacifism ought to be “blamed” for anything. In fact, the next sentence of her 1958 pamphlet, “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” says just the opposite: namely, that the deleterious effect of pacifism “would not exist if people had a distinct notion of what makes pacifism a false doctrine.” So, if anything, a real culprit might be something more like failed or insufficient conceptions of Christian “just war” theory—i.e., frameworks that would rule out the truth value of pacifist models.

For his part, Schmitz cites “just war” as an authentic moral calculus, but also fails to notice that being “bound to prosecute war justly without resorting to immoral tactics” is hopelessly vague—at least from a persuasive standpoint. Schmitz distances himself from Krauthammer, et al., who would include under the mandate of “justice” any measure of atrocity. Yet nothing has become clearer, other than that pacifism is opposed to “just war;” and from this is drawn the conclusion that pacifism’s very existence undermines a fuller, more persuasive notion of justice that would presumably supply direct moral guidelines in complicated ethical circumstances.

Schmitz finishes by saying that

most will recognize that there are certain things always and everywhere wrong (settling moral questions on the basis of the most extreme hypothetical may be one of them). Where we draw that line between good and evil—between what can be done and what must never be done—is a matter for debate. Of the fact that it must be drawn there can be no doubt.

With this, of course, I agree. I also agree with Anscombe, who asserts that “most people do reject pacifism.” In the interest of making room for instructive debate, then, I suggest holding off on indictments based on a partial, obfuscated analysis of the facts, and spending more time working to understand why the Church’s authentic moral framework for “just war” can fail so miserably to convince folks like Krauthammer, who most certainly rejects pacifism and all its empty promises.


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  • Hermonta Godwin

    I think Schmitz is making something akin to a sociological claim about how we arrived at what we believe today. Pointing out that ultimately the problem is that people do not find traditional just war convincing is true but does not rebut the sociological claim of how we arrived at this moment in time.

    • Andrew M. Haines

      That’s fine (and probably true). But even as a sociological claim the evidence is thin as to why pacifism (which remains indistinct and undefined throughout) is causally connected to the result at hand.

      I don’t suppose Schmitz wants to suggest that a conceptual framework that leads indirectly to dissolving important ethical distinctions—insofar as it’s adopted—is somehow sufficient to produce actual moral evil. But that’s sort of the tone, in the end. And it turns out to be a convenient one, since it takes heat off the effort to make authentic Christian models more persuasive and appealing.

      • Gus

        OR, maybe Schmitz is just using sarcasm to make a point. By opening his essay with “I am inclined to blame pacifism for our embrace of torture” he is making an illogical statement that gets the reader’s attention – since pacifism allows evil to exist, it therefore holds that enhanced interrogation exists because of pacifism.

      • Hermonta Godwin

        Arguing that all killing is evil is specifically pacificist language and is what is directly addressed by Anscombe. To disconnect pacifism from the problem, one would need to say that such language is used by other groups.

        Next, he began with links to those who have started the effort to defend just war positions against torture etc. So how are you going to claim that he is somehow attempting to take the heat off the effort?

  • “… pacifism, as it turns out, is not really a very serious contender for blame from the start.” Yes, thank you– certainly if pacifism was heeded in any small measure, one could wonder if we were letting imperial forces build up against common humanity. The sad fact is, we are now those imperial forces, and our use of remote control warfare and torture is only casting the jihadists as heroes. Moreover, our military-industrial complex is part of an internal imperialism, on the backs of our very own common people.

    Not a single American was displaced on 9-11, and we are using it as a pretext to invade, to bomb, to torture, to preach Western reforms against Islamic law? With these tactics few Arabs, Persians, Turks, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Pakistanis etc etc, are interested in our reforms. To assign blame for destruction in Iraq and Syria and power of ISIS, look no further than your friendly President and Congressional representatives. It is time to get our own house in order, and let the rest of world take care of itself.

  • Aaron Taylor

    Very good points. I can’t say I was ever convinced that the CIA’s grisly torture chambers are overwhelmingly staffed by hemp-wearing vegan pacifists.

  • arty

    ok, so I’m pretty late to the party here, but I’m glad somebody else has taken this up. When I read the original article on FT, I thought it was one of the most egregious violations of Occam’s Razor I heard in a long while–I still think so.