Bryan Caplan  

The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism

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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.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
agnostic writes:

It depends what the institutional background is. If there is political concentration of the means of violence, then pacifism works like you say because it's no longer worth competing on the margin of violence.

If there is no political concentration of the means of violence, then you're in a "natural state." Occasional wars are worth tolerating because the viable alternative is not a society like ours but rather sliding back into a lawless, anarchic situation like in Somalia.

Rates of homicide (and surely of violence in general) are orders of magnitude higher in stateless hunter-gatherer societies when compared to agricultural ones, even allowing for really big wars like WWI and WWII.

Avoiding that constant menace of violence is worth the occasional war. You'd have to worry about being collateral damage or maybe getting conscripted, but if that sounds bad, imagine the only alternative for such societies -- namely, where you're afraid every night that the neighboring tribe is going to launch a pre-dawn raid on your tribe and kill everyone but the nubile women, who they'll abduct as concubines.

I agree with what you're saying for modern states, but we've got to keep things in perspective if we want to see why/when war does or does not pay.

Tom Church writes:


Bob Kaufman's In Defense of the Bush Doctrine includes a devastating critique of isolationist foreign policy in the 20th century.

Kaufman is brilliant - I think you would find much you admire about the book, and even some parts that would change your mind.


MernaMoose writes:


You post a lot of things I like and agree with, but you're missing the boat on this one.

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.

But in fact, they are. Take for example this argument,

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.

which entirely side-steps reality. If someone, for example possibly a terrorist who's willing to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, is prepared to do you that level of harm -- then it goes without saying, they aren't going to like it if you hit them back. Hitting back doesn't "increase the demand" for terrorism. That demand was already there and failure to respond will simply make them conclude they can hit you without any fear of reprisal.

Which is a sure road to hell. I presume you've heard that old song "Sometimes you have to fight to be a man".

The idea of "irreconcilable differences" is not a mere fantasy. The United States learned that lesson first in the Revolutionary War, then again in the Civil War, then again.....and again.....and again.

Your comparison of military versus police action doesn't hold up. The police and the military don't serve the same purpose, so it's no surprise that their methods and outcomes are different. Not to mention the fact that defining "the innocent" is non-trivial once things devolve to a real bang-bang war. Our Western notions of "fair play" are just that -- Western notions which have evolved over the past several centuries, which many other nations don't share. Sorry but them's the breaks.

I'm not saying we should just go out and fight wars for the fun of it. There should be a clear purpose and a clear national interest. But pacifism at the national level is a good way to get your nation wiped off the face of the earth. Because sooner or later, another nation will come along that doesn't share your queasy stomach when it comes to war.

You conceded that reprisal is permitted at the individual level, yet you'd like to ban it at the national level? You aren't being consistent. I'll suggest something you might consider: civilization has boundaries, within which we may impose rules (including morals) of our own (hopefully wise) choosing. But our civilization does not consist of the entire universe.

Think of a nation as akin to the walls of your house. Those walls enable us to condition the insides of our homes, to make life safer and more comfortable. But I need not explain the fact that our heating and air conditioning does not apply to the whole Great Outdoors. It ends where our walls end.

Likewise in the realm of human civilization, and most especially ethical standards, nations are a similar kind of thing. You can impose whatever rules you want -- in your own house. You can't impose your rules on somebody else's house, just like you can't use your heating and air conditioning to control temperature in your neighbor's house.

If you want to impose your morals on a greater number of people, you'll have to do it the old fashioned way: conquer more territory. Read history and you'll quickly learn, the foundations of every nation were built on a gigantic grave yard which resulted from someone's war. This is how nations have always been built. It is also how their very real boundaries are defined.

Maciej Stachowiak writes:

Under your form of pacifism, what do you think a nation should do if a foreign military force attempts to invade?

Without explaining this point, it's hard to evaluate your views.

John writes:

First, I realize that historical counterfactuals are rarely useful, but I wonder if you wouldn't mind giving a plausible story for what would have happened during the Cold War if the United States had publicly adopted a pacifistic foreign policy. Would Western Europe be Communist today? Why or why not?

Second, in your theoretical framework it is clear that deterrence can increase the possibility of war by creating a demand for vengeance. But you provide no empirical evidence. If we look to history, we see that as wars and weapons have become ever-more destructive, we've seen fewer and fewer deaths from violence. How do we resolve this paradox without recognizing that deterrence is extremely effective? In your theoretical framework, inventing more terrifying weapons has an ambiguous effect. But in the real world, not a single war has ever been fought between two nuclear-armed states, suggesting that increasing a nation's ability to threaten other states greatly decreases the risk of war.

Ricardo writes:

"And unless you're willing to bite the bullet of involuntary organ donation"

Maybe that's the wrong moral analogy. Let me present you the hostage analogy:

A terrorist is holed up in a building with 30 hostages. Say you know for sure that, if you do nothing, the terrorist kills 25 hostages and lets 5 go (but which ones is random). If you break in and kill the terrorist, he will have time to kill 20 people, while 10 survive for sure (and that's now a new random draw). What is the moral thing to do? If you break in, as I think you will, then you sir are not a pacifist.

Sonic Charmer writes:

One problem with this thinking is that it is premised on the ability to slap the binary labels "war" and "peace" onto real-world situations that may or may not fall neatly into those categories. So, for example, I think we would all agree that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was "at peace" between 1991 and 2003 (because there was no official "war" against anyone). This, despite the fact that Iraq's government was at times killing lots of people. But the pro-"peace"/anti-"war" position cannot see that reality therefore it becomes an argument for the status quo (=Iraq's government killing lots of people) and an argument against doing anything to counter that status quo, merely because of the fact that it is nominally "peace" and not "war".

Similarly, the above is an argument for surrendering to whoever, whenever, that has demands, regardless of reasons. Germany insists on having Sudetenland? Well let them have it. To do otherwise would be "war" (which is bad) but if you let Germany take over that is "peace" (which is to be preferred), and how can you ever make the 5-to-1 argument? Why not let USSR take over everywhere post-1945, including the U.S.: at least there would be "peace"? Or how about the extremist-Palestinian position that Israel ought not exist - right-minded people dismiss this, but I guess if resisting/opposing their eliminationist position with any violence is to make "war", and that is wrong, then apparently acquiescence is better: let us instead shift to making the argument that all Jews ought to move out of Israel, and 'back' to, oh I don't know, Germany. Because the result, if carried out that way, would be "peace".

A world in which "pacifism" prevails is a world in which schoolyard bullies always get what they want - and indeed, are maximally incentivized to bully. Because of this it is hard to take pacifism seriously as a viable option for a healthy society, rather than a sort of luxury-good that can be indulged and signaled by a minority-subset within that society.

Noah Yetter writes:

If a policeman fought crime the way that "civilized" armies wage war, we'd put him in jail.

I wish. Police murder innocent people in this country every single day and rarely face consequences.

The_Orlonater writes:

Not to go off track, but there never really was a good case for Allied intervention in WW2, in fact, many would argue that the Allies caused WW2 and I'm inclined to agree with them. Secondly, WW2 helped bring forth the Sovietization of Eastern Europe and perhaps China( I never really finished reading Kubek's How the Far East Was Lost).

Gary Rogers writes:

Do you also believe in a pacifist police force? If so, how would you handle a violent criminal that is threatening to do harm to someone? If not, where is the line that determines where force can be used?

eccdogg writes:

I can buy pacifism as a default position but not an absolute position.

I think we have a clear right to defend ourselves and the state is a natural vehicle for that defense. We have a right to exist as a nation and and once attacked we have a right to do just about anything to ensure that we continue to exist.

We also have a right to punish those who attack us, to teach a lesson to aggressors. Here we need to be careful in how we implement the war so as to punish only the aggressors. IMO this does not mean only attacking military targets. If a democracy overwelmingly votes to attack us then civilians are free game because it is the civilians who decided to attack us.

I think we clearly have no right to attack anyone for mere economic or strategic reasons.

The last case is the most difficult. What rights/obligation do we have to protect non-citizens from other non-citizens. In general I think we have a right but not an obligation to protect people who's natural rights are being violated. This is where Bryan's 5-1 ratio is probably the most apt. But I think it goes beyond that. First off what if we have mutual defense obligations with other countries. We should live up to those promises (even though I think we should be very careful in extending those promises). Also the rightness of the cause must come into play as well as a cost benefit analysis of our ability to change the course. Great caution should be used in these situations and we must be very careful in how we execute the war.

Yancey Ward writes:

Who are the deserving violated?

BZ writes:

This article should have been called "The Case for Utilitarian ~Pacifism". Methinks that may be the single-word moral theory Dr. Caplan is looking for.

eccdogg writes:

"Who are the deserving violated?"

That is the tough question. This is how I think about it.

I think anyone who's rights are violated are "deserving" in the sense that they should not be treated the way that they are being treated. The question is should we act.

On personal level, I see a woman being attacked. Do I have a right to intervene? My answer is yes if her rights are being violate unfairly. The next question is should I intervene. Some of the key question then are. Can she defend herself (maybe she has a pistol)? What did she do prior to the attack, was it provoked? What is my realtionship to the woman? Is she my sister? Is she someone I have promised to protect? Can my actions change the situation or will the outcome be the same regardless of my intervention? What cost must I bear to to intervene, is there a good chance I will get killed?

All of those question seem to apply to nation states as well, with one big caveat. Since you are forcing everyone to be part of the military intervention large majorities of the populace should agree that it is the correct action. If there is a significant minority that is against the action in question (lets say greater than 25%) you should abstain from intervening in situations where non-citizens are violating the rights of other non-citizens. I would not hold such a high standard for defensive wars.

Robin Hanson writes:

I'm with you Bryan, not on pure moral grounds but on simple deal-promoting consequentialism. I could endorse wars that are required to fulfill good deals made for mutual defense, but very few recent wars are anything remotely like that. And the US has especially low costs of avoiding war.

RL writes:


Although I agree with your position, the thing that strikes me when I read the strongly negative comments is that a general economic argument cannot compete with the large levels of ignorance of history that sway people's judgment in this area. If you foolishly believe the only thing protecting you from total destruction of your entire way of life is an aggressive US foreign policy backed by US military might, a cursory and generalized economic analysis will not convince you. That is why the detailed historical work of people like Jeff Hummel is so important.

Nathan Larson writes:

I think Murray Rothbard's three criteria for just war make a lot more sense than Caplan's. To be a just war, it need only avoid (1) harming, (2) taxing, or (3) conscripting innocents. For all practical purposes, then, symmetric warfare must be eschewed in favor of low-cost, low-manpower guerilla warfare in which targeted raids and assassinations of government officers (especially high-ranking leaders, who bear the most responsibility for governmental aggression due to their role as criminal masterminds) takes the place of mass destruction. The Irish Republican Army was able to wreak havoc against the British with only a few hundred or thousand members, and probably would have prevailed all the more if it had not alienated public support by resorting to mass destruction.

Tim Starr writes:

As an ex-dove turned anarcho-warmonger, I've a lot of thoughts on this. First, to clear up a couple of objections to previous comments:

1) No, Iraq wasn't at peace between 1991 & 2003, Iraq was in a state of war w/ the rest of the world since it invaded Kuwait in 1990 & never complied w/ the UN Security Council Resolutions that were supposed to re-establish peace. That's why the containment regime of no-fly zones & sanctions remained imposed & enforced upon Iraq.

2) Guerilla warfare is usually _more_ lethal to civilians than conventional warfare, especially as one of the primary conventions of war is to protect civilians, and guerilla warfare obliterates the distinction between civilians & combatants. That's why the conventional forces in asymmetrical wars typically engage in mass reprisals against civilians in guerilla war. Deliberately provoking such reprisals is a war crime on the part of the guerilla combatants, not a sound way to protect civilian rights. Rothbard was at his most stupid on the topic of guerilla warfare, especially in his misplaced enthusiasm for that democidal commie Che Guevara.

That said, my main objection to Caplan's version of pacifism is that it just amounts to an application of the Precautionary Principle to military action, but as with all applications of that principle it can be equally applied to the absence of military action. The case that wars are often caused by the failure to take military action is far more plausible than the contrary; WWII was caused by the failure to totally defeat Germany in WWI and the subsequent failure to enforce the Versailles Treaty. The Cold War was caused by the failure to invade Russia when the US had the boots on the ground in Europe after WWII as Patton wanted, and the abandonment of Chiang Kai-Shek when he was on the verge of wiping out Mao's forces.

I support a sort of "utilitarianism of rights" when it comes to foreign policy: Simply stated, that policy is best which leads to the least civilian deaths. Letting totalitarians run rampant, killing over 100 million civilians in peacetime, as we did during the 20th century, is hardly in keeping with this standard. Overthrowing genocidal dictatorships & establishing peaceful democracies in their wake is far more conducive to it. Note that despite the fact that we killed far more civilians in the Axis countries during WWII than in the Middle East, the former Axis countries have never sent terrorists to America to try to kill civilians here since the war's end.

Not only are the costs of military inaction usually under-estimated by pacifists, so too are its benefits. Specifically, virtually every free society or increase in societal freedom that has ever existed historically has either been the direct result of warfare or has had to be defended by warfare. The most under-estimated of these costs is the extent to which warfare has led to more freedom, via what Bruce Porter calls the "democratization effect" in his book "War and the Rise of the State." The basic theory is that the State trades with its people by granting them greater freedom in exchange for greater support for its wars. This usually gets lost because freedom is an intangible good which is hard to measure, while what the State gets in return is money and manpower that is easy to measure.

For example, it is well-established that Athenian democracy came from the Athenian navy, which allowed non-landowners to provide essential military service to Athens' defense in the Persian Wars. Porter also points out how virtually every single extension of the electoral franchise in the USA came in the wake of a war in which an unenfranchised part of the population played an essential part (propertyless males in the War of 1812, women industrial workers in WWI, etc.).

I would go further than this to argue that most of the elements of the Golden Age of classical liberalism in the 19th century came out of the Napoleonic Wars, from the suppression of piracy & the slave trade, global free trade (all made possible by British naval supremacy established in those wars), to the abolition of slavery (made possible in Latin America by the French invasion of Spain, which freed its colonies from imperial rule), even to such things as the repeal of the Corn Laws, anti-combination laws, and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (which resulted from the failed attempt to capture Haiti as a slave colony, the Jamaican slave revolt, popular hatred of naval impressment, and the rise of the British working and mercantile classes).

In American history, as John Yoo points out, the two worst civil liberties violations were slavery & segregation, neither of which was caused by war and both of which were ended by war (the Civil War, in the case of slavery, and WWII & its aftermath in the case of segregation).

jlpsquared writes:


Your example reminds of one time I was at a movie theatre and I saw a guy screaming at a younger girl, and it looked like he was about to hit her. My "testosterone" started flowing and I started to approach the confrontation. right before I moved in too confront the guy with my machismo, I heard him mumble something to her along the lines of "how could you cheat on me", and that's when I realized if my wife/girlfriend cheated on me, I would probably want to beat the crap out of her myself. I let the guy alone, if he hit her, it wasn't my business.

As for the war argument, I agree we should probably not be in all these wars since the Pacific front of WW2 (possible including the European theatre of WW2) HOWEVER, I do think we need the huge military as a deterence. I do agree with the historians who argue it the super-power status of countries through history (Rome, Brittian, the US) that keeps some of the smaller aggressive countries in check.

Rob Wettengel writes:


Any theory as to explain when a war breaks-out, cannot be quantified. I know you economists have your laws and that you obviously have a desire to apply, say, the Law of Supply and Demand, to other disciplines. I would suggest that you abandon such efforts and stick with your own discipline.

Warfare involves things that cannot be quantified, such as perceptions brought about through intelligence analysis, attitudes of politico-military elites, the ideology espoused by these leaders, the priorities and order in which a given ideological program is to be achieved.

Where did you calculate this value of human life and $5 million a piece? Most of the world's population subsists off of $1 / day; clearly $5 million is gross over-valuation of all human life on this planet on a case-by-case basis.

"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."

Your supply-and-demand model falls apart due to the would-be terrorists needing to have access to the prerequisite weapons, financing, logistical support and operational planning.

You are attempting to apply the relationship between supply and demand and applying that to complex socio-political processes. This is academic quackery.

In order to pull-off a successful terrorist attack, there is a lot more required than simply the existence of demand for it in a given area. Without the necessary means to successfully plan and execute attacks, the demand is merely potential.

How do you know that "anti-U.S. sentiment" would remain fixed? You cannot take the complexities of the psychology of an individual person and apply that in the aggregate to come to this downright silly argument. Human behavior cannot be looked upon as a commodity that is bought and sold.

Regarding your point #2, are you aware that the French Revolutionary Wars gave-way to the rise of Napoleon?

"I suspect that economists' main objection to pacifism is it actually increases the quantity of war by reducing the cost of aggression." This argument is simply asinine on its face. Nation-states go to war because interests they perceive as vital are being obviously threatened or there is a perception that overwhelming pressure is going to be brought to bear. "Cost" has nothing to do with it.

Andy Hallman writes:

Tim Starr wrote:

2) Guerilla warfare is usually more lethal to civilians than conventional warfare, especially as one of the primary conventions of war is to protect civilians, and guerilla warfare obliterates the distinction between civilians & combatants.

And this distinction exists when? When two conventional armies fight each other? You mean like, uh, the Second World War, when the good guys bombed whole cities indiscriminately. Is that what you had in mind?

Tim Fowler writes:

RE: "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."

I wouldn't call that pacifism. Pacifism rejects violence, it doesn't just put it through a stern cost-benefit analysis.

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