Bryan Caplan  

Cowardly Positions

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One common criticism of pacifism is that it is "cowardly."  What might this mean - and is it true?

1. "Pacifism is cowardly" = "Pacifists are cowards."  Given the unpopularity of pacifism - and the extreme unlikelihood that your pacifism tips the scales against war - this is plainly false.  A real coward would enthusiastically parrot whatever the people around him want to hear.

2. "Pacifism is cowardly" = "Pacifism advocates a morally blameworthy degree of concern with physical safety."  Morally, this begs the question.  The pacifist's claim is that non-pacifists show a morally blameworthy lack of concern for the rights of bystanders.  At the same time, bizarrely, this version appears to grant the pacifist's claim that pacifism would increase our physical safety... at the expense of national pride and dominance.

3. "Pacifism is cowardly" = "Pacifism advocates an imprudent degree of concern with immediate physical safety at the expense of long-run safety."  On this account, pacifism is like running away in terror from a smallpox vaccination at the height of an epidemic.  Of course, this too begs the question.  The pacifist's whole claim is that the short-run costs of war are large and clear, while the long-run "benefits" are highly uncertain and frequently negative.

When pacifists are attacked for being "naive," at least I understand the basis for the accusation.  But "cowardly"?  The shoe just doesn't fit.

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Charlie O writes:

I always thought "Pacifists are cowards" meant the pacifists are afraid of fights (being in a war or even a fist fight); they are pacifists because they are afraid (cowards). I think people do not take the logic step of thinking that if a person was truly afraid they would just say the popular thing.

The emphasis is on physical strength rather than the strength it takes to be an individual in "Pacifists are cowards."

So your defense is a good reply. Point out how it takes more strength to be an individual.

B writes:

At the same time, bizarrely, this version appears to grant the pacifist's claim that pacifism would increase our physical safety... at the expense of national pride and dominance.

... at the expense of your personal freedoms or the freedoms or physical safety of others.

Sometimes you just gotta pick up a gun and shoot a Nazi/communist/what have you. If Americans hadn't picked up guns, I probably wouldn't be alive today (European Jewish grandparents). I would like to personally thank America for shooting Nazis.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

I think your defensiveness about cowardice is just a matter of qualifying your pacifism, because unqualified pacifism is consistent with cowardice.

Andujar Cedeno writes:

I don't consider pacifists cowards at all. Gandhi wasn't a coward. Pacifism is too inflexible to be a practical response to the wide range of challenges presented by the real world though, and that is why pacifism isn't a widely held ideology.

Shree writes:

It does take a courageous stand to be a pacifist which is the reason why not many people are pacifists. There are two ways to solve our problems- the right way and the easy way. What's funny is that masses are easy to manipulate, they act on impulses without pausing to think for a moment, this is how terrorists are created because people are easily enraged about some issue- they want something done desperately but can't think of a way. This is where pacifism comes into picture, it has some rules, guidelines and examples on which you can depend upon and it's success depends upon how well you execute it. Even in the distant future- like a thousand years from now when we are advanced and more deadly- if we are to persist as a species, pacifism is the only way.

Tim Starr writes:

Cowardly, in the sense of refusing to have the courage to admit that freedom sometimes needs to be fought for in order to be gained and/or kept, is a perfectly accurate description of pacifism.

John Thacker writes:

The accusation of cowardice is generally a companion to the idea that many pacifists are really free riders who benefit from others fighting on their behalf but wouldn't fight to protect themselves or others. Sometimes it comes with an accusation of bad faith, that declared pacifists actually see the value of fighting, but don't wish to be the ones to do it.

Andy writes:

Pacifism is not cowardice, but pacifists are certainly free riders.

Faze writes:

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Kevin writes:
...this version appears to grant the pacifist's claim that pacifism would increase our physical safety... at the expense of national pride and dominance.

This interpretation is just bizarre. It seems to me like Bryan is projecting here to a rather astonishing degree. I don't know anyone who actually holds this position. What people actually mean when they accuse pacifists of being cowardly is not that pacifists increase "our physical safety," but rather that pacifists increase their own personal safety, and not at the expense of national pride and dominance, but of overall security. If X is a pacifist, X decreases overall security in an ever so slight degree, but X's personal security is massively increased.

A couple of lines from Bryan's first book seem to fit the bill quite nicely. For example, "Since most of the cost of [pacifism] is external--paid for by other people, why not indulge?" Also, "Since delusional [pacifist] beliefs are free, the [pacifist] consumes until he reaches his 'satiation point,' believing whatever makes him feel best."

There is a certain irony in that I never viewed pacifism in this way, and even had a generally favorable view of it - until I read Bryan's first book. I found his thesis of rational irrationality to be persuasive, but I also noticed that it fits pacifism just as well as protectionism. And none of Bryan's blog posts relating to pacifism have had the compelling logic and theory he offered in his first book - just seemingly willful misinterpretations where non-pacifists agree that pacifism makes us all safer. Some advice, Bryan; if you want to convince people of the rightness of your cause, it would be better to not spend so much time refuting arguments that nobody has ever made.

James C writes:

if its cowardly to be pacifist, does that mean its brave to kill people who dont have the means nor the manpower to retaliate? i dont see how the Afghanis or Iraqis can possibly match US military might, let alone threaten national security.

ive always thought the reason people associated pacifists with cowardice was because people used that excuse to avoid the draft. and judging by the fact that the same generation that vehemently opposed the Vietnam War when their neck was on the line is now fully pro-war, i understand the notion.

quadrupole writes:

So my question is: how far does your pacifism go?

If by pacifism you mean a complete renunciation of violence, how do you:

1) Avoid either being dominated by malicious non-pacifists
2) Simply outsourcing violence to those who *will* protect you from malicious non-pacifists.

I find the notion of pacifism quite attractive, and would like to subscribe to it, but the above two concerns prevent me from doing so, particularly the second, which honestly, while technically not cowardice, does kind of feel like it.

John Thacker writes:
Point out how it takes more strength to be an individual.

I don't think that this definition is useful. For Bryan (and me) it may be easier to be an individual than to engage in physical danger; for other people it may be the reverse.

I'm wary of a definition that assumes that it "takes more strength" to do whatever I prefer. That seems to me to be begging the question, as well as being a cheap way to puff yourself up.

At the same time, bizarrely, this version appears to grant the pacifist's claim that pacifism would increase our physical safety.

This is a bizarre straw man argument, Bryan. The second version typically accuses the pacifist of being overly concerned with his own personal safety, while being willing to sacrifice the personal safety of others; i.e., with being a free rider.

To say that it "appears to grant" your version is to commit the fallacy of composition. A similar version would be to claim that since libertarian economists argue that government stimulus recipients are rent-seeking and concerned with their personal income, that "bizarrely, this argument appears to grant the Keynesian's claim that stimulus would boost our [national] income."

John Thacker writes:

Yes, the allegation that pacifists are cowards begs the question of whether fighting does provide collective security, and the accusation is often used to allege that pacifists are arguing in bad faith. However, the argument that pacifists are "naive" also begs the question similarly. If you can understand one, you should be able to understand the other.

David N writes:

Maybe enough time has passed that everyone's forgotten the last round of comments where many large holes were poked in your pacifism theories. But maybe not.

James A Donald writes:

The world is full of bad people. Often those bad people collaborate, acting collectively to harm other people collectively.

To stop them, it is frequently necessary to kill them. To kill them, frequently necessary to kill women and children who happen to be in the general vicinity

Pacifism is intellectually cowardly, in that it denies the disturbing necessity of making dreadful choices.

Evan writes:
When pacifists are attacked for being "naive," at least I understand the basis for the accusation. But "cowardly"? The shoe just doesn't fit.
I can't see any flaw in the reasoning in this paragraph. I personally believe pacifists are slightly naive, and underestimate the deterrence value of reasonable levels of war preparedness (levels far below the US's current one, of course). But I certainly agree that if they were truly cowards then they wouldn't be pacifists. Instead they'd be chickenhawks.
Andrew T writes:

Definition for pacifist - Opposition to war or violence as a means of resolving disputes. Such opposition demonstrated by refusal to participate in military action.

Definition for coward - a person who shrinks from or avoids danger, pain, or difficulty

The question seems to be, is a person really committed to the pacifist principle defined above, or does he just not want to fight in order to raise his probability of survival and level of comfort.

A possible test: is the pacifist willing to die for his pacifist beliefs ... or sacrifice his family? As an example, a person could be in the situation where he either enters into armed service to defend his country against an invading enemy, or he faces certain execution. In this case the tables are turned in that the pacifist has a higher probability being killed (100%) if he chooses not to fight on the grounds that military action is wrong.

You could up the price of pacifism and have the pacifist's family killed before the pacifist is killed if he refuses to fight. If the pacifist chooses to join the armed service given these circumstances, then you could argue that it is a matter of prices (as measured in terms of danger, pain, and difficulty) for the pacifist instead of a strict commitment to principle. It is more costly to be a pacifist, so he fights.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I am not a pacifist, but I think I would argue along the following lines if I were:

1. Non-pacifists socialize war. In the same way that I am coerced into paying taxes for stuff I think is counter-productive, pacifists are forced to bear their share of the costs of foreign wars, which they believe make things worse, while being lectured "its for your own good".

Along these lines, non-pacifists accept the dangers of the military-industrial complex, fraud waste and abuse, higher taxes etc, in EXACTLY the same way liberals accept regulatory capture etc. And the same arguments are used.

2. Cheap jokes always deliberately conflate personal cowardice with the desire to stay out of wars. But I have no reason to suspect that I would be braver than Bryan in a burning building, or while being shot at.

The question can be summarized: what is the appropriate size and state of readiness for a military? And under what circumstance would it be employed? To end slavery in the US? To save Europe from a dictator? To provide energy security? To pursue a mass murderer?

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

Since we argued about this at length a couple weeks ago, I want to say for the record that I think you're neither cowardly nor naive. But even if you were, that wouldn't prove anything. Ad hominem arguments are fallacious, and I don't like them. I disagree with the argument you made on its merits, and I have tried to make my counterarguments as straightforwardly as possible.

ThomasL writes:

Your answers are not logically tight:

1. No, because you confound two types of courage which are not necessarily the same -- courage in arms and courage in speech.

2. No, because for the argument it only needs to be that the pacifist believes that pacifism would increase their personal safety. The overall safety of the community at large is not necessary for the argument.

3. I think you have a better argument here, but it is predicated on an unfounded assertion. I don't think that the pacifists' whole claim is one of cost/benefit analysis and risk management. If it were, you may be right, but I wouldn't really call it pacifism, because by that description a pacifist would be one that opposes this war as unsound, but would not necessarily oppose a different war if it could be waged on demonstrably favorable terms. I've never encountered a pacifist that espoused that.

Shane writes:

A pacifist could even be someone who refuses to fight even when immediately threatened with death, surely a brave decision.

This complaint of 'cowardice' is often misused. Enemy soldiers or terrorists are denounced as cowardly, which seems odd. Are suicide bombers cowardly? They make a terrible sacrifice for a cause, something men and women are worshipped for in other conflicts.

Jack Davis writes:

Individual pacifists aren't more cowardly than non-pacifists,but I think that's a red herring. However, the philosophy of pacifism is cowardly. James A McDonald sums it up well in his post. One of my favorite writers, Sam Harris, puts it bluntly:

"It is almost never branded as flagrantly immoral, which I believe it is. Pacifism is nothing more than a willingness to die and to let others die at the hands of the world's thugs."

One could make the argument that a person owns his body and has the right to die at the hand of a murderer. But there is no justification ethically for standing by while a criminal attacks an innocent person and you haveit the power to prevent it.

As for Gandhi, what often people forget is his statement that the Jews of Germany should have protested Nazism through collective suicide. This absurd, immoral idea was the reductio ad absurdem of pacifism's immorality.

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