Pacifism is a term regarding the moral permissibility to engage in war. Just war theorists and pacifists debate that the participation in war can be justifiable. The most extreme embargo against participation in war comes from “absolute pacifism” theory which states that war is unable to be morally justified under any conditions. This absolutist form of pacifism centres on the viewpoint that each individual has some absolute right not to be killed, and that war inevitably kills those who have failed to do anything to lose that right.
Therefore, these individuals are not liable to any harm leading to the aforementioned conclusion regarding the impermissibility of all war. Absolute pacifism, although noble in its intent, has been successfully been argued to be morally untenable. In more recent times, a new pacifist theory has emerged which argues in favour of individuals having no absolute right to not be killed – contingent pacifism. This theory has been criticized heavily by Jeff McMahan (2010); describing contingent pacifism as “untenable”.
This essay will endeavour to present the case against contingent pacifism offered by McMahan, and also expand on these ideas presented. Before ideas and theories are explored, it is important to state some key definitions of terms that will be used widely throughout this essay. McMahan categorizes stakeholders within war into four broad classifications. (1) “Just Combatants” – soldiers fighting in a just war; (2) “Just civilians” – those who do not fight (ie. non-combatants) on the just side; (3) “Unjust Combatants” – soldiers fighting in a war that lacks just cause; (4) “Unjust Civilians” – non-combatants on the unjust side.
Contingent pacifists acknowledge that people have no absolute right to not be killed or harmed. This is even true in the case of just civilians who are often the easiest of people to argue an absolute right – as they have done nothing to lose their right to not be harmed. However, this right can be somewhat overruled by proportionality and adapting a consequentialist ideology in that the killing of innocents can only be permissible if the consequences of not killing these innocents are sufficiently worse.
This therefore leads on to a restraint of sorts for contingent pacifism, in that once this threshold of just cause is reached, it is morally permissible to participate in war. A key argument for contingent pacifism is that even unjust combatants are not liable to harm based on the grounds of ignorance and/or duress. In any war that is participated in, it is widely accepted and acknowledged that unjust combatants will be killed. However, if these unjust combatants are not liable to any form of harm due to this ignorance or duress, it is morally impermissible to kill these individuals.
This also draws the conclusion that if killing unjust combatants is impermissible, so too must be the harming of unjust and just civilians. Due to this defiance of unjust combatants being liable to harm, it is very difficult for contingent pacifists to agree that even a war with just cause is morally permissible, given the amount of deaths that would arise to those who are deemed innocent. This theory provides great debate surrounding innocence. Just war theorists have long stated that innocent parties are those who are unthreatening.
Consequently, all combatants regardless of fighting a just or unjust war are not innocent. Moreover, all civilians are regarded as innocent. However, contingent pacifists argue that innocence refers to responsibility for a wrong. By claiming that unjust combatants act under duress or ignorance, contingent pacifists believe they are not culpable as McMahan states moral responsibility presupposes culpability. McMahan disagrees heavily with the concept that unjust combatants wave any responsibility for their actions due to distress and/or ignorance.
In investigating ignorance, McMahan concedes that there is often information in regards to the participation in war which only high government officials are often privy to – including underlying motives for participating in war which may in fact result in not having just cause. In addition McMahan states that even if complete information was available, few soldiers, if any, would have understanding about moral principles regarding participation in war – principles still debated by ethical theorists today.
However, McMahan retorts this assumption in the case for contingent pacifism by alluding to German soldiers during the Nazi invasions. By reminiscing in particular of the innocence of the Polish, McMahan makes a strong case that surely the actions taken by the Nazi soldiers should have prompted serious moral justification – regardless of what information they may or may not have had.
Furthermore, he responds to the argument of duress by alluding to both the Vietnam war and a common hypothetical described by Rhodes (1997) in which you must kill an innocent or be killed yourself. He contends that in order for duress to be an excuse for culpability, the threat of duress must exceed the threatened harm of participating in war. McMahan argues that the 5 years imprisonment for refusing to conscribe to the Vietnam War did not exceed conditions that existed in Vietnam, and that the duress of being perceived as “shameful, dishonourable, or cowardly”.
In addition, the circumstance in which the most radical duress in exerted upon combatants – kill or be killed – alludes to Rhodes (1997) which presents Serbian soldiers executing innocent Bosnian Muslim civilians. The Serbian soldier, Erdomovic, is vividly depicted executing unarmed Muslim civilians. Although Erdomovic is acting under the most extreme of duress, it is clear to see that he has pulled the trigger and is responsible for his actions.
This realist situation depicted is the scenario in which McMahan uses to oppose duress as an excuse for liability to harm. If culpability is necessary for liability, just combatants cannot cause harm in self-defence if the unjust combatants are acting under severe duress – a standpoint of contingent pacifism that McMahan views as implausible. After arguing his various positions for both and ignorance and duress, McMahan contends that these combatants are in fact blameless for their action, but still responsible.
This therefore implies that unjust combatants are liable to harm in the form of self-defence for carrying out impermissible actions. In addition to the debate of whether unjust combatants are liable to harm, McMahan also addresses key foundational issues in normative ethical theory; in particular two distinctions that divide just war theorists and contingent pacifists. Contingent pacifists contend that the intention that one possesses has no relevance to the permissibility of their actions, except in rare cases.
In the context of war, this translates to meaning that the killing of innocent people is no more easily justifiable than if it occurs as an externality to action directed at combatants, or directly intended to kill civilians in some form of terrorist act. However, McMahan believes that this method of thought requires contingent pacifists to accept a variety of controversial outcomes. One of which states that civilians may in fact be liable to unintended harm, even though they are not liable to intended for harm.
He claims that often civilians are willing to accept a small risk of lethal harm, in order to avoid a nonlethal harm – for example extreme economic hardship which can often follow a war. If just combatants do not wrong unjust civilians by imposing a nonlethal harm, it can therefore be argued that it is also not wrong to expose unjust civilians to this minute risk of death. This trail of thought therefore is drawn to suggest by McMahan that instances in which just combatants “expose unjust civilians to a risk of being killed as a side effect of their military action can be justified”.
Furthermore the distinction of killing or letting die is discussed in length. Contingent pacifists believe that the asymmetry of killing or letting die is strong, much stronger than what their just war theorists counterparts contend. Therefore, the weight added in refusing to kill would mean that the most stringent of contingent pacifists maintain that it is never permissible to knowingly kill an innocent person, regardless of how many innocent people it would save later. McMahan argues that this could never be a feasible restriction to adhere to.
If killing one innocent was impermissible, even if it meant saving one hundred innocent people from an unjust death, what ensues is that it is impermissible to place a one per cent risk of death upon an innocent person’s life in order to save the life of another innocent person. Following this line of thought, McMahan contends that this would forbid us from undertaken the most basic of common practices such as driving a car. For the miniscule risk of crashing and causing harm on an innocent life would deem such an activity impermissible.
McMahan (2010) contends that ignorance is not a reasonable condition for failing to be held responsible for actions. I refute these claims as the complexity of war today ensures that underlying motives by each party cannot definitively be proven without access to confidential information, the likes of which only senior government officials and extreme high ranking officers are privy to. As such, if true motives fail to be recognized, we cannot definitively label one party as just or unjust, and we cannot determine if there is indeed a just cause for war. Take, for example, the war on Iraq.
Weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein were the catalysts for the United States invasion of Iraq in 2006. They posed a threat to the Western World. On the surface, invading in order to ensure these weapons were not deployed and killed innocent civilians, looked to be a just cause for war as they satisfied a common view that a pre-emptive war is only just if it is in response to an imminent threat. However, the underlying motives for the United States’ participation in war are often debated as to whether it was for security reasons, or for economic reasons through the extraction of atural resources from Iraq (mainly oil). I would argue that Lee’s (2012) claim that additional ‘wrong’ intentions can be overlooked if they do not motivate any action that is not already motivated by the right intentions would not suffice in this instance, as the United Nations search had already cleared Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, although the United States were seen as the just side, without complete information it could be argued that in fact Iraq had the right to defend itself, and were not liable to harm, as the United States may have lacked just cause.
Hence, I believe that ignorance is sufficient to not be liable to harm. It should also be stated that this argument I put forth is not tied to the asymmetry between being killed and letting die, as McMahan argues against contingent pacifism. Given the severity of the lack of knowledge, I believe that there is often a high risk of being unable to determine who lacks just cause, in modern day war especially. However, although I disagree with McMahan’s views on ignorance in relation to unjust civilians and combatants, I find his views on the relevance of intention to permissibility plausible for the following reasons.
Contingent pacifists now claim that wars cannot satisfy such a strict asymmetry between killing the innocent and allowing the innocent to die, and that innocent civilians will, in fact, die. Furthermore, Rodin (2002) states in his paper that most just wars are not fought to prevent death, but rather to protect civil and political rights of a nations citizens against foreign or domestic (in the case of civil war) enemies. So therefore, the contingent pacifists view in my opinion are quite naive and short-sighted.
If contingent pacifists deem that there is no relevance of intention to permissibility, it draws the conclusion that their views on war is about minimizing deaths and not protecting the rights of the civilians of the parties involved. This is true as without relevance of intention to permissibility, an individual’s liability to harm is not sensitive to intentions. So if the intention is to defend civil and political rights and Rodin (2002) states, it is still not permissible to kill innocent individuals. Therefore, the underlying theory on which contingent pacifism is based upon seems untenable.
McMahan puts forth various arguments in order to refute contingent pacifism, attacking both the concepts of responsibility and relevance of intention to permissibility upon which contingent pacifism stands. It is with the final argument put forth regarding the foundations of contingent pacifism and the relevance of intention to permissibility that I believe contingent pacifism to be overall flawed, despite their being plausible claims within theory in which I have found grounds to support. Bibliography Bazargan, S. , 2013. Varieties of Contingent Pacifism in War. In: G. Lang ;amp; H. Frowe, eds.
How We Fight: Ethics and War. San Diego: Oxford University Press. Lee, S. , 2012. Understanding War in Moral Terms. In: Ethics and War. Cambridge: University Press, pp. 22-28. McMahan, J. , 2009. Civilian Liability and Terrorism. In: Killing in War. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 230-235. McMahan, J. , 2010. Pacifism and Moral Theory. Diametros, Issue 23, pp. 44-68. Rodin, D. , 2002. War and Self-Defence. Oxford: University Press. Rohde, D. , 1997. Sunday, July 16, 1995. In: Endgame: the betrayal and fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s worst massacre since World War II. s. l. :Westview Press, pp. 307-313.