Pacifism vs. the Right to Life

By Alan Murdock

Pacifism vs. the Right to Life

Albuquerque, NM –-(  I have been in conversations with a friend and colleague, Chris Davey, about pacifism and self-defense.

It is an interesting conversation, and I believe that ultimately Chris and I are working around the same question: “What actions are required to make a safe and secure environment for our community?”

Chris recently wrote an article for The Mormon Worker website on reasons pacifism should be considered as an equal tool to force within the Mormon community.

“I suppose then that the intended audience for such a piece is not the actual audience. Mormons at large, especially those in the US, and particularly those in “Red” states (Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, etc…) need to hear this message, if not for the reason that there may come a day when nonviolence may be (again) the only way to successful counter the challenges faced in a world that could become increasingly hostile to Christian practices and beliefs. It is from this platform that I make the assertion that nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.(Davey, 2012)

I am not Mormon. I grew up Catholic with a pacifist father and peace-interested mother (she grew up in the South, where guns were a reality, and though she liked the idea of peace, was willing to act to stop harm to others). In terms of religion, I practiced Buddhist meditation from my Junior or Senior year in high school and for about ten years after. In one sense I may be making the opposite argument to Chris – providing reasons why people who most often take a pacifist approach to life might want to reconsider including force within their life toolkit. Right now I am neither religious nor not religious. I see the social value in religion and religious communities, but I don’t practice anything in particular. I also take safety and personal defense very seriously as part of my everyday reality.

I’m very interested in the italic portion of Chris’s comment, and I’m going to come back to it, but first I want to address what I believe to be the fundamental philosophical ‘failure,’ if you will, of pacifistic thinking. Pacifism fails at a certain level as a top-down approach as well as a bottom-up approach. Right now this is just a rough thesis, but I will develop it further from reading the literature of pacifism.

Through skimming some of the literature it seems like the main focus of the top-down approach is, “war must be stopped because of how badly it upturns human endeavor.” War is an evil rather than a mechanism of humankind. From this perspective, there is no consideration of just wars or just actions to stop unjust wars. There is just “war is evil.” Working one’s way down the totem from this top-level you get to police actions – police actions are bad because they use the threat of force and incarceration to control the populace. At the bottom of the totem is individual action. Mass harm is evil, and it is predicated on the individual’s ability to do harm, therefore individuals should not take actions to do harm to others, even in self-defense.

From the bottom-up approach, we can start with Christ and his willingness to accept death for others’ sins. Followers receive salvation, and therefore followers should behave like Christ, therefore followers should accept harm and wrong-doing against them as a symbol of their faith and piety. Symbols today are accrued toward the afterlife. Societies therefore should accept suffering to show the world what it means to be holy. We may look at this as a “bottom-up” approach – Christ has no physical power, so He chooses to submit, but I would argue that it is also a top-down approach.

Christ is the Son of God, and therefore represents the ultimate authority. He is the individual who in his divinity represents the universal.

What is missing in this calculus is the individual and his or her right to freedom of choice. Because pacifism projects right and wrong onto actions it removes the right to choose from the person under threat.

To understand this you need to understand the use of force continuum. When one person raises the threat of force against another, the recipient of the force, the pending victim, has the right to use reasonable force to stop the threat. Once the threat is gone the defender is no longer authorized in continued force. Should the original victim continue to use force he or she becomes an offender. This is why the defense of self is utterly reasonable. The victim’s right to life and limb supersedes the assailant’s right to life so long as the assailant is attacking with force a reasonable person would see as deadly. This is predicated on the concept that there is no right without a remedy. If you have the right to life and someone tries to take your life, it is reasonable for you to use the force necessary to stop the attack – not to “kill” the person.

I.e., you are not authorized to fight until that person is dead. You are authorized to fight until the assault stops. If your use of reasonable force during that time results in death, then you can be found not guilty of murder.

You may be found to be civilly liable, and many people who defend themselves end up in debt due to lawsuits, but that is a separate matter which is related but different to the discussion of pacifism and reasonable force.

There are two additional concepts that are key in understanding reasonable force. Imminence and reasonableness. The guy on the 50-yard line waving a pipe isn’t an imminent threat, but the same person at twenty paces can get to you and deliver a deadly blow before you can get a gun out of your holster. The first is not an imminent threat, the second is. The second question is, is it reasonable to perceive the person as a threat? Many states look at the probability the threat would result in death or serious bodily injury, prior violent acts by the offender, and such things as the nature of the danger.

I take the approach outlined in law as a ground-up approach. The behavior and actions of the assailant determine the reasonable force a defender can take. Of course, de-escalation is step one. If a person is hurling personal threats and insults the best thing to do is to walk away. In fact, staying and pumping someone up so they become more violent is not a legal behavior. The courts will look back through the interactions to see what the “defender” did. Was this person inciting violence to create a shroud of self-defense around a predisposition or intent to cause harm to the other person?

This component of de-escalation and civil discourse may be what some people are talking about when they describe pacifism. However, if this first stage of the use of force continuum is the only tool the individual is willing to see, they are truncating the full range of reasonable responses and implementing a “might is right” approach to violence. The strong are able to defeat the weak, and the weak are exalted as holy, a sour prize if they are pressed into their role.

For this reason, when pacifists begin to regulate defense it is actually tyranny of the minority. Because they don’t believe in force they believe that the force is what should be banned. They begin to regulate others’ remedies to the right to life. What they don’t realize is that by regulating the force, rather than by upholding the use of force continuum, they are really destroying the most fundamental human right.

To return to my friend’s article, he writes that, “nonviolence should be considered at least as useful and valid as militarism and aggression in responding to all micro and macro, interpersonal and international conflicts.” (Davey, 2012)

He is right. However, this nonviolence, also called de-escalation, is the first step. The only time physical or deadly force is necessary is when the assailant won’t participate in the de-escalation.

This is the first pass, and I will return to these ideas and flesh them out. I also need to write more about police actions and military force. In general, these are ways we deal with harm when they impact societies or country-on-country wrongs. I think there will never be a true pacifist government – all governments rely on military force as a reserve when wrongs are committed and the process of negotiation fails.

For now, this is enough.

About Alan Murdock

Alan Murdock is a certified NRA pistol instructor and Utah Concealed Firearms instructor. Alan teaches firearms classes in Salt Lake City, Utah as The Gun Tutor. He also produces video and writes about firearms and personal defense issues. His blog can be found at