On December 6th-8th 2017, UCSIA organizes an academic workshop on pacifism at the University of Antwerp.
UCSIA is organising a series of three workshops to examine the problem of peace in light of contemporary global political and cultural conditions. What meaning does peace have today and what practices and institutions are taken to embody it? Does global public opinion value peace or does it favor the comfort of security?
A first workshop will address these big and important questions by means of an inquiry into the current state of pacifism, its (ethical) vitality and (political) viability. Pacifism is often perceived as a strongly principled position. It dismisses the use of violence on intrinsic moral grounds and would refuse to contemplate resort to the use of force even when a situation turns really dire. When we are being hit by violent attack, the pacifist counsels us to turn the other cheek. Understandably, pacifism has received a fair deal of criticism and even committed pacifists have had occasional doubts about the tenability of their position. The most important criticism is probably that pacifism is a politically irresponsible and therefore morally irresponsible ethic. To practice pacifism in times of imminent or actual danger, when faced with an unjust enemy, would spell disaster for political communities. How can the pacifist justify his passivity when we witness the onset of genocide? How can the pacifist promote non-violence when terror comes from the air and from everywhere? But at the same time, violence does have this self-perpetuating aspect and it is surely the case that it does not pay to fight violence with violence. Should we put trust in the pacifist belief that, ‘ultimately’ or ‘in time’, only a principled pacifism can save mankind from itself?
It would be rash to want to settle this discussion but it should be possible to elucidate the main axes of contention and to ensure that conceptual strawmen do not distort our conceptions of the possibilities and limits of a pacifist orientation. To this end, this UCSIA workshop on ‘Pacifism and its critics’ will be organized around four central themes.
A conceptual clarification and historicization of the concept of pacifism
What are the defining tenets of pacifism? Which principles have motivated its rejection of violence? Precisely how principled has its rejection of war and violence been? Have there been variations in this regard and how do they relate to their historical contexts?
The standing of pacifism within the main world traditions
Pacificism certainly has its secular forms but it is nonetheless the case that some of the more reputed and committed pacifists were motivated to adopt their stance from religious inspiration. At the same time, religion is often associated with violent conflict. Arguments have been made about the violent disposition of all monotheistic traditions. This begs the question what the standing is of pacifism within such religious traditions as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, but also in polytheistic traditions like Hinduism or non-theistic traditions like Buddhism. Does pacifism’s character and intentions change as it assumes a secular form? Has principled non-violence been given different expression in indigenous traditions of thought?
The translation of pacifism into law and institutions
Pacifism may be admirable as an ethical orientation and may demand some personal courage to uphold, but its political significance has often been put into doubt. There may be political merit when the parties to a conflict are very unequal in material power. Then the weaker party may impress its power by refusing to choose an aggressive strategy. But this leaves open the question of pacifism – understood broadly as the abandonment of the use of force – as a general principle of political organization? What does the history of the European Union tell us in this regard? What about Japanese non-militarist foreign policy?
Pacifism, genocide and terror
Pacifism appears to meet its intrinsic limits when a political community meets an unjust enemy, when it meets an inherently evil group or movement, which refuses to be impressed by the demands of reason or which remains unresponsive to appeals of honor and the threat of shame. Mid-twentieth century pacifists had to confront the phenomenon that was Hitler and Nazism. Late-twentieth century pacifists had to respond to the fact of ethnic cleansing. Early-twenty-first century pacifists have to defend their position in times of terror. Does pacifism retain merit in such times? Are there historical or contemporary cases that demonstrate the viability of a pacifist response to such situations of order-shattering violence?