Caplan’s Pacifism

Bryan Caplan echoes my own pragmatic/consequentialist arguments for pacifism :

P1: The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.
P2: The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.
P3: For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.
C: [B]efore you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.

Tyler Cowen responds with a series of counterexamples:

There is not enough consideration of specific times and place.  Had England been pacifist in 1914, that might have yielded a better outcome.  Had England been pacifist in 1939, likely not.  Switzerland has done better for itself, and likely for the world, by being ready to fight back.  Pacifism today could quite possibly doom Taiwan, Israel, large parts of India (from both Pakistan and internal dissent), any government threatened by civil war (who would end up ruling Saudi Arabia and how quickly?), and I predict we would see a larger-scale African tyrant arise, gobbling up non-resisting pacifist neighbors.  Would China request the vassalage of any countries, besides Taiwan that is?  Would Russia “request” Georgia and the Baltics?  Would West Germany have survived?

Interestingly, John Dewey famously called the World Wars wrong using a similar standard, supporting the first and opposing the second. Decision-making under uncertainty is hard! Still, I think Cowen is being a bit unfair here. This parade of horribles could likely be run through Caplan’s Common Sense Pacifism test: we should ask for each whether there was “reasonable certainty” that the war would have “very good consequences.” Cowen claims a commonsensically pacifist world would be a worse world, but I think he’s attacking an absolute pacifism, not Caplan’s common sense version. Some now-well-regarded wars would fail the test, and the current geopolitical world would be differently aligned, but I don’t think Caplan is arguing that Georgia ought to give in to Russia.  For one thing, I think self-defense against the incursion of neighbors is likely going to pass this test (as opposed to “self-defense” like the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq.) Take India: does its use of violence to repel Pakistan pass Caplan’s test? Arguably, yes: the hostilities along the border are relatively cheap and harm few civilians, but these measures have substantial long-run economic and political benefits. (Although note Amartya Sen’s arguments against India developing nuclear weapons.)

UPDATE: Another way of reading Caplan is that the burden of proof ought to fall on the warmongers rather than the pacifists, and that the standard of proof ought to be “reasonable certainty” of “very good consequences.” This standard may or may not already underwrite the various Just War theorists, but perhaps Caplan is simply noting that many of the older standards and precedents may have changed in light of new ways of making war that increase the costs and thus raise the estimation required for “very good consequences.”





6 responses to “Caplan’s Pacifism”

  1. Ted Kinnaman Avatar

    Cowen's objection also brings out the need to distinguish between the ethics of pacifism for an individual and being a pacifist nation. Neither entails the other, at least not without further argument. I've always thought that the chief argument for pacifism lies in the possibility of convincing others by example to refrain from violence. One can accept Cowen's point about Israel while still acknowledging that an Israeli pacifist might help to foster nonviolence not only within Israel but also in its neighbors.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      Hmm… I'm not sure what a personal pacifism would really mean, for me. I don't want to get into fights or anything, but I might intervene to stop an attack if I saw one on the street, and I'd probably defend myself if attacked. Although actually, I was attacked a couple of times as a teenager and young adult, and usually I didn't hit back, except in one instance which I regret. (Small, probably underage drunk: he hit me in the face, not very hard, and I said "Did you just punch me? Who does that?" When he hit me again, I hit him back, a lot harder, and he went down.)

      For me, nation-state pacifism (or the pacifism of citizens who abhor war) makes more sense because we can calculate the costs of previous wars or previous ways of making war (like aerial bombardment) and find that the "collateral damage" is too high to justify the outcomes. Say Georgia allows itself to be peacefully conquered by Russia. Is that really worse than a bloody defensive action and regional instability? Same with the US defense of Taiwan: are we really going to go to war with China over a small island? What consequentialist calculation of the outcomes could justify that?

  2. Daniel Levine Avatar
    Daniel Levine

    Cowen also identifies pacifism too easily with non-resistance. There's a substantial debate to be had about whether non-violent action can be truly effective, but it stacks the deck to ignore even the case for non-violent resistance made by folks like Gandhi, Ackerman, Alinsky, etc.

    For a very interesting discussion of the role of pacifists in a nation-state (perhaps surprisingly good, given that it's basically a piece of apologetics/self-justification), check out Kenneth Kaunda's _The Riddle of Violence_.

    And, really, you want to count the long-running, domestic-politics-warping, terrorism-breeding, blood-and-treasure-draining futile stalemate over Kashmir as a *victory* for non-non-violence?

    Finally – I make this point in my RN2V paper, but probably not forcefully enough – the other way to stack the deck against non-violence is to look at history only at crisis points. Sure, violence looks like the only "solution" in Rwanda, April 1994. But what about Rwanda/Uganda, January 1990? What we focus on and how we frame the problem can determine the solution.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      Thanks for jumping in, Daniel. You're the expert here, and I think you're hitting all the right points. Could you drop a link to your RN2V paper here for Ted and any other readers?

      In response to this: "you want to count the long-running, domestic-politics-warping, terrorism-breeding, blood-and-treasure-draining futile stalemate over Kashmir as a *victory* for non-non-violence?"

      I'm willing to *consider* the possibility that that conflict is a victory for violence, or at least militancy. I'm not sure how else the two countries could resolve their border disputes, especially given India's unique status as the only successful multi-ethnic democracy in the region. But I'm totally willing to be persuaded otherwise. In fact, I'd like to be wrong on this point, as it would remove one of the many caveats from my pacifism.

  3. Daniel Levine Avatar
    Daniel Levine

    Some Concerns About "The Responsibility Not to Veto":

    Context: this is a reply to an expanded version of a position paper you can find here:… All the page references are placeholders to the MS version of the RN2V paper, so they'll be inaccurate, but you can get the gist.

    I'm *certainly* not an expert on India-Pakistan relations (nor really on non-violence – go talk to Karol Soltan in UMD's GVPT department). And it may be that the situation over Kashmir is the best of bad options – I can't say, "oh, they could just do *this* and it would be fixed." But, given how very bad it is, I'd be surprised if we couldn't do *any* better.

    It also depends on how you're defining the space of options, right? I mean, I can imagine much better options for solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, but better options *that are feasible given the current state of US and Israeli domestic politics?* That's dicier. Still, it would seem to be odd to attack non-violence on the grounds that, "given our militaristic politics, non-violent solutions aren't really available." Whether we should have militaristic politics is precisely part of what's at issue.

    Anyway, I think a better way to skewer non-violence would be to point out that lots of defenses are of the form "well, it's never *really* been tried, so you can't say it failed!" Which is, of course, how we all defended Communism in high school. But I'd say the record is at least mixed – it's hard to discount the successes of Gandhi in India, Kaunda in Zambia, the ANC in S. Africa (even the MK officially eschewed violence against people), King in the US, entirely, even if an argument can be made that a background of violence/potential violence facilitated the non-violent action.

    That said, for all my war-skepticism, I think the consequentialist argument you sketch is a bit too easy. The uncertainty of war's benefits should set the bar high (even for self-defense) – that's the point of the likely success criterion in traditional JWT. But there are also many situations where we know that the status quo is very bad. I mean, my key objection to Libya is that we've gone off half-cocked, not that it's not the sort of thing that might be worth doing (of course, that's still an objection – we're fighting the war we're fighting, not some potential idealized version).

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      If you reject "expert," would you accept "specialist"?

      Regarding "too-easy" consequentialism: I think the reason it looks too easy is precisely that it's a sketch of an argument for the justifications of violent action rather than a particular decision about a particular act of violence. For instance, my basic take on Libya is that our methods of intervention (air war, not arming the rebels) are probably more likely to sustain a bad-for-civilians environment for a long period of time than a quick and atrocity-ridden suppression of the insurgency. Granted, that leaves a dictator in power, but I wonder whether that's really worse than what we're seeing, now. Even in Libya, I'm willing to admit I could be wrong, and I certainly *want* to be wrong. It just doesn't look like a good decision, given the information available to me.

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