Skip to main content

Pacifism: Equipment or Accessory of War?


It is my intention to attempt to define pacifism, in its engagement and concept, as a necessary requisite of war and military action, following a phrase used over a hundred years ago by Franz Rosenzweig when speaking of pacifism as “necessary equipment of war.” I will try to defend the importance of pacifism as an integral part of war (as such, pacifism as a requisite of war ought to shorten the period of war and mitigate destruction) and oppose this concept of pacifism to Jan Narveson’s old attempt at constructing pacifism as a position and then designating it as “untenable and unreasonable,” and then further oppose this to his later attempt to find in pacifism the cause of further (and more) violence for ever more vicious wars.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    I will select three out of any number of texts by Narveson: J. Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis”, Ethics, vol. 75, n. 4, Jul. 1965, 259–271; J. Narveson, “Is Pacifism Consistent?”, Ethics, Vol. 78, n. 2, Jan. 1968, 148–150; “Is Pacifism Reasonable?”, as well his lecture given on 21 June 2012 in Belgrade, at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory. On the last page of the manuscript in the text “Is Pacifism Reasonable?”, Narveson writes: “That is why pacifism is fundamentally unreasonable, despite – or rather, because of – the eminently reasonable preference of peace to war. It is unreasonable because, given the way people generally are, it ordains the very asymmetries that invite and cause wars.” Narveson here actually restates an obscure comment in Machiavelli (but which can also be found elsewhere), who reproaches the pacifist that his refusal to preventively react to violence produces much larger damage and the impossibility to react further on. “Pacifism should be morally condemned because in refusing to use force to prevent the ruin of some, it allows the ruin of all.” D. R. Mapel, “Realism and the Ethics of War and Peace”, ed. T. Nardin, The Ethics of War and Peace, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996, 57.

  2. 2.

    Carl Schmitt analyzes several fragments by Kant on war, chiefly § 60 of the book Metaphysics of Morals. C. Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, New York, Telos Press, 2003, “Kant’s Unjust Enemy”, 168–171.

  3. 3.

    “Enmity is the total negation of another being in its complete life action.” (Feindschaft ist die totale Negation des anderen Seins in allen seinen Lebensbetätigungen), E. Husserl, E III 8, 1934, 12.

  4. 4.

    J. Freund, L’aventure du politique, Paris, Criterion, 1991, 45.

  5. 5.

    “F. Rosenzweig an die Eltern,” 6 January 1917, F. Rosenzweig, Der Mensch und sein Werk, 1. Briefe und Tagebücher, Haag, Martinus Nijhoff, 1979, Vol. 1, 327–328.

  6. 6.

    The argument that a possible pacifist position presupposes life as absolute value is inadequate, since this value is even more so implicit in the position that demands response to violence and defense (of that life) from violent attack.

  7. 7.

    With this move, Rosenzweig restores the concept of heroism, repeating a well known line from Avot de Rabbi Natan 23: “Who is a hero among heroes? He who controls his urge, and he who makes of his enemy his friend.” Cf. R. Kimelman, “Non-Violence in the Talmud”, Judaism, Vol. 17, n. 3, 1968, 320.

  8. 8.

    Developing on the 1965 text, Narveson’s 2012 work classified and mitigated certain leaps and complications. The 1965 Narveson is grappling with the popular, but also radical, contradictory and incoherent nature of pacifism (“confusion is probably what accounts for such popularity as pacifism has had” [259]), attempting to show how unprincipled and untenable it is as a moral position (“the pacifist’s central position is untenable” [271]). This year, however, completely tangentially and arbitrarily, Narveson sifts through his old text, editing it to enhance it with breaks and readability. This time around, however, he is interested in the responsibility of pacifism for the enlargement of violence in the world.

  9. 9.

    In 1758, Vattel calls these enemies “the disturbers of peace” (des perturbateurs de la paix), the most cruel enemies of human kind (les cruels ennemis du genre humain), who must be opposed and destroyed. E. Vattel, Traité du droit des gens, Paris, Edition Aillaud, 1835, book IV, § 1. In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy of 1784 Kant claims that a just war against such an enemy is never terminated (Jus belli contra hostem injustum est infinitum). I. Kant, Vorlesungen über Moralphilosophie, Vol. 4, Berlin, Walter de Grunter, 1979, 1372.

  10. 10.

    In order to scare the poor pacifist, the 1965 Narveson introduces Nazis, or rather, “some of the SS men” who supposedly experimented with victims in order to find the moment when enduring violence turns into resistance. J. Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis,” 263.

  11. 11.

    “Nobody thinks that we have a right to inflict pain wantonly on other people. The pacifist goes a very long step further. His belief is not only that violence is evil but that it is morally wrong to use force to resist, punish, or prevent violence.” J. Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis”, 259.

  12. 12.

    J. Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis”, 260.

  13. 13.

    “Some people believe that it is never morally permissible to use force against another person. This position is usually described as pacifism. A committed pacifist will think that even when one’s own life is threatened by a murderous attacker, morality does not permit one to use to prevent that attack. Nor can one use force to defend other people’s lives. More people are not pacifists.” H. Frowe, The Ethics of War and Peace. An Introduction, London, New York, Routledge, 2011, 9.

  14. 14.

    “The next kind of war to be considered is the war of self-defense. This kind of war is almost universally admitted to be justifiable, and is condemned only by Christ and Tolstoy.” B. Russell, “The Ethics of War,” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 25, n. 2, 1915, 138.

  15. 15.

    It is relatively ease to show that Narveson’s construction of the main characteristics of the pacifist or the pacifist position has little to do with either Bertrand Russell (Narveson mentions him towards the end of his 2012 text and underscores his change of position in World War II) or Gandhi’s thoughts on non-violence. Lest we forget, Gandhi too advocated going to war and defending the British Empire: “The theory of non-violence is a complex theory: we are mortal, fragile (defenseless) beings, inducted into violence (himsa). The saying “life lives life” is laden with meaning, as man can live not a single moment and not, consciously or unconsciously, commit violence. The very fact that he is alive – that he eats, drinks, moves – necessarily implies himsa…” M. K. Gandhi, My Life for Freedom, (1925), quoted in D. Losurdo, La non-violenza. Una storia fuori dal mito, Laterza, Bari, 2010, 33.

  16. 16.

    Narveson will certainly have to further explain somewhere the following sentence from this year’s text, which does not look entirely convincing: “We can benefit from violence, unfortunately, where that violence is unilateral” (last page of the manuscript).

  17. 17.

    J. Narveson, “Pacifism: A Philosophical Analysis”, 263.

  18. 18.

    Let me leave aside two complicated arguments regarding the difference between mandatory wars (commanded, of obligation) (milhemet mitzvah or milhemet hovah) and discretionary wars (milhemet reshut) in relation of the status of preventive war and the “place” which peace or pacifism occupied within those (for example, do all types of war imply that one ought to be “offering peace first?”) Cf. M. Walzer, “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition”, ed. T. Nardin, The Ethics of War and Peace, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996, 101; D. Bleich, “Pre-emptive War in Jewish Law”, Tradition, Vol. 21, n. 1, Spring 1983, New York, 3–41.

  19. 19.

    In the book Der Genius des Krieges und der Deutsche Krieg (Verlag der Weißen Bücher, Leipzig, 1915), Max Scheler conducts one of the first detailed thematizations of the difference between just and unjust war (“Der gerechte und ungerechte Krieg” (153–161)). This fragment also contains one of the first detailed arguments about the injustice of preventive war since Grotius. I only mention this book in this place because of a lecture (and a short book that followed) given in January 1927, at the Reichswehr Ministry, Die Idee des Friedens und der Pazifismus, published posthumously in Berlin in 1931 (Der Neue Geist Verlag). In chapter 4, Scheler shows that there is not only one pacifism, but rather many, and that he has been able to identify eight different types of pacifism: individual heroic pacifism, Christian pacifism, liberal economic pacifism, legal pacifism, communist and socialist-Marxist semi-pacifism, imperialist hegemonic pacifism, international class pacifism of big capital bourgeoisie, and cultural pacifism (cosmopolitanism). Pacifism, which he rejects as a position, serves Scheler to modify Romantic militarism from the time of World War I.

  20. 20.

    H. Kelsen, Law and Peace in International Relations, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1942, 12.

  21. 21.

    The statements about the future are really only about the present. “(…) we have pointed out from the beginning that our definition of meaning does not imply such absurd consequences, and when someone asked, ‘But how can you verify a proposition about a future event?’, we replied, ‘Why for instance, by waiting for it to happen! “Waiting” is a perfectly legitimate method of verification.” These words by Moritz Schlick from 1934 are quoted in D. Haldcroft, “Schlick and the Verification Theory of Meaning”, in Revue international de philosophie, n. 144–145, 1983, 58.

  22. 22.

    “If we don’t know, then what we are doing is immoral”. H. Putnam, “The Epistemology of Unjust War”, in Philosophy in an Age of Science, ed. M. De Caro & D. Macarthur, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012, 318. Here is Putnam’s presentation of her colleague, Roderick Firth’s argument: “Both of Firth’s principles employ the notion of “knowledge.” According to the principles, justification of war requires that we know that the Bad Things will not happen if we resort to war (resort to maiming and killing) and that we know that the Bad Things will not continue (or be replaced by even worse Bad Things) if we do resort to war.” 319.

  23. 23.

    “I tried to insist that the justification of the use of preventive force if necessary was built into the very concept of a right itself.” J. Narveson, “Is Pacifism Consistent?” 149. “It seems to me logically true, on any moral theory whatever, that the lesser evil must be preferred to the greater. If the use of physical force by me, now, is necessary to avoid the use of more physical force (by others, perhaps) later, then to say that physical force is the supreme (kind of) evil is precisely to say that under these circumstances I am committed to the use of physical force.” 148.

  24. 24.

    Towards the beginning of his manuscript from 2012, article 4, Narveson begins his sentence thus: “If using violence at t1 would prevent more violence…”

  25. 25.

    J. Babic, “Pacifizam,” Srpska politicka misao, n. 2–3, 1995, 267. (in Serbian). A similar formulation can be found in J. Babic, “Pacifism: Is Its Moral Foundation Possible or Needed?” ed. A. Pavkovic, Contemporary Yugoslav Philosophy: The Analytic Approach, Dordrecht/Boston/London, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, p. 58.

  26. 26.

    C’est une maxime certain qu’il vaut mieux prévenir que d’être prévenu” (It is doubtless a good principle that it is better to intercept than be intercepted). Frederick II, King of Prussia, L’Antimachiavel, (1740), Oeuvres philosophiques, Paris, Fayard, 1985, 130.

  27. 27.

    A. Gentili, De Iure Belli Libri Tres, (1612), Vol. 2, London, Oxford, 1933, 61–62. Gentili announces that he will speak of “greater evil” in a different place, but does not. 63.

  28. 28.

    Frederick II, King of Prussia, L’Antimachiavel, 129–130.

  29. 29.

    The paradigm and key to Rosenzweig’s idea can certainly be found in Deuteronomy 20:10–11. Here is a fragment of Luzzatto’s comment quoted by Michael Walzer: “But it seems to me that in the beginning of this section (20:1), in saying “When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemy,” Scripture is determining that we may make war only against our enemies. The term “enemy” refers only to one who wrongs us; hence Scripture is speaking only of one invader who enters our domain in order to take our land and despoil us. Then we are to wage war against him – offering peace first.” Cf. M. Walzer, “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition”, ed. T. Nardin, The Ethics of War and Peace, 101. Rivon Kygier writes about the disagreement in interpretation of this passage and the Nachmanides critique of Rachi’s interpretation in “L’interpretation rabbinique du commandement d’anathème sous la conquête de Canaan”, Pardès, n. 36, Paris, 2004, 67–70.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Petar Bojanić.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bojanić, P. Pacifism: Equipment or Accessory of War?. Philosophia 41, 1037–1047 (2013).

Download citation


  • Pacifism
  • Equipment
  • Accessory
  • War
  • Violence
  • Prevention