A Critique of Pacifism


THE attitude of the average man toward his fellows is one of nicely balanced trust and mistrust, of confidence and fear. The relation of human groups to each other is usually characterized by the same kind of mixed attitude, though in group relations there is usually a little more fear and a little less trust, for the simple reason that groups have generally not been as ethical as individuals. Common sense would seem to justify such an attitude, for human nature is an intriguing amalgam of potential virtue and inchoate vice, in proportions sufficiently variable to prompt both trust and fear. The average man who has been taught by necessity to trust his fellow men, since an attitude of consistent mistrust would destroy all social life, nevertheless tempers this inclination by the shrewd observation that his virtue, carried to an extreme, may invite aggression and tempt his fellows to dishonesty.

This common-sense view of human relations is always under the necessity of maintaining itself against two forces which tend to disintegrate it. On the one hand, man easily becomes the victim of fear complexes which completely destroy his inclination to trust his fellow men. They usually follow upon some harrowing experience, some evidence of specific dishonesty or aggression, which for the moment outweighs all that man has learned about the general dependability of human nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some national groups in Europe since the war, such fear complexes are definitely pathological. On the other hand, the common-sense balance is threatened by the imagination of a minority, usually a religious minority, which maintains that trust is itself creative, that men tend to become what we think they are, that they become trustworthy only as we trust them and lovable only as we love them. Whenever such religious imagination is developed to its highest potency it not only essays to strengthen the forces of virtue by assuming them, but it definitely undertakes to overcome developed evil by failing to take cognizance of it. So Jesus counsels His followers to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven, and to turn the other cheek if they have been made the victims of aggression.

On the whole the common-sense attitude toward other men is not seriously imperiled by this force of religious imagination. Imagination is a virtue and achievement which is rare at best and which only occasionally rises to such a potency that it is able to create as well as to discover hidden virtue in other men. Even religion undertakes to cultivate that type of imagination only in rare moments of insight and power, and usually contents itself with maintaining the common-sense balance against the threat of unbalanced fears and hatreds. Yet there are times when mutual fears, resulting in mutual hatreds, reduce themselves to such an absurdity that large numbers of men are prompted to experiment with the attitude of trust. We are living in an age in which one element in every nation is still suffering from pathological fears created by the World War and another element in every national group is more than ordinarily anxious to adopt an attitude of trust because it has realized that the war was itself a spontaneous combustion resulting from excessive fears and hatreds. That is why the question of preparedness, of armament and disarmament, is so urgent in practically every Western nation.

Because of these influences of the war, large numbers of people espouse the cause of pacifism, of nonresistance and mutual trust, who realize only dimly what is involved in the adventure of trust. Many of them insist that if our nation or any other nation would be willing to make the venture of disarming itself it could successfully challenge its neighbors to similar experiments in confidence. Still more believe that, while no nation can run the risk of making the venture alone, there is no reason why a simultaneous experiment in disarmament and mutual trust should not be initiated.

There is of course much to be said for this faith. If it accomplishes nothing else, it will at least help to reëstablish the old common-sense balance of trust and mistrust which the war hatreds destroyed. But it is hardly sufficiently thoroughgoing to build the new world of which it dreams. Its weakness lies in the fact that it does not realize how consistent an ethical attitude toward other groups and individuals must be before it becomes in any sense a guaranty of security. Creative love must express itself not only in trust but in sacrifice. It may do for a Francis of Assisi to trust his fellow men and assume that even a bandit will finally do him no wrong; but it would be foolish for a village banker who holds a mortgage on most of the homes in the village to make a sudden venture in trust and decide to leave his vaults open. He may have a legal and even a moral right to collect interest on his mortgages, yet it is not an insistence on rights, but a sacrifice of rights for the sake of fellowship, which finally creates that type of relationship in which there is security without recourse to force.


Applied specifically to our own and other nations, this means that the moral task which faces our generation is to persuade groups — groups of every kind, but particularly nations — to a measure of unselfishness as well as to a measure of trust toward their neighbors. That is a formidable task. Groups have never been unselfish in the slightest degree. L. P. Jacks has observed that all human groups tend to be predatory. Henry Adams, who shrewdly observed the statesmen of England equivocate on the slavery issue during the Civil War until they could determine their course by considerations of expediency, came to the melancholy conviction: ‘ Masses of men are always prompted by interest rather than conscience. Morality is a private, and a costly, luxury.’

One reason why modern civilization finds itself in such moral chaos is that inter-group relationships are increasingly becoming more important than intra-group relationships without becoming as moral. It is difficult to introduce ethical attitudes into the relations between groups, partly because these relationships are comparatively recent and partly because the individual, even if he possesses a sensitive conscience, is not inclined to demand ethical actions of his group as long as his own attitude toward the group is ethical. There is an increasing tendency among modern men to imagine themselves ethical because they have delegated their vices to larger and larger groups. Yet the groups are not large enough to give moral unity to mankind, and the whole process may simply tend to make the next war an intercontinental war, a real world war instead of merely a Western World war.

Ethical individuals tend to condone unethical group actions partly because their individual attitude toward their group easily obscures the essentially selfish attitude of the group; but partly it is a strategy by which they are able to indulge their weaknesses without seeming to do so. We are proud, as white men, in our relation to other races because there is comparatively little opportunity to indulge our pride among white men. If we bully Mexico, that is partly to compensate ourselves for the lost opportunities of bullying individual neighbors.

Sometimes group selfishness is further aggravated by the inability of the individual citizen to see the consequences of national action in the attitudes of other nations who are geographically remote but in intimate economic contact with our own nation. America to-day has a standard of living in such flagrant disproportion to that of any other part of the world that it is arousing the envy of practically every nation. Dispassionate observers agree that America is falling into disfavor in every part of the world because the world is either envious of our luxury or afraid of our economic power. The envy may be unethical, but it is inevitable; and fear may not be justified by any malice in our hearts, but it is natural. A belligerently nationalistic paper recently criticized President Coolidge for insisting that we shall not arouse the mistrust of the world by increasing our armaments. The world hates us, — so ran the argument of the journalistic critic, — not for our armaments, but for our tariff and our immigration policy. The point would seem to be well taken. The feeling which the question of Interallied debts has created in European countries is but a symptom of a general attitude toward us which is prompted by the fact that we live in a paradise that is protected by the two walls of the tariff and immigration restriction. Our immigration policy might be ethically defended by the reflection that as long as there is no universal birth control any effort to equalize the relation of national resources to population must prove abortive. Yet it is not this consideration which prompts our policy. We simply assume, as does every other nation, that it is our duty, as well as our right, to protect and preserve any advantages which our citizens may enjoy above those of other peoples.

Millions of Americans, not all of them thoroughgoing pacifists, of course, who are passionate in their espousal of world peace and disarmament, have never given the slightest consideration to these economic realities. They want America to trust the world and are sure that the world will in turn trust America. Their faith is too naïve. They do not realize that a nation cannot afford to trust anyone if it is not willing to go to the length of sharing its advantages. Love which expresses itself in trust without expressing itself in sacrifice is futile. It is not thoroughgoing enough to be creative or redemptive.

Since it is more difficult for groups than for individuals to moralize their actions, and since nations have long enjoyed complete moral autonomy, it would be foolish to expect any immediate or easy spiritualizing of national conduct; nor is it necessary to postpone every policy of international trust until nations have become completely ethical in their conduct. But it is obvious that it is at least as important to create an unselfish national attitude as to adopt policies of mutual trust. This fact is easily obscured, particularly in those nations which for the moment enjoy the highest privileges. There are Continental cynics and shrewd observers in other parts of the world who slyly suggest that pacifism is a virtue which only the two great Anglo-Saxon nations are able to enjoy. The implication is that England and America are the only two really solvent nations in the Western World, and that, since they have what they want and need, it is to their interest to preach peace. The hungry nations will meanwhile fail to react to this moral idealism. They will shrewdly and cynically observe that it is always the tendency of those who have to extol the virtue of peace and order and to place those who have not at a moral disadvantage.

It is quite impossible for the strong to be redemptive in their relation to the weak if they are not willing to share the weakness of the weak, or at least to equalize in some degree the disproportion of advantages.


It is for this reason that the ‘outlawry of war’ idea so passionately espoused by many Americans takes so little root in Europe. The ‘outlawry of war’ programme is practically to adopt pacifism on a mutual and international scale, to persuade the nations of the earth simultaneously to disavow the use of force. Logically and legally the plan seems perfect. But it is weak psychologically. In a sense it is typically American; for America is sufficiently impregnable in her position to be emancipated from the fear complexes which disturb European, particularly Continental, nations, and she is sufficiently privileged to desire the use of force no more for purposes of aggression than for needs of defense. Meanwhile the insistence of many American peace idealists that America must not enter Europe and make its problems ours until Europe disavows the use of force merely tends to become an ethical sublimation of an essentially selfish national position. It gives moral sanction to a policy of isolation which has its real basis in quite other considerations. The real reason why we do not associate intimately with Europe is that we have many advantages which might be sacrificed in a too intimate fellowship. The general effect of the outlawry programme is to beguile a nation which stands aloof to preserve the advantages of its strength into believing that it stands alone to preserve the advantages of its virtue.

In this connection it is to be noted that some of our statesmen and publicists who are most critical of European armaments and the alleged sanction of war in the Covenant of the League of Nations are the very ones who are most unyielding in the matter of Interallied debts. Senator Borah, who is in many respects the most honest and rugged statesman in Washington, and whose attitude in regard to Oriental and South American questions is probably the greatest single force for the moralizing of our national conduct, is singularly obtuse in regard to this European problem. For the peace of the world it would be an immeasurable advantage if we could forget some of our moral scruples against Europe for the sake of entering into a more intimate fellowship with her, in which there might be some chance of mitigating the fears and hatreds which American wealth and strength are creating in impoverished Europe.

In a sense our advocates of national preparedness represent the sober common sense of the nation against the moral obfuscation of many peace enthusiasts. A strong and privileged nation, strong enough to be emancipated from the fear of any immediate attack, and privileged enough to need nothing which the force of arms might be able to secure, may indulge the peace ideal for the moment. But ultimately both its strength and its privilege will incite enmity and aggression. Except it uses its strength more wisely than seems probable from past history, and shares its privileges more unselfishly than any nation has yet been inclined to, it is bound to array the world against it. That is the prospect which America faces.

Those of us who are pacifists ought to realize more clearly than we do that spiritual attitudes can never guarantee us security in the possession of material advantages. There is much to be said for the position that a civilization and a culture may not only be protected without the use of force, but that they can be maintained incorruptibly in no other way. But it requires an army to preserve a higher standard of living than the rest of the world enjoys. An essentially selfish nation cannot afford to be trusting. Its selfishness destroys the redemptive and morally creative power of its trust.

Many individual idealists are taking the justified position that the best way to bring unethical groups under ethical control is to disassociate themselves clearly from the unethical conduct of the group, at whatever cost. Too few of them have realized that, if such action is to be morally redemptive, it must disassociate the individual not only from the policy of using physical force but from the policy of insisting on material advantages which destroy human fellowship and make the use of force necessary.