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Pacifism

Pacifism, which literally refers to making peace (from pace and facere) is often mistakenly understood as passivity.


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Pacifism and Philosophy is the text of a talk Huxley gave in 1936. Some of its references are of its time but his arguments remain as relevant today as it was then. ‘Pacifists’, Huxley writes, ‘are people who have broken with an old establishes convention of though – the utopian dream of pacifism is in fact a practical policy; indeed, the only practical, the only realistic policy there is.’

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Can bad means ever lead to a realisation of the good ends desired by their users?

1 PACIFISM AND PHILOSOPHY

The title of this essay is, I am afraid, deceptively pretentious. I lack the time as well as the ability to set forth a philosophy of pacifism or to relate pacifism to existing systems of philosophy. What I propose to do, because it is all I can do, is something much less ambitious. I shall try, first, to set forth some of the intellectual justifications for pacifism, and, secondly, I shall discuss what I may call the indispensable philosophical conditions of pacifism. The essay will be of necessity fragmentary and incomplete; it is a defect for which I apologise in advance.

Any discussion of the theory of pacifism must be prefaced by a more general discussion of the relation of means to ends. Two questions at once propound themselves: one concerned with ethics, the other concerned with observable facts. Do good ends justify bad means? That is the first question. And the second is this: Can bad or even merely unsuitable means ever in fact lead to a realisation of the good ends desired by their users?

To those of us who believe that it is possible for human beings to get behind the conventions in which they have been brought up, to circumvent what a behaviourist would call their ‘conditioning’ and gain a direct intuition of the nature of right and wrong, the answer to the first question will come very easily. It will be an unqualified ‘No’. Good ends do not and cannot justify bad means.

To many people, however, this sort of transcendental ethic is unacceptable. At the present time, for example, we find many ardent reformers who combine a kind of simple utilitarian philosophy with fanatical attachment to the cause they have made their own. If the cause can be served – and ex hypothesi the success of the cause must bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number – then, they argue, the infliction of pain or death on a recalcitrant minority, or even majority, is justified. Rulers of contemporary totalitarian states invoke this argument to justify the most monstrous actions.

And here we reach our second question. Can bad means ever lead to a realisation of the good ends desired by their users? Now, all experience seems to show that means determine ends. Particular ends can be realised only by appropriate means; if the means are inappropriate the ends realised will be quite different from the ends proposed.

In the sphere of art, of science, and of technical activity of every kind, this proposition – that means determine ends – is taken for granted as being completely self-evident. Here is a painter, for example. The end he proposes is to paint pictures like those of Rubens; but the means which nature and education and the colourman have put at his disposal are wholly inappropriate. These means will so determine his ends that, setting out to paint like Rubens, he will produce a daub.

It is the same with the scientist and the technician. My end may be to transmute elements or produce an aeroplane engine; but lacking the appropriate means, I shall realise ends painfully different from those I originally proposed.

All this is so completely obvious that nobody in his senses would dream of questioning it. But the moment we leave the spheres of art, science and technology, and enter those of politics, commerce, finance, administration and private life, the fact that means determine ends no longer appears self-evident, and a fantastic belief prevails that specific ends can be achieved by means which experience has repeatedly proved to be quite inappropriate. In many cases this mistaken view of fact is accompanied by the ethically unsound belief that the inappropriate or downright bad means are justified by the excellence of the ends proposed.

We see, then, that, while engaged in activities of one kind, all men recognise that means determine ends. But change the activities, and they resolutely refuse to recognise the fact.

I need not discuss the reasons for this inconsistency. They are constituted by passions and interests which come into play when men are dealing in politics, commerce and the like, but do not come into play while they are engaged in artistic, technical or scientific work. Further, the results of not recognising that means determine ends are instantly recognisable in the spheres of art and science; in those of politics, commerce and individual life, the effects of inappropriate means do not manifest themselves quite so promptly and the manifestations are often masked.

But whatever the time lag, and however careful the masking, those effects are certain. A man may desire to paint a good picture; but if he cannot draw or paint, if he has bad brushes and muddy colours, then it is quite certain that his picture will be bad. Similarly, a man may wish to be loved and respected by his family; but if he flies into tempers, uses violent words and gestures, shows himself incapable of exercising self-control, he will certainly fail to achieve his end. But it will be very difficult for him to recognize this certainty.

The application of all this to pacifism is obvious. Our end is peace. How do we propose to realise this end? >

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