Blaming Pacifism for Our Embrace of Torture? Are You Serious?

Blaming Pacifism for Our Embrace of Torture? Are You Serious? December 11, 2014

With apparently no worthier individuals or ideologies to blame for widespread acceptance of torture, Matthew Schmitz of First Things says he’s inclined to blame pacifism: “Many people believe along with the pacifists that war does indeed necessarily involve evil actions and so any attempt to impose a moral standard on our conduct is doomed from the start.” If I follow his argument, Schmitz seems to be saying that pacifism’s total condemnation of war makes it more difficult to condemn particular acts during a war such as the torture of detainees.

This reasoning fails in several ways. First of all, pacifism hardly has wide acclaim in American culture. The torture techniques used by the United States government have much more support than pacifism does. As Schmitz himself notes, pacifism is much derided. The use of torture isn’t. I wish pacifists like myself wielded more influence in society, but I’m afraid we’re an often ridiculed minority with little ideological power.

Second, no philosophical link between pacifism and the embrace of torture exists. Schmitz conflates pacifism and consequentialism. By rejecting war flat out, pacifism rejects the ethics of consequentialism that torture-defenders use to justify the practice. Pacifism says war is evil, full stop, so we must not engage in it no matter what. It doesn’t say war is evil, but for the greater good evil sometimes has to be done. By saying the one, it cannot logically say the other. Point in fact, pacifism condemns such a buddy-buddy relationship with evil.

Third, Schmitz’s faulting pacifism for the acceptance of torture distracts from the real culprits–the individuals who designed the torture program, the people who promoted and defended it in the media (and still do!), and the prevalence of consequentialist ethics, to name a few. Really, what’s the point of blaming pacifism? How does that help right now? The real villains are out in the open. President Obama won’t be holding them accountable, but we should.

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