Unless You Are a Pacifist…

May 30, 2016

“Unless you are a pacifist….”  With these words, E. J. Dionne begins a thoughtful column about Obama and Hiroshima’s Moral Lessons concerning the President’s recent visit to the first site of a nuclear bomb strike seventy-one years ago.

Unless you are a pacifist, you accept that evil acts — the destruction of other human lives — can be justified, even necessary, in pursuit of good and urgent ends.

Dionne has nothing further to say about pacifists in this column published on the eve of Memorial Day 2016.  Should one be a pacifist? Dionne doesn’t say explicitly, but he goes on to discuss only the alternative: that you are not a pacifist.  Here’s the second sentence:

But unless you are amoral, you also acknowledge the human capacity for self delusion and selfishness. People are quite capable of justifying the utterly unjustifiable by draping their immoral actions behind sweeping ethical claims.

Thus, Dionne brackets the reasonable man’s approach by positioning it between “pacifism” on the one hand and “amoralism” on the other.  The position of the reasonable man turns out to be Obama’s, and also turns out to be that of Reinhold Niebuhr as expressed in Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

For the record, this pacifist does acknowledge “the human capacity for self-delusion and selfishness.” It is because I recognize my own capacity for selfishness that I am a pacifist, not because I think myself purer than others.  I suspect most pacifists would agree. So why don’t we pacifists acknowledge that “evil acts can be justified, even necessary, in pursuit of good and urgent ends”?

Because, as A. J. Muste put it elegantly, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”  The “no” has to begin somewhere. Why not with me?  Justifying evil acts can have no end in sight.

I am glad Dionne praised President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima, and glad that he excavated its roots in Niebuhr. But I wish he hadn’t raised the possibility of pacifism and then sidestepped its challenge so casually.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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