Friday 29 May 2015

When Does a Pacifist Pick up a Gun?

What would it take to get a pacifist to pick up a gun? I guess before we try to answer that question I should begin by saying what I think a pacifist is.

According to CollinsDictionary, pacifism is: (1) the belief that violence of any kind is unjustifiable and that one should not participate in war, and (2) the belief that international disputes can be settled by arbitration rather than war.

The second definition seems rather narrow to me, so I'm going to stick with the first one. I'm also going to limit this to violence between people. Violence towards animals is a whole subject of its own, and I'm not going there today.

Some of my readers might think of themselves as pacifists, and others might be nothing of the sort, so hopefully that will bring a whole spectrum of views to the table.

So what we're talking about here is this. If someone believes that violence of any kind towards other people is unjustified, what would it take to make them pick up a gun and use it against somebody else?

That's a tough question to answer, so I'm going to begin by posing a different question. If the life of somebody you love were threatened, how far would you go to defend them? This is the question faced by Dominic in An Accident of Birth, when Baron Craig Drake deliberately threatens Francesca with a fate worse than death. What should Dominic, a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, do? Dominic is many things, but he is not a coward, yet he firmly believes he should not resort to violence.

So what should a pacifist do in that situation? Obviously they would seek out every non-violent means at their disposal to save their loved one, but how about if I pose a more specific problem, and we'll see what we can do with it.

Suppose you're asleep in the depths of night, and you're woken by the sound of an intruder. Your loved one is right there, vulnerable to whoever has just broken in, and there's no way out without going past where the intruder is.

There are several things you don't know about the intruder. Are they armed? Are they willing to kill? Will they kill without hesitation, or would they negotiate? Will they find you in the next ten seconds or ten minutes? You simply don't know. Will you leave it to chance, and hope they won't respond to your presence by killing you and your loved one? Or will you act first, quickly, and take chance out of the equation? Hit before they know you're there? Kill first?

Plenty of people would say that of course you should kill first and not give the intruder the benefit of the doubt. But for some others it's a dilemma. Even though the stakes are high, it's still tempting to try to find another way out of the situation. But if you've only got seconds to think about it, perhaps a more visceral response might be inevitable. Is there a real alternative?

Perhaps then the dyed-in-the-wool pacifist might respond with violence?


  1. Valid and difficult question. Having been a card carrying pacifist - member of the Peace Pledge Union - I would have found the dilemma hard. Although I would not have used a gun or even owned one, I would have been tempted to use something to disarm an intruder if he had a weapon. My characters often use Aikido which redirects an aggressor's power, which is not strictly pacifist either. Is self-defense violence? Some pacifists ended up fighting against Hitler as they felt Nazism was the worse evil.

    1. Interesting - thank you, Roland. Yes, it's an interesting situation when a pacifist goes to war because they can't accept the outcome of not doing so. Throughout history pacifists have been presented with this dilemma. I guess it's a situation in which there is no right thing to do.