Philosophy Pacifism
Andrew Fiala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0298


Pacifism is a contested term. It is often defined narrowly as opposition to war; or more broadly understood as opposition to all violence. Pacifists are also sometimes committed to nonviolence as a way of life and to a vision of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Pacifism can extend toward a commitment to nonviolence in all aspects of life, including vegetarianism. Or pacifism can be narrowly construed as an antiwar position understood at the level of political theory. Pacifism has been defended in a variety of ways: by appeal to religious authority, by grounding in fundamental moral principles, and by empirical claims about the negative consequences of violence and war. As a positive commitment to nonviolence, pacifists have argued that nonviolent social activism is both beneficial and morally praiseworthy. Pacifism has deep roots in the world’s religious traditions. In Christianity it can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person” and “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). Buddhism, Jainism, and other traditions have a similar emphasis on nonviolence. Religious pacifism is central to ideas found in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Philosophical discussions of pacifism can found in the work of Erasmus, Rousseau, and other post Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers. In more recent history, versions of pacifism have been defended by William James, Jane Addams, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Einstein. Contemporary discussions in the philosophical literature proliferated during and after the Vietnam War era, as conscientious objection became an issue. In applied ethics literature, pacifists have responded in various ways to critiques of pacifism offered by Narveson and others, while also seeking to clarify “just war” theory. Recent discussions of pacifism have emphasized the varieties of pacifism, arguing that pacifism is not merely an absolutist moral prohibition against violence. Some have defended pacifism as a merely personal or vocational commitment. Others have clarified that pacifism is primarily an antiwar position that does not necessarily extend to a critique of all violence. Others have defended varieties of practical pacifism, contingent pacifism, or pacifism grounded in just war theory—as well as articulating connections between pacifism and other issues: feminism, animal welfare, ecology, and theology.

Historical Overviews

Pacifism has often been considered from the perspective of the history of ideas. Historical approaches to pacifism often focus exclusively on Christian pacifism, with a special emphasis on pacifist Christian denominations and more modern developments of these sectarian ideas—as in Brock 1998 and Brock and Young 1999. Other accounts range more broadly across the world’s traditions, with consideration of the roots of pacifism in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and in the more contemporary work of Gandhi. Historical approaches also look at the development of peace movements, antiwar activity, and examples of nonviolent social activism in the past couple of centuries—as in Cortright 2008 and Kurlansky 2006. Dallmayr 2004 provides an alternative history that focuses on Continental philosophy.

  • Brock, Peter. Varieties of Pacifism: A Survey from Antiquity to the Outset of the Twentieth Century. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998.

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    Succinct overview of pacifism from the ancient world to the modern. The primary focus is on Christian pacifism, and there is the useful introduction to pacifist sects such as Mennonites and Quakers. Concludes with Tolstoy and the First World War. The fourth edition was published in 1998 (first edition, 1981).

  • Brock, Peter, and Nigel Young. Pacifism in the 20th Century. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999.

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    Continues Brock’s historical survey (in Brock 1998), with a focus on 20th-century pacifism. Includes pictures and historical documents. Discussions of important pacifists of the 20th century including Dorothy Day and Gandhi. Examines Gandhi’s satyagraha and connections to the American civil rights movement. Concludes with Vietnam-era pacifism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • Cortright, David. Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511812675E-mail Citation »

    Traces the history of pacifism, including the global focus. Defines absolute, pragmatic, and conditional forms of pacifism. Overview of active peace movements, “just war” theory, Gandhi, King, and nonviolent activism. Rejects pacifism as an absolute moral position. Favors Gandhian nonviolent activism as a social movement and political ideology—so-called realistic pacifism.

  • Dallmayr, Fred. Peace Talks—Who Will Listen? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.

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    Historical account based upon Erasmus and Continental philosophy. Reflects on peace proposals and pacifist arguments found in a variety of philosophical texts and traditions, including Gandhi, Arendt, Heidegger, Islam, and Confucius. Argues for a sustained critique of war and focus on peacemaking. Includes focus on events of September 11.

  • Kurlansky, Mark. Nonviolence: 25 Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

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    A book for popular consumption with a series of lessons based in historical sources from multiple traditions. Claims that pacifism is passive, while nonviolence is active. Maintains that nonviolence is an effective political strategy, while violence is not effective. Considers a number of examples of successful nonviolent activism. Discusses effective peace movements.

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