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



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?


The application of all this to pacifism is obvious. Our end is peace. How do we propose to realise this end? Experience makes it abundantly clear that if we want to be treated with trust and affection by others, we must ourselves treat those others with trust and affection. If we play dirty tricks on them, we shall engender resentment, fear and hatred. Politicians affirm their desire to preserve peace; but the means they use are wholly inappropriate. In the name of a monstrous figment of the imagination – the sovereign and absolutely immoral state – they are continually engaged in swindling and threatening their neighbours. And as if this were not enough, from time to time they pass from threats to actual violence and declare a war. When this happens, they profess to be, and, I believe, very often quite genuinely are, astonished that their efforts for peace have met with so little success. Pacifists are realistic people who affirm that what is universally admitted to be true of art, science and technology is no less certainly and evidently true of politics, economics and private life. Peace between nations, classes and individuals is the end which all men profess to desire and which almost all genuinely do desire. But no end can be realised except by appropriate means. Experience shows that swindling, threats of violence and violence itself are wholly inappropriate means. (They are also, for those who believe that it is possible to have an insight into the nature of goodness, intrinsically wrong in themselves and therefore to be avoided in any circumstances.) Pacifism prescribes the appropriate means for attaining the ends desired by all.

One of the most common arguments against the pacifist case consists in a denial that persuasion can ever be fully effective. Fear and greed, it is affirmed, are the only two persistent motives of human conduct. Therefore bribery and violence are the only effective instruments of policy. How far is this argument well-founded? The physical world as we know it is to a great extent a construction of our own. Our minds and bodies are so constituted that we cannot fail to inhabit a universe of space and time, containing colours, sounds and solid objects. But our part in constructing the world goes further than this. We choose, as Bergson and others have pointed out, to be aware only of the utilitarian aspects of the external universe. Our vision is what I may call a biologico-business man vision. We see what will help us to survive and what we think will help us to get on in the society of which we are members. This is the common way of seeing, but not the only way. Talent and education make it possible for certain people to see in other ways. The recent history of art is instructive on this point. In the nineteenth century we find the Impressionists deciding to record exactly what they saw – not the elaborate construction from direct experience which their contemporaries conventionally thought they saw. Possessing the appropriate artistic means, they were able to realise these ends. The first reaction of the general public was one of bewildered indignation. The Impressionists were accused of being practical jokers, incompetent madmen, swindlers who deliberately suppressed the truth about the external world and substituted for it a crazy lie of their own invention. In time, however, the indignation died down, and the general public came to perceive that the paintings of the Impressionists were exactly what they had said they were – statements of immediate sensuous reality.

Since the time of the Impressionists painters have looked at the world in a variety of different ways. Some have chosen to concentrate their attention on the purely formal aspects of external reality, some have elected to see the world as an almost flat surface splashed with colour, some have used certain recognizable elements of external reality for the sole purpose of expressing the obscure workings of their fancy.

What can be done in the sphere of aesthetics can also be done in the sphere of ethics. We largely construct the ethical world in which we live. It is to a great extent a matter of choice whether we construct it as a world of fear and greed, or as a world of trust and love. In Europe for a great many centuries past most people have chosen to build up for themselves a world where greed and fear played a predominant part. That world has often been denounced, but rarely accurately described. The first dispassionate account of it was given by Machiavelli.

More than three centuries ago Bacon wrote that, ‘We are much beholden to Machiavel and others that write what men do and not what they ought to do.’ Bacon was quite right. It is essential that we should know how the human world really works. But even more important is the realisation that the world described by Machiavelli is not the only possible world. There are at the present time primitive peoples like the Eskimos, to whom the idea of war seems inconceivable and who make but the smallest use of violence in their personal relations with their fellows. More significant, there now seems to be no doubt that a highly elaborate civilisation – the civilisation of the Indus Valley – endured through long centuries without resort to organised violence. In more recent times, the members of certain religious organisations in Europe have succeeded, at any rate for a time, in doing almost as well as the Eskimos and the people of Mohenjo Dara and Harappa. Thus it has been actually demonstrated that men are able to construct a world in which fear and greed are not the mainsprings of action, in which organised violence plays little or no part. Even in the world we have chosen to construct, greed and fear are not the only motives, nor violence the sole sanction. Love is also a motive, and persuasion a method. The danger is that if violence be used too extensively, if fear or greed be too much played upon, love and persuasion will be driven out. Unless we are perpetually on our guard, bad politics, bad art, bad personal relations tend to drive out good politics, good art and good personal relations. How are we to prevent the good being driven out by the bad? It is not my business to discuss the reforms in political and economic institutions which should in part accompany and must in part result from the acceptance by men and women of some appropriate art of living. I have done enough if I have succeeded in showing that there is nothing inherently absurd about the idea that the world which we ourselves have so largely constructed can also, if we so desire, be reconstructed on other better lines.

These justifications of pacifism are simple and obvious enough; but they serve, I think, to answer most of the justifications of war invented by military-minded theologians and philosophers. Thus, St Augustine argues that war is justified, among other reasons, because the end proposed by it is peace. But we have seen that peace cannot be realised by means so hopelessly inappropriate as mass violence. The same answer can be made to those who, with Calvin, regard war as part of the work of retributive justice, entrusted by God to civil magistrates. Retribution is an inappropriate method of securing peace. Those who draw a distinction between the bad unjust war and the permissible and even excellent just war are answered in the same way.

In recent times, many apologists of war have insisted on its naturalness. But no mammal makes war in the human sense of the term; and we find that in fact there exist and have existed societies which have not used war. This means that it is possible >

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