The Folly of Pacificism, Again

I had meant to be done with pacifism after writing “The Folly of Pacifism.” But I cannot ignore the subject because it rears its ugly head again, in Fernando Teson’s “Libertarian Wars” at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

It is not that Teson is a pacifist, but he neatly summarizes an argument against war that Bryan Caplan — an avowed pacifist (and the main target of my earlier post) — is fond of using; for example:

[D]oesn’t pacifism contradict the libertarian principle that people have a right to use retaliatory force?  No.  I’m all for revenge against individual criminals.  My claim is that in practice, it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent.

Why is it “nearly impossible to wage war justly”? In a later post, Caplan puts it this way:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

It would seem that Caplan is not entirely opposed to war — as long as the ratio of lives saved to lives lost is acceptably high. And Caplan gets to choose the number of persons who may die for the sake of those who may thus live. He wears his God-like omniscience with such modesty.

Teson offers a more rigorous interpretation of the pacifist point of view:

[I]n any war innocents die. They did not initiate violence against us, yet in response to the foreign attack we will be bringing about their deaths. Maybe the morally right thing to do is to surrender to the aggressor, if doing so would prevent us from causing the deaths of innocents. The libertarian who thinks that we cannot permissibly fight even defensive wars is a contingent pacifist. To him, if we could repeal the attack avoiding simultaneously the deaths of bystanders, then we could permissibly do it. But because we cannot avoid those deaths, we may not react against the attack: we must wave the white flag. This reasoning applies to the defense of others as well, because that action, too, will bring about the deaths of innocents. On this view, NATO’s intervention in Libya is wrong, not because it protects persons attacked by Khadaffy, but because it impermissibly kills innocents.

Teson’s formulation strikes me as the one that most pacifists would prefer. But it is as mistaken as Caplan’s more blatantly presumptuous brand of soul-accountancy. Perhaps Caplan is angling to be the Death-Panel Czar.

Seriously — and war is a serious matter — the case for pacifism, as it is made by Caplan and Teson, is fundamentally flawed.

First, it assumes a social-welfare function, wherein A’s unhappiness can cancels B’s happiness. In this instance, the lives of some “innocents” are weighed against the lives of other “innocents” and found unworthy of defense by war. This is a weighing that no human being is qualified to conduct on behalf of others.

Second, this weighing of lives can be done only if one studiously refuses to be counted among those whose lives are saved (or potentially saved) by waging war. In other words, the true pacifist is saying that his life is not worth that of any other person, even an armed enemy. So much for self-defense, which may be rejected readily enough on paper and behind the shield afforded by the defense and police forces of the United States.

Third, it rejects the actuality of human nature for an idealized version that is impossible of realization. It is, in other words, an example of the Nirvana fallacy in operation. In this instance it is based on two assumptions — hopes, really — that run contrary to the actuality of human existence. There is the hope for a world without states, and therefore without the kind of state-sponsored violence known as war. But states are inevitable because statelessness invites warlordism, and if a supposedly stateless people join in self-defense against a warlord they will have created what amounts to a state for the purpose of committing violence — in self-defense. Then there is the hope that people — state or no state — will not band together against the “outside world,” but they will.

I address this second hope in “Inside-Outside,” which is aimed at another of Caplan’s many pacifistic screeds. The whole of my post bears repeating:

Bryan Caplan seems to think that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias.”

It is nothing of the kind, however. It is a simple case of self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

The cause of Caplan’s confusion is his adherence to a kind of libertarian idealism. In the anti-war argot of the 1960s, it was expressed as “Why can’t we all just get along?” But hope is not reality, Caplan notwithstanding.

Not getting along, to Caplan, is a moral defect. He therefore considers the differential treatment of insiders and outsiders to be an unmitigated wrong. But group cohesion is a prudential social instinct that no amount of rationalism can obliterate. Differential treatment of insiders and outsiders is an inevitable aspect of that prudential social instinct. It is not, at bottom, a moral issue.

If Caplan were logically consistent, he would focus his moral lens on the animal kingdom. There is plenty of inter-group conflict to condemn there: shark vs. tuna, cheetah vs. antelope, spider vs. fly, and so on. In the case of man vs. cattle (hog, fish, fowl, or other living thing), I wonder if Caplan opts for veganism? It would be the proper choice — for him.

Pacifism is a sophomoric fantasy on a par with anarchism. It is sad to see Caplan’s intelligence wasted on the promulgation and defense of an ideological fantasy.

Related posts:
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Conservative Criticism of the War on Terror
Why Sovereignty?
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Why We Fight
Getting It Almost Right about Iraq
Philosophical Obtuseness
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
Shall We All Hang Separately?
Foxhole Rats
Foxhole Rats, Redux
Know Thine Enemy
September 11: A Remembrance
September 11: A Postscript for “Peace Lovers”
The Faces of Appeasement
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Torture and Morality
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
We Have Met the Enemy . . .
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Whose Liberties Are We Fighting For?
The Constitution and Warrantless “Eavesdropping”
NSA “Eavesdropping”: The Last Word (from Me)
Privacy, Security, and Electronic Surveillance
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
Words for the Unwise
More Foxhole Rats
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Anarcho-Libertarian “Stretching”
Recommended Reading about NSA’s Surveillance Program
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
What If We Lose?
A Footnote about “Eavesdropping”
Thomas Woods and War
More than Enough Amateur Critics
Moussaoui and “White Guilt”
Jihad in Canada
In Defense of Ann Coulter
In Which I Reply to the Executive Editor of The New York Times
Post-Americans and Their Progeny
“Peace for Our Time”
Anti-Bush or Pro-Treason?
“Proportionate Response” in Perspective
Parsing Peace
Taking on Torture
Conspiracy Theorists’ Cousins
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
September 11: Five Years On
How to View Defense Spending
Reaching the Limit?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Terrorists’ “Rights” and the Military Commissions Act of 2006
More Stupidity from Cato
The Military Commissions Act of 2006
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
And Your Point Is?
Anarchistic Balderdash
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

Katie Couric: Post-American
It *Is* the Oil
Here We Go Again
Christmas in Iran: Foreign Affairs According to Planet Rockwell
Torture, Revisited
Waterboarding, Torture, and Defense
9/11 Plotters and the Death Penalty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
September 11: A Remembrance
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
Accountants of the Soul
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?