War Abolition in the Pacifist Tradition

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As wars continue to wreak havoc across the globe, the Pacifist tradition, with its thousands-year-old pedigree, suggests innovative ways to eliminate warfare once and for all.  


When wars break out, moral thinking narrows. The complex and horrifying spectacle of war encourages moral myopia. The moral emergency of war focuses our attention on the near-at-hand. And the so-called “fog of war” makes it difficult to see the whole of war in all of its absurd brutality. In a sense, it is easier to single out individual battles, heroic leaders, and patriotic sacrifice than to broaden our perspective and think critically about war as a social, political, and spiritual disaster.

It is also easier, in a sense, to pick sides and focus on who has a just cause for war. But often, these judgments are biased and self-serving. I described this as “the just war myth” in a book with that title published as the U.S. was waging war in Iraq.[i]  A one-sided application of the just war theory is used by hawks to argue that we are “the good guys” who fight and win justified wars. But usually, each of the militant parties justifies itself in this way. This tendency to view one’s own side as justified is part of the moral myopia of war.

If we broaden our horizons and look at the whole of war as a social, political, economic, and spiritual practice, we begin to suspect that the entire enterprise is corrupt and corrupting. Even “the good guys” do immoral things and make moral compromises within war. Unfortunately, the social and political world seems to accept this as normal. War is simply taken for granted as a necessary feature of reality. And many view war as a heroic enterprise rather than a tragic failure of social and political institutions.

As a result, the critics of war are often ignored or silenced. Still, Pacifists have persisted in maintaining that the very idea of war is absurd. And even if we admit that limited moral judgments can be made within specific wars, the pacifist critique of war asks us to see that the whole project of war is irrational. Pacifists encourage us to look beyond the partial judgments of the just war theory. They urge us to overcome and abolish war.

The goal of abolishing war has been articulated and defended by a number of important figures in the broad pacifist tradition.[ii]  This tradition is a centuries-long conversation about the absurdity of violence and war. We could extend this tradition back to Jesus, who told his followers to love their enemies, and to Socrates, who said that it was wrong to return evil for evil. This tradition includes Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu advocates of nonviolence (ahimsa), as well as Muslim thinkers who maintain, as Wahiduddin Khan does, that “war is against the creation plan of God.”[iii]

Some extend the call for nonviolence to animals. Others focus on the efficacy of nonviolent social protest as inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But here let’s focus on the anti-war pacifism of some prominent thinkers in the Western tradition who have explicitly called for the abolition of war: Immanuel Kant, Jane Addams, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and Pope Francis.

In 1797, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that morality offers an “irresistible veto” on war. “There is to be no war,” he said. And: “We must work toward establishing perpetual peace… and put an end to the heinous waging of war.”[iv]  Kant imagined world peace developing through an international league of nations. He also hoped that the spread of republican political values would lead to the end of war.

In 1927, after the First World War, Jane Addams said: “It is as practicable to abolish war as it was to abolish the institution of chattel slavery, which also was based on human desires and greed.”[v]  In citing the example of slavery, Addams reminds us that moral transformation is not impossible. Humanity has abolished other immoral practices. We can do the same with war.

After the Second World War, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell both warned that the weapons of war had grown so powerful that it was necessary to abolish war. In 1952, Einstein said, “The only solution is to abolish both war and the threat of war.”[vi]  Einstein collaborated with Russell in calling for disarmament. Russell wrote an essay in 1960 entitled “Can War Be Abolished?”  He said, “Either man will abolish war, or war will abolish man.”[vii]

More recently, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Pope Francis said, “The moment has come to abolish war, to erase it from human history before it erases human history.”[viii]  In his 2022 book Against War, Francis states: “War is madness.”[ix]  And: “Never again war… We must commit ourselves to building a world that is more peaceful because it is more just, where it is peace that triumphs and not the folly of war.”[x]

I quote these passages to show that serious and important thinkers have come to the conclusion that war should be abolished.  This is not naïve utopian dreaming.  Rather, the call to abolish war is based on arguments found throughout pacifist tradition. These arguments have three components.

The first point is that war is absurd. Violence and killing are sub-human ways to resolve conflicts. Violence does not make rational arguments. It may coerce, but it does not persuade. And the human beings who kill and die in war are used as cogs in the machine of war, which does not care for the dignity and worth of persons.

The second point is that humanity is capable of self-improvement. We have, in fact, abolished many pernicious practices, from slavery and cannibalism to the subordination of women. War is a social construct that is not inevitable. It is a complex practice involving economic, social, political, and spiritual structures and values. Those values, cultures, and conditions can be changed and improved so that war may be thrown into the dustbin of history.

The third point is that we know what needs to be done to abolish war. This transformation begins with the spread of ethical and political values that respect the dignity and worth of each and every human being. We also need to develop international systems of cooperation. And we need to reconsider our understanding of sovereignty, patriotism, and national identity. The abolition of war demands that we become more cosmopolitan, more interconnected, and less enamored of violence.

These three interrelated ideas appear throughout the pacifist tradition. Contemporary philosophers have also contributed detailed analysis and argument. In his 2017 book Pacifism, Robert L. Holmes provides an extended philosophical critique of war.[xi]  Holmes argues that the just war theory is insufficient since it tends to focus narrowly on a one-sided judgment within war. Holmes encourages us to focus moral judgment more broadly on “the totality of the effects of war.”  This broad focus shows that war, in general, is wrong, even if one side in a given war may appear justified in fighting.

Now, let’s apply this insight to the contemporary case of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Russia is the aggressor in this war. And within the conflict, Ukraine appears to have justice on its side. But once we have made this narrowly focused determination, then what? The broad critique of war asks us to reconsider all of the social and political dynamics that led to this war, including authoritarianism in Russia, the history of Cold War conflicts and geopolitical polarization, the weakness of international institutions, failures of religious and cultural institutions to build peace, economic interests, domestic politics in Europe and the United States, the presence of nuclear weapons, and a long history of suspicion and failed diplomacy.

A similar analysis could be applied to the war that has recently erupted in the Middle East. The Hamas terrorist attacks were heinous and wrong. But so too would be a war of reprisal that wreaks havoc on the civilians of Gaza. This war is a symptom of a deeper historical, social, political, and even religious dysfunction. Deep historical problems including anti-Semitism must be confronted and overcome. The status of stateless people like the Palestinians must be resolved. Religious fundamentalism must be criticized. Geopolitical imbalances must be moderated. And the very idea that terrorism and war are acceptable in the 21st Century must be taken off the table.

In saying that war ought to be abolished, this imperative is directed toward the totality of those circumstances. The war abolitionist imagines transformations in culture, society, and politics that would prevent future wars. Moral judgment is relevant within war. But a more expansive vision is needed.

Now, let’s consider an analogy with the movement to abolish slavery. Slavery was once widely practiced, legally regulated, and accepted as a social and economic institution. Within that practice, some rules and regulations guided moral and legal judgment. The Christian tradition even suggested (Colossians 4: 1) that masters treat their slaves justly and fairly. Abolitionists rejected that idea. They argued that regulations within the practice of slavery violated the “laws of humanity” (as Henry David Thoreau put it in an essay critical of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850). For the abolitionists, regulations within a system of slavery were odious.

By analogy, the war abolitionists also think that war is simply wrong. Regulating it through treaties, laws, and the just war theory is myopic. For the war abolitionist, the goal is not to make war nicer, cleaner, or more humane. Instead, the goal is to abolish it.

Now, a critic of war abolition may object that while the long-term goal of war abolition seems noble, it remains utopian. This critic may also say that moral distinctions within war are morally necessary. Aggressors are worse than defenders. War crimes need to be prosecuted. And some forms of warfighting like rape, torture, kidnapping, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction should be banned. This critic will appeal to the just war theory and international treaties to fill in the details and support these claims.

The war abolitionist might respond by admitting that moral judgment within war can be useful in the short term. But any partial account of morality within war is not the end of the story. These partial judgements tend to normalize a practice that, as a whole, is absurd and ought to be abolished.

Again, consider the analogy with slavery. Perhaps there were some kind and humane slave owners. Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have imagined a “rational and humane” approach to slavery, along with its gradual abolition.[xii]  Perhaps before slavery was abolished, it made sense to distinguish between cruel and kind slave masters. But for abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, this was all hogwash. Garrison said, “Every slave is a stolen man; every slaveholder is a man stealer.”[xiii]  The benevolence of individual slaveholders is irrelevant to the claim that the institution of slavery is wrong.

War abolitionists make a similar argument. It is the institution of war that is wrong, and that must be abolished. The moral distinctions of the just war tradition may be utilized to a limited extent. But those distinctions are near-sighted. They are similar to the distinction between humane and inhumane slave masters. What’s needed is a broader vision that recognizes that even a “just war” is a sign of a tragic failure in our humanity. As Pope Francis once put it, “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity.”[xiv]

The project of war abolition may seem naïve. However, the abolition of slavery provides a historical model of a successful abolitionist project. The pacifist tradition outlines what needs to be done to abolish war. This includes a change in the way we organize ourselves internationally and domestically. It involves restructuring the world’s militaristic economies and the so-called “military-industrial complex.”  It consists in reassessing our heroes and our myths. It requires building bridges and cultures of nonviolent conflict resolution. Ultimately, war abolition asks us to transform our values so that war is no longer imaginable.



[i] Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

[ii] See Andrew Fiala, “The Pacifist Tradition and Pacifism as Transformative and Critical Theory” The Acorn (2019), 18:1, 5-28.

[iii] Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, The Age of Peace (New Delhi: CPS International, 2015), p. 171.

[iv] Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals in Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 491.

[v] Jane Addams, “The Hopes We Inherit” in Jane Addams, Essays and Speeches (London: Continuum, 2005), 285.

[vi] Albert Einstein, Einstein on Politics: His Private Thoughts and Public Stands on Nationalism, Zionism, War, Peace, and the Bomb(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 488-9.

[vii] Bertrand Russell, “Can War Be Abolished?” in Russell, Fact and Fiction (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 308.

[viii] Pope Francis, March 27, 2022, press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2022/03/27/220327a.html, accessed August 31, 2023/.

[ix] Pope Francis, Against War: Building a Culture of Peace (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2022), 2

[x] Poe Francis, Against War, 4.

[xi] Robert L. Holmes, Pacifism: A Philosophy of Nonviolence (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

[xii] See “The Practice of Slavery at Monticello” www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/the-practice-of-slavery-at-monticello/, accessed September 26, 2023.

[xiii] William Lloyd Garrison, No Compromise with Slavery: An Address Delivered in the Broadway Tabernacle, Feb. 14, 1854 (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1854), 14.

[xiv] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html, paragraph 261, accessed September 25, 2023.

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