The peace agenda of Russell and his followers was always based on the assumption that war is simply a euphemism for the madness of state-sponsored mass murder, and that we could prevent it by standing up for moral and political sanity – by committing ourselves to global justice and the relief of poverty, for instance, or social and sexual equality, or common ownership, or world government, or a Lawrentian explosion of creativity and sex. But the paths to war are paved not with malice but with righteous self-certainty.
…Different threats to peace, like different threats to health, require different precautions and different interventions, depending on the individual case, and success in averting war is going to depend on luck as much as judgement.
Jonathan Ree on “Russell’s Lofty Pacifism” in New Humanist, Summer 2014
Ree’s comments about Betrand Russell highlight a difference between the view of war held by pacifists – namely that war is always, by definition, immoral, exploitative and oppressive – and the view of most other people that there is such a thing as “just war”, and there are therefore times when society’s general taboo on mass killing can be lifted. And it’s an odd thought that pacifists like Russell, characterizing a kind of moral smugness, may, in their self-righteous certainty and altruism, be closer than most to the misguided, militarist types who are their opposites.
This helps explain why we sometimes get so riled up by the pacifist position. If pacifism comes down to an assertion that “not killing humans in the name of disputes among groups of people” is better than “killing humans in the name of disputes among groups of people”, then it’s simply stating the obvious – while claiming an annoying moral high ground in the process.
But I can’t say with certainty that pacifism is wrong. I want it to be possible to utterly outlaw war, and have human society realign itself to accommodate that prohibition.