Pacifism and Reality: Commentary on Pollard, Mollov and Barhoum, and Tharien

- Yeruham Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Fax: + 972-7-6477633
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 56.

The pacifists are right. I wish I could be a pacifist myself. But I am sorry to say that I cannot. I am also sorry to have to express some criticism of Irina's paper, because I have met Irina personally and highly respect her and her sincerity. First I'll state this criticism and then I'll explain why I cannot be a pacifist.

I have no argument with, nor am I qualified to judge, most of the data and analyses in Irina's paper. But as a citizen of a nation where war, terror and violence, although not so prevalent as the news reports make them seem, are facts of life, I am uneasy when I hear or read pacifist statements by people from countries who have not had war in many, many years. I have no argument on this score with Dr. Tharien, whose country has not infrequently been engaged in military conflict but who courageously speaks his views. But I have trouble when I hear criticism of nations at war coming from academic people in countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose peaceful way of life and high standards of living separate them from the realities of much of the world.

I regret to say also that the peaceful way of life and high standards of living in some of these countries are largely owing to the fact that their native peoples are too small or weak to fight any more. The substantial difference between the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand -- on the one hand -- and South Africa --on the other -- is that the native population in the latter country is stronger and more numerous.

In times and places where conflict is unavoidable, I think we have three choices: (l) To be purely ethical and ignore the existence of the conflict; (2) to be a pure fighter and ignore the existence of ethics; and (3) to face up to the existence of the conflict, to fight if necessary for one's life and the lives of one's family and community but to try at the same time to live up to the highest standards of ethics.

The first choice, the pacifist choice, can amount to suicide and to the destruction of one's family and community as well. Of course some pacifists have been successful in achieving great goals. The most famous example was Mahatma Gandhi. But it is unclear how true or how illusory it is to say that he defeated the English, and achieved Indian independence with pacifism. The English were exhausted after two world wars which devastated them even though they won them. And they had fought many battles against those groups in India who were not pacifist. The English were also busy with violet revolution in other parts of their colonial empire: Israel for example. So if Gandhi's pacifism gets credit for Indian independence it also has to be said that he sure got a lot of help from non-pacifism.

The second choice, to fight and ignore ethics, turns one into a monster.

The third choice, to work to maximize bioethics in a world where conflict is unavoidable, seems to me to be the only possible one. Even though I would prefer that there be no war, the existence of war gives us the opportunity to work for great ethical achievements which might not have been attained otherwise. The greatest of these is, in the very. midst of the conflict, to recognize the humanity of the people on the other side. Most obvious to bioethicists should be the obligation to extend medical aid -- whether it be hospital treatment or first aid after an accident or a battle -- freely without concern for the religious or political association of the people in need. I have met some skepticism about this from people from some conflict areas in the world, but where I live it is a fact of life (which the news media, who like to stir up trouble, would prefer to ignore) to see Israelis and Palestinians extending aid to one another in emergency situations: and without making any hypocritical attempts to hide their loyalties.

There is also a need for more cooperation between politically hostile groups in the areas of public and environmental health -- a need which should be obvious because we share the same environment. Pathogens don't recognize politics -- a fact which shows how silly were the bumper stickers which one saw in Israel a few years ago: "Separating for Peace". Nor do people recognize politics when it comes to buying and selling (including foodstuffs) and employment. This makes cooperation in public health that much more important. But the problem is that personal relationships and aid in emergency can take place among individuals while cooperation in public health requires government ministries, who can be much more stubborn and sensitive to political ups and downs. Perhaps Ben Mollov and Musa Barhoum's student dialogues -- in which I have participated -- will help if today's students turn out to be tomorrow's leaders. But I still have more faith in natural, spontaneous personal contacts, than in academic, organized affairs.

Pacifists may say that all these efforts to be bioethical in the midst of war could be avoided if we just stopped making war. This is obviously true, but I don't think we should wait for the blessed future (the "mashaich", the "Second Coming", the "New Age" or whatever) to arrive before we start being bioethical. We should try to be bioethical now. In fact I sometimes wonder whether maybe God wants there to be bad things in the world, like war and disease and poverty, in order to give us the opportunity to achieve the greatness of being bioethical in difficult situations: a greater greatness than being bioethical in an easy world. (This is probably the answer to the philosophers' "problem of evil": but that will have to be explained at more length in another essay.)

Go back to EJAIB 9(2) March 1999
Bioethics is Love of Life An alternative textbook on cross-cultural ethics by Darryl Macer
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: