A friend of mine considers himself a pacifist and he soon begins his training as a police officer.

The Wikipedia article about pacifism says:

Pacifism covers a spectrum of views, including the belief that international disputes can and should be peacefully resolved, calls for the abolition of the institutions of the military and war, opposition to any organization of society through governmental force (anarchist or libertarian pacifism), rejection of the use of physical violence to obtain political, economic or social goals, the obliteration of force, and opposition to violence under any circumstance, even defence of self and others.

One view is that pacifists reject the use of physical violence under any circumstances. On this view, would it be a contradiction, if one is a police officer and, at the same time, calls him- or herself a pacifist?

I'd like to hear some of your philosophical analyses and opinions.

Here are my initial thoughts:

Assuming that physical violence involves force used by police officers against criminals or suspects, it is a contradiction. Although police officers should not be excessive in their use of force, they still do use it. And this, it seems to me, contradicts the idea of a true pacifist.

However, after some time, I became unsure whether physical violence involves the kind of force used by police officers. And that's why I ask this question, to hear some other analyses and thoughts.

  • 3
    Absolute pacifism forbids the use of violence under any circumstances, including self-defense and defense of others. Whether or not an actual need arises police officer has to be ready to use it, including deadly force, in such situations. So being an absolute pacifist does interfere with performing police duties unless one wishes to play linguistic games where shooting a gun does not count as "violence".
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 17:50
  • What kind of police officer? Desk Officers? Trainers? I don't think anyone honestly contends that "pure pacifism" actually exists, (because of indirect consequences). Even inaction, in the face of need, is an active decision with dire consequences.. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 23:01
  • The problem is with "be". A human is the only entity that (for himself) cannot be what it is. A policeman on his duty is not a policemen for himself; rather, he is (earnestly) playing the being of policeman. The being of policemen as it is remains at him "outside" of his accessibility. Therefore any contradiction (I'm a policeman on duty with thoughts from Leo Tolstoy) is what makes me a "special policeman", for example a suffering policeman or tired of my job policeman. The "contradiction" thence is what supports me as this policeman here in place of pure concept of policeman.
    – ttnphns
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 8:16
  • Desmond Doss was decorated soldier who was also a pacifist who could never carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs. If one can be a pacifist and a soldier, one could also be a pacifist and police officer. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 23:09
  • @Conifold see my comment. Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 23:10

3 Answers 3


Pacifism suffers from the same problem as all other deontological ethics, it's only claim to be able to reach any desirable ends is if everyone adopted such a position. As soon as even one person decides not to adopt such a position, they will be able to create a less desirable world for all others, by exerting their power through force.

Once we accept, as it seems the person in question has, that a certain amount of force is acceptable to bring about an overall reduction in violence, then we have a consequentialist ethic and the value of the deontological label 'Pacifist' becomes pointless as freedom from violence is an end, not a means.

Only a psychopath would actively want a world as full of violence as it is possible to be and so all other positions become a matter of degree. Whilst there are many who consider violence to be acceptable if it achieves other goals, a large proportion of people (very few of whom would label themselves pacifists) wish to reduce the violence in the world to a practical minimum. All that remains to differ over is the degree of violence in specific cases one feels is necessary in order to bring about a world which minimises violence overall. Unless we are to accept the situation as a sorties paradox, then I'm not sure the label 'pacifist' is of much use.

  • Doesn't this just beg the question against deontology? Presumably they've already decided that the "desirable ends" are the ones where you behave in accordance with the deontological principles. Otherwise consequences are just irrelevant. Besides, what you say is just as true for consequentialist views, since it is a criticism of the decision procedure which for consequentialists typically takes the form of rule-like heuristics. Unless you think consequentialists perform expected utility calculations before every decision.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 16:02
  • 1
    @Dennis I didn't claim that deontological ethics suffers from such a problem at all times, only that all such ethics have such a problem within them. One cannot expect a fixed duty to bring about the same ends both in a world where most people do not act that way and in one where they do, unless the duty is very carefully prescribed. My contention is that pacifism is not sufficiently well prescribed.
    – user22791
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 16:11
  • ah, ok! That's much more reasonable than what I thought you were claiming. Your first paragraph made it seem (to me at least) that you were claiming this is a general "in principle" problem for deontology, not simply a common problem when the principles aren't sufficiently well prescribed.
    – Dennis
    Commented Aug 23, 2017 at 16:31
  • 1) The OP gave a definition of pacifism that allowed for degrees and then obviously ignored it himself. The first comment is about some mythical 'absolute' degree, and you are claiming equally that there are no degrees to pacifism that warrant keeping the label. Does no one read? 2) I do not see where Kant gains or loses the ability to 'reach any desirable ends' if everyone does or does not adopt his position. He has to explicitly allow those who choose a different ethics to do so in the name of autonomy. And the goal of ethics is not to control people to begin with -- that is politics.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 0:00
  • @Jobermark 1) I am claiming that either pacifism, as a duty, means "never use violence" in which case it will only succeed in producing some better world if everyone adhered to it, or the duty is "use as little violence as is necessary to achieve some prescribed ends", in which case you have a consequensialist ethic, which virtually no-one sane would disagree with, the debate then dissolves entirely into what level of violence is necessary and what ends we are striving to achieve by it, neither of which are addressed by pacifism as a "duty". I don't know if that answers your query?
    – user22791
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 6:45

The answer depends on the definition of "pacifist." If your requirement to be a pacifist is, "reject the use of physical violence under any circumstance," then the answer is, yes it is a contradiction. However, if the requirement is only to decrease/reduce/minimize the amount of violence, then the answer is, no it is not a contradiction!


All the definitions listed (short of the 'absolute' pacifism noted by @Conifold) do all apply to various people who call themselves pacifists.

A primary division is the question of whether pacifism is primarily about organized violence or whether it is about all violence. (As usual, I would suggest that deciding violence in defense of others is always bad is an entrenched anti-male bias that one should seriously consider bigoted.)

One historical, minimal point of reference for some Quakers is George Fox's exhortation to '...live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion for all wars.' (The phrase 'life and power' is often replaced by 'light' in this quote.)

It is not uncommon to argue that restricting mutual defense or adequate policing itself invites folks to attack one another more liberally, and therefore is not 'in that virtue'. To some degree, civil disorder causes wars, because at some point some neighbor (or global busybody) will invade to establish order and protect the weak.

This often exists alongside explicitly anti-war behavior, like minimizing reportable income, on the deduction that we use or military far too liberally just because we have already paid for it and therefore our tax structure actively causes wars.

At the extreme end of both of these positions, many clans of Rainbow People prepare to defend their sovereignty with guns, in order to continue to avoid using government-backed currency, which they do to further the cause of pacifism.

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