Are pacifists moral relativists?

[Ted Grimsrud—December 30, 2012]

I first read Nicholson Baker’s controversial book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, in the summer of 2008, shortly after it was published. At the time, I thought it was a brilliant book (I reviewed it here). It obviously met with innumerable hostile reviews from both academics and general readers. This was not surprising given how the book challenges head on the assumptions so many make about American and British goodness in entering and fighting World War II. I can hope that many people open-minded enough to question those assumptions found Human Smoke helpful. I sure did.

Partly inspired by Baker’s book, I spent my sabbatical during the 2010-11 school year researching and writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II in the United States (here is some early fruit of that work—I hope to finish the final draft of the book by May 2013). After reading dozens of books and thinking strenuously about these issues and writing several hundred pages, I believe even more in the value of Baker’s work.

The assertion that pacifists are moral relativists

I was just recently stimulated to think more about Baker’s argument while reading Michael Burleigh’s book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II (I have the original British edition—the book was later published in the US as, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II). Burleigh is one who dismisses Human Smoke out of hand—which is not at all surprising or unusual. In seeing his dismissal this time, though, I paused to reflect a bit.

This is from Burleigh’s brief comments about Baker’s book: “A . . . fear of armed force has resulted in a dubious moral relativism, exemplified by Nicholson Baker’s pacifist tract Human Smoke, in which all belligerents were as bad as one another. . . . He implies that because Churchill may have drunk too much, or because Eleanor Roosevelt was an anti-Semitic snob in her youth, they were on par with a dictator who murdered six million Jews. The leaders of the English-speaking democracies allegedly went to war to benefit a sinister arms-manufacturing military-industrial complex, a view which much appealed to extreme US isolationists in the 1930s, and which resonates with the international left nowadays. This [is an] exercise in extreme moral relativism (and crude conspiracy theory)” (p. x).

At first I was confused by Burleigh’s assertion that Baker’s book was an “exercise in extreme moral relativism.” Clearly, Baker is animated by a profound sense of moral conviction that is rigorously seeking to apply the same moral standards to both sides of this terrible conflict. Even if someone disagrees with Baker’s beliefs, those beliefs surely cannot accurately be characterized as “extreme moral relativism” (it seems to me). If anything, Baker displays a kind of moral absolutism that transcends nationalistic loyalties and critiques his own side as strictly as his nation’s enemies.

The morality of fighting “objective evil”

But then as I thought about it more, I came up with a sense of what might be going on. Burleigh’s view seems to be that the main moral reality of World War II was the objective evil of the Nazis. The requirements of morality are to do whatever is needed to defeat the Nazis. “Morality” then has a significantly different meaning for Burleigh than it does for me. I would say that morality has to do with standards of appropriate human behavior that apply to all people, including (even especially including) our side. Burleigh seems to be saying that morality has to do with deciding who is good and who is evil (or maybe we could say, for Burleigh, morality has mainly to do with justifying that our cause is “good”). Once that determination is made, the means used to further the ends of the “good” side are not going to be subjected to moral scrutiny.

A writer who is a much more sophisticated moral philosopher than Burleigh, American political theorist Michael Walzer, actually takes a somewhat similar approach in his essay, “World War II: Why Was This War Different?” [Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.1 (Autumn 1971), 3-21]. Walzer does believe that we have stable moral values that need to be applied to all sides in a conflict and that the ends do not simply justify the means. But in the case of World War II (at least in Europe), what makes it different is the extreme evil of the Nazis. Because they were so evil, even if the Allies crossed the line in tactics at times, this “extreme emergency” makes such immoral conduct justifiable in the end.

Whatever one thinks of Walzer’s argument, it seems to me that one cannot avoid seeing it as a type of moral relativism. For him, our moral criteria for just conduct, in the end, are not decisive in the face of this extreme evil. What precisely differentiates pacifism (at least as I understand it) from Walzer’s position is the belief that our moral criteria should always remain determinative of our conduct. If we can’t succeed without crossing the line, we should accept failure. Of course, in the face of extreme evil, we accept failure only in relation to the immoral tactics. We do keep resisting in ways that are moral. It would never be moral to acquiesce to evil.

One of the issues within the pacifist framework, then, would be whether this resistance that remains moral can hope to be successful in the long run or whether it is sometimes simply a matter of accepting defeat. Robert Brimlow’s provocative argument in his book, What about Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, concludes that the Christian pacifist should ultimately accept defeat (i.e., martyrdom, in this case). A more Gandhian approach (which I would take) would accept the possibility of martyrdom, certainly, but would also expect that faithfulness to peaceable means, if followed consistently and courageously enough, will in the long run also be effective—even in face of the “extreme evil” of Nazism.

Problematic assumptions

The problem with the “absolute evil” assumption is that it denies several possibilities:

(1) That the “evil regime” actually may not be monolithic and hence contains elements that would be responsive to moral suasion (for an example in regard to Nazi Germany, see Nathan Stoltzfus, Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany;

(2) That subjects to such a regime may still have a great deal of power (the Gandhian assumption being that all governments rely on the consent of the governed to function—find ways to withhold that consent and the power of the regime is greatly weakened; see the chapter on Denmark during World War II in Ackerman and Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict;

(3) That fighting such evil with evil means will actually permanently corrupt the “good guys” (this is a big part of the argument of my forthcoming book on the moral legacy of World War II—we [the US] were transformed in terribly problematic ways by our World War II total war effort).

Missing factors

It is also notable that Burleigh’s argument essentially ignores a couple of huge lacunae in relation to the morality of World War II. The first is that in reality the “extreme evil” of the Nazis did not determine US entry into the war nor shape US policy in the war—at least in relation to the fate of Europe’s Jews. The second is that the US allied itself with and empowered another perpetrator of “extreme evil,” the Soviet Union. Both of these themes provide evidence of what I would see as Burleigh’s own moral relativism.

Something that Nicholson Baker’s book makes clear (but this actually seems to be an indisputable fact, just not one people such as Burleigh and Walzer want to face in making their “extreme evil” arguments) is that the US did virtually nothing to try to save Europe’s Jews as the crisis was emerging. And we know the US did virtually nothing to try to save Europe’s Jews as the war went on. Even people who defend US policies in this regard (see Theodore S. Hamerow, Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust who makes the case that direct action on the behalf of Europe’s Jews was politically impossible in the US at that time and that the Roosevelt administration did the best it could) still have to acknowledge that saving Jews was not in any direct sense a motivating factor for US war leaders.

So, the assumption that the US war effort was necessary and that our unjust conduct was justifiable due to the “extreme emergency” of Nazi evil is an after-the-fact justification—and, hence, itself an expression of moral relativism.

The alliance with the Soviet Union is terribly complicated morally. However, it can not simply be marginalized as Burleigh does if we are to undertake a moral accounting of the War and its legacy that avoids moral relativism. One of the worst kinds of moral relativism, in my view, is to say, in effect, that the good guys won (and I am one of them), therefore whatever we did was morally okay.

I simply don’t see how any objective accounting could determine who was morally more corrupt in the years between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis or the Soviets. Timothy Snyder’s powerful book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalindoes a fine job of showing the enormity of the ruthless and utterly immoral death-dealing violence practiced by both during these years. It simply is not the case that our choice to ally ourselves with one of these murderous regimes against the other could possibly have resulted in a morally positive outcome. Whatever we were fighting against, it was not tyranny.

Michael Bess, whose book Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (Vintage) is one of the few to attempt an objective moral analysis of the War, makes this comment: “The impression one gets [from the standard account] is that because the [American and British] citizen soldiers (good guys) best[ed] the bad guys (Nazis), then wrong (general badness) did not prevail.

“This is misleading in two ways. First the overwhelming bulk of the killing of Nazis was not done by citizen soldiers at all, but rather by the soliders of the Red Army [i.e., Soviet Union]: the ratio is about four German soldiers killed by the Russians for every one killed by the British and Americans. And second, the triumphant powers at the end of World War II included one of the most ruthless, pathologically murderous regimes in the history of humankind: our Soviet allies. Badness was actually having a very good day on May 8, 1945” (pages 167-8).

A note on Baker’s actual argument

I should also add at the end of this post that it is an egregious misrepresentation of Baker’s argument to assert that he believes “all belligerents were as bad as one another” or that Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt “were on par” with Hitler. I think an even remotely objective reading of Human Smoke would make it clear that Baker sees the Nazis as way, way worse than the Allies. His implicit argument, though, is that the US and Britain failed in their response to the Nazi threat to “civilization” to defend the key humane values that undergird civilized life.

One could turn this point around and say that actually Burleigh is the moral relativist at this point because he implies that the extreme immorality of Hitler and the supreme need to defeat the Nazis makes moral evaluations of the Allies irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we did or what our leaders’ characters were like so long as we defeated this supreme evil using whatever means were at hand. In my view, it is Burleigh’s kind of lack of self-awareness that threatens civilization more than any external threat.

Baker doesn’t make the point himself because he ends his narrative in 1941, but part of what my book will suggest is that the lack of self-awareness about our own evil (particularly the evil of militarism) as Americans has empowered that evil to grow and dominate our culture in terribly destructive ways in the years since 1941.

2 thoughts on “Are pacifists moral relativists?

  1. interesting post, TG. I thought you were a moral relativist — I never guessed you would be in a pissing match over who was the greater (read: worse) moral relativist! (mostly this is said in jest. mostly)

    it seems to me the debate as to why US got involved in the war (not because of Jews) is irrelevant to the debate, because if we didn’t get involved because of the Jews, then we should have (or so a compelling moral imperative would argue for). So, even if US entered the war lately for not the right reasons, then a pox on America for not getting involved earlier for the right reason, or so a moral imperative would seem to suggest.

    By the way, I like organic morality, which leads me to wondering what’s a Mennonite to do right now, today, this hour, about stopping the evil in the Congo where close to 5 million have been killed in the last several years. As a moral teacher of the church, what say you? How do we as pacifist xtians engage that evil? d labes

    1. Important question, David. You perhaps know that Mennonites and Peace Church theologians outside of Amerika do seriously engage this dilemma. I would call your attention to the WCC’s “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace” which has been affirmed by some North American Mennos and strongly embraced by Mennonites in Africa, Asia, Europe and the greater Americas. You may find the document and its companion study book at the World Council of Churches web site.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s