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Pacifism is based on the theory that peaceful relations ― rather than belligerent ones or violence ― should be the governing force surrounding all human interrelations. It dictates that disputes should be resolved through arbitration, surrender, or migration. Although most people accept that war is necessary in certain circumstances, conscientious objectors to military conflict have always been recognized for their moral bravery in refusing to take up arms against another human being.
The primary proposal of pacifism is that all forms of violence, war, and killing are unconditionally, irrefutably wrong. Pacifists believe that social intercourse should be first completely peaceful, because peace is intrinsically a right of humanity to be upheld as a duty because it is more beneficial to the human welfare than the use of force. Ethicists traditionally examine it within the framework of these two positions ― the deontological and the consequentialist.
However, such an examination quickly yields the question of what kind of pacifism is appropriate. Although for many people it is specifically an anti-war stance, it can also be extended to a broader theory that incorporates doctrines of non-violence, moral purity, and passive resistance. The primary concepts addressed during its analysis are violence, killing, and the use of force. An adjunct concept that stems from these three concepts is how pacifism can affect innocents.
The topic of killing is an intricate and complex concept, because different people ― even different pacifists ― hold varying opinions as to when killing is actually justified. But in general, pacifists do not condone killing. The belief of most pacifists is that the sanctity of human life must be protected and revered. They believe that life is of such an important moral status that there must be strong justification for injuring, restraining, harming, or killing another person. Absolute pacifists absolutely deny that there is any justification for killing, under any circumstances. The biblical command of "thou shalt not kill" is deeply embedded in Western culture and philosophy, and therefore is a starting point for absolute pacifists who decry the killing of people in the Western philosophical tradition.
Any philosophical examination of pacifism must include a discussion of the nature of violence. The definition of violence sometimes applies to situations that a general pacifist may not be in opposition to, whether the term 'violence' is used to describe passionate behavior or violent actions toward another person or oneself. For example, the practice of martial arts involves a type of violence that a nominal pacifist might be accepting of, although many might propose that such sports are part of the 'culture of violence' that has infused today's society.
Pacifists may not oppose violent arguments as something that should be censured, although there are some who suggest that having a calmer control over the mind and spirit will also control emotions. Such people believe that any violent reaction such as hysterical laughter or sobs of grief can disrupt the inner calm that every man should aspire to, and such disruption spreads out to affect the general community.
An integral part of violence considered by pacifists is the use of force against another person. The use of force can be as physical as bodily restraint, or completely non-physical, as in legal restraint. Both are used to confine the movement or activities of an individual, and pacifists may or may not condone either type of restraint. The use of force does not need to be violent or physically damaging, but it does affect the free activity of the person on the receiving end. Therefore, the philosophical discussion of force centers on the justification of such restriction and whether or not it is justifiable or legitimate in certain situations.
Absolute pacifists argue that any use of force contradicts morality, while most of them accept that it is necessary to restrain dangerous individuals who might inflict harm to others. However, many absolutionists question why there is a distinction between protecting people from dangerous civilians and protecting them from dangerous nations. The pacifist must consider the morality of political independence and consider situations where the use of force is justified in domestic issues but not international ones.
Ultimately, the beneficiary of any pacifist movement will always be innocents ― people who deserve the right to retain their dignity and whose lives should be protected against violence. Most pacifists agree that a dangerous person should be restrained in some way to avoid harming an innocent. Most would also accept injuring or even killing a dangerous criminal depending on the circumstances, although there is also an argument for retaining moral purity that must be considered.
The largest problem facing most of these people in today's world is the issue of personal versus international pacifism. Some may admit that the use of internal aggression to maintain law and order is necessary, while solidly opposing its use for resolving international disputes. They may argue that unlike domestic issues, international affairs should not be subject to a single overriding authority, and therefore war should never be used to resolve disputes between nations. However, the question may be posed as to why and when the use of force is morally acceptable within a nation's borders ― to restrain dangerous individuals ― but not acceptable beyond the borders, to restrain international criminals.
One of the history's most notable pacifists, Martin Luther King, Jr., summed up what is perhaps the sole ideal of this philosophy in Western culture. "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars", King said. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.... The chain reaction of evil ― hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars ― must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation".