Additional Course Notes on Realism and Pacifism for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the syllabus:

b) Concepts of pacifism, including absolute, relative/selective and nuclear pacifism, the role of pacifist movements and pressure groups. 

NOTE: this handout does not deal with all aspects of the above but should be helpful. Additionally, there is information on the realist/realpolitik perspective which provides another contrast with Just War theory. Both pacifism and realism are also critiqued below.


The philosophy of Realism has both descriptive and prescriptive elements. Those who support this view claim that the world of international relations is a bit like the old ‘Wild West’ in the USA: it is an ungovernable, anarchic arena where countries pursue nothing but their own self-interest. This is not only the way things have always been (the descriptive bit), it is the way that things should be (the prescriptive bit) according to supporters of this outlook.

Wars should therefore be declared and fought purely on the basis of self-interest. And once war has begun, a state should do whatever it can to win. If sticking to Just War principles or international laws get in the way of that aim, they should be disregarded. Adherence to restraining rules and laws is like trying to fight with one hand behind your back. Your enemy may not be doing the same. So morality is best left at home. It will just get in the way. In fact, more wars happen because of it (as when countries consider their morality to be superior to that of other countries and try to impose it on them).


First of all, the descriptive aspect of Realist theory may be partially true: some wars have been fought out of a sense of fanatical moralism e.g. the Crusades and ISIS’s jihad against the West and what it sees as corrupt Muslim rulers of Islamic countries. Also, the attempt of the USA to impose its own style of democracy on Iraq after 2003 has arguably failed. The Iraqi people may prefer democracy, but they also seem to prefer a version based on Islamic principles.

However, this is not the full story. A look at the historical record shows that countries do not always go to war to further their own self-interest. For example, Britain’s efforts in the 1800’s to outlaw the slave trade arguably  went against our national interests, as it led to increases in the price of basic imports like sugar, tea and cotton, and aggravated our relationship with America. But the British people, inspired by Protestant preachers, simply would not stand for slavery any more. American participation in World War 1 is another example: America intervened to pacify Europe, to make the world safer for democracy, and not because its own sovereignty and territory was threatened. Additionally, the American quest to spread the virtues of democracy may be well-motivated, as there is some evidence that democratic countries that engage in free trade are less inclined to go to war with each other.

There is also the history of Just War theory to consider: it is a long one. So the Realist claim that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and always has been seems incorrect when set against a backdrop of coherent ethical thought about international relations as developed by Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, and many others. And the existence of bodies such as the United Nations Security Council and treaties like the Geneva Convention demonstrate that international co-operation is possible.

The prescriptive aspect of Realism also seems questionable. First of all, the risk of being taken advantage of or losing to an enemy who is not fighting by the same rules is not a reason to abandon one’s own moral principles e.g. if lots of people are looting during a city wide blackout, this does not justify others doing the same thing. Perhaps such moments even test the integrity or moral resolve of a nation in continuing to act morally. Secondly, it is only rarely that states are threatened with extinction. So to portray the day to day reality of international affairs as a desperate struggle for survival is to indulge in caricature. In reality, states may act on the basis of self-interest. But they also act on the basis of moral commitments and their own, often carefully worked out conceptions of justice.

It could also be argued that when states act on the basis of self-interest alone, that this increases the chances of war and perhaps makes it inevitable. Given Hitler’s motivation to secure more lebensraum or ‘room to live’ as a justification for the invasion of Poland in 1939, and Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait in 1990 to capture its oil supply, the historical record also does not indicate that we would be better off adopting the philosophy of realism.

A further criticism of Realism is that it does not seem to exclude – in terms of jus in bello – actions that are blatantly immoral. There is nothing that rules out, say, slavery, torture, rape, killing the innocent and genocide if the self-interested purpose of winning the war is achieved through these methods.

Realist philosophy also might be said to favour and be biased towards the most powerful countries as they are the ones already in a better position to further their self-interest to begin with.

Lastly, Realism seems to be a logically self-contradictory theory. If two people have been bitten by a snake but only one vial of an antidote is available, a subscriber to this type of philosophy would be obliged to act in their own self-interest by taking the antidote. But if their companion asks for advice, a Realist would be committed, according to their own theory, to telling that companion that they should try to get the antidote first.

Similarly, a country would have to advise a rival country to act in a way that is not in the interests of the country giving the advice, if the rival asked for it. Obviously, it would be in the interests of both nations not to have a rival, so one country would have to tell the other to seek the ruin of itself. This suggests that Realism is logically incoherent.

Christian Realism

Christian realism could be criticised on the grounds that it flies in the face of the seemingly pacifistic teachings of Jesus. Although Niebuhr regarded these teachings as referring to a time in the future when the Kingdom of God had been established and world peace was possible, this view can be challenged. When Jesus was arrested he specifically prevented his disciples from acting violently against those seeking to capture him. So the teaching, ‘He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword’, was addressing an immediate problem. Furthermore, there are disturbing parallels between this philosophy and that of Islamic salafi- jihadist organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, who also seek to bring about God’s peaceful rule on earth through war and terrorism.

Pacifism – some observations

Supporters of Absolute and Active pacifism tend to argue that there are alternatives to resisting armed aggression by another state with the use of violence. Non-violent civil disobedience in the form of strikes, sit-ins, economic boycotts, non-violent obstruction etc. can be just as effective. How could an aggressor maintain their grip on the country if the fields are not being harvested, the factories, stores and banks are shut, and the public transportation systems are not working because everyone is striking, refusing to comply, or quietly sabotaging orders? The historical examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s and Gandhi’s peaceful campaign to secure independence for India in the late 1940’s show that these tactics can work.

On the other hand, a brutal enemy could respond with acts of ethnic cleansing against the native population and they may import their own workers to keep systems running. Ultra-aggressive regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan might well have responded in this manner.

A further objection to violence in war ventured by Absolute pacifists is that war violates a person’s right to life, as enemy casualties are inevitable. But it could be argued that in engaging in acts of aggressive war or terrorism, the perpetrator forfeits that right.  G.E.M. Anscombe has criticised pacifist thinking on these grounds. She asks why we should respect the duty not to kill a terrorist when he is guilty of an immoral act, namely, threatening or endangering the lives of innocent civilians. According to Anscombe, we also have a duty to protect, with lethal force if necessary, the lives of those who are threatened in this manner. After all, if we do nothing, severe harm, or even death will befall these innocents. So, for Anscombe, there are better moral reasons for siding with the innocent civilians rather than the terrorist, even if this means killing him.

The Emperor Asoka

In 273 BCE, much of India was ruled by a man who was to change its destiny. His name was Asoka. He was the grandson of Chandragupta, an army officer who had driven out Greek forces from Northwest India and founded the Indian empire. Asoka continued to expand this empire by force as this was thought to be a duty for emperors, but eventually he became horrified by the slaughter and loss of life involved with the putting down of a rebellion in a part of India called Kalinga. He then converted to Buddhism and became a lay Buddhist, someone who is not a monk but keeps the main moral rules of the faith.

After this his reign became based on non-violence (ahimsa) and particularly concern for the environment, and he had stones and pillars built on which these teachings were written. Here are some extracts from his famous Rock and Pillar writings:

“Along roads I have had banyan trees planted so that they can give shade to animals and men, and I have had mango groves planted. I have had wells dug, rest-houses built, and in various places, I have had watering-places made for the use of animals and men.”

Everywhere [I have] made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for humans and medical treatment for animals. Wherever medical herbs suitable for humans or animals are not available, I have had them imported and grown. Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals.”

In one of his writings King Asoka made a rule protecting young animals from slaughter and mothers still feeding their young, and he stopped forests from being burned to protect the creatures living in them, along with the banning of a number of hunting practices harmful to animals. He made a rule that certain days were “non-killing days,” and on these days fish could not be caught, nor any other animals killed. He built wells and watering holes, places of rest and hospitals for humans and animals alike.

He also established some of the first animal rights laws. In his writings King Asoka mentions his concern about the number of animals killed to provide him with a meal and his decision to end such killing. He therefore stopped the royal hunting parties and ended the killing of animals for the royal kitchen and stopped eating meat. He outlawed the sacrifice of animals and made it illegal to kill many species such as parrots, ducks, geese, bats, turtles, squirrels, monkeys and rhinos.

In addition Asoka taught his people to have compassion for animals and to stop harming or killing them. And he appointed officers to check up that people were following his instructions.

But could it be that all this was a clever policy to keep control of a vast empire? We should note that it was easy for him to give up conquest after the Kalinga war, as there was no more territory left in India that was worth conquering. Wars were also expensive, and the need to keep a vast army was costly. It was less expensive and probably more efficient to keep the people happy.

However, the principle of ahimsa or non-violence has continued to influence the way in which Hindus and Buddhists live their lives.