Illustration by Marco Cibola
Illustration by Marco Cibola

I grew up in a Quaker pacifist family. Many Quaker children have a problem to express anger or contention since it is strongly inculcated to “forgive and forget,” assist others like murderers, “love thy neighbor as thine self,” avoid warfare in any form (even in small squabbles with family members when a sibling grabs your toy with which you were playing), show tenderness towards the natural world, always help others to be the best that they can be since oneself is so privileged while many are not, and try not to ever render harm.

This sort of thinking is largely good. It led me, for example to donate with Christmas money that I’d received, a large amount of Christmas presents that I’d also gotten to a leper’s colony in the Philippines when I was a young teen. Indeed, I was very excited when my father drove me to the post office to send out my large package.

The action was largely motivated by an event that took place when I was eleven years old. It was that happening mixed, of course, with Quaker values.

Certainly, it is deplorable or gloomy at age eleven to see a leper’s colony in the distance down in a valley and enclosed by a very high barbed wire fence at which ant-like, tiny people (due to the distance between them and me) delivered food and other supplies at the gate to the fence.

It was a gate guarded by rifle held troops standing on the outside. They prohibited relatives, human rights workers and charity directors from passing inward and the lepers from passing outward.

It was a protective health measure. So the only ones allowed inside the gate were those willing to to be part of the condemned, —  those never allowed to leave. All the same some brave Buddhist, Catholic and other aid workers with medical knowledge to treat the afflicted entered the compound.

Brave they were indeed. They often succumbed to the very illness that they were striving to treat.

I glanced down across the whole interment camp in the valley and then looked back to where I was — on a high hill at the entrance to a beautiful serene mosque in Trinidad. A slight breeze blew wisps of my hair across my face and I considered the dichotomy between the suffering, increasingly broken people and the mosque.

It had thousands upon thousands of tiny gorgeous mosaic tiles on the floor in a circular pattern exemplifying wholeness and completion of God’s-vision of wholeness and goodness. (The ceiling was equally ornate and meaningful with paintings. One looked upward in wonderment at the patterns and their symbolic messages.)

Surrounded by astonishing beauty, I took off my shoes, knelt bent over in worship in the exact center of the building and felt in love with life for its underlying goodness. Simultaneously I felt discomfort at the valley scene.

What of these people who are locked in a disease-controlling open-air prison? Who are these children, young adults and elderly? How can they survive well?

Do they suffer much? Who consoles them?
All the same, they are at least not murdered and are somewhat helped. So that is good, I thought at the time as an eleven year old pacifist.

Since then, I have changed my view on pacifism. In fact I use to debate pacifism with my Quaker mother, who remained a pacifist until the day that she died.

Accordingly I occasionally posed hypothetical scenarios to her and would ask about the way that she would respond. Here’s one:

Your toddler grandchild is a hundred feet away and about to be raped and murdered by a demented man. You can’t get there in time to save the child, but you find a gun at your side. Are you going to use it to stop him?

Even if you could get there in time, it would be of no use. He is way bigger and stronger than you.

Here is a second narrative that I gave her:

You’re in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a Nazi, who hates Jews. On his left is a high thick stonewall.

He’s gunning the car into racing mode as he moves ahead to a large Jewish festival filled with hundreds of people of all ages. Were he to plow through them at high speed, many would die and be injured.

Do you grab his steering well and tilt it quickly to the left so that he would likely die with impact into the stonewall or do you sit passively on his right and let him continue onward?

Here’s a third one:

You are standing on an overpass above train tracks. You know that a train filled with commuters is shortly coming. You see a man below hunched over and trying to flip a rail switch.

His doing so ensures that the train is diverted to another track to a cliff edge where a train bridge is under construction. It is not completed yet and the cliff’s sheer drop is 1,000 feet.

There is a big loose rock on the wall next to your bridge. Do you drop it on his head?

What if his switch is fifty feet away and you have a gun? Do you shoot at him?

Here’s a fourth one (… my poor beleaguered mother since I was relentless in sharing these speculative tales):

A man is acting unruly on a jet. He’s threatening to open the emergency door at 20,000 feet in the air. You nick him with your lunch’s plastic food fork to divert him away from his activity of opening the door and, instead, draw his attention onto yourself. Others watching you come up and do the same.

He then dies from the composite of all if the fork slashes. Who murdered him? Did you? Which one is the murderer — the last fork poker?
Of course we can go on and on with moral dilemmas involving murder vs. pacifism. A really good one, for example, is:
“One of the most famous cases where necessity was attempted as a defense to murder, with remarkable parallels to this hypothetical, is that of R v Dudley and Stephens:

  • “A crew of four found themselves on a lifeboat at sea with no food and no water, and with no prospect of rescue.
  • “One of them was a child (Parker) and was nearing death and unconscious.
  • “Two of them (Dudley and Stephens), after some discussion over drawing lots, decided that the child would be killed before his natural death, in order that his blood be better preserved for drinking.
    The last crew member, Brooks, was silent on the matter.
  • “After killing Parker, Dudley, Stephens and Brooks fed on Parker’s body.
  • “During the trial, the matter of necessity as a defense to murder was considered.
  • “The judges found that there was no common law defence of necessity to murder, and Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy.
  • “The Home Secretary commuted their sentences to six months’ imprisonment.

“This case concerns essentially the choice you’re making in the trolley problem: either the four crew members were going to die, or one of them would definitely die and the others might live. It’s easy to say that they should have just waited, but they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.

“It’s also a great example of a situation where although the law says one thing, it doesn’t align with our morals and ethics, and while it’s a UK case, I would wager that almost every lawyer in common law countries would have heard about it.” – From united states – What is the legal take on the trolley problem? – Law …..

One of the most famous moral problems involving pacifism is the trolley narrative. This rendition of it is particularly good since therein is pointed out the difference between ethics and morals. It’s at The Philosopher’s Beard: Morality vs Ethics: the problem with trolleys.

I’m no longer a pacifist. Perhaps you, though, are like my mother and would refuse to intervene if it involved your possibly murdering someone to save one or more others. Where do you stand?

 Sally Dugman is a freelance writer

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  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Valid thoughts … There are various types of pacifism …Anarcho- pacifism , Christian pacifism, ..The use of pacifism depends upon the situation and the opposition to be encountered .. Gandhi’s pacifism had a great influence on the masses of the country ..

  2. 4Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) says:

    Dear Sally,

    #1 I’m a Quaker. No idea how to fire a gun!

    #2 Grabbing the steering wheel is not violence. Though the outcome may be, I don’t know that!

    #3 Perhaps Murphy. The rock would miss the saboteur completely! Nevertheless, also not violence—rolling down the rock might be sufficient to distract him. Gun? See #1.

    #4 Nicking someone with a fork is also not violence, in particular. What the other passengers do is up to their own conscience, though they sure sound like Americans! “Let’s roll!”

    I grew up a Quaker vegetarian and a pacifist and remain so despite decades in a Buddhist country. The question 1960s draft boards liked to ask: “If your grandmother was being raped, how would you react?” The young resister’s answer: “First I’d wipe the smile of her face!” (We may return to this in days of Trump!)

    One simply cannot answer these questions in advance. Same goes for being vegetarian. Pacifism is an ideal which we should promote, particularly to nation-states. How we will react in any given situation is aleways an unknown.

    But don’t make a child a soldier, put a gun in his hands, and get him where others are shooting at him! Human instinct is to save one’s life. Has nothing to do with the ideals of pacifism.

    CJ Hinke

    • Emily Spence says:

      This e-mail address doesn’t work to reach you: Please provide Binu, Countercurrents editor, with your e-address. I sent him my comments to.for you. Thanks. – Sally