One common criticism of pacifism is that it is “cowardly.”  What might this mean – and is it true?

1. “Pacifism is cowardly” = “Pacifists are cowards.”  Given the unpopularity of pacifism – and the extreme unlikelihood that your pacifism tips the scales against war – this is plainly false.  A real coward would enthusiastically parrot whatever the people around him want to hear.

2. “Pacifism is cowardly” = “Pacifism advocates a morally blameworthy degree of concern with physical safety.”  Morally, this begs the question.  The pacifist’s claim is that non-pacifists show a morally blameworthy lack of concern for the rights of bystanders.  At the same time, bizarrely, this version appears to grant the pacifist’s claim that pacifism would increase our physical safety… at the expense of national pride and dominance.

3. “Pacifism is cowardly” = “Pacifism advocates an imprudent degree of concern with immediate physical safety at the expense of long-run safety.”  On this account, pacifism is like running away in terror from a smallpox vaccination at the height of an epidemic.  Of course, this too begs the question.  The pacifist’s whole claim is that the short-run costs of war are large and clear, while the long-run “benefits” are highly uncertain and frequently negative.

When pacifists are attacked for being “naive,” at least I understand the basis for the accusation.  But “cowardly”?  The shoe just doesn’t fit.