If pacifists are attacked, are onlookers obliged to help?

I base this question on a related debate, although that debate deals with neutrality and not pacifism.

I say no, onlookers are not obliged to help. I’m sure pacifists are nice people, but I am not interested in defending them so that they don’t have to. They have made their philosophical decision and now they gotta live with it, and helping them merely encourages them to indulge their beliefs (it’s easier to be a pacifist if you believe that you can rely on non-pacifists for protection). And after all, they wouldn’t help me. I must stress that I bear them no ill will for their beliefs, although it may seem otherwise. It’s just that risking my own skin so that they can remain spiritually pure doesn’t appeal to me.

Apalled? Okay, try this scenario:

You aren’t there. Your kid, however, is. In helping the pacifist, he is attacked and killed. The pacifists nearby witness everything but do nothing. Still willing to help?

That’s not pacifism.

sheesh… How very utilitarian of you. So the only reason to help someone in distress is because they could help you or might help you?

Good thing the folks in emergancy services don’t think in those terms.

A person who is being victimized should be helped by whatever means you can without necessarily risking your life. If it is just calling the police that’s fine.

I think we all have an obligation to our fellow human beings when they are in trouble and it shouldn’t matter if they would do the same for you or not.

:dubious: They’re still human, aren’t they?

Besides, we have a military in place so that the average person can be defended and does not have to fight. It doesn’t matter whether the average person is a pacifist or not. I don’t see that much difference, really.

It’s hard - nearly impossible - for me to think of standing there idly by while a known pacifist gets a beat-down…and me thinking, “Oh, well, they’re pacifistic, they had it coming.”

Your description of ‘pacifism’ sounds like the way a brutal dictatorship routinely labels any opposition as ‘terrorism’.

If Gandhi had asked me to peacefully demonstrate against the East India Company, I would have been proud to join.
When the British Army opened up with machine guns on unarmed protestors, I know which side was right.

'Gen. R.E.H. Dyer was sent with troops from Jullundur to restore order, and, though no further disturbances occurred in Amritsar until April 13, Dyer marched 50 armed soldiers into the Jallianwallah Bagh (Garden) that afternoon and ordered them to open fire on a protest meeting attended by some 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children without issuing a word of warning. It was a Sunday, and many neighboring peasants had come to Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu festival, gathering in the Bagh, which was a place for holding cattle fair and other festivities. **Dyer kept his troops firing for about ten minutes, until they had shot 1650 rounds of ammunition into the terror-stricken crowd, which had no way of escaping the Bagh, since the soldiers spanned the only exit. About 400 civilians were killed and some 1200 wounded. They were left without medical attention by Dyer, who hastily removed his troops to the camp. ** Sir Michael O’Dwyer fully approved of and supported the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, and on April 15, 1919, issued a martial law decree for the entire Punjab:

The least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce . . . from a military point of view, not only on those who were present, but more specially throughout the Punjab.’

Dyer was relieved of his command, but he returned to England as a hero to many British admirers, who presented him with a collected purse of thousands of pounds and a jewelled sword inscribed “Saviour of the Punjab.”’

This sort of atrocity has nothing to do with pacifists ‘wanting you to do something so they can remain pure’.

‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.’
Martin Luther King Jr., Accepting Nobel Peace Prize, Dec. 10, 1964

Pacifism =! apathy.

But yes, I believe that someone has a moral responsibility to save another’s life, as long as there is a reasonable chance that they will emerge from the incident unscathed. Do you really think you could live with yourself if a human being, no matter how apathetic, was killed while you stood by and did nothing? I don’t care what the apathetic onlookers think; I know that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Of course if there is a great chance you’ll be killed then you aren’t under responsibility (unless you are a cop or bodyguard). But in many cases of group apathy/Kitty Genovese syndrome, that is not the case.

Not the sole reason, although I agree it is a decent thing to do. There’s an expectation of reciprocity that a pacifist obviously doesn’t agree with, and under those circumstances it is perfectly legitimate to ask: am I obliged?

They get paid for that, i.e., instead of the expectation of reciprocity that I mentioned, they get money.

Hang on, by help I was referring to direct intervention, not something with no risk attached, like calling the cops.

I am referring to people and criminal acts, not countries and military action. And even the police can’t be everywhere.

Maybe I could have been a little less snide in my OP. I never said they had it coming. I said since I couldn’t count on them if the roles were reversed, I am not obliged to help.

AFAIK, he was referring to political action as a response to social injustice, not acquiescence to an imminent violent act.

In spite of what I have said, I’ll be the first one to admit: maybe not.


I don’t believe pacifists are generally as passive as you suggest, Malienation. A pacifist need not sit idly while someone is being attacked. I would wager that restraint is the prefered reaction to violence for most pacifists (mental if possible, physical if necessary). Some pacifists wouldn’t even have qualms with using any amount of non-lethal force to stop a killer.

That said, the thrust of your OP is that you believe that those who are not willing to be violent in any circumstance should not be protected from violence. I believe most pacifists would have no trouble with your stance. The core of pacifism is the willingness to lay down your life for the sake of non-violence. The efficacy of pacifism doesn’t depend on protecting the lives of pacifists, it depends on the power of martyrdom and self sacrifice to sway public opinion. Most people who witness a violent person injuring or killing someone who does not fight back are deeply emotionally affected. Specifically, they will see the attacker as morally repugnant, and the victim as wronged. They will see the violence as unjust. That is what pacifists use to fight, instead of violence.

There are some people who don’t have that emotional reaction to one-sided violence. Such people diminish the efficacy of pacifism (violent people don’t diminish the efficacy of pacifism). But history has repeatedly demonstrated that in many, many cases, the fraction of people with no sympathy for pacifists is insufficient to prevent widespread outrage being the consequence of one-sided violence. I assure you, when widespread outrage is the result, the violence can not have had a useful result.

Furthermore, passive resistance is extraordinarily effective in an economic sense. Violence-based power relies on a small minority of people instilling fear in the overwhelming majority. The cost of physically enforcing compliance in the entire majority is prohibitive for the minority, so the minority attempts to use fear to make the majority self-policing. Passive resistance is when the majority refuses to be self-policing, which forces the minority to use their own resources, which are indubitably insufficient. As long as the majority can keep up the passive resistance indefinitely, eventually the minority will exhaust their resources. As long as the minority continues to employ violence, public opinion will swing deeper and deeper against them, stretching them even further, strengthening the majority.

This works on any scale. Even isolated violent crimes produce public outrage, which inevitably leads to efforts to reduce crime. The more passive the victim, the greater the public outrage.

Your definition of ‘help’ seems to be limited to violent physical attack. What if you were starving, and a pacifist gave you a sandwich? Pacifists make a great tuna salad in my experience.


You have to tell me what the scenario is before I can consider it. (I’m not trying to be snarky; I’m just saying that I find this to be far too vague.)

According to my friend Oxford:
Pacifism 1. The belief that disputes between nations should and can be settled peacefully.
2. a. Opposition to war or violence as a means of resolving disputes.
b. Such opposition demonstrated by refusal to participate in military action.

Based on what you said, it seems that your definition is different from the standard definition. It would help, perhaps, if you told us what you mean by pacifist. The sort of behavior that you seem to be including in your definition is something that I’ve never seen, or been given any examples of. In which case, the debate has little practical point, though even as a purely theoretical exercise, I disagree with your conclusion.

In my neck of the woods it’s quite common to refer to someone who refuses to use violence under any conditions as a pacifist.

I’ve always thought of a pacifist as someone who rejected violence as a solution to any problem. I think the word has a broader meaning then you think.


While a pacifist need not sit idly by if he tries to restrain someone he is using violence. If I attempted to pin you to the ground would you not say I was being violent? Also, what is nonlethal force? Any force you use to stop someone will have the potential to kill them so at best you’ve got more lethal and less lethal force. For example you’re less likely to kill me by punching me in the face then you are by shooting me in the face but you could still kill me with a punch.

No, if someone is willing to use violence of any kind then they’re not really a pacifist.


I think the word has a much broader meaning than you think.

Maybe the pacifist didn’t help you because he knew you wouldn’t be inclined to help him because of logic very much like your own.

In other words, maybe you had it comin’ too.

Pacifists can defend themselves and others in non-violent ways by manipulating the force of the other person’s body (as she or he attacks) in such a way that that force places that person temporarily at a disadvantage. (Aikido) No, it’s not perfectly safe, but then neither is anything we do in life.

Besides, pacifists are not just opposed to being violent; they are opposed to violence itself and wouldn’t want you to use violence for their sake. Of course, that’s a generalization, but a principle of pacifism anyway.

Of course each pacifist is an individual with a differing level of tolerance.

Yeah, I’d generally recommend helping the pacifist because I’m compassionate towards people with stupid beliefs.


(Paraphrased) The pacifist believes that it is better to allow a brute to beat down someone smaller and weaker than to use force to stop him. I’d rather let a child associate with lepers than with people who teach such things.

  • G. K. Chesterton

The fact that someone who was not a pacifist says something stupid about pacifism is kind of irrelevant, don’t you think? I’m not a pacifist, but if I were one, I might say that the militarism inherent in the culture causes violence, and that therefore militarists have an obligation to prevent innocent people from being hurt by the forseeable consequences of the society they have created.

If you’re really careless about your campfires, don’t you have a responsibility to put out forest fires, even if you didn’t cause that particular one?

According to the definition that you posted, there are three possible meaings of the word. Tow of them apply only to international affairs, and one applies “esp.” in international affairs. So your definition is incorrect, and for the rest of this thread I will be using the correct defintion.

Yes they are. Even if we accept the bizarre idea that a pacifist is a person who’s opposed to violence, that doesn’t mean that a pacifist isn’t willing to participate in violence, just as a person who’s opposed to cancer may participate in it. “Opposed” simply means that they don’t want to participate in it.

If I may offer commentary, you’re intense desire to change the definition of English-language words is very telling. If you tell your host that you won’t eat beef and they serve chicken instead, you’ll look quite ridiculous when you start explaining that your definition of “beef” is “meat from a small, flightless bird”. That’s why we use the correct definitions of words around here; it allows us to understand each other. It’s a well-known fact that people who argue by adjusting definitions to suit their needs are precisely the ones who know they can’t win an argument without doing so.

I have a question, out of curiosity. If there was one public figure in turn-of-the-century England who was a pacifist, it was G. K. Chesterton. Wouldn’t you agree? So why are you posting a quote from someone who has, in your words, “stupid beliefs”.

Yes, and it applies to not only war but “every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes” so my definition isn’t really wrong so much as it is incomplete. As is yours.

Gee, I guess that makes me a pacifist then. After all, I don’t want to participate in violence because I have no desire to get hurt nor do I have any desire to hurt someone else. It’s nice to know that I can be a pacifist and still knock someone’s teeth out when they try to take my wallet. I get to have my cake and eat it!

Uh huh, thanks for your pop psychology drivel I appreciate it.

As they should because it is not a commonly held belief that beef and foul are the same. However I think an awful lot of people would be surprised to learn that you can be a pacifist and still use violence.

Pot meet kettle. You might also want to consider that the common usage of words can change quite a bit over the years and the dictionary doesn’t always keep up. Maybe in 1902 pacifism referred mainly to anti-war sentiments but I think the definition has expanded quite a bit.


Since when does someone else’s actions influence your morality? In other words, how does the other person’s philosophy relieve you of the obligation to aid them, if your philosophy feels that aiding a person in trouble is a moral good?

The only philosophy that I can thing of where the other person’s philosophy or expected actions would morally allow you to ignore their plight would be utilitarianism in the strictest sense, and if that IS your personal philosophy, then you have a legitimate question. Otherwise, no…you can’t use another person’s perceived moral laziness as an excuse for your own.