In an otherwise excellent collection of essays and talks from C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory) I was disappointed to find a subpar entry entitled, “Why I am not a pacifist.” It’s a weak attempt to defend one’s taking up arms for one’s country, and coming from such a careful thinker, a difficult piece to account for. One expects from Lewis the perfectly formulated answer to the perfectly formulated question; in this piece, the question is formulated, but his responses are addressed to entirely different questions. The result is that one cannot say with any certainty why C.S. Lewis is not a pacifist.

On analogy with reasoning, Lewis identifies three sources of moral judgments: first, the recognition of fundamental moral intuitions; second, personal intuition about reasonable inferences; third, the authority of others when one is unable to trust one’s personal inferences (e.g., because they are too difficult). For Lewis, the fundamental moral intuitions are grist for the mills of reason and authority. They are the axioms. This of course suggests a way in which Lewis can lose his argument:

“I therefore begin by ruling out one Pacifist position which probably no one present holds, but which conceivably might be held—that of the man who claims to know on the ground of immediate intuition that all killing of human beings is in all circumstances an absolute evil. … [Such a man] is mistaking an opinion, or, more likely, a passion, for an intuition.”

Reason, of course, can only operate on accepted premises; if Pacifism is not a reasoned conclusion but rather a premise, Lewis cannot make a reasoned case against it. But, rather than even grant the plausibility of such an intuition, he dismisses it as impossible. The difference between an intuition, and opinion, and a passion is, of course, never explained. “Passion” is obviously being used with some pejorative force. But, setting aside the sloppiness, is it true that a refusal to fight in a war cannot be the result of a fundamental moral intuition?

In a tense moment in an otherwise forgettable film (The Bourne Supremacy), the protagonist is instructed to kill a stranger, simply on the basis of the orders given. He hesitates. Ultimately, he complies. Most of us, I hope, would at the least hesitate. And what would motivate that? Not a reasoned process; not a difference of opinion; “passion” is imprecise. I would call it an intuition that killing a stranger, without provocation and solely on the authority of orders given, is wrong. I’m not sure how much any of us would need to think about that, or be instructed about that.

But I would go further, and posit the existence of a self-preservation instinct for moral agency. I think there are good grounds for supposing that humans are hard-wired not to surrender their ability to make decisions on the basis of right and wrong, as they are required to do when serving in a military. Why does the Bourne scene work as drama? Because it’s a viscerally revolting situation, the abdication of moral sense under the influence of authority. Any film dealing with war or imprisonment is able to make hay from our sense of these things. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. But I digress, and rightly the scope of my criticism of Lewis should be that he doesn’t provide any basis for supposing that there is no intuitive basis for Pacifism.

Having set aside the response which leaves no response, Lewis evaluates Pacifism against the three sources of morality. As he puts it, “I now apply these tests to the judgment, ‘It is immoral to obey when the civil society of which I am a member commands me to serve in the wars!’” (Exclamation point original, puzzlingly.)

Lewis begins by looking at the facts; unfortunately, none of the facts are the ones pertinent to the issue he is addressing.

“The main contention urged by Pacifists would be that wars always do more harm than good.”

He proceeds to refute this claim, or at least shown that it cannot be supported. The problem is, that is not the fact under consideration. As a pacifist, I have no idea whether wars always do more harm than good. In fact I have no idea what the statement means. For which side? With what metrics? Given technological and medical advances made during World War II—granting that they were accelerated because of the war—I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the war added more years to American lives as an aggregate than it snuffed out. (But then: is it right to look at it from the American perspective? How about the Russian? How about the Jewish? How would we begin to measure utility?) Nevertheless, granting that some particular war produced a net benefit to some society—forgiving for the moment that none of the terms has been defined—even this would be irrelevant.

The claim that “ wars always do more harm than good” is not a necessary basis for Pacifism. If you’re not a Churchill, Hitler, or Stalin, your role is not to decide whether there will be a war or not, but whether to participate in it or not. My decision about whether to go to war (for me, it would have been Afghanistan or Iraq) had no bearing on whether or not those wars were fought. I was not consulted by Messrs. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. And it goes without saying that in 2001 or 2003, there was no question of my making the decision on the basis of how well I thought those wars might go; such information was not at hand. As an individual, the decision was quite simply whether I was willing to subordinate my moral agency to the authority of another person. (That might have involved killing or not; sober assessment of my physique rather than flattery of my intellect leads me to suspect I would have gotten a desk job.) The decision was made entirely without reference to utility.

Lewis’s examples of “good” wars–the Greeks fighting the Persians, the Romans fighting the Carthaginians, the Allies fighting the Central Powers—are illustrative of a weakness of his argument. Lewis celebrates the victory of the non-aggressor. He does not acknowledge that the arguments he advances in his talk equally encourage young men to enlist in the aggressor’s army, in the service of the country which has no plausible causus belli. Lewis’s address was made to British students, but it would not have been an unwelcome message in Berlin. His argument has no space for the possibility that one’s country can be on the wrong moral side, and that this might have some bearing on the moral propriety of one’s decision! But again, these things are left unaddressed, and so I really don’t know what Lewis was trying to explain.

Next Lewis moves on to reasoned argument for Pacifism. His examples here, in my judgment, are weak, but he brings it down to this:

“The question is whether war is the greatest evil in the world, so that any state of affairs which might result from submission is certainly preferable. And I do not see any really cogent arguments for that view.”

That point of view is indeed difficult to maintain. At the same time, however, I see it as a straw man. As I wrote above, for the overwhelming majority of the population, the question is not whether to have a war, but whether to participate in it. But even if we grant Lewis the salience of the statement, it’s not difficult to expose the weakness of his utilitarian argument.

Presuming that I have the authority to solve a moral dilemma through violence creates ridiculous scenarios. Suppose that I am a superpower, and I am in a position to intervene in a conflict between the Big Endians and the Little Endians. Both groups are hell-bent on the destruction of their foe, and in fact are planning to exterminate the enemy as soon as the appropriate weaponry is developed. Suppose further that there are 10,000 Big Endians and 5,000 Little Endians. If, morally, my task is to choose the best of bad scenarios, then these are my options:

  • I destroy the Big Endians and save 5,000 lives (Little Endian lives)
  • I destroy the Little Endians and save 10,000 lives (Big Endian Lives)
  • I destroy both and save no lives
  • I destroy neither, which (depending on the course of the conflict), would cost 5,000 Little Endian lives, 10,000 Big Endian lives, or as many as 15,000 lives, if by some fluke the destruction were simultaneous.

This is not a difficult decision. If all I need to do is calculate for myself the “lesser evil,” then I must obliterate the Little Endians. That is the way to ensure the least loss of life. Is that a moral course of action? Not by my reckoning. Of course, I don’t believe that Lewis would slaughter the Little Endians. But he hasn’t explained to me why he wouldn’t.

Here is my own conclusion: I am not able to decrease the amount of evil in the world by force of violence. If the Serbs are killing the Croats, my ability to affect the moral balance with violence is zero. If I take initiative to kill the Serbs, then perhaps fewer Croats will die. But I haven’t contributed morally: if it finally came to killing then, then we must suppose that the Serbs were unrepentant to the end, and now I have only bloodied my own hands and become complicit in the violence. My are to either encourage repentance, or to become complicit in the violence. I am most emphatically not required to take sides in every violent conflict, and certainly not at the instruction of my superiors. (Does it bother no one else that factoring “duty” into our moral calculus ennobles both Axis and Allies?)

Finally, Lewis picks up the appeal to authority. “If I am a Pacifist, I have Arthur and Aelfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, against me. I have my university, my school, and my parents against me.” And on and on, ending with militant statements from the Thirty-Nine Articles, from Thomas Acquinas, from Augustine, and other good Christian thinkers. To sum up, “Everybody’s done it, everybody’s doing it. You’re the only one who has a problem.” I will not insult Lewis’s memory by citing his own arguments against such crude ad populum argumentation.

So to sum up, I do not know why C.S. Lewis was not a pacifist. Of the many arguments he has given, none of them actually bear on the decision that a person would make to go to war or not. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss it with him in person; I anticipate, however, that by then there will be better things to talk about.