During my days as a pacifist I often heard, and occasionally made, comments suggesting that Christian participation in war is not much different, if at all, than Christian participation in abortion. There’s no rational way to support one and not support the other–to be “consistently pro-life” one ought to be against both. I’m not going to restate the argument against that consistency argument, as I’ve already made it on The Bayview Review once (see, “On Being Fully Pro-Life”). Instead, I want to briefly point out a significant difference between the two views that allows for the rational acceptance of one and the rejection of the other. Further, this is a distinction that even pacifists ought to recognize, and thus they ought to stop comparing the two.
It should be noted that all sides involved in discussions of war accept (or should accept) that the taking of human life is an evil. This is a simple point, but often forgotten by some pacifists. The Christian just-war theorist does not think that because a particular war is justified that the taking of human life in carrying out that war is not still an evil. To the contrary, the belief that it is still an evil is precisely what sets the limits of how a just war ought to be conducted. So, if the taking of all human life is evil, why would a Christian ever think it’s okay? The specific reasons for this vary, but they will in general amount so something like this: to not engage in war would result in an even greater evil. One mustn’t forget that not going to war is itself a decision that will also result in the taking of human life (at least in just-war scenarios). The just-war theorist reasons that if human life is going to be lost (which is an evil), it is better to minimize such losses. A “just war” is precisely a war that would minimize such loss.
Now, of course, none of this is something that pacifists are likely to accept. However, their rejection of this should not induce them to believing that just-war theorists don’t actually believe such reasoning to be sound. That is, the pacifist should accept that this is the rationale for just-war theorists–even if they reject it themselves. Once this is on the table, it should be easy to see why supporting war is not the same as supporting abortion.
When a doctor performs an abortion you get the loss of life (an evil) and nothing else. The vast majority of abortions are not performed to prevent, or rectify, some greater evil. But that is the exact rationale given for supporting just-wars. In just-wars, the intentional taking of life prevents other loss of life on a greater scale, but that is simply not present in abortions. This is why many pro-life supporters (like myself) believe that abortions performed to save the life of the mother (though not the lifestyle of the mother) can be morally acceptable. In those cases the killing of the child does prevent an even greater evil–the death of mother and child.
In sum, even the pacifist should recognize that for the just-war theorist, war can be an evil that is tolerated so that some greater evil is prevented. But the same cannot be said about the practice of wide-scale abortions we see today. The former tolerates evil to prevent greater evils, the latter engages in evil for its own sake. This is an important difference and precludes the two from being relevantly analogous. So, pacifists should stop acting as if they are.
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Here some may worry that this is “utilitarian” reasoning–something most Christians believe should be rejected. Well, worry not. The problem with utilitarianism is its claim that the end will always justify the means–which is simply not the claim here. A moral theory ought to consider the consequences, even if it doesn’t demand that consequences should always determine one’s course of action. Rejecting utilitarianism doesn’t entail endorsing an unflinching Kantianism. ↩
However, this does not mean that ‘loss of life’ is the only type of evil that is taken into consideration for just-war theorists. It is, however, easiest in this context since it is most similar to the evil of abortion. ↩