Pacifism & Conscientious Objection

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Pacifism & Conscientious Objection

During the 20th century America has been involved in many conflicts that have led to war
or the taking up of arms against other humans and nations. Although the vast majority of
Americans have blindly accepted these actions throughout the century, more and more people
are seeing war as morally wrong. Reasons for this epiphany are based off of a variety of
things and encompass many other aspects related to war and killing examples include: due
to moral and ethical principles, objection to war due to strong religious beliefs, the
objection to violence due to the same ideals above, objection to the government's use of
force, and the objection to the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Many of the core beliefs of conscientious objection derive from the teachings or beliefs
of pacifism. Pacifism has been a system of thinking and living for hundreds of years, and,
in the 20th century many objection and pacifistic movements have sprung up all around the
nation, more so than in any other time. Pacifism and conscientious objection in the United
States have been moral issues that have fallen under question due to the belief of the
participants that killing, war, and the act of violence is wrong and immoral.

To begin to understand the workings of conscientious objection, it is important have a
clear view of what pacifism is. The roots of pacifism reach back for literally hundreds of
years. Practically all of the messiahs of all the chief religions of the world preached
for pacifism including: Allah and Muhammad from the Muslim Koran, Jesus and God from the
Bible used by Catholics, Christens, and Quakers, and in the Jewish Torah. Other teachers
of pacifism include: Plato and Socrates.

The moral and ethical principles of pacifism and conscientious objection have been present
throughout United States history. There have been known objectors in every single war that
America has been somehow involved, Including: The French and Indian War, The Revolutionary
War, The War of 1812, The Civil War, The Spanish American War, The Mexican American War,
World War One, World War Two, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, The Persian Gulf War, and
into the ongoing War Against "Terror".

Pacifism is the refusal to participate in any violent actions and or killing. This can be
derived from the belief that all life is sacred and that it is morally wrong to take
another persons life. This may apply to all war and violent actions against all others as
well (Becker 925).

Pacifism may be derived from personal or religious beliefs. There are many religions and
religious groups that include pacifism as core beliefs in their teachings. Quakerism
teaches that people have the light of God within them, and therefore it would be wrong to
harm another person (Pearson 1). The Quaker Declaration of Pacifism states:

"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fighting's with outward weapons, for any
end, or under any pretense whatever; this is our testimony to the whole world. The Spirit
of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing
as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that
the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war
against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the
kingdoms of this world." (

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a pacifist organization started in 1917
by young Quakers who did not wish to fight in World War One due to their religious
beliefs. They provided conscientious objectors with opportunities to aid civilians in
Europe during the war. The AFSC is a Quaker nonprofit organization that works on social
justice issues throughout the world (also called the Religious Society of Friends)
(Pearson 1). "The American Friends Service Committee is a practical expression of the
faith of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Committed to the principles of
nonviolence and justice, it seeks in its work and witness to draw on the transforming
power of love, human and the divine." (Pearson1)

Many people disagree with pacifism and its beliefs and charge that pacifists lack courage
and cannot be taken seriously. This accusation usually forms along with war propaganda
during times of military conflict. The charge of inconsistency is also brought to bear
upon pacifists, based on the ground that they accept the benefits of wars they do not
serve in (Becker 925). This is a very disquieting argument because it assumes that he or
she should be responsible for the actions their government takes: it is after all other
people who chose to use force to keep the public peace. Still, this objection does have
merit against pacifists who object to the use of force in all human affairs (Becker 926).

Conscientious objection refers to an individual's moral opposition on the basis of
conscience to the demands or requirements of some out-side authority, usually the state;
objection relates to military service or participation in war. Conscientious objection
recognizes the value of individual belief as part of process of making decisions based on
morals (Roth 190). Conscientious objection establishes a moral based relationship between
the individual and external authorities. The key element of conscientious objection being
that claims of authority are not absolute and cannot claim total obedience over the
individual, especially when obedience would violate that individual's conscience.
Therefore, conscientious objection stands as a limit to the extent of the power of the
state. In claiming so the individual seeks to justify opposition to the action or demand
that the state deems necessary and may require of others.

The selective service act of; 1917 established strict guidelines for conscientious
objection assertion, however, the applicant was required to show membership within a
religious tradition that upheld conscientious objection or beliefs held within pacifism as
part of the teachings. This made it impossible for those outside the peaceful church
traditions to be granted objector status. This held firm with little flexibility though
WW2 and into Vietnam (Roth 191). However, a Supreme Court decision challenged the basis
for objector assertion. During the US vs. Seeger case in 1965, four men raised the
question of the constitutionality of the portion of the selective service act that
defined: "religious training and belief" was required to show the individual's "relation
to a supreme being" (Bourne-Schlissel 260). Andrew Seeger was classified A-1 by his local
draft board but declared he was conscientiously opposed to war in any form due to his
"religious" belief; that he preferred to leave the question as to his belief in a Supreme
Being open, rather then answer yes or no. His skepticism or disbelief in the existence of
God did not necessarily mean lack of faith in anything whatsoever, but simply that his
belief was a belief in the devotion to goodness and virtue, and that a religious faith in
a particular creed was unnecessary (Bourne-Schlissel 260). In this case the court ruled
that sincere and strongly held beliefs were sufficient for granting an individual status
as an objector to military service. While the requirement for opposition to all war
remained, there was no longer a religious test for conscientious objector assertion (Roth

Two basic types of objectors exist: universal or absolute objectors focus on the idea that
war is wrong and use ethical arguments based on that of concept to argue that of that
killing is wrong and immoral. The second types, selective objectors, focus on single
conflicts. The individual may not be morally opposed to all wars, but to a specific war.
Moral basis for this is the Just War Theory, which designates the difference between just
and unjust wars (see below). An individual would hold that it is wrong to fight in an
unjust war. Selective objectors rarely receive legal recognition. The moral opposition
would center on refusal to bear arms not military service itself (Roth 191).

The "Just War Theory" supposedly specifies under which conditions war is just. Since such
conditions are seldom realized, just war thinkers often oppose wars. Opposition differs
from that of other pacifists and this is because they oppose particular wars but not all
war. Their opposition is based on principals of justice rather than principles of pacifism
(Becker 926). Pacifists can agree that their country has the right to fight and still
rationally refuse to participate on the grounds that fighting is immoral or violates their
principles. A different reply to this is that the hypothetical conditions for war are
never actually obtained. It is certainly true that if the just war theory collapsed, or if
it were revealed that there is no just war, than the case for pacifism would be
immeasurably approved. However, the converse does not hold: a viable just war theory does
not present a formidable obstacle to practical pacifism (Becker 925).

Currently the United States government recognizes two types of conscientious objectors:
Conscientious objectors, who are persons by religious, ethical, or moral belief, are
"conscientiously opposed to the participation in war any form." These people, if enlisted,
may be discharged from military service. These persons are also exempt from military
service, and in the event of a draft, if called upon; they may perform alternative service
as civilians. Non-combatant conscientious objectors are people who by religious, ethical,
or moral belief are opposed to killing in war in any form, but who do not object to
performing non-combatant duties, such as a medic, in the armed forces. These people are
reassigned to non-combatant duties, if already enlisted or in case of a draft, are trained
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