The Importance of Language

The Search for Meaning

Pacifists like Mahatma Gandhi have achieved profound change through peaceful means where violence has failed.

Enrich your understanding of what pacifism is, and learn more about an approach to life that follows in an ancient and effective tradition.

You will also find reference to the concept Ahimsa on this page which forms the central tenet of Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead


Pacifism is a commitment to peace and an opposition to violence, and in particular, war. Some pacifists extend its purpose to promote justice and human rights.

The first use of the French version of the word "pacifisme" appears to have been in 1902 at an international peace conference, however the concept expressed as pacifism goes back thousands of years.

The word “pacifism” comes from the word “pacific” which means “peace making”: "paci" (from the Latin pax) meaning “peace”, and "ficus" meaning “making”. Note that the word did not mean “opposing war” - this is important as the word and concept of pacifism is a call to action.

The philosopher William James used the term “pacific-ism” in 1910 to describe his rejection of militarism. The shorter term, “pacifism,” came into common use during the 20th Century to describe a variety of views that are critical of violent conflict and war.

Pacifism is based on moral principles or pragmatism. Principled pacifism holds that violence is morally wrong. Pragmatic pacifism holds that the cost of war and interpersonal violence is so profound, better ways of resolving disputes must be sought.

Some people mistakenly associate the similar sounding word 'passive' (accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance) with pacifism. Although the words are not related in meaning, this tendency along with cultural and political influences have resulted in negative and misinformed views about pacifism.

It is important to be mindful of the differences about the morality of pacifism as it applies to an individual or nation-state. The individual pacifist (who may or may not follow a particular religion) can for example support voluntary euthanasia while at the same time retaining a consistent view about how to approach issues surrounding violent conflict and the common good. Although such issues raise complex ethical dilemmas, for some, pacifism can accomodate the possibility of killing in certain circumstances.

The Quakers (or Friends) are members of a group of religious movements (including, but not confined to Christianity). The movement began in England in the 1650s. Quakers value all people equally, and oppose anything that may harm or threaten them. Quakers are one of many religous groups that have been conscientious objectors in times of war - those who do not serve in the military for reasons of freedom of thought, conscience, disability, and/or religion.


Ahimsa is a way of life and an ancient sanscript word meaning 'love in action' which is often expressed as 'not to injure' or 'compassion to all creatures'. You may also find the word spelt with accents: Ahiṃsa or Ahiṃsā.

The closest translation of the concept of Ahimsa is 'the force unleashed when desire to harm is eradicated', however this is generally shortened to 'nonviolence'. If we think of the longer definition and align this to the extraordinary achievements of Gandhi we begin to understand the strength of the term.

Ahimsa, developed in India in the 6th century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era or 'BC'), forms the core of Jainism which has over four million followers. Although Ahimsa is closely aligned to pacifism, a Jaine may never knowingly kill.

Ahimsa's central precept of 'cause no injury' includes one's deeds, words, and thoughts.

Kinds of Pacifism

Pacifism covers a spectrum of approaches. Some pacifists believe that international disputes should always be peacefully resolved, while others adopt a less unequivocal approach.

The following categories are useful in thinking about pacifism, however individuals will have different convictions according to their cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs.

Absolute Pacifism

An absolute pacifist believes that it is never right to take part in war. Their view is that the value of human life never justifies killing a person deliberately, even in self defence.

Militant Pacifism

Militant pacifists will use every peaceful method at their disposal to oppose violence and war. This may include civil disobedience which may result in imprisonment or even death.

Conditional Pacifism

Conditional pacifists are against war and violence in principle, but they accept that there may be circumstances when war may lead to less suffering.

Selective Pacifism

Selective pacifists only oppose wars involving weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical or biological weapons) because of their uniquely devastating consequences to not only humans, but to all living things. Large scale use of weapons of mass destruction also raises the prospect of the annihilation of humans as a species.

Active Pacifism

Active pacifists advocate peace and argue against violence and war.

A Judgment of Conscience

From these different approaches to pacifism it is clear a person's moral sense of right and wrong (their conscience) plays a vital role as they decide on the form of pacifism they pursue.

For some who have not developed a clear ethical position on the taking of life, the central focus moves to the practicalities of conflict and its consequences.

Whether an individual participates in armed conflict should always be a personal choice and a judgment of conscience.