Principled and Pragmatic Peace

Gene Sharp’s Ethic of Nonviolence and Responsibility

By Metta Spencer | 2012-01-01 11:00:00

In the preceding interview Gene Sharp refers to an unpublished paper he had once presented as a lecture to the Kroc Institute in Notre Dame University.1 Although we lack sufficient space to publish it here, Peace Magazine regards it as important, so I will summarize his argument here and react below to its implications.

Sharp’s message to “believers”

The paper is addressed to those persons Sharp describes as “believers in principled nonviolence”—people who are sometimes called “committed pacifists.” Clearly, many—perhaps most—peace activists belong in this category; they are people whose principles (whether secular or religious ethical ideals) preclude their use of violence under any circumstances. By no means does Sharp argue against this noble principle (probably he holds it himself privately), but he does suggest that living by it is not morally sufficient. We live in a world marked by conflict, where others are suffering from oppression and violence, and somehow we should respond to their needs. A “hands-off” policy is not enough. Sharp maintains that it is ethically unacceptable for principled persons to acquiesce to tyranny, even as an expression of their commitment to nonviolence.

But how can these “believers” work toward correcting violence without themselves resorting to violence? Are any nonviolent ways at least as effective in countering oppression as the use of violence? Traditionally, “believers” have supposed not, so they have concluded that the best way to oppose violence is simply to refuse to participate in it, or perhaps protest against it. Indeed, many scrupulous principled persons have lived by this rule even in extreme circumstances, refraining from fighting even when, for example, their territory was invaded by foreigners or their country was controlled by tyrants who violate human rights.

But that approach is fundamentally passive, and Gene Sharp himself would never be satisfied with it alone. Nor do most other citizens regard principled nonviolence as particularly noble. Instead, they maintain that in the face of tyranny, one may be obliged to use violence since, in their opinion, those who submit passively to the hostile violence of oppressors actually help it to succeed. Sharp notes that even the major world religions have come to regard military action as necessary in “the real world,” for they see no realistic alternative to capitulation. Thus Christianity, for example, mainly accepts the ethical doctrine of the “just war.” Pacifists are but a tiny proportion of all Christians.

Sharp points out the vast discrepancy between the actions of those individuals who practice respect for life and the warfare carried out by their society. Governments almost never choose to remain powerless in a threatening world, whereas most principled “believers” withdraw their participation from acute conflicts over important human issues. At most, they use mild ways of resolving the conflict, such as conducting peace education, negotiating, or engaging in dialogue with their oppressors.

While these gentle methods yield good results in certain situations, they are inadequate for dealing with open struggles, says Sharp. Moreover, the outcomes of negotiation and dialogue normally are determined by the power capacities of the two sides, not by where justice lies. Here again, power is understood to mean the ability to wage violent struggle. And here again, even in mediation situations, the weaker side loses.

But of course Sharp maintains that there are better options for principled believers in nonviolence. Alternatives to violence exist that can be very powerful, even against brutal adversaries. He has described hundreds of effective methods of nonviolent action, “ranging from mild symbolic protests and social boycotts, through more powerful economic boycotts, labor strikes, political noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.” The point is not to stage a futile expressive gesture against an unjust ruler, but to devise workable strategies to eliminate his power.

Nonviolent methods have frequently succeeded, Sharp says, by paralyzing dictators, but only rarely do they succeed by “causing the opponents to change their opinions. More often nonviolent struggle succeeds because it imposes unacceptable costs on the opponents by slowing or halting certain operations of the opponents’ society.” These tough nonviolent actions are commonly chosen by pragmatic people who are not “believers” in nonviolent principles but who see their practical advantages. As Gandhi discovered, people who do not believe in nonviolence as a principle can participate in it for specific purposes and thereby reduce the extent of violence in their society.

Sharp warns believers in principled nonviolence against trying to convert others to their beliefs, for doing so will not make the methods more effective and may instead simply alienate the “nonbelievers.” Instead, the best approach is to cooperate with them and use their skills. Everything depends on choosing a wise strategy of action and planning it as astutely as a general plans a war. In this, believers and nonbelievers can cooperate. Sharp writes, “Indeed, often it will be individuals who do not believe in principled nonviolence who may have the greater capacity for strategic thinking and planning for a nonviolent struggle….With the development of wise strategies and skilled applications of nonviolent struggle, the previous tension between being politically responsible in `the real world’ and morally or religiously faithful can be resolved.”

Celebrate Nonviolent Conflict

Gene Sharp is not your average peacenik. For thirty years I’ve admired him for that very reason.

Gene once told me about a time when he had given a speech about nonviolence to a peace group. A lady in the audience was shocked by it and scolded him by saying, “All you’re doing is taking the violence out of war!” She was right. And what a glorious project!

That woman, along with most other peace activists, hates conflict and wants to stop it. Gene Sharp, on the other hand, believes conflict is a normal part of life and wants to wage it ethically, effectively, and victoriously. I’m on his side.

Of course, we all want to have warm, congenial friendships. Most of our dealings with others are amiable, cooperative, and often affectionate. Confrontations are not usual over the breakfast table or at the post office, thank heavens, and some persons almost never get into one—either because their personalities are naturally charming or because they have learned interpersonal skills in some kind of peace workshop. Probably we all can benefit from such programs, and every community should have a dispute resolution center. Peace is good.

But conflict is good too—albeit not exactly fun. Almost every social change comes about as the outcome of a significant conflict. Without controversy or opposition, life would be intolerably boring. Even in science and scholarly research conflict is essential. Look at the leading research in any subject and you will find a fight going on between a new theory or a new finding and some alternatives. Many scientists take their fights personally, feeling mutual animosity.

I once took a course from Karl Popper, probably the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher of science. Far from trying to find compromises between incompatible theories, Popper wanted to sharpen up the conflicts between them. He admired scientists who formulate their ideas so they can conclusively be disproved. Any theory that cannot be disproved is scientifically useless, according to Popper. We never prove a theory. If we make progress toward the truth it is by posing contradictory ideas and eliminating the mistaken ones until only one remains standing. Even that one may later be disproved, in which case everyone should celebrate the advancement this represents. Yet every scientist or scholar should fight hard for his theory, for it takes a vigorous battle to eliminate the mistaken ones.

Likewise, in every human life one’s greatest project is a struggle against something or somebody. We should celebrate our conflicts, but instead we strongly prefer harmony and avoid disputes or struggles. It takes courage to “speak truth to power,” but it takes even more courage to speak truth to our dear friends when we consider them wrong. Only a grouchy, truculent person does that. We pick our fights carefully, choosing only issues that are worth making a fuss over. Probably we stand up for our beliefs less often than we should, allowing most erroneous opinions to pass unchallenged in everyday conversations. A more constructive person would be more quarrelsome, but who wants to hurt our friends or incur the social penalties that come from arguing unnecessarily?

But sometimes fights become necessary, as when we have to protect our lives, our loved ones, or our highest ideals. We are also morally obliged to protect vulnerable victims and defend human rights. The genius of Gene Sharp, like that of Gandhi, is to ask this: How can we fight effectively without injuring our opponents? Sharp has spent his entire life collecting instances of struggles that used nonviolent methods with success. Most of them are not cases of mediation or compromise or sweet reason but, frankly, alternatives to killing.

The proponents of warfare are not necessarily oblivious to ethical considerations. For example, there is a simple and reasonable moral principle behind the doctrine of the just war: If—and only if—you can do more good than harm by resorting to violence, then you are justified in doing so. The same basic notion lies behind the newer doctrine: Responsibility to Protect. If, say, there is a realistic prospect that the international community can save more lives than it will cost, while protecting justice and the human rights of a population suffering abuse from their own government, then the world has a duty to intervene on their behalf—ideally without but, if necessary, with military force.

Gene Sharp evidently does not go so far. He does work with aggrieved people, helping them find nonviolent ways to protect themselves from their abusers, while never telling them what to do. It is always their struggle, not his. He can never be accused, as George W. Bush has been, of trying to “impose” democracy and freedom on another society. His ethical formula balances two irreducible factors—strict nonviolence and pragmatic effectiveness—which he consistently seeks to reconcile. He can show that in many unexpected instances, they have been compatible, with the nonviolent side successfully ousting their oppressors.

Yet crises do occur when a massacre or even genocide seems imminent, and nevertheless Sharp does not advocate violent intervention by outsiders to protect the vulnerable. In such cases he still anticipates that military action would lead to more carnage than it would prevent—and, to judge from historical cases, he is mainly right. So far, Responsibility to Protect hasn’t done much protecting. And Sharp declines to speculate about hypothetical cases in which military intervention might do more good than harm.

Yet I remain ambivalent on the question—partly because I see the value of police. If a police force is accountable to the citizenry and to a rule of law, it does usually offer significant protection, reducing the amount of crime and homicide in a society. I can envision a day when an international police force of peacekeepers intervenes to protect a population from a dictator, whom it arrests and puts on trial in the International Criminal Court. This might occasionally require resort to violence, but the overall effect of such a legal process will (I believe and hope) reduce the amount of violence and injustice in the world. (Admittedly, that hope may prove to be misplaced, in which case we will face even worse problems than now. The Romans asked, “Who will guard the guards?” and that question still arises, time after time.)

In the meantime, there are some nonviolent actions that the international community can take to help a victimized population save itself—without sending military support to help one side in a civil war to win. Like many other peace activists who prefer strictly nonviolent approaches, I have been haunted by the duty to help the rebels in Benghazi, Bahrain, and Syria protect themselves while ousting their dictators. At a minimum, for example, I’d impose targeted sanctions against the dictators, with the UN asking all states not to let their families enter or transfer money through their countries. Such interventions may be effective without injuring anyone.

Gene Sharp acknowledges that nonviolent methods do not always win, but even in such cases he believes that earlier preparation with wiser strategies might have prevailed. He advises, therefore, against waiting until the bullets are flying before you devise nonviolent strategies. Think ahead! Nonviolence is a sublime principle—but it is only one-half of an ethic. The other half is effectiveness in making human rights prevail.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.


1 Gene Sharp, “What Are the Options in Acute Conflicts for Believers in Principled Nonviolence?” at

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2012, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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